The writer’s toolbox (iii)

In my last two blogs I covered two of my favourite tools that I use for writing novels.

  • Scrivener — my go to software for researching, planning, writing and book formatting software. Scrivener has virtually everything you need to plan, produce and publish your novel. It’s a very powerful application, but it takes time to learn just the basics of the program. However making that time investment is well worth the effort.
  • Plottr — a relatively new visual planning tool that lets you quickly map out the story’s timeline.

And in a previous blog I covered ProwritingAid, which is wonderful application to help editing drafts that identifies poor grammar, inconsistencies, punctuation and style errors.

But these are by no means the only software I use for writing. Scrivener is great if you’re writing a novel length book. But if you just want to write a blog, or some advertising blurb, then it’s not necessary the right tool for the job. I have a number of wordpocessors that can do those kinds of jobs quickly and more efficiently:

Ulysses — a powerful wordpocessor in it’s own right with some of the functionality of Scrivener, but without the same level of complexity. Some authors use it for novel writing. I like to use it’s markdown features and preview the output with Marked 2 (a markdown previewer).

iA – another powerful word processor that uses markdown and has it’s own inbuilt markdown reviewer. It also has clever filters for syntax and style, which can be useful when editing.

Pages –again another powerful word processor from Apple. These days I tend to use it only when I need to edit word.docx files. I also have Microsoft’s Word on a separate PC, but find it easier to use Pages on my iMac than firing up my old PC.

Hemmingway — a great little app for editing small amounts of text.

So these are the main software applications I use for writing and the applications I am most comfortable with and which work for me. They are by no means the only choices a new writer faces. And I would suggest you look around a find what suits you best. I’m not going to review every single choice, but some are well worth a mention here.

The Novel Factory — this is an integrated application that gives a step-by-step guide to writing a novel.

There are a number of applications like this on the market, but this in my view is one of the best. It has a planning section which build the core idea into an outline. It has plot outlines for popular genres, including romance, thriller and the hero’s journey. It has a detailed character development section. And it has drag and drop tools for planning and editing.

But what I like most about the application is the workflow design that takes you through each stage of writing and which is supported by comprehensive explanatory videos. If you’re new to writing, then you’ll find these videos excellent. If you’re an experienced writer like me, then you’ll probably think why did I not find something like this 10 years ago. It would have saved a huge amount of research of the methodology of writing. But for the experienced writer the benefits are small.

Dabble — this an on-line planning and writing application. It’s marketing line is “It’s like Scrivener. Minus the learning curve.” And to be fair it lives up to its marketing line. It has similar planning and writing functions of Scrivener, without the complexity of book formatting. It’s therefore a writing system to produce a draft manuscript. The good news is it will take less than fifteen minutes to work out how the system works. It’s simplicity itself. And it has a great plotting tool. It has a free trial period and is worth taking a look at. The drawback is that it is priced on a monthly subscription service.

Wavemaker — this is a free novel writing application by Iain Wood, which you can support by donation or simply by spreading the word about the app. It’s similar to Dabble and has some clever planning tools. It’s worth taking a look at.

Vellum — This is a dedicated ebook and print book formatting application that produces beautiful eBooks and print books from a word.docx file. Some writers use Scrivener from planning and drafting a book and then use Vellum as a book formatter (rather than Scrivener’s own formatting features). The drawback is the cost, $249.99 from Printbooks and $199.99 for Ebooks.

I hope these three blogs help you understand the needs of a novel writer. Writers generally need software tools for a number of reasons: holding research information, planning and outlining, writing and editing, and formatting files for publication. Scrivener has features that cover all these areas from end to end. But some applications that cover less than the same spectrum are more effective at their chosen elements. As with all software it comes down to personal choice and preference over which combination of software works for you.

The writer’s toolbox

In this blog I want to look at Scrivener — a software tool that changed my life as a writer, and which today I couldn’t do without.

What does a novelist or writer need in order to write? Comparatively little. Remember Shakespeare only needed a quill, ink and paper. And he did quite well with those tools. Some of our greatest writers of our time used only pen and paper. But today there are so many great tools we can use that make the process so much easier. So I’m always on the lookout for new technology that might make the process simpler and more efficient.

What is Scrivener? Well, you could call it a word processor, and it has all the functionality of a word processor, but lots more. What I love about it is that manages your manuscript in a different way to that of a traditional word processors, by breaking the manuscript down into manageable chunks — scenes, chapters and parts.

Each scene has a scene card associated with it, where you can use a heading and couple of lines of text indicate the contents of the scene on the card. And Scrivener allows you to toggle between, viewing scene cards (like a cork board), as traditional outline format, or as a continuous manuscript of the full text. Thus Scrivener encourages you to write in a scene structured way. And if you decide to change the order of the scenes you can simply drag and drop them into the new order. So as you write you can stand back from the detail to view the scene cards, or outline, to give you a helicopter view of your story structure.

Could you do the same thing in Word or some other word processor. Yes, possibly. But you might need to create perhaps up to 80 separate files for each scene and keeping track of them might be a nightmare. With Scrivener you can move from one scene to another in a click, and move scenes around just by dragging and dropping them.

You can also operate with a split screen, where you can have two scenes open on screen at the same time. So you could refer to your earlier scene as you write. Or you could use one of those screens to show your character and location templates or other research information in your research files.

There are also some important features about text handling, such as automatic backups of files. There is also an ability to take snapshots before editing a scene. So you can compare the edited version against the original, or rollback later if you’re not happy with the edit. Another feature is a floating scratch book that allows you to take notes as you go along. And there is an ability to attach notes, and labels to each scene card. For example, you might label each scene by the point of view (POV) character. This would enable you to view a collection of scenes as one document for each POV character.

Once you have completed your manuscript you can compile these scenes together and output the detail to a variety of different formats including, html, rtf, docx, doc, pdf, mobi and epub formats as required.

I could go on and on about the detailed features of Scrivener. There are many. And there are many good reviews of the software on the internet. But if you are interested it would make more sense to take up the free trial and look for yourself. There are also lots of you-tube videos that will give you a start on how to use it.

Are there any downsides to this software? If you want to use some of the most powerful features of the software then there is a learning process. And I’ve heard that some writers have been turned off by this. All I can say is in my case it was well worth the effort. I’ve been using Scrivener now since 2011 and I’ve published three eBooks and print books using it.

In the next blog, I will look at some of the other technology aids a writer can use to make themselves more efficient.

 

Writing Apps for the iPad Pro

scrivenerRecently my son convinced me to get a new iPadPro. I went for the large 12-inch version and bought a Logitech cover/keyboard, which means I can use it as a substitute laptop if I want to.  The graphics are amazing. The question then arose as to which writing Apps I should  buy to help me with my writing.

First I need to explain that I am a relative novice when it comes to IOS devices. I have an iPhone 6 plus, but I use it primarily to make calls and check e-mail. I don’t use its apps other than the calendar, email and contacts. I don’t see the need to surf the web on a small screen when there are easier ways using larger screens. And when I am home my iPhone is normally switched off. I prefer it that way.

Most of my writing is done using using Scrivener on my MacBook Pro. It’s an incredibly powerful writing app. I have now published two novels in print and ebook format solely using Scrivener; and am close to finishing my third. Like many other writers who love this software, I would be lost without it.

If you’re a writer and haven’t tried Scrivener, I would suggest you do. It can at first seem complex, but you don’t need to use all it’s functionality to reap the benefits of using the program. It’s not just a word processor, it’s a project management system for writing and editing novels and scripts. There’s lots of useful guidance on YouTube and on the Literature Latte website. And there’s also a great little book on Kindle by Ed Ditto, “Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords, & CreateSpace”, which is a step by step guide to publishing your book in the different formats.

Fortunately for me, last week Litterature and Latte released an IOS version of  Scrivener.  Now I can work with my third novel on either of my MacBook Pro or my iPad Pro by using Dropbox. I can tell you it’s simple to set up and it works. If you want to synch in the cloud you’ll need a Dropbox account. But you can get a free account which gives up to 2GB of storage. This is more than enough to write your novel. If you have any difficulty there’s guidance on YouTube. Just search for ‘Scrivener and IOS’.

Srivener is great but it’s not the only writing app on my system. I also chose the  Ulysses App. Why? I simply like the Ulysses for writing quick articles like this one. It’s simple to use and has some similar features to Scrivener without the same level of complexity. Unlike Scrivener, Ulysses uses iCloud rather than Dropbox to store files on-line, although neither app requires you to store files on-line if you don’t want to. I like the fact that Ulysses uses Markdown which can easily be exported easily to different formats such as text, HTML, ePub, and Docx.

What other Apps have I found useful for the iPad Pro? Duet is an interesting app that turns the iPad Pro into a second screen for my MacBook Pro. That is I can work from my MacBook Pro keyboard and move the curser from one screen to the other as though they were joined. For example, I can use the QuickRef function in Scrivener to float a text box from one screen to another. This is useful if you want to refer to research material on a separate screen  while working on the other. Yes, I know that Scrivener can also give you a split screen, but two screens are much more fun that just using one.

Another useful and inexpensive app for writers that I found in the iPad App Store is Plotline. It’s a very simple but clever app that lets you set up different plot lines and scenes for your story. Each scene is associated with a plot line, has a title, details and an intensity score. Scenes can be moved around and between Acts very simply by dragging them. Plotline is a great little planning tool that gives you a visual overview of your story by each scene’s intensity, and you can print out a scene by scene outline.

These of course and not all the writing Apps I have on my iPad Pro, but the ones I think are worth drawing to your attention. As you might have guessed I am not a technophobe. Far from it. I am a relative novice in IOS terms, but I’m learning about what works for me. And I hope they will work for you.

When the pen is mightier than the keyboard

PenWith some very famous exceptions (most of which are writers in their eighties and nineties), most writers today write with a keyboard and not a pen. We have so much in the way of technology to help us that there is little need to pick up a pen, except perhaps to annotate corrections on a draft. I suspect you’re like me, much faster at typing than you are at writing with a pen; and the keyboard gives you immediate feedback that you can edit and refine. Why would you want to use a pen?

Writers also have all manner of software to help them with all aspects of the writing process including: outlining, mind mapping, word processing, e-book building, publishing, book designing,  blogging, spreadsheet analysis, as well as specialist software designed for writers such as Scrivener. So why might you ask should you ever need to pick up a pen?

Recently, I finished the first draft of my second novel. I still have a significant amount of editing to do, but this is best done after a reasonable period of time away from the draft, so to view it afresh. So I put the draft aside for the time being and started planning the work on my third novel.

Well there are lots of software that can be used for planning a book: mind mapping software, outliners, and spreadsheets, and they are all in their own way helpful. But none of them can beat the simplicity of letting your mind wander on paper with a pen: thinking on paper. Perhaps it’s because all these software tools are so structured, organised and provide pristine output that they appeal to our logical left-side of the brain. Whereas the pen moves faster and messier, and appeals to the creative right side of our brain. In fact, it doesn’t matter how messy your writing or scribbling gets, what you want to do is harvest those hidden gems of originality that are embedded somewhere in your scribblings and doodling.

In my case, I had been fretting over what to write next. I had my ideas files, which I keep in One Note, but none of the ideas seemed to jump out and grab me. So I started scribbling down ‘what if’ ideas and then an unusual idea for a protagonist came to mind with an unusual problem. (No I’m not going to tell you who or what.) In the space of an hour I had ideas for the first three scenes. It’s still early days and I need to do a lot more testing of the idea before I really start in earnest, but it looks promising.

So if you are looking for new ideas for writing, don’t just stare at a blank screen. Perhaps you would be more creative if you got out your pen and paper and just started to jot down those ideas that jump into your head. It’s what I call ‘brain dumping’. Be as silly as you like. Or you could just start to write about anything that comes into your head, even if it’s gibberish. The trick is to keep writing and just let your mind wander. After ten minutes take a look and see.  Expect there to be a lot rubbish; but just maybe, you will find a real gem or two.

Publishing print-books and e-books using Scrivener

In a recent blog, ‘Indie Publishing on a Shoestring’, I wrote about how you can use Scrivener to create mobi, epub, and pdf files for publishing on Amazon,  Createspace, and other e-distributors, such as BookBaby, Smashwords, and Draft2Digital. The reason I wrote the blog was to convince new indie authors that it wasn’t that difficult to create these files using Scrivener and upload these files to the websites for publication. And that there was nothing to fear from technical aspects of creating these files. You don’t need to be a technical geek, or have a knowledge of hmtl to do so.

Scrivener is indeed an amazing piece of software, and it is difficult for me today to think how I could live without it. As a writer you might only use 10% of its functionality and it’s still a much better tool for writing novels than most other word processors on the market. And I have used quite a few, including Microsoft Word for most of my business career.

However, if you want to get the most out of Scrivener, you need to invest some time in learning about its capabilities. For example, formatting a pdf file for a print-book can be quite complex if you’re not familiar with  print-book design. You need to set different gutter and outer margins, force chapters to begin on a right side page, turn off printing headers and page numbering on pages with chapter starts, indent paragraphs (except the first paragraph of a chapter), turn off page numbering for the front matter content of the book  etc.

If you hunt around on the Internet you find out how to do this using Scrivener. Just google ‘Createspace and Scrivener’. The Scrivener Manual and various published Scrivener guides will also help. But it will take time.

Recently I bought e-book, “How to Format Your Novel for Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords, & CreateSpace in One Afternoon’ by Ed Ditto. I nearly didn’t. It has a rather naff self-made cover that almost put me off buying it (Sorry Ed, but it does). But the content  is brilliant. It’s a recipe for any author to publish their e-book and print-book. All they need is a copy of Scrivener to do it.  It is a step by step guide that takes you through the process. I only wish I had bought it months ago. Before I bought it I was familiar with about 85% of the content of the guide (having already gone through the publishing process myself). But it was still worth the buy just for the 15% that was new to me. If you are an author starting from scratch, and you have Scrivener, you will find this eBook amazing.

I would add that I have no connection to either Ed Ditto, or Literature & Latte, the software company that makes Scrivener.

Of course, Scrivener is not the only way to create mobi, epub and pdf files for publication. I just think it’s probably the most efficient. If you are wedded to Word then the alternatives would seem to be to convert your files using Jutoh, or Sigil (of which the latter requires a working knowledge of hmtl). Another recent product that has appeared on the Internet is KDPublishing Pro, which creates files for Amazon. Unfortunately I don’t have any direct experience of these products and can’t comment further. But feel free to comment on this blog if you are a big fan of these products.

Authors’ software

As a newbie author, I’m always on the lookout for new software that might make the task of writing easier. I have always wondered if there was that killer application lurking out there that would make life simpler, if only I could just find it. Other newbie authors might be thinking the same way. Therefore I thought it would be helpful to run-down of the software that I find useful. It’s not necessarily the best, but it’s what works for me.

Firstly, it is important not to forget that many great authors in the last century managed to publish their great works of fiction without much more than pen, ink and paper. The most important ingredient is therefore, and will always be, that piece of software between your two ears. But it would be silly not to recognise the power of personal computers, laptops, pads and even phones to make life easier.

The most obvious application is of course the word processor, and I have seen quite a few during the course of my business career. Today Microsoft Word clearly dominates the business market and has become virtually a de facto standard both in the business and publishing worlds. I have used it for over two decades and it is still my word processor of choice for general word-processing , spellchecking and editing. But it is not what I use for drafting or publishing fiction.

For most of my business career I was a Windows user. When I retired two years ago, I was looking for something new to do and I took a look at the Apple Mac. I had also heard great things about an application called Scrivener that then ran only on the Mac (A version is now available on Windows, but lacks some of the functionality of its Mac counterpart). I purchased a MacBookPro and Scrivener and started to write. I used Scrivener to write and publish my first book ‘Collision – a Sci-Fi Romance’. Scrivener is an amazing piece of software, so much more than a word processor that it’s difficult to describe. It allows you to write scenes and chapters in any order you like, move them about without cutting and pasting; and you can visualise the structure in either an outline format or as cards on a corkboard. And you can review your notes while writing on a split screen. It also allows you to compile your manuscript into a variety of formats including DOC, RTF, EPUB and Amazon’s MOBI and more. For an excellent review of the software see http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/02/04/scrivener/ or go to Literature and Latte’s site at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

The other software I tend to use is a mixture of tools some of which run on the Mac others are Windows. For outlining before I start a project I tend to use OmniOutliner. This is a simple outliner for the Mac, which I use to map out the scene structure. It’s quick and efficient. You can also export files from to Scrivener into OmniOutliner and import OmniOuliner reports into Scrivener.

When I am developing ideas I sometimes use mind maps. There are many free applications available on the Internet. The one I used recently was MindMeister, which does pretty much everything I need. More recently, I have used the beta version of Scapple from Literature and Latte. It’s not really a mind map, but an application that mimics a large whiteboard. It’s great for putting down ideas in free-form as though you were using a big whiteboard. When it appears in the Apple Store I will be one of the first to buy it.

I use Microsoft Excel for analysing scene structure and all kinds of analysis. This might seem strange for an author, but for someone that has used spread sheets in the business world for over two decades it is the most obvious software for me to use. I’m simply used to it. If you don’t already have Excel, for other reasons, then I would suggest a simpler spreadsheet would suffice. There are many available on the internet, some of which are open source and free.

For general note taking, I find Microsoft’s OneNote is the best for jotting down ideas and thoughts. I’ve looked at Mac note taking software, but haven’t yet found anything quite as powerful as OneNote. However, for project specific notes, outlines, character sketches and the like I put directly into one of my Scrivener folders for access when I am writing.

There are also a variety of software products that claim to provide authors with a framework or structure for novel building. Some are very structured – a kind of novel building by numbers. This type of software doesn’t interest me. Others like StoryWeaver, Novel Writer and Contour have some merit as structured learning tools, but have limited value to me personally. The remainder seem to duplicate some of the functionality of Scrivener. The one exception I came across was StorybookPro. This is a story boarding application that has some useful visual features for viewing the different strands of a plot and for tracking the time line. I found its Book Summary and Character List reports useful. In my case I exported the reports as RTF files and imported them into a Scrivener folder for access for when I am writing.

Lastly, there are lots of software products that are aimed at helping the author with the editing, and grammar checking process . Most of this software seems to me to be over-hyped and expensive and the ones I’ve looked at didn’t provide any noticeable improvement over Microsoft Word’s own spellchecker and grammar checker, which I already use. Personally, I think it is impossible to produce a grammar checker that is totally reliable, because of the complexity of English grammar. Accordingly this type of software will always produce ‘false-positives’ to confuse the author. A writer needs to have a good grasp of grammar. And if he/she doesn’t then they’re in the wrong business.

There is one exception I would make to editing software and that is software that analyses word count and over-used words in your work. I use a software product called MasterEdit (Windows) which is simple and efficient and inexpensive. And if you’re interesting in analysing your writing style you might like to look at the free online sites http://prowritingaid.com/free-editing-software.aspx and http://editminion.com/

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any software relating to social media. This is because when it comes to social media I am a bit of dinosaur. For example, I only use my cell phone for telephoning and I have never sent a text in my life. But perhaps I’ll summon up the courage to dip into the social media in the near future. I never thought I would blog; and here I am.

That’s it. This was never intended to be a comprehensive review of all the software available to an author; only a list of those software products that work for me. If anyone out there believes, there is a killer-application that I have missed please let me know.