Lab Book for a Novel: My Toolkit

To complete the picture of where I am as I start out writing this novel, it’s probably useful to discuss the tools I plan on using.

Coming Full Circle

Back when I started to write and submit stories, I used Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. I was in college and using an IBM PC, and that was what was available. I loved it. I have been searching for a word processor as simple and useful as Word for DOS 5.5 ever since. I’ve tried just about every word processor out there. I’ve used Scrivener and Google Docs, I’ve used text editors like Atom and ViM.

Many of these have been incredibly useful—especially Scrivener and Google Docs. But I’ve also learned some lessons over the years, the most important of which is that I need a tool that doesn’t take a lot of care and feeding, one I can just open and start writing in. I spent enormous amounts of time with Google Docs and Scrivener tweaking them, customizing them to get them the way I wanted, and then continuing to tweak them. I created templates for them and added automations to make tasks easier. With text editors like Atom and ViM, I wrote using Markdown and wrote scripts that converted those documents to standard manuscript format. All of this took time, and that it was time that I should have been writing. I was putting the cart before the horse. Worry first about writing, and later about formatting.

Indeed, that is one of the things I really liked about the old Word for DOS. I didn’t worry much about formatting. I wrote and then printed and was done.

Well, I have come full circle. I am back to using Microsoft Word, although the latest model. I was struck by something I read in Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me by Andy Martin. Martin shadowed Lee Child during the writing of the Jack Reacher novel Make Me. On the day Child started the novel, Martin wrote:

So, I’m behind him. And [Child] is there in front of the computer. I’m trying to keep quiet. Like a mouse if not quite a fly on the wall.

“I’m opening a file here. Microsoft Word doc… Now I move it to the middle of the screen.”

He was talking me through it like some kind of surgical operation. “I always use Arial. To begin with, anyway. And ten point. I get more on the page. But I crank it up to 150 percent to save my eyes.”

Here is a bestselling writer of thrillers, and all he does is start up Word, and start writing. It occurred to me that many bestselling writers probably do it this way. They don’t worry about what other tools might be out there and how they can tweak them to make things easier. They just open a new document and start writing. They are professionals.

I took this to heart. I have been using Word in exactly this way for the last several months. Even this blog post was first written in Word. I open up a blank document and use the default template right out of the box. I worry about the formatting when all of the writing is done.

Other tools

Since I’m using Microsoft Word, I save all of my files in Office 365. That way they are accessible from anywhere. If I am away from my laptop, I can work on a document on my iPad or iPhone. I dump all of my files in a single Documents folder, but I use the file Tags feature on my Mac to tag files (“fiction”, “essays”, “letters”, “notes”) and have saved searches for each of these.

Of course, I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, and when an idea strikes me, I try to scribble it down there as quickly as possible so that I don’t lose it. I might not use the idea, but I hate losing them. The Field Notes notebooks have been a big help there.

On a shelf behind my laptop in my office, I have Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, 2019 World Almanac, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Logbook for a Novel

As a way to track my progress, I have put together a “logbook for a novel,” a Google spreadsheet that I can manually update each day in order to chart my progress against my targets and goals. A version with some sample data (the blue line) is below.

Logbook for a novel
My Logbook for a novel

So, a word processor, a place to store files, a pocket notebook, a few reference books, and a spreadsheet—I think that’s all I really need to get started. Tomorrow, I have an early flight to L.A. for work, and so I plan to start actually writing this thing either at the airport or on the plane. I’ll post about how things go tomorrow once the writing is done for the day.

One comment

  1. When it comes to MS Word, I worry about being able to access documents in the near future. Microsoft hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to backwards compatibility.

    When I wanted to use a feature-rich office suite, I used LibreOffice, preferring ODF formats as my initial formats. Even though the app suite lags behind MS Office on the design front, it’s still pretty powerful under the hood.


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