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The proper tool
I'm not much of a writer, really. Much of the time I feel half-apologetic about writing this column, which purports to give writing advice. Yet for once at least I have a topic I feel comfortable with. This month, I am going to discuss the working tools of a writer.
Homer may have memorized his epics, but virtually every other writer since his time has been compelled to write his or her work down one way or another. First goose quills gave way to pens with nibs, then fountain pens, and from there writers moved on to the typewriter. Today, however, the vast majority of all writers work with electronic computer-based word processors, though a few still write out everything out in longhand before, most commonly, typing it into the ubiquitous word processor.
For the most part, the word processor has been a tremendous boon to the writer. Indeed, it has been such a tremendous boon that I've heard more than one knowledgeable literary type credit the current explosion of submissions and manuscripts at the various publishing houses to the invention and popularization of the word processor. In my case, I am quite certain, I would never have begun writing without computer assistance; my typing skills were atrocious before I began writing novels, and are only somewhat improved after thousands of hours of practice. Without a word processor, my stories would be only half-legible at best, even typed. Yet, because of the fact that current technology makes it possible for me to back up and correct typing errors without physically erasing them, it has become possible for me to actually produce at least acceptable-looking documents. (Sadly, far too many typos still seem to slip through, despite electronic aid.) The word processor, then, is in my opinion the first and most essential of a writer's tools. Sure, you could get by with an ordinary typewriter. But why bother?
Today, the word processor is most commonly available in three forms. The desktop computer is by the far the most common, as well as the cheapest. In the United States, at least, pretty much anyone can afford a used one. For those who cannot or will not make the investment, most public libraries have desktop machines available which the general public can use for free. If you choose to go with a desktop for writing purposes, I would suggest that it be set up in the most private, quiet, comfortable place you can manage. If you're serious about writing, you'll be spending many, many hours in company with your desktop, cursing every interruption. Though I am well aware that many (particularly younger) desktop users will disagree with me, as a middle-aged man I find that using a LCD-type monitor significantly reduces headaches and eyestrain, and lets me put in more and longer writing sessions. Indeed, I've suggested changing monitors to several other writers my own age, and almost every one claims that doing so has made writing easier for them. I would submit that if older eyes can easily detect the difference, then even young eyes stand to benefit from a flicker-free, LCD monitor.
Laptop computers automatically come with LCD screens, and in my opinion this is only one of their many virtues. They are also portable, meaning that the writer can easily move his or her 'office' from one room to another, or indeed from one physical location to another. Every writer is subject to writer's block from time to time, and one of the best cures I've found is to take my laptop with me to a restaurant and compose there. (Indeed, I am merrily typing these very words in a Steak and Shake at about 3AM.) Since I always have my faithful machine with me, I can fill otherwise 'dead' time with editing and beta-reading the work of other writers. My current laptop is the third such machine I've owned; the first was a fragile first-generation unit that promised more than it could deliver and fell apart quickly, while the second was a medium-priced, medium-sized machine whose keyboard I literally wore out in a year and a half. My current, third laptop is a heavy-duty 'desktop replacement' type that feels as if it were made of lead when I carry it. It has a 15.7" screen, however, which helps a lot with my aging eyes, and best of all it is of the hard-to-find 'two bay' design that allows me to rig it up with two internal batteries for an honest six uninterrupted hours of typing. Yes, my laptop is heavy and awkward to carry about with me. But when it comes time to actually use the thing, the experience is so pleasant that in point of fact I rarely use my desktop at all anymore; it's pretty much been relegated to mere back-up status. Indeed, next time I upgrade I fully intend to buy another laptop, and keep this current one on my desk as the new backup unit. In my opinion, laptops have come so far and the prices have become so competitive with desktop units that there is little reason to own anything else.
Besides, it's really fun to hook the laptop to my cell-phone and e-mail my hen-scratchings directly from the restaurant to my publisher. I admit it, I'm old. But it feels so James Bond! I don't yet have much experience with PDAs, the third commonly available form of word-processor. However, my working conditions have just changed, making it very difficult for me to carry a laptop on the job. Since a remarkably high percentage of my writing and editing currently gets done in odd bits of spare time at work, I've had to find another way. The solution I intend to try is a Pocket-PC type PDA with a folding keyboard. These units appear on the surface to be remarkably capable, though only practical experience will allow me to say for sure. The Word-Lite program that these devices employ lacks a thesaurus, which is a feature that I often want, desire, lust for, covet, crave, long for, and seek after. Nor am I looking forward to using the teeny-tiny screen after the luxury of my 15.7" laptop. However, the setup I currently have on order from Amazon.com is costing me less than $350, including PDA, keyboard, and a 256 meg chip that ought to hold my entire inventory of manuscripts. I can't hook my cell-phone up to it, though the tech is probably getting there. But I must say that for the budget-minded, or for those who cannot carry a laptop much of the time, as I soon will not be able to, it looks like a very viable and economical alternative.
Most of the rest of a writer's tools are pretty straightforward. A writer desperately needs a good, reliable means of backing up his work other than on his machine's hard drive; there are many good alternatives on the market. Personally, I'm still looking for a software setup that will allow me to centralize the output of all three of my machines into one location, so that if I edit a story on my laptop the system automatically updates the files in my desktop and PDA. Any form of backup, however, is better than none.
A writer also needs a good chair, a comfortable desk, and things like good air circulation to keep him fully awake. If the act of writing is physically uncomfortable, it becomes unpleasant and the prospective author will do far less of it. For this reason, I also recommend nice comfortable background lighting or perhaps even an illuminated keyboard. Every little bit helps; Stephen King wrote Carrie, the first book he sold, in the laundry room of a crowded house-trailer, balancing a typewriter across his thighs and trying not to notice the kids screaming in the next room. Unfortunately, most of us are not Stephen King. We need all the help that we can get.
It's not an easy thing to become a skilled writer, not easy at all. Having the proper tools, as simple as it sounds, can go a long way towards making the job easier. If you're truly serious about your writing, I strongly recommend that you grit your teeth, make the investment, and obtain the best writing equipment that you can possibly afford or that will fit your personal situation. Doing so will not only make your task far easier, but may even spell the difference between success and failure.