By Kevin J. Anderson
[This is an abridged version of an article from KJA’s April 8, 2010 Blog Post entitled: Dictating, Writing, Hiking]
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 micro-cassettes, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
So keep an open mind if you are willing to try a new writing technique. Go out and talk to yourself.