Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tools Of The Trade

Hey. How many of you reading this actually learned to type on a typewriter? And for those of you who answered yes to the last, how many actually used a manual, rather than an electric?

Scary, innit?

See, once upon a time a writer’s tools were universal, and simple. Sure, you could argue the relative merits of different typewriters. Or you could even do a Fred Forsythe, and compose in longhand on pads of yellow legal-size paper. And I guess you could even get precious about what sort of pens you liked. But nowadays, in the era of ubiquitous computers — who really gives a toss about the hardware any more? It’s all about the software, the computer programmes designed to help you write and create.

And what a world of stuff there is. A while ago, I went online looking for some software to help me lay out film-script material, because the movie-script format is very specialized and very rigid. I figured somebody might have written a programme that could set it up for you, get your dialogue properly centred, use the right fonts to indicate SFX and scene changes and actions and all...

... and holy crap, there must have been more than a dozen different programmes designed to do just that. Amazing.

Why amazing? Because frankly, none of this software will help you write better. That’s down to you, and only you. But good software can do one thing: it can get out of the way of the creative process, and be easy to use, and reliable.

In the process of composing something big, I use three or four different pieces of software. I’m going to introduce you to them one by one, with a quick explanation of what they do, and why I use them.

Planning and Notes:

I know some people like to make complicated diagrams and pictures and flowcharts to help them organize a novel. Me? I can’t go there. Doesn’t work for me. I know roughly where I need the characters to go, and I point them in that direction, and then kind of follow them through, nudging them as they go. I’ve got an unusual memory, so I neither need nor want all the diagrams and flowcharts.

Nevertheless, novels are complicated. And if you’re doing anything historical, there’s a lot of research. Plus there’s usually dozens of characters, often with minor roles to play, and all sorts of other things to remember. That’s where Zulupad comes in.

Zulupad is brilliant. It’s a simple little programme, completely free, downloadable from the ‘Net. Open it up, you get a page-space for writing. So you start writing notes. The neat bit is this: you can highlight any word you want, and it will instantly become a hyperlink. Not only that, but Zulupad will immediately create a new page for it, so you can add notes for it too. And from that point on, wherever you are in your Zulupad document, if you type that word again it will appear as a hyperlink connected to that page.

For me, Zulupad is just the best planning tool of all time. It reflects my own mental structure — links to links to links to links. It allows me to add casual thoughts and ideas, and hook them straight in to any part of the narrative I want. And it all comes back to the main “Index” page, nice and simple. Oh, and for taking notes on a big topic? Best. Software. Evar.


I hate big, slow, complicated word processors. I hate the fact that as your file gets bigger, it gets slower to load. I hate the fact that if you break it into smaller files, you have to try to remember a bunch of stupid file names, and be able to recall them from whatever obscure directory Bill Gates has consigned them too. And so when I found Yeah Write, back in 1997, I was completely sold.

Yeah Write, from Wordplace, isn’t quite free. You can use a limited shareware version for free, and it’s pretty good — but the software is so brilliantly cool that I have always been more than happy to pay the thirty or so Australian dollars it costs to buy it. I’m using my copy to create this very document.

The brilliance of Yeah Write is in its simplicity, and in its visual metaphor. Download it, set it up, you get a screen with what looks like a filing cabinet down the right-hand side. There’s drawers in the cabinet. You can add more as you need them, rename them as you will. If you open a drawer by clicking on it, you’ll find inside a bunch of “hanging document folders”, just like a real filing cabinet, with name-tabs at the top of each. Again, you can add more, or remove ‘em or rename ‘em. And if you open any of those folders by clicking, you’ll see a list of text documents in each — exactly as you would in a real file folder in a real filing cabinet.

The metaphor is perfect, and seamless. It’s so easy to set up a hanging file-folder, and then create new documents in it. Write a novel? Easy: each new chapter is another new document hanging in the folder, clearly labelled. And the folder is also labelled, and it hangs in your drawer which you’ve named ‘novels’ or ‘drafts’, or whatever. You never lose it. You never have to click through countless directories for it. It’s just right there, where you need it, when you need it.

There are a bunch more clever features to Yeah Write. It's small -- about 1.5mb. It’s robust as hell. It can export to rtf. It can import all kinds of different filetypes, and if it can’t read ‘em, it will pull the text out and do its best to arrange it sensibly. (Yes. I’ve used Yeah Write many a time to open bizarre attachments from idiots who think their proprietary software is universal. It may not be pretty, but it works.) And another thing: every time you hit ‘return’, it automatically saves your document. Oh, and it will set up a backup folder for you, and routinely back-up all your work from the entire filing cabinet into several different back-up files, located wherever you like on your machine. That little feature has saved my ass more than once.

What it’s not is a WYSIWYG word processor. It’s print output is fairly primitive, and you don’t get all the shiny bells and whistles that you might want for a full-on presentation manuscript. For that, you need something else.


Well, you could buy Microsoft Office, sure. That would work. Or you could just download Open Office, which has very much the same functionality, is broadly cross-compatible in file-types and output, produces perfectly lovely WYSIWYG word documents with all the shinies and the bells and the whistles — and doesn't actually cost a cent.

That’s the deal-maker for me, right there. So I draft my stuff in Yeah Write, and then I load it all into an Open Office word document and prettify it and polish it, and then print it off. Oh... naturally, Open Office is a fully featured office suite with everything you'd expect. Word processing, check. Spreadsheets, drawing, visual presentations, databases... all of the above. And very free. If you're using anything else, you've got more money than sense.


That’s it, folks. For me, that’s the tools of the trade. Well, that and a bottle of Jameson, of course. Bottoms up!


TansyRR said...

I learned to type on a manual typewriter! I doubt there would be many younger than me (30) who didn, though.

*was changing golf balls at eight years old*

Havock21 said...

Mate, that's BRILLIANT, I shall be off to get some and give it a whirl. Op Office is a great application which I only just recently started using. More people should seriously start looking at it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Golf Balls, Tansy????

I learnt on a portable typewriter that Wynne Whiteford took through World War 2 with him.

Taught myself to type. I got so fast, the little arms would get all tangled up.

I must admit I don't use anything fancy, Dirk. I just write and, as the book grows and grows, I keep a second page open on my second monitor, with a small summary of each scene as I write it, and the page numbers, so I can find earlier scenes. I find I have to go back and plant clues as the story grows.

But, as you say, no fancy program is going to make you a better writer.

Cheers, R.

Anonymous said...

+++no fancy program is going to make you a better writer+++

But enough wannabe writers think it will to keep the marketers in business. (I'm talking here about the sort that promises not only to do stuff like keep required formats straight as per Dirk's post, but magically help you tighten your plot, create characters and weave amazing descriptions. I'm sure I remember seeing ads for those in Writer's Digest back in the eighties.)

Since we seem to be comparing notes, I generally use KeyNote for manuscripts - I like the quick, easily manipulable tree structure it breaks the document down into, and the way that files seem infinitely scalable with no loss of speed. My file for Junktion contained two complete drafts of the novel and any amount of offcuts, notes and faffing about and it still handled as quickly as ever.

On the other hand KN struggles with printing a bit, so I've taken to exporting the final manuscript into an RTF then tinkering with it with Open Office or RoughDraft, another neat little freebie program.

Flinthart said...

I'll have a look at both Keynote and RoughDraft, thank you! And as for you, Rowena, you with no fancy stuff -- a second monitor, eh? Sounds nice.

Actually, the way you describe yourself working there -- I think Zulupad might just be useful to you.

Satima Flavell said...

Thanks, Dirk. I've been typing for nearly 50 years and I still only use four or five fingers:-) But I'm going to give Zulupad and Yeah Right a try. Not that they will make me use more fingers, but hopefully they'll be useful for organising material!

Anonymous said...

Well I once found a manual typewriter in a council throwout and used to play with it when I was a kid...

I like Open Office (also because it doesn't add any weird code when copying/pasting to html), but Ywriter is really good.

For the first time in my life (apart from my youthful fad of playing with a typewriter), I'm not distracted by pretty fonts and colours and layout *cough - MS office 07* - I sit down, I do the work. I still use MS office when needed, but it's best to avoid it.