Category Archives: Writing

Do Your Tools Matter?


This is a stupid question. Ask any woodworker, plumber, electrician… anybody who does any sort of job that requires tools, and they will tell you without hesitation that the right tools make the difference between a job well done and a job that takes ages longer than it should and ends in frustration.

But writers aren’t woodworkers or plumbers or electricians (most of them, anyway), and tools aren’t part of the process for us the way they are for lots of other jobs. So do tools matter to us in the same way?

I’m the wrong person to answer this question, as I’m finicky and flighty and I love one thing then the next for a couple months at a time, proudly proclaiming this new thing to be “the best thing ever” before getting bored with it and moving on to some other new thing which itself becomes the new “best thing ever”. (Maybe what I really like isn’t each successive thing along the way … maybe what I like is just *new* stuff. Did not mean to psychoanalyze myself here today but, yikes, I may have done.)

Regular readers will know about my brief affair with fountain pens (current status: they are lovely but I am too clumsy to own them for long). For a while there I was on mechanical pencils, and while I still love a good clicky pencil, they are far from my first choice in writing implements. But pens are their own animal, and they have a tactile sense all their own.

What about keyboards?

They come in all shapes, sizes, and *feels*, and I am sure somebody in the industry could describe these things to me in a way that would make sense, but all I can tell you is what I’m noticing right now.

Our schools just updated our computers (you know, that whole work-remotely-because-the-world-or-at-least-America-is-on-fire thing), and while I don’t love the new laptop in general — it’s too flimsy for my taste, I feel like I’m gonna break it just moving it around the room (although therein lie points in its favor, because it’s *super* light and easy to move around, which is a plus for me) — I must count myself a fan of its keyboard.

I don’t know how to quantify it, but there’s a stiffness to the keys, a crispness to each keypress, that previous laptops I’ve used did not have. There’s a sense of certainty around every time you press a key, a sort of “yes, you definitely pressed that button, there’s no need to worry about whether you actually pressed it or not or whether the machine registered the pressing… that button was pressed and it’s gonna stay pressed”.

And the click. My goodness, the click! When you strike a key home, there’s this deep, satisfying click that you hear with your fingertips as well as with the ears. And it’s all the more resonant and satisfying when you type with gusto, letting your fingers crash down upon the buttons like so many tons of rocks in a mudslide, the way I do when I’m writing something I really enjoy.

It’s a silly thing, but the physiological reaction I have to using this keyboard is delightful. It makes me want to write more on this little machine that I otherwise don’t care much about.

For a while, back when I first had the thought of “I’m going to try to be a writer!”, I tried out several word processors. I didn’t love Word because I was a poor recently-graduated-from-college type and since I was also messing about with writing scenes at the time, Word was too clunky to use and gave me heartburn. So I tried out some other ones, writing a few pages in this one, transferring my files over and banging out some words in another one, tweaking settings, testing the way each one “felt”, trying to get it right. (I eventually landed on Scrivener, by the way, which is a lovely program, but we’ll get back to it.)

Some of the programs I enjoyed the most were these bare-bones plain-text editors like q10 and WriteMonkey. These are not robust programs by any stretch, not the sort of thing you want to put a novel together in… they’re essentially glorified versions of Notepad, designed for various purposes but generally with the aim of eliminating distractions and leaving you with only the blank page. I found them great for drafting and would probably still use them for this purpose if it wasn’t so heckin’ tedious to transfer files back and forth when you want to edit them or cram them into a larger project.

But the thing I miss the most about them is so small and silly it’s almost not worth mentioning, except for the fact that this is my personal site and if I want to wax romantic about silly little things then that’s what I’ll bloody well do. And that thing is: they had this option — you could toggle it on and off — to have the program give you aural feedback whenever you struck a key. They had typewriters in various models and other, more exotic clicks and boops and such, but the sounds were varied: striking the space bar was a little different from pressing a letter key, striking Enter gave a little “ding” as your cursor leapt back across the page … it was so strangely soothing and satisfying, a monotonous symphony of white noise as the words spilled out onto the page.

Scrivener does not have this feature, and I wish it did. And sure, you can get programs out there that will run in the background of your computer and make these noises for you… but I don’t want typewriter noises when I’m browsing the web, for goodness’ sake… don’t be ridiculous.

I only want them when I’m capital-w Writing.

This keyboard makes noise, though, which is loud enough to scratch that “typewriter sound” itch without being full-on noise to the point of annoyance when doing other things. It’s not quite that full-on typewriter sound, but it’s close. And it makes me want to write more.

So, do tools matter?

Flippin’ obviously.

For nostalgia’s sake I went and looked back at the WriteMonkey site and it looks like they’ve had a lot of updates since the time when I used it. Which may necessitate me going back and giving it a spin again, just to see what I’m missing out on.

Crap.


On the Life and Death of my Pen


Tools.

Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a

Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)

The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?

I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.

So. Digital tools. Right?

Image result for well yes but actually no

Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?

Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.

Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.

So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.

Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)

And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.

So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)


And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.

It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.

And then I broke it.

I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.

I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.

Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.

And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).

So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.

Neandarthalic.

But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.

And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?

Because I got distracted, that’s why.

I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)

Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.

And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.

(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)

All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.

(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)

I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.

To stay focused on what matters.


Damn You, TVTropes


This week’s lack of a substantial post brought to you by an untimely tumble down a tvtropes wormhole.

This happens to me from time to time. (TV Tropes, for the uninitiated, is a treasure trove of all the things your favorite media do that has been done before, lovingly compiled and enumerated by legions of internet geeks and cross-referenced in such a way as to ensure that once you start to slide in, much like the Sarlacc pit, you will not easily (if at all) escape.) I watch a movie, I really enjoy it, and I want to deconstruct it a little bit, so I head over to tvtropes.org. This is a thing that, if I stop myself at all in the act, I call research, and it is — kind of. The site really is fascinating as a consideration of all the ways these movies and shows crib from one another and follow paths carved out ages ago, even if they feel fresh and new.

And it certainly can be inspiring and enlightening to see that all the ways that fresh and innovative film took the tropes we’ve seen before and tweaked them or inverted them or straight-up embraced them to such effective … um … effect. Invariably I get new ideas for my own story while browsing the site. Or I get new insights on things already happening in my story, that I can then flesh out and play up as I go back to work.

But as aforementioned, every page links to dozens if not hundreds of others, and they’re a bit like Pringles — you can’t click just one.

All of which is to say that while I should have been writing a pseudo-intellectual, slightly grumpy take on some thing or other, possibly writing related, possibly otherwise, I was spelunking in the page on Thor: Ragnarok instead.

Oh, also I re-watched Thor: Ragnarok for the more-than-enough-th time, because, why not?

Anyway. Amends will be made.


On Writing Advice and Whether It’s Bulls***


I write a lot.

(Well, that’s relative. But let’s roll with it.)

And when I’m not using my writing time for writing, I’m often using it to browse writers’ websites or writing hashtags on Twitter. In that endeavor, I read a lot of writing advice. On Twitter especially, I read a lot of responses to said writing advice. And there’s a movement, particularly visible on writer Twitter (but present everywhere), that says all advice on writing is BS. Do what you want, write how you want, whatever you’re writing is all good and a-okay.

And maybe that’s appealing to a certain sort, I can see that. In our post-truth world, authority and expertise are dead, and the opinion of any schmuck with a cell phone and a Twitter handle can gain as much traction as that of a Pulitzer-prize winning, New York Times Bestselling author. And the thought that anybody can do whatever they want, be whatever they want, is certainly in vogue right now.

It feels good to flip the middle finger at the people telling you all the things you can’t do.

And I’ve certainly been guilty of a bit of that middle-finger-flipping myself from time to time. Heck, it’s a core belief of mine that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, that we’re all making it up as we go. Sure, we pretend to be experts. But none of us really knows anything. Just ask any parent. Nobody knows a damned thing. We’re all stitching our own parachutes as the ground rushes up to meet us.

But when it comes to craft? Sometimes the people who have been there actually know what they’re talking about.

I know. Hard to believe. And not very millenial-mindset of me. But it has to be worth considering — doesn’t it? — that the people with publishing credits, to say nothing of accolades, to their names might, maybe, if viewed in a certain light, know what they’re talking about?

Take the perennial conversation around adverbs. Popularized, possibly immortalized, by none less than Stephen King:

Image result for stephen king adverbs

Bloody avoid them, in other words. But this admonition is the source of endless strife in the writing community. Why? Because we love our adverbs. Tenderly, gently, softly, the way perhaps we love a pastrami-on-rye late at night. Look at that, three adverbs in a single sentence! Use all the adverbs you want, says the anti-advice crowd. Who the hell is Stephen King to tell you how to write your masterpiece?

Well, among other things, he’s a literary giant with scores of books and dozens of film credits to his name. Is he right? Is he wrong? Bugger all if I know, but he seems to be doing something right.

No prologues, says another writing “rule”. Why? Because a prologue introduces actions and locations and whatever else that may not be central to the story you plan to tell. Prologues are a distraction, a diversion, a spinning of the wheels when what we really want is to dive right into the story world.

Hell with that, crows the anti-advice mob. Write all the prologues you want to. Hell, have two prologues. Have a prologue to the prologue, why the hell not? It’s your story, do it your way.

This is massively empowering to the author just starting out. Especially, if I may say it, if they are of a mind to include a prologue in their work. Or gobs and gobs of adverbs.

Oxford comma, yay or nay? Which POV is best? Write every day or only when the mood strikes you? Outline the entire work or make it up as you go? There are as many rules and variations on rules as there are writers, and when you combine all the permutations — this one does it this way in this situation, that way in this other situation — then the variations of what “works” might as well be endless.

And for as much as the writing community argues for one way over another, you’ll find as many outspoken critics arguing the other way.

There are no rules. Write your story your way.

It’s all so alluring, innit? Taken to its rational conclusion, whether you follow every rule to the letter or you throw every rule out the window and blaze your own trail through the fire and flames, you’re a winner.

And on the one hand, I’m very much for that. If you have a story to tell, then by science, tell that bloody story.

But.

If your stories are to be anything more than your own musings into the void — your own pile of electric documents moldering on your own hard drive — then I humbly suggest that you take the voices of the dissenters, of the eff the rules, do it your way crowd, with a grain of salt.

But Pav, I hear you cry, if we adhere mindlessly to the roles set down by our forebears, how shall we innovate? How shall we craft our own paths?

A fair question.

Consider driving, for those of you who drive.

When you got your license, you started with that little booklet that contained all the rules of the road. All the variations of traffic lights and traffic signs, all the on-the-road situations that might come up. You studied them, internalized them, took a test, and forgot all about them. These days, you know what’s safe, you know what will get you legally from point A to point B, and you know how to bend the rules when your situation calls for it.

But you wouldn’t throw that manual out the window. You wouldn’t just decide, flip what my forebears said, I’m driving on the left side of the road from now on because that’s how I choose to do it. I mean, I guess you could. But you’d be arrested or dead very, very soon.

And you break the “rules” of writing at your own peril. Death may not be on the line, but readability certainly is.

Does this mean we must subscribe to the tyranny of what the masses cry for, what the gatekeepers demand?

Well, if we want our work to reach people, to find success? It kinda does.

It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. That doesn’t mean we have to hold it up as the gold standard of literature. But we have to recognize that, maybe, it did something right. Ditto for Twilight or Divergent or whatever other series you think was hacky and awful. Fact is, something in those works appealed to the masses. Was it right that they were appealing in whatever way? Who knows? Who cares? It is what it is.

This is where we bump up against the real world the way everything does eventually. Incidentally, this is why we get frustrated politically, and religiously, and any other -ly you can think of. Writers get frustrated because the world we live in perhaps isn’t the world we feel it should be. Vampire fanfiction shouldn’t, we feel, top the NYT bestseller list. And maybe in a cosmic sense, it shouldn’t!

But it did. We live in a universe where some truly awful writing reaches the pinnacles of success.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t write our own stories based on whatever rules we want?

Of course not! You want to write your story using an adverb in every single sentence, then you write that story. Prologues? Write five of them. Flashbacks? Have one every single time a character opens their mouth. Oxford comma? Use them at random. Throw the rule books out the window, but not before you’ve torn them to pieces, thrown the pieces into an oven, and detonated the oven in a supervolcano as a meteor strikes from the heavens.

You are a beautiful snowflake, and so is your story. And if telling that story means breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break the rules. Every single one of them. Commit your own personal holocaust on all the so-called rules of writing.

But don’t expect anybody to read or enjoy your story.

We have the right, as storytellers, to tell our stories however the hell we want to. Rules and preconceived notions about storytelling be damned.

But our audiences are under no obligation to accept those stories, and we would do well to remember that.

Rules are there for breaking, no doubt. But the fact is, we have to understand the way the rules work together, we have to know what it is we’re rebelling against if we want to rebel effectively.

TL;DR, we have to think. Creatively, critically. If we’re going to break these “rules”, we need to be doing it for a good reason, and not just for the sake of breaking rules.

Authority and expertise may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

Go forth and write your stories. But maybe assimilate a little bit of knowledge from the people who have gone before you along the way.


The Hideout Needs a Name


I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)

It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.

This passage inspired by the replies to a question I asked on Twitter.

“This place really needs a name,” Dina says.
Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.”
“That’s stupid.”
“No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.”
Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.”
Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?”
“You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees.
“Why The Motherboard?”
“Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate.
“That’s terrible.”
“I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.”
“Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.”
Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?”
“The Rectangle?”
“No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.”
“Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute.
“I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside.
“I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.”
“I don’t —”
“Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos.
“Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.”
“There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.”
“I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?”
“If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.”
“It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!”
Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?”
Vector’s screen types out an immediate response.
Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides.
“That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.”
“That doesn’t count.”

nicolas cage shrug GIF

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