Got into a strange conversation the other day while waiting to pick up the kids from school. A good friend, who’s read the book, asked “It must be hard work putting a novel together – do you use any special tools?”
My first reaction was to say no; writing is the least gear-intensive of any form of art. It’s you, a keyboard, and a screen. That’s pretty much it. And I’m more than a little biased, since in my other other life, I’m a guitarist – a performance art medium in which people actually debate whether tubes from 1950 or 1951 sound better, and in which at least one performer claims to be able to detect a meaningful difference between nine-volt batteries. Guitarists are batshit-crazy gear-focused technophiles, to a one, and so – by comparison, anyway – writing looks pretty plain.
But then I got to thinking about it, and surveying my workspace, and I noticed that I was wrong. At some level, anyway. There are a few select pieces of kit involved in writing. Here’s mine.
Probably my most significant writing idiosyncrasy is a mechanical-switch keyboard. (Or, as I call it, ‘a keyboard.’) It’s probably because I came of age in the dawn of the PC age, but clicky keyboards sound and feel normal to me. Over time, mechanical-switch keyboards got tossed aside in favor of the cheaper, more reliable, but (IMHO) gummy-feeling modern keyboard, the piece of shit Dell throws in every box that goes out the door. But I like a little click with every keystroke. When you’re grinding through the first ten thousand words of a new book, it’s like getting a little reward with every letter.
Although the book ultimately ends up in Word, I do a lot of the heavy lifting in a program called Scrivener, which is to writing what Pro Tools is to music. Every section of a book you write in Scrivener is assigned its own identifier number and keyword tags; when it’s time to move things around (and I do a LOT of moving sections), there’s no searching 120,000 words of Word text for a phrase you think might be in a section. Just enter the keywords into Scrivener, and up pops a live-draggable chunk of text. Scrivener doesn’t make the writing process easier, but it makes the editing and book development process vastly more efficient and fun.
Speaking of software, I also like Grammarly. It’s tough to use in a fiction novel, because candidly, not everything that makes for effective fiction writing follows Oxford comma-type rules to the letter, but it’s a damn fine place to start from in checking whether you’ve hashed some of the true ground rules. It’s much more powerful – and insightful – than the core Word grammar checker, which more often than not gets grammar rules wrong. (Sorry, Microsoft. It’s true.)
I also like a second monitor or two; I can store the main work on the large monitor and stash tools, Grammarly and Scrivener windows on another. Somehow, it lends itself to the idea of artistic creation; here’s the canvas (the main screen), and here’s the palette (my second screen). And if I’m working for long periods of time, I use tinted glasses, which makes extended writing sessions easier on my eyes (and enables unlimited Walter quoting while I work).
A trio of research tools are up next – a bookstand, Levenger page points, and Genius Scan. Research is a huge part of my writing process, and it gets old quick to be trying to balance a hefty copy of Budge’s Ancient Egyptian Magic on one leg while I’m writing. The bookstand takes care of that; the page points get me right back to the key sections I need to refer to quickly; and Genius Scan turns my iPhone into an instant scanner those moments that I need to capture something permanently for quick reference.
It might not seem like a writing tool, per se, but I make heavy use of Spotify. Writing is tough enough if you’ve got all day to do it in and no distractions around you, but I work a full-time job and have three little kids, too – so getting back into my writing ‘headspace’ quickly and completely is key. Music is a valuable tool in doing so, and I invested in a good pair of earbud headphones, too (these are the only ones I like).
There it is. My writing environment. Add a glass of something, and I’m good to go for the evening. Writing still doesn’t involve nearly the level of gear investment that other art forms do, but in a way, I like that – at the end of the day, I can look back over what I’ve done and know that it’s not the tubes, or the cables, or the amp, or my choice of nine-volt batteries.
It’s just me.