Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Neutral Tools

Today’s blog is a companion piece to the first in a series ofWriting a Novel blogs, which I posted on January 7th. Beginning a big, new project, like writing a novel, is a good time to look at our available tools.

I love good tools. Here are the tool rules at our house

  • Buy neutral tools.
  • Buy the best tools you can afford.
  • Learn to use tools properly.
  • Take care of tools.

A neutral tool is one that has many uses. Probably the most neutral for writers are a pen and a blank notebook. We can do any number of things with those two tools — brainstorm ideas, make notes, draw sketches and maps, plot a family tree, outline, write multiple drafts, edit, and so on. Can we write a novel with only a pen and blank notebook? Sure we can. I’ve done it.

Would I want to do it again? Not really, though I do have a fondness for returning to pen and ink to write the first draft of romantic scenes, violent scenes, and climaxes because in those kinds of scenes it helps me to think about each word before I write it.

A few years ago, if someone had told me that she had a non-writing software system — colored index cards, a 3-ring binder, or a jury-rigging Excel or Powerpoint program that worked for her, I would have said, fine, use, there’s no need to change. Today I’d suggest that she think about why that system works for her as a stepping stone to converting to a writing software program.

We think of writing software as a very specialized tool, but in fact, it is one of the most neutral tools writers can use. Think of writing programs as Swiss Army knives for the writer. I’ve written seven books using various software programs, and I’m a better writer for it.

Having said that, I also admit I have had hair-tearing days dealing with a variety of eccentricities. All writing software programs are eccentric in some way. The trick is to learn the eccentricities and develop clever end-runs around them.

As a Mac user, I tend to stick to programs created for the Mac. One big reason is that programs not created specifically for MacIntosh computers, may be striped down software, with infrequent updates. They quickly become more trouble than they are worth.

Here’s how I test drive writing software
I search for writing software, and ask friends what they use. After I’ve collected the names of three or four programs, I start by going to each software producer’s web site. How easy it is to navigate around the site? Is it a sales only site, or do they offer additional features, such as a newsletter, tip sheet, or tutorial?

I pay particular attention to Technical Support and Contact Us links. If I run into problems later, what kind of technical help is available? A list of Frequently Asked Questions or a forum where users help one another is not good technical support. I need to be able to contact a real, live person; I need to know upfront if there a charge for contacting to that other human being.

Next step is to download demos. If there’s no demo available, I’m out of there. Trying before buying is essential for writing software.

I spend a minimum of 10 to 30 hours per program before deciding which one to buy. The more time I spend with a demo, the more likely that the program I select will meet my needs.

Here’s the process I use to evaluate a demonstration copy.

I create a new character from scratch

  • Did the terms in the program match the terms I use or will I have to learn a new vocabulary?
  • Was the set-up for the character profile easy to use?
  • Did the process feel like filing out my income tax or did the character come alive for me as I filled in information?
  • Can I cross-check characters, such as looking at several character descriptions at once to see if too many of my characters are ending up with black hair and green eyes?
  • Do I like the printed format? If not, can I change it?

I plug in a character I’ve already created

  • Does the program import character information already recorded in other software or did I have to copy-and-paste or, horrors, have to retype it?
  • Did I learn anything new about my character by seeing the character profile in this new format?

I create a scene from scratch

  • How does the program record demographics—date, day, time, weather, moon phase, location—or whatever picky details I use to establish my framework for a scene?
  • How does the program track why this scene is important? Among the huge list of ways available to track a scene—goals, motivations, disasters, tension level, plot arc, hero’s journey, density, on and on—which ones does this program use? Are they the same ones I use and, if not, can I reconfigure the system to fit what I need?
  • How easy is it to number and/or name this scene, so I can find it again?
  • Can I link it other scenes in some way; for example, is there a way to find all the scenes in which Jarod appears or all the scenes related to the sub-plot of Marcie’s aunt?
  • Is there a way to track the tension or the story arc of the entire story?
  • How much time would I spend defining the parameters of the scene, versus writing the scene itself?

I spend time determining how easy it is to understand the program’s organization

  • How easy is it to make backups? How much space does each backup take?
  • Is there a spell-checker? A thesaurus?
  • Are there some kind of files such as family trees, maps, diagrams, photographs, audio and video recordings that this program can’t handle. In other words will I be keeping a lot or a little information somewhere else? In the heat of writing, leaving my writing program to look at a photo or check a map is a real drag.
  • Can I write scenes or chapters in the writing software program or do I need a separate word processing program? How smooth is information transfer between the writing software and my word processing program?
  • Can I change fonts? Use underline, bold, and italics? Use different colors to highlight material?
  • What’s the printing format like? Can I print single- and double-sided? Can I print part of a section or must I print the entire section each time? How graphic-intensive is the printing and how much ink will I use on photos, borders, etc.?

The final and most important questions are

  • Does the program do no harm to my writing?
  • Do I have a fun using it?

Do you use a writing software program?

What’s the most helpful thing it enables you to do?

What so-called helpful feature drives you absolutely batty?