Writing Tips

The Author’s Utility Belt: Five Must-Have Tools

It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!

Writing a book is a long and frustrating journey, and just like any good adventurer, you’re going to need the right supplies if you want to stand a chance. After around three years of digging and poking around, here are five apps/items that have made writing my novel a little bit easier.

1. Scrivener

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Photo cred: LizCovart.com

The best investment for my novel I’ve ever made. Ever.

I was fourteen when I first stumbled across Scrivener. The first thing I noticed was the price tag: a whopping $45 both on the Macbook App store and Literature and Latte website. For a kid who hoards her Christmas iTunes gift cards as if they’re made of platinum, dropping all of them down on just one app was crazy talk. I was ready to just stick with Word or Google Docs at that point, but the number of times I ran into Scrivener on writing advice blogs kept bringing me back.

Eventually, I gave in. I poked around a bit, read almost fifty reviews and downloaded the 30-day free trial (which isn’t a month long, but actually a month of use). The trial lasted me almost three months, allowing me to pound out and track around 25,000 words. Needless to say, two weeks in, I was already hooked and bought it in a heartbeat. I’ve had it for three years now and Scrivener is still my favorite app on my computer.

It makes writing so easy. You can take a novel through all of its stages, from frantic idea scribbles to early drafts to exporting to professional editors, without ever needing another application. The flexible binder and drag and drop design makes it easy to reorganize your novel’s chapters without any loss of structure or flow. You can track your progress on a macro scale with the outline feature and take down those micro details in the notes tab on the side. The chapters instantly sync up with your DropBox account and back up with every close, so you never have to worry about forgetting to save. The developers have thought of nearly everything and pack in a ton of features tailored towards novelists, in a way that doesn’t hinder or distract from the writing itself.

But don’t worry, they even thought of you non-novelists too! While the app is tailored towards authors, there’s plenty of templates for scriptwriting, poetry, and any other writing project you might take on in the future. It’s so fantastically put together that there’s very little missing in my opinion.

Just because it’s packed with features, of course, doesn’t mean that the developers stopped innovating. Just recently Literature and Latte released their iOS version of the app, allowing access to your entire manuscript through your iPad or iPhone. You get all the features of Scrivener, making it perfect for when you feel like editing but don’t have your computer lying around. The app itself syncs in real-time, so you can move from laptop to tablet almost seamlessly. Despite all the changes, both my computer and iPad app rarely (if ever) crashes and the help videos on their website make it easy to answer any questions. Updates come out pretty regularly and the crew at Literature and Latte seem to always look for new ways to improve the software.

Beyond the beginning learning curve and higher price tag, the only thing I’d say that bugs me is the distraction-free writing feature. It fills the screen with white and displays just your writing in a size of your choice. Don’t get me wrong, I do most of my writing in there and it gets the job done. But if you’re like me and you have no idea what pacing means, staring at a white screen with black text for hours on end can make your eyes seriously hurt. Of course, I assume staring at anything for that long without moving or blinking does that, so yeah, I should probably go outside more…

Bottom line is: Scrivener is fucking awesome.

Don’t just take my word for it though. There are dozens of authors, video game writers, and other amazing people using Scrivener that love it just as much, if not more than I do. Check out what they have to say here.

2. OmmWriter

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blog-ception much?

Hey! I thought you just said we wouldn’t need any other apps besides that Scrivener you’re so in love with.

You right…But for that eye burning thing, this OmmWriter app pretty much solves it.

OmmWriter is a minimalist-style word processor. You can pick it up on the Mac app store for $5.99, plug in some ear buds and get to work. There’s a neat little sidebar of setting adjustments (for music, fonts, sizes, and backgrounds) and a word count and text box that all disappear as soon as you start writing. All of its features are really intuitive and with a bit of clicking around you can pretty much find your favorite setting in around a minute or two.

Overall, this is my get-lost app that I pull up when everything around me is super loud or the stress in my brain gets louder than the outside. The backgrounds and music options are all really soothing and there’s something about the underscore style cursor that just helps the writing flow. I’ve gotten some of my best blog posts, chapters, and speeches pounded out in this little app and it’s been a great addition to my writer’s toolbox.

3. Pinterest

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I SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON THIS APP. SO MANY PINS, SO LITTLE TIME.

Beyond the thousands of cooking recipes and diy hairstyles there are to look through, my favorite use of this app has been for inspiration diving. I’m a very visual person, so looking through pictures of beautifully drawn settings and characters is a great way of getting those brain juices flowing and beating out writer’s block. I mostly pin character art so that I can sketch out my characters and, while it’s not for everyone, I find that drawing them out is a great way to really picture them in my head.

Not only can you find some awesome art in there, but there’s millions of writing tip articles and prompts to sort through. You can follow some boards with a few taps on your smart phone and get daily links to fresh writing advice. As a matter of fact, I’ve found some of the coolest writing blogs with the help of Pinterest.

4. A Notebook and Pen

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Damn right I put my logo on my notebook…

Carry a notebook and a decent pen everywhere. Keep them in your bag, bring them on plane rides or trips to the cafe or even trips to the bathroom. You never know when inspiration will hit…or when boredom will hit and inspiration will follow.

I don’t know how many times a plot hole filled itself or a lightbulb went off and that idea was lost because there was no paper to write my thoughts down. Thoughts leave as soon as they come, so make sure to get them down as fast as possible. There is no worse feeling than losing a good idea. Sometimes they come back, and sometimes they don’t.

At the same time, bringing a notebook ensures that you aren’t just sitting around waiting for inspiration like some sort of lump. You gotta chase inspiration consistently, even if it means making lame doodles in your spare time or writing the same sentence over and over again until the letters look all weird. Write down your thoughts, pick up on small things in the world around you, and fine tune your observation skills. Inspiration will come.

5. A Giant Ass Cork Board

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This isn’t mine but it’s still pretty cool. Photo cred: TrubyWritersStudio.com

I love my cork board so much. There’s something super satisfying about stabbing the push-pin through an index card and being able to move your ideas around with your hands. Virtual Pinterest boards and Scrivener cork boards are great, but nothing beats having your words scribbled out right in front of you and being able to organize it all by color or section. Something about cork boards too gives the perfect amount of creative freedom: enough to get your ideas flowing, but not too much that they flutter away.

But beyond moving ideas around, cork boards are perfect for loose outlines. I like to sort out my novel in sections and make an index card for each scene so that I can see exactly what happens. I move my scenes around and test them in different places before I write the outline. Of course you could copy and paste in a spreadsheet, but it’s a lot easier to test it out on a board and clean it up in a spreadsheet later. Plus, it looks pretty cool when you finish.

 

And that pretty much wraps it up. Got a writer essential that I missed? Lemme know in the comments:)

Comics

Is Comp Sci Hard? – Midweek Comic

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Writing Tips

Three Things I Learned Finishing My Third Draft

A few days ago, I finished my third draft. I printed out all the pages, shoved them into a binder, and the first thing I did was drop it. On purpose. I wanted to hear that sound, that thud that meant something that had weighed on my mind for the last four years had actual, physical weight. And my god, was that a satisfying thud.

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what a rollercoaster…

That binder, with its 271 pages and 77,283 words on those pages contains the third draft of Under the Gold Paint, a novel I started my freshman year. My “shrink” draft as I call it, encompassed the grand task of cutting down 150,000 words of the second draft in half and rewriting everything. I started right after Christmas 2016 and finished on Tuesday February 7th, 2017. In those few months, I wrote almost every day (I wrote thousands of words while on my trip to China and on the plane over winter break) and every day after school. Compared to the four months it took to write my second draft that previous summer and nearly three years it took to write the first before that, I feel almost as though I’d gotten off a roller coaster: a little nauseous, breathless, but dying to do it all again.

All in all, both my story and who I am as a writer grew a hell of a lot in the process too. Here’s what I picked up on, for not just this draft but all the drafts of this project so far:

1. Act in Spite of Doubt

To be perfectly honest, I never thought I’d get to this point. There were dozens of times I sat there staring at a blank page or the list of chapters I had to rewrite and just thought, “Goddammit, none of this is working.” I believed that nothing I did was original or “decent writing” and seriously considered throwing away my manuscript and starting over.

I could say those were dark times and that I pulled through and that now everything’s handy dandy, but frankly I’d be lying. Those thoughts still plague me, each and every time I open up my laptop. That voice is still whispering in my ear from a dark corner of my brain and to this day, I still wonder if my story will ever be good enough for the world to see. It’s one of many reasons I took three whole years to pound out my first draft, the reason behind my vicious cycle of writing, hating it, and throwing it all away.

As someone who rewrote her novel a solid four times before completing a first draft– we’re talking entire chunks of manuscript ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 words down the drain each time– all I ask is that you take one thing out of this post:

To finish a draft, or do anything outside your comfort zone for that matter, you will have to act in spite of doubt.

What the hell does that mean?

Accept that the fear you have simply means you’re trying something new. That you’re stretching yourself and you’ll grow as a result. Know that even if you do suck, everyone has to start somewhere and the only way you’ll know how good you can be is if you continue to try. Accept that it’s okay to be scared out of your fucking mind. And then do it anyway.

Don’t just lie down. Don’t just hate yourself. Find that inner passion that brought you to the computer in the first place and kindle that fire. Refuse to give into that fear.

It won’t happen right away. Sometimes you’ve got to hit rock bottom. Sometimes you have to write an entire draft only to realize that you moved backwards instead of forwards. You might need to cry. A lot. But at some point, you’ll be ready to say “Fuck it, I’m doing this anyway”, climb over those barriers, and get that shit done.

2. There is No Such Thing as Originality

There’s nothing a writer fears more than answering the question “What’s your novel about” with a long-winded explanation only to receive a “Oh! So it’s basically ___ right?” in return.

My god. I ran into this so many times. I used to be obsessed with originality. I felt obligated to come up with something different so I didn’t feel as though I was copying. But guess what? ORIGINALITY DOESN’T EXIST HAHAHA *cries*.

Chasing pure original thought is like chasing a unicorn. It probably exists in a distant magical forest, but the chances you’ll find it are ridiculously low.

The good thing is though, you can BS your way to it. Take your favorite ideas and concepts and shove them into a blender. Put a twist on a classic story. Use cookie-cutter tropes and make delicious cookies that audiences will love. The truth is, although most ideas have already been done before, none of them have been done by you.

I think you get the point. I’m going to keep this portion a bit shorter. You can read a longer post that I wrote two years ago about it here.

3. You Will Need to Forge Your Writing Routine Out of the Magma of Mount Doom…er Practice

Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point. Finding what clicks and what doesn’t if you’re a noob like me feels a lot like you’re Gollum searching for his missing ring after that stupid hobitss stole it from you in the dark. You know you need it, you know someone else probably has it, but it’s really hard to tell your precious from a shiny rock.

But why the hell do you even need a routine or style? Writing should be simple. Sit at a laptop, open a word doc and just start to write. And for some, it really is that easy.

But for me at least, I just ended up with a lot of wasted time and “writer’s block”. My writing routine was inefficient to say at the least and I did more back-tracking in the beginning thanks to my lack of a set style.

I can further narrow down the source of my struggle to three things: 1) I didn’t know if I was a plotter or pantser 2) I never decided on a set point of view and 3) I didn’t have a set schedule

For starters, the great debate between plotter or pantser. A plotter is someone who plans out everything before they even set a pen on the paper. A pantser is someone who just sort of plays it as they go, coming up with plot as they see the need to. I thought I was a plotter, and as it turns out, I’m a heavy pantser.

What does it matter, you ask?

Well if you’re like me, mistaking what you are can lead to some major backtracking. For the longest time, I was dead certain I was a plotter. It’s just who I am, Miss To-Do-List and Miss Spreadsheet who always has a Google Calendar event ready for anything that needs to be planned. As expected, I would make intricate spreadsheets outlining details of plot thought down to the very item of food my character was ordering at a restaurant. Straightforward, right?

But when it came to actually writing it, something wouldn’t flow and I’d change it. And then, that loose string undid several other loose strings. Before I knew it I had my plot all scrambled and knotted and I had to go back and rewrite the whole beginning.

After constantly starting over, I realized loose outlines worked better for me. My outlines had only five major plot points for me to pay attention to in the beginning. In between was an empty canvas for me to work with, with no set road map. I could take the detours and turns as I wanted and still meet my destination. I filled in my outline as I went and slowly I “discovered” my story with every chapter.

I’m a pantser. Go figures.

So bottom line of this, find your plotting style and you’ll save a lot of time. You can do some blind poking around like I did until you figure it out, or just read this awesome article by the Write Practice.

Here’s another thing you can do to save time: find a point of view and stick with it. The biggest flaw to fix from my second draft was my inability to pick a point of view. I would jump from first to third, have two main characters narrating and then decide on having just one. Most of my written chapters were unusable as a result.

Don’t be me. Pick.

But how do you choose?

Well really it depends on your story and what you’re comfortable with. First person POV makes it easier to really get to know one character and limits the scope to just one person, allowing for more surprise and mystery. The problem? Some people find it too limiting.

Third person POV makes it easier to bounce from character to character and get a more outsider perspective. The problem with this? It’s easy to resort to head jumping, which just confuses readers.

Somehow you’ll need to find a happy medium. Write a few thousand words in either and find which one suits you better. If you have an idea of where your story’s headed, try and figure out which one best conveys it. Bottom line is, pick one and stick with it. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

Last but not least, set a writing schedule. The biggest complaint for most things is that there’s simply not enough time in the day. As a student, athlete, executive producer for my school’s newscast and someone that’s stressed about college and college apps almost every single day, I couldn’t agree with that statement more.

But somehow, you have to schedule in time to work on your book, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day. That consistency is what makes ideas flow naturally and actually puts you leagues closer to finishing that draft.

You may need to sacrifice something, time sleeping or watching television or checking Facebook, but it’s worth the work. I’m not going to lie, writing a book is a lot of work but it’s worth it, trust me.