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.

Guest Post: What yWriter Offers Writers

8 11 2009

I have mentioned the power of online social tools previously, and this post is a testimony to a budding friendship that was a result of getting more involved in Twitter.  This post is a guest post, written by Nicole, whose blog It’s All About Writing has been an inspiration to getting me writing again (instead of just thinking about it).  As her alter ego, you can find her on Twitter under the username simplywriting.  When I mentioned how much I loved Scrivener, she told me about a writing program she used for PCs.  I asked if she would be willing to write a guest post about it, and, voila, here it is.


What yWriter Offers Writers

by Nicole Humphrey


The best things in life are free, or so the old adage goes. As far as Writing Program software, that old saying actually holds true. For months, I resisted all of the comments and praise for yWriter. I had gone and looked at it, and discovered it was free. I decided against downloading it, because I already had one great writing program I paid for, and have tried a few others. I was content with what I was using. How could free be better than what I had purchased or tried from other writing programs?


Finally after some time, more out of curiosity when people kept talking about it, I thought “okay fine, I’ll try it”. Since it was free, I really didn’t intend to keep it, and figured I’d just remove it when I was done and go back to what I was using.


Guess what? I’m still using it, and will probably never go back. It is by far the best program I have ever found for writers and it’s free. There is no trial use, no limited capabilities: it is 100% free forever.


When I downloaded it, I got a little freaked out when it first loaded because it looked so confusing; of course, so did the other program I had been using. I noticed on the website that there was a Quick Start Guide for yWriter that you could download, and I recommend downloading it for anyone trying it out. It gives you step by step directions to setting up your book, and explains how to use the program to get the most out of it. There is also a Project Wizard included with the program you can utilize to get started as well.


I had already started a book using the other program, so I had to get it imported into the program to begin working on it. It imported nicely, but I was able to see I needed to move a few things around once I got it imported. That was a good thing, because suddenly I could see a “story” truly developing.


Jessie asked me to tell you three things about yWriter that I love. I have to start from setting the whole yWriter program up to explain exactly why I love this Writing Program software.


In most of my previous works in progress, I haven’t been very good about outlining. I plan them out, but I don’t really do it in a chapter by chapter, or scene by scene outline format. I really think I should have. They probably wouldn’t be works in progress anymore, and would be finished novels. With my current novel, I did do a really light outline detailing what I wanted to happen in each chapter.


Screen Shot 1

Screen shot of full synopsis was generated by using the reports function


With yWriter, when you open a new project you immediately start with a determined number of chapters that you input. You choose whatever you want, and you have the option of deleting or adding chapters later. You do have the option of starting with just one chapter and adding as you go too. The default is set for 25, so I just went with the 25 chapters.


It creates those 25 chapters for you, and then you begin working inside the chapters on your scenes. I love that you can move chapters around, move scenes around, move one scene from one chapter to another chapter, and all of this without cutting and pasting a thing.


Screen Shot 2

Screen shot of my outlined scenes so far


The first column shows the chapter the scene falls in. You have the option of giving your chapters titles, or just leaving them as ‘Chapter 1’ and so on. The second column shows what status the scene is in (options are outline, draft, 1st edit, 2nd edit and Done), and these will change later when I go back and make edits to the scenes. The third column shows whether the scene is set to an action scene or reaction scene (I still need to edit this a little – right now everything is set to action). The fourth column indicates the word count for each scene, which is really helpful to figure out if an entire scene could be cut, added somewhere else or if more needs to be written on the scene. The fifth, sixth and seventh column shows how long the scene took place, which is really great when you are working on a time line project, where things fall at certain times, etc. This also keep you from accidentally writing a 30 hour day into a chapter. I will be utilizing this function to keep my time line straight. The eighth column is for the VP of the chapter, or the person who’s viewpoint the chapter is being told from. My novel is based on a true story, so the entire novel is in first person. Finally, the ninth column is a brief description of the scene.


Oh, and another perk that I know many people would benefit from, is that because it allows you to separate scenes in the program, it eliminates the need to add “****” breaks to keep chapters and/or scenes separate in a word document or certain other programs. It’s actually a lot easier to see what your scenes are, and where you might want them to go.


On one particular writing day, I was having a super moment of writer’s block and getting annoyed because I wanted to write, but couldn’t seem to get the next scene down. With yWriter, I was able to go several chapters ahead and write two different scenes I wanted in the book that I was really eager to write. Keeping me writing, it also gave me the ability to easily go back later and begin where I had originally left off and start working to connect the scenes together. So much easier than your typical word processor where a lot of time is wasted scanning, cutting and pasting scenes if you want to jump ahead or go back and work on another part of the book.


yWriter also allows you to print out a variety of scene reports and summaries, which might be one of my favorite features yet.  They are really helpful if you are feeling as if your story isn’t really going anywhere, or you are having a bit of writer’s block. The way this works, is to make sure you title each chapter and each scene, and also include an overall description of the chapter, and then a brief description of each scene. I limit most of my descriptions to one sentence that pretty much summarizes what is happening there. One of the reports in particular, generates a full synopsis of your story (see first screen shot) and enables you to print that. I liked this feature because I was able to print it, and take it with me. I made some notes in the margins, changed some things around and when I came back, I was able to add more scenes to a few chapters I thought were lacking.


The last screen shot I want to share with you is the character set up.


Screen Shot 3

Character set-up


Having used several other writing programs in the past, I was really happy with the character set up on yWriter. Many other programs don’t have a designated place to keep characters, or they are limited in what information you can include. I like this one because it allows you to define whether the character is a main character or a minor character, to include a short description, all the names the character goes by, a bio, notes, goals for the character over the course of the book and a photograph if you have something in mind of what the character will look like. Loved these features.


There are two other minor editing tools I love using in yWriter and I have to just briefly mention them before wrapping this post up.


There is a Word Usage Chart you can use to see what words you are using too much. I love this because it allows you to go back and change things during the editing phase so you aren’t using certain words too often.


There is also a search function for ‘Problem Words’ which will go through your book looking for predefined instances of words: words with ‘ly’, words with ‘ing’, the word ‘said’, starting a sentence with ‘As’, and several others. This will be awesome during the editing phase. You can also user define your own things to look for and it will scan for those too.


It always amazes me when I can find the features I need in a free program when there are programs available to purchase and they are limited in their features and functionality. At this point, yWriter is the program for me, and I am looking forward to working on the editing phases of my novel (once I actually complete it) with this program as well.

For the Love of Scrivener

6 11 2009

First and foremost, I owe this entire post to my sister, who started talking about Scrivener a couple years ago.  She kept saying how wonderful it was, and I kept resisting her, saying I already had a writing program I was happy with.  For a while I did have a valid excuse: Scrivener is for Macs, and at the time I had a PC.  Over time, she and several friends convinced me to get a Mac, and… well, now I’m a Mac girl through and through.  Once I got a Mac, it was harder for me to keep putting off trying Scrivener, so I made my way over to their site (Literature & Latte) and looked through all the information there.  I saw they had a free 30-day trial, so I downloaded the software.  The first thing that caught my attention was that their 30-day trial is truly a 30-day trial.  A day is taken off your total 30 days only if you actually open the program; so if you open it three times a week, you get 10 free weeks with the software.  Any company willing to do that is a company I’m interested in doing business with.


After downloading the software, I went through the tutorial (a necessity if you want to save the learning-curve headaches in the long run) and imported a novel I had been working on.  It took me exactly two days of using the software to purchase it.  I loved playing with it so much that I found myself doing work just so I could have something to do on Scrivener.  My sister is beaming about now–yes, she was right.  Now that I’m doing NaNoWriMo, I’m happier than ever to have Scrivener.


To tell you why I’m loving the software, though, I have to first back up and tell you about the outlining system I’m using.  I’m using what’s called the Phase Outline, which I first heard about on Twitter from another writer and read about here.  Being a lover of outlines, I thought the idea sounded intriguing.  After all, I already knew the direction I wanted the novel I was working on to take, and the majority of my down time while writing is spent wondering what I should write next.  The phase outline takes the planning out of writing the draft.  The goal is to spend extra time up front, planning out each chapter, scene by scene, so that when you start writing, all you have to do is fill in the details.


Here is an example from the novel I am writing; the scene is called “Return home” (I like to provide little titles/tags for every scene), and here is the phase description:


Sefane and Lolathe run home, again with Sefane in the lead.  Instead of running with abandon, though, Sefane’s cryptic thoughts weave through the air to Lolathe, who struggles to make sense of them.


The overall description of the phase reminds me of what I need to have happen in this particular scene–other people may not get much information out of that, but it tells me, as the author, what I need to write about.  That 33-word description turned into a 450-word scene in my novel:


Lolathe was once again stuck trying her hardest to keep up with Sefane.  She stared at her sister’s back wondering how she did it.  Wondering how she managed to dodge every branch and jump over every stick.  Sefane wasn’t moving as gracefully as she normally did, and fragments of her thoughts wound their way back to Lolathe.  “… Why didn’t they … I’m sure no one would have thought … It’s not too late…”
The words meant nothing to Lolathe, yet they instilled fear in her heart.  Sefane rarely worried enough to let her thoughts escape for others to read.  Lolathe wanted to yell, “What’s wrong?” but couldn’t force the words out between her gasping breaths.  Sefane continued running while Lolathe slowed to a more tolerable pace—one that allowed her to breathe and keep Sefane in her sight.
When she heard a noise like a twig breaking to her left, though, she slowed her pace too much.  In the second it took for her to slow enough to turn her head, Sefane had disappeared.  When the two of them were together, Lolathe put on a brave front, pretending that nothing bothered her—not even the way the other daughters of the Colony so obviously avoided them.  When she was alone, though, she felt her world ripping in two.  Without Sefane’s steady rhythm marking out the way in front of her, Lolathe came to a complete stop, her senses heightened.  She smelled her own fear, making her disgusted with herself.
“She’s just like you,” Lolathe whispered aloud.  She closed her eyes and focused every cell in her body on being able to See the best path home.  When she felt her body align with her surroundings, she opened her eyes, full of renewed hope that she had finally figured out how to use that Gift.  But nothing had changed.  The trees loomed over her head, their lowest branches threatening to hit her if she refused to duck; the ground below her was littered with weeds, flowers, and thorn bushes.  But nothing spoke to her, telling her which way to go.  Lolathe felt herself flattening as she heard her own insecurities whisper, “You’ll never be like her.”
She dropped to her knees, wishing the ground would swallow her, when she felt a hand pull her up by the arm.  She looked up to see her sister.  “I was worried I lost you,” she said.
Lolathe wanted to say, “You did,” but found she couldn’t open her insecurities to share them with anyone—not even her own sister.  Instead she mumbled, “Thanks for coming back for me,” and resumed her position behind her sister as they ran—at a slower pace—back to their house.


For anyone looking for a new method to try for planning before writing, you should try the phase outline.  Today I was able to write almost 2200 words in about 90 minutes, which is more than I would usually be able to do when writing fiction.  Typically, that 90-minute period would only result in about 1000 words because I would spend so much time typing, deleting, rearranging, and trying to decide what to put next.  Now, instead of planning, I’m just focusing on writing each scene.  That also helps me focus and set smaller goals for NaNoWriMo: Instead of saying, “I need to write 1,667 words today,” I am saying, “I need to write 3 scenes today.”  It makes my goals more manageable and tangible.


So how does Scrivener play into all this?  Scrivener has this wonderful thing called a corkboard feature that allows you to post index cards onto a virtual corkboard.  When paired with the phase outline, each index card equals one phase.  Here is a picture of what my fourth chapter looks like on Scrivener’s corkboard:


Scrivener Chapter Corkboard

Chapter 4, laid out in nine phases


Notice that the index cards have different colors–I color-coded each phase according to the content of the phase, so that I can look at the board and immediately see how many scenes deal with which characters.  The words in the background of each index card are the status of each phase; the statuses I am primarily using are “To Do” and “First Draft” (eventually, those will be turned into “Final Draft”).  It’s fun to be able to change the status as I write from “To Do” to “First Draft.”


In the right-hand column is the Inspector information (which can easily be hidden); the index card at the top of that column gives me the snippet I wrote to describe what happens in the entire chapter.  Below that is the information about status and labels, and below that is where I can store keywords or research materials for the chapter.  In the left-hand column is a drop-down menu for the outline for the entire novel.


Once you start writing your draft in Scrivener, you have to leave the corkboard function; here is a picture of what it looked like while I was working on the scene I provided above:


Scrivener Draft

Working on a draft of a scene from Chapter 4


This time, the center portion is where I type my draft while the right-hand column provides only the information about the scene I am working on; the index card at the top has the short 33-word description of the phase I am writing followed by the status, label, and research/keyword information for that scene.  The left-hand column is still the drop-down menu for the outline of the entire novel.


Just in case you’re thinking, “Okay, so that’s kinda neat, but I still don’t get the big deal” (and I understand because I would’ve been saying the same thing before I got the software), there is more.  I can’t possibly go over every cool feature of the program, so I will narrow the discussion down to one more feature: the split-screen feature.  If I’m working on a draft for a particular scene but would like to view the corkboard at the same time so that I can remind myself of what I’ve done and what’s coming up next, I can split the screen in two to view more than one thing at a time:


Scrivener Split-Screen

Using the split-screen to view the draft I'm working on along with the corkboard for the entire chapter


Now I can write the draft while checking the corkboard below to see what all the other phases say.  How cool is that?


My writing habits have been improving since I started using Scrivener, and I’m excited to see how I grow from here.  As an update, I made my 11,000-word goal (thanks to my 90 minutes of productivity), and I remembered to do yoga once during a long stretch in my office at my computer.  I didn’t exactly remember every hour because I lost track of time while working.  I hear there’s a program that will lock up your computer at predetermined intervals to make you stop, get up, and stretch.  Maybe I should look into that a little more seriously…