Writer in Residence

On Writing Essentials

By Samantha Garner

An open laptop, a cup of coffee, and a black candle sit on a white coffee table

Much as I admire highly regimented and disciplined writers, that's simply not me. Believe me, I've tried! However, no matter how unstructured my writing day might be, there are five essentials that I just can't work without.

1) Scrivener

When I began writing The Quiet is Loud, I quickly found I needed a more feature-rich option than Word. Everyone I talked to screamed "SCRIVENER" at me, and after a few days of using it, I could see why. If you're unfamiliar, Scrivener is a writing program that's focused on keeping you organized. Now, Scrivener is famously a bit too feature-rich, but here are some reasons why it changed my writing:

  • Folders for everything are displayed in a pane along the side of the workspace, and files open in the same project window so you don't have to go hunting.
  • Different templates for character notes and setting notes (including a space for character images).
  • The ability to display (in my case) chapter summaries on index cards, which are themselves on a corkboard. Rearrange at will!
  • A huge variety of options for file and folder icons. For example, I like to have Act 1, 2, and 3 markers set as blue flags, with the midpoint as a purple flag
  • Having my synopsis and notes easily at hand on the right-hand side of the workspace
  • Word count trackers for the chapter and the project as a whole
  • Colour-coded labels you can customize for things you want to track across the project, such as character storylines
  • A name generator

I could go on, but those are the most useful things about Scrivener for me. I love to research, and having my notes and my writing in the same program is something I can't imagine my writing life without now.  

2) A Google incognito window

Poet, novelist, short story writer, non-fiction writer - "Embarrassing Research" is surely at the nexus of that particular Venn diagram. Who among us hasn't hunched over their laptop or shrunk their browser window to almost unusable size, just to reduce the risk of someone misinterpreting what they're reading? Even though my husband has long since stopped being shocked by anything he sees while I'm writing, it does ease my mind to know my browser history won't give anyone cause for concern.

3) Tea or coffee

I write in different places, at different times, for different lengths of time. But for me the one anchor to something resembling a routine is making tea or coffee. I absolutely love reading about writers' routines, and used to try and contort my life and personality to have a solid routine. It was horrible. I never stuck to it, I usually wrote poorly, and often didn't write at all. So I relaxed this expectation. My Writing Tea or Writing Coffee is a commemoration, a concession, a pledge to always treat my particular creative brain with respect.

4) My writers' group

In 2018, a good friend of mine said she had been talking to a few other writer friends about forming a little writers' group. Fast forward three years, and I truly can't imagine my life without them. Writing is a very vulnerable thing, and to find a group who treats my work with respect and gives me nothing but honesty, support, and great ideas - it really does feel like magic. Semi-Retired Hens forever!

5) Quiet

I'm not someone who can write in a noisy environment, especially if the noises are interesting - I am far too nosey to keep my ears to myself. But for me, quiet itself is also a key component in my writing. In 2010, I read the second volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography and was struck by her description of a writing day. She describes some quotidian things: taking her child to school, doing some shopping. She starts writing, gets up and walks around, sits in a different chair for a while, writes a few sentences, walks around again. Could this really be writing? At the time it was a revelation to me. 

She writes:

"So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable."

I am an expert wool-gatherer now. In quiet, everyday life I work through ideas as I walk. I visit a forest. I stand at the window and watch whatever there is to see, interested in everything. It all funnels into my work. Even if I'm not consciously thinking about a scene or a character, these quiet moments set me up for calmer, more curious writing.

*Honourable mention: My notebooks. For a couple of years I've been using notebooks on a fairly regular basis, to sketch out settings, write about characters, work through ideas. It really feels like there is something that switches over in the brain when you hand-write. We'll see if notebooks become Writing Essential #6 - time will tell.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Samantha Garner is the author of The Quiet is Loud, shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A Canadian of mixed Filipino-Finnish background, her character-driven fantasy novels explore themes of identity and belonging. When not writing, Samantha can be found daydreaming in a video game or boring a loved one with the latest historical fact she’s learned.

She can be found online at samanthagarner.ca and on Instagram and Twitter at @samanthakgarner.