The Writer’s Best Friend

The Writer’s Best Friend

Stack of Notebooks
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Mid-May means that the school year is starting to wind down. Colleges are celebrating graduations and sending their students out into the workforce. (Or, you know, handing them back into the hands of their parents) Other schools are gearing up for major testing. At least, that’s what happened when I was in school. Now that standardized testing rules, I have no idea what actually goes on. And since my kids don’t attend educational programming (something that’s for the best, because NO ONE wants to see Tonks’s evil mind guided into further intelligence), you’d guess I don’t have much interest in such doings. But you’d be wrong. The end of the school year means one very important thing:

It’s almost time for back-to-school sales!

Yes, I know, it drives the school-age population nuts that they barely set foot in summer vacation before stores start cranking out supplies and clothing to send them back. But I LIVE for those sales. There’s nothing more exciting for a writer than aisles and aisles of pens, pencils, and NOTEBOOKS – all put on sale. It’s literary Christmas! And in Virginia, if you can sit on your hands and restrain yourself, the beginning of August brings Tax-Free weekend. So you can stock up on all of those supplies without needing to pay pesky sales tax. Plus, they don’t make you prove you have a child. ANYONE can go into their store of choice and walk out with a giant stack of notebooks and twenty packs of pens. The cashiers don’t even bat an eye! (Well, they might – it depends)

I admit, I’m the first person to recommend turning to handy programs to help you organize your thoughts when you’re writing. As publishers function in the computer age with the rest of us, odds are pretty high that you’re working in a word processing program on a laptop or desktop. So it makes sense that you’d turn to a form of technology for your notes. And that’s fine. I do the same. But I also have notebooks – TONS of notebooks. And they perform the same organization function.

Because sometimes? You need to set pen to paper.

Call me old-fashioned (don’t call me old), but there’s something inspiring about watching ink flow from beneath your hand. It sparks something in the brain. When everything else is locked up in your mind, sitting down and scribbling out a dozen scenes that go nowhere feels more accomplished than hitting “Delete” over and over again. You can actually SEE what you attempted to do. When you “Undo” something on the computer, all you get for your trouble is a blank screen (and the vague knowledge that you made an attempt at a scene 42 times). Even if I end up with crumpled paper balls on the floor around me and one sentence for my trouble, I have physical proof that I made an effort. It’s more satisfying for me to struggle through writing in a notebook than it is to fight with writer’s block on a computer screen.

But I have notebooks for other reasons, too. One of my oldest is where I have story ideas. Some of them have early starts as novels in my terabyte drive. Others? I’m still letting them ruminate in my mind. But I don’t want to throw out that notebook simply because I have Evernote now. Why would I? The notebook isn’t “broken,” for all that it’s “ancient” technology. It’s covered in multi-colored ink, with tabs dividing the type of work, and Post-Its with potential character names. There’s HISTORY in that notebook. When I flip through it, I remember what was going on in my life each time I sat down and scribbled those notes. Some came from dreams, others phrases in other books, and one or two from something I saw when I was sitting on the train. I can’t transfer those impressions into a computer; it would lose something – the depth of the pen in the paper, the slant of the writing that shows my emotions.

I have notebooks that track the posts I make here, ensuring I don’t repeat myself (at least, not too often). And there’s another for Silentio Sonante. When I write up my white board schedules for work, I take the time to come up with post ideas for both blogs, too. Then I divide the topics up between the notebooks. And while it might be easier to run a “Find” on a program, I like getting to flip through pages and see what I’ve done in the past year. Again, it’s a history thing. I can touch pages and count “steps.” Dragging a mouse down a screen? It doesn’t provide the same feeling.

And, yeah, there’s more.

I have non-writing notebooks, too. One keeps track of all of my weird medical crap. Because trying to remember which doctor needs what report at my appointments? My brain can come up with new worlds and story ideas without a problem. But asking it do that is impossible. So I have a notebook where I write everything down, complete with times (since my atypical migraines do seriously odd shit at times). Then I can take it with me and skim what’s important. The animals have THEIR medical notebook, too. (When you have three cats, trying to remember who threw up a hairball when is impossible)

Don’t get me wrong: technology is great. But (so far as I know), you learn to write for a reason. And a writer NEEDS to remember to connect with that part of their craft. What are you going to do if you’re ever in a situation without a computer or phone? (Don’t laugh – it might happen) Are you going to just REMEMBER your brilliant line? You know that isn’t going to happen. Wouldn’t it be a better idea if you get in the habit of keeping a notebook with you – just in case? (Why, yes, I have a tiny notebook in my purse – it has kittens on it) Even artists don’t stick to one strict medium when they work. Why should we?

So this summer, when you hear about those sales, consider dropping by for a peek. Touch those pages and remember what it felt like to set a pencil or pen to them. Then go look at the pens. (You know you have a favorite) Pick up at least one of each and go home. Write something – ANYTHING. Odds are pretty high you’re going to find yourself going back for more. Because it’s addicting. But it also helps with the writing process. (Besides, you can always type whatever you write with little trouble)

Double Vision

Double Vision

Two computer screen set-up

When you like habit and routine, it gets difficult to admit you MIGHT need some change. Add in that you already went through a whirlwind of change in the past nine months, and your mind wants to put on the brakes. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when you’re doing twice as much work to accomplish a task, that’s a kind of broken logic. It disrupts your productivity, stresses you, and prompts unnecessary errors.

Time to bite the bullet.

Utilizing double computer screens is a freelance writer’s (actually, ANY writer’s) best friend. You half your work load, ease that knot in your shoulder (literally), and find yourself typing away MUCH happier. Why? Because you can see your notes and research material on one screen while you work at the other! It’s pure genius! And unbelievably simple. Yet I fought the temptation for nine freaking months. (Maybe you’re denying yourself this handy writing tool even now)

I’ve watched people use double screens in other fields before, and I shook my head. What was the point? You can always set up two windows on a single screen. And if you don’t want to squint, you can upgrade to a larger monitor without too much trouble. Why turn yourself into a human ping pong? It seemed a ridiculous notion – not to mention a complete waste of time and money. I rolled my eyes at my husband with his double screen set-up. It seemed absurd (and his computer desk comes out smaller than mine!).

Then my freelance work started to pile up.

Even when I split the screen with windows, I struggled. I could only keep one active at a time. (Maybe there’s a work-around for that, but I’m not the most tech-savvy person in the world) So I found myself constantly flipping between one and the other. Then I needed to pull up different tabs here and there. Half the time, the computer got confused on where to put the new tab, and I’d panic over lost work. (It wasn’t lost, thankfully, but when you think hours of work just vanished, you have a mini stroke) I doubled my work time flipping from program to program. And the tension up my dominant arm? Yeah, talk about a pain in the literal neck!

It took some convincing – I won’t lie. I needed a reminder that, as a freelancer, a new computer monitor falls under a business expense (one of the pros of freelancing). And I needed a reminder that better productivity falls into my wheelhouse. But I finally caved in. The double monitor settled in on my work station, and I divided up the icons on my desktop. Everything work-related went on one side, and the rest stayed on the primary monitor. I stumbled a bit, initially, figuring out how to move things from one screen to another (and learning where that critical “dividing line” exists for the mouse), but I’m a quick study. And, to be honest, this wasn’t the most complicated thing in the world.

Holy increased productivity-olee!

Having one screen where I could keep my notes while I worked made everything SO simple! I could write on the first screen and glance at the second. No more flipping around in the windows. No more fighting with tabs and worrying about where my current work disappeared to. And fewer mistakes, too. Everything moves more fluidly. I use the mouse less, so my arm, shoulder, and neck ache a thousand times less (always a bonus), and the battery drains at a lower rate. I kick myself for not moving to a double screen set-up sooner!

I don’t have monster-sized monitors, either. They’re both 21-inch screens. But I’m not a gamer or programmer. I’m a writer. I don’t need a mammoth computer screen – for either purpose. I need a large enough space to read my research material and whatever I’m writing. And while the second monitor currently lacks the polished stand of the first (what can I say, Ikea doesn’t make them anymore), some creative searching through the house yielded enough books to keep the pair level.

Double screens have cut down the time I spend on my writing projects. They’re a HUGE life-saver. I pull up my notes, and I’m ready to go. The fumbling and frustration are gone. If you’re not working with two monitors already, consider the upgrade. You won’t regret it. You’ll take the strain off your body (seriously, you’re eyes alone will thank you), the stress off your brain, AND the workload off your peripherals. Well, maybe not the keyboard – that still ends up working about the same.

It’s definitely a change, but it’s worth it. And if I can grudgingly admit that this big change was a good thing, you KNOW it’s true.

Running Log

Running Log

Screenshot of my Excel Tracker

If you decide you’re only ever going to write one thing in your life, maybe you won’t need this post. Just kidding – you still will. Plus, who wants to only write one thing? That’s just plain madness. Writers are infected individuals – consumed with a never-ending need to to create. And once our creations are complete and polished, we have to send them out into the world.

Which is where things get complicated.

Now, I spoke about my passionate love of white boards already. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d live without them. But they have their limitations. While a quick glance over my shoulder tells me where my short stories are right now (and how long they’ve been there), the board can’t tell me everywhere they’ve BEEN. Markets today have strict policies regarding submissions, and woe-betide the writer that fails to follow the guidelines. One of the biggest is that, unless they specifically request a rewrite from you, they don’t want to see anything twice.

While I have a great memory, it isn’t perfect. There’s no way for me to remember where every story has been. I mean, there are currently nine stories listed on my board, with more being written all the time. Recall where each one’s been?

Madness!

Asking my white board to do that is just as insane. (I’m not sure they make white boards that big). I also have personal essays, magazine articles, and novels to keep track of. While there’s some appeal to living in a house made of white boards, I don’t think my fiance’s is going to go for it. (Nor does he want to deal with the meltdown that would ensue if something got erased)

This is where Excel became my best friend. It took me all of five seconds to create a tracking spreadsheet. With one glance, I can see what genre a story is (newsflash: not every market takes every genre), the length, where it’s been, how long the response time was (helpful in case I’m considering holding out for a certain market), and my reference numbers. I never end up accidentally repeating a submission, I don’t accidentally send a simultaneous submission (some markets allow this, but most don’t), and I can see which markets have sent personal rejections over form letters. I log tons of valuable information for myself. All from a few minutes of my time.

And it takes no time to update!

Screen shot of the Market tab of my Excel tracking spreadsheet

Best of all, I keep a running list of markets. I know who accepts what, word limits, editor names (hint: never send a cover letter to “Editor” – use their name), and which markets are currently on hiatus.

Yes, setting up the Market tab took a lot longer. It’s worth it, though. I know when reading periods are. I know what restrictions are in place for various markets (i.e., must be clean, must contain a required science element, must have an animal, etc.). When I’m ready to submit one of my stories, instead of having to run through my bookmarks, hunting for a suitable match, I just consult the tab. (And, yes, I have the payment information right at my fingertips)

Wait – am I discussing organization again?

Of course I am! Organization is a writer’s best friend! You can definitely try to do everything by the seat of your pants. I wish you luck. When I first started, I just had file folders. And I wasted time combing through them, trying to figure out where a story had already been. I had to constantly read guidelines and search for markets. (Granted, this was also back when you sent submissions via snail mail) It SUCKED! I had to learn the hard way to be smart and make my life easier.

There are apps and programs available that do this for you, and you can definitely take advantage of them. Personally, I like Excel. I already own it, so it doesn’t cost me anything, and I can set it up however I want. As long as you find a system that works for you and keeps things on track, that’s what matters. You’ll be happy, I promise.

More to the point, the markets you’re submitting to will be happy.