Let’s Talk Tools

IMG_8820Have you ever walked through an art store? All those lovely paints and markers, brushes and canvases! Writers definitely got the short end of stick when it came to tools of the trade.

A writer’s supply list looks pretty much like this:

1. Computer

2. …

Dismal.

Of course, we manage to pad out our writer identities with fountain pens, Moleskine notebooks, manual typewriters, and copies of Strunk & White, but on an everyday basis, there’s not a whole lot that separates a writer’s material needs from an accountant’s…although, even accountants get those nifty ledger books.

Enter software. I have two apps, made just for writers, that I use on a daily basis. One of them runs on my laptop, the other on my phone.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 2.34.48 PMIf you’ve spent any time at all out and about in the writing community, you’ve probably already heard of  Scrivener. It’s a “content generation tool” designed specifically for large-scale writing projects. It’s been years since I wrote a novel in anything but Scrivener, because it’s brilliant at keeping a mind-numbing amount of text neatly organized and accessible. Scrivener’s word count and project target tools help me stay on track with my daily goals. Its ability to keep track of my various notes, photos, and research links is icing on the cake. Plus, it makes me feel more special than Pages or Microsoft Word. I like feeling special.

IMG_8823The second app I use every single day is WordTracker for iOS. WordTracker is a time- and word count-tracking app. Press a big green button when you start writing each day, enter your word count when you finish, and WordTracker generates a host of statistics about your writing habits. It’s not a perfect app. I really wish it allowed negative word counts, for those days when revision ends up meaning more subtraction than addition. I also wish it allowed me to enter times and word counts manually when I realize I forgot to hit the button or I didn’t have my phone with me. Overall, though, I love knowing that I’ve put 160 hours of writing time into my current novel. Or that I average 432 words an hour, but that I once wrote 2300 words in that amount of time. The statistics give me a sense of accomplishment above and beyond just seeing my page count grow and my characters come to life. WordTracker makes the work I put in quantifiable. Take that, accountants!

I’ll confess, sometimes I still wish writing came with all the trappings of oil painting or sculpture, but at least we do have some tools that are just for us. Besides your computer, what do you use every day? What do you keep around just because it makes you feel like a writer?

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Stay on Target…

There’s a lovely, little window that lives at the bottom right corner of my manuscript, called the “project targets.” This Scrivener feature calculates a daily word count target based on a deadline, goal, and weekly writing days that you set. Right now, my targets are set up to indicate the number of words I’ll need to add as I flesh out my second draft.

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 8.23.58 AMI adore those numbers. I live and die by those numbers. The session target is my guiding light and from it, I will not stray.

That obviously means I write to a daily minimum word count. What’s less obvious is that I also try not to go too far over. Here’s why:

  1. Pacing yourself keeps your momentum steady. When you blow past your word count one day, it makes it easy to justify slacking off the next. For me, one day often leads to two, two leads to three, and it’s all abandoned-hopes-and-dreams from there.
  2. Slowing down gives your subconscious time to sync all the elements of your story. Novels are like Indian cooking. In her book, Quick & Easy Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey notes, “…avoiding dishes with too many spices? That would be like asking an Indian not to be an Indian! If you can put one spice into a pan, you can just as easily put in ten or even fifteen.” All those spices can take some time to meld, which is why Indian leftovers are so crazy-delicious. Novels are complex dishes that require hundreds of ingredients. Don’t be afraid to put the leftovers in the refrigerator overnight. They’ll taste great tomorrow.
  3. Keeping to the speed limit helps you see the road ahead. When you’re driving 100mph, bumps in the road appear too quickly for you to do anything about them. Some would argue that this is great for novelists, and I agree, there’s something to be said for embracing the unexpected. The danger is when the unexpected threatens to derail your entire process. A judicious application of the brakes allows you to make a choice, whether you want to head straight for the pothole or gently steer around it.
  4. Reasonable goals prevent burnout. Winning NaNoWriMo requires writing 1667 words a day for thirty days straight. I did that nine times. The result was nine novel files I closed on November 30 and never opened again. I know this isn’t true for everyone, and plenty of published novels have come out of fast drafts and marathon writing sessions. However, it’s important to know your own limits. Once you determine what works for you, sticking to it can be the difference between finishing a novel you’re still in love with and finishing a novel whose guts you hate.
  5. Reaching your daily goal means you can read. When you set a daily word count goal and don’t pressure yourself to blast past it, it means you have time to pick up a book at the end of the day. Enough said, right?

There’s a lot of emphasis on speed out there in the writing community right now. The “full speed ahead” method works great for some writers. I’m not one of them. If you aren’t either, remember there are plenty of good reasons to be a tortoise. Stay on target, even if your pace is a crawl.