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WHAT DO I NEED TO WRITE FICTION?

© Marg Gilks

"An absolutely necessary part of a writer's equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts upon himself."

– Irwin Shaw

So what are the tools of the fiction writer's trade? In this article, we'll discuss not only hardware and materials, but something even more important: you.

EQUIPMENT

Although you can write with pen and paper or even crayon while honing your craft, if you want to submit your writing to anyone other than your family and friends, a computer equipped with word-processing software has become requisite equipment. The most popular word-processing programs are Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. While there are many other programs available — indeed, many computers come equipped with some rudimentary word-processing program — Word and WordPerfect files are what most publishers are prepared to handle.

Having and knowing how to effectively use a good word-processing program makes revision, formatting, and making multiple copies of your stories much less daunting tasks than they once were. You can reformat the layout of your story to suit a publisher's specific guidelines with only a few keystrokes rather than retyping it entirely; send your novel on CD or floppy instead of as a 400-page hard-copy printout and save a small fortune in postage; or shuffle around words, sentences, paragraphs, or entire chapters within your story in minutes with the program's Cut, Copy, and Paste functions.

An Internet connection is becoming an essential writer's tool. You've found your way here, so you're already discovering the many resources specific to writers that the Internet has to offer. You can also use the Internet to research details for your stories — what your heroine of 1850 would have worn; how many light-years away Alpha Centauri is for that science fiction story you're writing, and so on. You can use it to find markets for your stories, to send your stories to those markets electronically, and to find other writers to talk with and exchange stories with for critiquing.

The equipment that you and your computer sit on is also important. I started out typing my stories on a typewriter resting on an old kitchen table; I myself rested on one of that table's old kitchen chairs. This worked fine at first, but as I spent more and more time at my computer, my body developed more and more problems until my perpetual headaches were diagnosed as arthritis in my neck. I upgraded my equipment to a real desk and office chair, but nevertheless, a few years later I had to cope with the pain of a pinched nerve in my shoulder that lasted for three months. My workspace went completely ergonomic after that, but I'll be managing pain for the rest of my life.

Computer-related injuries are things you do have to think about preventing, if you plan to write a lot of fiction or anything else, for that matter. Situate your computer monitor so that you don't have to tip your head up or keep it turned sideways to see what you're writing on the screen. Make sure your keyboard is at a height comfortable for your arms (your upper arms should be naturally close to your body and straight down, your elbows bent at a right angle and your forearms horizontal and level with your fingers resting on the keys). You might be able to keep that old kitchen table you're working on, if you invest in a keyboard tray that allows you to adjust its height, at least. If you find conventional straight keyboards awkward or uncomfortable, consider getting an ergonomic or split keyboard. Don't stretch to reach your mouse — touching it should involve only moving your hand a few inches to the left or right of your keyboard. And invest in a chair that fits your body, one that will support you comfortably for the hours you will be spending in it while writing.

REFERENCES

And what should be resting on your desk next to your computer?

A dictionary, preferably one that gets opened frequently to check spelling, proper usage, and whether or not the word you've chosen is the right word for the job. This is more important than many writers realize. Don't guess; even if you're 99% certain that word is spelled correctly or that it's the right one, make sure — look it up. A good American dictionary is "Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition." It's pretty comprehensive and it won't break your arm to lift it...or your bank. If hefting a dictionary and leafing through it in search of a word seems like too much work, Webster's Tenth is also available as a computer program.

A thesaurus offers you synonyms, or alternatives to a word. This is useful when you're faced with using "quiet" for the tenth time in your story, say — look up "quiet" in your thesaurus, and choose from a selection of alternatives for quiet the noun, quiet the verb, or quiet the adjective.

A grammar reference. If you ask other writers for recommendations, they'll invariably cite The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This good basic reference is only 85 pages long, something you can read in an afternoon — and should.

YOU

Equipment and reference materials are obvious things. A much more important tool is the writer — do you have what it takes to write fiction? I'm not talking about talent or skill, one of which you're born with and the other you develop. I'm talking about your temperament.

Writing in any form, fiction or nonfiction, takes time, commitment, and persistence. If you can't devote time to becoming a good writer and stick with it no matter what, then you might write that one story, but you'll never develop the skills necessary to write good fiction and sell it. Building that skill is hard work. It comes from practice — from writing and writing and writing some more, even when your first attempt didn't work out, even when others don't like your story, even when you've collected your twentieth rejection slip and your friends and family don't understand why you write...or care.

Writing is a solitary pursuit. It's something you do alone, without distractions. You have to be your own best critic, cheering section, and taskmaster, all rolled into one. That takes the persistence I mentioned; it also requires you to be self-assured in the face of rejection and indifference. As author Isaac Asimov said, "If you can't surmount adversity, then you're not a writer, because there are no writers that don't have to write uphill. It's part of the game....If you don't write, you're not a writer. And if you write a story and a rejection disheartens you, you're not a writer either....You must never interpret the rejection of your story as a rejection of yourself."

But you will have to face it and deal with it. Often alone.

But not always. Here's where the Internet comes to the fore as one of your most valuable tools. Writers' groups and chat forums abound on the Internet; most writer's resource sites offer such forums, or links to them. Your friends and family may not understand, but fellow writers do. When you're feeling particularly alone, post to your chat group. But don't let talking about writing distract you from actually writing! Remember what Asimov said: If you don't write, you're not a writer; you're just someone talking about it.

You'll also find critique groups on the Internet — groups of writers who share their stories with each other for feedback: constructive criticism that they can apply to improving their story. Being open to criticism and willing to learn from it to improve your skill as a writer is another requirement of this tool called You. If you think the first words you put on paper are carved in stone, if you think there's no room for improvement in that story you've written, then you should probably pursue another activity, because writing is a constant learning process, and the stories you produce often do get better with revision.

Writing, revision, and rejection — how you handle these three things will define how powerful a tool you have in yourself. Hone it and take care of it; you're what you need most to write fiction.


Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit http://www.scripta-word-services.com/ to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.

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