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Dictating, Writing, Hiking

I receive many queries about my writing technique, so here’s a full description.  This article first appeared in the BULLETIN of the Science Fiction Writers of America

TALKING TO MYSELF

Kevin J. Anderson

If you see a person walking along engaged in a vigorous conversation with no one else around, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s escaped from the nearest asylum.  It could be me talking to myself.  But don’t be concerned, don’t interrupt me, don’t bother me at all — I’m writing.

It’s been about fifteen years since I gave up the keyboard and took up a recorder for my first drafts.  Since that time, I’ve dictated nearly fifty novels on an innumerable number of microcassettes, speaking the words aloud, rather than typing them into my word processor.

While this might not seem to be a writer’s traditional technique, remember that the storyteller’s art has always been a spoken one.  Revered shamans would tell tales around the campfire, legends of monsters in the darkness or heroes who killed the biggest mammoth.  Homer did not write his epics down.  What could be more natural than speaking your novel aloud before committing the words to a computer hard drive or an editor’s red pencil?

Okay, so you’re perfectly satisfied with sitting at your cramped card table after shoving aside the checkbook and the bills to clear a spot for writing.  If you can truly work that way, then I salute you.  For me, as I write this article, I am hiking in a canyon above the Colorado River, making my way up to a pristine lake and a spectacular waterfall — I wouldn’t trade places in a thousand years.

For Your Inspiration . . .

One of the primary advantages of writing with a digital recorder is that you can be outside in a spectacular area, bombarded with inspiration.  There, the details of nature or history itself can provide story fodder.

Under a tight deadline for one of my Star Wars novels, I went to Sequoia National Park, where I planned to isolate myself and get a lot of writing done.  After I had settled into my cabin, a mountain snowstorm hit and made the roads impassable.  The next day, I trudged out into the new-fallen snow, breaking trail among the pine trees and winding along cross-country ski paths to see frozen waterfalls and beautiful ice shelves on granite outcroppings.

While I walked, smelling the frosty air, seeing my breath in front of me and listening to the wind in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I wrote about Han Solo on the polar icecaps of an alien world.  Since I am not able to visit arctic zones on other planets, this was the perfect place to draw inspiration.

Other times I have hiked through the arid canyons of Death Valley, along dried ocean beds and over powdery sand dunes.  Feeling the heat and the dry crackling air, I have written many chapters in my best-selling DUNE novels with Brian Herbert.  What better place could a writer be when telling the story of a waterless planet that would make the Sahara seem like an oasis?

I just spent a week in Capital Reef National Park in the slickrock canyons of southern Utah, where I wrote a significant portion of my “Saga of Seven Suns” novels.  During my hikes, I dictated the adventures of characters exploring ancient, abandoned cities within rock overhangs, very similar to the Anasazi ruins I visited.

Even if you aren’t in a place precisely comparable to your subject matter, you can still experience sounds and smells and sensations that add vivid details to your prose — details you may not remember while sitting numbed in your cluttered office at home.

For Your Health . . .

Another advantage of dictating while out walking is the solitude and the peace-of-mind you’ll encounter.  While hiking, you can let your mind sink into the universe of your story, blessedly without interruptions.  Out on the trail with your digital recorder, you can avoid telephone calls, faxes, the temptation to log on and read your email, do the dishes, scrub the toilets, clean the attic. . . .

Let’s face it, writing is a sedentary profession.  Full-time authors spend their days seated firmly in the chair, fingers the keyboard, without a great deal of invigorating exercise.  Personally, I hate being cooped up in the office and would rather be hiking, or even just walking along bike paths in an urban area.  Once I learned how to dictate, I no longer had to choose between a day of hiking or a day of writing.  I can do both at the same time.  It keeps me fit and active, and it prevents me from becoming one of those “pear-shaped people.”

On the more serious side, some writers are medically forced to abandon the keyboard and must choose between giving up writing altogether or finding a different method.  My wife, best-selling author Rebecca Moesta, suffered from severe carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists and cubital tunnel nerve entrapment in both elbows, which in the end cost her four surgeries and a draconian reduction of her keyboard time.

Rebecca had always considered my technique of dictating to be somewhat eccentric, but now she found herself forced to get a headset and digital recorder of her own (though she chooses to spend her dictating time on a treadmill or in a shopping mall, rather than out on a forest trail).

For Your Productivity . . .

When I’m out dictating I manage to produce far more pages in less time than if I’m chained to my desk.  I’ve even learned how to fool myself into writing more than I originally intended to do.  In a trick I call the “round-trip deception,” I will keep hiking outbound until I have completed one entire chapter . . . at which point I should have just enough time on the way back to dictate another full chapter.  Since I have to walk back anyway, I might as well be writing.

During the week I just spent in southern Utah, I hiked a total of fifty miles and wrote 168 pages in my new novel, as well as this article.  (Hmmm, that’s about three-and-a-half pages per mile!)  It would have been impossible for me to do this much at home with numerous distractions.

And the Drawbacks . . .

The most obvious drawback with dictation is that once you’ve recorded a chapter, then it must be transcribed.  Depending on how fast you type, you can transcribe your own files, of course — but to me this defeats the purpose of using a recorder.  In the time it takes to transcribe a chapter, I could just as well have written a completely new one.

Typists offer their services in the classified ads of many writers’ magazines; transcribers or stenographers are also listed in your local yellow pages.  The going rate seems to be around $2 – $3 per page.

You may need to try several different typists before you find one who works well with your material.  (I burned out one stenographer with a single DUNE tape; she simply couldn’t handle the strange science fiction setting and vocabulary!)  My regular typist has learned my quirks and knows when to change dialog, when to break paragraphs, what punctuation to use.  She has even offered insightful comments on novels-in-progress.  Often I feel like Charles Dickens writing a weekly serial, handing one chapter at a time so the typist can see what happens next.  I upload the files, email them to her, she transcribed them, and emails me back the Word files.

For Your Consideration . . .

Always keep in mind that, like any other writing technique, dictation is a skill that must be learned.  Give it time and practice.  I started out carrying a recorder to dictate occasional notes because I liked to walk while mulling over storylines and developing characters.  This habit evolved into speaking outlines, laying out scenes, and then detailed rough drafts.  Now it’s graduated to near-finished prose.

Some people try the recorder once and give up, claiming that it feels too “unnatural.”  By comparison, writers are accustomed to thinking up sentences, breaking them down into words, spelling those words, then moving their fingers across a scrambled keyboard to put down the prose one letter at a time.  (Remember, the QWERTY keyboard was intentionally designed to slow down typists!)  Just talking out loud doesn’t seem any less natural to me!

First, you’ll need a recorder, available at any office supply store.  A typical hand-held recorder should cost fifty dollars or less (probably one of the least expensive pieces of equipment in your office.)

You may become self-conscious when people look at you talking surreptitiously into your digital recorder — but, in the words of the genius Richard Feynman, “What do you care what people think?”  I’m walking along involved in a story, writing what just might become a best-selling novel.  They probably assume you’re talking on a Bluetooth set.

So keep an open mind if you are willing to try a new writing technique.  Go out and talk to yourself.

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Comments

14 Responses to “Dictating, Writing, Hiking”

  1. CI says:

    I tried this one you mentioned it on twitter before. The problem is that I got nervous and stumbled too many times, plus I hate the sound of my own voice. Does that sort of stuff get easier?

  2. Gary Carson says:

    Great article. I’m learning how to do this myself, but it definitely takes practice.

    One thing to note here. If you use Dragon Naturally Speaking (Preferred or higher), you can transcribe dictation from a digital voice recorder with around 98 percent accuracy after about twenty minutes training, so the whole issue of getting someone to transcribe your stuff is moot. You have to work on your dictation skills, though. It takes time. The transcription process itself is completely automatic.

    Setting up your own voice-recognition system is more expensive than just buying a basic microcassette recorder and it requires some initial work in training your speech profile, correcting mistakes to increase your accuracy, etc., but it’s worth the time if you’re a serious writer trying to increase your productivity.

    You need a good computer with a high-end processor and at least two gigs of memory, for instance. Dragon Naturally Speaking will run you anywhere from $100 to $200 and you need a decent noise-canceling headset microphone to get the best results. THat’s all you need if you just want to dictate at your desk. If you can afford it, you could get a good wireless headset mike and keep dictating while you’re doing other things around the house (Knowbrainer.com is a good site for hardware and software–I’m not affilitated with them, but I’ve been buying my equipment from them for years and they really know their stuff).

    If you want to go mobile, you have to have a digital voice recorder and a good noise-canceling headset mike. Voice recognition puts a big load on computers and other hardware. When it comes to voice recorders, I’ve personally had good results with consumer-grade models like the Sony MX-20 (around $250.00), but I’ve upgraded to the best professional-grade recorder available right now–the Olympus DS5000. The Philips 9600 is almost as good, but the Olympus edged it out for first place about a year ago. Both of these recorders will cost you around $500, but they’re well worth it.

    Dictation takes time to learn, but it’s a great for brainstorming, outlining and writing first drafts. I’ve found that I can revise my drafts by voice using the transcripts of the first drafts, so theoretically, it should be possible not to touch a keyboard at all until the final draft where you’re just doing proofreading and minor corrections (easier to do at the keyboard). With Dragon, you can transcribe directly into Word, so there’s no problem there.

    The productivity gains you can make from switching to dictation are so gigantic that every serious writer should check it out. For example, I’ve read that most people can talk at an average speed of around 150 words per minute (or something like that). Personally, I can only manage around fifty wpm, but even that comes to 3000 words per hour, a fantastic rate of production. I figured out that I could dictate the first draft of a 120,000 word novel in around four or five months just during the thirty minutes or so I spend driving back and forth to the gym every day. Even at my slow dictation speed, I could theoretically dictate the first draft for a short story every day of the week during the same time. The limiting factor with that, naturally, is coming up with the ideas to feed the production line, but that’s another problem.

  3. Nice to see your case laid out all in one place :-)

    I’ll probably link to this on my blog soon. I’d like to experiment with this method on my next first draft, as well.

  4. [...] J Anderson explains how he writes his first drafts by dictation, while hiking in [...]

  5. Cadence says:

    Hi,
    Just wondering if you ‘re ever concerned about local wild-life trying to snack on you whilst you craft your tales? Living in sunny So Cal offers a plethora of inspirations via hiking adventures complete with mountain lions. Attacks are rare, but there have been an increasing number of them recently.

    Do you have any advice/wisdom on avoiding the ‘nice kitties’ (bears, wolves, etc) of your office-in-the-wild? Or any rules of thumb for general hiking safety?

    in Christ,
    Cadence

    • admin says:

      Usually the wildlife wants to run from you if they hear you coming (so be sure to keep talking). I often hike with my brother-in-law, but we separate on the trail so that I can dictate without any nearby eavesdroppers, but either of us is close enough to respond to an emergency. If you go alone, be sure to leave a copy of the map/trail you’re going to be on.

  6. [...] Dictating, Writing, Hiking Is dictation the way for you to capture your first drafts? [...]

  7. [...] Dictating, Writing, Hiking Is dictation the way for you to capture your first drafts? [...]

  8. Gary Carson says:

    Just wondering. Did it take you a while to get into condition for dictating while you’re hiking? I’m finding that I get kind of breathless, especially if I’m walking uphill.

  9. [...] Kevin J. Anderson has a cool blog, but his best post (as far as I’m concerned) is the one where he talks about dictating while hiking. Now I haven’t given this a whirl yet – mainly because I’m a bit of a clutz and I can see myself so busy with the tape recorder that I’d walk right into a tree – but I can see its potential.  I think I’ll give a whirl while resting on a mountain pass or seated streamside at camp. [...]

  10. I found your posting to be insightful! Thank you.

  11. [...] Dictating, Writing, Hiking | Kevin J. Anderson’s BlogApr 8, 2010 … I receive many queries about my writing technique, so here’s a full description. This article first appeared in the BULLETIN of the Science Fiction … [...]

  12. stuartg says:

    phenomenal output possible- wordcount for a 3 hour walk can be 12-15,000 words using dragon dictation- the more practice , the better.

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