Category: “creative writing”

Software I use

By , 4 July 2008 6:42 pm

Just occasionally I get asked various things about the technicalities of writing and what software I use. Unsurprisingly, I do the final editing of anything in Word, which seems to have become the universal format for documents. But for what it’s worth – and it isn’t a lot – let me tell you about a couple of favourites for writing.

The first of these is the flawed-but-when-it-works-absolutely-wonderful Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition program by Nuance software. Once you have trained the software, you put on the microphone and click the little icon on the desktop and then speak away. And after an initial pause your words start to appear on the screen with the barest minimum of delay. I’d say the accuracy is around 95%, maybe 98%. Or at least for me. I have a fairly deep voice and speak standard English: for higher frequency voices and people with pronounced accents I don’t know what the rate would be. But it gives me the ability to input text as fast as the best typist and allows me to keep going for several hours if I need to.

It is not perfect: for some obscure reason it really doesn’t like the word ‘because’; it is resource intensive and for me only works well with 3 Gb of RAM and even here I try to close down most other background programs. But it’s the only way I can manage to do a blog at the end of a long and wearying week. One curiosity is that unlike dictating to a human, the most satisfactory results are to be had by speaking in a slow, deliberate, monotone. So if you are writing something thrilling you have to not reveal the excitement in your voice or the computer will get confused. Weird! Anyway I recommend it, but I’m hoping that the next version will be better.

A second software package is probably less well-known and one that I have only just acquired. It is a program called PageFour by the splendidly named Bad Wolf Software. Let me simply repeat how it describes itself: “PageFour is a tabbed word processor and outliner for creative writers. Where other word processors were designed with the business user in mind, PageFour aims to meet the needs of a different class of writer. It does not improve your prose or make you a better writer – only you can do that, but PageFour does make your job just that little bit easier.”

That’s pretty much it. It’s a fairly basic and pared down word processor coupled with a fine outlining/card file element. So if I’m writing a book and I want to access information on a place or a person I shift the mouse over a mini-directory in the corner and call up the relevant note. This database type of thing is of course something that Word manifestly fails to do. The PageFour program is not terribly expensive and if you’re thinking about writing a novel you could do far worse. There is a programme for the Mac called Scrivener which does pretty much the same thing, but in a slightly more stylish fashion. The problem is, these wonderful tools notwithstanding, at the end of the day you still have to get down and write.

Now a word of warning. Our elder son and his dear wife are due to have their first baby very soon. When the event happens we will head on up to see them, and as a result, dear reader, this blog may hang fire for several days. We have also got some holiday occurring at some point and – trusting soul that I am – I am not going to announce the dates on the blog. So over the next six weeks or so this blog may be slightly interrupted and posting your comments may be delayed. Never mind: all being well I will be back.

Have a good week.

Knowing the beginning from the end

By , 2 May 2008 6:39 pm

In the nine months since finishing the manuscript of The Infinite Day I have been busy teaching and also involved in an editing project for a friend that, though worthwhile, has been very time-consuming. But that – and the teaching – is shortly coming to an end and I am beginning to think about my next fiction project, which has the working title of the ‘Seventh Ship Series’. I envisage it as another trilogy, though on a slightly more restrained scale than the heavyweight Lamb Among The Stars series. I have already compiled a lot of notes but in some spare moments over the last few days I have been trying to clarify that most important of things: the ending.

Yes, that’s right, it’s half a million words away from being written, but I want to know my ending. In fact, I’m not really sure I can properly start writing until I know, at least at a very general level, where I am going. I’m sure many fiction writers feel the same; there needs to be a goal, a fixed point to which we can write. It is however certainly not true of all such writers: I have certainly read many books (and given up quite a few more) where it was evident that the writer really didn’t know where they were going. Rumour has it that Robert Jordan’s enormous and unfinished Wheel of Time series that stretches on for 11 or so books attained its gargantuan length because he didn’t know where it was going.

What is so significant about the ending? Three things strike me. The first is that it allows you to distinguish that which is essential and that which is irrelevant. In fantasy, where an infinite number of things are possible, you need that discipline lest you become lost in endless subplots. The second thing is that creating a solid architecture like this allows the build-up of tension and its release at the key moment. I sometimes think of books as being like those situations where you have a thousand dominoes all lined up and then you just tap the end one and they all tumble down in a most satisfying manner. Knowing where you are going helps you set up that situation. Thirdly, the ending confirms, in a deepest sense, what the book is all about. And be assured, my books are about something more than just the tale.

Well I’m not sure that I have a proper ending yet. I’m in no hurry: I want it to be good. Popular wisdom says that ‘Coming events cast their shadows before them’. Maybe. Another and truer saying may be this ‘You can’t know where you are until you know where you are going.’ I suspect that may be true of life too.

Dealing with demons

By , 20 April 2007 9:11 pm

It’s been a very busy week this week at college, home and church. But I also seem to have ended up preaching twice on Sunday in the middle of vast amounts of marking and preparation. And to make matters worse it’s the hottest sunniest April that anybody can remember and I keep telling myself it’s really important to get out there and get some exercise.

So, in all honesty, I haven’t really been able to give much time to thinking about my own writing this week. But obviously, like everybody else I was appalled and saddened by the ghastly events at Virginia Tech. There have been a few slightly smug comments in the UK that ‘this could only happen in the States’. In the sense of scale, that is broadly true, but we have had our own little massacres, and I don’t see any grounds for complacency. My own observation here is far more to do with the pen than the gun. Actually it isn’t really an observation, it’s more a sort of open-ended cautious comment. The thing is that Cho Seung-hui, the sad and terrible executioner of so many, took creative writing classes in which he expressed something of the hate and turmoil in his own heart.

Now it seems to me as a writer that I – and all of us who write – need to ask whether engaging in the activity of creative writing encouraged this man to pursue his bizarre and ultimately lethal fantasies? It is I suspect one of the earliest questions known to the human race: does thinking about evil, encourage evil? To put it in a crude but memorable aphorism, ‘does writing exorcise daemons or merely exercise them?’ Christians have tended to be rather cautious on creativity. I think the general view has been that there is a general sequence from thought to expression to action and that it is best to stop very early on.

This is, I presume, why most Christians have accepted that there ought to be some sort of censorship. I remember once when I was doing my postgraduate teacher training a lecturer saying, ‘I am not a Christian myself, but I do wonder what Christians have got against creativity.’ I remember thinking at the time that he had really rather overlooked the potential for evil to hijack creativity. Christians do applaud creativity, but we recognize that the world being the sinful place that it is, creativity can be warped. We can do without more creative ways of killing people quickly or rendering cities uninhabitable.

So am I against creative writing? Well, a dramatic case like this is probably not a good basis to generalize from. Nevertheless we surely need to be aware that creativity is not neutral. In the light of this terrible tale I’m glad that those of us who are Christian writers write within limits. Sometimes those limits are irritating, particularly when you really feel the urge to outdo Stephen King in the gore and pain stakes. But maybe there is a wisdom in restraint. Not everything in the garden of creativity is good. Maybe we need courage to say of things that are written: this is not neutral; this is not harmless; stop it before someone gets hurt!

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