From the seasoned one

What tools do you use when you write?

As I’ve learned to write, I’ve spent a lot of time, and a little bit of money, finding tools that help make the process easier.  Like everything else in life, which tools are best is a matter of opinion.  This post is about the tools that I’ve either used in the past, still use, or just found and love!

Let’s start with Scapple.  It’s a very cheap, but very powerful, product by a group called Literature and Latte.  One common bit of advice for new writers is to plot out your story with index cards and tape them on a wall, or use a corkboard, so you can see how your story will flow.  This helps to find plot holes and work out other issues.  You can use it while you write as a reference to keep yourself on track and not meander in the wrong direction.  Also, if you ever come down with the dreaded writer’s block, you can use the notes to figure out where you’re stuck and why.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a wall space large enough to use for this kind of endeavor.  If you’re like me and it takes you months or years to write a story, having a wall full of index cards isn’t really an option.

Scapple overcomes those problems.  It grows in size as you add new cards to it.  You’re only really limited by the size of your screen.  You can use different colors on the cards for main ideas, scene ideas or character information.  You use arrows and dotted lines to make connections between the cards.  I’ve been known to hook my laptop up to my television to get a large screen to work with and to be able to see the whole thing at once in a readable size.

Check out a sample screen:Scapple
This is probably my favorite writing tool.  I’ve used it for several stories now and while I’m not a full-on plotter, this helps me get the ideas for a story down quickly and shows me what holes I need to fill.

Available for both PC and Mac lovers alike, the price is unbeatable at $15 US for a household license.  Check it out if you want more information.  https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php.

Just a couple of reference tools.  I’m not one to carry a dictionary or thesaurus everywhere I go, but usually end up needing one or the other when I’m nowhere near my reference books at home.  The ones built into Microsoft Word are practically worthless.  When I really need them, I love the sites http://dictionary.reference.com/ and http://www.thesaurus.com/.  They are free to use and work well.

Ok, now what program do you use to write?  There is a wide variety available out there at many different prices.  I started with Microsoft Word as that is what I had available to me at the time.  As I’ve spent time researching what other writers use, I’ve found Word to be a predominate choice.  It has great tools for tracking changes when working with other people on the same document.  As well as the reference tab for creating a table of contents or bibliographies.  However, while it works great for fanfiction and college papers, I found it rather lacking with novel writing.

With Word, I had to keep several files for each story.  One for the story itself, one for character descriptions, one for research notes, and another to keep track of timelines.  Each time I needed to reference a character, bit of information I needed, or the timeline, I had to stop and open the files.

The other problem with Microsoft Word is it is expensive to buy.  Sure, Microsoft sells various versions for businesses, student and home, and the new cloud version, Office 365.  But it has never been an easy purchase for people that have limited income.

Now I know people are going to start saying they use Google Docs and it’s free!  I only have one thing to say about that.  You get what you pay for it.  I tried using that once when working on a document in a group format.  To say it was a frustrating experience is an understatement.  If it works for you, great!  Keep using it!  But in my experience, it is not something I would want to use long term.

In my hunt for a better writing tool, I used a few trial versions of pricier software packages and can’t say I loved any of them.  It was only when I tried Literature and Latte’s Scrivener that I knew I found gold.Scrivener
This software allows you to build a better structure for your novel, so you can divide out chapters into folders and scenes within those folders.  It has places for quick notes, labels for chapter, scene, notes, character info, etc.  I love the ability to label which stage a scene or chapter is at, such as first draft, revised, final draft, etc.

For each chapter or scene, you can create index cards to summarize them and then view those on the digital corkboard.  Similar to Scapple, but lacking some of the freedom of movement.  Scapple is free flowing, the corkboard within Scrivener, structured.  I use this to keep track of chapter summaries and also, the summary of scenes within each chapter.  It makes it easier when I’m looking for a specific scene that I need to alter.  Example below from my unpublished novel, Seer:

Novel Summary:
Corkboard

Chapter Summary:
Corkboard Chapter

Scrivener CharacterScrivener also has areas for character information, location information, and research.

To the side is a menu to allow easy access of these areas.  I create a sheet for each character and divide them into groups for better organization.

Every author has a different way of keeping track of character information and how much information you need for each novel/character varies.  Another great capability in Scrivener is the ability to create a template and use that template from area to area.  I suggest creating a template for your characters and use that template to ensure you don’t forget to write down the information you need.

Scrivener Research

The research area is fabulous and easy to use.  You can store pdf documents, links, pictures and every bit of information you have ever found in one easy to reach spot.

 

Scrivener Save Type

Finally, you can compile your Scrivener document into many other forms to share with others, pdf, rich text, Word, electronic versions (.epub & .mobi).

If you have plans to self-publish, this software makes creating the needed file formats easy.

 
There are more features than I have time to describe.  In fact, there are many books available that have been written on the program to help with learning it.  I’ve only scratched the surface.  The best part is the price.  Available for both PC and Mac, for only $40 US, you can purchase a household license and it’s more powerful than Word or Google Docs.  Check out the website for more information or to purchase: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

The final tool I want to discuss is one I found only the other day via a blog post from http://romanceuniversity.org/  ProwritingAid.com is an editing/grammar service.  At its simplest, you paste text into the editor and have it analyzed.  A summary returns showing issues and errors such as, overused words, sentence length, clichés, grammar problems, sticky sentences, repeated words or phrases, and dialog tags.  A couple of screen shots are shown below:

Anaylsis Summary

Grammar Report
This is an awesome service for finding issues with ones writing and making it cleaner and stronger.  Good beta readers can be hard to find.  If you’re not an English major, finding a beta reader or a service such as this is a must!  If you’re serious about writing and wish to query agents someday, you need your writing to be topnotch.

They offer a variety of services at different prices.  I’ve chosen the one year package for a trial, but from what I’ve seen so far, this is a service I’ll likely continue with.  Check it out for more information at: https://prowritingaid.com/

Finally, the last tool every writer needs is a great backup plan.  Hard drives stop working all the time.  Houses burn down, a pipe bursts, lightning strikes.  You name the disaster, it has happened to someone and they’ve lost valuable work.  If you have ever suffered the pain of losing a document, you understand this.  It is impossible to recreate the work exactly as it was before.

Never trust your hard work to one place.  I use a variety of tools, external hard drives and Microsoft’s One Drive to back up my work.  While I’d never recommend putting financial information out in the cloud, my stories are backed up there daily.  Microsoft offers 15GB of space for free.  Check it out: https://onedrive.live.com/about/en-us/plans/

If you’re not a Microsoft fan, that’s all right.  There are many other services out there one can use to back up material.  Some are free, some not.  Find one and use it consistently and you won’t be one of those crying because you’ve lost years of work.

Until next time…

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From the other seasoned one…Dr. Kath

Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! It’s me again, everybody’s favorite author/dentist/grammar nazi, Dr. Katharine Pope. Today’s post isn’t on grammar, though. It’s on a subject very near and dear to all of us: how to be a better writer.

Granted, I know I am not exactly the authority on this topic. I am not published traditionally or independently (yet). However, I am a voracious reader, which in turn helps me to push myself to be a better writer. That being said, let’s get started on my list. There’s bound to be something in here for all of us.

1) Read. Read, Read, READ. This is so important that it made the top of my list. Why, you might ask? Well, I have a few theories, but the most important one is this: As authors, we tend to read what we like to write (and vice versa). So how does one know what one wants to write? Or how? Only by reading, then writing, can an author really find his or her own voice.

This rule is so important to me. To share my story, I learned in 2004 that I adored the prose that belonged to Jacqueline Carey in her “Kushiel’s Legacy” series. Her writing in those six books is a combination of vivid imagery, fantasy, action, humor, and a little bit of smut. I was instantly hooked – not just on the story, but on her storytelling. I found that, once I’d read her books, I wanted to be an author of that caliber. I was inspired. And, as an author, you should find someone whose writing inspires you.

2) Expand your vocabulary. There are a million words that get far too much play. For example, “said.” (More on that in a moment.) A bunch of adverbs, like “slowly” or “softly.” Common nouns. Common names. Common locations. ENOUGH WITH THE COMMON ALREADY! There is so much out there, so many words that haven’t been tapped into yet. Use them.

I’m not saying that authors should use words or phrases that they don’t know the meaning of, or that they don’t feel comfortable using, or worse, to make themselves look smarter/more educated or to put other authors/readers down. That’s not the case at all. Let’s face it, authors and readers are already more intelligent and complex than the average person. So let’s not do them an injustice; let’s give them what they deserve.

3) STOP USING THE WORD “SAID”!!! Yet another one of my pet peeves (and if you’ve read my last blog post for Mertz, you know I have a few of them). There have to be a gazillion verbs to use in place of the word “said.” Like yelled. Screeched. Shouted. Spoke. Responded. Conferred. Agreed. Retorted. Rebutted. Teased. Scoffed. Seethed. Joked. Cried out. Hissed. Breathed. Laughed. Griped. Bemoaned. Wailed. Sputtered. Raged. Roared. Whispered. Snapped. Spat out. Drawled. Threatened. Replied. Confirmed. The list goes on and on and on, but you get the idea. Be creative. Be imaginative. Show your readers who you are as an author and how honed your skills are. Believe me, they’ll know, and will respect you more for it in the long run (the short run, too).

The verb “to say” is grossly, GROSSLY overused in literature. It’s bad enough on its own, but when it is suddenly coupled with an adverb (i.e., Said softly, said loudly, said angrily, said slowly), it becomes almost cliché. That point brings us to…

4) Use adverbs with care. Consult a dictionary, AND a thesaurus. I don’t care what you have to do, do NOT resort to something like said softly. I believe the word whispered works even better in its place.

Adverbs are not a problem in and of themselves. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary, and that’s good. I feel as though anything to make the story more descriptive is usually (but not always) better. However, it’s when they’re used for the wrong reasons (i.e., lazy author; trying to fatten up a word count) that things turn awful. I cringe when I read adverbs used as a crutch, and I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one.

5) Don’t repeat the same word more than once or twice in a paragraph or in a clip of short sentences. I read this piece of advice once in a (now-defunct) blog post, and it’s important enough to bear repeating. Paragraphs flow better when important words are spotlighted only one time. Take the following excerpt from my previous work, “The Maneater in the Suburbs.” (Yes, I am tough enough to take on the criticism.)

I notice his body first. He definitely has presence, that’s for sure. His chiseled, sculpted body puts Michael’s to shame a million times over. Everything on his body is in perfect proportion. Every muscle is carefully outlined in his blue jeans, white button-down shirt and white T-shirt. He’s toned, tanned, and has not one ounce of body fat on his frame. His body is spectacular, and he’s a sharp, classy dresser, too. I just need a paper bag to throw over his head.

UGH.

See what I mean? Being a better writer now than I obviously was when I wrote this piece back in 2008(!), I can tell you that I CRINGE whenever I read this paragraph. What was I thinking, repeating the word “body” so many times in such a short span? Not only is it redundant, but it reads awkwardly, like I’m having a Rain Man moment. I should have deleted some “body”s and replaced others with words like “frame” or “form.” As a side note, I should have entirely gotten rid of the “shirt” after “button-down.” And I should have disposed of a “white.”

Here’s how the corrected paragraph should read:

I notice his body first. He definitely has presence, that’s for sure. His chiseled, sculpted form puts Michael’s to shame a million times over. Everything is in perfect proportion; every muscle is carefully outlined in his blue jeans, white button-down and matching T-shirt. He’s toned, tanned, and has not one ounce of excess fat on his frame. His body is spectacular, and he’s a sharp, classy dresser, too. I just need a paper bag to throw over his head.

YEAH. That makes me feel much better.

See the difference? Not only does the corrected paragraph read better and flow more smoothly, but it is devoid of the extraneous adornments and gets down to business. Its polish denotes the years of experience I’ve gained in fewer words. Now THAT’S exciting.

6) Learn how to properly proofread. Or, better, find someone else to do it for you. Yet another point that is SO important, because it saves us all a world of hurt in the aftermath.

Believe me, I know how hard it is to proofread. I myself have been responsible for a whole mess of blunders, each of which makes me want to stick my foot in my mouth. It’s so hard to proofread one’s own writing because it’s, well, one’s own baby – known so well and loved so much, it’s easy to miss what’s wrong.

If you’re not going to hire a professional editor (which, given the cost, time, and effort, is something which I’m sure many of us aspire to, but is simply out of our reach), then you need to follow Hemingway’s rule: You MUST edit sober. Seriously. You can be as inebriated as you want while you’re writing, but you cannot make any corrections until all of the alcohol is out of your system. At that point, you need to find what works for you. It might sound silly, but for me, the best way to proofread is to read everything I’ve written out loud. I’ve caught more typos, misspellings, and awkward sentence structures that way than any other.

Please, try your own ways for proofreading, too. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. But that’s not what’s important. What IS important is that you sit down and seriously proofread your works (more than once, by the way) before you hit SUMBIT.

7) Avoid the use of clichés as much as possible. An article for Glimmer Train Magazine’s online component (http://glimmertrain.stores.yahoo.net/litfiction.html) delves a bit into the use of clichés. To sum it up: it’s bad, and not only does one need to avoid it in every case possible, but one only recognizes it if one reads regularly…which goes back to my first point!

Yes, I’ve used clichés in the past, and I still use them now. Seriously. Only now, when I know I’m using a cliché, I like to use the word proverbial with it. As in, “It was so quiet, one could hear the proverbial pin drop.” Or “He was so delicious but so bad for me, like the proverbial forbidden fruit I shouldn’t eat.” I own up to the fact that I’m using a cliché, which somehow makes it more acceptable. Don’t ask me why or how. It just does.

8) Take constructive criticism seriously. Having been on the receiving end of blatant criticism, which is much different, I know that constructive criticism is a true gift. In constructive criticism, the reader/reviewer believes in your writing, your story, and/or your characters, but perhaps is not quite satisfied. This type of person only wants you to polish your work so that it sparkles better than a diamond in a Tiffany & Co. display. (See? An uncommon cliché, thank you.) PAY ATTENTION. A reader/editor who cares enough to give you constructive criticism and possibly advice is someone who has spent a significant amount of time reading your work.

I recently received an early Christmas present: an anonymous feedbacker left me a long review for my short story “Baby Dance” (https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3220679/1/Baby-Dance). She (I believe this reader was a female) made it a point to repeat that the story was well-written, but that she did not like the characters, finding them to be “unsympathetic” and in an “unhealthy relationship.” This was actually the theme of the story, one which I didn’t come right out and divulge. Show, rather than tell, I suppose is how the rule goes. But in any case, I was very pleased that this reader felt strongly enough to leave a comment. MY work left an impression on someone. There is no better gift or more glorious feeling than that.

9) Work out the basics: who vs. that, which vs. that, both…and, either…or, neither…nor, and all of their friends. Well, hard as I tried, I couldn’t stay away from minor grammar. (Grammar nazi. Sue me.)

Other than the repeat of key words multiple times in a paragraph (see #5), nothing jars me more than reading a sentence like this: “He’s the type of person that leaves the toilet seat up.” NO! No no NO!!! A person is a who, not a that. “He’s the type of person who leaves the toilet seat up.”

An animal is a that (but could also be a who, depending on who you talk to). An inanimate object is a that. A person is a who. Get it straight.

Rant over.

10) Surround yourself with the proper accoutrements. This is my favorite tip of all! Now, I’m not condoning alcoholism or drunk driving, but I have always found that a glass (or two) of red wine or a shot (or two) of Cîroc vodka helps the words flow.

Let’s face it, we all have a place (or several) where we get stuck. Perhaps it’s writers block. But more often than not, it’s boredom. It’s “I have to insert this paragraph/chapter to make the story flow better/give some background info/etc., but it’s not something I want to write.” This happens to me fairly often. I’ve found that this is where the alcohol comes in handy…and once it’s down my throat, words start pouring out!

Of course, one’s favorite alcoholic beverage is not the only accoutrement one needs for a successful writing session. Do you prefer to type on your computer/laptop/iPad/cell phone, or jot notes down onto paper with your favorite pen? Do you need complete and utter silence, or some music playing in the background? (Or are you like my mom, who prefers the subliminal messages from QVC to keep her company?) Can you take breaks, or do you need to be focused for hours at a time to get anything done? These are also points to consider.

Whatever it is one needs to get down to business is considered the proper accompaniment to writing. End of story.

Well, that’s it for my writing tips. I have more, to be sure, but these are the most important. Take whatever you have learned from them and RUN! Make 2015 your best writing year yet. Remember, I’m hoping for the best for all of us. And if you’re looking for more tips or a place to vent, please check out my all-new “Words and Teeth” website.

XOXO,
Kath
http://drkatharinepope.blogspot.com