Tools of the Trade

As a lifelong polygeek, I’ve found that toolset and workflow are key things to sort out before you can really get serious about doing productive work in any creative field.

For Recording…

Tools - RecordingYou need software and devices for composing, generating sound, capturing sound, recording it, mixing it, converting it to digital and back to analog, filtering it, modulating it, adjusting its dynamics, etc.

All of those broad areas have their own microcosms of file formats, compression types, parameters, best practices, usage patterns, and so on. It’s a kind of insane amount of knowledge you need just to operate.

At that point, you’re ready to unleash your creativity and know that you can capture it, work with it, polish it.

In the 1960s when the recording studio suddenly really took off as a tool, it was the kids from art school who knew how to use it, not the kids from music school. Music students were all stuck in the notion of music as performance, ephemeral. Whereas for art students, music as painting? They knew how to do that. – Brian Eno

For Coding…

Tools - CodingAt a minimum, you need a text editor and a language with a compiler or interpreter.

But a modern project will also involve SDKs (software development kits let you build on someone else’s platform), APIs (application programming interfaces let you talk to other platforms), at least one IDE (integrated development environments let you write code in your chosen language using SDKs and APIs, while getting information about errors in your code and hints about the function name you might be typing), a VCS (version control systems, ideally integrated with your IDE, let you keep a separate copy of each file every time you check it in, along with notes about the changes, which is helpful if others are working on the same files).

It’s harder than you might think to squander millions of dollars, but a flawed software development process is a tool well suited to the job. – Alan Cooper

For Writing…

Alice's_Adventures_Under_Ground_-_Lewis_Carroll_-_British_Library_Add_MS_46700_f45vHere you can get by with a pad and pen, apparently.

I’ve seen scads of writers posting Instagrams of spiral-bound notebooks holding the first drafts of their novels, storms of red pen slashing and circling words written in cursive. It blows my mind, but then a) I never achieved an even moderate level of legibility in my own handwriting, b) writing with a pencil mashes my fingers to the point that after an hour or so, I put the pencil down and cannot pick it up again for the rest of the day, and c) I might as well use these mad typing skillz that 30+years of programming has drilled into my fingers.

Danielle Steele, the bestselling author alive, pounds out her novels on an 1946 Olympia manual typewriter, while George R. R. Martin writes his massive tomes on Wordstar, a DOS-based word processor from the 1980s.

When I wrote a technical book for O’Reilly, believe it or not, it was actually created in an XML editor and transformed by XSLT into something recognizable for my local proofreading. The book was checked into their version control system as I wrote, and in the end, they converted it to print and ebook formats. Sort of nutty-sounding, but it had its merits, albeit ones only a developer could appreciate.

My ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook — and I don’t buy like 10. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Grindhouse with.’ – Quentin Tarantino

My Fiction Writing Toolset

While it is clear that there is no best way to write, from the other fields I’ve worked in, I’ve come to realize that a mature toolset that supports creativity, structure, and workflow equally is your best bet for long-term productivity. In my mind, being serious about your art, whatever it may be, is being serious not just about your muse, but also your tools and processes.

It’s often said there are two kinds of fiction writers in this world: plotters and pantsers. In truth, like everything else in life, we all exist somewhere in between the extremes. Personally, I lean to the plotter side, but a pantser streak in me likes to go wild now and then, so my software needs to anticipate that. Here is a list of tools I currently use, and what they do in support of my fiction writing.

Mind Mapper: Scapple

ScappleBones of the storyI have a whiteboard, but it’s not that big, and sometimes when I brainstorm on it, I find that I leave the scribble up their for months. I can take a picture, but it’s hard to edit the picture later if I want to change it, so the whiteboard is ‘occupied’ with that one scribble.

Also, my drawing capabilities are, if anything, worse than my handwriting.

To cope with the “sketching out the bones of the story” phase of the writing process, I decided on Literature and Latte’s Scapple product. There are many products out there, but I was already sold on their word processor, so I gave it a try and found it worked beautifully.

You can see how my early ideas are supported in this sketch, which was the initial exploration of characters and plot for a comedy I’m planning. While the details of the story have changed dramatically, this let me get the who, what, where, when, and why out of my head and into a malleable form.

Word Processor / Story Planner: Scrivener

ScrivenerOver my years as a programmer, I’ve done quite a lot of documentation, and seen a lot of word processors. That Wordstar program that George R. R. uses, yeah, I had that. On a Xerox C/PM computer that predated IBM PCs. Interestingly lots of the keyboard shortcuts (like Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V for copy and paste) that we use today originated there. I used Xerox Ventura Publisher, the first so-called “desktop publishing” package. And for many years I used Microsoft Word.

A Novel in ScrivenerThe common theme with almost all word processors I’ve used is the tendency to treat a document as one long block of text. But my novel has more structure to it than that. Yes, it will become one long string of words at the end, but inside it you’ll find parts, chapters, and scenes. It’s good to be able to work easily at all structural levels. In the case of my current novel, each scene is written from a different character’s point of view. I want to do whacky things like output a double-spaced copy of the manuscript composed only of scenes from the hired gun’s POV (or where he is present). This gives me a chronological view of his personal arc for continuity review, which is difficult to coax from a word processor that doesn’t recognize the structural elements of the document it’s managing.

Corkboard in ScrivenerIn Scrivener, each scene is a separate document, with meta-data tags that I can define like POV, Location, Revision, etc., all of which can be used for selection criteria. Of course I can read and edit in a stitched together mode, which is similar to editing a Word document. Much like an IDE for software development, which compiles separate files (called classes or modules) into a final program, Scrivener allows me to compile all or any subset of my scenes into a book, in various formats like .pdf, .epub, .mobi (Kindle), and .rtf (Word). To work with line editors, I’ll have to output to .pdf or .rtf. When they return the document, marked up with edits, I’ll implement all the changes in my Scrivener document, so that I can continue to output to all formats from there.

I need to manage more than the words and their formatting. Planning and note-taking are important and should happen in the same place the story is being constructed, IMHO. All the digital assets including notes (written, audio), web pages, location sketches, character, story, and series arcs, book blurb and synopsis, and cover art, they’re all in there.

Scenes are also represented by index cards. In the corkboard view, I can quickly create and arrange a bunch of scenes I want to write with just a few notes about what they should contain and maybe whose POV it will be written from. They can be moved around visually, and also feed an indented outline view that’s compact for printing.

Arcs and Events / Story Planner: Aeon Timeline

Aeon TimelineScapple and Scrivener give me several ways to view and interact with my story as it evolves; from mind map to corkboard to outline to parts, chapters, and scenes to the final output that my e-readers can consume.

Story in Aeon TimelineIf Scapple let me sketch out “the bones” of the story, Aeon lets me create its muscles and joints.

Long-form fiction typically involves the concept of arcs, which are made up of events:

A 90-pound weakling must overcome his physical and mental barriers and gain the strength and ability to beat the meanest, toughest karate-wielding foe around to defend the honor of his mentor (Karate Kid).

Plot, subplots, characters, locations, and even objects can all have arcs. Over the course of a story, they can all change as a result of a series of events. Without arcs, fiction falls flat.

With an intuitive interface, Aeon lets me keep track of all the things that can have arcs, and the events that they are involved in. Of course a series of events is a timeline, and there are many ways a timeline may expressed. If the action all happens over a two week period, the calendar can be simpler than one that takes place over decades or centuries. Aeon supports lots of timeline types and lets you change the type on the fly. It also integrates both ways with Scrivener, which is a plus given my existing toolchain.

Cloud Backup / Portability: Dropbox

Dropboxsave-early-save-oftenFrom my many past digital endeavors, the mantra of Save Early, Save Often has been burned into my brain for years. But what if my backup drive fails? Make sure to save to multiple backup drives and/or a RAID array. Yeah, I do that, but what if my house burns down? I also have an offsite backup in the cloud.

Dropbox gives me the piece of mind to know that as I edit my files (which are autosaved by Scrivener on every keystroke), they are automagically backed up to the cloud. I can access every version of every file going back a month. All for free.

Writing with DropboxYou can pay more for extra storage, but I’ve worked on my novel for two years while planning a few others, and I’ve still used less than 20 percent of the free 2GB the service offers.

More than just a dreary backup tool, Dropbox enables me to write wherever I want. In the recording studio, where the equipment has become cobwebbed over after the last 2 years of intense focus on my novel, or upstairs by the front window where sunlight floods in in the mornings, to the office, where I may carry on writing immediately after work, to the enclosed back deck where I can listen to the birds and gaze off at the trees and clouds as I write, to the waiting room at the dentist’s office, to the park by the lake.

All my desktops and laptops have Dropbox, Scrivener, Scapple, and Aeon installed, so I can work on any part of any story, anywhere, any time.

Ebook Readers: Calibre, Kindle, iBooks

Novel in iBooksEver since the first real novel I read (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in 6th grade), I could be found with a book in my hand or haunting new and used bookstores for my next fix. But these days, most people are going to read my book on an e-reader of some sort. That’s where I do most of my reading now. So, it is important to know how the finished product will look at various resolutions on different e-readers.

CalibreCalibre, a freeware program, does conversions and has lots of tools for managing the nitty-gritty details of your book’s look and feel. Scrivener does most of that for me, but it also reads generic .epub files and emulates different devices.


Kindle, is the elephant in the eBook room. Over half of mobile readers are using it. Amazon has readers for every platform, so it’s easy to view your work at different sizes just as readers will.

A nice thing about Kindle is that you can email documents to the reader on any individual device you have. It’s a super way to share with alpha- and beta-readers, too.

iBooks, being the default .epub reader on the Mac, has the next largest audience, and therefore it is important to make sure the book looks iBooksgood there as well.

According to our respondents, Kindle is used by 50% of mobile readers, while Apple’s iBooks is at 31%. The next nearest competitor is Kobo, which at 9% seems to be struggling to achieve cut-through in this territory, followed by Nook at 6%. – ContentForward, Oct 2014

Alpha Reader / Proofreader: Wife

WifeHelen is the person who understands what I’ve been through trying to use all those other tools to lasso the tornado of creativity and corral it into a book. As a professional proofreader, she had some of the toughest jobs imaginable set before her (such as MasterCard’s Terms and Conditions). But she can read for structure and tone, too.

She’s the only person I’ve ever known who reads more than I do, and whose interests overlap and influence my own enough that I trust her to have an understanding of the genre I’m writing for.

Just the other day, upon finishing the classic, she proclaimed that Robert Heinlein’s The Doorway into Summer just might be her favorite book ever. Say no more.

5 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade”

  1. Hi Cliff,
    My comments were meant to be observations not critical but regrettably I can seem so I know. Your piece is relevant and informative to those that may not know of the aids available at for them it might make them better at what they do.
    I despair the direction the world is heading were everything has to be on some app or other, after all who hand writes letters these days? Even solicitors just use a templates for vast amount of their documentation and even then they can’t fill it out correctly.
    All it wants is a global electricity failure to delete the history of the past thirty years. Some one said the other day that the old reel to reel film could last centuries if stored correctly yet something stored digitally come nowhere near as it will have to be continually updated with every format change.
    Sign of my age I imagine. It is easier to use a pencil and paper than try to learn some of these programs.
    Best wishes.

    1. Alan, I totally get you. It’s about whatever makes you most sustainably productive, and this is just what works for me. I’ve been a programmer for over thirty years, so it is only natural that the tools I use are computer programs. I can’t draw, my handwriting is atrocious, and I hate that numb, mashy-finger feeling when I write with a pencil for any amount of time. Typewriters are hard to find and get serviced these days. For me personally, these are all good reasons to use computer programs, even if I wasn’t a nerd. 🙂

    2. Also, in re: format changes and loss of our digital history, I’ve been building pyramids out of bits since 1982, and have seen so much of my hard work disappear because hardware and software platforms have “moved on.” It is like those buddhist monks that create intricate sand mandalas, only to sweep them away when done – a lesson impermanence. This is one of the reasons that most of my spare time efforts at this point are focused on writing instead of the latest hot development language or platform. The English language will continue to compile and run in the heads of readers for many years after I’m dead.

  2. Thanks for the helpful post, especially your example of using Scapple to lay out the bones of a story visually. I’ve been looking for a way to ensure I don’t leave loose ends dangling in the mystery I’m working on. Scapple has always challenged me because it’s just so much smaller on my screen than the giant whiteboard I used to use at work (and because with Scapple, there’s just me and the screen, not a team of smarter people to get ideas from, to be brutally honest with myself). I think I’ll also check out the Aeon Timeline you mentioned. It’s got to be better than my pencil scribbles on graph paper.

  3. Apart from the wonderfully useful items in this article, it’s a fascinating history of the tools of the writing trade. Thank you, Cliff!

    I started with notebook and pencil when I was a child, moved on to a manual typewriter, then a (I think it was called a Brother?) electric typewriter; then a desktop computer and now, in my late seventies, I use this laptop. Scrivener is also my word processor of choice. For brainstorming, I use the monitor face of an old desktop to which I stick scribbled-upon post-its of different colours – easy to switch around and/or replace.

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