Writing on a Mac: Jer’s Novel Writer

28 01 2010

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about my love for Scrivener, writing software made to make writing and organizing an easier task.  For anyone who is curious, I am still in love with Scrivener and use it for everything from creative writing (working on my novel) to academic writing (organizing research for papers).  It also has screenwriting features, but I haven’t yet attempted to write a screenplay, so I can’t tout those features quite yet.  In my previous post, I had said one initial reason I wanted to use Scrivener is that they seem like a good company with business practices that are fair and oriented toward the customer.  I have a new reason to respect them: After combing their website, I went to the “Links” page and found that they provide links and descriptions for other writing software (including separate lists of writing software available for Macs and PCs).  In today’s world, it’s refreshing to see that some people still care that the customer is getting what (s)he wants and needs–even if that means sending the customer to another place to get it.

One of the other writing software possibilities on that list of links is Jer’s Novel Writer.  I was intrigued by the description, and so I headed on over to the website to check the software out.  The developer, Jerry, created this software specifically for creative writers working on longer projects, though I’m sure writers could also benefit from using it for short stories or novellas or other such shorter forms of creative writing.  I downloaded Jer’s Novel Writer and began playing with it.  It is so fabulous that I started writing something new just so I could have a reason to keep playing with it.  The appearance is clean-cut, making it feel like I’m playing with a shiny new toy instead of writing software, and the features offered are designed just for creative writers–something I will keep mentioning because their being tailored to a specific audience makes the software that much cooler.

The first screenshot is the basis of my general overview of the cool features of the software:

A basic screenshot of Jer's Novel Writer

Jer’s Novel Writer has a feature that lets you put in margin notes, which is something I love (in the above picture, you can see a margin note in the left column).  I like knowing that if I want to revise, I can put the virtual version of a post-it on the page for easy reference to remind myself what it was I didn’t like (or what it was I liked) about a particular scene.  The margin notes are more than just post-its, though, because they can be linked to a specific word while still being placed in the margin.  That specificity makes it so you can mark a single word that you want to play with and have an entire note dedicated to it.  You can also move the margin notes so that if you have a lot on one page, they will appear in the order you want them to be in (or so they will be equally spaced from each other–whatever it is you aesthetically like).

On the right, you can see the outline for the current work (Jer’s Read Me file) in a drawer that you can choose to have open or closed.  Using the outline makes it easy to navigate through your text (so if you want to find a particular scene to reference, you can easily do so) because all you have to do is click on the section title or text that you want, and it will take you directly to it.  The outline can break your work into chapters, parts, sections, and text blocks.  The text blocks are what you see in the center–where you do the actual typing of your creative work–in alternating yellow and white background blocks.  When you want to put in a new text block, all you have to do is hit the “Insert” button, and it lets you have the option of putting in a new chapter, section, part, or text block.  Every time you create a new dividing line, it automatically shows up in your outline.  The more you provide, the more specific your navigation abilities will be.  While you can title the chapters, sections, and parts, the text blocks will show up in your outline as the beginning text of the first line, which is handy for reminding you exactly what was written in that portion.

While I would love Jer’s Novel Writer solely for the margin-note capabilities, I am fascinated by the possibilities the drawer presents.  When you open the drawer (which in the above picture has the outline), you get three options: outline (pictured above), database, and notes.  The notes are what you would expect them to be–a place where you can write notes to yourself that will be visible from any place in the text.  I want to focus on the database feature, as I think it is particularly helpful for creative writers.

The database portion of the drawer in Jer's Novel Writer

The database is a way you can keep track of your characters, settings, and more.  You can create full sketches on your characters and group them into folders; you can write descriptions of your settings and have them laid out for easy reference; you can really put in anything you want for background information to have at your fingertips during any stage of the writing process.  It’s a fancy way of taking organized notes.

And, of course, you can choose to have the drawer closed, in which case, all you have staring at you is the space where you’re writing and creating margin notes.  In the text portion, when you add in titles, you can format the titles to look however you want them to look:

Jer's Novel Writer with the drawer closed and titled segments

The document I’ve been showing is the “Read Me” document that comes with Jer’s Novel Writer, and it is one of the most helpful and user-friendly guides I’ve seen for getting started with new writing software.

For my particular writing style, I still prefer Scrivener, primarily because its corkboard feature works with my outlining system but also because it works with both my creative and academic writing needs.  However, I think Jer’s Novel Writer is an amazing product, and I hope there are readers out there who will give it a shot and support Jerry as he works toward further developing the software.  I don’t think a writer can ever have too many options when it comes to writing software choices because new projects bring new needs.

Backing Up Your Work: Mac Time Machine

24 01 2010

I tell my students time and time again to back up their work in several places every time they work on a paper or project because I know, from personal experience, how devastating it can be to lose work in the middle of a project.  I made the mistake of beginning my dissertation data collection without backing up what I was doing as I went.  Three weeks in (and hours and hours and hours of data collection in), my computer died.  It wouldn’t start; it wouldn’t respond; it wouldn’t do anything.  It died, so I had to start over because I hadn’t taken the time to back up my work.  I learned the hard way, but my hope is that there are still people out there who can learn the lesson the easy way: listening to someone who has been through it.

The first thing to remember is that your computer will die at an integral point in your work.  Your computer will eat every word you’ve slaved over without caring about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into picking those words.  It is the only thing you can count on in the world of computers: They die or freeze or explode only during critical moments.  Count on it.  Be prepared for it.  That way, the only thing you’re mourning when your computer dies is the fact that you have to get a new one–you won’t have to mourn the loss of your hard-earned work.

After my computer died, I learned my lesson and invested in an external hard drive for my computer, which at the time was a PC.  I bought a Western Digital external hard drive and hooked it up; shortly after, I hit my first wall.  I found out that if I wanted the instant update feature on the hard drive, I had to buy special software from WD.  Otherwise, I had to remember to drag and drop new files I had worked on onto my external hard drive.  I was good about it for a few weeks, but then… I started forgetting to update; once I started forgetting to update on a regular basis, I couldn’t remember which files I worked on that needed re-saving on the hard drive.  After a while, the hard drive started collecting dust on my desk, and I was once again counting on my luck to keep my work safe.

And then I bought a Mac and was introduced to the wonderful world of the Time Machine…

I hooked up my handy WD external hard drive and turned on the Time Machine, and my Mac took over from there.  It asked me if I wanted to make the hard drive my preferred Time Machine, and I said, “Yes, please.”  That was the smartest computer decision I made since I got my Mac.  When my hard drive isn’t hooked up, nothing happens.  But as soon as I hook my hard drive up, an automatic update begins; if I keep it hooked up, it will continue doing automatic updates every hour (my preferred time interval) until I eject the hard drive.  The updates are saved at those intervals, and if something happens, I get to pick which point I want my computer to be restored to.

With the Time Machine feature, there doesn’t have to be a catastrophe–I might simply want my computer to go back to the way it was an hour ago, before I made a drastic change that I’m not happy with to a story I was working on.  As long as I had my hard drive hooked up and doing the automatic updates, I’m only a few clicks away from erasing the unpleasant changes.

While doing NaNoWriMo, I had my hard drive running every time my computer was running because I was paranoid I would lose everything.  As computer axioms go, since I was prepared for computer problems, my computer performed perfectly.  Yet I was happy to know that my novel was securely saved on more than one device.

If you have a Mac and haven’t yet hooked up a hard drive to start your own Time Machine experience, I highly suggest you do so.  You don’t need to be a writer to want to take advantage of the continual updates–you just need to be a computer user who keeps personal documents stored on your computer.  It’s minimal hassle for maximal ease-of-mind.

The Scary World of Publishing

21 01 2010

I enjoy writing.  I like getting wrapped up in a story I’m creating in my head, and I like the idea of being able to share that story with other people who enjoy reading just as much as I do.  The problem, though, is that the publishing world really just scares the crap out of me.  It’s the world of the unknown, and it seems like every time I read advice for writers, it doesn’t actually help.

Then I read a post by Debra L. Schubert on her blog, Write on Target.  She laid out her own journey to getting published and described the bumps she took along the way.  I’ve queried several agents with my manuscript, and my manuscript is currently sitting in some business office as an entry for a writing competition.  I was starting to let myself get discouraged and allowing myself to ask if I could really do it.  Debra’s post both scared and inspired me: She had a long run of submitting queries, attending conferences, and writing, writing, writing before she was signed with an agent.  Her post reminds me that it is difficult, but it is also possible.  But only if I’m willing to really work at it.

I’m scared, but I also believe I have a story others would like to read.  I’m stuck in a waiting game while my manuscript is being judged as part of a competition, but I know that just because I’m waiting for news that shouldn’t mean I’m also waiting to write.  I can do this.

What post/book/article helped you navigate the world of publishing or provided you with the inspiration you needed to keep trying?

On Style: Remembering My Audience

20 01 2010

During the past month or so, the majority of my writing has been academic in nature.  I haven’t had a lot of extra energy to devote toward my other writing (in particular, the novel I’m currently working on), but that seems to be how my life goes: I work crazily on one project until I’ve reached a stopping point, and then I put it down to work crazily on another project.  Currently, my project is the spring semester and putting together all my course material for the courses I’m teaching this semester.  Some of the writing I’m doing for that is quite brief; for example, the writing I put onto slides in a slideshow to go with my lecture is brief, but it is still writing.  Even the briefest of writing, though, cannot be written in a vacuum, and so I dedicate today’s post to the fact that every time I sit to write, someone, somewhere out there, is on the receiving end.

How do your readers react to your words? How do you want them to react?

As a writer, it is entirely too easy to slip into a writing groove where the words are flowing, the fingers are flying across the keyboard, and the mind is in a buzz, excited to be making so much progress.  Those grooves are the best feeling you can get while writing because everything seems to come together and just flow from mind to page.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes those grooves can also lead to tunnel vision, where the only things you’re worrying about are what is in your mind and on the page, and not on how what you’re writing will be received by an audience.  Or more specifically, your intended audience.

Naturally, as you can imagine, when I write slides for my students, I write in a completely different style than when I’m putting together research for a paper; how I write when writing a research paper is, then, also very different from how I write when writing a novel.  Sure, there are some qualities of my writing that carry over into all aspects (such as my love for semicolons), but if my style were to remain the same across all those genres, it would be my downfall as a writer.

The words I write on the page should be driven by who will be reading them.

For all writing, I think it’s helpful to talk out loud as you write and pretend that the person you intend to be reading your writing is sitting right in front of you.  When I put together my slides for class, for example, I pretend that I’m standing in front of my students.  I try to use the best words to get across the concepts I’m lecturing on without using words that are so far entrenched in jargon that I’ll lose the majority of students, and I try to add in elements that will keep them interested, such as pictures or activities or discussion questions.  When I write a research paper, I imagine a group of my past professors sitting in front of me, reading what I’m putting down on the computer screen.  Keeping fellow professors interested is often not reliant on a cartoon or visually stimulating picture; instead, I have to show I can “sling the lingo” of the trade and use all those jargon-y words I try to avoid when lecturing to my students, and I try to keep those readers interested through laying the paper out clearly in a way that they’ve come to expect from journal articles in our field and incorporating novel ideas or data into my work.

That same concept applies to writing fiction.  I ask myself who I want to be reading what I’m writing, and then I picture them in front of me.  I talk to them.  I read my words out loud and try to hear those words through my audience’s ears.  Are they interesting?  Do they flow?  Are they real, or do they sound fake?  This is especially helpful for dialogue or descriptions.  Reading a description out loud can help me remember that my audience can’t see what is in my head and won’t know that the door is supposed to be on the left unless I tell them so.  Reading dialogue out loud helps me remember that dialogue is meant to represent spoken language and that how we speak is not how we write.

Who is your audience?

Writing is an active art–the words may be stationary on the page, but they are not meant to stay there and do nothing.  They are meant to spark interest or create a new world or get people talking/thinking about an idea.  The only time writers should write entirely for themselves is if they are writing in a journal.  Otherwise, writing is a conversation, and who we’re writing for should drive how and why we are writing.

I like to speak out loud and pretend I’m talking to my readers to help me remember to write to my audience; what do you do to help you tailor what you’re writing for your intended audience?

On Characters #3: Change

4 01 2010

Every year, I sit down either on January 1 or shortly after to make a list of resolutions/goals for the year.  Most years, I’m rather ambitious and hope to complete some radical changes in myself.  And yet at the end of each year, I realize that I accomplish some goals while pretty much ignoring the goals that require me to change from being me.  When I looked over my lengthy list of goals from last year, I realized something: the only things I’ve accomplished over the year are the goals I listed that were measurable.  For instance, one goal was to get a real job.  I got a real job this year.  However, another goal was to spend at least 30 minutes a day practicing the piano.  There was no real measure, and I dropped the habit shortly into 2009 when my work schedule got hectic.  This year, I learned from my mistakes and only wrote down measurable goals; for example, instead of saying “practice the piano daily,” I said, “Learn one new song on the piano.”  For my playing skills, that will take the majority of the year, especially since I tend to pick difficult songs to learn.

What does all this self-reflection have to do with writing and creating characters?  Too often, I come across characters in books (and movies/TV shows, for that matter) that experience an enlightening moment and change “from the inside out.”  While I do think people change on small scales, I am a skeptic when it comes to people’s ability to completely change themselves.  I know I’ve yet to become a new person and eradicate my flaws that I point out to myself year after year.  I yell at myself for being a procrastinator, yet the next time I have a deadline looming, I know I’ll still wait until the last possible minute before I get any real work done.  Why?  Because I know me.

Do your characters know themselves?  I think it takes a special type of reflection to get inside your characters’ heads and let yourself see their good and bad parts and accept them for who they are.  Then, when your characters go through “life-changing” moments, I think it’s imperative that authors further reflect and ask themselves, “What changes are reasonable to expect after such a moment in a human’s life?”  Characters who are “bad” to begin with shouldn’t immediately switch over to being “good” after seeing the error of their ways.  How likely is it that one dream will change the way Ebeneezer Scrooge views the world on a daily basis?  Sure, for one Christmas his heart might be changed.  But what about the next Christmas?  And the one after that?  I think people like to fall into the trap of thinking that massive change is something that is reasonable and attainable, but I guess I’m more of a realist who wants to see characters coming to terms with themselves and making the changes they can while still keeping what makes them them.

So the next time you find yourself writing a scene that will change one of your characters, take the time to ask yourself how that character can actually change.  Take the time to reflect on the possibilities while being realistic and true to the character.  Don’t rip off your character (and readers) by simply letting him/her wake up one day a brand new person.  Even the simple changes are journeys rather than instantaneous.