Technology and writing
This week, I’d like to take a look at how technology has changed the way I write my novels. This evolution began with my fourth novel, and it continues even to this day. Some authors who are just starting out won’t have seen the same changes, while others will have come a long way. My friend Robert Vardeman, who has been writing for decades, has made the transition from typewriters to today’s world of computers and word processors. In contrast, I recently read an interview with author David Eddings. At the time of the article, Mr. Eddings still wrote his novels on a typewriter and said he would never change. I’m not trying to find fault with this. Every writer is different and should go with what works.
When I wrote my first novel, The Killing Frost, I started out by filling a legal pad full of handwritten notes. I created biographies for every major character, and many of the minor ones. I drew a rough map of the star systems involved, just to give me an idea of transit times between systems. I wrote out the backstory that led the galaxy to the point where the novel begins. Only then did I begin to write the novel. I used an old laptop with an outdated version of MS Word, and I banged out the 160,000 word novel. Throughout the course of the marathon project, I constantly referred back to my notes. This meant that wherever I wrote, I had to have that notebook with me.
My second novel, The Piaras Legacy, was an even greater exercise in the creating of backstory. Once again, I wrote out my notes and drawings before I began the novel. This time, I included a history of each nation involved in the book, along with the various wars that had been fought over the course of two millennia. I had filled three legal pads before I was ready to write the novel. New Dawn Rising came next. As the sequel to Frost, it required only another legal pad to get me started.
That was when it hit me. Originally, I wrote everything by hand because I didn’t have a laptop. I was away from my computer and had no other way to compile the information. I continued writing the notes by hand on the next two books because that was what I was comfortable with. But why not let technology help out? I could type the notes into the laptop. Much easier than writing them out, and I wouldn’t need to carry a notebook everywhere I went. Starting with Archon’s Gate, everything I did went on the computer (Gate was the fourth novel I wrote, but the fifth novel I released). I separated the information into separate MS Word files: characters, history, religions, magic rules, science rules, whatever I needed.
I used this method for my other novels. It worked better than the notebook, but it was still clumsy. I needed to have multiple files open in order to access all my information, and sometimes it took a bit of hunting to get what I needed. Although I continued write this way, I had my eyes open for another alternative.
That was when my friend Scott Oden recommended a piece of software called Scrivener. It’s not intended solely for novels. Options are available for the creation of research papers, scripts, and others. I am currently writing a sequel to Martyr’s Inferno using this software, and I have found it to be extremely helpful.
The main screen is divided into two windows. Whatever document you are using is in the main window. Down the left side is a directory-style list of all the documents you have created for the project, organized into a “tree” that can be expanded or compacted for convenience (Scrivener calls this the “Binder”). That way, if I need to look something up on a certain character, I need only click on that character’s file on the left side of the screen. The dossier on that character pops up in the main screen. I find what I need and click back on the novel, bringing me right back where I was. Throughout the process, the Scrivener program is the only program I need to have running.
And it’s not just the ease of reference that makes this a wonderful tool. You have the option to break the novel into multiple sections–making each section its own chapter, or even its own scene. I have elected to give each scene its own separate entry. In the Binder on the left, each chapter gets its own subdirectory of scenes. I’m giving each scene a name. The name won’t appear in the final version, but it will allow me easy reference when I need to look back in the book. After all, how many times in a given project does this happen: you need to look at something that happened a dozen chapters earlier. After spending time scrolling through your book until you find what you want, you still have to scroll back to where you were. With Scrivener, if I need to know what happened when John Smith jumped on the subway, I need only look in the Binder, and I will be able to go directly to what I need.
When the project is finally finished, it’s a simple matter to compile the various scenes into a single document file, ready for exporting. And the beauty of it is that if I need to rearrange the order of a few scenes, I need only go to the binder. A quick “drag-and-drop” will fix the problem. In a word processor, I’d have to highlight the entire passage, cut it, find where I need it to be, and paste it.
There are other advantages, but suffice to say, I have no urge to go back to doing things the old way. I highly recommend this magic bit of software. My new novel is coming together wonderfully.
Another bit of technology that has helped give my work a more professional look is called Campaign Cartographer 3. I believe it was primarily aimed at fantasy gamers, to help them create worlds for their characters to explore. From dungeons, to cities, to entire continents, this software can help you out. In my case, when I create a world for a fantasy novel (or some science fiction works, like 14 Days ‘Til Dawn), I need to create a map. This not only makes my writing more accurate, but it gives the reader a frame of reference on how the characters are getting around.
As noted above, in past works I always drew my maps with pencil and paper. Effective for my writing purposes, but not very impressive for a reader! With The Piaras Legacy, I submitted my drawing to the publisher, and they did an excellent job of turning the map into a professional-looking map. But now that I have gone independent, I don’t have that option. I needed an alternative.
With Archon’s Gate, I took the characters from The Piaras Legacy and sent them to another continent. First, I created a pencil-and-paper drawing:
Obviously, this was only intended as a preliminary reference guide for me. Once the novel was finished, I began my search for an alternative means of creating a map, one that would look professional enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. My first attempt was the obvious choice: MS Paint. Unfortunately, the results were anything but professional:
An improvement over the original, to be sure, but it still fell short of my expectations and my standards. I needed something better, something specifically intended to create maps. That was when a Google search led me to Campaign Cartographer 3. I watched two instructional videos and read the manual. After a few false starts, I came up with a rather satisfactory result:
I can’t imagine a professional publishing house doing a better job. I was so happy with the results that when I published this novel, I also included a Campaign Cartographer version of the original map from The Piaras Legacy. I used the same software when I needed a map for the lunar continent in 14 Days ‘Til Dawn and my forthcoming fantasy novel, A Matter Of Faith. And I will continue to use it as I move forward with other projects.
Technology has made the process of writing a lot smoother and easier, at least for me. I know that some people disdain technology; for them, such things would be counterproductive. But for those who embrace new technology, a small investment now can save you hours of frustration and headache later.