In the introductory post on Tools of the Trade, I listed two categories of tools, and I said that I’d talk more about them. I’ll do the Hardware list first, just to point out a few things and to express a few opinions. I may say more about a few of these things in later posts.
All of this is offered in a spirit of helpfulness to those out there who have asked me about such things. I’ve been at the writing game for a long time, now, writing for pleasure, for work, and for publication. Too long to be snobbish about questions of basic “tools of the trade.” So don’t be bashful about asking your questions about such things.
So here’s my Hardware list again, this time with notes and opinions:
Pens and pencils
I love and appreciate a fine writing instrument. My preference would be to use a fountain pen for every writing task. But, let’s face it, fountain pens are just plain inconvenient, messy, and prone to run out of ink just at that critical moment when you are far from any refill supply. I’ve had it happen. So I learned a long time ago to forego the “fine” instruments for serviceable ones. And it is just my luck, it seems, that when I find a pen that fits my hand and can bear up to my abuse, they stop making them. So I’ve opted for the less expensive, more ubiquitous ones.
The Pilot G-2 has been my favorite for many years. Not the metal G-2 Pro (which introduced me to G-2), but the much cheaper plastic standard version. I like G-2s because they write well on most papers (important for a working person), and they can be activated and retracted with one hand (no cap to pull off or misplace). A typical cartridge goes a long way, for maybe fifty or more of my single-spaced, fully scribbled pages (with line-outs and rewrites). For those of you who, like me, wear shirts with pockets (just so that we can get at our pens quickly), watch out that you retract the tip before shoving it back into the pocket; they can and do bleed when in contact with fabric. Kind of embarrassing and not necessarily washable.
BTW, I use 0.7mm Fine cartridges/tips rather than the Extra Fine 0.5mm ones because the oh-sevens don’t foul as much and they are less apt to cut through cheap thin writing paper (see below about tablets and notebooks).
Ubiquitousness has its value. I inevitably misplace or forget to pack my spares while on a trip, and it is nice to be able to run into most any drug store or even major grocery store and find them. I prefer the blue ink version, but those are getting harder to find for some reason, and even harder to find refills for (unless you order online). I’m so fond of blue ink that in a pinch I’ll use another brand of pen that’s blue instead of the black G-2 ink. So when I find blue G-2s, I buy them (refills and the pens alike).
Oh, and pencils. Yes I use them, too. Mostly for marking up maps and such. I like Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2HBs. They are study, sharpen well, and the lead is dark enough to use for both marks and sketches, yet not too hard on soft paper. They seem a bit more erasable than others that I’ve tried. And they’re inexpensive.
Writing tablets and notebooks (paper, not plastic!)
Ditto what I said above about ubiquitousness when it comes to fine paper and serviceable paper. I prefer Cambridge wirebound tablets with the stiff back because I like being able to flip the page easily. But the are too expensive at the rate I go through paper. So I settle for bargain college-ruled spiral bound notebooks. Given a choice, I like the kind with the micro-perforations, but that’s only as a tie-breaker. I don’t really need fancy, I need quantity. And I can stiffen the backs with a bit of cardboard when needed. Important since I most often hand write against my knee than at a desk.
Paper quality does not really matter that much to me. I’d prefer thicker paper since it holds up better to my heavy-handed, rapid-fire scratching, and thicker paper would potentially let me use an extra fine point pen (getting more words on a line, on a page, etc.). But I’d rather have more sheets of cheaper paper than fewer sheets of nicer paper. It is really rather frustrating to be on a writing jag in the middle of nowhere (or out on a bench somewhere) and have your notebook run out of paper just when things are flowing hot and fast.
Before I move on…
You might be wondering why I even bother to mention paper and pens. They might seem a bit too basic to talk about. As unbelievable as it might sound, I’ve known too many aspiring writers who seemed more concerned with the material accoutrements and “romance” of writing and not the product of writing. One person once even told me, flat out, that she simply could not write unless it was on a certain kind of paper only to be found within a certain brand of premium tablet. She was in earnest, keenly intelligent, and as poor as a church mouse. I was never able to really take her seriously as a writer after that. While the product of some authors might rise above mere craft to become a work of art, the process of writing will not. It is a discipline. In support of that discipline, good, commonly found and serviceable paper and pens will win out over fine and fancy ones, in my opinion:
- It’s about writing, not about the experience of writing. As soon as I make the writing about the experience and not about what is written, it all becomes about, well, me instead of it. It’s hard enough to get out of the way of yourself, so why clutter up the exit with niceties? Sure, I still enjoy the tactile sensations of fine-flowing ink on well-crafted paper. But I can save all that for personal letters and cards, if I must.
- Since it is about writing and not about the experience, I need good supplies immediately on hand. I do not need a shopping experience any more than I need a writing experience. That shopping time is, as far as I’m concerned, time that I am not writing. So I combine my resupply missions with my grocery or other necessary shopping missions.
- I need to be able to write every day, wherever I go, whatever life throws at me. I don’t need to worry about getting coffee stains on that beautiful paper or scuffing up that expensive leather-bound journal. I must be able to toss or shove my current notebook into my shoulder bag or whatever grocery bag that’s handy, and then go. If it gets bent and creased, I don’t really care. If I lose a pen, I’ll grab another within arm’s reach. If the lack of a nice bit of paper or the absence of a luxury pen keeps me from working, the Dark Side has won.
So my advice for you is to write every day. Use good writing tools, or whatever is on hand that you can make work. Ample supplies, on hand, help facilitate both the quantity and quality of the work.
Look, if you’re going to write, you really need to be able to type. I don’t care what they say: You can’t write on a smart phone or tablet as fast or as easily as you can type on a keyboard. I know that a lot of people aren’t taught, or never learned, to type (or to “keyboard,” as they now say). That can be easily remedied by three or four lessons and/or a lot of practice. With writing, you’ll presumably have the opportunity for lots of typing practice. If you want to write well, lose the distraction of teeny-tiny screens and on-screen “keyboards.” Until voice to text recognition is as reliable as an old-fashioned keyboard, you’ll be able to produce a lot more, a lot better, on a computer.
I have two primary computers and several others. My primary computers are a desktop and my laptop. They are not fancy. Lately, I do most of my work on my laptop. I made sure that it and my desktop have the same operating system, same version, and the same software. Each can do what the other can do to a certain extent. The desktop is more powerful, sure. But the laptop is portable.
For years I used a netbook with a small 11 inch monitor. It was great, lightweight, easy to pack, and it ran the same software that I used on my other machines. I pretty much wore it out, but I nursed it along for years until I had to buy a new desktop. Then I purchased a new laptop, too, one with a big 19” monitor. A real boat anchor, but well worth the trouble because it is tons easier to work with, making me far more productive than before.
The real key, though, is that I use the same operating systems on both of my two primary machines. And the same software (I’ll explain why this is so critically important in my post about software). That way, if one goes out on me (as it will happen), I’ll have a back-up ready to go.
External Keyboard and Mouse (for my laptops)
I want to be able to do my work as seamlessly as possible with the least amount of re-adapting or shifting of gears. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to tote a KB & M, but most of the time I find it is well worth the trouble. I can type about twice or three times much faster on a full-size keyboard than on any but the most ancient laptops (the ones that had real keyboards, remember?). That means I get to move my focus forward more quickly, from thought to thought, from word to word, from paragraph to paragraph. And that means I will be able to read/edit/revise the entire passage much sooner.
I’ve tried all the “mini,” portable, and wireless keyboards. Some are better than others, but none are as good or as fast as a standard full keyboard that has full-sized keys. They’re cheap and can take a lot of punishment to boot. I should know!
Ditto for a real mouse instead of the laptop touchpad. At least for me. Although I do prefer the “middie” size mouse rather than the big bulky ones. Definitely not the super-small ones; they just get lost in my palm. Although I use a bunch of shortcuts and keyboard macros while I’m working, I’ll always go for the mouse before I go for the touchpad. And I can always trust the mouse to point where I aim it. Touchpads are, in my experience, temperamental creatures prone to fits of churlishness, sometimes going off half-cocked.
This is important for obvious reasons. For years I only used flash drives (or thumb drives). They’re fine. Now I use both flash drives and portable hard drives for back up and transfer. I used those online cloud storage services, but found they were too slow, too cumbersome, and too expensive. Whatever you use, use it religiously and consistently. And take it from me: If you opt for an external hard drive, get one that is “military” grade, meaning you can bump it around a good bit before it will fail. Just don’t bump it while it is in use. Although not as small and convenient as thumb drives, they are relatively cheap for a tremendous amount of storage. Maintain them as you would your computer’s drives, with good software (like CCleaner and Defraggler).
Nothing fancy, here. General purpose suits my needs just fine. So far.
Music is way too important to me not to list this little guy. I can’t tell you how much inspiration that I draw from music, directly and indirectly, that gets channeled into my writing. I doubt if The Year of the Red Door could have been written without it. So, yes, this is important to me, even though I prefer to work in silence when I’m really “digging in.” Music is so important that I’m tempted to post a list of “Music That Inspired The Year of the Red Door.”
Speakers and Headphones
You need options. Sometimes you need to crank it up without waking the neighbors or while out on a thinking stroll. I do, anyway. I often take speakers with me on trips, though, since I really don’t like the sound from my laptop speakers. Or I might not want to turn on my laptop if I’m doing the pen and paper thing.
I really don’t need to explain this one at all. Or do I?
I use computer-based dictionary software, and online dictionaries. But a few, good print dictionaries are worth their weight in gold. I don’t need anything really fancy, and not too large (in size), but they need to be serviceable, decent paper and bindings, and they need to be fairly extensive. I use them when I don’t have my computer on and I don’t want the distraction of using my smartphone (which, by the way, I often turn off while writing; it’s like having the T.V. on but turned down; I don’t need all the flashing lights).
I use a thirty-plus year old American Heritage dictionary (2nd College Edition, if you must know), and a variety of others, all kept within arm’s reach while at my desk. I picked this one up at a Goodwill for $1 to replace my even older Webster’s that was losing pages faster than I was losing hair.
Here’s a couple of things to go by when deciding whether to buy that new or used dictionary. It should have at least 75,000 word entries (minimum). It need not be less than 10 years old. It should have at least three definitions for the word “epiphany.” Those are the baseline litmus tests that I use when tempted by a cheap (or not so cheap) new dictionary.
The other dictionaries? Some are back-ups to my AH. Some are specialized, such as my Dictionary of Early English. I only keep the ones I use or enjoy reading.
Editor’s Handbooks, Style and Grammar References
Like the coffee pot, this needs no explanation. Although my editors might be surprised that I even own any of these types of works.
Various Atlases, Maps, Almanacs, Rulers, and Dividers
Reference works, whether online or not, are indispensable to me. General information almanacs, a good political and geography atlas, a historical atlas, and a decent travel atlas all find their place on my Ready Reference shelf (within arm’s reach). But I also use fold out maps, some of which I make myself. I often want to know distances between places (whether real or imaginary), and what is between them. To compare one map to another, I use rulers and dividers, markers and pencils. I like to spread out my maps on my work tables and hang them from the rafters, or tack them to the walls. I’ve even been known to tape them inside of roll-up blinds so that, when pulled down, there’s my map!
For a work such as The Year of the Red Door, maps are a necessity. Calculations for the distances between characters, their travel-time, and the terrain in their way are too complicated for me to do in my head for some reason. Using maps helps me to visualize things. Or maybe it’s just my navigation training from a previous life kicking in. At any rate, I often will take measurements from one of my story maps (or a passage) and scale them out onto one of my road maps for a particular region that I’m familiar with. Just to get a better sense of scale and terrain.
Yeah, maps are useful.
I just grew sick and tired of all the snake oil packaged inside of those silly whiteboard markers that are supposed to be erasable. I’m apt to leave a note up for days or weeks, and there’s never enough room on my boards so I’m constantly scrawling in the corners and erasing. But just when I need to quickly erase and jot something else down, the dang marks won’t come off of the whiteboard. I’ve used every solution known on earth (and a few suggested by the alien inventors). The only advantage over a chalkboard is that a whiteboard costs about a fourth or even less for a given size. But, like printers and printer cartridges (cheap printers, expensive cartridges), they’ve got you on markers. And erasers. And cleaners. And—oops, this one’s dry already—more markers.
So I made two chalkboards. Myself. I made them. They were dirt cheap, even compared to whiteboards. Mind you, they aren’t the giant classroom-sized boards, and they don’t have all the fancy trays and such. But they are there when I need them (all the time), and they easily erase with a bit of cloth, my hand, or even my sleeve. With all the money I saved, I splurged for a nice chalk holder and some premium Prang Hygieia chalk. It starts out dried-out, so no worries there.
A mite dusty, maybe. But no odor. No muss, no fuss.
Last and least, I use a few different voice recorders. One is digital, the other is a micro-cassette recorder. I also use my smartphone from time to time. But I don’t use any of them very often. Usually while I’m driving, when I do use them. I prefer my micro-cassette recorder just because I’m old-school that way. I purchased it fifteen years ago to record a series of meetings and conferences. It still works just fine. But the digital recorder is nice because it has a clip for my pocket or collar that makes it hands-free. Like I said, very low on my list of hardware. But they’ve been handy to have on those occasions when I needed to keep my hands on the steering wheel.
Okay, that wraps up my basic list of Hardware. I did not mention a myriad of other things that I use that are more along the lines of creature-comforts. But the things mentioned are on my “must have” list because each and every one has been used to help me write. The same is true of the Software list that I’ll tackle in some detail next. Some of these items, hard or soft, I learned to use only after trying other things, or after making mistakes. Some of them I learned about through others or through my various jobs.
If you have any questions about any of these items (or anything else!), feel free to drop me a note or a comment (below)!