writing technique

How do you do it?

Manuscript of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

I don’t mean creatively – we had some excellent advice on that a few weeks back. But I’m curious about the logistics. How does it get from your brain to the final text? For what it’s worth, here’s what I do myself.

Pen and paper. Many people type directly, I know, but I can’t do that. Any pen will do (though I have my favourites), any notebook too (but a preference for spiral, as it’s easy to rip out the pages). I’ve tried to keep separate notebooks for different ideas, but despite my best intentions, they always end up full of disparate notes, with arrows going back and forth from one section to the next. At some point it all gets too confusing and I type everything up. (How on earth did Flaubert and others manage without a word processor?)

For that I dictate into Google Docs. It gets a lot of words wrong, makes a hash of punctuation, and puts unwanted capitals all over the place. But it does a reasonable job, and certainly saves me time compared to typing. It’s far less accurate than Dragon, but has the advantage of being free. Here’s a comprehensive comparison of some different tools available.

Several years ago I bought Scrivener. I wrote a post comparing it to a Heath Robinson machine – an ingenious, complicated device that doesn’t do very much. Certainly I was put off by the frustrating attempts to master it. Who wades through a manual of 360 pages? Not me. Nor did I want to pay $200 for a course explaining it all. But I stuck at it enough to revise my opinion somewhat, and I use it now to organise the typed manuscript as it evolves. There are lots of buttons and bells I don’t bother with, but the basic arrangement into easily navigable chapters is a boon. I can also add notes about characters, setting etc, which I previously put in a separate Word document. So yes, even if I only use a fraction of it, it’s well worth the $40 I paid.

When a draft is finished in Scrivener, I export it to Word and print it out. Then I revise, and the arrows go all over the place again. Rinse and repeat till I’m satisfied – or rather till I decide that at some point I have to consider it’s finished.

Curiosity, as I say. I’m happy enough with the procedure as is, but I dare say there are gains of efficiency I could make. Time-saving tricks, better software options – any suggestions? How do you do it yourself?


20 thoughts on “How do you do it?

  1. I’m afraid I’m quite dull and uneccentric in this regard: Nowadays, I type my MDSQ (mandatory daily sentence quota) directly into Word. As I complete each sentence, I drop a six-sided die rattling into a cup. (Something about the physicality of the act—the feel of the dice in my hand as I type; the mound of dice in the cup when I’m finished writing for the day—imbues the act with inarguable tangibility.) Before Covid hit, I would scrawl first drafts into notebooks while sipping iced coffees in bookstore cafes. My commonplace books are notated by hand in black ink: inspirational quotes, story ideas, new words, apothegms of wince (overheard stupidities), poetic fragments, etc.

    I suppose the most eccentric or novel thing I ever did in this regard back in the day was to run a program on the Amiga 500 computer that mimicked the sound of an old manual typewriter when you depressed the letter keys. O rapture!–that KRRRzzzzzzzTING! ratchet-peal when you hit the carriage return.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Sentence count as opposed to word – the first time I’ve seen that, I think. What is the logic behind it? Also intrigued by your notebook for new words – now I see why your vocabulary is so extensive! Being exposed principally to French, I have enough trouble holding on to words I once knew but are gradually slipping away from me…

      Liked by 3 people

      • Measuring productivity by sentence count instead of word count allows me to drop a die–as noted–into a cup upon completion of each sentence. (Or to make tick marks in page margins if writing in a notebook in public. Mark Twain utilized the “tick mark” method to track his daily progress toward completing a manuscript.) Dropping a die into a cup upon completion of every word would prove unworkable: a distracting, ludicrous and deranged practice signaling the disordered workings of an obsessive-compulsive mind. BTW: Word count is something I only look at once the story is finished.

        Why the fondling of dice during the act of writing? As already noted: it imbues the rather airy intellectuality of the creative act with weighted tangibility. When I plunge my hand into a bowl of dice to drop fistfuls of the six-siders onto my desk hutch I feel the weight of the work about to commence. Also: since I no longer smoke, I need a method of discharging nervous tension when I write. The manipulation of dice in the dominant hand while I type affords me a way of fidgeting whilst remaining rivetted to the keyboard. Then, as I write, the toss of a die rattling into a cup provides a tactile/audible reward for the completion of each sentence of the MDSQ. There is also a rising sense of excitement and relief as I get down to the last half-dozen dice in my clenched hand–almost done! Finally, I experience a gratifying sense of accomplishment as I raise the formerly empty cup–now weighted with cast-off dice representing the daily overcoming of Resistance toward completion of the MDSQ–which deeply satisfies and scratches that “workman’s itch” that demands tangible, freighted proof of intellectual effort.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. atthysgage says:

    I wrote my first ever novel (fifteen years ago? Is that right?) in spiral bound notebooks. All 400 plus pages, then typed it laboriously into some knockoff version of Word. Actually, I wrote five or six novels that way. But in the last three years, I’ve transitioned to a full on computerized approach, start to finish. I used Google Docs, in case anyone wondered. It’s not particularly user friendly, but neither am I. It does the minimum and I don’t really use any of the editing functions beyond cut and paste. I have owned and used Word but I didn’t like it any better than Google Docs.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thanks for the feedback, Atthys. The reason I need to work with pen and paper is all those arrows, shifting paragraphs and sentences round from one page to another, often one chapter to another. Scrolling through a long file becomes too unwieldy. Scrivener is a help in that respect.

      Liked by 3 people

      • atthysgage says:

        I know what you mean. I tend to break a manuscript down into chapters or groups of chapters so they are easier to manage. Also, my use of edit functions is pretty much limited to cut and paste. My daughter asked me to do an edit on GoogleDocs of something she was working on and I was, “uh…comments? suggestions? How the heck do I do that?” She showed me, but I still don’t use it. If I’m making notes to myself, I might change the color or use the highlighter tool.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I don’t want to write anywhere but straight into Word.

    I do scribble sticky notes, and I do mean scribble. Sometimes I have to guess at what I wrote.

    In Word, I write text in black, iffy areas and alternate suggestions in a color, maybe red, and I even chase down and insert research on backgrounds (the history of Presbyterianism, the Broadway years of Hedda Hopper) in another color, deleted when that scene is done.

    As for structure of scenes, it’s all in my head and my head (at seventy-five) is working just fine. It’s everything else (back, knees) that’s gone ka-plooey.

    The thing I need to do is organize my ‘Research’ files better. I had a hell of a time tracking down my notes on Natasha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino, an important set and costume designer).

    She was first assistant to Travis Banton at Paramount, where Maisie met her. An exotic European? She was Winifred O’Shaunessy, something like that, from San Francisco. She’d reinvented herself also. Those two had a lot in common. Winifred Shaunessy, creating avant-guarde design, at the level of Leon Bakst. Rambova, much better for the image.

    She was also big into Egyptology. They had a ton of stuff in common. Lucky for me! As I’ve said before, I couldn’t make this up any better than it was.

    I finally found her in ‘Valentino’ rather than where she should have been: in ‘Maisie Notes’/ ‘Rambova’.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I bought Scrivener a couple of years ago to work on a short story collection. The stories were already written, but I needed to figure out the best order. It worked great for that because I could drag and drop the stories. I’m composing a novel in Scrivener now, and it’s good for moving chapters and scenes around. I tried using it for my research and just about went out of my mind. I went back to Evernote for that. I discovered yesterday, after getting low disk space errors from my computer that the program is so big and bloated it takes up a HUGE amount of space on the computer, as does the data file, which has very little data in it, comparatively speaking.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes, I think the ease of navigation between chapters is Scrivener’s best feature, certainly one that’s made the whole process much easier for me. Like you, I’ve had no joy with the research – I just bung a load of links into the folder. When you say you move scenes, does that mean you use the subdivision into scenes that Scrivener proposes? I’ve never split up the text beyond chapters.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. Perry Palin says:

    I was going to say that I write everything in Word, but that is not exactly true. Before I start a file in Word each short story or each chapter suffers a long incubation period in my head where I develop scenes, paragraphs, and dialogue. It’s a full time job, carried on at the same time that I am eating, driving my car, grocery shopping, walking with the dog, cleaning the barn, mowing a pasture. This goes on for all hours. I’ll wake up at night with a whole new approach to a story. Only when I have it pretty well along do I move to Word, and I’ll put down 1000-3000 words without a stop to think about them.

    Revisions consist of deletions of words, phrases, and lines that I used to keep the story going in my head but are unnecessary on the page, and they are reordering of sentences and paragraphs, and they are finding words with the meanings and sounds and cadence to support the message.

    I haven’t been able to do it any other way. This is the way I wrote over 50 years ago in high school. When the teacher wanted an outline, I wrote the story first and then made an outline to satisfy the assignment. I’ve tried penciled notes on note cards, written outlines, writing with pen on paper, and I have failed at these. I’ve looked at various software systems tailored to help but they just seem to be in the way of my own old hidebound process.

    I have no suggestions for gains in efficiency or time saving tricks. Except maybe don’t do what I do.

    Liked by 6 people

    • “It’s a full time job, carried on at the same time that I am eating, driving my car, grocery shopping,..” Ha, ha – so true! I have a little notebook for jotting ideas that pop into my head at odd moments. And nights are especially fruitful – amazing how one can wake in the morning and that troubling issue of the day before is resolved.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Makes sense, Perry! Orson Scott Card has noted:

    “That immediate draft–or, if you are another kind of creator, the first outlines and sketches, maps and histories, jotted scenes and scraps of dialogue–is the writer’s equivalent of what a composer does when he plinks out a new theme on the piano, just to hear it. He doesn’t immediately score and orchestrate the theme–first he has to play it over and over, varying it, changing rhythms, pitches, keys, imagining different voices and timbres playing the theme, imagining different harmonies and counter-melodies. By the time the composer actually starts to arrange and orchestrate the piece, the theme will have been transformed many times over. The first version is all but forgotten.

    Some writers have to do all their inventing before they ever try to write out a narrative. Other writers have to try out the narrative immediately, then rework it over and over, letting new ideas come to them as they write each draft. (My method.–Carl) I’m somewhat between the two extremes: I do a lot of outlining and planning before I write, until I feel the story is ripe–but then, as I write, all kinds of new ideas come to me and I freely explore each new avenue that feels as if it might lead somewhere fun. (Boldface mine–Carl) As a result my novels almost never have much to do with the outlines I submit to the publishers at contract time–but since the novels I write are always much better than the outlines, the publishers haven’t complained yet.”

    Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create
    Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories

    Liked by 6 people

  7. I’m used to having everything -notes, graphics, manuscripts- on a Windows computer. These days, files are backed up to the cloud, so the file tree contains my work going back years. Just this evening, I had reason to look at a poem I wrote in 1995 and retrieved it by typing the title into the computer search field. I suspect the best writing process is whatever one you’re used to and don’t have to think about as you write.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes, we all seem to have slightly different approaches, depending on what we’re used to and feel comfortable with. But I guess we’re only talking of superficial variants in a process which is fundamentally the same for everyone. Whatever we do, there’s no escaping the wrestle with plot and character and narrative.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. victoracquista says:

    I use Word. I do scramble notes longhand or dictate them into my phone if I’m not near my computer. I think I would probably like Scrivner if I bothered to get beyond the learning curve after purchasing it. But I’ve managed quite well with Word for over 15 years. Before that I was in the spiral-bound notebook category.

    Liked by 3 people

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