Things You Might Need

Like any other profession, there are tools the writer uses. Here are some you need to consider:

A computer/word processor. Tolstoy's wife copied six drafts of War And Peace in freehand for him as he wrote it. Since most of us aren't as lucky to have such an understanding spouse/friend, a word processor is almost indispensable. My hat is off to those legions of writers who produced their works before the day of electronic 'cut' and 'paste'. The prices have come down considerably over the last several years. I recently bought a computer with hard drive that cost less than half of what the same make computer (with no hard drive) cost me eight years ago. You don't need anything fancy, just something that will work and crunch words.

(Note: If you can't afford one or it just isn't practical, in many places you can get access to a computer at a local university or library.)

If you are going to get a computer, I suggest getting a laptop. They work the exact same way as a regular desktop, but they give you much more flexibility. You can take it to the library to do research; you can take it on trips, in to the job, or work while you commute. I just purchased an adapter for my laptop that plugs into the cigarette lighter in my car, which allows me to charge my battery while on the road which increases my working capability. I haven't yet learned the trick of writing while driving and am not sure I will attempt that feat. But I have been known to tap out some thoughts and ideas at rest areas.

I used to do quite a few "book signings" at military post exchanges throughout the country. This consisted of sitting in front of the PX for twelve hours at a time trying to sell my books. I spent a lot of that time at the keyboard of my laptop, tackling two jobs at the same time. I carry an extension cord as part of my standard equipment in my briefcase so that I can plug in.

The bottom line is that you need a word processor. There are what I would call "upgraded" typewriters on the market now that do that function without the expense of a computer. Those are fine. Basically the machine you use should have the ability to store your words and allow you to rework them through editing and cutting and pasting electronically. In fact, most computers nowadays are much more powerful than what you need, capable of making phone calls, balancing your household budget, finding you a life partner on the Internet, doing the laundry and a whole list of other tasks—and all you need is something with a keyboard that will allow you to save what you write.

Always, always, always, and always, back up your work. And do it often. Nothing is more agonizing than to lose pages you have just written because of a mechanical malfunction or a power loss. I was in an interesting position writing my first couple of manuscripts in Korea. The power there would cut out at the strangest times and I learned to hit the keys for save almost automatically at the end of pretty much every paragraph. An interesting aspect of that is that when you rewrite immediately what you've lost, it is always somewhat different.

I keep the latest copy of what I'm writing on my hard drive and back it up on disk every day. Every week I back up the back up onto another disk, which I leave in my car. You never know, my home may catch on fire and the computer and home back up disk be destroyed. Paranoid? Slightly, but I know there's someone out there who lost everything when they thought it was backed up.

Can't I simply write on legal paper with a pencil? Someone might ask. Certainly. If that's the way you write best. I just read an interview with Joyce Carol Oates and she does her first draft with pen and paper. I've heard that some authors dictate their stories onto a micro cassette recorder and then transcribe it. Whatever works best for you. I'm just suggesting a word processor as the easiest way for most people. I met someone at a writer's conference who wrote his manuscripts out in longhand and then gave them to a typist to do up. He bemoaned the fact that he couldn't afford to buy a computer. I had to point out to him that the amount of money he paid the typist for one manuscript would go halfway to the purchase price of a computer.

Computers have advanced quicker than I have. I remember having to save each chapter as a separate document because that was all my computer could handle. Made it very difficult when editing and printing. Now I can save an entire manuscript as one document, which certainly makes things easier. I can even open two manuscripts at the same time on a 17" monitor and compare them side-by-side.

A printer. Spend the extra money for a laserwriter or inkjet printer. You need letter quality. Many publishers won't even look at dot matrix. If you've ever tried reading a manuscript printed on dot matrix you'll understand why. Laser printers used to be expensive when they first came out. My first one cost more than my computer. The cartridges are also expensive, but ultimately cost less per page than buying ribbons for a dot matrix. Also, you should recharge laser cartridges, which saves you quite a bit of money over buying new ones and also is good for the environment. I've recharged my own on occasion but found it to be quite a messy process, involving much inhaling of toner, which I don't believe, was particularly good for my personal environment. There are companies that do it, and, although for the work involved they charge quite a bit, it's still cheaper than a new one.

I just upgraded for the third time to a multi-function machine and find it useful in not only laser printing but getting paper faxes which can become important when you start dealing with changes to a manuscript.

On my first manuscript, written in Korea, I couldn't find ribbons for my original dot matrix ImageWriter printer anywhere (see I was breaking one of my own suggestions there. But how do you think I learned that lesson reference dot matrix?). I went everywhere, even visiting dark alleys with my Taekwondo Master where he'd talk to shady characters in the black market trying to track down the elusive item but to no avail. I ended up buying ink and a pad and reinking my cartridges by hand, using a pencil to turn the ribbon and pressing it down onto the pad. It took a long time and my hands were sore for days but it worked.

In the same manner, the keyboard of my computer broke down while I was in Korea and again I was left without being able to get a replacement or getting it repaired. The "x" and "c" keys wouldn't work. I think the little squirrels that carried the x and c nuts from the keyboard to the do-hickey in the big brain of the computer were on strike or had run off with native Korean squirrels—but anywho—So what I did was electronically cut out the letters "cCx" from an old document and stored them in that grouping. Then any time I had to use any of those three letters, I would hit the two key command for paste. If I wanted a "c" I would then backspace twice and continue on. I got to be almost as fast getting a pasted "c" on screen as if the key actually worked. Unfortunately, I didn't have a capital X anywhere in any of my old documents so I avoided them as much as possible (not hard to do) and when I absolutely had to use one, I enlarged the font size of the small X until it looked like a capital X.

I tell these stories to remind you to never let equipment stand in the way of your writing. Lincoln once wrote a pretty nice piece of prose on the back of an envelope on the way to a place called Gettysburg. Of course—as we will discuss in the second half of this book—if he had tried submitting it in that format to a major New York publisher or agent he wouldn't have made it off the slush pile. Well, actually, Lincoln, as President, would have. You and I wouldn't have.

A place to write. This is very individualistic. I like quiet most of the time. You will also need plenty of room to lay out pages and research along with a bulletin board to keep that list of characters and key information posted where you can constantly refer to it.

My work area has expanded over the years. Currently I have a large wrap-around desk with over nine feet of length, a large four space file cabinet, two window sills full of books, five steel shelves holding various materials, two ceiling high bookcases, several vertical files, two cork bulletin boards, a dry-erase board, etc. etc. The bottom line is that I need plenty of area and I like to keep my work as organized as possible.

Some people like to grab pencil and notepad and curl up in bed. Others climb a mountain and like to write on the peak. Again, whatever works best and is within your realm of possibilities. I'm writing this paragraph sitting behind two card tables at a book signing I'm doing at the main mall post exchange at Fort Rucker, Alabama. As you can tell, I don't exactly have a line of people waiting to buy books, but I'm using the time to my advantage and not worrying that I'm not sitting at home behind my desk.


master character list with descriptions and history of each person in your book. Every time you use a name, write it down and give a brief description, even if you think it is a character you will never use again in the manuscript. I don't know how many times I've had to go searching back, looking for the name of that minor character that I used somewhere in the first hundred pages and who suddenly, unexpectedly, reappears in chapter 23. It helps considerably to have this character work done prior to starting the novel—more on this in the chapter on characters (10).

I've also used the same name for different characters in the course of a manuscript, which is another good reason to keep track.

In a similar way, write down any 'fact' you make up or use so you can keep track of it.

Maps of locales. If you can't stay oriented, your reader can't either. When I read Lonesome Dove, I had my atlas at my side and followed the herd from the Mexico-Texas border all the way up north to Montana. As an author, you have to do the same thing. I own—let's see as I look about—at least eight different maps/atlases within handy reach, including: -The Rand McNally Universal World Atlas -The Times Atlas of World History -The Universal World Atlas -Rand McNally Road Atlas of the US -Rand McNally Road Atlas of Europe -The Atlas of Earth Mysteries -The Atlas of the Second World War -The West Point Atlas of American Wars -A Michelin map of "Africa: Central and South; Madagascar." (This is specific for a certain book I'm currently working on)

-A Xeroxed copy of a geographic map of a section of the Rocky Mountains. (again for a specific project).

I just bought a $200 atlas at my local bookstore because I have found maps to be critical to my stories. I always end up having to look up very strange and rare places. Know where Ngorongoro Crater is? I'm using it in my next book and I didn't know where it was either until I tracked it down in an atlas.

Not only do these atlases and maps give me locales, they give histories and facts about the locales that often become essential to the story. When I get down and dirty in some action scenes I use topographic maps to give me a feel for terrain. Maps are also useful in determining distances— remember people do take time to travel—unless of course you're writing science fiction in which case—well, make sure your rules work and remain consistent within the covers of the book when your spaceship hits warp drive.

There are certain genres where maps are very important. If you've ever read The Lord of the Rings you know where the Shire is in relation to Mordor. And if you write historical fiction people might want to know what the political boundaries of the time were.

Also, and I shudder to mention this, there are people who don't exactly know where, let's say, Madagascar, is.

When I was in Special Forces before we went to another country we did what we called an "area study". We spent time learning everything we could about the place: topography, weather, customs, languages, religions, etc. etc. As a writer I do the same thing when I write about someplace.

Diagrams of important places—i.e. houses, the rooms, etc. Again, to keep you oriented. If you can't stay oriented, your reader certainly won't be able to. If your main character turns left into the bedroom for the first 15 chapters and you make a mistake and have her turning right in chapter 16, there is no doubt but that it will be noticed. One thing about a book—the reader can always turn back and check your information.

A dictionary. And yes, I have seen cover letters with words misspelled. One thing I have learned over the last several years is that although I may think I know what a word means, occasionally I am wrong. Sometimes it pays to look it up and know exactly what you are saying.

A friend of mine walked out to her sporty convertible outside a store and found a note stuck on her windshield. Some guy who had been eyeing her in the store had left it. She opened it up and read:

"Let's meat." and then listed his phone number.

Needless to say they didn't meat. Spelling is important.

Story grid (Appendix 5). This keeps you oriented and allows you to go back and find certain passages quicker than having to reread the entire manuscript. For the type of stories I write, it is extremely important to be able to keep track of location, time, characters and action.

Take a look at the Appendix. From left to right across the top I have the chapter, the starting page number, the ending page number, the date and day of the week (which can be quite important.), the location of the action, the local time, the Zulu time, and a brief description of what happens.

Zulu time is Greenwich Mean Time. Remember that while it noon in Washington it is nighttime in Tokyo and you can't fly between the two in 30 minutes (unless you're writing science fiction, of course).

Different time zones can become critical to some types of stories. Quick quiz: What is the only place on Earth that has no time zone?

Answer: Antarctica.

Quiz: What place on Earth is on a half hour time zone?

Answer: Central Australia.

When I deployed overseas in Special Forces we wore two watches, one on each wrist. One had the local time wherever we were and the other was set to Zulu time. The latter was the time we used to coordinate all messages, resupplies, operations, etc. with higher headquarters, which was usually in a different time zone than we were.

I know this story grid doesn't seem like the most artistic thing in the world, but I find it very important. While writing is a creative task, I find writing a novel also requires quite a bit of organizational ability and sometimes it is difficult to find the two traits in the same person. Once you start your story— and I will go into this in more detail later on—the story takes on a life of its own and in a paradoxical manner, your creativity is limited by your creation growing on its own.

The story grid is not an outline. It is filled in as the manuscript is written to allow me to keep track of what I've already done. I find it to be particularly helpful when rewriting. As you will see when we get to subplots, when you change one aspect of a novel, it tends to change things in other places. It's easier to realize and find these other places using the story grid.

Summaries of important information. I summarize research articles and books, writing the important information

(along with source and page numbers.) down in bullets on one page that I can quickly scan. Sometimes when my story stalls out, I look through the "bullet" pages of information and am reminded of some piece of information that allows me to rejuvenate the story line. Remember that class on research that you had in school so many years ago? The same applies to writing fiction.

I keep saying the details drive a story, and the more information you have, the more details you have. Large sections of some of my books are based on facts that readers think are fiction.

Newspaper/magazine articles. I can take any newspaper and come up with two or three book ideas from the front page. Newspapers and magazines can give you great background information. What I particularly like about articles is that they do a lot of the research for you, summarizing information. I index excerpts and place them in three ring binders for handy reference. It might be very fresh in your mind today when you read that article but five months from now when you're in the middle of writing chapter 27 you'll be lucky if you can even remember reading the article, never mind what was in it—writing a novel is a long process.

Videotapes. When I was writing about Ayers Rock in Australia (The Rock, Dell paperback 1995) I was in the position of writing about a place I'd never been to. I did not have the funds or the time to fly to Australia to research an idea that I had not sold, so I did the next best thing. I rented travel videos and toured the country via my TV. I was able to sit at my desk and describe scenes as I watched them.

Of course I didn't have the actual feel of the place, but I could gain some of that by researching travel accounts of people who had been there. Ask around—you'd be amazed at the people in your neighborhood who've gone to the strangest places or have had the weirdest experiences.

In the same manner, I just watched a video on the search for Atlantis and was able to see some of the potential locales for another one of my manuscripts. You can learn about firearms, medical procedures, bungee jumping, hang gliding, etc. etc. all from videos. Naturally it is best to actually go to the locales and do the action yourself so you can write about it validly, but when that isn't possible, this can be the next best thing.

The Discovery Channel constantly amazes me. Often I have it on while I am working and I always keep a blank tape handy to pop in when something interesting comes on. It's kind of neat to be writing a book that has the Great Pyramid in it, and while writing, a two hour special on the Great Pyramid comes on TV. In the same manner, if you want to know about life on board an aircraft carrier, paddling up the Amazon, etc., sooner or later, it comes on TV.

In fact, videos can give you information that you can't get any other way. I wrote a manuscript that had the Golden Gate Bridge figuring prominently in the story. I bought a video and the making of the bridge and was able to see things that there was no other way to see.

Xeroxed pages from encyclopedias or other reference sources. Sometimes you might need to get technical and it helps if you have the information handy.

An indexed binder with most of the above information in it so you can find it when needed. Having stacks of information that aren't organized does you little good.

Access to a copying machine At a nickel a page, times 400 pages in a manuscript, it can get quite expensive making copies of your work. You can also become a great irritant to a friend who gives you access to their copier—another advantage of laser printers is that I can print out multiple copies of manuscripts without having to go to a copying machine, usually for about the same amount of money.

Stationery I sat in on a class on freelance magazine writing and the instructor insisted that everyone, even brand new writers, go out and order up stationery with the word "Writer" somewhere on it to impress editors they submitted their work to that they were professional. While that may be true for freelancing articles, it is not so for the novel market. If you have no publishing credentials, getting a fancy letterhead with your name on it and the word writer or author somewhere is not particularly helpful and in some cases that I've seen, looks rather silly. I used to use "Member of the Author's Guild" on my letterhead for one reason: You can't be a member of the Guild until you've been published, which means something to the person looking at my correspondence. Then I used "Author. Member of the Special Forces Association," since I parted ways with the Guild. Now I just have my name, address and phone number and my logo.

In brief, I suggest not worrying about stationery until writing truly is your business.

A micro cassette recorder can be helpful to put thoughts down when driving or you're in a position where you can't write. I also place mine by the side of my bed at night and when I wake at three in the morning with that brilliant idea, I mutter it into the recorder and play it back in the morning when my cognitive functioning is somewhat better.

I occasionally use a large easel pad when I work. I put my outline on it and fill it in as I write. The large page allows me to put quite a bit more down than a regular notepad. I use this because I am visually oriented when I think of a story. I can scrawl notes all over the large space and refer back to it more easily than if I had twenty smaller sheets of 8.5" by 11" paper.

At the present moment, the easel pad is flat on my desk, with the outline of the end of a book scrawled across in it in numerous notes along with various reminders of editing to be done and phone numbers from calls I received while I was working.

A lot of books. This sounds superfluous, but to be a good writer you have to be well read. Not only that, but as you will see when we get to the research chapter, often other fiction novels can be good sources for not only facts, but techniques of writing that you will find helpful. Whatever problem you run into, the odds are some writer in the past ran into the same problem—how did they solve it? Then, being the brilliant person you are, you have to figure out a better way.


Mark Twain said, "Write what you know." I would add four things to that:

1. I might rephrase it to say: "Write what you know and feel something about."

2. You will most likely write something in the same area you like to read in.

3. Understand that some of what you know and feel something about, other people might not be particularly interested in, especially if they know the same thing. Unless, of course, it is written in a superlative manner.

4. You can also write about what you want to know. Elizabeth George writes best-selling mysteries based in England and she lives in California. I write about myths and legends because they interest me and I'm willing to do the research to learn more. I believe that if I can find material that interests me, it should interest some readers.

Usually your background will dictate what your story is about. That's not to say that since you haven't ever gone into space that you can't write science fiction, but it does mean that you know something about the physics of space flight if that is going to be in your manuscript. As you will see later, when it comes to marketing your manuscript you are also marketing yourself. Think about when you read the book jacket for a writer you never heard of. If they've written a thriller that's set in Antarctica and in the bio it says they spent three years studying ice formations in Antarctica you're going to give the author more credit.

I think it is even easier than that: you will most likely write whatever it is you enjoy reading. The best preparation for becoming a writer of mysteries is to have read a lot of mysteries.

Some words of advice here: start with something simple. Don't try to write the Great American Novel on your first try. I am constantly learning more about writing and am polishing my skills every time I write and it's nice to be able to learn and make a buck at it too. As I learn more, I can write more difficult plots and characters.

And now some words of caution. I've said you should write what you know and you should keep it as simple as possible, but be careful. A common problem with new writers is thinking that their life story will be extremely interesting to the reading world. This is my third addition to Mark Twain's saying. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing about yourself, but be realistic about the possibilities of someone else wanting to read it.

Writing about something you care about very deeply has the advantage of adding passion to your prose. It also has the disadvantage that some writers can't separate themselves enough from what they write to adequately judge its content or style. I have watched writers waste years on the same manuscript, trying to polish the editing, doing rewrites on various subplots, etc. when they were not willing to accept a fundamental problem with their story: the basic idea wasn't that interesting.

I have seen many writers become too emotionally attached to bad ideas. Remember I mentioned earlier that open-mindedness is a very important trait for writers. I have an entire chapter later in this book devoted to the reader (22). The reason for that? Because too many writers get tunnel vision and fail to objectively evaluate their own work in terms of someone who has no emotional attachment and is seeing it for the first time. Just because you feel something, that doesn't mean you can get the reader to feel the same thing.

There is a problem every writer faces when approaching his or her first manuscript: You are trying to do something new. Most wise people when trying to do something new use the KISS technique—keep it simple. You are trying to juggle two glass balls: the story and the writing. The simpler you make the story, the more attention you can give to the writing.

That sounds rather simplistic, but I have seen many writers get in over their heads by trying to write a very complex first novel and the writing suffers as they wrestle with the story. Most first novelists can do one or the other well, but very few can do both well. Since you must write well, give yourself a break on the story. When I was still unpublished and got hooked up with an agent, his first (and only) comment to me was to simplify the plot of the manuscript he had looked at. I had too much going on and was not a skilled enough writer to keep it all going. I did as he suggested and that book was the first one we sold.

In fact, I've come full circle. I've written a couple of series of books that have done well but are very complicated, with complex story-lines involving a large cast of characters and generally rewriting the entire history of mankind. Talk about difficult. I've also written some thrillers that were quite complicated. The next book I write that's not under contract is going to be a very simple idea and story line where I can focus on giving my characters the depth I used to devote to the plot.

Another problem: perfectionism. Some people think that the writing has to be perfect. They spend an inordinate amount of time on editing and rewriting. Sometimes, you just have to accept it's either good enough, or that the horse is dead and can't be brought back to life.

I am going to go on here on my soapbox a little bit longer. I just finished looking at a couple of dozen "novel submissions" for a contest I am judging. I have yet to see one that was not about "love, death, divorce, child abuse, broken hearts, etc. etc." Nobody said, "hey, I've got a great science fiction story here." Or a horror story. Or a thriller. There's nothing wrong about writing about love, death, etc. but none of the writers were up to the task.

Now, here's exercise number one. Go to the bookstore. Look around. What is the largest section? From the bookstores I frequent, the answer is: Computers. Second largest? Self-help. Ah—what is self-help about? "Love, death, addiction, child abuse, broken hearts, etc. etc." And last I checked it is non-fiction.

Remember why people read fiction: most of the time we read to escape "death, abuse, addiction, broken hearts, etc. etc." We read primarily to be entertained. Yet, here are all these aspiring writers trying to write what I call The Great American Novel. How many of these types of books are on the bookshelves? Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the hardcover new releases. Less than 10% of the paperback original releases. You figure it out.

I am really starting to believe that this is the number one problem most new novelists have: they pick very difficult subject matter for their story. The craft of writing is difficult enough. The more difficult the topic is, the better the writing has to be.

The bottom line is that you need to have an original thought/idea that will spark you and others.

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