Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part I (Tools of the Trade)

As writers, we spend a lot of time dealing with mechanics. Punctuation, grammar, spelling, storytelling, plot, etc. We spend so much time learning the craft of being a writer, but no one ever really tells us how to be a writer. I get it, sure, if you don't have the tools, you're not going to get very far. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you've finished your MFA, you have a head full of ideas, and you're raring to go. So then what? I mean, writing a story is one thing, but how does one actually be a writer? What are the pitfalls of the writing lifestyle that people don't talk about? For the life of me, I don't think a single person ever said "hey, yes you can write, but do you know about...?" concerning the lifestyle of a writer? How do relationships work? What equipment do you need? Where do you write? How do you support yourself while you write? Do you have a day job? How long before a publisher offers me a suitcase full of cash and lewd promises of questionable morality?

I'm going to attempt to answer those questions. At least, I'll give you the insight that my experience has taught me. I don't pretend to be the end-all-be-all expert on all of this, but if you let me, I think maybe I can help. So let's start with Part I - What tools do you need to be a writer?

This is not going to be some esoteric discussion that ends with "all you need is imagination and gumption." Sure, those are nice, but let's start with the obvious: A computer. Laptop, desktop, iPad, Windows, Mac, Linux, it doesn't really matter what the specifics are. You just need some sort of word-processing apparatus that facilitates the recording of your story/novel/play. Before you get your shorts in a knot, let me explain. Nothing against the people who prefer to write longhand, but I have yet to meet or even see an editor or agent that accepts hand-written submissions, no matter how pretty the handwriting. I use a combination of my desktop (older 27" iMac), laptop (Macbook Air, provided by one of the universities for whom I work) and an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, depending on where I am. None of that matters, however. Go ahead and draft on a yellow legal pad. But before you get ready to submit your stuff, you're going to have to enter it into the word processing software (or pay someone else to). Which brings me to my second point: Software.
Trust me... No one cares what you use. 
If you walk into a room full of writers and loudly ask what writing software they use, you will get as many different answers as there are people in the room. What's more, each one will extol the virtues of the software they use, and try to convince you that theirs is the OMGBEST for writing. And it's all bullshit. Look, every writing software out there does basically the same thing. Some help you keep track of plot points, others help you keep track of characters. Some are free, others are quite expensive. But the absolute truth of the matter is this: It doesn't matter. Whatever software you choose, choose it because you like it, not because some over-caffeinated lunatic told you to. Try a few. They all have trial versions, and chances are you'll find one you'll like. Me? I use good-old Microsoft Word for two reasons. First, every publisher I've come across requests manuscripts in one of three formats: .rtf (Rich Text Format), .doc (Word Document), or .docx (updated Word Document). Most word processors will have these formats listed under their "save as" menu, but I figure I'm just cutting out another step, and eliminating the chance for the formatting to be off. The second reason? Both the colleges I work for provide the Microsoft Office Suite for free to faculty and staff members, as well as students. So... Yeah. I use it because it's powerful, does what I want it to do, and I don't have to pay for it.

So what else do you need? Well, obviously, a place to write. We'll go more into the details of your writing space in a later episode of Strange Words, but suffice to say you need a place where you can sit with your thoughts and put your words down. It can be an empty room, the middle of your kitchen, or even a crowded coffee shop. What matters isn't the trappings themselves. What matters is that you are comfortable there. What matters is that the place is conducive to your creative process. Wherever that place is, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong. A very dear friend of mine (who is incredibly well accomplished and published) writes at Starbucks. Trying to do such a thing would drive me insane, because I would keep getting distracted. But it works for him, and that's all that matters. So you need to find a place where you can gather your thoughts and lay them out.
I love office supplies...
Everything else is just window dressing and props. There are things that are useful to have, sure, but not necessary. For example, I carry around a composition book and a pen everywhere I go, even though hand-writing stuff out drives me up a wall. Why? Because I don't know when I'm going to see something that will spark an idea. I don't know when I'll need to make a note. And flipping open a notebook takes way less time than unloading my laptop, firing up the word processor, creating a new document....blah blah blah. I also use composition books to keep track of things in my books so I don't have to keep going back thirty or so pages to figure out what a certain character's middle name is (it's Irving, by the way).

There are a few things I would suggest you have, but none of it is necessary. Pens, reams of paper, stickies, a cork-board, all help make the job easier, but they're never necessary. I also suggest that every writer should have a good quality laser printer. Why? Because they last a good long time, and editing is easier on paper than it is on the screen.

Next time, we'll talk about your sacred writing space.

Until then, write on!



  1. Awesome article! Thanks for sharing. I go to my local library to write. They have a quiet study room that's nice.