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Tools of the trade

I've always thought that there's really only one writing tip, applicable to everyone: just write. But how a writer writes is as individual as the style of the words they put on paper -- or on screen.

The very first novel I ever wrote (a sordid tale of pre-teen crushes at a make-believe summer camp) was carelessly scrawled in blue ink on hole-punched A4. I've still got the ratty sheaf of paper somewhere, marked up by a long-suffering English teacher and practically indecipherable to my adult self.

Now that I've owned up to my terrible handwriting, and am no longer authoring under sixth grade duress, I've turned to some great tools to help me get the most out of my all-too-scarce writing minutes per day. I thought I'd share some of them here -- both for writing and organising -- and baby, if you've got miracle workers of your own, give them over!

In a nutshell: Organise and plan your project: from notes on ideas, to research and multimedia, to your full text.
How I use it: I use Scrivener during the early stages of my stories in a number of ways. First, as repositories for future ideas (I've currently got random .scriv files labelled "space opera", "Victorian", "vampire" and "best sex evah", among other things). Then, when I'm ready to flesh out an idea, I make virtual index cards for every scene I think will be in it and "storyboard" in that way (I rarely actually stick to this, but it's useful to have a vague idea to then ignore). I find I tend to opt out of using Scrivener and use a plain old Word document once I've got the foundations laid and the first third of the story written. But you can certainly use Scrivener all the way through -- even as a word processor -- and I do continue to use my story file for rough bits, storing cuts that may make an appearance later, and so I can refer to my character notes.
Can I get it? Free for 30 days, after which, it's US$45. I happily bought my copy. Currently for Macs only but Windows is in development. New version out late October 2010.

In a nutshell: OmmWriter is a minimalist text processor that lets you go zen and full-screen with no distractions except for their delightful choice of soundeffects (chiming, birdsong, white noise, and dulcet clickings for your keyboard strokes).
How I use it:
Oh my, do I love OmmWriter. It's just so pleasant to use as a word processor. Not really suitable for managing a document, but if you're well into the zone, time's not a problem and you just want a simple, relaxing environment to free-associate your scene in, there's nothing better. Mental clutter falls away with every word you type.
Can I get it? They've just released a new version, OmmWriter Dana. Currently for Macs only.

Write or Die
In a nutshell: The evilest word processor out there, Write or Die takes no prisoners, and certainly no excuses. Brilliant for the timed "blitz" approach, and especially perfect for writers like me who have limited writing time and a penchant for shiny distractions...
How I use it: When I've got 20 minutes to spare for writing, I love to use Write or Die to make sure I use those minutes productively. You can set your target wordcount and also your time limit to whatever you wish. I find Write or Die works even better for me on a Sunday when I can dedicate the entire day to the writing project. I take a ridiculously hardcore approach to scheduling my day, slotting in 20 minutes of writing time followed by 10 minute get-up-and-do-a-chore breaks, one after the other. I'll do about 4 of these 20+10 sessions before taking a longer break and then starting another cycle. A reasonable expectation for myself (if I push it) is 350 words in 20 minutes -- sometimes more and sometimes less. This Write or Die discipline resulted in a record 6,000 words in one day for me when I was working on The Festival Spirit. But whatever your speed, it's a great way to keep you typing and stop you from editing mid-sentence! Oh, and my best tip for using WoD? Have the first sentence ready before you start the countdown. That way you can begin mid-flow and avoid stalling right out of the gate.
Can I get it? There's a free online web version, plus you can buy a desktop version for US$10. I just bought the desktop version and it has cool visualisations so you literally feel like you're racing against time PLUS you can compete against other users to see who's most productive!

If you're a notebook fan, there's lovely eco-friendly options available from ethical Canadian business Ecojot. I like their owl designs!

No mention of mywriting tools would be complete, however, without talking about how I keep my drafts and notes straight across various computers...

In a nutshell: Very handy little tool where you can write and then store your document on your own personal, private, password-protected whiteboard online. You can share the link with collaborators as well and keep track of the changes they make.
How I use it: I use this all the time. If something occurs to me -- a line of dialogue, a research link, a character note, whatever -- during my day job, I open up my story writeboard and jot it down for retrieval later at home. I've also collaborated with several people on a long story using a back-and-forth using a writeboard as the main document, to great success. You can create as many writeboards as you want, each with their own distinct URL.
Can I get it? Writeboard is free.

In a nutshell: Dropbox is cloud storage and online backup that syncs between your different computers. You can share folders with other people.
How I use it: I actually keep my working story files in Dropbox, so I can access them from any of my systems. That way I avoid confusion about which draft is where. Dropbox is so handy, as soon as you start using it you'll find it indispensable.
Can I get it? Dropbox is free for the 2GB basic account, and costs for more storage.

When it comes right down to it, though, there's only one thing that can really help me with my writing. And that's some good inspiration, like, mmmm, gorgeous British actor Tom Hardy, the inspiration for the character of Valentine, who will appear in my 20th December TEB release His Christmas Present and in my current work in progress "Taking it Off"!

What writing tools (or inspiration) do you use? Are you a scribbler or a typer? Share your secrets!

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Annabeth Carew said...

Hi Rachel,
Wow! You've opened a whole new world to me. I'd never heard of any of these tools, and I will definitely check them out. Thanks!

To be honest, the only thing I recognized from your post was "plain old Word". Yes, clearly I am not only a new writer but a new computer user.

I started writing Amber's Attraction with pen and paper before buying my first computer and working out how to use it. Or a bit of it, anyway. Like the Word bit.

I don't know how anyone ever wrote a book before computers.


Rachel Randall said...

Hi Annabeth,

Judging from the excitement about Amber's Attraction, that seems to be working quite well for you ;)

Good for you for taking the computer plunge! If you do decide to try out some of these programmes and have any difficulties I'm happy to walk you through them...

I wish there was a quick way to turn pen and paper notes into text files on the computer. I dislike scribbling in notebooks because I don't like to take the time digitising what I've written (and I always lose the sheets of paper...!)

Annabeth Carew said...

Thanks for that, Rachel. I had a look at some of them, and I might have a play with Writeboard.

Yeah, I was pretty keen to leave the notebook behind. You can only cross-out, circle with arrows and write diagonally in the margins etc. for so long.

Sascha Illyvich - The Dark Wolf Prince said...

As always, I have to chime in with "why use those tools? LOL! I understand some writers need methodical kicks in the ass but I'm a minimalist. Bottle of booze, Laptop with MS Word, a plotter pad document given to me by my mentor, that's it.

Rachel Randall said...

LOL Sascha!

Yeah, the writing process is really personal.

I agree that when it comes down to it, they're absolutely just tools and the important thing's the kinky brain and whatever stimulants I can get my hands on ;)

If I enjoyed handwriting (owww my wrist!), I might not want the tools...but since I hate it, and putting myself on the computer leaves me wide open to cyber distractions, I find that the act of using a dedicated programme *commits* me to the task of writing.

Having said all that, I couldn't do without Writeboard or Google Docs or Dropbox...stuff that puts my files in one place regardless of the computer I'm on. I would never ever find my most recent drafts otherwise!