Category Archives: Toolkit

Six tools of my trade

Six Tools Of My Trade

Over the last few months, I have received a couple of emails asking what I use to write. So, for the heck of it, I figure it would be fun to compile a list of products I regularly use in my everyday process of writing. None of these companies asked me to endorse them or these products. I’m posting these here because I love ’em and want to share my experience with my readers and fellow writers. Hopefully you’ll find something new and useful for your own writing.


1. 13″ Apple MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air

It’s starting to show it’s age, but my first tool is my 2012 13″ MacBook Air. I love this little machine, I’ve written five manuscripts on it and it’s served me well. I got the Air because I thought I wanted the portability, but I’m no coffee shop writer, and I’ve since found I don’t carry it around very often. Come upgrade time, I’ll eschew portability and focus on something a bit more powerful. That said, all in all, it’s been a great workhorse. If you’re looking for something nimble and light I highly recommend it.


2. Scrivener 2 by Literature & Latte

Scrivener 2

Scrivener 2 is the software I write in most often. I use it for everything from brainstorming to the actual process of writing prose. It’s incredibly customizable and once you figure out how it use it, it really streamlines the writing process. The more I explore its features the more I love it. It’s also excellent at exporting high-quality ebook files as well. I wrote a quick post about Scrivener a while back, it sums up my feelings about the software and links to a lot of other handy articles.


3. Scapple by Literature & Latte

Scapple

Scapple is my mind mapping software. I used to use a whiteboard, or a wall and sticky notes. Scapple fully replaced that, allowing me to visually picture my plots, character arcs, and storylines. I love it so much I wrote a whole blog post about it. It’s a good way to keep what used to be temporary work in a digital permanent format which makes it easy to access and reference.


4. Dropbox

Dropbox

Dropbox is my offsite backup and file sharing solution. I work exclusively off Dropbox. All my files live there. It’s nice to have the peace of mind knowing that my work is safe in the cloud as opposed to on hard drives that can fail, go missing, or be destroyed. Back up often. Seriously, do it right now. I can’t stress this enough.


5. Pilot Metropolitan

pilotmet

This Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen is my favorite thing in the world right now. I absolutely love this little pen. I recently decided to switch to fountain pens and was looking for an entry-level pen, as so many can get expensive. The Pilot was recommended. It is under twenty dollars and easily worth every penny. After using this exclusively for the last few months, I ended up buying a second one it’s perfect for taking notes, making quick sketches, and signing books.


6. Moleskine Cahier Journal

Moleskine cahier journal

The Moleskine Cahier Journal is my notebook of choice (for now). I have used various notebooks for years now and this is the best. It’s not perfect though. For one: I wish it was dotted instead of ruled as I do everything from make notes to draw sketches within it’s pages. The paper also bleeds a bit more than I’d like. All that said, it lays flat, it’s easy to carry, and it’s cheap (you get three for 9 bucks).


So there you go. It was fun to reflect on the stuff I use every day. There are other tools that I could have mentioned (Evernote, Wikipedia, Creative Cloud) but I wanted to focus on the stuff I use day in and day out. If you’re looking for other handy tools I encourage you to check out the toolkit category. I generally post links to handy websites, advice on craft, and software reviews within that category.

What about you? Do you have a favorite tool in your toolkit? Leave a comment below and let us know about it! I’d love to know what products other writers find invaluable in their own process.

Hemingway Editor

Review: Hemingway Editor

Recently I became aware of 38Long’s Hemingway Editor. Over the weekend I had a little time and I figured I’d download it and give it a try. I was really pleased with the result. Taking it’s name from Hemingway himself the software goal is broad: it works to make your writing bolder and clearer.

How does the Hemingway Editor do this? Well, it scans your text and hunts for wordy sentences, annoying adverbs, the use of passive voice, and complicated words. Here’s a screenshot the Hemingway Editor in action, scanning a passage from my upcoming novel Red Litten World. (Don’t worry, I picked one that is spoiler free.)

Hemingway Editor

Ooof, there’s an unnecessary “very” in there there, and some harder sentences towards the end. Wow… look at that awkward lead sentence, how’d that get in there? (Fret not, I’ve already trimmed it down.)

As you can see it’s a thorough and useful piece of software. There’s a few minor bugs with the way tooltips hover, but nothing that makes the software unusable by any means. While not a replacement for a real human editor, it’s a good sanity check for writers, and for the low price of $6.99 for the PC/Mac desktop version it’s worth every penny. The Hemingway Editor also has a free version online, you can check it out at: hemingwayapp.com. Try it yourself, see if it’s something that you’d incorporate into your own workflow. I know it’ll have a place in mine.

Old Maps Online

Writer’s Toolkit: Old Maps Online

If you’re a writer the odds are high that you’ve poked around through your share of maps. It could be a map you’ve created, a pile of maps you’ve collected for research, or just some maps you have gathered for inspiration. If you’re like me you can never have enough resources for that sort of content. You owe it to yourself to check out today’s toolkit link:

Old Maps Online

I simply love this site. It gives you the ability to explore a myriad of high resolution maps simply by navigating to an area and zooming in. Looking for victorian maps of London? Need a street map of a 1950s town? No problem. With some quick navigation you’ll find it easy to get the sort of information you’re looking for. It even lets you narrow your search down to specific date ranges and updates automatically showing what maps are available from their collection of links. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how extensive and deep their database seems to go. Old Maps Online is not only incredibly handy, it’s very powerful, and an easy way to get the information you need. Worth checking out.


Have a resource in your toolkit you’re willing to share? Leave a comment below or send me an email and I’ll feature it in the next Writer’s Toolkit.

Building A Better Book Cover

Let’s Talk About Your Book Cover.
Along with being a writer I am also a designer. I’ve been designing for 15 years now, having done everything from posters, logos, email campaigns, web sites, before eventually settling into user experience design. I mention my pedigree such as it is, only because I want to talk about some concerns I have over design advice  given to indie authors who are diving into self-publishing.

There seems to be a great many folks out there who claim you can make a well designed book cover with a cheap stock photo and a bit of text. I have seen these articles pop up on blogs all over. Every single time I just get frustrated. Why? Well, frankly… they’re totally wrong.

A Short Design Lesson

A well designed cover is so much more. It’s clever. It’s engaging. It’s attractive. It’s enticing. Chip Kidd—arguably one of the best cover designers in the world today—is quoted as saying:

“A book cover is a distillation.
It is a haiku of the story.”

The primary essence of a haiku is the Japanese word きる or kiru, which means to cut or slice. In a good haiku everything is removed but the perfect words to formulate the perfect line. A good book cover should also strive for that same perfection. Just like a haiku, it should reduce thousands and thousands of your words into a few simple elements. These elements should work together to do one thing: engage the viewer.

Staying simple is key. One of my favorite sayings comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

What does that mean? Let’s take a look at one of my favorite covers from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There is so much going yet it’s so simple and clever. Excess distraction has been stripped away and it still oozes intrigue. The choice of hand lettering. The tear and the peeling back of the paper to reveal the titular goldfinch. It’s compelling. It’s engaging. It’s clever. It leaves the viewer wanting to know more. It makes me want to read the book.

Often stock photography tends to be the most cliché take on a subject. Cleverness rarely comes from cliché. To get past the cliché I think you need to go beyond visual imagery, sure…a piece of stock photography might show up, and yes a typeface choice will be a part of the final design, but just slapping together a few things that are “close enough” won’t do your story justice. A good cover goes beyond all of that, it becomes that perfect line.

Creating A Better Cover

Okay, my lesson on book cover design theory is over. You want to make a simple engaging cover. So how do you go about doing that? I get that not everyone is a designer. So what can you do as a writer to really make your book cover stand out and look professional? Here’s a few suggestions.

If you are willing to spend some money:
  • Hire a designer
    Seriously. A designer will help your final work look it’s best. Make sure you have them read your book and approach you with a few concepts. If you have a few ideas throw them out there, but be willing to bend a little. It’s their job to distill your story down into that perfect haiku, that is what they are good at, let them be good at their job.
If you are going in alone:
  • Study well-designed covers
    There are numerous resources out there for you to browse award winning covers. One fantastic place to start is The Book Cover Archive, a site I have mentioned before. But there are other collections all over the web. Use them as a resource, see what works and learn to recognize what doesn’t.
  • Learn from the masters
    Chip Kidd had a great TED talk I suggest you go watch. There are also a ton of books out there as well with instructions on how to get started.
  • Sketch out ideas
    Sit down and start sketching out ideas. You don’t have to be a good artist. Just get a feel for what you want. Does it involve people? Does it need to even have a photograph? Is there something representational you could use instead?
  • Get messy
    Look back at The Goldfinch‘s cover. A lovely (and I believe in the public domain) painting by Carel Fabritius. Some paper. Some rough handwriting. It’s all laid out and photographed. It looks great. Don’t be afraid to try some weird crafty things to capture that cover you want for your book.

A Few Final Thoughts

So does the cover even matter? Some would say in our post-bookstore eBook-flooded-world a cover isn’t anything more than a thumbnail—if even that. Some would say the interior is what matters and cover design is a waste of time. Both stances are probably right on some level and sure, a well designed cover means nothing if your book isn’t up to snuff, and yes a cover is rarely seen in an eBook but I don’t think those are good arguments for bad cover design.

If you can put in a little effort into making your book look that much more professional thus making it more appealing to readers…why wouldn’t you? Quality sells. People look at covers before they buy a book (yes, even with eBooks.) There’s a reason why folks like Chip Kidd, David Pelham, and Barbara Dewilde can make careers designing some of the most iconic and recognizable covers on the market. It’s the same reason why people are drawn to smartly designed book covers, and why readers remember their favorites.

Imagery resonates. You have spent all this time writing a pretty amazing book. Spend a bit more time and give it a pretty amazing cover.

My New Whiteboard: Scapple

Dr. Robert Goddard at Clark University
Dr. Robert Goddard at Clark University – via Flickr

I mentioned in my previous post that over the last month I have been exploring Scapple, software from Literature and Latte, creator of my favorite word processing software Scrivener. (I wrote a post about Scrivener as well, you should check it out. tl;dr – it’s awesome.)

I am foremost a visual thinker; I work with whiteboards all the time for my day job. Be it for wireframes, or just to start hashing out ideas, the temporary nature of a whiteboard allows me to be loose with my thoughts and explore avenues with little to no expense. Sadly, I don’t have room in my house for a whiteboard. So I have been looking for alternative means to organize my work without sacrificing space. Paper is too small to write this sort of stuff out and ultimately a waste. I have tried spreadsheets with Google Docs and Apple’s Numbers, but those are too cumbersome for this type of work. I have even tried lists within a document, but I found it too difficult to step back and get the big picture. I’ve even tried using Adobe Illustrator, which has a lot of similar features, but in the long run is too bulky and cumbersome for this type of work.

Using Scapple:
Scapple has been on my radar for a while, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided to step in and give it a shot. It really was the product I was looking for: it’s both part mind-mapping and part free-form text editor. Everything is drag and droppable allowing for me to work quickly. I can get my ideas onto the screen, make connections between those ideas, and then step back and see the big picture. Here’re the first five chapters of my new unnamed project:

Scapple

(No, I won’t make it larger. Spoilers!) Only a portion of that is the actual story (highlighted in blue), but I wanted to make sure I paid attention to what else was going on. There’s a lot of plot points to juggle in this one so making sure I have everything organized was key for me, and Scapple helped me quickly get my thoughts down so I could progress.

The Downside:
Scapple is still a bit clunky. It’s not as forgiving as some programs, and often I find myself scrambling to lay things out properly. I feel that a lot of this could be solved with some snap-to-grid system. (Which I bet is coming.)

Also, while not a reflection on Scapple, I should mention that this very much one of those programs that can get in the way of actual work. You can spend a lot of time stylizing, tweaking, and laying things out. Time that could be better spent writing. That’s not Scapple’s fault, as I mentioned in my post “Shut Up and Write!“, if we’re looking for distraction, we’ll find it.

My final verdict:
Powerful. Quick. Effective at mapping and laying out snippets of text visually. Scapple is the best mind-mapping program to fill that niche in the market. It’s $14 bucks, which cheap in the grand scheme of productivity software and if you’re a visual thinker like I am it’s very handy at getting your plot laid out. It’s worth it, just don’t let yourself get too distracted. The only person who needs to see your Scapples is yourself. Save the perfectionism for the final product, not your notes.

Scrivener

Scrivener
Often I am asked “what do you write in?” It’s a question one a lot of writers are asked and one I am very eager to answer: I write with Scrivener on a Mac, and I absolutely love it.

Scrivener is a hard program to really explain. Everyone uses it differently. In a lot of ways it’s like Photoshop in that it becomes what the user needs it to be. If you’re writing a screenplay it can accommodates that, if you’re working on a novel and like working scene to scene it can work with that as well, if you’re like me and write in chronological order Scrivener allows that as well.

It’s an organizer. A note keeper. A name generator. It can be just input (like the screenshot above) removing all distractions and allowing you to focus only on your words. It can also be an alarm, notifying you know when you have hit your word count goal. In short: it’s incredibly powerful.

Like most customizable programs the learning curve can be a bit daunting. Rather than rehash what has been written about time and again, I’ve collected  links by folks like me who use Scrivener, people who have converted to Scrivener, and why you might want to  consider it for your own writing:

Since we’re on the eve of NaNoWriMo I should add: if you don’t use Scrivener and are participating in NaNoWriMo I wouldn’t encourage switching to any new program. Not yet. For now write what you’re comfortable in and come to Scrivener when you able to spend some time to learn a new piece of software and aren’t trying to put up 1613 words a day.