My Toolkit

Preamble

Given a head full of ideas, and being confronted with the prospect of actually writing something, I find to be akin to being shown a large tree and being told “make a house out of that.” I would be daunted by either, unless I had tools.

With a poor memory, the free time I might have for recreational writing generally being characterised by considerable fatigue, the fact that ideas often come fast, and thus need to be recorded quickly – these are all factors that define what I require from a toolkit for writing.

Things To Write On/With

Other than brief notes, longhand writing is not for me. Weirdness with my hands means that I can’t hold a pencil/pen for more than a few minutes without pain, and I simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with the flow of ideas. If I do make longhand notes, it is inevitable that I will lose them, and/or forget that I wrote them in the first place. Much as I love Moleskine notebooks, they don’t really have a place in my creative process.

Having been a touch-typist for over thirty years, typing is the obvious means to record my words. Being often too tired to sit at a desk, it is with a laptop that I do all my heavy-duty key-bashing. Of the laptops I have used over the years, only one has actually been really suited for use on my lap; they have been either too heavy, get hot (not good when wearing shorts,) or, when connected to the charger, give a nasty tingle (also not good when wearing shorts.) My 13″ Macbook Air is as close to perfect as I think I will get. The short-travel keyboard makes for a good typing speed, and I can have it on my lap for hours, without getting crushed, cooked, or electrocuted.

One of the instances when I have guaranteed writing time is when I make the two-plus hour bus journey from home to Adelaide. Whilst I have used the¬†Macbook Air on larger, long-distance buses, smaller vehicles – such as I encounter when doing day trips for medical appointments – preclude the use of a laptop; seat pitch is just too tight. My most bus-compatible device is an iPad Air. Light, with good battery life, the on-screen keyboard isn’t ideal for heavy-duty writing, but fine for note-taking, outlining, etcetera. As it happens, I am able to get an Internet connection from it for the greater part of my journey, which makes it very handy for looking things up (which I do a lot.)

Software

Many moons ago, I looked at what I regarded as the challenges of managing the writing of a novel; how you define places, characters, who is where, and when, and has what characteristics at any given point in time. I could see a lot of parallels with the way that old-school computer adventure games worked, and started to write a specification for a piece of software I could create to help me write.

When I first got my Macbook Air, I realised that I had an ideal writing machine; I started to think about software again, and was quite delighted when I discovered the existence of Scrivener, writing software written by writers. Whilst Scrivener didn’t exactly match my specification, I could see that it would do pretty well everything I needed – and then some – just in a slightly different way.

As one who works in software development, I am a great believer in versioning; I version just about everything, my creative works included. I started out trying to use Scrivener with git, but found this troublesome to say the least, as Scrivener creates lots of files, all the time. The answer to the versioning problem also allows me to shift my work between laptop and desktop easily – I create all my Scrivener projects in a folder in Dropbox. To date, I have found this to be a very satisfactory solution – no bashing around with git on the command line, actually no work on my part at all.

As much as I love Scrivener, there is no iPad version. There is, however, a writing tool, Index Card for iPad, and Scrivener can import from/export to this application, via Dropbox. I had a first proper test of Index Card a week ago, coming home on the bus. Outlined a few scenes, and then successfully imported them into Scrivener just yesterday. Whilst I still need to find my way around this properly, it looks very promising.

The final pieces of software that I will mention is Evernote, without which I would be lost; quite the best note-taking system I have come across, running on desktop, laptop, iPad, and my Android phone, where I use it for, amongst other things, my shopping lists. Having Evernote on my phone means that I can jot down ideas pretty well any time, anywhere, even when I don’t have any of my other devices to hand. As my phone is also my alarm clock, it’s even beside the bed, ready to capture those fleeting inspirations that come on wakening.

Conclusion

I have described what works for me. I have fairly specific ways of working, which are the same for my creative projects as my work. These are the tools which work for me, and thus I commend them to others to try. I would, however, recommend experimentation, find what works for you.