Monday, September 11, 2017

Tools of the Trade: The Tech Side

I frequently receive questions about the technical side of what I do. For instance, what program do I use to write? What kind of computer do I prefer? How do I format books? Today's post is all about tools of the trade. Much of it applies outside the writing business.

The computer question is easy to answer: I'm on a Mac. Two of them, in fact. I write on both a 27" iMac and a MacBook Air. I like the iMac's big screen for editing, because I can see my work and my editor's comments side by side and move easily between documents. I like the Air for its portability.

Why Apple? I've used Apple products since I was in high school. The Mac OS is intuitive to me. Put me in front of a PC and I'm useless.

As to the rest of what I use on a daily basis:

Tool #1: My backup system. After the computer,  it's the most important tool in my arsenal. I have a triple backup method to ensure I never lose my work. Some would consider this paranoid; I consider it practical.

First, at the end of each work session, I use a jump drive to transfer my work from one computer to the other. I could sync the two computers via the Cloud, but I prefer to use this method. If one computer crashes or a file is corrupted as I'm working, I know the other machine has a clean version of my files through the end of the previous session. If I'm traveling, I back up each session to the jump drive and make the transfer when I return home. However, for extra protection, I also email a copy to myself.

Second, I've engaged Mac's Time Machine feature on my iMac so my work is automatically backed up to an external hard drive. The hard drive I use is a the 2TB LaCie Rugged Portable. It can be connected by Thunderbolt or USB 3.0. I've used LaCie hard drives for years and haven't had any failure issues. I test it from time to time to ensure that everything has transferred. So far, so good.

Backblaze Backup Report
Third, and the method I believe is most important, is my Cloud-based backup. If my house burns down or my computer is stolen, having a Cloud-based backup means I can get online from anywhere in the world and retrieve all my work. While there are several companies that offer this service, after a lot of research and experimentation, I went with Backblaze. I can't say enough good things about the company. It was easy to install and it backs up my entire computer seamlessly. I've done tests to see if I could retrieve my work from their system and it's worked every time. If you're interested in trying it, follow this link to Backblaze to receive a discount and/or free months of service.

Note: using a Cloud-based backup can help protect you from ransomware attacks, which occur when a hacker infiltrates your computer and locks down your data, then demands payment to have it unlocked.

Tool #2: Also indispensible? My writing program. My early books were written in Microsoft Word. However, the last dozen or so projects have been written in a program called Scrivener. Scrivener allows me to move through a large document--a manuscript that can reach north of 85,000 words--with ease. I can see my project broken down by chapter, by character point of view, or in whatever other manner I wish. I can move scenes and search more easily than I can in Word, and the program also backs up as I type, so I'm not constantly having to hit Save. There's a corkboard feature that allows me to plan out my scenes, if I so desire. I can also save my research right in the sidebar of my manuscript so I don't have to search for a file while in the middle of writing a scene. Scrivener has a learning curve, but once I got the hang of it, the program made writing both faster and easier.

Although I don't use it (yet!), there's also an app that allows you to use Scrivener on an iPad.


To learn Scrivener, I took a class from Gwen Hernandez, who authored Scrivener for Dummies. She's an excellent instructor and I was able to get up to speed quickly and figure out which features I need and which I don't. For a more in-depth course, one that's taught with video, consider Joseph Michael's Scrivener Coach. There are free trials of the course available on his site.

If Scrivener isn't your cuppa joe and you're on a PC, consider trying WriteWayPro, a program designed by author Lara Adrian's husband. I've heard rave reviews from PC users about its functionality.

Aeon Timeline Example: Murder on the Orient Express
Tool #3: Aeon Timeline. I have a lot to learn about this software program's bells and whistles, but even using its basic features, Aeon Timeline has become one of my writing essentials. As I post this, I've written six full-length novels, three novellas, and one short story in the Royal Scandals series. I need to keep track of overlapping events, birth dates, marriages, and deaths for an extended family. This software keeps me from making mistakes, particularly when storylines take place simultaneously. For an earlier series, I kept my timeline on paper. It spread across several notebooks and needed constant revision. Aeon Timeline is far easier.

Tool #4: My formatting program. My traditionally-published books were formatted by the New York-based publishers who distributed those titles. My first indie titles were formatted by the folks at The Formatting Fairies. They did an excellent job. If you prefer to have someone else do the work for you, they're fantastic. However, I like the flexibility of formatting my work myself, since it allows me to make updates at 3 a.m. if I so desire. (Hey, you never know when you might want to change a link inside an ebook or update the Also By The Author list.) I use a program called Vellum. It's incredibly easy to learn and creates beautiful, professional books in both print and electronic format. The program allows you to preview the work on different ereaders, on tablets, and on smartphones. You can also test the hyperlinks prior to publication. I am not the most techie person and I learned Vellum in an afternoon. There are demos and examples on the Vellum website.

Jaybird X3
Tool #5: My iPhone and Jaybird Bluetooth headphones. I know, I know. A phone doesn't sound like a writing tool. However, my iPhone gets credit in the writing arsenal for several reasons. I use it to take notes or jot snippets of dialogue when I'm away from my computer. I also listen to writing podcasts using the Podcasts app. (Two I enjoy are Joanna Penn's The Creative Penn and Mark Dawson and James Blatch's Self Publishing Formula. Both are chock-full of practical information for authors and other creatives.) The iPhone is also useful for reading on the go. The iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps allow me to access my books anywhere. There's also the Audible app for audiobooks. I use Jaybird wireless bluetooth headphones to listen. I like them because I don't have to deal with wires when I'm walking the dog (no leash tangles) or when I'm running. They're good for several  hours of use between charges and they stay in my ears. Mine even went through the washing machine six months ago. To my shock, they survived.

Tool #6: My Kindle. While I read on it for pleasure, I also like to use the Kindle to do a final check of my books before they're published. My friends also email their work to my Kindle when they need a cold read.

Writers: what tools work for you? What have you tried and discarded? Any on your wish list? Finally, if you use any of the tools I mentioned, which features do you find most useful? I'd love to hear your thoughts.