Not so long ago, the answer would have been simple: all a writer needed was a good stout notebook and an Underwood typewriter. But now, where would we be without our laptops and smartphones, our iPads and internet-anywhere? Surely you can’t put words together in a coherent and entertaining manner without all these essential tools of the trade?
That’s bollocks, of course. Give a decent writer a pen and a cleanish surface and he or she would be able to do their job. But there are lots of tools nowadays that can make the job easier. And if it’s easier, hopefully it means we’re freed up to concentrate on writing better.
So for me, in no particular order, these are the tools that I could certainly live without, but would really rather not.
I do like this. Working on my main writing laptop, I save a file and instantly it’s saved to the cloud via Dropbox: instant back-up, instant availability from anywhere on the internet (as long as you have the account details). Switch to a different machine, say my day-job office PC one lunchbreak, and I can open up that file, work on it, and save it back to the cloud. I can open the file via the Dropbox app on my smartphone and see the latest version. Screw up, and Dropbox saves older versions I can revert to. No one should rely on a single back-up solution, but the Dropbox cloud makes backing up easy and instantaneous. They even give you plenty of space free to start with, and you can share folders with others. My only reservations are: security concerns (are my files really safe out there?); and the way Dropbox can sometimes chew up CPU resources when it’s running in the background, so much so that Windows Explorer becomes unusable and I have to close Dropbox down to allow me to work again.
I use Word for my writing. I’ve used it for years, I know how to make it do what I want, and so I have no reason to change. A lot of my work involves writing HTML and other code for websites and ebook production, though, and Word just isn’t the best tool for this. There are lots of programs out there you can use, but I always come back to TextPad: a nice, clean text editor that makes it easy for me to streamline the often laborious process of, for example, stripping out all the junk-code Word generates when it saves an HTML file.
- Dedicated writing software
I’ve dabbled, but I’m not really one for tools like Scrivener or Ywrite: story-writing programs developed specifically to suit the way writers work, incorporating story-planning, note-management, etc, into the more basic act of processing lots of words. As I say, I use Word and am happy that it does what I need, but I’m still open to the possibility that these specialist tools may offer a better way; I know a lot of successful authors who swear by them, and that’s enough to convince me of these tools’ merits.
- My netbook
Mobile computing has made such a difference to my writing life. I have a pretty demanding day job, and often find that I have to fit my writing into odd slivers of time, and I need to take every opportunity I can. Only a couple of days ago, I found myself stuck in a motorway traffic jam for three hours, with the road completely blocked. While our driver took the chance to catch up on some sleep, I whipped my netbook out and worked on a story. Laptops are great, but a netbook is so much more transportable, and so I’m much more likely to have one with me when I’m out and about. Others might prefer a tablet like the iPad, but I’m happy with my netbook for now.
Until a year ago, I kept all my notes in a hardback Moleskine notebook and I loved it. It made me feel like a real writer. But when I got my iPhone all that changed. Without planning to, I realised that I had stopped using the notebooks; instead I used the memo feature on my phone. It’s so handy. Now I have several memo files on the go at once: a to do list, notes for stories I’m working on, a general ideas file. When the memos get a bit long and I start to get paranoid about what would happen to them if I lost my phone, I can mail them to myself with the press of a button. It’s more than just a replacement notebook, though. With all my writing, editing and publishing activities I always have lots of projects on the go at any one time. I hate to be a slave to my email, but it’s great to be able to stay in touch with people when I’m on the road – literally, as I was in that traffic jam the other night!
- Social media: keeping in touch
Not so long ago, writing was a solitary activity: we authors shut ourselves away for hours on end and might not talk to another human being for the entire working day. Now? Now I’m on Twitter and Facebook, I’m checking my email, I’m chatting to people on Messenger. It can be a tremendous distraction, of course, but it can also be hugely energising and inspiring. Writing now is a community activity: we may still shut ourselves away to write, but whenever we want a water-cooler moment we can switch to see who’s online and, blimey, interact.
- The wired world
Near-constant broadband connectivity has hugely transformed how I work. Until a few years ago, even the shortest first draft would generate a scrawled list of research notes; much as I might research before embarking on that draft, there would always be gaps emerging as I wrote, blanks in the manuscript that I would need to fill in later with some detail, queries scribbled in the margins, facts to check. Now? Every time I hit one of those points I just switch to a web browser and Google it. Increasingly, you see authors tweeting requests for help when they hit these sticking points. Yes, it interrupts the flow, but for me, getting things right at that stage makes a big difference in the way I write: if the world is more vivid, less filled with gaps and queries, as I write, then I believe that it comes across as a richer, more fully-formed world to the reader, too.
- Kindles and other e-readers
Perhaps not a writing tool, as such, but still a significant part of my armoury. I first came to e-readers when I was establishing infinity plus ebooks: I recognised the growing market and taught myself what I needed to know in order to start exploring it. And then I was given a Kindle. It completely changed my reading habits. I can take my Kindle on a trip and have access to any book I want – if I don’t have it with me, I can read the same ebook on my phone and it’ll synch with my Kindle so I never lose my place. When I’m reviewing, I greatly prefer to get a Kindle format book, so I can make notes in the text as I go along. I can even convert a story draft to Kindle format and read, and annotate, it on the go. Indeed, perhaps the boom in ebooks is starting to change my approach to writing, too. E-readers encourage people to dip into a book… and then out again. They encourage people to sample for free before they buy. Now, it’s even more important to hook readers, and keep them hooked. But equally, there are opportunities to write different kinds of books: a single short story can be packaged as a cheap ebook; story collections become viable, or shorter bundles of three or four stories; novellas and short novels have a revived market again; and there’s scope to experiment, as I’m doing with a kind of near-future, mosaic-structured, short novel I’m working on in between projects. So yes, my Kindle is part of the toolkit, and I’m still learning new ways to use it.
- A changed attitude
Okay, maybe we’re straying away from actual tools here, but give me a chance. What I mean by including this is the way my whole approach to the publishing business has changed in recent years. Twenty years ago, when I was setting out, authors wrote, and only a small proportion actually treated their work as a business. Now, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t get involved in every aspect of publishing. Whether we’re published by the major commercial publishers or self-publishing – or far more typically, working with a complete portfolio of publishing modes within that spectrum – authors should be involved in marketing, promoting, designing and brand-building, as well as actually committing words to paper. That might sound brash and unartistic to many, and put like that, it does to me, too: but look around at your favourite authors – how many aren’t tweeting, Facebooking, publishing in a variety of ways, etc? You don’t look down on them for doing so: that’s how it is to be a writer in the early 21st century. And it’s exhilarating, and fun, and endlessly fascinating to be a part of. I’m writing some of my best fiction these days, and at least partly I put that down to the new energy that’s around in publishing now. So yes, attitude is a tool.
That’s my list. Have I missed anything off? Tools that work for other writers? I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you. My essential toolkit today is very different to the one I would have listed even five years ago. In five years’ time it’ll be different again, because I’ll be learning from everyone else and adapting as the environment changes. And hopefully I’ll still be writing my best work, just as I am now.