Chapter 5 – The Writer’s Toolbox

Can we discuss writing tools for a moment? I don’t mean the abstract tools like plot devices or character development wheels. I’m talking about the nuts and bolts–hardware, software, all the tools we use to realize our fantasy worlds. I suppose there are people out there still writing longhand, or perhaps even using a mechanical typewriter, but for most of us this means computers.

Some of you might turn up your noses at such a pedestrian subject. After all, a wise woman once told me it’s not the tool that matters, but what you do with it.

For the most part I would agree, but there’s part of me that can’t help but geek out on an artist’s gear. If I was talking to a guitarist, for example, I wouldn’t be satisfied just knowing he or she played guitar. I would want to know the following:

  • The year, make, and model of guitar
  • The brand of strings, their thickness, and how often they change them
  • Their pick of preference
  • Their amplifiers, and all the settings they prefer (does it go to 11?)
  • Their effect pedals, and again, all the settings they use to get that sound

If none of that interests you in the least, this might not be the post for you. But don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of other posts where I talk about the “art” of writing. But for the rest of you, come geek out with me!

When it comes to writing, I prefer laptops. For reasons I’ve already outlined here, I don’t care to sit at a desk when I write. That’s just me.

I don’t alway work on laptops, but when I do, I prefer Apple. I don’t want to turn this into an Apple versus PC thing. Believe me, I use Windows PCs all the time. My home theater runs off a PC. My work laptop is a PC. I have Windows servers for streaming media and backups. Windows 7 and Windows 2008 Server are fine operating systems, and I’m genuinely excited about the upcoming Windows 8. But for writing, I’ve chosen Apple.

Yeah, I’ll freely admit Apple products are expensive, but man are they nice! Let’s start with the aesthetics. Late model MacBook Pros and Airs are things of beauty. The unibody aluminum cases not only look great, but they feel great, too. They are a real pleasure just to hold. I also appreciate the minimal advertising–no garish stickers proclaiming the manufacturer of the processor inside or the choice of operating system. No tacky logos, just a simple glowing fruit.

But like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, aesthetics only go so far. There has to be some substance. This is where Apple’s tactile interfaces shine. First of all, their keyboards are sublime, offering just enough key travel and “clickiness” to be extremely satisfying as you bang out your latest tome. It sounds like a trivial thing, but when you’re typing thousands of words, it really matters. Second of all, Apple’s touch pads are the best I’ve ever used. They are responsive without over-registering false hits from the heel of my hand. And once you get used to all the different touchpad gestures, it’s difficult to use a laptop without them.

So what model do I use? I wrote the first draft of The Woodlander on a 15″ 2011 MacBook Pro. It has the upgraded 1680×1050 matte display, so text was plenty sharp, and the table lamp next to my couch didn’t produce too much glare. I know that sounds picky, but more laptops should have matte displays!

Anyway, the laptop worked pretty well, but I did have a few problems with it. First of all, we’ve already established I like writing on the couch. The 15″ model was just a tad too bulky to be comfortable. To make matters worse, MacBook Pros tend to run pretty hot. I found I had to be very careful not to have certain applications or websites open while I was writing or the darn thing would get unpleasantly warm in my lap. I even went so far as disassembling the entire laptop and reapplying thermal paste to the cpu (I read somewhere that doing so could reduce CPU temperatures considerably, but I didn’t notice any difference).

So I was on the lookout for a new computer, but I didn’t want to buy anything until Apple’s new line of Ivy Bridge laptops was announced. Apple came out with the new MacBook Pro with a Retina screen in June, but it was only available in the 15″ model. It’s a thing of beauty, but what I was really hoping for was a MacBook Air with a Retina display. Oh well, maybe next year.

I bit the bullet and purchased a 13″ 2012 MacBook Air.  I just got the base model with 4 GB of ram and 128 GB solid state drive. I figure I’m just using it for writing, and for that purpose it should be plenty. Besides, the Retina display Airs could be coming out soon…

That MacBook Air is what I used to finish the second draft of The Woodlander (and what I’m typing this post on right now). I like the 13″ form factor a lot better for couch-writing. I briefly considered the 11″, but after playing with one at the Apple store, I dismissed it as too small. Now if I need a travel computer some day… nah, focus, Kirk!  The MacBook Air still gets a bit warmer than I would like, but it’s much cooler than my old MacBook Pro. I wish the display was sharper and had a matte screen, but maybe next year.

Let’s talk software. I can’t imagine writing without some sort of word processor. I use Scrivener. Before I even started writing The Woodlander, I scoured the web for recommendations on writing programs. Scrivener came up often, and it seems to have a loyal and active fan base. It wasn’t too expensive, so I gave it a try.

My favorite thing about Scrivener is that it separates the formatting from the writing. You still have the basics like underline and bold, but you don’t have to worry about line spacing, font, and all those types of things. When you’re ready to “publish” your work, you tell Scrivener what format you want and it outputs a copy in that format. It has several built-in formats like manuscript and Kindle e-book. That’s pretty convenient.

The second thing I like about Scrivener is the organization. It’s fairly easy to move chapters around, put together an outline, use notecards to organize your thoughts, generate word counts and word count targets–all sorts of things. Honestly, I’ve only used a fraction of the features available so far, but I like knowing that they’re there.

I hear an iOS version of Scrivener is coming out. I wouldn’t want to write an entire novel on an iPhone or iPad, but that could be handy for those times when I’m away from my computer. Many nights I’ll wake up with an idea I don’t want to forget. For now I type those ideas into the Notes app on my iPhone, but it would be nice if I could type them right into the Scrivener project.

Which reminds me, I save my Scrivener projects to Dropbox. Besides providing some level of backup, this makes the project available to me from any computer. I might not be able to open the Scrivener project on my PC or phone, but I can still open the RTF files that make up the individual chapters. That has come in handy more than once. I think you get 2 GB free with Dropbox, which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a lot of text.

And speaking of backups, I’m pretty invested in the Apple infrastructure, so I use TimeMachine. It’s simple to use and pretty reliable. I don’t like having an external drive attached to my laptop, so this necessitates a network attached storage solution. So far, I’ve resisted buying a TimeCapsule from Apple. I’m getting by with a free piece of software called FreeNAS 8 hosted on a Windows server. The latest version has TimeMachine support built in, but it is tricky to set up. It has worked pretty well for me so far, but lately I’ve been experiencing some problems on my MacBook Pro that have required me to periodically rebuild the backup. If that problem continues, I’ll probably cave in and buy the official Apple TimeCapsule.

Whew, that was more than I expected to write! I could go on for pages, but in the interest of brevity (heh), I’ll go ahead and wrap things up. Thanks for geeking out with me. I’d love to hear about your own setup!

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About thewoodlander

Kirk Watson is the author of The Grey Tales series of novels featuring squirrel-of-action John Grey. He resides in Austin, Texas.
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4 Responses to Chapter 5 – The Writer’s Toolbox

  1. You have some fabulous tools there, Handy Manny. I hunker down in front of my trusty white and silver HP laptop. I love it, except the touch pad is overly sensitive. I also use Scrivener for my novel, but I used/use Celtx for screenplays and shorts. Final Draft is the industry standard, but it’s out of my price range right now. Plus, there’s always someone around with FD and Celtx allows for easy conversion, so it’s not absolutely necessary. Yet.
    Er… are you tiring of my replies yet? 🙂

    • Of course not! I love reading about how people write. I don’t know a lot of other writers (yet) so it’s interesting to compare notes. How do you like Scrivener on the PC?
      Writing a blog about writing is a lot easier than writing a novel–there’s so many topics! I’m planning on writing a post on my actual writing technique (or lack thereof) next. Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go?
      Just as an aside, I’m currently watching the Olympics opening ceremony, and Coca-Cola just aired a commercial featuring the song “Breathe Me” by Sia. I’m not sure how I feel about that…

      • Scrivener for PC seems fine to me, but I don’t know any different.
        As far as plotting, I liken it to taking a road trip: I know my destination. I know I will need to make certain stops for food, gas, and sleeping. Whatever else happens along the way is gravy, you know? I make an outline, but it’s never set in stone. It gives me direction so I don’t get lost during side trips. I think if you have intriguing characters, readers will gladly skip along for a few long-cuts. (Sorry. Listening to Wilco today.)

  2. Actually, it was the Uncle Tupelo anthology, not Wilco. Had to correct that mistake…

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