Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gadget Goodies 12 – Writing Geekery 1

Today’s post came out of a series of explorations that came out of necessity.  The necessity was two sided.  I needed to earn some added income while not spending more to get to that point.  As a consistent blogger, it wasn’t too much of a leap to consider writing a book.  The choices to make it happen are becoming more and more interesting.  Take a look at what I mean.

This is actually a tech piece and partly a personal experience adventure.  There’s a lot of both that goes into the whole journey.

If you’ve played with computers for awhile, you may remember the earliest of the modern PC operating systems, DOS.  It lacked the sophistication and depth of function that today’s OSes have.  The software was flat (no depth or texture) and the color palette was very limited and only bright colors.  Despite all that, it did a good job getting things done. 

I was in college and lots of longer papers to do.  I learned very quickly that an outline was a necessity if I wanted to have my papers turn out well.  And I discovered PC-Outline.  Like all the other DOS programs, it was flat and bright, but it had a simple elegance that all programmers should aim for.  It took learning only a few key combinations to quickly become fluent in handling multi-level outlines.  Print out a copy of the outline, crank up your word processor of choice (either Wordstar or Word Perfect), and your essay or paper was a piece of cake.  It’s that kind of simple elegance that I’ve been looking for, now, as I get to work on a book.

One of my favorite online people is Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishing.  He’s a prolific blogger and writer.  And he covers topics about Christianity, blogging, writing (and publishing), and leadership.  With the exception of several tech areas that interest me, he covers much of my interests.  And he’s recently been very vocal about using Scrivener for all his writing.  I didn’t think too much about that, since it’s a Mac program and I use PCs.  Then I discovered that they now have a PC version.  And there’s a beta linux version.

Scrivener goes for $40 US, but there are discount codes to lower the price.  And their 30 day trial period is the most user friendly I’ve seen.  Most trial programs give you x number of days from installation.  If you don’t get to try it out completely by the end of that period, too bad.  Scrivener, on the other hand, has a 30 days of use trial.  Until you have used it in 30 different calendar days, you still don’t have to buy it to use it.  Those 30 days don’t need to be consecutive.  Which is a good thing.

Scrivener is quite complex.  It’s template driven, so how you use Scrivener could be vastly different from how I might use it.  What it lacks in simplicity is more than made up for by its flexibility.  Unlike Michael Hyatt, I’m not sure yet if I want to use Scrivener for shorter pieces.  But it’s definitely the Swiss Army knife of book length writing tools.  There are some really good templates for fiction, including separate sections for developing characters.  Right now, I’ve only had two days of baby step use, so I’m still not sure if I want to make Scrivener my daily driver for my books.  But it’s fun learning.

One of the things I determined pretty quickly was that I was back to needing a good, simple outliner.  Scrivener, at least for me, is overkill for just setting up a writing project foundation – the outline.  It’s amazing how many outlining and mind mapping apps there are for every operating system imaginable.  As I was looking at the possibilities, there were several things I was looking for.
  1. I wanted the simplicity of my old favorite, PC-Outline.
  2. In this day of tablets and smartphones, I wanted something that would allow me to do the basics and the outline would be portable between phone, tablet, and PC.
  3. I wanted an outline, not a mind map.  While I can see the benefits of mind mapping, it’s not the way I think and work.  And I’m one of those throwbacks who believes software should work like I do, not forcing me to involuntarily change how I work to fit how the software does things.
On the PC, There were two, after much research, that seemed to fit my needs.  One was Natara Bonsai.  That seemed good, but I didn’t try it out much before the trial period ended.  The other is TreePad, which has a free “light” version.  That actually does everything I needed.  It should be noted that both programs are no longer being updated, but still supported by the developers.  And, while that’s been the case for some time, both are still very popular.

There are several levels of paid versions of TreePad.   Each has a few more features, all of which are helpful but not necessarily essential and each level is higher on a graduated pay scale..  TreePad has that simple elegance I was talking about.  It’s very easy to use and easy to learn.  It’s actually fairly intuitive.  There are two shortcomings.  One is database size.  The free version is shy of half the size allowed by the paid versions.  That makes purchasing even the lowest level paid version a wise investment.  The other shortcoming is in the export file formats.  None match any of the formats that Scrivener will import, although some may be usable if you’re going to write using word processing software.

My list of requirements included portability.  That means either the software or the file formats have to be usable on different kinds of devices.  There’s an Android app called Outliner that will import files exported by either Natara Bonsai or TreePad.  Outliner is almost as intuitive in outlining as TreePad is.  Some of the other features are much less intuitive.  You need to purchase the unlock key to get full functionality.  The price for that is $5.00 US, which can seem pretty steep compared to most apps and unlock keys.  But that’s a necessity if you want full backup and restore capabilities.  Those features alone are worth the price.

Besides the ease of use and the file portability, there are a couple of other things I like about Outliner.  Since it runs on my tablet, I can do the basic outline for a work, anywhere I am and at any time an idea hits me.  That flexibility gives me a huge amount of creative freedom in the initial stages of organizing what I’m going to write.

As I’ve said, Scrivener is flexible and complex.  If you’re not used to it, it may seem overwhelming.  There are online places where you can get help from users.  Reading at least some of the docs is a must.  But being tied to a computer for any version, plus the learning curve for someone new, makes TreePad and Outliner an attractive team for the beginning stages of the writing process.

There’s more we want to say and more writing related software that we want to talk about.  That will come next week.  In the meantime, what are your favorite writing tools?

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