“Just one word at a time, man.”

“When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time,” and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”

–Stephen King

A friend asked me a question about my particular writing process the other day, and it struck me as an interesting question that I haven’t mentioned before, so I thought I’d go into a bit here, too. I often like reading about the processes other writers use, not necessarily in a ‘comparing notes’ kind of way, and certainly not in a ‘If I write the way they do, I’ll be successful!’ way, but in the sense that it’s just nice to be reminded that even for the really good ones, the ones who make it seem so effortless, the ones whose footsteps I’m trying to follow…it’s still just a job. However they do it, they still have to show up someplace and get the words down somehow. Writing, for all its wonders, really does lead to an awful lot of quasi-mystical bullshit that isn’t always warranted. Sometimes it really is like laying bricks to make a wall to repel the invaders.

Anyway, the main question that my friend asked was a mechanical one of how I handle the content and its organization into computer files. When I wrote the first draft of Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), I wrote a separate file for each individual chapter. Actually, I did this with The Promised King as well, way back when, so that approach had precedent. What I found as I got further and further into the book, it got harder and harder to easily refer back to earlier events. This comes up a lot, especially when writing a sci-fi epic: What color was her hair, again? What did I call that one beastie? How many people did I say populate this planet? I’d have to open chapter files one by one until I managed to find what I was looking for.

Additionally, at the end of the process, there was the additional tedium of cutting-and-pasting all of this into one large file, which was also a pain in the arse. Then, at editing time, I would just work on that one large file, so I came to the conclusion: why not just write the thing in one large file to begin with? So, that’s what I’ve done ever since, starting with Princesses II, GhostCop, Deliverance, Eh?, and now, Lighthouse Boy. It’s just easier that way for me. I’ve yet to run into any kind of upward limit on filesize, although I wonder if Lighthouse Boy might not get there, as that book is turning out to be well-and-truly massive. I intended this, so I’m not dismayed, but wow, what a big story I have going on there: I’m over 150,000 words right now and only about halfway done. I wanted to write a doorstop, and by golly, I am!

Now this is all necessary because I use OpenOffice to write. I like OpenOffice; it’s perfect for my needs and it has all the features I’d ever want. Plus, it’s free, which is also nice. There’s another program out there, though, that I’m told allows a more…and now I’m groping for a word…we’ll call it a more holistic approach to crafting a novel. It’s called Scrivener, and it is beloved by people who use it.

Scrivener apparently provides an entire internal environment for writing. You can gather research notes and all sorts of other materials into the same project folder, so when you write, everything’s right there without having to open other programs. I’m told that Scrivener makes it easier to move scenes around if you wish: apparently it allows writing in small atomic pieces that you can then arrange as you see fit. I assume that when you’re done, it then automatically stitches everything together into a single file. Scrivener also has e-publishing capabilities built in.

I did try Scrivener, very briefly. (It allows a free trail period.) It was not my cup of tea. I tend to think in very linear fashion when writing, and I only go back and revise anything I’ve already done if there is a pressing need to revise something earlier based on what’s happening now. I’m referring to putting the gun on the mantelpiece, for instance, or adding bits of foreshadowing when I realize I need a character to be able to do a certain thing. I don’t generate large amounts of reference materials, and I just don’t think in terms of individual scenes when I write. Scrivener is deeply counterintuitive to me as a writer, so I didn’t try to adapt to it at all. It’s the perfect tool for some, but for me, it’s just a nonstarter.

So that’s about it: I use OpenOffice to write my books as single, large files. For backups, I have three external hard drives and a flock of flash drives, and I upload my work to both Google Drive and Dropbox daily. (Google Drive is my primary cloud backup, so things automatically upload there whenever I save them. I have to manually save to Dropbox, but Dropbox has saved my bacon once already by virtue of its archiving of older versions of files. This came in deeply handy one day after I screwed up and overwrote my newest version of a file with an older one, instead of the other way around.

So, writer folks of the world, how do you write?

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3 Responses to “Just one word at a time, man.”

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    Well, I DON'T write, except the bloggy thing, although I do have to write an introduction for a book next month.

    So I throw everything about what I might want to write in a document, and write. Sometimes I find I haven't supported my point particularly well, and I Google for more stuff. sometimes, what I think will be the most cogent point gets thrown out altogether.

  2. SK Waller says:

    I have a slight problem with King's quote. Nobody writes one word at a time, because we don't write words, really. Words are just the vehicle for expressing thoughts. I supposed one could say that one writes one thought at a time, but that's not really true, either. When we write, we're putting down a complex web of thoughts and ideas, although our hands can handle only one word at a time. If that's what King means, fine, but writing, for me, isn't purely mechanical, it's quite an involved process. I think the quote is a bit dismissing of that process, and rather simplistic.

    I know what he meant, though, and I've used the idea myself a few times when asked how I compose music ("One note at a time."). I quit, however, because it felt like I was being a bit smug and precious, and not really answering the person's question.

  3. mylittlegeekery says:

    I'm one of those people who has to constantly go back and reread what has been written. Often I find repeats in information, or sentence structure, or a particular word (usually a descriptive) is used entirely too much and I have to tweak it.

    I also find that my brain will travel faster than my fingers and I will skip entire sentences because I merely believe that I have written them, when in fact, I have not. Dyslexia doesn't help in that regard.

    I find any old document writer is fine, as long as it has a spell checker (combined with a grammar checker- bonus!), word counter and an autosave feature is ideal. Basically Google Docs covers it all as long as you get an extension or two.

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