Three Great Apps for Writers

20130911-161151.jpgNot too long ago, by beloved Blackberry went bust. I was a die-hard BB fanboy for years, but had been getting disillusioned; the OS always felt sluggish, the included browser was painfully slow, and the app store was vacant because developers preferred the much more lucrative Android and iPhone markets. So when my phone died, I didn’t go back–I joined the pack and got an iPhone.

And I discovered something: I was using my Blackberry for very particular purposes, but I was missing out on a lot of innovative apps that would help my writing and my work. Now, I don’t intend to stay with the iPhone–I love my Android based Kobo Arc, so it makes sense to go with an Android phone–but these apps run on both systems. And I’ve found them indespensible:

Any.do

I’m a fan of checklists, and every time I upgrade a device, I search for a good list app. I’ve found the ultimate in Any.Do. It’s intuitive, robust, and it syncronises across my phone, Kobo and even an extension in my Chrome browser.
It couldn’t be simpler. When you launch the app you’ll see a list of your to-do items. You can add an item by pressing the + symbol, and the iPhone and Android devices accept voice input. You can then organise by due date (even pushing items to “someday”) or create folders. I have folders for Work, Personal and based on different projects with related tasks. When you complete a task, you can swipe to strike it off the list and–the fun part–shaking your phone will clear finished items.
Any.Do has also introduced a “Plan Your Day” feature, which will walk you through items that don’t have a due date so you can set priorities. Ask Any.Do to remind you in an hour, set it for tomorrow, or push it to next week. This is an excellent app, and I have it up on my work computer constantly through the day. If you want to keep track of progress and tend to forget the little details, get this now.

Any.Do has also built a Calendar app. I’m just getting used to it, but I like it a lot better than the native Iphone calendar. It’s clean, fresh, and simple–plus it lists your to-dos from Any.Do, and you can set it up to cycle through different images in the background. They’re also working on mail and notes apps, which I’m eager to try. Check them out!

Springpad

Which leads me to Springpad. A note taking app is essential for me, as I tend to have ideas in the most inconvenient places. If I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it–so having a note app on my phone is great. I don’t much like the native apps because they’re not that helpful, beyond writing stuff down. So I’m always on the look for a better one.20130911-161251.jpg
I settled on an app called Catch, which was simple to use, organised things into folders, and had a web plugin. Unfortunately, they’re gone now and no longer support the app.
Instead, I’m trying Springpad, and so far I really like it. You can organize notes into books as well, and it’s very easy to navigate between notebooks. The best part is the web plugin–set the shortcut on your toolbar and all of your notes are accessible from the browser. This is a godsend for writers; you get an idea on the bus, jot it down on your phone, and by the time you’re home you can launch Chrome and the notes are there, ready for you to put into your word processor.
Springpad also has a really nice interface. It’s not unlike Pinterest, and captures your notes in a series of tiles you can share. Springpad also has a Search feature, which lets you find other people’s notes, share ideas, and collaborate on projects. You could set up an account at work, and give each employee access–everyone adds their ideas and it’s all put down in one place. My wife and I use it for shopping: you can create a checklist, which we use for groceries, and both of us can access it at any time to add items we need.
This is note-taking meets social media, and it’s a really nice combo. After using it for only a couple weeks, I’m a convert.

I should also mention the note taking heavyweight, Evernote. Many people swear by it, and it’s got its good points. Personally though, I never liked it; I’ve found the interface dull and counterintuitive, and it just never seemed helpful to me. To each their own.

Pocket

This is the one app I’m really excited about these days. I never really got into RSS readers, as they seemed to be pretty redundant; why download an article to read offline when the device you’re using is constantly online? The one application I can see is turing off your wifi or being in a location that doesn’t have access; not wanting to use your airtime is a good reason to use this app, but when wifi is so ubiquitous nowadays, it seems pointless. So I never bothered.

Until Pocket. I’ve been playing with this app for only a few days, but I’m hooked. I’m seeing the appeal of reading a headline or wanting to look something up, but not having the time to delve into it–Pocket lets you save that webpage or article and puts it in a queue for later reading. Again, simple as pie, but powerful if you use it right.
This app has solved a problem I didn’t realize I had. Although I don’t tweet much myself, I read twitter very often, and love getting interesting articles or hearing about releases from fellow Indies. When I come across a link I like, I tend to forward it to my email so I can check it out on a PC–many webpages just don’t display well on a phone browser.

Pocket allows me to get around that with no fuss. Just send it to the app, and it’s there when I’m ready. The best part is that Pocket has a web extension–I’m a fan of that integration, you can tell! If I come across a website I want to look at when I have more time, I can send that to pocket too. I’ve already got a nice list of things to catch up on.
Pocket also has some nice integration with other apps. I have yet to play with all the features, but you can send links to Pocket through Twitter, email, Digg, GReader, and more–over 300 apps and counting.

And here’s the really great news: Kobo recently announced that Pocket will be integrated in all its readers. You’ll be able to open your Reading Life to access all your Pocket pages. This brings e-reading to a new level; effectively it’s an electronic newspaper curates to your exact specifications. The feature is set to launch on September 13–I can’t wait to use it!

That’s it for today, but keep an eye on the blog for an upcoming interview with David A Hayden, and a review of Sarvet’s Wanderyar, by J. M. Ney Grimm!

 

 

Scrivener on the Go

Scrivener

Scrivener: A great program just got better!

Last week, I mentioned that I was learning to use OneNote, and trying to find a convenient way to sync between computers. I’ll tell what I found below, but first, I want to talk about a happy accident I had along the way.

I discovered you can run Scrivener off a USB drive.

Now, I work a regular 9-5 job, and between that and family life,my typical writing time is usually Saturday and Sunday mornings. But I also get to work about an hour before my workday starts, so I’ve taken to writing or researching in the morning. This is great, except that I don’t have access to Scrivener at my work computer and doubt I could convince IT it’s a necessary program for my job.

So I’ve been using a combination of Sugarsync and/or Google Drive, both of which I’ve used in the past with great effect. But it’s an extra step: when I get home, I have to copy and paste my work into Scrivener. And when things get really busy at work, I sometimes forget to do this and end up with contrasting versions on both machines. Not efficient.

So in researching how to update OneNote conveniently, I found out that you can run Scrivener from a flash drive. You can actually install the program onto the drive, though the Literature and Latte folks (creators of the program) don’t recommend it because flash drives are generally slower than PCs. Instead, they suggest installing to your computer as normal, then copying your files over to the USB through explorer. Though I don’t use a Mac, I’m sure there’s a similar procedure.

Once you do this, you can open your Scrivener files on another machine through the USB stick. Voila: I can now use Scrivener on my off time at work!

A caveat: when you plug your USB into another computer and start the program, you’ll be asked to enter a registration number or use the trial version, even if you’ve already purchased it. This is only because Scrivener verifies your license through the ‘net, and the new computer won’t be registered.

Fortunately, the Scrivener license allows you to use the program on up to 10 machines (as stated on their Technical Support page), so all you need to do is input your registration number again and you’re good to go. If you don’t have your number (it’s not accessible through the program), you can go here to have it retrieved for you.

I’ve raved about Scrivener before–if you’re a serious writer, it’s one program you shouldn’t do without–but I really have to say that it keeps impressing me. This is an excellent tool for writers, and with this revelation, it just got a whole lot better.

OneNote

Now to OneNote. This is less of an issue for me now–the reason I was using it for gathering research was because I couldn’t use Scrivener on my computer at work. Now that’s moot–but it’s still a useful program.

OneNote 2010–which I have on my home computer–has a nifty feature where you can synchronize your workbook to Microsoft Skydrive, which will then synchronize it to your other computers. As long as they also have OneNote 2010.

At work, I have 2007, so this isn’t an option. I’ve had trouble syncing the notebook between the two computers, and it’s getting a bit cumbersome. It’s a tad disappointing that the 2010 file can’t open in 2007, and can’t convert without additional software–after all, Word 2010 can be opened in an earlier version. The best I can seem to do is save my pages individually in 2007 format (I can’t seem to save the whole notebook in 2007), then open them on my work PC from there. It’s not nearly as streamlined as it really should be for a program whose whole purpose is to make and share notes, but maybe I’m missing something. If anyone has any tips to share, please leave them in the comments!

Ultimately, as I’ve said, this is now moot. If I can use Scrivener to compile my research from both machines, it’s simpler than using two different programs. OneNote still has its benefits, but I’m not sure I’ll continue using it for my projects. Sorry Microsoft–another case of a Mac product winning out!

Formatting eBooks–for Newbs

Last time, we spoke about the very basics of doing a book cover–today, another integral piece of the puzzle, formatting!

Before I got into e-publishing, I thought I knew what publishers wanted when you submit your manuscript. There are certain protocols you’re supposed to follow–name in the upper left corner, word count in the upper right, etc. The purpose of this is for the agent or publisher to have a quick reference, and for the editor to be able to easily get around your work. In e-publishing, though, the writer is filling most of those roles, so the game is completely different.

So why not just write the book in MS Word the way you want it to look, upload it to Kobo or Amazon, and press publish?

If you do that, I’ll guarantee you one thing: the end product will look horrible.

The thing is, a lot of the formatting in MS Word–or other word processors for that matter–is done in the background, where you can’t see it. Here’s an experiment: go to the View tab,

Word Formatting Marks

Formatting Marks: note there are even dots to indicate the space between words.

and find the option that shows your formatting marks. (In Word, go to Options, Display, and Show All Formatting Marks.) Your manuscript will be riddled with symbols; this is coding Word inputs into your file as you’re writing to determine what the output will look like. What many people don’t realize is that Word is not a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get program. Far from it!

Here’s another experiment. Copy a paragraph of your manuscript, open a blank file in Notepad, and paste it. The text should go, unbroken, on one line, and you’ll have to scroll to the right to see it all. This is because .txt files, unlike files from word processors, don’t have “Word Wrap,” meaning that the text will go on forever until a new paragraph is started. Looks hard to read, right? Surely we want our manuscripts to “wrap” when we format them for eBooks, right?

Actually, no. The thing is, there’s no standard for electronic books. Many–I’d even say most–go with the ePub format, while others–like the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle books–are .mobi files. There are several other formats; the point is, they’re all programmed differently. So when you upload a particular file to, say, Kobo, it might look vastly different when Amazon gets a hold of it. The difference comes in how those files interact with the formatting marks I mentioned earlier.

I haven’t experimented with every kind of file, so I can’t tell you yet which works best–what I can say is that, for the sake of your own sanity, the easiest thing to do is start with a raw file. I do a lot of my writing in MS Word through Google Docs–because it’s accessible anywhere, even on my phone–and copy and paste the text into Scrivener. Scrivener can output into several file types, including Real Text Format (rtf) or the MS Word .doc. Of, you can export it as a text file. This is the raw text–no formatting at all.

What I’ve been doing is exporting as a text file, then opening up a program called Sigil, a WYSIWYG editor (unlike Word!). Sigilis basically an HTML editor, meaning you’ll be coding in the same way you would a web page–or an eBook. It’s really simple to use, and you don’t need any experience with HTML. Just copy and paste your work, create headings (which will create a table of contents for you), and images if you have them, italicize and bold your text if need be. That’s it! There’s a handy tutorial here, and the whole process isn’t very long or arduous (though poetry is another story–it took a while to get Muzak for the Metro to look right).

It might even be simpler, though. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine you could output your Scrivener files as an eBook, which would open in Sigil. This way, you do most of your formatting as you work in Scrivener, and use Sigil for touch-ups.

Once that’s done, you use Calibre to tweak things like metadata and making sure everything is “just so.” But that’s a topic for another post.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eBook formatting, but it’s a start, and it’s a lot easier than some might lead you to believe. If you want to check out a sample of just how this turns out, you can go to Amazon to find the eBook I created with this process (including a cover) this weekend, Muzak for the Metro. It’s only $0.99, and it includes a poem that wasn’t in the original collection–plus an excerpt from “Room With a Corpse,” a short story which will appear in my forthcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories. Check it out!

Publishing through Kobo, Step by Step

Visit the Kobo Writing Life site by clicking on the pic.

Yesterday, I talked about my first e-publishing experience. Today, I thought I’d walk you through it.

For my first venture into e-publishing, I’m going with Kobo Writing Life. I’m Canadian and Kobo the primary source for buying eBooks up here, and because I own a Kobo myself it seemed a natural first step. Kobo also has agreements to distribute your work to several different eBook sellers which—while it doesn’t yet include Amazon or iBooks—is growing quickly. Finally, Kobo also doesn’t hold you to rights, meaning I can upload the book to an aggregator and get it into other major retailers anyway.

Step One:

Do your research. You can find the FAQ here, and there’s a helpful User Guide once you sign up. Also, be sure to go over the Terms and Conditions. Know what you’re getting into; lots of people use this service and it’s in Kobo’s best interest to work to your best interest, but if you don’t know all the details you could get caught by surprise.

(I’ve gone through the T&C, and they’re solid–still, read them. For a horror story on why you should read Terms and Conditions as a writer, visit this link. They don’t have anything to do with Kobo, which is a fair and honest service!)

 Step Two: Rights.

Kobo requires that you own the digital rights to your work, but doesn’t claim rights to it. This means that they will let you distribute the book on your own, without their interference (as opposed to, say, Amazon KDP, which requires you sell only through them), as long as you own the rights. If it’s something you wrote yourself, you won the rights automatically, and it’s copyrighted. If it’s a book someone else wrote, you’ll want to make sure you get the rights…but we’re writers here, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Step Three: Your account.

Enter your contact information. One thing that caught me is the optional field for your Publisher name. Kobo encourages this if you’re an individual doing business under a different name, i.e. a publishing house. I’m not sure this is strictly necessary, but I imagine it would come in handy if you’re uploading books for which you own the rights, but haven’t written yourself; for example, there’s a (look up that company that does copyright fee books). I put my Publisher Name as Eloquent Eyes Books, a spin on the title of this blog.

Here is where you need to accept the Terms and Conditions, which, of course, is a requirement of signing up. If you don’t agree to the terms, you’ll need to go somewhere else. Now, we’re all guilty of just glossing over T&C forms in our haste to just install the software or whatever, but–at the risk of repeating myself–in this case you really need to familiarize yourself with them. You wouldn’t want to get your account suspended because you went against them, or find yourself in breach of contract somewhere. I would add some pertinent notes from the conditions, but one of the conditions is that I don’t publicly share them without their consent. So if you’re interested, check them out by signing up!

 Step Four: Payment Details.

Once you verify your email address, you’ll be asked to set up payment details. Go to Your Account, and a drop down menu will show you where you need to go. From here you can enter your banking information. Kobo pays you royalties on every book sold, depending on the price—if you fall between a certain price range and conditions, you’ll get 70% royalties; if it’s outside that range you get 25%. You’ll get paid by direct fund transfer into the account your specify about once an month-though Kobo will hold your payment if it’s less than $100 a month, in which case you’ll receive it at the end of six months. Kobo also notes that it may take as long as 45 days to receive payments, though I’m not sure why this is.

Step Five: Publish Your Book.

This is the fun part, and Kobo makes it painless. There’s a link that says “Create new ebook;” clicking on that will start you on a four step process. First you describe your book by adding a title, subtitle, and series name if applicable; writing a synopsis that will appear in the store; and giving your eISBN number. Purchasing an ISBN is the subject of another article–but note that if you’re a resident of Canada, you can get one for free through the government. You also put your book into a number of categories, which will help buyers find it by browsing through the store. Finally, you can add a cover–we’ll go over that in more detail in another post, but you’re basically just uploading a .jpeg that will show as the book cover in the store.

Next you upload the book–Kobo accepts a number of formats, and if you don’t upload it in an .epub file, they’ll convert it for you.Then you set the rights; you have the option to allow the sale of the book in other countries (though I don’t see why you’d restrict that), and whether or not you want DRM protection.

Finally, setting the price. Again, that’s a topic for another article; suffice it to say that you can set whatever you like, and Kobo will automatically convert currencies for you for sale in different countries. Or, you can set each country’s sale price individually–though again, I’m not sure why you’d want to. Note that the royalties you receive differ depending on the price you set–for example, if it’s less than $1.99 or more than $12.99 you only get 45% royalties; otherwise you get 70%.

*Also note that, for a limited time (until the end of November), Kobo is offering a bonus incentive: 80% royalties on all books within the range noted above.

And that’s it. Nice and simple–even as a guy who’s completely new to this e-publishing thing, I had no issues. I’ve also found the Kobo staff to be extremely helpful, and quick to answer questions via email. The only real negative I can give is that they don’t publish your book to Amazon, B&N, or iBooks–but really, they’re not an aggregator, and that would be outside the scope of their business, so you can’t fault them for it. They do put your book out internationally, so there’s still a lot of exposure–and there’s nothing preventing you from also uploading your book to Smashwords or LuLu.

So there we are! Next up, we’re back to my current project. I’m in the midst of professional editing now, so I want to take the next few articles to talk about that process. Stay tuned!

Editing your Scrivener Project Through Sugarsync

Today I want to give a quick tip about Scrivener. I’ve started following them on twitter (here), where they send tips and shortcuts. One that I’ve seen a couple times from them is how you can back up your work in the cloud by using Dropbox–which is a great idea.

Click for a larger view

But I’m not a Dropbox user–I’m on the other side of camp with Sugarsync. It works the same way: in Scrivener, go to File>Backup>Backup To, and it will prompt you for a folder, as seen here:

You can save it as a .zip file, and you’re good to go. Do this regularly.

But I mostly don’t use Sugarsync for backup; I use it to synchronize my work between computers, so I can work anywhere. One of my first questions about Scrivener was if I could open a project on a different computer, work on it, and see that work updated when I got to my home machine. Of course, normally you can’t do this unless you have Scrivener on each machine–but I’ve found a way to make it work.

Scrivener saves each project in a series of .rtf files. If you go to Windows Explorer and open up the folder containing your project, you’ll see another folder called Docs. This folder contains all the information for your project, including the little blurbs on your index cards, how they’re linked together, and the actual text files for each chapter or scene.

Click for a larger view.

And here’s the trick: if you open one of those .rtf files on another computer through Sugarsync and make edits, those changes appear in Scrivener as soon as it updates in the cloud–and because Scrivener saves your project automatically, the reverse is true. So working on your Scrivener project on the go is as simple as finding the document you want to edit and going from there.
There are two caveats: the first is the way the files are named. Scrivener names those files automatically–or, rather, numbers them. If you try to change the name of a file to something you’ll more easily recognize–for example, Scene 1–it will show up in your Scrivener project as blank, because the program is looking for particular file names. So there is some trial and error in finding the file you want to edit–but really, it’s as simple as opening up .rtf files until you find the one you want. After that, it’s smooth sailing, though it might be inconvenient for really large projects with dozens of files.
Secondly, you won’t of course have access to all the wonderful options and tools of the program–you’re just editing a word file. If you have Scrivener on another computer, synchronizing should work even better, and you’d have full access to the project on both computers. But this suits my purposes; when I write I like to just bang it out, and go over it later when I edit. I can do the really rough draft on the go, and edit and play around with it in Scrivener when I’m on my main PC.

So there you have it. It may not be for everyone, but I’ve found it tremendously useful! And although I’m not a Dropbox user, I imagine the whole process works in just the same way with that program.

P.S. You can follow Sugarsync on Twitter as well, right here.

Scrivener: the Ultimate Writer’s Tool.

Scrivener

So you’ve got a way to gather your research, a place to hammer out your 750 words a day, and a bunch of handy web resources at your fingertips. The next step, of course, is to write your project. And by many accounts, the best tool for that is a program called Scrivener.

Scrivener is a project based writer’s tool that aims to help you get past your first draft. It’s an organizer, a compiler, can build your manuscript into publisher accepted formats, and can export the final project into a number of file types, including an eBook. It’s a one stop shop for the self-publishing writer!

Now, I’ve only started using Scrivener, so I don’t as yet have a comprehensive view of all the tips and tricks. It’s a remarkably robust program; you could work in it for months and not use half the features that are available to you. The the thing is that, unlike a certain Microsoft based word processor, not knowing all these little features doesn’t get in the way of using the program–but when you find them, the program gets more and more convenient to use.

Scrivener is based on an framework set to help you organize your project. When you open a new project, you’ll see a series of folders on the left hand side, each of which represents a different chapter in your book. On the right is a corkboard, where you can “pin” index cards to outline the chapter or–if you click on the chapter in question–indicate separate scenes. These cards can be shuffled around in any order, labelled as concepts, ideas, first/revised/final drafts, or moved from folder to folder. You can outline your entire novel in one place, and shuffle things around as you please. This makes organization simple, but also means that one of the messier parts of editing–rearranging things so your plot flows smoothly–is solved with a click of your mouse. You can even run a search for specific keywords to filter a certain group of cards; if, for example, you have a subplot that weaves through your main story without interfering with it, you can pull all of those cards in sequence to see that it makes narrative sense.

The main corkboard

If that was where the program ended, it would be worth trying out. But Scrivener does so much more.

There’s a place for you to keep notes and plot lines for specific characters or places, and even general concepts so they are at your fingertips, but don’t interfere with the manuscript. There’s a pane for research where you can add images, text, full webpages, and even video to reference as you write. You can re-size this pane to show as much or as little of either side as you like. Likewise, you can bring up a pane to show your index cards, so you can write scene by scene and rearrange the entire structure as you go. I think that Debrief, shown earlier this week, is better at handling all your research in one place, though Scrivener seems to have more options in terms of including media. I’m still playing with both.

Scrivener research

You can do research in Scrivener too!

Scrivener can show you at a glance how many pages, words and characters are in the entire document, or just parts of it; how many pages it would be if it were printed as a paperback or 8.5X11 paper; it can calculate word frequency in the document; and you can add word count targets for each chapter, or the project as a whole.

Scrivener also gives you access to a few simple–but useful–tools, such as looking up a highlighted term in Google, Wikipedia or Dictionary.com; translating the word into other languages; and even a name generator. (Though the name generator has a lot of options as to race, nationality, number of names, etc., I still found it to be a bit generic. Though I prefer character names that reflect character, so I won’t be using this feature anyway).

Of course, once your project is finished, you’ll want to do something with it. You can compile your project and export it in a variety of formats, including .pdf, .rtf, .doc, ePub and .mobi. Each format gives you a number of options as to what to include in the final output, and when you compile as an eBook you can edit the metadata. Conceivably, you could write a book, export as an ePub, and have it ready to upload it to sell in your favourite eBook store all with the same program.

Scrivener Compile

Compile your eBook with ease!

Because Scrivener is such a large program, it can seem daunting to use. As I mentioned, you could skim the surface of the program and be perfectly happy with it, but the deeper you go the more useful it is. Fortunately there are helpful tutorials at your disposal. These tutorials are set up as projects, so you can open one (for a novel, for example), and work through it as a hands on example of how to use all the program’s features. It will take a couple of hours to go through it, but it’s worth it to get the full scope of the program. For those who want a quicker look, there’s also a series of video tutorials on their website that will give you a good idea of how to use Scrivener.

Did I mention you can also take “snapshots” of different edits of your work and compare them side by side? Or type in full screen mode with no distractions–though you can add a background image for inspiration? Or (on the Mac) edit multiple pieces of text simultaneously, dragging and dropping bits into each, in Scrivenings mode? I’ve also figured out how to synchronize my files with Sugarsync so I can work on them away from home, even though I only have Scrivener on this computer.

Scrivener is available for the Mac (for which it was originally written) and Windows. There’s a lot more documentation about the Mac version, but the Windows version is catching up. It comes with a 30 day free trial, though to be honest, the $43 price tag ($48 for the Mac version) is a steal for as much as this program can do. If you’re serious about writing, this is a great program to help you achieve your goal.

Writer’s Tools: Online

I unfortunately wasn’t able to post yesterday–good argument for not promising to post daily, not enough time for that–but fortunately was planning a piece on some cloud based technology that will work well with today’s post: tools you can find online.

Nowadays, the internet is ubiquitous. You have it on your phone; you can get information almost anywhere, at the touch of a button. With the increasing prevalence of wi-fi Hot Spots at restaurants, airports and coffee shops, you can even bring your laptop with you most places and plug in. Which makes writing on the go a lot easier.

When I was in University, I had a Palm Pilot with a little fold out keyboard, and everything folded up into a neat wallet sized bundle. I did all my writing on this device–creative and schoolwork–and it was a godsend. But the one thing I always missed was that it was only a place to get my thoughts out; I couldn’t do any decent editing because the word processor wasn’t great; there was no dictionary or encyclopedia on the device; and research was no more convenient than bringing a notepad to the library and writing by hand. Then I got a laptop, and would bring that everywhere; I had a lot more at my fingertips, but still couldn’t connect to the internet for research, and the battery life wasn’t all that great.

Today, your average phone has more processing power than my laptop did back then, and you have a plethora of tools available for you whenever you want them. In fact, information is so readily available that, interestingly, it’s holding us back; in his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr posits that having so much information so easily available is causing us to only skim it for what we want right now, rather than digging deeper. But that’s a topic for another day.

The internet has a wealth of tools for writers, from forums where other writers will discuss issues with you, to how to’s on publishing, eBook building, getting an agent and so on, to myriad contests writers can enter to get their work off the ground. Here are a few of the ones I visit regularly:

Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com are a must. Of course, nothing beats having a real Webster’s, but for quick reference, it’s a lot better than the options in Microsoft Word. The thing I like most about these online resources is that entries are hyperlinked, so you can click your way from one definition to the next very quickly. It might seem like cheating, but it’s a quick way to double check the spelling of your word or find an alternative to fit the story. You can also check out popular quotes on a variety of subjects.

Wikipedia is another invaluable “quickie” resource. Now let’s get this out of the way first: it’s an open to all platform, where anyone who signs up can edit an entry. This means you’ll find a lot of obscure information that won’t be in Encyclopedia Britannica–but more importantly that you can’t rely on the truth of the information you find. I use Wikipedia as a starting point, looking up a topic I think is interesting and exploring it from there. Each entry should include source material, and that’s where you’ll find the proper books to do some real research. It’s a great place to get the tip of the iceberg–but for real research, you’ll have to dig deeper. As a side note, there are wikis made for pretty well any subject you can imagine, some of which will have much more specific information that Wikipedia, so do your Googling.

One of these separate wikis is TVTropes.com. It’s a compendium of various well used tropes and ideas from all media–the site is quick to point out the difference between a trope and a cliche. This is a place where you can look up, for example, character archetypes. Or your basic plots. Or one of my favourite Sci-Fi devices, The Watson. This is the kind of site that’s worth just wandering around in. You’ll get lost for hours, but there’s so much to learn about the nature of entertainment, and how and why we enjoy it. Getting to know some popular tropes–and how to use them properly–can definitely make you a better writer.

Speaking of becoming a better writer, you can’t go wrong with studying The Elements of Style. This is the seminal grammar text from Strunk and White, and is a must-read for any writer. That website (which includes the entire text), says it best on the front page: you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them. Grammar is important for a creative writer because you want to break it occasionally, whether it’s to fit the tone, alter a character’s dialogue, or create tension. But don’t do it blindly:here’s the road map.

Another way to improve your writing is to get in touch with your audience. That means building a fan base, but also paying attention to what others are writing in the same genres as you. Goodreads is a site where you can review books you’ve read, and see how others are reviewing the same books. By browning through the stacks, as it were, you can see which authors are acclaimed for what they do–and put them on your reading list. With some careful consideration about what types of books people seem to most enjoy, you can start thinking about elements you want to bring into your own work. Now, I’m not saying you need to write for the masses–that’s not what creative writing should be about–but it’s also not wise to write something nobody wants to read in the first place.

Almost any city, province, region or country is going to have a writer’s guild somewhere. Up here, we have the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. Any writer’s guild worth it’s salt is going to be a congregation of like minded–and geographically close to you–writers who can share their craft. You’ll find writing tips, editing services, constructive feedback, contest, and publishing information. If you haven’t already, find your nearest writer’s guild and sign up!

One of my favourite online resources is Sugarsync. Cloud based storage is the Next Big Thing, and Sugarsync got in early enough that’s they’ve got a really solid business model and great software. You can try Dropbox or iCloud or the new Google Drive; they’re all the same idea with different implementations. Now I admit that once I tried Sugarsync, I haven’t gone with anyone else–but that’s because I don’t need to. This program has everything I need–large storage space, easy access to the cloud, integration with Blackberry, and excellent customer service. There’s really no reason not to use them.

I find Sugarsync to be invaluable, not only because all my writing is safely secured in the cloud, but also because I can edit my work anywhere. I’m the kind of person who gets ideas out of the blue, normally when I’m not at my home computer. Sugarsync allows me to open up a document and edit it from wherever I am, even if the computer I’m using doesn’t have the software and isn’t hooked up to my own cloud. I can just go to their site and edit from there, and it’s the same on every other computer as soon as it’s synchronized.

And no, I’m not on their payroll. I just love this company.

So there’s a bunch of links for you to try out. It’s by no means an exhaustive list–there are dozens of great resources out there for writers. Share yours in the comments!

Bonus:

National Novel Writing Month is a website that encourages users to…well, write a novel in one month. Their term is from November 1 to 30, and they’ve got a strict set of rules to follow. The idea is to challenge yourself as a writer under these time constraints–and honestly, a month is a lot of time if you plan it well. Can you write a full novel in 30 days? I haven’t tried this out yet, but am considering signing up for this year’s trial. Hope to see all you other writers there!

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Tools: Debrief Notes

Yesterday we focused on a way to get into the habit of writing every day–today we’ll look at another important aspect of creative writing: research.

Research is essential to creative writing. One of the first things you’re told as a writer is to “write what you know,” but even then, you should be doing research to back up your work. (And yes, this counts for fiction as well as non-fiction!)
The kind and extent of research you do will of course depend on your own style, and the content of your writing. Someone like George R. R. Martin has done an incredible amount of research to make the Song of Ice and Fire series so realistic; Shirley Jackson probably did less when writing The Lottery. But whatever your focus, it helps to be organized, and that’s where today’s tool comes in.

I came across Debrief Notes while looking for a tool to help with research, and it’s a powerful–yet simple–organizer program. It’s not necessarily meant for creative writers, but it serves that purpose well.
When you open the program, you see three panes with a couple toolbars. On the left there’s a folder tree where you can create

The basic editing panes.

new folders for each research item; directly below that is a list of which notes are in each folder; and to the right is an editing pane for the current note. It’s easy to see how well everything can be gathered in one place, and to get from one note to another quickly and easily–which is, in fact, the central philosophy behind the product.

You’re also able to create different “notebooks” for separate projects. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a drop down menu where you can choose your notebook. The one open in the screenshot is called Weird, and this is where I’ll keep notes for all my short stories in the weird fiction subgnere. This allows me to have notes from multiple different stories all in one place, which will help with creating a contiguous universe for my stories. I also have notebooks for various novel projects.

Another useful feature is the Daily Notepad, which opens by default when you open the program. This is a sort of general notepad where you can take notes you’ll organize later–for example, when you’re actively researching something and don’t want to move back and forth between folders in the program, you can take all your notes in this pane sort them when you’re done. The Standard and Professional versions of the program have a useful tool called Debrief, with which you can drag and drop text from the Daily Notepad into various notes for easy compilation.

The daily notepad

The program is available in three versions: Basic (which is available for free), Standard ($29.95) and Professional ($39.95). When you first download the program, you’re given a free 30 day trial, at the end of which you’ll be prompted to either stick with the Basic version or purchase a license key for another version. The difference between versions is in the features; Basic just allows you to make notes, Standard adds features like the aforementioned Debrief and Reference windows (basically allowing you to view multiple notes at once); and Professional includes password protection, reminders and to-dos, and tracking of a Reading List and Library.
The Standard version does add some good value, and I’d say it’s worth the price. The main attraction for the Professional version is the ability to keep track of the various books and periodicals you use for research–which can make it easy to go back and check on a source or quotation. So if you’re doing heavy research–say a historical novel–that would be the way to go. For most projects, though, the Basic version should do fine.

Another plus for this program is that you can get a Portable version, which can be run off a USB key. I can see this as being incredibly helpful, allowing you to take your research with you wherever you go, and to continue your research on any computer. I’ve been able to install the portable version to my Blackberry and run it from there once it’s hooked up to my computer. Because it needs a Windows environment to run, I doubt you could run the program in the native Blackberry OS, butWindows based tables and phones might be able to pull it off.

The one big drawback I see for this software is that it doesn’t appear to be supported any longer. Each time I start it up, I get a pop-up window that warns me that I’m using an older version, and that I should update it. Sadly, I have the most recent version of the program, and it’s from 2009. I don’t see any updates forthcoming, and this could also mean no support.
Fortunately, the program is simple and elegant–if you don’t mind an older looking UI–so it doesn’t really need to be updated. I could foresee an issue if the program crashes and you need tech support, but it’s a light program and I haven’t had any issues with it so far.

Keeping all your notes in one place is imperative for a writer who wants to do any amount of research. Scrivener, which we’ll get to later this week, has similar features, but I believe that Debreif does it better. Even if you’re just going with the basic package and $0 price tag, you’ll get a lot of use out of this program. Try it here, and let me know what you think!

Writer’s Tools: 750 Words.

The main screen, where you write. At the top is your “streak.” The number of words is tracked on the bottom of the page.

So you’re a writer, and you want to get published. It’s a big scary process, but it’s getting easier–especially with the advent of e-publishing. But before you polish off your manuscript and start selling, you have to write it. This week I’ll introduce some tools that I’ve found helpful in my own process, and I hope you’ll find some use out of them too.

The first–and absolutely the most important–thing you need to do as a writer is just sit down and write. I put my writing on hold for many years because I kept telling myself I didn’t have time, was out of ideas, didn’t want to go through the editing process…I was good at making excuses. There’s always a distraction, and it’s indisputably easier to not write than it is to produce something.

If you’re serious about writing, though, you just have to do it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have time; make the time. Just write something every day, stream of consciousness style, and eventually your talent will start to hone itself. It’s still a lot of work getting

The tone of your entry.

everything perfect, but it’s a start–and once you get into the habit, it gets a lot easier to keep doing it.

That’s where today’s tool come in. 750 Words is a website that encourages you to write (you guessed it) 750 words each and every day. It’s the equivalent of three pages of writing, and only takes about fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on how fast or distracted you are. It’s the brainchild of Buster Benson, who said he got the idea from a book called The Artist’s Way, in which the above idea–writing three pages a day–is outlined. It’s a simple concept, but I can attest that it’s a powerful one. In my first two days on the site, I bashed out half a short story that’s been knocking around in my head for weeks, not knowing how to be written. Between the two days, it took 35 minutes. Now, of course, this is raw unedited text, but that’s the point: just getting it out as a means of inspiring your creativity.

But it doesn’t stop there. The website also compiles a lot of data about your writing. The more you write, the better this data

Word usage.

is, and it can reveal some surprising results. It tracks how fast you type, of course, and how long it took you to get to 750 words (word count is tracked in real time); but it also tracks your distractions, compiles a graph showing your words per minute over time, and shows the total words you’ve typed over your lifetime on the site.

Benson also uses some clever algorithms to track things like the mood and tone of your writing (by picking up on keywords), frequency of word usage (like um, adverbs, and quantifiers), and what tense (past, present, future) you’re writing in. You can check your results daily and see how they change over time, and compare them to how the world (i.e. the 750words community at large) does the same things.

This might seem like just some fun information, but for a writer, this kind of data can be invaluable. Do you use certain words too much in your writing? Are you mixing tenses accidentally? Are you trying to write a story one way, but the tone comes out all wrong? Depending on what you write each day and how you interpret the data, you can get a pretty clear idea of how you write–from an objective viewpoint.

The site also tracks how often you write, since the object is to write every day, and that it offers a point

Tenses and commonly used words.

system by means of rewarding your contribution. This is then compared against the world as well, offering an air of competitiveness that some will find motivating.

I should note again that this site isn’t meant to be a place where you churn out excellent work. It’s going to be rough-but rough work can be edited. I’ve taken to copying all the text I type once I finish, and pasting it into a raw word file. This way I can go back to it (the site doesn’t save your text day to day) and get a finished story out of it, or even just revisit the writing. Or paste it into Scrivener for some organizing–but we’ll get to that tool later this week.

Benson runs this site out of his own pocket, and doesn’t charge for you to become a member. You can, however, donate to the cause by going here and scrolling down. On the left there’s a drop down menu where you can choose how much to contribute via PayPal–cleverly referred to as buying a cup of coffee–or you can contribute monthly. It’s certainly worth it to keep this service free for all.

In the end, what we have here is a tool to get you started. Even accomplished writers will find this useful, if anything as a motivator to keep at it daily. The more you write, the better you’ll write, and this is a simple and effective way to get into the habit. Definitely check it out.

eBooks and You!

I’ve done a lot of thinking over the past few days since I started this blog about how often I’ll be posting. Some blogs post daily, some once in a while. I haven’t posted in my other blog–Anything But Falafels–in a while, but am totally getting to it.

For this one…I think it’s important to post regularly in an effort to develop my audience–and to keep myself accountable and motivated. So I’m going to try to post daily, even if it’s something quick. Like today.

When eBooks first became a thing, I thought it was a ridiculous idea. I’m one of those guys who loves spending time in bookstores and libraries. Ask my wife; we go in, I won’t come out for hours. I love the smell of books, I love the way books feel, I love the heft of them in my hands. For probably close to two decades, I haven’t left the house without a book.

So my first thought–shared by many, I’m sure–about eBooks was “why on earth would you want to carry another electronic gizmo in place of an honest to goodness book?” And for years, I stubbornly refused to get into the tech.

But it started creeping under my skin. It started with .pdf files and smartphones. I work at a job that requires extensive knowledge of certain laws and policies pertaining to liquor service, and have the Tome itself on a bookshelf in my office. When I heard I could get it on my phone–and search for text, highlight text, and save changes, all on the go–I was intrigued. A phone isn’t an ideal platform for this sort of thing, but it showed me the potential–and it’s a slippery slope from there. A year or so later, I bought my first Kobo, and was an instant convert. I still read “real books,” but the convenience of having them all with me at once is indispensable.

You see, I’m a collector of books–between digital and hard copies, probably over 500 and counting. I love to research things, so having a digital library at my fingertips is a great idea. Being able to compare translations of the Tao te Ching or highlight passages in books that give me ideas for stories or other things to research,  or making notes within the text to draw comparisons from one text to another; all of this is very exciting to me. Time was I could only do this at the library, having requisitioned a bank of desks to myself, piled to the rafters with books, spending eight or ten hours by myself in a dusty corner. Now it’s all in the palm of my hand.

Another thing I love about Kobo is that it’s easy to explore. Browsing is one of my favourite bookstore or library activities; you never know what you’ll find by scouring the racks. Online it’s different; you have to have a place to start, and often you won’t get too much further from where you already are. But algorithms for suggesting new books are improving. With the option to Preview books from the Kobo store, you can even try out dozens of titles for fee and only buy the ones that interest you…kind of like checking them out of the library.

The technology isn’t perfect. pdf files don’t display very well on my Kobo. Sometimes the pages don’t turn, or turn more than I intend. The Preview feature is sometimes useless, because the only pages previewed end up being the copyright and Table of Contents. But the technology is growing fast–and so is the base of readers using it, not to mention the huge number of people writing specifically for the eBook market. Which is exactly why I’m here, isn’t it?

So what are your experiences and opinions on eBooks? Hurting the publishing industry? The next new fad, only to fade? Wave of the future, one step away from downloading text directly to our brain (how cool will that be)?

Next week we’re going to kick off a feature: Writer’s Tools. I’m going to try to post five articles, each featuring a different tool that writers can use to hone their craft. Because, after all, you can’t publish anything if you have nothing to publish. Stay tuned, and have a great weekend!