The Write Tools

Anyone who has seen me in my kitchen knows that my love for my Kitchen Aid mixer (and my silicone spatulas, and peculiarly shaped baking pans, and my new vegetable peeler and my MicroPlane grater) knows no bounds.  I have a thing for tools.  My father and I used to bond over a catalogue from a kitchen supply store: kitchen porn! Shiny and utilitarian, for the win!

My love for tools extends, of course, to writing.  The first thing I bought with the delivery money from my first book was an IBM Selectric (which should tell you how long ago that was!) the Cadillac of electric typewriters.  I would plump the big thing on my bed and sit crosslegged, writing until my room-mate complained about the din.  

Every book I’ve ever written has required a slightly different toolkit.  Some of this is just technology–I haven’t written a book on a typewriter since the 1980s.  But a lot of it is the requirements of the book itself.  For instance: if I’m blocked, I revert to the 3-pages-longhand-every-day program from The Artists’ Way, in part because it’s easier to remember the “it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done” rule when I’m writing longhand.  I write in a spiral bound notebook, with a pen; even there I get fussy: I loathe ball point pens.  They hurt my wrist because I tend to press too hard; my handwriting always looks lousy in ballpoint–yes, it’s vanity, but it’s my vanity, dammit!.  I prefer a rollerball pen, something with nice flowy inky that doesn’t require me to press too hard.

When I started writing on computer I used Xywrite, a word processor descended from typesetting software.  When I went from IBM to Mac, I started working on Word, which (despite the fact that it loads on bells and whistles I don’t want and will never use) is a pretty good workhorse of a program.  For a long time I used the “Stickies” program on my Mac to keep notes of things I wanted to check, character’s appearances, etc., because I didn’t have to keep opening files to find the scrap of data I wanted.  But recently I started using something called Scrivener, a writing program that allows you to outline, keep notes and URLs in the same file as the chapter I’m working on.  For the history-and-research-intensive WIP, I’m really getting to like it a lot.

But I don’t know if I’ll want to use it for the next book. The next book, which is just a sparking synapse in the back of my head right now, hasn’t gotten so far as to mention tools to me.

At my Clarion in 1981, Damon Knight said that he had to write rough draft on blue paper; white paper was for final drafts.  Every writer has her or his own set of rules, tools, and workarounds; one of the things about a lot of How-To books on writing that drives me nuts is that they promulgate the notion that there’s a right way to write, with the right tools.  The right tools for you are the tools that let you put the words down on paper, regardless of whether they’re someone else’s right tools.  And if those tools stop working for you, there’s nothing in the world wrong with trying out something new.  There really is a kind of psychic “ahhh–that’s better” when you find the right tool for the job at hand.

So: what are your right tools?


Madeleine Robins blogs here on the 7th and 21st of the month, and more frequently at Running Air.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The Write Tools — 7 Comments

  1. I started to write a fortnight after getting my first computer. (MacSE, Word 4/5). Before, I’d made up stories – but that was the first time I wrote something down. There’s something about typing on a computer that works much better for me than handwriting or typing (my Mum had a very nifty IBM, so I could have borrowed that). With a word processor, I only need to type the words as they occur to me. No stopping for corrections lest they become impossible to fix later. No having to switch to the next line every ten or twelve words. Just straight from the brain to my fingers.

    Right now, I use a newer incarnation of Word on a much newer incarnation of Mac; each project has its own colour/font, which helps to put me into the mood for that particular story. I use an application called Avenir (similar to Scrivener) to count words and keep notes – it’s very handy to have all my character notes in one place, and being able to tag chapters doesn’t hurt.

  2. I -used- to use only .5mm HB leads in mechanical pencils and yellow lined pads. This gets you a ms that is very nearly illegible. But the flexibility of wp programs has won me completely over — you can rewrite and insert! I shuttle between different computers, and email the files to myself.

  3. For me, it’s been Bic pens with the Purple ink and recycled loose leaf paper I had found at a Big Lots a few years ago. I’d write by long hand then transfer and edit on to my laptop using Open Office.

    Now, it’s Pilot FriXion pens and Sasquatch Recycled notebooks, then I’ll type it into Open Office when I’m ready.

  4. I’ve loved every advance in writing technology that has come along. I ditched pens for typewriters as soon as I learned to type, loved the correcting Selectric, and got my first computer in 1983. I cannot write anything in longhand except brief letters on greeting cards, half-assed journal entries, and notes and ideas for stories. I love being able to see what’s there when I’m writing.

    I haven’t tried the fancy note programs Madeleine mentions — I do just fine with brackets and the highlighter function in Word.

    The funny thing is, despite the fact that I do all serious writing on my computer, I still love looking at pens and notebooks in the store. In fact, I just love browsing the office supply store, or even the back-to-school display in the drug store. There’s just something about pens and notebooks …

  5. Hardware stores. Stationery shops. Kitchen supply stores. They’re all catnip, cause they’re all tools. The only reason I don’t have a workable fountain pen is that The Young kept using the ones I had and destroying them, and I finally gave up. But they’re lovely for booksignings.

  6. Currently I carry around fountain pens and red ‘n black tablets of paper, for when I have to scribble down something. A fountain pen is a lot easier on my fingers than a ballpoint or even a flair tip. I use an older version of WORD for PCs — I have an old Dell I work on. But I dream of returning to Apple — I wrote on Apple IIes and IIIcs before my Ex moved us to PCs. He worked in PC software and wanted things compatible.

    The only bad thing about computers is the major changes in software and hardware along the way. I remember correct tape sheets and white out with a typewriter — my first novel was in longhand. I typed it up, used scissors to cut, shorten and paste, and then typed the final. Then we had big floppies, and little floppies, and…the only thing that’s constant is change!

    Now I have a copy of Dragon 10 to try and use.