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Writing Advice #2: Before the Basics (part 1)

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This is the second in a series of posts designed to assist new aspiring writers learn the craft. You more experienced writers (published or not,) Please feel free to comment on anything you think I might have missed. This is the first day of class where we arenít going to get any work done, but youíll get your supply list.

So what do you need to be a writer? A pencil and paper is the basic answer, and it is sort of true, but if you plan on getting published as a writer, youíre going to need more, and this brings me to my first clarification issue (there will be a lot of these.)

This tends to be a hotly debated topic, and generally reduced to the opinion of the person defining it, and where they happen to be in their career at the time. Most concede that there are ranks, or at least different flavors of writers. How these levels are delineated again drifts in a sea of personal opinion because unlike non-creative careers, fiction writing lacks objective benchmarks. In the United States you canít practice medicine without first obtaining a license, and you canít obtain a license without first obtaining a medical degree, so these are looked upon as steps that identify how far along you are in your career. Creative writing doesnít work that way, although many people think it should (particularly those with degrees.) When youíre talking anything in the realm of the arts it is like entering a nebula in a science fiction movie, nothing seems to work like itís supposed to. You can be successful with no training at all, and you can hold PhDs in all things literary and never succeed.

But what is a writer?

a) a writer is someone who writes, meaning they enjoy writing and do a lot of it.
b) a writer is someone seriously working to make writing their career
c) a writer is someone who is published
d) a writer is someone who has been vetted by the industry
e) a writer is someone who is supporting themselves entirely by their writing

For most people a writer is whichever one of these you happen to be, or if you are insecure, it is the next one up. However, for the purpose of these posts, I am adding two new definitions.

Newbie aspiring writer: those who would like to one day make a living (or at least money) as an author.
Veteran Aspiring Writer: those whoíve been at this a while and still have yet to break into the industry in any significant way.

Most of my comments will be directed at these two groups of writers, the career oriented--the AP students.

Now, getting back to what you need, if you try and send a manuscript to a publisher written in pencil, they wonít be too happy. Times have changed. Almost everything is done by word processor and email these days, although I was surprised when my publisher asked if I was comfortable receiving edits from them digitally, and if I wasnít they would send me a printed hard copy. Seriously? Authors still use hard copies?

So, to start you will need a computer and a word processor. If you are on a Windows machine I would suggest Microsoft Word, if you can afford it. It usually costs about $200. This is what I use. If you donít have the money, you can use Google Docs which provides you with a free word processor service that is compatible with Word and gives you free cloud access (which I will talk about more in a second) or download OpenOffice, which is also a completely free software package that is similar, and compatible with, Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is available for Macs as well. Of course if youíre on a Mac you might want to check out Scrivener which tends to be the leading writerís software on that platform. There is a Windows version, but it is still in beta (meaning it isnít ready for primetime, but you can use it.) And if youíre planning to work on an iPad: Pages is the Apple app for word processing on the iPad and provides all the usual abilities. I also like iAWrite, it doesnít have all the bells and whistles but it is tailored a bit more for writers. It provides easier access to quotes, apostrophes, and other typically used keys, but mostly it provides the all important and oddly often missing, ability to move the cursor back and forth with the keyboard.

There are also a number of other lesser known programs designed for writers, but I would like to warn you that some of these programs offer so much in the way of options and features that they can become a time-sink in themselves. Writers often have trouble staying on task as it is and you really donít need any more distraction. When you realize that until very recently, (yes Iím that old) writers all used typewriters, or pen and paper, and did just fine. All the bells and whistles of some of these programs look like toys for people who arenít really serious about writing. All you actually need is a basic word processor.

When I started writing the Internet did not yet exist and research was a career unto itself. Finding the answers to the simplest of questions could take months and require traveling and awkward interviews. Having access to a web browser is like putting away your scrub board and lye soap to make room for the electric washer and dryer. The speed and accuracy of writing improved astronomically.

Something else that I found useful are notebooks. Being at least a little pretentious I prefer the famous Moleskin notebooks that you can find in art stores or your local Barnes & Noble. Moleskin notebooks have been around since the 19th century and were used by artists and writers from Van Gogh to Hemmingway. They come in a few varieties and the package label is color coded to help tell the difference. Some are blank, some are lined, and some are quad-lined like graph paper. They also come in small, medium, and large. These notebooks arenít fancy. They are the model-T of notebooks, almost always basic black. They are however very durable and very usable in that they have good stiff covers, (allowing them to be written on no matter where you are,) and stitched bindings (that allow them to lay flat on a table,) and take a lot of abuse without breaking or loosing pages. Unfortunately they are also surprisingly expensive, costing around twenty dollars for the medium size (5x8) which I use (large enough to write in comfortably and small enough to carry just about anywhere.) In reality, any notebook, or even a pad will do.

Why use a notebook if you have a laptop or an iPad?

1) Portability and ease of use. Iíve begun doing on-site research for my new novel, which means I go to places and take notes. In a coffee shop it is easy to sit down and fire up a laptop, but it doesnít work so well if youíre standing up in a store interviewing someone, (and it is hard to both hold and type on an iPad, but I suppose you could take thumb notes on a smartphone) wandering around a crowded city, or riding a bike. You could use recording software, but I find that annoying as I canít browse through my notes and people shy away from being recorded. There is software that will convert verbal to text, but thatís a lot of effort to go through when you can just use a notebook. A tablet can also be used for this, but they are not quite as rough-and-tumble, and there is another reason I find them inadequate to the task, which I will get to.

Continued in next post

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Updated October 19th, 2011 at 07:45 AM by sullivan_riyria