Now that Nanowrimo is nearing its end, I’ll repost this article about my technique of dictating my writing. A lot of people ask about it, and I’ve given many talks, even played some sample chapters to interested listeners. I’ve been writing while walking, talking into my recorder for years. Here’s a full description.
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, social media, 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.
This article first appeared in the BULLETIN of the Science Fiction Writers of America
Every year, Superstars presents the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship to worthy applicants who want to come to the Superstars Writing Seminar in Colorado Springs, a pro-level business-oriented seminar on the business and on building your writing career.
This year, we are pleased to announce the following winners of full or partial scholarships:
Debbie M. Allen
Rebecca P. Minor
Congratulations to all! The Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship is funded through private donations as well as sales of our anthologies, edited by Lisa Mangum, with cover art by James A. Owen, and published by WordFire Press. All profits go to the scholarship fund.
The 2018 Superstars will be held Jan 31-Feb 3. See the Superstars website for the amazing list of instructors and topics. And you can also check out our previous anthologies, and help raise money for next year’s scholarships!
When I started my career with traditionally published novels, my editors and publicists encouraged me to make sure I mentioned the publisher whenever I talked in interviews and panels. I would promote my novels and proudly announce that it was “from Signet Books” or “from Bantam Books” or HarperCollins, or Warner, or Tor. I would print up my own postcards and bookmarks, sometimes even take out ads in publications. Once, I was roundly criticized for forgetting to put a publisher’s logo on the back of a postcard (that I paid for out of my own pocket).
It’s a basic commercial principle to promote brand loyalty among your consumers. Coke drinkers always drink Coke. Budweiser drinkers always drink Bud. Car owners are loyal to Ford or to GM. But…publishers?
I was an avid reader, a dedicated writer, earnestly trying to get a foothold in the industry. I paid attention to the news, to the editors, to shifts in publishing, but even I would have been hard pressed to define the difference between, say, an Ace science fiction book and a Roc science fiction book (yes, they are now under the same parent company). Or a Tor epic fantasy instead of a DAW epic fantasy.
Sure, there are some exceptions, most notably Baen Books, which has not only carved out a niche and a brand for themselves in the types of fiction they publish—generally reader-driven and fast-paced rather than literary and artsy-fartsy—and they even have a distinctive brand look with their cover art and type design. Baen has also drawn together a very devoted group of their core readers through parties at conventions, online forums, and extremely loyal authors.
But that’s the exception. As an author, I’ve been published by Signet, Tor, Bantam, Ace, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Pocket, Gallery, Kensington, Hodder & Stoughton, Warner, Baen, and more. Some of those books or series went out of print from one publisher to be picked up by another. Did my readers really notice the brand name on the spine, or did they go for the author or the series?
The dramatic changes in the book industry lag behind similar changes in the music industry. When was the last time you actually paid attention to what record label your favorite band or album was on? Who released Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Celine Dion? Taylor Swift? My favorite band Rush was on Mercury Records for their first several albums, but at some point it changed to “Anthem Records.” As an administrative matter with behind-the scenes paperwork and distribution, it made a difference to the band, but as a listener, it made no difference to me.
Same with movie studios. I’m pretty sure everyone knows the original Star Wars movies were from 20th Century Fox because of the seminal fanfare before the rollup text, but—quick!—which studio released the Predator movies? The Transformers movies? The Twilight movies?
One of the little-recognized consequences of the widespread changes in publishing and the surge in indie authors is that it has almost entirely erased the lines of brand identity for publishers. Most indie authors create a “publishing house” and a logo for their own books. In a few years, what used to be a dozen or so major publishing houses and hundreds of smaller ones including university presses, has become hundreds of thousands of imprints, all of which look “real” on the amazon listing.
When you order a book called The Ogre’s Toothache because the title is intriguing, the cover art looks good, the story sounds amusing, and you’ve read something by that author before, do you really notice—and more important, does it affect your buying decision—whether the publisher is listed as Gallery Books or Moonglimmer Books? (Gallery Books is real, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, but I just made up Moonglimmer Books…though I wouldn’t be surprised if such an imprint actually exists somewhere.)
When Rebecca Moesta and I formed WordFire Press, it was merely an exercise to release the eBooks of my own out-of-print backlist, to which I had reacquired the rights. We had called our own company WordFire, Inc. for many years, so WordFire Press was the obvious name. We had no intention of building it into a much larger publishing company. Rebecca herself created our original WFP logo with a graphics program, and then other author friends of mine, seeing the success of our original releases, came to us with titles of their own, and our publishing company unintentionally expanded.
At first, we took all kinds of books from author friends, some out-of-print romances, some unusual nonfiction titles. (In fact, technically, our very first book was a rather esoteric religious treatise by Rebecca’s father, which we published as a gift for him.) We didn’t really have a brand identity, nor did we intend to, but as we grew and we saw which books performed well and which ones didn’t, we started to focus on particular types of fiction, mainly the kind of stuff I liked.
As we revamped our website, we also got a snazzy new logo. We built up our author and title list, and we started to get a little more attention through word of mouth. But the real thing that began to draw recognition as “WordFire Press” rather than “Some Publisher” was our monumental effort of exhibiting at numerous conventions, comic cons, and pop-culture shows around the country. We gave our authors a chance to meet fans face to face, hand-sell and autograph their books, an opportunity to be seen by thousands of potential readers in a day. In 2016 we did 22 shows with a total attendance of 1.5 Million people. (That was insane, and those operations are now run by Rabid Fanboy, so that I can concentrate on the publishing end and, more importantly, my own writing career.) But even under Rabid Fanboy, the “Bard’s Tower” gives ambitious WordFire authors the opportunity to have the “famous author experience.”
But do I think that readers have a strong brand loyalty, that they pick up a book because it has the WordFire Press logo on the spine, rather than because it has a story that fascinates them, an author they’ve enjoyed before? No, I don’t think so.
Now, more than ever, you can’t rely on the brand of a publisher. You have to rely on your own brand as an author or the brand of your series. You have to rely on YOU.
As the weather turns colder and hiking season wraps up, it’s time for some reflection and nostalgia.
I have been on some truly epic adventures and vacations, but simply “getting away from it all” to recharge the creative batteries doesn’t always need to be an ambitious, expensive, and time-consuming project.
With a busy schedule, I have often needed to snatch quick, impromptu “micro-vacations.” I like to carve out an overnight camping trip, throwing sleeping bags and supplies, a cookstove and a bundle of firewood in the back of the SUV. A quick run to the grocery store to pick up hot dogs, buns, beans, chips, soda, eggs, even a can of spam. (Sitting in camp, near the fire, may be the only time and place that hot dogs or spam taste truly delicious.)
Within a few hours’ drive, there are any number of state park or national forest campgrounds, offering beautiful wooded sites, picnic table, and firepit for $10-$15. I love to head out in the morning, find a good spot, set up a quick camp, then go for a hike. Back at the site, I’ll build a campfire, sit at the picnic table, and edit chapters on my laptop—what could be a better office? It becomes a challenge for me whether to put up with the pesky insects or the (arguably worse) smelly, greasy bug repellent.
As the sun goes down and the temperature drops, I’ll sit close to the campfire and read a little. Then I’ll unroll the sleeping bag and pad in the back of the SUV and close myself in for the night, playing a DVD on the portable player, drinking a pint of microbrew from the growler I brought along, cozying up in my little bubble, and having a great night.
The next morning I’ll wake up refreshed, get up into the cool dawn air, light the campstove to make instant coffee and scrambled eggs (with spam, of course) before packing up and catching a quick hike before I drive home.
It’s just a quick, two-day trip requiring little planning or expense, but with a large payoff in recuperation and inspiration.