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

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(Too long so broke into two pieces).

2) It allows you to sketch as well as write. You can draw out maps, and diagrams of things you want to use later, or do drawings of places or people, as they appear to you.

3) Mostly however, the reason I use them is for brainstorming. I donít write prose in notebooks. I write my books on my tower computer locked in the sanctuary of my office with the door closed and the rest of the world, and its distractions, walled off. This is how I focus. When I am writing on my computer I ponder the choice of words. I evaluate the structure of sentences and the build of paragraphs. I try and avoid misspellings and bad grammar even on my first drafts. And were I to take a laptop, or even a tablet to a coffee shop, I would try and do the same and be frustrated by all the distractions.

However, when I use a notebook, when I am writing long-hand using a nice fountain pen, Iím not working on something that could even remotely be used as a finished product. Itís in a book, and written in pen. Nothing I write there can be used as is. Knowing this frees me to not focus on the words, but to think only about the ideas. The noise of conversation, the honk of horns, and the background music blends into static that my mind can ride on as I day-dream. If I were to try this in the isolation of my office, Iíd get sleepy. In a busy coffee shop or roadside cafť, the activity keeps me alert, (not to mention the coffee,) but as none of it requires my attention I can let my mind wander. Then when I put my pen to paper, thoughts focus. The first thing I write leads to another. Soon I am scribbling notations of a dozen random thoughts and drawing lines and arrows between them, crossing out some as better thoughts materialize. Iím not concerned about the words Iím using, just capturing random thoughts as they spill out. When Iím done, I usually have dozens of concepts listed that I will use as a resource when I sit down to write. A lot of the time I donít need to look back at what I wrote, just having written it is enough to have helped me work through plot or character issues. But when I get stuck, or am delayed due to real-life issues and forget, I can look back and jolt my memory.

4) Posterity. A notebook forms a bit of history, insight into the making of a written piece. Should one day you write the great American novel, that little notebook might be worth something to the world. If not, it will still be worth something to you.

Another thing I use, as mentioned, is a fountain pen. Why? Cause itís cool. It makes writing a Victorian novelty and therefore fun. It also elevates cramping because you really donít need to, and really canít, press hard with a fountain pen. Most cost upwards of $60 but I found a very nice pen on Amazon for just over $20.

The best software Iíve found outside of a word processor is WordWeb, which is a free application that works as a dictionary and thesaurus. What makes it great is that it works in concert with anything. You merely control+right click on any word in any application and it launches WordWeb bringing up the definition and a small interface for finding a large variety of similar options. So whether I am using Word, or in a browser, I can check the definition of a word or see a dozen alternatives.Sadly this only works on Windows systems.

Google Earth is another useful program, although now it is integrated right into most online maps. What makes this so special is the street view feature you get when you zoom all the way in on a location. You see a 360 degree view of most areas as if you were standing there, at least where there is a major street. This is wonderful if you need to write a description of some place youíve never seen.

A camera is extremely useful for recoding images that can be used later for reference. No matter how detailed a written description is I still find myself going back and looking at photos. Of course, cameras canít record smells, sounds, or how it feels to be somewhere, so written notes are still important.

This is something I just happen to do. Total silence while writing, can become oppressive and yet just about any sounds can be distracting. Playing music in the background helps muffle everything else, but songs with words interfere with my writing. Classical music is better, but can sometimes be too dull, or inappropriate for certain scenes. When you are writing a high speed chase through Brooklyn, Vivaldiís Four Seasons, might not be best. I found that scores from movies, not soundtracks (which are too often just a string of songs,) but the originally composed music, that often goes unheard in the background of scenes, are perfect. I have quite a few and created playlists with titles like: Action, Happy, Heroic, Ominous, and Sad. Then depending on the scene I am writing, I play the appropriate list and it can help put me in that mindset the same way the music was designed to put the audience in that mindset.

For those aspiring writers who canít afford to purchase dozens of movie scores, or classical performances, you can always use Pandora, which you can download for free. By entering in the name of a movie score composer, or classical artist, it will play similar music for you.

This is of course very optional and can be replaced with a printer, but is better if you can afford it. Every time you read your own work in a different format, you will look at it with fresh eyes. If you write on a computer, and then print what you wrote and read it in another room, you will notice mistakes you never saw before. I think this is due to how the mind perceives things differently under different circumstances. Likewise, if you read your work aloud, you will find other issues, and if someone else reads to you, you will find still more. Mostly however, Iíve found that when you read your work in a setting that is most similar to how you normally read books by other authors, you will find yourself seeing mistakes far more easily. As such, if you read books on an e-reader or tablet, or even a phone, then importing your book to that format and reading it, will often help you better evaluate it as well as find typos. You can achieve the same effect by printing the story and taking it to the couch or bed to read, but then you run into the cost, time, and effort of printing your work over and over. With a tablet you can just email your writing to yourself, Skype it, use a cloud, or a number of apps that allow for simple drag and drop file sharing.

The Cloud is almost another name for the Internet. If you have Gmail or Yahoo mail, you are using a cloud. A cloud is when you upload and store information on the Net. This is a fairly new and emerging commercial technology, and as such there are several. What it means for a writer is that you can upload the draft of your novel and then access it using any device that has access to it such as your iPad, your laptop, your desktop, your smart phone, or even your friendís computer.

More than granting you the ability to access your work across platforms, it also works as a backup. I know authors who have lost whole novels when their computers caught a virus and died. There are few things more defeating than losing the only draft of a book. Keeping an updated draft on a cloud means that if your computer is wiped, stolen, or lost, you still have a digital copy you can download to your new computer. Even if your home burns down, and your computer, your HD backup, and all your printed and stored DVD copies are destroyed, youíll still have the cloud copy. And again it is so much easier to drag and drop a file than to re-print a hard copy or insert and burn a DVD.

Another benefit is collaboration. If you are working with someone else, you can use cloud apps like Google Docs to work on the same manuscript in real time with someone else, so they can see your changes as you make them. And Word and other documents can be uploaded to Google Doc, by just drag and drop, assuming you are using Chrome or Firefox.

Most cloud apps are free up to a certain amount of memory usage. Since more people use clouds for photos or music, and since text files are tiny in comparison, you should be able to use cloud technology for all your stories and never hit the max memory usage.

You need a way to backup your work. Never have only one copy of your book or short story, and never keep all the copies of your work on one computer. If you get hit by a virus and your computer dies, you just lost everything. I personally keep many backups in a variety of forms. I burn DVDs of completed drafts and final manuscripts. I have printed copies. I have a massive external hard drive that keeps a mirror image of my entire computer on it. And I keep copies of my works in progress in clouds. So be sure to have some means of making a copy of your work that is not on your computer, just in case.

So this is your list of supplies. Come back next week for your first real class, which will be titled: The Basics. Have a good day and remember not to run in the halls.

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  1. kennychaffin's Avatar
    Thanks for posting these.