Tools

Writing is easy, right? Tell a story.

It’s the 21st century. I’m also a non-fiction writer. And a software developer. (And a sailor.) Tools help. Here’s a path through my tool chain.

I started writing with the generic word-processing tools that came with my computers. Since getting a Macintosh in the 80’s (85? 86?) I’ve used MacWrite and ClarisWorks. They’re fine if you’re a genius.

At some point, I became interested in screenwriting and started using Final Draft. It was illuminating because it had tools above and beyond simple formatting. (And yes, I’ve got a half-dozen screenplays completed.)

As a technical writer, I was a heavy user of programming tools like BBEdit. I’ve branched out a bit and now use PyCharm in addition to BBEdit.

Because of the way programming books are formatted, I learned to use the LaTeX tool chain via MacTex. This isn’t easy to work with, but the results are spectacular. 

The Sphinx tools simplify working with LaTeX and HTML. This makes book publication super easy.

I’ve been using Omni Outliner for decades. It seems to be very helpful. I’ve always been a devotee of outlining tools, starting with More for the Macintosh. The small optimizations for expanding, contracting, dragging, focus shifts, etc., are helpful. 

For non-fiction, I try to start with Sphinx-based writing. My draft must — eventually — get converted to whatever file format the publisher requires. Often this is DOCX. Sigh. The idea, however, is the purely technical writing tools allow a lot of correctness-checking.

For fiction, the Sphinx-based toolchain was fun to start with. There’s a lot of flexibility in creating notes and cross-references. The final publication format is .RTF (or .DOCX) and the general manuscript rules are easy to manage. See https://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/manuscript-format/ for details on what the final deliverable needs to look like.

I created some tools to covert from Omni Outliner to ReStructured Text (RST). This could then make use of DocUtils to create LaTeX and .mobi for self-publishing. I was leaning heavily in this direction for professional fiction writing.

It’s all very much a science project. And supporting the home-brewed tools gets in the way of writing. Everything involves a cool side-project and a distraction from the real job, which is to write.

So. Forget all of that. Been There. Done That. It was exhausting.

Fiction Toolchain

Writing fiction involves creating the text. And it also involves a lot of ancillary processing and data before arriving at that text. A lot. And messing around with the other material can lead to a bit of clutter. Files and folders all over the place. 

I’ve arrived at the following suite of tools.

  • Meandering. The base Hero’s Journey is in Omni Outliner. It feels like I’m free to mess around. Using Scrivener feels too much like I should be creating deliverable drafts. (I need to get over this.)
  • Milestones and Schedules. In Numbers.
  • Miscellaneous Notes. I’ll record some ideas in IOS Notes because it’s on my phone.
  • Maps. Hexographer and Grid Cartographer. Plus my Empire and Kingdom model for simulating borders and land acquisition.
  • Modeling and Simulation. This is software, written in Python. See, for example, Randomness and Inspiration
  • Manuscript. The main writing is in Scrivener. This includes character and location details, the general outline, comments, notes, ideas, stuff, links, reference pages, research, and a lot of other stuff. Even my query letters are in the project binder with the main manuscript and everything else.

While an all-in-one-app approach is helpful, it isn’t always optimal. Even though I’m pretty seriously committed to Scrivener, I don’t use it exclusively. I haven’t gotten used to its outliner, yet. I spend a lot of time in Omni Outliner arranging and rearranging. And, of course, the cartography happens outside Scrivener.

I do like the binder. I like the sophisticated search alternatives. I use the various Synopsis and Notes sub-windows. I have to say, the floating Quick Reference windows are perhaps the best thing ever.

Advice

Start with a tool you understand. I wandered from a simplistic tool to a custom-crafted toolchain to Scrivener. I’ve had a lot of experience with complex, high-powered software tools, so it wasn’t hard for me to make the adjustments required.

Even though parts of Scrivener are easy to use, there is a lot there, and it can be confusing. Time can be wasted customizing the tool instead of actually writing.

In some cases, the barest, simplest tools can work. The Mac OS Text Edit tool is a wonderful way to write stuff down. Even the Mac OS Notes app works out really well for simply capturing a flow of ideas.

Manuscript format for fiction is relatively easy to produce: it’s not the first thing to worry about. In most tools, there are a few simple settings to produce double-spaced 12-pt Courier.

For me, describing a complex hero’s journey, it works well to use an outliner with a lot of flexibility. There are nested entanglements, pending problems, and unresolved issues. Some of the side-bar stories are handled unevenly, with some plot holes where a situation changes off the page.

Sometimes I have notes about timing and distance. I like to get those things close to right, so I’ll sometimes create separate spreadsheets to track travel.

What’s important is to have a place to capture notes and stray thoughts outside the main text of the manuscript. I’ve got three of those places. A potential problem. But I’d rather have more tools than have an idea and no place to capture it.

 © F. L. Stevens 2019