Writing Tools and Process

I often find the processes of other writers interesting, though my level of interest in a given writer’s process and tools is not really proportionate to my interest in their work. Some people create brilliant stuff with a fountain pen and legal pads, and only type everything up at the last stage because editors can’t read their scribbles. Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the greatest living writer in the English language, works with a relatively antique typewriter. And the great majority of those writers who embrace the word processor content themselves with Microsoft Word, and maybe some kind of outlining, organization or mind-mapping program.

I scratch out ideas in several ways — lots of hand-written scraps, notes and outlines litter my desk at any given time, and I also make short voice recordings on my phone if I think of something while I’m driving — and I type these into Evernote. Evernote is especially useful to me because it’s available in versions for Windows, Mac, iPad, iPhone, and others. You can type notes into it, store PDFs or JPGs from research, even save audio clips for later transcription. Each note can be tagged with multiple tags, so if I know a tag is related to a certain story, I tag it with that story’s name, and all that story’s notes are connected. If I’m not sure what story the note relates to, I give it some other tag like “character ideas” or “story seeds” or something like that, so I know how ti find it later. You can also search within Evernote for keywords, so if you want to find everything you’ve written or saved relating to “cosplay,” for example, everything containing that keyword will come up regardless of tagging. All your Evernote content is kept synchronized between all your computers and devices, so if you save a note at home and want to refer to it on your phone (assuming you have an iPhone or Droid) you can access it. I even save things like lists of books I’m searching for, or liquors I want to try, so I can refer to these lists when I’m in the store. I can’t say enough good things about Evernote. It’s even free, as long as you don’t need to upload enormous amounts of data every month, in which case there’s a paid option.

Once I’m in the process of starting a story, whether it’s in outline form, character lists, or if I just want to plunge right in and start writing, I use Scrivener. Until recently it’s been a Mac-only program, but they’re coming out with Windows and Linux versions which are (as of this writing) available in free public beta if you want to check them out. The beta versions are not yet feature-equivalent with the Mac version but the gap is narrowing.

Scrivener is much more than a word processor, and integrates several features for which writers might use different applications. The built-in outlining features are very useful. I love the idea of building my outline, deciding on a scene structure, writing a brief synopsis of what happens in each scene within the outlining format, and then going right in to start drafting each scene’s text (I use the full-screen mode for this, so it replaces such “distraction-free” writing environments as WriteRoom, ByWord, or Q10), with the option of popping-up a little “info” window which display’s the scene’s synopsis info for my reference. I can even drop in research or reference materials (such as photo reference for characters or locations) so they display where I can see them while I write. I find it really useful to treat each scene as discrete object, with its own notes and its own word count. In the outline mode, you can very easily drag the scenes around into a different sequence. It sounds like something that wouldn’t be useful very often, but I’ve been surprised at how often it’s helped my thought process to imagine events happening in a different sequence.

I do use Microsoft Word, but only at the final stage, when I’m absolutely certain all my story’s scenes are in the right sequence and in very nearly final form. I use the “compile draft” feature in Scrivener to output an RTF document, open this in Word, and make sure the scenes flow when read in sequence, and that formatting is just right. Since this is the final format I use for critique or submission, it makes sense to let the story exist in this form for a while before I let it loose. I could probably use Open Office for this, but I already own a copy of Word. If I had to re-purchase Word, I’d probably switch to something else.

If I had to get by with only a single tool for my writing, I’d get rid of my fountain pens and all the rest, and go with Scrivener. It’s flexible enough that it could be use for note-sorting and organization in a way similar to how I use Evernote. I’d probably spend a little more time fine-tuning the “export to RTF” settings, forego the final “check it out in Word” process, and go straight from Scrivener to submission-ready output.

As for hardware, I have an Apple MacBook Pro, the 17″ display version. When I’m using it at the desk I have it connected to a second monitor, a 23″ high resolution Samsung, so I have two desktops, and in this setup I also use an Apple bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Quite often I cut loose all the connections and sit with just the laptop, as that 17″ display is extremely pixel-dense and displays even higher resolution than the 23″ monitor. It’s great in stand-alone mode like this, and just like I said I could get by with Scrivener alone if forced to simplify, I’d happily work on just the laptop, no peripherals at all. 




The Apple iPad As Writing Tool

It’s unlikely anyone reading this hasn’t seen or heard about the Apple iPad, which seems to have taken over the technology world this past few months. The device is portable and easy to operate, and uses a touchscreen interface so intuitive I’ve yet to find anybody who can’t figure the thing out immediately.

Much has been made in reviews of the device being better suited for consumption of media (listening to music, reading email, blogs and ebooks, or watching videos) than for producing it, but the iPad occupies an important place in my writing workflow. Most of my “real” writing happens in Scrivener, which is a Mac application with no iPad equivalent. But leading up to the actual drafting and editing in Scrivener, I do a lot of note-making, gathering and combining the various seeds and ideas that grow into the beginnings of a story. I keep all my notes centralized in Evernote, an application that I keep on all my Macs, Pcs and my iPad, but which I use most often on my iPad for the actual capture of ideas. During the drafting and revision of a story I often get ideas that I intend to apply to the story in progress, and these go into Evernote with a tag appropriate for the story. When I’m ready to work on a given story, I first check Evernote for any ideas tagged with that story’s title, and it brings together every scrap or idea or name-change I may have come up with since I last worked on it. Once a note has been incorporated into the story (or discarded), I delete the note from Evernote.

There does not yet exist for iPad a word processor or text editor application without a lot of flaws. Apple Pages is a pretty nice program and only costs $10 but there are some serious weaknesses regarding how you get your work into and out of Pages, so I don’t use that program at this time. If I wanted to draft a story scene, I’d fire up my bluetooth keyboard (the onscreen keyboard works fine for shorter bits of typing but I wouldn’t to type hundreds or thousands of words with the thing, unless I had to) and type the text into Evernote. Then next time I was at a “real” computer I could collect any such scenes, again using Evernote’s tagging feature to designate written drafts to be incorporated into Scrivener, Word, or whatever application you use to write your storise or novels.

I love my Macbook Pro and if I were to travel for any length of time with the intention of doing real writing, I would probably take that along. But for a short trip, I could definitely imagine taking just the iPad and getting all kinds of work done. I’ve always believed a lot of the work of writing isn’t just writing drafts, but creating notes, sorting through them, combining ideas into an interesting brew and then starting to outline, sketch characters, and brainstorm. All this kind of activity is perfect for the iPad, and Evernote is an absolutely essential tool for this.

Update of no great consequence

I do seem to run hot and cold when it comes to updating this blog. The good news (as far as I’m concerned) is that I’ve been neglecting my writing-blog-writing because I’ve been doing a lot of plain old fiction writing lately.

I’ve also been very busy sending out a ton of story submissions (the flip side to tons of rejections is tons of new opportunities to submit!) and also putting in a ton of effort refining my workflow.

Some writers just sit down and toss the words out onto the page. I plan a great deal, and assemble mountains of notes and try to sort through them and apply them into suitable little piles relating to the same subject or project. I have this fantastic new tool called Evernote, which is a way of sorting all your notes, including even note-like stuff such as PDFs, sound clips, images and so on. You can apply multiple tags to each “note” so you can look through all your notes with any given tag, and a single note may appear every time you look by the appropriate tag. So I might have a photo of a weird looking goth chick with blue hair, and I could tag it as “image” and “character ideas” and “Hum” (after the name of a story I’m working on) and whichever of these tags I choose, I’ll see this picture. Pretty handy, for sorting through things all different ways, especially once you have thousands of notes.

I’m also increasingly using this great online tool called Dropbox, which gives you a folder on all of your computers which is kept synchronized at all times, so anything you drop into the “My Dropbox” folder on your work PC, for example, is automatically updated in the “My Dropbox” folder on you iPad, your laptop, and your MacPro at home. So great! I used to carry around 2 or 3 little USB thumb drives all the time, and now I’m done with those. Everything I may need during the day, no matter where I am — reference documents, web links, my story projects, software installers, everything! Dropbox is great and includes a free option, for up to 2gb of storage, and a paid option for people who want to store a lot more.

I’ll be back soon with subsequent SF Academy entries, and maybe a bit more about what I’ve been writing lately.