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O how I love thee, Alphasmart!

Over the years, I’ve made use of many different tools, technologies, and techniques to aid in my writing–and in my completion of NaNoWriMos past. Given that November is fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to put together a list (also, I just couldn’t resist the title of this post) of some of the ones that have helped me most. So, here they are (in no particular order):

  • The Dana Alphasmart. It’s lean, it’s minimal–and it has no internet. Or fancy graphics. Or distractions of any kind. I love the Dana, and completed my first successful NaNo on it. I still use it sometimes and find it great for doing research, actually. Again–minimal distractions, a good keyboard with a great feel to it. This is old school magnificence.
  • yWriter. Before I downloaded this, I never understood the point of writing programs. I thought, “I have to plan, create the characters, build the world, and write the book either way, so what’s a program going to give me that I’m not able to do myself?” But I’m always ready to give something new a try, particularly if the risk is low–in this case, the program is FREE (!!!) and so it’s just a matter of figuring out how it works and giving it a try. This was the first scene-based writing program that I used–and WOW, what a difference (more below)*. yWriter is basic, basic. It has the equivalent of a Dana Alphasmart interface (think: early 1990s styling).
  • Netbook. The Dana uses a Palm Pilot interface, and wouldn’t you know, there’s no version of yWriter for the Dana! So it was time for an upgrade. Netbooks are low cost, affordable and tiny. This makes them great for using on the go. The netbook was especially good last year, when the only time I had to work on NaNo was on public transit. Not a lot of space between the seats or when everyone is crammed together during the morning rush (my regular laptop doesn’t open fully on the streetcar). The Netbook is ideal for this!
  • Scrivener. My other laptop is a mac, and so I had started using Scrivener on it a few years back. Last year, I gave the pc version a try, but ended up going back to yWriter. As mentioned elsewhere, I suspect that the current version of Scriv for PC is a different story and worth trying. Still, I swear by Scrivener for my regular writing and planning needs (what can I say, I love pretty interfaces–but, the back end set of features is also fantastic. Plus, there’s no yWriter for mac–which actually had prompted me to hesitate before swapping to the mac platform, back when I was first making the transition. That’s how much I love these scene-based programs!).
  • Write or Die is always good. Put your back to the wall with the timer countdown and get things flowing. You can even try kamikaze mode if you like living on the edge (if you don’t keep writing within your time-delimited parameters, it starts deleting what you’ve written). Other imperatives include playing annoying music/sounds if you don’t write, or flashing unpleasant colours at you. I find that just a timer and the pared down interface help when I’m feeling distractible. Sure, your writing won’t be immortal prose, but at least it will be deathless, in the most literal sense (at least if you’re in kamikaze mode).
  • SelfControl. I actually use this for school, too. This locks you out of the internet. There is no way around the lock, until the timer lapses (e.g. rebooting etc. won’t work). It’s pretty hard core. There are also options for whitelisting certain pages (E.g. wikipedia for quick reference, or some other such site) or blacklisting certain sites (like, say… oh certain social networking sites we all know and love as procrastination enablers…!).
  • Pen and paper, for planning and just getting outside of the linear, typed box. I find that this uses a different part of my brain, and can really help get things going if I’m stuck.
  • Dragon Dictation for iphone. Another useful way to break out of the box. This time, by talking about the project. Dragon doesn’t always transcribe things exactly right (understandably, I’d say), but if your goal is to break out of a rut by changing gears and talking about the project rather than typing or writing about it, then this can be great! It’s also free.


  • Total Recall mindmapping software. This app for the iphone and ipad is great for brainstorming when you don’t have a pen and paper handy. The other advantage of having such things in digital form, of course, is that you can mail it to yourself and have copies on hand when you need to consult any of the mind maps you’ve created. Mindmaps have really helped me break through barriers in both coming up with ideas and getting through periods of writers’ block (map out all possible next steps and follow the ones that catch your interest through until you feel like you’ve got enough next steps to continue writing).
  • Index Card for the ipad. Another great way to jot down and store ideas. It interfaces with Scrivener, at the index card level, which is why I bought it. But, I’ve also found it a useful step in translating the chaos of the mind map into a usable, linear, story-based structure.

So that’s my main arsenal. I may add others if I think of them.

A new tool that I’ve added this year is a free iphone app called WriteChain. It just tracks your word counts. If you’re someone who is motivated by an app telling you either that you shouldn’t break the writing chain by not writing regularly, or that you *have* broken the writing chain by not writing regularly, then this is the app for you. I’m one of those people, so I’ve downloaded the app and am excited to use it! I’m also curious how much I write in a day, and this will be a fun way to track it.

I also have a confession: I actually don’t expect to win NaNo this year. I have too much on my plate: full time law school classes, including several assignments, research term papers looming, exams, and eternally high piles of reading to do! Plus, I’m hoping to get final revisions on Konstantin’s Gifts completed so that I can release the book in December (late November would be ideal, but I’ve hit a few snags re cover art and the like, so we’ll see). That book alone is about 140K words, so revising and proofing it takes a goodly chunk of time! Plus, volunteer commitments, etc. all promise to erode any available time I’ll have to do NaNo. Given that, my tracking in WriteChain will include ALL word handling, including blogging, and possibly even revisions, as a way to incentivize that hated process (whereas my NaNo word count on the site will be from just the novel.).

BUT, I love the events and festivities around NaNo, so I plan to dip a toe in anyway. I’ll get as far as I get (on the novel I have yet to conceptualize and plan!!), and set it aside when I need to. Definitely consider doing the same! NaNo is fun for all!

*The advantage of writing using a scene-based interface is that it:

1) keeps the focus on scenes as building blocks of story. Otherwise, there’s often the temptation to use narrative summary to bridge between one key event and the next in a story. Scenes are generally more engaging for readers, and it’s usually fairly straightforward to recap the intervening events briefly over the course of the action in the scene. You may still end up needing to use narrative summary sometimes, but this makes it more intentional.

2) allows you to see how each scene builds on the previous one, and its importance to the larger story. Both at the tactical and strategic levels in your story planning, this is incredibly helpful. Scrivener even allows you to colour code your scene summary documents. I do this by POV character or by subplot, and then when I’m in summary view (i.e. corkboard view), I can see how the different subplots intersperse and develop in conjunction to each other. Brilliant!

What are some NaNo Technologies or Techniques that you make use of in your writing?