Tools of the Trade

Alas that we don’t have the means to pull stories directly from our head onto a published page (web or otherwise). We are stuck with some combination of time, tools, and work to get our creations to the world. Here are a few of the ones I’m working with these days.

Pen/cil and Paper

I do almost all of my writing at the keyboard (and mostly in Scrivener). I do a lot of my planning and problem solving longhand, though. Pencil and paper free us from word-processing’s tyranny of left-to-right and top-to-bottom. It’s easy to scrawl arrows and asides and orient the text however you please. You can leave space and go back to it without relying on keys or clicks.

Vitally, it also takes you several steps away from the kind of distractions that can be endemic to working on a computer. You can’t flip a legal pad over to Facebook “just for a second.” Pencils don’t come with solitaire or e-mail or flash games. For me, pencil and paper has the added advantage that I can take it to work to use in planning periods or lunch breaks. (Several of the schools I sub in are places One Doesn’t Take Valuables.)

Don’t underestimate pen and paper as a way to get around writer’s block, either. Sometimes changing medium cracks things loose. There are sections of most everything I’ve written in the last ten years that I drafted longhand.

I have some nice Moleskine notebooks, but I also like plain yellow legal pads (the legal size). I have a soft spot for fountain pens, and use them whenever I haven’t run them out of ink.

I remember a time before Scrivener, but I try not to think about it too much. I did my master’s thesis in a mess of MSWord documents. It was long enough ago that the vast majority of my sources were hard copy. (That I was writing about the relatively obscure Harry Partch and using mostly archival material  contributed to that.)

I adopted Scrivener late in the first year of my doctoral program. It became my go-to writing platform almost immediately. On the academic side, Scrivener made it easy to organize my materials for a class. I could keep all my articles in there, all of my writing assignments, as well as  my notes and brainstorming. I could look at .pdfs without having to hop over to Adobe Reader. Even better, I could split screen the .pdf and my notes on it, or my brainstorming and my draft. I could go full-screen when I needed to.

And my Scrivener folder for my dissertation…it’s about a gigabyte all by itself. It includes drafts of chapters, notes on articles, notes from books, notes from the very few meetings I had with my advisor, brainstorming files sorted by month (and year), a few pieces of me cursing myself into action… It was great. Scrivener, I mean. Not my dissertation (which was merely pretty good). It works just as well for long-form fiction and screenwriting projects.

That ability to manage many separate chunks of text and research is Scrivener’s major strength. You can tag files with things like character names or locations, link documents, and easily create hierarchies. It’s also worth noting that Scrivener will export in a variety of ebook formats as well as paperback-sized .pdfs. Importantly, though, Scrivener is not a document layout program. To do detailed formatting on a project, you’ll have to haul your text over to a different platform. Even so, Scrivener is my favorite piece of software. At one point, I stayed with Macintosh simply because a PC version of Scrivener didn’t exist. (It does now.)

Literature and Latte offers a free trial version of Scrivener.

Aeon Timeline
I’ve only just started using Aeon, and haven’t figured out how thoroughly I’ll integrate it. It’s an interesting tool, albeit a specialized one. Aeon is timeline software. It does timelines and only timelines. That sells the software short, though, because you can use Aeon to produce timelines with incredible depth.

At the macro level, Aeon allows the creation of custom calendars, especially useful for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can establish multiple ages (comparable to our B.C./C.E.). You can determine the number of months in a year, days in a month, and hours in a day. If you need a world to have 27 hour days in months that alternate between 93 days and 11 days, you can do that. You can even incorporate leap years. Once you have a calendar built (or pick the default real world calendar) you can start building your history. Aeon’s timelines make great references if your work involves dynasties and lineages and Stuff that Necessitates Appendices.

At the micro level, Aeon’s timelines are pretty swell, too. One of the samples they provide with the software is a timeline of Murder on the Orient Express. It tracks all of the characters, their alibis, their conversations, and what they were actually doing. You can plot events to the minute. For me, this is particularly useful in keeping track of what my antagonists (who are often “off camera”) are up to. Although we’re fond of moving characters at the speed of plot, Aeon helps make sure we keep it in the realm of plausibility and aren’t putting characters in two spots simultaneously.

Aeon allows you to organize events by “arc” and by character, as well as noting which characters are participants or observers in a given event. I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet, but Aeon can synchronize with Scrivener (the Mac version), creating events for each of your documents. I tend to include multiple scenes in each chapter, so that’s not quite as useful for me, but it could be handy for folks who organize their Scrivener projects by the scene.

Scribblecode offers a free trial version of Aeon Timeline. The developer maintains an active and responsive forum, too.

Being stuck is no fun. For me, one of the best ways to get unstuck is to take a walk. It does not have to be long. It does not have to be fast. Changing scenery helps. When I am deep into a project and the logistics permit it, I like to work for a block of time (usually 25 or 40 minutes), then take a ten-minute walk. Taking a walk can be an opportunity to work problems out in your head without the pressure of putting words on the page or screen. It’s not literally shaking things loose, but sometimes it has felt that way for me. It’s not always about figuring things out, though. Sometimes a walk clears your head so you can come back to the work with a fresh perspective…or just renewed enthusiasm. If outside isn’t an option, getting up and stretching is a worthy substitute.

Another useful benefit of movement breaks? They’re much less likely than “browser breaks” to pull you away from your work longer than you planned.

So, readers, what about you? What are your favorite tools? Anybody out there using typewriters? Favorite pens or notebooks?


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