Once an early draft of Another Case in Cowtown was finished, a friend asked me what my first Moss Reid mystery was about.
“Oh, about a hundred and fifty pages,” I said.
Might have sounded like a lame joke to her, but I was deadly serious. Ms Word had given her prognosis about the state of this early draft. It went something like this…
Pages (A4): 146
Characters (including spaces): 321,379
Ms Word became a constant presence in these early stages as the book came together. My particular Ms Word was showing her age, though: in her dotage she was unable to do “.docx” documents and all that fancy stuff you get with Word 2013.
But while I myself had been loyal to her for ages, Bill Gates no longer “supported” her. The evil, uncaring bastard probably considered her to be too “simple” and old-fashioned.
But she could still do all the basics, from spellchecks to wordcounts – and all the formatting you need for this kind of book (apart from the cover of course), and she seemed happy enough that my first draft was finished.
All this may give the impression that the whole process of writing the book was done with Ms Word from start to finish. Not a bit of it.
The earliest notes began as just that: scribbled notes. I also mapped out the series of Moss Reid novels with a masterplan for the first five (yes, five) books.
This was tentatively mapped out in an Excel spreadsheet, with constantly fluctuating sets of columns and rows labelled “Working Title”, “Main Theme”, “Characters”, “Plot Summary”, “Maguffins”, “Shite Probably Not Worth Keeping” and so on. I’d finally discovered what spreadsheets are good for.
A small confession: while this grand plan came in very handy as a starting point and for an overall direction, many of the finer details were abandoned when it came to fleshing out the first two books.
2. Typing in ‘pure’ text
When time came to begin typing, the early drafts went nowhere near Ms Word. Not yet anyway.
I typed away in what is sometimes called “pure text” or “plain text”. As in “.txt” files. That means no bolds, no italics, no fancy typefaces and no other major formatting distractions. Pure, plain, unadorned text.
I mean, what’s the point in wasting time trying to make the stuff look fancy when half of it might get scrapped anyway? With plain text there’s no fiddling and cursing with Bill Gates and Ms Word when the cranky software puts an entire paragraph or a list (Ms Word has this thing about lists) into Comic Sans for no reason – maybe she thinks this is funny but I don’t – or decides to turn a random number of subsequent paragraphs into Gill Sans Ultra Bold.
Pure text avoids all that. It’s also a good exercise if – like me – you tend to over-italicise everything. You can’t have italics in unformatted text, so you might look for other ways to achieve the same get the emphasis or contrast across.
3. Using a plain text editor
At the “pure text” stage I use a plain text editor. That means dedicated plain text editing software that can’t do fancy formatting.
A popular pure text editor on a PC is a program called Notepad; on an old Mac the equivalent would be something like Textedit (or Simpletext on more ancient machines)
However, even for handling pure text in its simplest incarnation these default programs that come with your computer are – in terms of their limited features and terrible interfaces – horribly clunky bits of software.
I use two alternatives: TextWrangler (on a Mac) and Notetab Light (on a PC). Both are superb little packages, both are freeware, and both are highly recommended as powerful “general purpose” text editors.
They both have just enough functions for the job in hand, but are far more sophisticated than Notepad on a PC or Textedit on a Mac. While they don’t have all the bells and whistles of Ms Word that distract or frustrate you, this is a good thing: I am fed up with the horrific death scene in chapter six being turned into 72pt Comic Sans.
Both TextWrangler and Notetab Light have excellent find-and-replace facilities – for example, you can change a character’s name across dozens of open files – and they have tabs so you can jump back and forth between a large number of documents before you’ve pulled these scraps together into a final running order.
Another good feature is the ease in which you can “change case”. Absolutely essential when you’re dealing with a PI character.
And an added bonus of plain text is that when time comes to copy and paste it into a Word document it won’t have stray styles and formatting – in that sense it’s more neutral than Switzerland.