Books and Writing

Category: Blog

Finding the right tools – 2

Part 2 of a series on choosing the right tools to help you write. And a lot of personal reminiscences.

Word Processing Software

If you’re as old as I am, you will remember how much of a breakthrough the development of word processing was for writers. Instead of having to laboriously retype a long draft of a novel, the first draft could be saved on some storage medium and then edited. If you’re a lot younger than me, then you’ll be wondering why there was anything remarkable about the idea. Of course you’ve always been able to edit your writing on screen! Well, not so.
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Finding the right tools – 1

While it’s a truism that “a bad workman blames his tools”, it’s also undeniably true that selecting the best tool for a job will make that job far easier than otherwise.

What are the best tools for a writer? I thought it might be worthwhile to do a few posts about the tools I’ve used in the past, and am now using, to write my fiction.


There’s no doubt that the simplest tools to write are among the oldest: pen and paper. Prior to the invention of the typewriter, there was basically no other way to put one’s thoughts into written form. Typing machines of various forms were developed in the 1800s, but only reached the practical form we recognise in about 1910. It would be interesting to discover who was the first author who used a typewriter to write a novel. I imagine that, whoever it was, they probably started with a hand-written draft which was then typed up for clarity.

Many well-known writers, even today, start with hand-writing their first drafts. Neil Gaiman, for example, says that he always hand-writes his first drafts using a fountain pen. The second draft comes about when he types up his hand-written text. I know myself that when I was working this way that there’s a sort of magical editing which happens, almost unconsciously, as I transcribe from one draft into another.

My own handwriting, though, has always been pretty bad, and so I generally start by typing. That was the impulse which made me nag my parents until they eventually managed to buy me a second-hand typewriter for my 12th birthday. That machine came with my family when we migrated from England to Australia in 1965, one of the few personal items I was allowed to bring. I sold it many years ago, but I’m pretty sure it was this model: an Olivetti Lexicon 80 (image courtesy of The Typewriter Database):

I started off using the hunt-and-peck technique of typing, but when I was about 15 I decided that I had to learn how to touch-type so that I could speed up. So I taught myself from books, faithfully following all the exercises. The Olivetti had a heavy mechanism and required quite a lot of force to make the keys hit the paper. In the case of the keys requiring my little fingers (“pinkies” as the Americans would say), that was really hard work. But I persisted, and I got there eventually. One of the best things I ever did for myself.

As an aside, at this time (mid 1960s), boys weren’t taught either typing or cooking at school; these subjects were reserved for the girls. The boys did woodwork and metalwork instead. I have to say that typing and cooking would have been a far more useful preparation for my life!

This, though, was well before word processors became a thing; before personal computers were a thing. In the 1960s and 70s, I wrote all of my stories, and my two short fantasy novels, on the old Olivetti typewriter. Copies were made by using carbon paper (this is where CC: for ‘carbon copy’ comes from in emails). If I wanted to do a second draft, I had to mark up the original and then manually retype the whole work, editing as I went. This was very tedious, certainly for any long work like a novel.

Then, in 1979 I bought my first computer, a Tandy TRS-80 Model I. With a whopping 4K of memory! Data was stored on audio cassette tapes. Primitive as this was, I started to see that it could be a boon to my writing. Kits were being sold to wire up an electric typewriter with a bunch of solenoids to essentially pull the levers from underneath to get it to type on command from the computer. Crude, yes! But it worked. At some stage about then, I can’t remember the exact timing, I had acquired an IBM Selectric typewriter (yes, like those in ‘Mad Men’) to replace my ancient manual Olivetti. I bought one of these solenoid kits and (with a lot of help from friends) got it working so that I could use the Selectric as a printer for the TRS-80.

The first word processors were coming out: I think there was one for the TRS-80 called ‘Electric Pencil’. For some reason (madness, probably) I decided that nevertheless I wanted to write my own word processing software, and so taught myself Z80 assembly-language programming and did just that. It was a terrible word processor. But it worked. On this I wrote a whole SF novel called Starcold which was and is probably unpublishable. But it was a start.

So much for an excursion into ancient history! What do I use now, and what do I recommend?

My writing platform of choice is now an iPad (9.5″) and an Apple Wireless Keyboard, see below.

There are several things I love about this set-up. Firstly, it’s very lightweight: I can easily carry both iPad and keyboard up to the local library where I do most of my writing. Secondly, the keyboard is very comfortable to type on (which is why I haven’t gone for a keyboard-cover). Thirdly, because it’s an iPad, it’s easy to avoid distractions and concentrate just on one thing. In the image above, I’m using Scrivener for iPad, software I’ll talk more about in another post. And because it’s easy to connect to the Internet, everything I write gets backed up constantly to Dropbox.

Comparing the two images within this post: the Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter produced in the 1950s, and the iPad/keyboard produced in the 2010s, what a world of difference! Yet the basic procedures are the same (as is the QWERTY keyboard layout I so laboriously taught myself to master). Focus on the page before you, think, type. That’s it.

Next post in this series, I’ll talk about software.


The Australian Writers’ Centre has a regular newsletter, and this week they ran with a meme based on this quote:

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit”

— Richard Bach

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Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

– Ecclesiastes, I:2

Writers like myself who self-publish their own books are often derided by the use of the term “vanity publishing”. The implication being, I suppose, that our books can’t cut it in the real world of traditional publishing, and that we’ve allowed our vanity to trump all else just so we can see a copy of our precious book sitting on a bookshelf, most likely unread by anyone other than ourselves.
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Albert Camus’ novel The Plague is one of my favourite books, despite its often depressing subject matter: an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Oran in Algiers just after the end of World War II. Among other things it’s a meditation on death and how we confront it, and it ends up being inspiring. Well worth your time if you haven’t read it.
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It’s a competitive world out there, in every field. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the marketplace for books. There are now many thousands of new titles being published every year. How is the poor new author, particularly the self-published author, to get attention for their book? How do you gain traction, in other words?

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I spent much of my working life writing software rather than writing words, though I did a lot of that, too.

When I was developing software, working with others who were also writing code, we often talked about ‘scaffolding’. By this we meant writing some initial code which we knew would ultimately be thrown away, but which set us up to be in a position to write the final code. Just as building workers might construct a scaffold which will eventually be dismantled, but which will allow them to complete the actual building.
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Knowing when to stop

“I never stop writing a book; I just stop typing it.”

― Attributed to Ernest Hemingway

Knowing when to stop is a very important part of writing. Stop typing, stop editing, stop fiddling. It’s probably true to say that no artist is ever completely satisfied with the work they have created. But there has to come a point where you lay down the brush or the chisel, or you step away from the keyboard. Your work may not be perfect, but it is as perfect as you can make it within the constraints you face; and one of those constraints is time. Life is short; art is long. You have to choose a stopping point.

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Now that my novel is finally released, I’m obviously doing my best to get it out there and have people read it. That’s going to be a long, probably up-hill battle, as it is for many authors, traditionally published or not.

Because I am now retired and on a pension, I at least have the luxury of not needing the income from selling books to make a living. But that’s also true of many, many writers who have ‘day jobs’. Very few writers ever make enough money from their writing to live off the proceeds, and that’s been true forever, I think. Some do, of course, and some succeed spectacularly, like J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. These people, however, are in a tiny minority.

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