A Writer’s Software Arsenal

The enemy of every writer is the same: the blank page. We each have different weapons that we use against this common foe, but being a programmer by trade, I tend to use software in my arsenal. Being my first post, I thought it would be a good idea to list some of the common software tools that many authors, including myself, use. Just to note, these are all my own personal recommendations and I have not been influenced by their publishers.

The Word Processor

Microsoft Word: ~$149.99 with office. (https://office.microsoft.com)
Openoffice: Free (http://www.openoffice.org/)
Google Docs: Free (https://docs.google.com/)

A common theme you’ll hear when writers give advice is to use what works best for you. It doesn’t really matter which word processor you use, as long as you have something you can use to write with. When you write, you should use something that is familiar to you and lets you work with very little thought on how it goes down on paper. If the line that appears under misspelled words throws you off your game, disable the feature. You can always run a spell check at the end. Just write!

Plotting:

Wikidpad: Free http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/

When I first started plotting my books, I would create a lot of files in Microsoft Word and put my thoughts down there. As my novels grew larger, my system began to fall apart. Another author suggested wikidpad to me and it has been a huge time-saver ever since. It has a small learning curve that takes a little getting used to, but once you’re familiar with it, things begin to fall into place. As you plot out elements, you can quickly link to other elements and world elements. This can easily turn a convoluted mess into a well-structured system. The price is hard to beat as well.

Backup

Dropbox: Free http://www.dropbox.com
Carbonite: $59/year http://www.carbonite.com/

Computer backup services have been around for a while but still tend to go unused by many writers. Some claim that they don’t want their unpublished works stored somewhere online, while others just haven’t taken the time to set it up. As with any type of insurance, it’s not a problem until something goes wrong. I personally keep all my transcripts on dropbox. The advantages are numerous. I can access my documents from my home or work. I can start writing on my desktop at home, and finish from my laptop in a café with no worry of how to transfer it between the two computers. If I’m at a conference, I can pull out my iPhone and instantly pull up a transcript to show off, or even email to potential agents or publishers. One other feature I like about Dropbox is that it will keep a revision history. If you have a bad night and delete half the document in a fit of rage, you can go back and pull up a prior version, restoring the lost chapters.

I will continue to look at other software that may be useful to writers to battle the blank page. If you have ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment, and I may look at them in future posts.

Revisions ““ Discovering Those Great Plot Gaps

There’s no greater feeling than getting that first draft done! Celebrate, pat yourself on the back and then take a break. Yup, you heard me. Set it aside and walk away for a few weeks or a few months. Tackle another story, another novel, another writing project. This will accomplish two things – it’ll be easier to switch from being creative to editing and practice makes perfect so your improved skill level will help you revise.

My first revision always looks at plot gaps. There are several methods and each can be employed for their own reasons but the quickest and best one I’ve found is to write the dreaded synopsis. I use it for the same reasons editors do: to see if the plot makes sense, if it creates tension and if there is a story arc as well as main character arcs. Some would argue that the original outline can be used this way. I choose to write the synopsis because it’s a fresh approach to looking at the novel and I’ve got to write it at some point.

For the purpose of revision, my synopsis is about 2,500 words for every 80,000 words in draft. The reason for keeping it so short is because I want to focus only on key elements in the plot and character lines. Subplots and side stories/events are examined later with respect to how they support the key plot points. The synopsis is written in third person, present tense and in the style or voice the novel is written in (humorous, chatty, dramatic).

Before you write the synopsis, make a note of the basic story arc which starts with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what motivates the character toward a goal such as conflict resolution, finding true love, solving a mystery, saving someone, to resist change, etc. Then there are the obstacles to reaching the goal, the climax wherein the goal may or may not be achieved and then the denouement.

Like every good book and book jacket blurb, a synopsis starts out with a good hook. This introduces the protagonist, her motivations, goals and the conflict which keeps her from her goal. A synopsis isn’t a simple listing of events but rather it show how the events affect people and what they do which in turn affects plot and outcomes. Now, weave in the story arc, the key points of your plot, with your character’s actions, reactions while showing how they are affected by the decisions they make or actions they take. Use this method through the crisis and denouement.

When I read over the synopsis, I ask the following questions with every plot event:

  • Given the protagonist’s motivations, are her reactions and actions believable? If she really wants to save her family from the villains, why is she enjoying a glass of wine on the beach?
  • Is there enough tension between the protagonist and the antagonist? Does it increase until the climax?
  • Does this feel like it’s naptime? Has something been resolved too quickly? Are more obstacles needed? Remember, if you’re bored so will the reader be.
  • Does it move the story forward in a way which is exciting and logical? Or does it feel contrived, flat and unimportant?
  • Was this the most reasonable reaction and action for the character? Why didn’t she react another way? These questions focus on the logic problems of a character’s actions. For example, why didn’t Jean simply kill Maggie by pushing her over the ship’s railing when no one was looking? Why did she choose to slowly poison her to death? As the writer, you may know why, but did you communicate it clearly?

A synopsis is a great tool, even in the middle of a novel to check how your plot and character arcs are evolving. Recently, I was completing the first draft of a novel and I just couldn’t finish writing the last three chapters. Something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what. After writing the synopsis I discovered a couple of logic holes in a character’s reaction which didn’t fit his goals plus there was a plot logic issue. With these now understood, the draft was completed to my satisfaction. And, I’ve got a great tool to refer to during the revision to make sure the scenes, plot and character arcs in the manuscript follow the synopsis. Better still, I have a draft synopsis which I can revise for my queries.

Pushing On Through Adversity

This is a subject I know about. Adversity. While writing is a solitary sport, life–in all of it’s insidious forms–does its best to intervene. We all have different habits. Some of us start our day exercising, dragging-butt out of bed to get the kids up and off to school, checking emails or tending horses, but eventually, we have to plant our rears in the proverbial chair and start tapping the keyboard. Procrastination is only one agent of an enemy Steven Pressfield calls RESISTANCE. No matter what form it takes–TV, internet, email, video games, movies, spouses, friends or events we wish to go to–the simple fact is if we don’t write, we’re not writers. Some writers overcome this by setting and adhering to a strict schedule. Others by bringing their laptops (or recording devices) along with them everywhere and utilizing every available moment. Either method is productive, but if you plan a “writing time” and do nothing else but type during that time, lightning is more likely to strike. Pressfield calls this “being a pro.” Being a pro everyday–as opposed to a novice or amateur, who has only their amusement at stake–is what conquers the enemy: Resistance. It’s in all of us and surrounds us in everything that tempts us and everyone we speak to.

During the last year, I’ve nearly had my 15 year marriage fall apart, a business go under, began a new business, had my laptop quit on me in the process, lost friends and found out who my true friends were. All of this strangled writing to a near-complete stop for me. It seemed everything I loved was slipping away. As I said, ADVERSITY. Then, I realized something that seems opposed to the last post: “I have to pull myself out of this”. No friends, no fellow writers, no family members or co workers could do it. I had to. That is the moment when I had to make the decision–was I going to be a writer or a wannabe writer?

I write, as many others do, because I LOVE it. I gave up on doing it for the money a long time ago. Superstars taught me the most valuable of lessons (which should have been common sense) writers don’t just write one story, they WRITE! Pressfield punctuated it with a great explanation of how sometimes the people around you will recognize that you’re winning the war with resistance and be jealous that they cannot, and thus try to thwart you–no matter what it is you’re achieving. And that vulcanized my decision.

So, I bought a new laptop.

Point is, though support is great and networking is a necessity, You are ultimately responsible for getting it done.

The Benefits of Holding Hands

Robert Fulgham is known for saying that everything we need to learn, we learned in kindergarten. Writers being solitary creatures forget that everything we need for writing, we also learned in kindergarten. We all think of writing groups as ways to help each other, but we overlook other key ways writers can help each other. The writer sitting alone in his cabin and getting the next great American novel published is the exception, not the rule. Like any other business, writers need to network and market.

Writers help each other by passing on opportunities. I met another writer years ago through an online writer’s forum. We’ve both dropped off that site but stayed in touch via FaceBook and e-mail. Deb’s published and her novel’s done well. http://www.doghornpublishing.com/crashin_the_real.html She’s currently editing an anthology (Women Writing the Weird). Deb also invited me to submit and accepted one of my short stories. Because she was still looking for stories, with her permission, I sent out inquiries to other writers I knew from the Superstars Writing Seminar. http://Superstarswritingseminar.com Another friend’s story has also been accepted.

Other writers are resources. Most of us have had at least one other career. I know how lawyers talk and think since I am one. I don’t really know how doctors talk. I do, however – see the lawyer slipped in -, know a fellow writer who’s a doctor. If I was writing a medical thriller, I’d ask him to read the first draft and tell me what I had wrong.

Other writers help you stay motivated and hold you accountable. It’s like having an exercise or diet buddy. After all, who can understand the ups and downs of writing better? Writers need to network, commiserate and, well, get honest feedback about what they write from others who are wrestling with the same questions: is my female lead too weak; my male lead too much of a jerk; Are they believable; Does anyone care about them other than me? And I’m competitive enough that when we throw out challenges, I rise to the word count.

So Fictorians, as Robert Fulgham said:

. . . Share everything. . .
When you go out in the world,
Watch out for traffic, hold hands,
And stick together. . . .