Essay–Tools of the Trade

I’m a software developer, architect, and…oh yeah, I’m a writer. I’ve been hacking on keyboards since I was 12 years old. This means I have 31 years under my belt as a “user.” It also means I’ve tried out just about any kind of word processor, spreadsheet, planning, or productivity program in existence, and many that have long since died.

Ever heard of AmiPro? Wordperfect? OS/2? These are applications and operating systems that have long since died. I used ’em. I loved ’em. I never took to Windows or Microsoft’s wares as a kid, college student, or adult. Mainly because after dealing with rock solid stability and easy productivity, their products required you to accept software crashes and lost data as a routine part of computing life. But I digress.

The world has changed a lot since I saw Douglas Adams speak at JavaONE back in 1999. One of my fave writers, Adams gave the final keynote for the convention that year. Once he was done poking fun at Microsoft Word for being a terrible tool for writing, he went off on a 20 minute rant about what software developers should be making for writers.

I went home after that particular convention and immediately began writing utilities to do the things he talked about. I never ended up making a full-blown application because, well, I’m not that talented when it comes to creating apps that deal with humans. But the utilities were kickass and they were designed around my writing process. At that particular time in my life, I was far more interested in writing code than fiction. But that, as they say, is another story.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 10.52.46 AM
View of Flames story layout with characters

What Adams was so furious about was the fact word-processors are made for writing reports. Letters. Etc. They, by and large, do not have any tools to help writers write books. What he was talking about was the ability to slide sections around, organize notes, deal with timelines, have scenes pop in and out depending on when they were of use. Also? How about character sketches? Research?

I don’t care if it’s OpenOffice, Nissus, Word, etc, they don’t have these features. Why would they? They’re not designed around a writer’s life. But there are tools that were created specifically for us scribblers. Scrivener is just one of them, but it’s by far my favorite.

Note Card View Of Deep Fried
Note Card View Of Deep Fried

Scrivener was designed by someone who writes. The application allows you to organize chapters into note cards, create characters sketches, keep track of research, add notes, and a billion other features I don’t even use. On top of that, it has evolved into creating default manuscripts or ebook formats. For the less tech savvy, this is a major boon to actually getting your work to publishers or out to the various online book stores. I hear rumors there’s even a specific CreateSpace template out there, although I haven’t looked into it.

One additional feature of Scrivener that I highly enjoy is the full screen aspect. If you want to focus just on a single chapter or text document, you can basically turn all the lights off on the screen except for what you’re working on. I like bright green text on black because, yes, I’m very very old school. Since I do most of my writing in the dark, it’s perfectly fine on my eyes.

Unlike “most” other word-processors, you don’t have to fiddle around with the colors of your document to enjoy changing them JUST for the full screen mode. It’s a wonderful feature and I can’t thank the Scrivener team enough for it. For someone who used to write at the console, this feature is a must-have.

That about covers Scrivener. I can show you a billion other screenshots to prove my point, but let’s move on to something else. Something a little more…shall we say time-sensitive?

When I was putting together Garaaga’s Children, I kept a spreadsheet of all the important historical dates between 6k BCE and 48 BCE. That’s a LOT of time to cover, folks. And the spreadsheet was useless for visualization. Then I heard about Aeon Timeline.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 10.51.34 AMAeon is like a dream. Whereas I used to whiteboard days of events in a story to make sure they flowed, I now do it via this little software program. Aeon allows you to create custom timelines in whatever form you want. Before we published Garaaga’s Children: Ancients, I even exported the file out so that it could be put in the hardcover. It has slider views, allows you to peg notes on events, and even add characters to those events.

This is all about organization and greatly helps me get a feel for when things happen. Also helps me find out when I’m on complete crack. If a single day has  too many things happening, it might make sense to move it around. Playing with Aeon and pegging the scenes to times and dates has been an incredible help for my writing process. Yes, I’m a pantser, and I need all the help I can get when it comes to these kinds of issues.

Those are my top two tools of the trade. I also use a piece of software called Sigil to handle custom e-book formatting, but that’s a completely different article. Regardless of my thoughts on software, use what works for you. There’s no shame in that. If you like Word, keep using it. I’d rather go back to the command line before I ever touch that hunk of crap again. But that’s my opinion. Your mileage, as always, will vary.


5 thoughts on “Essay–Tools of the Trade”

  1. I love Scrivener! It was a little intimidating at first, but I watched a couple of the demo videos on the L&L site and suddenly everything started to make sense.

    I only wish they would develop a more advanced revision tracking system— something like Words. My editor can really kick some ass with Word’s revision tracking and he continues to insist on using it for that stage of the process. Sadly, it does make our interaction easier.

    Scrivener needs that kind of change tracking!

    1. I use subversion for all my revision tracking. Much much better than anything word does. Scrivener once upon a time had hookups for subversion, but they removed them for some damned reason. I too wish it had a better revision system.

      1. It’s funny. I was thinking about Git when I was writing that comment. As I programmer, I had a feeling you would have special insight into versioning.

        I’ve been tempted to drop by Scrivener file into a Git folder, just to see what would happen. Since it’s all text files, it seems like it would work in theory. But they way the subfiles are all sort of packaged, I don’t see the revisions being tracked in any helpful way.

        1. In order for it to be meaningful, there needs to be a lookup table between name of file and the id of the file. This is also a good reason to put in decent comments for yourself when you use source control so you know which files you changes. It DOES help.

  2. When I returned to writing in earnest (as opposed to Virginia, where I live), Scrivener was not available on my platform, but yWriter was. You can’t beat the price and it was written by a writer, Simon Haynes (Hal Spacejock).

    You can slide scenes around, create character bios, location & item descriptions, etc. Like Scrivener, it has a learning curve, but both are loaded with a ton of really useful features.

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