Systemic started spilling out of me one day on the bus. My laptop died, so I couldn’t work. My cell phone died so I couldn’t listen to NPR, watch Ted Talks, or doom scroll my way through Facebook. After three whole minutes with nothing to distract it, my mind started hallucinating its own visions like a cast-away seeing a turkey where a lifepreserver should be.
I saw a broad valley. Grey threads of rain reached down from the bottoms of clouds like jelly fish tentacles, but–since it was so hot–the rain evaporates before it ever reaches the ground. Words were rising in my mind that perfectly described what I was seeing. I liked how they sounded and how they made me feel. I pulled a pen and notebook from my bag to write them down before I lost them. I hoped they would be pretty or clever enough that when I got home to my wife and said, “Hey, look I made a thing!”she would be duly impressed.
I wrote down the words and more kept coming. By the time I got off the bus, my hand was cramped and I’d filled probably 10 pages. I wrote that night before bed, and in the morning on my commute and again at lunch. I just kept writing. After a few days, it had grown long enough and I had grown fond enough of it that I didn’t want to lose it so I decided to type it up. We were using Google Docs at work so that was what I wound up using. Plus it was stored in the cloud so I knew it would be safe should I lose my computer.
Then I found out that Google Docs has a mobile app, so I started writing with that. I spent some time agonizing about which tool I should use to write. I remember hearing once that if you’re taking notes for a meeting or a class, you should always take them by hand. Whoever gifted me with this information (probably a Ted Talk, or a pen salesman) claimed that you comprehend and retain information better when you physically write it down as opposed to type, or record with a device. Then it came to me. I shouldn’t choose which tool to use. I should use the best tool for whatever I’m trying to accomplish at that moment.
Writing, at least for me, isn’t a monolithic activity. There are different stages of writing, and different styles within the body of the work, and I come with a different mental state every time I sit down to write. Perhaps, I thought, different tools might be more or less useful for these different moments tasks and states of mind. I started paying attention to the way I wrote using different tools, and sure enough I found that the outcome is vastly different depending the tools I use, and different tools do a better or worse job of keeping me unblocked depending on my state of mind.
Here are all the different tools I use and how I find them most useful.
Writing by hand. Writing by hand is my most fluid technique, and I think it produces the most beautiful prose. It’s great for creativity, descriptions of scenery and finding the right turn of phrase to describe an emotion. There is something about hand writing that really helps me work down through the layers of my mind to get at some nagging idea that’s slivered its way down into my cranium and needs to get worked to the surface. The down sides are that my spelling and hand writing are so incredibly bad that I often can’t figure out what I’ve written, and I can’t share it with anyone in that state, so once I’m done I’ll always need to transcribe whatever I’ve written into digital form.
Here I am rewriting the end of my last book from a different perspective so that I can use it as a bridge to the sequel. If you could read my handwriting you would have seen a really sweet metaphor fly by comparing Thomas’ state of mind to standing on the rail of a bridge or near a loaded gun. Trust me – it was great.
Phone. This is my second favorite way to write. Oddly it’s almost as flowy as writing by hand. I wrote probably 70% of Systemic on the bus using my thumbs. Aside from the fact that its unexpectedly easy to write on my phone, it’s also really convenient. You have your word processor in your pocket at all times, you can write little snatches of dialog and turns of phrase while you walk to the store, or on the bus, or while long-haul trucking (please don’t really do that.) And since both Word and Google Docs are in the cloud you can work on your story on your phone while commuting, then hop on to your computer the second you get home and all your changes are already there. No break in your flow!
Dictation. First off, it’s very fast. I described a huge portion of the outline of my new book aloud just to get it down as quickly as it was coming to me. Also, I find that it’s sometimes easier to get a scene out of me, if I can explain it aloud the way I might explain it to other person. But the best use for dictation is generating natural-sounding dialogue. It’s pretty hard to speak clumsily in bad words and phrases when you’re actually speaking. (I did not dictate that last sentence).
Another great use for dictation is digitizing your handwritten notes. You’ll need to go back and clean it up, but it’s still faster than typing. At least for me.
That said, dictation takes some getting used to. I’m not a self-conscious person, but even I worry that people look at me askance when I walk down the street gesticulating wildly while describing some impossible fictitious scene to absolutely no one. So if I’m going to dictate, I lock myself in my upstairs closet were my family can’t see or hear me and I pace back and forth and whisper argue with myself in peace.
I have a theory why hand writing, phone, typing, and dictation flow so well. In each case, its nearly impossible for me to see what I’ve recently written, so I’m not continually tempted to go back and fix it. “But,” I hear you exclaiming, “that’s not the case with hand writing!” For most of you that might be true, but seeing as how my hand writing and spelling are so atrocious, it takes real effort for me to decode what I’ve captured so my eye is never tempted backward to critique my still-drying words. And anyway, it’s a theory, and I like theories.
Scrivener. There comes a time when the thing you’re writing becomes unwieldy. It’s a chaotic mess of ideas and scenes and timelines and little notes telling you not for forget to make sure your main character has purchased milk before she makes yogurt (or whatever) and you need a rational way of organizing it all. This is when Scrivener becomes your best friend. Scrivener meets writers where they live. They use familiar metaphors like index cards, outlines, stacks of paper and folders, color-coded highlighters, snapshots of ideas, characters sheets, and etc. Only problem is that you can over-organize and you wind up in some infinitely regressing fractal patter of of an outline (I have literally outlined single sentences). But during the shuffley, shifty, outliney phase of writing, it can’t be beat. Scrivener is where I’m doing the majority of my work right now.
Word. Word is fine at all of the above. Not great, but adequate. It sits proudly in the middle of the venn diagram of writing tools like a big fat spider, and it takes up a decent-sized space.
Where Word really shines is editing and proof reading. I love using Word to fix all the horrible things I did during my manuscript’s younger, more creative phases. Word is there to help your little book get shaved and shorn and all cleaned up when it’s time for it to go out and get a job. It’s wonderful for formatting and moving things around, spelling and grammar checking and making sure you don’t use naughty words like “crap.” It’s a working stiff, but it gets shit done.
Word does get an honorable mention as a creative tool for it’s aforementioned dictation capabilities. [Note: There was a silly metaphor here about the show Cop Rocks that my wife made me remove because it was “trying too hard”. She was right, but I think the world is diminished for the edit.]
Narration. And last but far from least, Word will read to you. I cannot stress how incredibly fantastic this is. I have always been of the opinion that the written word should be read aloud as part of the refinement process. This opinion became an unyielding insistence once my wife and I began reading to each other at bed time. You can easily tell authors who do and do not hear the words they write. When I wrote Systemic I vowed that it would flow off the tongue.
I have a great friend named Balbir Singh who says the kindest most beautiful words imaginable in marvelous English. Still, he believes himself to be nearly incomprehensible in his second language. When I pointed out the fact that he is highly respected and successful in his field, he told me his secret. Before he sends any email or document out to co-workers, he always uses dictation to ensure that the document flows well and makes sense. Balbir is a genius. Literally he is, but in this case I’m being hyperbolic for emphasis.
When you read your own work aloud (which you definitely should), even when you read somebody else’s work aloud, your brain fills in holes and guesses over misspellings. It will accommodate and compensate for all manner of errors. A computer is not so smart. It reads exactly what is on the page. Your weres and wheres and thoughts and thoughs get straightened out quick. Bonus: You can change Word’s voice, and reading speed to make the experience more pleasurable and quick.
So, never ever send anything to another human before letting a computer read it to you first. Your audio book narrator will thank you.