Methods and Tools

In my years of fiction writing I’ve tried many different methods for coming up words and making a record of them, everything from writing in pencil on legal pads, to writing with a fountain pen on plain white paper, to some old Atari ST word processor, to Wordperfect for DOS, to Word for Windows, then Word for Mac, WriteRoom and assorted other minimal text editors, and finally Scrivener.

I’m actually quite happy working in Scrivener, which is an integrated outlining, organizing, composing and editing application for Mac OSX, in case you haven’t heard of it. Find out more here, at the Scrivener page on the Literature and Latte developer page. But even though I feel as comfortable with Scrivener as with anything else I’ve ever used, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to dictate some first drafts sections as a way of capturing a different sort of voice (in the writing voice sense, not the spoken voice).

This made me think about all the different possibilities for writing methods and tools, and I decided to undertake a sort of game or experiment. I have several short story ideas pending, ready to draft fairly soon, and ordinarily I’d draft a new one approximately every month, which is about the rate I finalize stories and send them out. I decided I’m going to try to draft one new story per week this month, using a different method and different tools for each.

The four plans are:

1. longhand on plain paper, working from a normal (for me) moderately-developed outline and basic character sketches

2. voice dictation only, working from an extra-detailed outline — more of a move-by-move synopsis, halfway to story form really

3. draft in Writeroom, a distraction free text editor, in case you didn’t know — web site here — using a normal outline and character plan

4. create a story using my usual workflow in Scrivener, using corkboard planning layout, outlining, character notes, and drafting each scene in a separate file

Saturday I began round one and started drafting using a regular old pen and clipboard and paper, just like the old times. Everything went very well at first, when I was full of energy and knew exactly where I was going. I wrote about 2500 words in just a few hours, which is pretty good for me.

I encountered a problem when I began to doubt my outline, and wanted to take the story in a slightly different direction. For some reason, faced with nothing but blank pages ahead of me, I had an unusual sense of uncertainty about forging off in a new direction. It was difficult to sort back through the handwritten scribbles on a dozen or so sheets of paper, enough to get a good sense that I was really correct about my intuition. In other words, I began to doubt myself, to freeze up and have a difficult time figuring out which road to take. It’s possible this reflects a weakness in my outline or the story concept, but I don’t think so. I think the truth is that the breezy confidence I usually feel when I’m laying out a first draft depends to a large degree on the markers I’ve layed out for myself, not only showing the way ahead but also letting me figure out, at a quick backward glance where I’ve just come from.

So, I’m about 2/3 of the way through this story after a few hours work on Saturday and another frustrating hour’s stab at it on Sunday and again this morning, and I’ve already decided round one has taught me all I need to know. I typed in my fifteen longhand pages earlier, and as soon as I finish this blog post, I’m going to create a new Scrivener document and finish this story in there.

When that’s through, I’ll continue with rounds two, three and four, but at this point what I’ve learned is that writing longhand makes me feel adrift, and lost without any point of reference. It’s weird, because I’ve written thousands of pages of first draft that way in my twenties, but that’s where I am now. I’ll retreat to Scrivener, break this baby into scene bits and re-assess whether one bit of bad news happens to character A mid-way, or at the very beginning, and that will determine how character A and character B treat each other up to that point.

Fun stuff, actually. I’ll report back later one once I’ve had a chance to try some other tricks.

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