A writer’s tools

When I speak at schools, kids always want to know all the practical details: do you write on paper or computer, where do you sit, do you use a pen? Other writers, too, like to swap stories and tips. So here are mine.

I can write pretty much anywhere, so I often scribble in notebooks on the train or in cafes at lunchtime. I learned long ago not to mix up all my ideas in one book, so I have separate notebooks: one for each project, and sometimes different books for research notes and fiction drafts.

Part of the ritual of starting a new project is buying new stationery. I like lightweight notebooks – a while ago I fell in love with these fat black journals I’ve only ever seen at Auckland airport, and stocked up, but they are really too heavy for schlepping about every day. I have a small notebook for random notes and ideas. I have even smaller Moleskine notebooks for tucking into a pocket with a stubby pencil if I’m going out walking in the middle of a brainstorm. (If I’m really caught short, I write on old receipts in my wallet, or serviettes, or sticky notes on my phone or Evernote on my iPod.)

I always use a pencil – preferably a mechanical pencil – I have several and for some reason need one for each notebook or task.

I do most of my research and writing on my laptop. I have a wireless router/modem so I can move around at home, work outside or at the dining-room table if I feel like it.

Like most people, I use Microsoft Word (Windows 7). The newer versions have some terrific new functionality and most of us only use a tiny percentage of its capability. One day I’ll make time to expand my knowledge of it, but in the meantime I just tap away, track changes, do rough translations, and use the stylesheets/formatting in a very basic manner.

I use Excel for making spreadsheets tracking action across a novel to help me keep track of structure and pace – sometimes I turn these into graphs so I can literally see the highpoints and slower moments – important if you’re writing action. For Tragedie, I use it to align the known biographical facts with my novel structure (and also the source of the original fact), like this:

Recently I’ve been fooling about with screenwriting, and this is made a great deal easier with one of the screenwriting packages which mean you don’t have to think about the mechanics of formatting (eg caps here, indents there), which are very specific industry standards. Because I’m just playing, I use a free program called Celtx, which although free is pretty good. Serious TV and screenwriters invest in something like Final Draft or Screenwriter.

I keep my references in order with EndNote. (You can also use Zotero, which I prefer for organising references across web and the real world, but for a formal bibliography like my PhD, I use EndNote, because it’s supplied free and supported by my university.) It gathers all resources, downloads bib data from libraries, and spits it all out in the form required for whichever academic journal you’re writing for. You can attach files and links and add your own notes. You can download extensions which adjust the format of bib data you’re importing from certain libraries, or massage your own data into different citation styles (eg Harvard, MLA, etc). I also use a Firefox EndNote extension which is better at saving web references than EndNote Web itself.

Back-up is critical. TE Lawrence left the first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the train and had to start again. He believed it made his book better – I’d rather not run the risk. So please do back-up your drafts. I have an external hard-drive to which Windows runs an auto back-up every week. I also copy my Writing folder onto a USB drive every so often and keep it in my drawer at work in case the house burns down, and use Dropbox to back up into the cloud. Which brings me to online tools