Category Archives: Tools

IPad Writing Apps That Authors Love

iPad and WriterAs a writer, I’m a big fan of writing without internet distractions. When I go to my local writing group’s coffeehouse write-ins, I do bring a laptop, but I hesitate to turn the wifi on for fear that I will end up spending my time surfing the web instead of writing. Yet, there are times when connection to the internet can be useful. For this reason, I keep my iPod Touch beside my laptop for research, to use as a timer, or to provide background music. The action of having to leave my primary writing device to call on the internet is usually enough to keep the insidious Facebook and Twitter at bay. I use well known iOS apps such as Evernote, Dropbox, iTunes, Clock, and Kindle on the go. I can recommend any of these as must-have apps whether you write directly on your iPad or simply use your iPhone or iPod Touch for research as I do.

For those that are thinking of using their iPads to do creative writing, I’ve assembled a short list of iOS apps for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch that go beyond the usual recommendations for using Evernote, Dropbox and iTunes that you see everywhere else. I hope you’ll find these apps useful whether you use your iPad to actually write your text or simply use it as a research tool by the side of your main writing device.

All the apps reviewed below have been tried by me at one time or another. I have not been asked to review the app by the developer nor do I have any financial stake in their product. These are simply apps that I personally have found interesting.

For more reviews about iPad apps, please visit my other post: More iPad Writing Apps That Authors Love.

Manuscript
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.2 or later

$3.99

This was one of the first writing programs I uploaded into my iPod Touch, on recommendation of a Nanowrimo buddy, and I find it useful for brainstorming or writing notes. I can use it as a straight word processor too, although with my small iPod screen I don’t do my main writing with it, preferring to use my other writing devices. On an iPad, it would be a good basic word processor paired with a bluetooth keyboard. What the app does is walk you through the steps of writing: Pitch, Synopsis, Chapter Outline, then then writing your Content. You can create a storyboard with color-coded index cards. Add, edit, and reorder chapters. It will track your page and word count, a real plus during Nanowrimo. Manuscript has a built in thesaurus and dictionary, in addition to other research tools. Finally, it is dropbox compatible. I find it a great place to store story outlines, character sketches and location descriptions since I can create these files in Scrivener, upload them to dropbox and then download them into Manuscript for easy viewing.

Pages
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.2 or later
$9.99

One of the most highly recommended iPad writing apps is Pages. While it is one of the more expensive apps to purchase, it is feature rich and intuitive to use. It is compatible with MS Word or plain text files. Pages is dropbox compatible, can print via AirPrint, or converts your file to PDF to share via email. You can import files from Mail, the web, or your Mac or PC using iTunes file sharing. Most of my writing friends that write with their iPads use this app as their basic word processor. Due to its MS Word compatibility, it makes any file that you create with it easily transferable to your PC at the end of the day.

Clean Writer
Compatible: iPad
requires iOS 4.3 or later
99 cents

Clean Writer is a distraction-free plain text editor for iPad. Most options are hidden from sight and it has customizable color themes and font selection. The app only uses plain text files such as .txt, .md. html and will not open .doc, .rtf or .pdf. It has a live counter of characters, words and lines, can be set to auto-save your files and creates intelligent file name defaults that prevent accidents. Another interesting feature is that you can use gestures on your touch screen to pinch a font, tap for a quick jump and swipes for files. It is compatible with dropbox or you can sync via iCloud. Clean Writer is a wonderful candidate for people that write via markdown and has a preview and conversion function for this style of writing. There are other text writers for markdown writing on the market, but this one is fully featured and at a much lower cost.

Dragon Dictation
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.0 or later
Free

My husband is the one that originally brought Dragon Dictation into our household. He dictates reports for work and then sends them to his assistant via dropbox. I grew intrigued with using voice to create text in apps and other writing programs. I find that the Dragon does a good job. You will need to set aside time to train the app to your voice, but it does not take long for the software to learn your speaking style. I find that Dragon is great for quick notes on the fly when I’m in a quieter setting. I do not find it good for write-ins at coffeehouses since when I’m in a public setting, I tend to keep my writing more private. However, I think that since it is free, it is a great app to add to your arsenal of tools to use. When you want to take a quick note and don’t want to pull out your bluetooth keyboard or hunt and peck on the screen keyboard, Dragon is the way to go.

Writer’s App
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.3 or later
99 cents

I normally keep my character sketches, location descriptions and chapter notes in a Filofax planner. I find that flipping through the pages can locate the information that I need quickly and I do not need to worry about dead batteries on the go. However, by using paper, it is difficult to transfer this information back into my computer organizational system.

This writer’s app reminded me a great deal of my Filofax in that while it is not a word processor, it is an easy way to store those certain character details on my iPod in a way that they would be easy to find. All my characters can be found in one place, locations in another, chapter outlines/synopsis in yet another, and so forth. It also has templates to help you create the sketches of your characters if you haven’t done it on your own before. All the contents of the app can be sync via iCloud to all your iOS devices. While I am not certain that I would want to give up my Filofax and fountain pen, if you are more the type to want to keep your files on your iPhone or iPad, this might be an excellent research tool. At 99 cents, it is at a bargain price too.

Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.3 or later
Free

Having a good dictionary and thesaurus on hand while writing is a must-have. I love having this in my iPod Touch in addition to my paper bound ones that I keep in my writing bag. It is best used when your iPad or iPod are being used for researching tools beside your main writing device.

When you look up a word in the Dictionary or Thesaurus, the app provides synonyms, antonyms and similar and related words to help you make your writing more interesting. It has a “fuzzy” filter when you are not sure of the spelling of word to help you find it in the dictionary. You can create a favorites feature that helps you make your own categories and lists of words. Your last visited words are saved in a history so you can quickly go back and recheck words. A new feature to the app is that you can snap a photo of text and it will scan the words and translate them. You can even play a mean game of hangman in it when you are bored.

Index Card
Compatible: iPad
requires iOS 5.0 or later
$4.99

Index Card is a writing app that looks like a corkboard, similar to the one that comes standard in Scrivener. It allows you to capture, organize and compile your story ideas much as you would do with an old-fashioned board and paper index cards. You can drag and drop the cards, tap a card to open it for editing, swipe the editing screen to go through your project one card at a time or scroll the list of cards to browse your whole project. The app is compatible with Dropbox or with iTunes file sharing. There is an option to print your index cards from the app via AirPrint. What makes Index Card unique is that it is also compatible with the Mac version of Scrivener! You can use this app on the go to develop your chapter index cards and then import them into Scrivener to develop them into full content files later. My friends that are heavy Scrivener and iPad users recommend this app highly.

MiTypewriter For IPad
Compatible: iPad
requires iOS 5.0 or later
$1.99

I had to include this app in the list, as a distraction free writing environment with few frills. The app simulates an old-fashioned typewriter complete with all the sound effects. You can write your email with this and then send it either via image or text. When you want to erase your text, you use the backspace key. The Fonts, that come in either black or red, are “Old Typewriter” or “American Typewriter”. It does have a minimal document management system and it is compatible with AirPrint. I’m a writer that switched to a mechanical keyboard to return to having the “typewriter sound” when I write in my studio, so I personally found this app to be appealing for writing on the go. I can not recommend this app for writing long pieces of work, but for email and notes it certainly seems like fun.

Lists for Writers
Compatible: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch
requires iOS 4.3 or later
$2.99

This has proven to be one of my better research tools when I’m out writing at the local coffeehouse. The app is a hodgepodge of lists to help you brainstorm new ideas. There are lists of names, character traits, plot lines, occupations, verbs and more. It has a functional dictionary built in and a place to keep writing notes that you can later upload to your main computer. I keep this app on my iPod touch, but it would work on any iOS device. The iPad users in our writing group had a easier time reading the information of the lists as compared to myself on the smaller iPod. It was a real hit among my Nanowrimo compatriots last November.

Inspiring Written Creativity: Morning Pages

Morning Pages with Fountain PenAs the sun crawls up from the horizon and spills light through my window blinds, I experience that twilight when I’m halfway between sleep and being awake. It is a time when the characters of my novel often speak to me through visual renderings of upcoming scenes. I walk with these people, feel their angst and share their hopes for the future as good wrestles with evil and love finds a way through it all. I shake off sleep entirely and go through my day. Sometimes I remember the scene clearly enough that I can write it down and other times it goes back into my subconscious, perhaps to be lost forever, or to undergo another evolution the next time I dream. This is the best of times when you are a writer. Your story has a grip on you and will not let you be. You can not stop writing even if you wished to.

What about those times when it is not so easy? When life has thrown you so many distractions that your mind is a muddy mess and inspiration seems to have deserted you? It is time for the writing tool known as the “Artist Way”, or more simply, the habit of morning pages to help see you through.

Morning pages are three regular pages, or 750 words, of stream of consciousness writing. It is written as soon as you get out of bed in the morning. These are not outlines, plots to stories, a daily journal, or anything that you would want to show to another soul. You probably would not even consider it true writing. These pages are for your eyes only and can be about anything and everything that crosses your mind. You don’t need to plan to re-read these pages unless you want to, that is not their purpose. You do this every morning to write without your inner editor and to practice getting words on the page. As time goes on, you’ll realize that intriguing patterns and thoughts will begin to emerge in your notebook.

How to Write Morning Pages:

1. Get a notebook. I happen to like inexpensive composition notebooks that can handle fountain pen ink, but any simple spiral notebook will work. Make sure that the pages are of standard size. Do not use a mini-journal.

2. Find a pen. I happen to indulge in fountain pens, but any pen that you are comfortable using will do.

3. As close as you can to the moment you wake up, take out your notebook and start writing. Make sure you write three full pages, not front and back, but three in total. It should take you no more than twenty to thirty minutes. Even if you have nothing to say that morning, you can write the same sentence over and over again until you reach your word goal. This will not happen often. Eventually your subconscious will break through and you will have things to say.

4. Rinse and repeat. It takes 30 days to form a new habit. Give yourself time to let this one become ingrained. You will find over time that when it comes the time to write your story or article, the words will flow from you far more easily and ideas for your writing projects will be more numerous.

NOTE: For those of you who are more electronically inclined, there is a website that has been formatted to accommodate Morning Pages. It is designed to track your 750 words of writing each day and it will chart your writing as to subjects and emotions based on the words that you use in your daily writing. The account there is free and it gives you a bit more connectivity with the net if that is your desire.

I am an intuitive thinker and find that connections come to me when I least expect them to. Insights into problems in my life or situations in my stories usually happen when my brain has been intensely activated and then is allowed a rest for a short time. Morning pages can serve as that burst of stimulation as I get rid of issues that might be bothering me, spilling them from my mind, and then experience small epiphanies later after I’ve left the problem for a time. Writing first thing in the morning is also a great way to capture those dream sequences of stories before they disappear into the aether. You will see the patterns of your stories more clearly or be able to go back and capture “lost” ideas more easily if you use Morning pages as one of the tools in your writing arsenal.

Photo from knittinandnoodlin

Benefits of a Mechanical Keyboard for Writers

DasKeyboard Model S Professional Model KeyboardAs a writer, I spend an incredible amount of time poised over my computer keyboard. I’d been using the standard membrane keyboard that came included with my PC desktop for many years. The keyboard was silent, it worked smoothly and I did not give it a second thought. One day, I was browsing the writing forums at Nanowrimo and came across a thread about mechanical keyboards. The writers raved how their typing speed improved and how much they enjoyed the loud clicky sound when they were typing on mechanical keyboards. They likened the new mechanical keyboards to the sound and feel of the old IBM Model M keyboards of the 1990s or even the older Selectric typewriters of the 1980s.

I confess that I first started typing on a Selectric typewriter and I used the IBM Model M keyboards during college. It had been ages since I had used either, but I remembered the tactile feel of these keyboards and the pleasant sound that my old typewriter made as I churned out my first novels in my youth. Would a mechanical keyboard turn back the clock in a positive way for me? I was intrigued.

There are four different types of cherry switches on a mechanical keyboard, the most popular are blue cherry and brown cherry. The blue are louder when you use them and have the greater tactile feel. Many writers consider the blue cherry to be the best for writing. The brown switches still have click, but are somewhat quieter. Since I was used to a silent keyboard and tend to write at night, I thought that the quieter switches would be a better fit for me.

With the old flexible membrane keyboard, I had to completely depress each key to make it function. There was little tactile feedback and it was virtually silent. Also, the keyboard is designed to prevent “ghosting” which means that the most keys I can depress at nearly the same time is two. This caused typos as I wrote since the keyboard could not react fast enough for my typing speed.

blue cherry switchThe mechanical keyboard uses a cherry switch underneath each key. There is no need to depress the key completely to make it work and due to the N-key rollover, up to six keys can be pressed and register without fail. Not only does this mean that the response time of the keyboard is faster, but typos are fewer because the “ghosting” has been removed. When each key is depressed, there is a click that sounds like an old-fashioned typewriter.

The quality of workmanship in the mechanical keyboard is higher. A membrane keyboard works until 5 to 10 million keystrokes have been performed. The mechanical keyboard will continue to perform for 50 million keystrokes. So while they are more expensive to purchase, they do last much longer.

When my husband asked me what I might like as a Christmas present, I mentioned to him that one possibility would be a mechanical keyboard for my computer. Much to my surprise, Santa delivered a handsome DasKeyboard with German made brown cherry switches under my Christmas tree. I was able to test drive the keyboard at last.

The keyboard was solid and heavy, at least three times heavier than my old membrane keyboard. It needed two USB connections, with a PS/2 adapter, to allow for N-key rollover, and much to my delight it had volume and playback controls for my media player along with the standard keys. The design of the keyboard was minimal with a classy ebony finish and an understated blue light to show that it is on and functioning. A grown ups keyboard.

When I first started to use the DasKeyboard, I found it uncomfortable. The noise was much louder than I expected and I had trouble concentrating on writing due to this. The feel of the keys was different than the membrane keyboard and I wondered if I would adjust to it. The only initial positive aspect of the keyboard was that I liked the heaviness of the unit and found that it stayed put on my keyboard tray where my old membrane keyboard used to slide around a bit due to its light weight. I wondered if I had made a mistake in switching to this new keyboard.

It was the second day after I had hooked up the DasKeyboard that I noticed that I was starting to feel more comfortable on it. My fingers began to reach the new distance between the keys and my touch became lighter on the keyboard. My fingers started to fly and my typing speed soared. What I found astounding is that while my speed was increasing, my typos were decreasing. It was as if I had a thought and it instantly transferred to the computer screen via magic. I felt a sense of excitement when I realized this. There was a true positive difference in using this keyboard after all.

The typewriter sound was the final adjustment. It took longer to grow used to the clack of the keys, but now that I’ve been using the DasKeyboard for a month I realize that I rather like the noise. It says “writing” to me. There is a zen quality to the sound, a rhythm that enhances my writing experience. I find that I enjoy creating on the DasKeyboard more than on the silent, flat keys of my laptop. I wonder no longer. The DasKeyboard was no mistake, it is a true aid to my writing comfort and I consider it an asset in my writing tool box. I will never go back to the silent membrane keyboard again.

Combining an Alphasmart Neo with a Samsung Galaxy Tab for Writing On The Go

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 and Alphasmart Neo
Chet Chin’s Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 and Alphasmart Neo Combined
As a writer, we all have machines that we favor for one task or another. When I am drafting a new novel or short story, my machine of choice is the Alphasmart Neo from RenLearn. It is a sturdy device designed to be used by children in classrooms. The keyboard is the most comfortable one that I own and it has a nice feel and sound that reminds me a little of the old Selectric typewriter that I grew up writing on. The text screen is very small. This aids me in drafting because it helps to keep my inner editor at bay and simply put down the words. I credit the Neo with helping me achieve higher word counts during NaNoWriMo writing sessions.

However, once drafting is completed, the Neo’s usefulness comes to an end. Instead of being able to use this comfortable keyboard that I prefer, I am forced to move to other machines to do my editing and revising. The Neo’s interface is antiquated enough that it doesn’t interface well with modern devices and while it can be used as a keyboard if you hook it up via a USB cable or connect to a device via InfraRed, most tablets these days interface with keyboards via bluetooth, which the Neo does not support.

I belong to an Alphasmart User Group and one of our members discovered a way to interface her Alphasmart Neo with her Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. Chet Chin used the proprietary Samsung Galaxy Tab connection kit and the USB cable that she normally uses to interface with the Neo. The tablet recognized the Neo as a keyboard with no issues. Other tablets will force you to purchase a blutooth enabled keyboard if you wish to use it for writing on the go. That was step one of the connection puzzle. There was still the problem of positioning the tablet so she could see it while typing and finding a word processor app before she could combine the tablet and Neo as a travel writing suite.

At first, Chet tried writing with the Neo in her lap and placing the tablet on a nearby table. This created neck strain and was uncomfortable for her. To put the two machines together, she found a rubber surface cover for her tablet and then placed the tablet on top of the Neo. The Neo has a slight curve where its screen resides and the plastic shell has a textured surface. Chet discovered that the tablet would not slide down from the screen section of the Neo and was at an angle that was comfortable to see his text.

As a writer on the go, Chet not only needs to write text, but she needs to incorporate photos into her articles. Chet recommends the following apps to turn her Neo and Samsung Galaxy Tab into a writing suite:

StyleNote – A writing app for Android
Android PDF annotating app – Adobe Reader
Android photo editing app for cropping, resizing and adding text to his photos

If you would like to join the Alphasmart community, please join us at Flickr. You will learn much about these wonderful writing machines and hopefully become a convert to them as I have.

Creating the Outline of a Novel: From Notebook to Scrivener

A novel always starts out in the back of my mind as a nebulous zygote. A character or a single scene is the seed from which a beautiful child (novel) will be born. It grows there in my mind without my noticing it until one day it solidifies. I say to myself, “Ah ha! There is a story there to write.” It is time for the birthing process to begin. For some people, this means “pantsing” a rough draft without any thought beyond the original seed. For me, I prefer the outline process to give myself a solid foundation with which to build on.

I like to begin the outline process with pen and paper or in Word on my desktop. The pen and composition books are easier to take with me and give an extra layer of creative play that I’ve come to value. There is something about the feel of paper and a pen in your hand that is comforting. It slows down the process enough to allow you to think the details through. I always use a pen, not a pencil. I do not want to be able to easily erase what I’ve written. This is not a time for editing, but for allowing unhindered expression to come forward. I can not do this on a computer due to my fast typing speed. Lately, I’ve been favoring the notebook method over using Word on the computer to outline.

When starting a notebook, I will put the name of the novel at the top, the year I started working on it, and what volume this notebook is. Sometimes there is only one volume, sometimes there are more. For my first novel, I barely had any notes at all. Most of my ideas were in my head alone. Now I find that there is more value in putting the ideas down on paper as best I can. A novel can stretch out over a few years time in the the writing of it. That is a long time to remember tiny details.

My novel’s beginnings are a scrawl of different things. Mind maps where a central character or scene is at the center and I ask myself “what if” questions and then write down ideas as they come no matter how strange around the central idea. Most of these “what if” scenarios are cast off as illogical or too far fetched. Ideas that I like, I highlight, but otherwise simply leave them in the notebook. I sometimes will write down narratives of scenes that have come to me. I don’t go into details, that will come later with the writing of the novel itself, but I try and capture the essence of what is percolating in my subconscious.

I start doing “interviews” of the main characters as they come to me. It is a method that I learned in a creative writing class last year. I make a note of the character’s physical features and find an actor that he can be loosely based on. I begin to formulate the personalties and emotional and intellectual goals and ideals of each character. I write down phrases that would be common to them alone, gestures and other habits that help make the character his own person.

Since I write science fiction and fantasy novels, I find it helpful to rough out a map of the land I’m writing about. Nothing of great detail, enough so that I know where everything is located and can have a good idea as to how long travel time is between the different locations in the story. If I decide that a map will be useful to the readers later, I either will create a better one myself or hire an artist to draw one for the book.

At this point, I open up a file in Scrivener and start to set up the project. In the research area, I create files for the character sketches, the location descriptions and decide on keywords to represent each character, location and special object. This helps me to track information during the revision phase of writing. I also like to print out this information to fit into my writing filofax journal so that I can take my research information with me when I write outside my home. I consider the Scrivener files to be the master copies and my filofax the copy. When I update the information, I update Scrivener first and then print out a new page for the filofax. I like to use the filofax since I don’t have to worry about electricity or waiting for the information to load up in a computer. What I need is all there organized in my writing journal without distraction of the Internet.

Once the research information is in Scrivener, I start an “outline” file in the research area. I write a short paragraph of each scene of the novel from beginning to end based on the highlighted areas of my mind maps from the notebooks and the short scenes that I’ve already written down on paper. The master outline is one file in the research area of Scrivener and a copy is printed for my filofax writing journal. At this point I’ve closed my paper composition notebooks and am working completely in Scrivener.

The final step, before I begin drafting, is to take each outline paragraph and create a separate file for it in the drafting area. I will give the scene a title, write a short synopsis of it in the scrivener card and then paste the entire description paragraph into the document notes section of the inspector. I also label and put in the status of the newly created file.

Every writer uses a different method to create their novels, this is the way I cobble together mine. I consider Scrivener and my filofax writing journal to be the key elements of the system. Scrivener organizes my research and novel information and the filofax is its backup shadow that comes with me everywhere. Together, they form the backbone of my creative process and help to make writing my novels easier.