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What Do You Need to Write?

No, not “What works will bring you instant fortune, more money than your CPA knows what to do with, and undying fame?” but “What conditions and tools do you need in order to produce words?

I was hunting around in growing concern (OK, quasi panic) because I couldn’t find the box with my extra note pads in it! I absolutely have to have the nice notepads with the special margins and headers on them, in white, lined, 8.5 X 11 inches, two-sided. Where was the box? Did I have any more half-used pads with a few pages left? What about my nice pens?!?

To make a messy story short, I found them where I had moved the box after I tripped over it trying to get to the back of the closet.  Yes, I have more notepads (Levenger, if you really want to know), and I ordered more pens plus found a box of my every-day pens. I can now go on a trip and write/take notes/take research notes.

I know. Cheap notepads from the dollar store, keep the good pens* because they fit my hand and work better than the el-cheapos do, and suck it up. I can do that, I have done that, and I do that when I need to. Or even better, sit down at the computer, open a word processing program, and write (saves the step of converting from Alma-scratch to typed document).

Looking back, I’m not all that far away from the romance writer a number of people were quietly giggling at a year or two ago, who described her writing routine as getting out of bed, taking a warm bath, dressing in a peignoir (really fancy nightgown and robe set), sitting down at her writing desk with a view, and only then could she put words on paper. The mental image is probably not entirely fair to the writer in question, because when I first read about the ritual she needed to get into the proper mindset to write her books, I saw everything through a soft-focus mental lens with “Tara’s Theme” playing quietly in the background.

Can you train yourself to write anywhere, on any surface available (that you can take with you. Removing the sheet rock from the wall is frowned upon in many jurisdictions), at any moment? Yes. Sarah Hoyt write part of a book on a spare roll of toilet paper. I’ve taken story notes down on the back of a deposit receipt, a shopping list, in my little idea book, and credit card receipts (I don’t recommend the polished digital printer ones). My muse does not wait for the optimal time or place. Then I move the ideas to regular paper, or to my idea notebook (Moleskine that I got at a going-out-of-business retirement sale.) Often I write story cores on notebook paper (my fancy notepads) and then later put them in the computer.

But you do what you can and what you have space and time for. Five minutes at the kitchen table while one child naps and the other one is quiet? Ten minutes at the tire store (or while getting the oil changed)? During lunch at work? While supervising someone else’s study hall if you are done with all of your own classroom work? A blessed hour while Dear Beloved Spouse takes the kids (or dogs) to the park? You do what you can with what you have.

No matter what you might read on the Internet or in how-to-write books, there is NO one true way. Writing desk or kitchen table, five minutes waiting in traffic, at a lovely desk with a view and in your special writing outfit, on a couple of boards in the corner of a barn or shed…. Hey, if it works, and it doesn’t cause a safety hazard, it’s not wrong. One a laptop or desktop, on fancy or plain notepads, with pencil or pen, dictating into a recorder while hiking (mind the wildlife, please), just write. Get the stories down so they can be polished a little and then released into the wild.


*I love Pilot-brand pens, especially the Uni-ball micros and the Hi-Tec-C .03 felt-tips. Yes, my writing is tiny, unless I’m using my beloved retractable-nib fountain pen (that I really do need to get repaired.)


Shameless Author Promo: If you are interested in fantasy with a middle-aged protagonist who doesn’t have any magical powers or talking dragon friends, you might try Merchant and Magic. Tycho Rhonarida just wants to make a living and avoid trouble. Alas, the gods might have other plans.

  1. > in your special writing outfit

    After his eyes went really bad, James Joyce sometimes wore a milkman’s uniform while writing, on the theory that the white cloth would reflect more light on the paper.

    May 27, 2018
  2. OldNFO #

    On airplanes, in hotel restaurants, in hotel rooms (and the chairs usually SUCK)… One ratty old notebook, that I use on occasion, and crib notes in the phone.

    May 27, 2018
    • Hotel rooms are rarely set up for writing. One exception was in the Czech Republic, when I ended up with a true writing desk, a really good chair, and an amazing view out the window in front of the desk. Three cheers for 19th century furniture.

      May 27, 2018
  3. Jamie #

    Well, this takes me back. In high school I discovered that Kinko’s (before it became FedEx-Kinko’s) was my “pusher” — it kept me well-supplied with my favorite Pilot Extra Fine rollerball pens with the purple ink. I wrote the novel longhand, with the pages secured in a purple binder. Kinko’s sold two in a pack; Staples made you buy 10 at a time, which would break the bank in my baby-sitting days. I only resorted to substitute pens when I was really, really desperate. You have a good choice of pens; ballpoints never make it past the threshold of my house unless they’re smuggled in via my mother’s purse.

    I’m over the Must Have A Purple Pen-thing now (I have an aunt who is OCD, and I wonder if I have a touch of it). I only write novels on computers anymore because in my senior year I somehow lost the notebook I was writing another novel in during downtimes in class. Fortunately I had a habit if transcribing it to a computer when I got home, so I only lost a few scenes.

    I can’t imagine a brand of toilet paper surviving the type of pens I use, but I will resort to post-it notes, and there is always some sort of notepad on my desk, or in my purse. Legal pads are great for breaking through writer’s block. Note to self: see if there’s a notepad app for your cell phone for when you don’t carry a purse …

    As for your book, I like mystery/fantasies (and mystery/sci-fi) so I’m downloading a sample right now.

    May 27, 2018
    • I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

      May 27, 2018
  4. Pilot pens are the best! For me, I need noise and my chair. I write in bursts and have never been able to produce anything while sitting in public. That’s when I let my subconscious do its thing so that when I do get back to writing the words come easier.

    May 27, 2018
    • I tend to get ideas in public (breakfast in a hotel in Hamburg, middle of a museum [awkward], walking) and the trick is holding onto them until I get to a place where I can write them down.

      May 27, 2018
  5. I try to write at a set time of day when it’s convenient (i.e. the Squire is still sleeping or napping). That being said, I will write where ever I need to. I have my computer, my idea notebook with pen, and bluetooth keyboard and tablet when needed. I originally scribbled things down as they struck me and sometimes I copied them into a word processor document when I had time. Making note of what had been copied and what hadn’t been. Sometimes the scribbles were “tossed” because characters didn’t like those ideas. *shrug*

    May 27, 2018
  6. Mary #

    Rituals help you get into the “this is writing time” mode.

    They also make it harder to get into it without them.

    May 27, 2018
  7. It took some time to move from being able to input a story on a computer rather than write them out longhand, I still can’t voice dictate a story. Oddest thing is, my spelling ability is MUCH worse when typing. Words that aren’t even a bump in the spelling road (muscle memory) require thought when typing.

    May 27, 2018
  8. I’ve found some awesome notebooks that stand up to fountain pens (all I use–almost everything else makes my hands hurt too much to tolerate). Walmart’s brand (the Pen+Gear) has pretty darn good paper for liquid inks. The notebooks I really like (8×5 paper sheets, 5 subject, moveable divider tabs) disappeared for a while, and I’m about a third of the way through the one I got in February–when three showed up, I panicked and bought all three.

    Retractable nib fountain pen…would that be a Vanishing Point? My current faves are both TWSBI, because they hold a LOT of ink, more than most other pens. And I found a lovely purple ink that the cats can’t wash off the page by knocking my water over, or slinging cat-drool onto. If you’re interested.

    May 27, 2018
    • Probably the Vanishing Point. It was a gift and has the ultra-fine Japanese nib. Something went wrong after a move and I think it got too dry and clogged badly.

      May 27, 2018
      • They aren’t difficult to flush. It’s likely all it needs, and would clear the clog. Basically, take it apart like you were going to put in a new cartridge, and run water through the nib from the back side where the ink goes in.

        If that doesn’t work, new nibs and housings are easily come by–The Goulet Pen Company carries them.

        May 28, 2018
    • I love writing with a fountain pen; I have one of my Dad’s Waterman fountain pens, but it needs some really good flushing.

      I have some other ones, but generally, other than note-taking (which I just need paper and writing implement for) I prefer writing on the computer. I use a mechanical keyboard now on my main rig and oh my goodness is it a joy to write on! For some it might be a bit noisier than expected, but I type really fast (the only one in the household that types faster is the housemate.)

      The other keyboard that I like very, very much is the ASUS Cerberus keyboard. It’s much quieter than my mechanical gaming keyboard (which is also an ASUS), but still comfortable to type on.

      I just need to be awake and not as RL-busy/stressed to write, because the other two things distract me quite a bit.

      May 29, 2018
      • Lamy fountain pen with narrow caligraphy nib. Heaven. ~:)

        Corsair K-70 with Cherry MX clickety keys and LED lighting. Keep it on low, and it helps a lot with the crappy fat-finger typing style I have. Grammarly works overtime at Chez Phantom.

        As to RL stress, I have it on good authority that RL is a poor substitute for a well constructed fantasy. Screw those guys! Sic a dragon on them.

        May 29, 2018
  9. SheSellsSeashells #

    I don’t HAVE to have white noise and a Pilot V5 medium point pen, but it helps a lot. What I do have to have is paper; for some reason, I can’t detach from reality and start recording what’s going on in the More Interesting Subreality if I’m on a keyboard. I can bang out marketing copy till the cows come home, but fiction ain’t happening.

    May 27, 2018
  10. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Used to need a keyboard to write.

    Lately I’ve learned to take notes with pen on paper.

    I have problems with collecting lots of notes, changing how I organize my notes as I make them, and losing notes when I have a bunch of them unsaved in notepad.

    Somehow I manage to get things done in spite of myself. At times. Other times I’m convinced that I’ve fouled up everything beyond my ability to remedy.

    May 27, 2018
    • TRX #

      In KDE I use Kate for multipart documents, note management, and so forth. It’s a text editor like Notepad or Wordpad, but it can edit multiple files simultaneously, accessible through tabs, and it loads and saves your files as “sessions”, so if you have eight files open from four directories, they all come back when you reload the session. There’s a menu to pick out different sessions. I’m pretty sure there’s a timed save function too.

      A few versions ago, your documents came back at the same spot, with the cursor sitting in the same place as when you exited. Now they reload at the top. I guess I need to email the developers and see what’s going on.

      There’s probably something similar for Windows. Having been badly burned long ago, I won’t touch anything that uses a “document format”. I work in plain ASCII, and format later if needed.

      May 27, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Notepad++ is fairly similar. I have that installed, I’m just not making good use of it.

        May 27, 2018
      • I think, but am not sure anymore, that Textpad might do that in Windows. I used to use Nedit for various things. As I no longer KDE, I’m not familair with how Kate is, but Geany (once the dark theme is added/installed, for me anyway) works well in Xfce and I presume other environments.

        May 28, 2018
      • Ana #

        Thanks for the Kate tip. I collect text editors on my Ubuntu at work, and I haven’t heard of this one. I’ll try this one too see if out works better than Sublime and Notepadqq, my favourite for now

        May 29, 2018
  11. I’ve gotten to the point where I need to be at the computer desk in my home office, to let the words flow freely. Early on, I could write at the computer station at my employer-of-the-moment. Back when I was scribbling Darkover fan-fic in the wee hours of an overnight shift in the radio station, I could do it with any old pen on a yellow legal pad. (Note to self – look up some of those legal pads stashed away in the files, see if there is anything salvage. The one about the relationship between the galactic freelance spy of a thousand faces, and the female mercenary soldier-strategist might yet be workable.)

    May 27, 2018
    • I’m still working through daydreams I had in high school. Those things had staying power in my brain, that’s for sure. I figure if they lived that long for me, maybe somebody else might be interested? We’ll see… ~:D

      May 29, 2018
  12. Christopher M. Chupik #

    A reasonable night’s sleep and my laptop are usually enough.

    May 27, 2018
  13. scifihughf #

    For me there’s a difference between writing when inspiration / muse / mind projecting aliens strike and you HAVE to get it down, and the more organised “I really need to get a thousand words written today”. The latter is not exactly a grind, at least when it’s going well, but the comfy chair and familiar writing tools help stay in flow state and not procrastinate and distract myself.

    Mary made a great point about rituals, that they work really – if your lifestyle can fit them in.

    May 27, 2018
    • Ritual for me is ‘warm drink.’

      And I hear you about the ‘MUST GET NOTES DOWN NOW’ thing. Fortunately, my husband is patient and understands the random ‘bedside light goes on, grab pad paper next to bed, while things get knocked over in the rush’ sessions.

      May 29, 2018
  14. For longhand, I like pilot G2 medium-point, black ink, and 1-subject, 70-sheet wide-ruled notebooks. (The kind you see in giants stacks for fifty cents during the back to school rush – which is when I stock up for the year.)

    I work best longhand with blurbs – something about writing them out helps me feel the shape and flow of the words. For stories, writing longhand really slows it down, which also means I write shorter, using even fewer words.

    For longer stories, I prefer the wordpad that comes with windows. Using Word feels too much like writing a mandated report in AP style with bullet points and graphs for the degree. Also, notepad doesn’t have a spellcheck function, which means I can output words without having something yell at me every line or so about my spelling or (especially in dialogue) incorrect grammar.

    Peter is very gently but persistently trying to transition me to LibreOffice, but I’m not precisely a fan. I recognize it’s much easier than trying to format and spellcheck everything straight out of notepad, but… *sigh* Don’t wanna?

    May 27, 2018
    • TRX #

      Back in ancient times, “editors” were for pounding out text and “desktop publishing” was for making the text pretty. In between were “word processors” which had features editors didn’t; pagination, columns, etc.

      Over the years feature creep added all the usual desktop publishing features to word processors, which is why 90+% of a modern word processor is cruft that has nothing to do with actually getting text into a file…

      When I write, the process consists of periods of thinking about what I want to put down, alternating with periods of hammering in text as fast as I can before the phone rings, someone comes in with “Can I ask you a question?”, or the pager goes off, or “Look! A squirrel!” The part where I’m actually putting words down is the bottleneck to actually getting it done.

      That’s one reason why my heavy work gets done in an 80×25 console window with an emulator running a 30-year-old DOS text editor, using an even older IBM keyboard with an adapter since modern computers don’t have old-style keyboard plugs. The editor is ancient and has many limitations, but I’ve been using it so long its nearly a direct brain-to-file interface. The keyboard is the one I learned to type on; the lizard-brain insists anything else is inferior, and no amount of effort has managed to get my typing rate on any other board to match what I can do with that board.

      I’ve seen writers who claim to get useful work done by pecking at their phone with their thumbs, or using an on-screen keyboard menu on a tablet. Their boredom threshold must be orders of magnitude higher than mine; pecking out a URL on the tablet stretches my frustration limit, and I refuse to even do texts on a phone, much less try to write.

      May 28, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Thumbing in words on a touchscreen was one of my gateways to writing on a pad of paper.

        May 28, 2018
    • The “right tool for the job” is the one that works. LibreOffice is wonderful… but it can import TXT files just fine. So if “getting words down NOW” works best with Notepad, then that’s the right tool.

      May 28, 2018
  15. Draven #

    a paycheck at the end?

    May 28, 2018
    • That helps, but some of us suffer from an affliction that leads to words on paper or screen even without pay check.

      May 28, 2018
      • Brett Baker #

        Do you have to tell yourself, “I will not die a Z-level, I will not die a Z- level” when you are trying to get started? I told myself that as I was doing some research the other night.

        May 28, 2018
        • Dorothy Grant #

          I have written, at the top of several pages, things like “It’s okay to suck” and “No one will see this but you!”

          …It helps, somewhat.

          May 28, 2018
  16. I need my laptop and my headphones to mute/drown out the freaking unbelievable noise that seems to afflict every single public space there is these days. A wireless mouse is a definite plus if I want to get any words down.

    Other than that, I can write anywhere. I was getting work done sitting on a step on some random side-street in Montreal one day a couple years ago. Sometimes being in a coffee shop actually helps the writing, unfamiliar surroundings sparks new neurons.

    What I mostly do is sit down in front of the Big Computer at home and pound on the clickety keyboard. Then I need to stop commenting on Mad Genius Club and write the story instead. ~:D

    May 28, 2018
  17. I’m a lefty, so my splurge is pens that are smear-resistant.

    May 28, 2018
    • Remember having Pencil Hand at school? ~:D

      May 29, 2018
  18. The mental image is probably not entirely fair to the writer in question, because when I first read about the ritual she needed to get into the proper mindset to write her books, I saw everything through a soft-focus mental lens with “Tara’s Theme” playing quietly in the background.

    Justifiably so, but heck if it makes the words flow, cool!

    Beats the heck out of my “get the kids to bed, and they actually STAY there, lay down in bed in the cool darkness and start typing” one. (3k words in the hour or so vs “hey, I got like…three hundred!” results; hard to get enough done to gain any skill when I can’t get anything done.)


    Retractable… Fountain… Pen….?

    *kitty eyes*
    Oh, mymymy….
    Something I can actually ask for as a gift.

    May 28, 2018
  19. kaflick #

    Pilot liquid ink pens are the best. My notepad is a pad of white graph paper. (I need lines in both axis.)

    I have OpenOffice for the actual writing and a browser window open to because at my age I know exactly what word I want, but I can’t remember what it is even though it means pretty much the same thing as this other word that I can remember.

    My newest need is to have Zim Wiki opened up because I now keep track of plot-lines, characters and location details using it. It’s a big help remembering which relative always gets a big kick out of embarrassing the main character’s dates when he brings them to family get-togethers (Great Aunt Sara) or whether the 200 class starship has a 250 MW or 350 MW powerplant.(Series 100 has 250 MW and series 200 has 350 MW.)

    When I’m really serious I use the desktop down in the basement with it’s big flat-panel and the old Tandy real mechanical key keyboard. You know, the one with the twenty pound steel plate inside that really lets you type like you mean it.

    May 28, 2018
  20. Tim McDonald #

    OK, I can write with anything, but much prefer a .5 HB lead Pentel Energize mechanical pencil and graph paper for notes, and my Logitech keyboard with real keys for typing. All that aside, I can and will write with anything.

    But what I have now is desk envy. That picture at the top of the post is fantastic. That is a great desk! Probably not practical for a computer desk, but wow, what a fantastic piece!

    May 31, 2018

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