The Craft of Writing

Scrivener for Mac

A few days ago I added a Published Work page to the site and listed the three books that I have published over the years. I hadn’t thought about the first two in long time, but typing up each description got me thinking about the evolution of my workflow—the tools I use to write. Oddly, it’s been a different tool for each book.

The Hard Way In (Unpublished)

I’m only including this as one of the five books because I wanted to humblebrag that I’ve actually written a novel longhand. Pen and paper, baby. The Hard Way In was written in the wee hours of the night at a Denny’s in Boca Raton, Florida over a period of months during the mid–90’s. I didn’t own a computer at the time and laptops were uncommon and expensive. Though I still have the notebooks buried in a closet in my study, I did transfer the text to a computer years after I wrote it.

It’s a terrible bit of fiction and it will never be published, but I’ve got an inspirational quote stuck to my monitor that reads, “You’ve written your practice novel. Time to move on.” It may be terrible, but it still has value.

And I wrote it longhand[1].

Success With (2006)

Tool: Microsoft Word

I was a PC user until 2006, and writing this book using Microsoft Word was one of the factors that went into my decision to switch to a Mac. It was painful. Excruciating. Word was a fine word processor for short documents or works that didn’t require pictures. For anything book-length that required hundreds of screenshots with captions… look, I didn’t want to have to earn an MOS Master certification just to get up to the skill level required to lay out a technical manual in Word.

There have been at least three versions of Word since I last used it, so perhaps things have improved.

The Big Book of Spam (2008)

Tool: Adobe InDesign

When it came time to start working on The Big Book of Spam, I knew that I wasn’t going to use Word (I had made the switch to a Mac and didn’t want Microsoft Office anywhere near it). I looked around for an alternative and almost settled on the tool that I’m using today—but I’ll get to that. I needed an application that would properly lay out a book. InDesign was perfect.

The learning curve was a little steep; I had never used a proper page layout application. Between a number of online tutorials and a book, the name of which I cannot remember, I got the help I needed and got to work. Production was fast and easy, and while it may not be expertly formatted, I’m satisfied with it. I wasn’t, and am not, a publisher, after all.

I can’t imagine writing a novel in InDesign, though. It’s great for page layout, setting up frames, images, and complicated formatting… and I can definitely see writing the novel in one program then importing it to InDesign for layout. The actual writing though, no. Not in InDesign.

The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Podcaster (2012)

Tool: Scrivener, Pages, Word

This was a tough nut to crack. My first thought was to use InDesign again. The book is basically a technical manual, the same as the Cafepress book was, and InDesign should have been the go-to tool for that. The folks at NMX had other ideas. They wanted the final manuscript in Word format[2]. The page layout was up to them, you see. I wasn’t used to that, but then, I wasn’t used to having someone else publish something I had written.

I could have bought and used Word right from the start and saved myself a headache, but that would have been too easy. I wanted to use Scrivener. I had almost used Scrivener for The Big Book of Spam, but I didn’t like how it handled images and I needed an easier page layout tool. The Ultimate Guide was much the same, so at first glance, it might look like I would have the same problem, but again, I wasn’t responsible for page layout. It was enough for me to write the manuscript and sprinkle “[insert image #x here, with caption “blah blah blah”] throughout. Bliss.

I was able to dig in and learn how to use Scrivener, and now I seriously can’t imagine using anything else. A full feature review is beyond the scope of this little article, but here are a few I think are worthwhile:

I mentioned Apple’s iWork Pages and Microsoft’s Word. After writing the book in Scrivener, I needed to get the manuscript into Word format. While Scrivener does compile (export) to Word format, the editing phase would be difficult. I would need to compile to Word, send the file, get a Word file back with suggested changes and notes, make the changes in Scrivener, compile again to Word… not an optimal workflow. Being a Mac user, I had iWork installed and was pretty familiar with Pages already. Once the first draft was sent to NMX, I put Scrivener aside and used Pages.

For about a day.

Apple will tell you that Pages can open, edit and save Word documents, and it’s true. To a point. Formatting, comments, revisions; few things translate perfectly when you’re opening a Word document in Pages, so what was the solution?

I installed a trial of Microsoft Office on my Mac[3]. I went through a few crash courses in Word basics, enough to get me up to speed for the editing process, and it ended up going really well. I still wouldn’t want to write a draft in Word, but the collaborative editing was fine. If you’re interested in trying Scrivener, I have a handy referral link that I’d love for you to use: there is a trial version for Mac and a trial version for PC users.

The Last King of Avven (working title) (2014)

Tool: Scrivener

I already gave the overview of Scrivener, so bounce back up to read it again if you like. Set in the year 501 on an alternate Earth, this is the first book in a trilogy spanning thousands of years. It’s a very, very large universe and Scrivener is the perfect tool to handle it. There’s the chapter and scene organization, the corkboard view, the research folders, asset management, full-screen writing mode, support for a million export formats and it’s intuitive (see the above list of tutorials and reviews for more details).

I expect I’ll have to export to Word and then turn the editing phase over to that program again, but who knows? If I self-publish it might turn out differently than if the book gets picked up by a traditional publisher.

For now, the tool of choice is Scrivener.

  1. I know I’m far from the first to write a novel longhand, but in this day and age, it’s fairly rare. I’m not patting myself on the back for it as much as it might sound like I am.  ↩
  2. You guys have no idea how sad that made me. Le sigh.  ↩
  3. Again, a sad day.  ↩

As usual, I jumped in without thinking.

I’m a sucker for new tools. When I hear about a new bit of software that sounds interesting, you can bet I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to learn more. This time, it’s Byword 2.

Just give me a tool!

The best thing for a writer is to keep writing; I’ve been told that quite a lot. Move the fingers. Get it down on paper[1]. To that end, I’ve decided to make blogging a regular thing again. No big deal. Nothing to which I expect a huge audience to flock. Just something to keep my fingers moving.

I need a new tool, I thought, considering my idea. I knew there was Mac software available for bloggers. Ecto, MarsEdit and Adobe Contribute were three that I tried years and years ago, before I really got into podcasting. With podcasting, the choice was simple: WordPress web interface. Nothing beats it. For writing though, I wanted something more. Something that I could write in that would publish directly to WordPress.

Ecto hasn’t been updated since I used it all those years ago, so I ruled it out. I was not much of a fan to begin with, and it’s lacking in modern features. MarsEdit is strong, but after downloading a trial, I discovered it’s rather uncomfortable to use[2]. Adobe Contribute is a $99 upgrade (I last owned CS3, and it is several versions ahead of that now), so that’s out. I’m not spending $99 just to avoid using the WordPress web interface.

Then I came across a reference to Byword. It was highly recommended, and it had that one feature that I was looking for: the ability to publish directly to WordPress. For an extra charge. Dammit. The software is ten bucks, and it’s another five to unlock the ability to publish to the web. Fifteen altogether isn’t a bad price though… if only there were a trial version. That, I told myself, was a deal breaker.

As usual, I jumped in without thinking.

It’s always something. This time, it was the footnotes. I was reading up on Markdown, which is what Byword edits, and I became more and more intrigued. John Gruber’s article[3] got me thinking that this might be a great way to write for the web. I checked out the syntax guide that Byword provides.

Then I saw a reference to MultiMarkdown. Cross-references! Tables! Custom attributes! Footnotes! I love footnotes[4]! And that’s what got me. As soon as I saw how easy it was to insert complicated formatting, I went straight to the Mac App Store and hit the Buy button.

Have I mentioned yet that I’m a Scrivener user? That I’ve been working on my short stories and novels[5] completely in Scrivener? Have I mentioned yet that Scrivener handles MultiMarkdown?

Yeah. I had the tool all along. Well, sort of. Scrivener can’t publish directly to my blog. The $15 I spent wasn’t completely wasted, so… yay?

This post was written in Byword. I quite enjoyed it and the learning curve was gentle. It doesn’t handle image uploads, which isn’t good, but a future update may address that. Your milage may vary, but if you’ve got $15, I can think of worse ways to spend it.

It’ll do… until I come across another tool that catches my attention.

  1. I rather wonder when that phrase will die off, but “get it down on a hard drive” doesn’t have the same ring.  ↩

  2. I know it would get better as I used it, but I don’t have the patience. Sorry, MarsEdit.  ↩

  3. I know it’s old. I’m not pretending it’s new. Yeah, I somehow missed it all these years. I just… erm… shut up.  ↩

  4. Obviously.  ↩

  5. There are five in various states of production. More about these in a forthcoming post.  ↩

Pen and Notebook


As I was saying before WordPress decided to break down on me…

Flashback! The year was 1995. At the age of twenty, I found myself suddenly living in South Florida, and not entirely by choice. I had not yet decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. To say that I was aimless would not be untrue; I had little ambition and few prospects for anything meaningful. On the assets side of my ledger, I had a car, my parents, a place to live, and food on the table.

Upon moving to my new home, I set about finding a job. The first thing I found was a position at a movie theater across the street from my home. For the grand sum of minimum wage, I would sweep the theater floors, man the concessions, tear tickets and find creative ways to do all of that with the bare minimum of effort. My only lament is that I did not score any sweet movie posters during my time there; the job was perfectly… satisfactory.

I had a lot of spare time. As a teenager, and a bit younger, I had written a few stories here and there. Writing was something that I enjoyed, but not something that I considered for a career. On nights that I wasn’t working, I would be down the road at a Denny’s. At the start, I’d go in for 45 minutes, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and doodle. After a few weeks, I would be at Denny’s every night that I wasn’t at the movie theater for hours at a time. Every time I went in I brought a notebook with me—remember, this is largely pre-internet time, and I certainly couldn’t afford one of the primitive laptops that were starting to gain in popularity. I started writing.

Given my generally sour mood due to my situation in life, I tried writing pieces of scathing wit and sarcasm. George Carlin was my hero. I wanted to lash out against… well, everyone. I had no specific target. I had pieces called “The Gay Community”, “Things That Piss Me Off”, “The Whole Race Thing” and “Paranoia, Paranoia, Everybody’s Coming to Get Me” (real original on that last one). Oh, I was clever. In the intro for what would have been my book of essays, I wrote “I dare you to try to categorize me!” Ouch.

After a few months I somehow got it in my head that I should write a novel. Yes, this is where the metaphorical shit would get real. I would write an awesome novel that everyone would want to read. It would be picked up by a publisher immediately and movie rights would be optioned shortly after. I’d adapt the screenplay and choose who played the lead. Both text and film would be showered with awards. Did I mention that I was a 20-year-old idiot with more experience watching television than with living life?

Write what you know, they say. My story would be set in South Florida, Houston, Providence… places I’d lived. The cast of characters would be based on my friends. A murder mystery? Why, of course my friends could solve a murder mystery! I knew nothing of murders or mysteries of course, but that was a minor detail. I gave my characters names like Ray Kinzie, a mashup of two childhood friends, Ray Martin and Chris Kinzie. I looked around at what was happening in popular culture and movies at the time… what’s trendy? Yep, I’ll make most of the the girls bisexual. That totally makes sense! I did mention that I was an idiot, right?

For months, I went to Denny’s three to five nights a week with several notebooks, writing my soon-to-be-award-winning novel by hand. I would arrive at nine or ten and leave at three or four in the morning. I’d swill countless cups of coffee and smoke nearly a pack of cigarettes on the longer nights—half a pack if I was only there a few hours.

I don’t recall now how long it took to finish the book—nine months, a year on the outside—but finish it I did. I titled it The Fifth City because when titling a murder mystery, it’s always a good idea to give away the ending right up front. Years later, seeking to tie it to another novel that I had started, I would change it to The Hard Way In. That was better, but did not improve the quality of the writing, which, you’ll recall, had been crafted by an idiot.

This is the part of the story where things start to break down.

Almost immediately after finishing The Fifth City, I set to work on my second awesome novel, Michael MacNamara. This would be the story of a hit man attempting to go straight and all the pitfalls that trying to leave the mob entails. My mother loved this one for some reason. I don’t recall letting anyone read The Fifth City, but MacNamara, I let slip. Reading it now, it’s not horrible. It has potential, even if it isn’t terribly original in its current form. I only finished the first chapter and a handful of scenes that would appear at various points in the story, but I learned an important lesson after the first novel: planning is key. The first novel had no plan, no outline, just a vague idea that I wanted my friends to solve a murder mystery. For Michael MacNamara, I outlined nearly the entire story. I had family trees, biographies and plot points for all the major characters and most of the minor characters. I spent so much time figuring out who was related to who that I never got around to writing the damn thing.

I ended up losing interest in MacNamara (much to my mother’s chagrin), and a few months later, decided that I would write The Great American Small Town Novel. Yep, I was going to out-Peyton-Place Peyton Place (not that I knew what Peyton Place was back then, aside from “it’s a novel… I think”). This made sense to me! I was from a small New England town! I could absolutely write drama! This should be easy!

It wasn’t (but you knew that).

I took inspiration from Neil Peart’s lyrics to the song Middletown Dreams and called my story… Middletown Dreams. Like Peart, I figured that nearly every state has a Middletown, and mine could be any of them. I wrote this one in parts; I decided a series of connected short stories would work well. A main character from one chapter might be a minor character in another and settings would be shared between several stories. It was to be a grand thing, and in the spirit of the Kevin Smith fan that I was in the 90’s, I managed to tie it into my first two novel attempts. Ray Kinzie from The Fifth City ran a pool hall in downtown Providence, Rhode Island that two of my Middletown teenagers frequented. Michael MacNamara’s brother went to high school in my Middletown before getting killed in The Hard Way Out—it was about this time that I renamed those first two books The Hard Way In and The Hard Way Out. I even wrote a new ending to The Hard Way In wherein my main character, Ian Brock, went to work for the family that Michael MacNamara would soon try to leave in The Hard Way Out.

There was drama galore. Underage drinking. Teenage hormones. Race relations, in the form of an African-American family moving to predominantly white Middletown. Gasp!

Needless to say, Middletown Dreams didn’t work out, and after this third attempt to write something that would sell, I gave up. The trips to Denny’s became less and less frequent, and in 2000, I moved back to Houston. Shortly after, I would (re)discover the internet, discover that you could make money with it, and completely abandon writing fiction. From the early 2000’s until 2012, I wrote practically nothing that wasn’t for a blog, an affiliate site, or later, FeedFront Magazine.

Twice in the past decade or so, I’ve tried to go back to those stories and resurrect them. The first attempt, not long after Middletown Dreams, was solid; I typed up all my handwritten pages on a laptop (yep, Denny’s late-night again). I started to realize how badly The Hard Way In was written during this period, but I was only typing, not editing. After a week of typing, I got sick of reading the words and took a break. The stories languished on a hard drive for years after. The second attempt lasted about a day. Just a few years ago (2008 or 2009, I think) I opened the archive and dug out the manuscript with an aim to edit and rewrite. The story was incomprehensible. The problem with casting your friends in your novel is that they change. Well, either that or you lose touch with them and you forget little things like why they are acting the way they are in your story. More than ten years passed between the time I wrote The Fifth City and the time I tried to rewrite it… and I had lost touch with every single person that I had used in the book. The plot was confusing. The characters’ motivations were all unclear. At the end of the day, I zipped up the archive file and buried it back in my Documents folder on the hard drive.

And that brings us to today. In just a few minutes it will be July 1st, 2012 here in my time zone. My desire to write has been rekindled, but I will not be bringing back those old stories. As I mentioned a week ago, I’ll be working in the Fantasy genre, turning out short and long fiction in a rich, exciting setting. I attended Comicpalooza here in Houston back in May and I found myself more inspired than ever before. Inspired… and optimistic. I have written a novel. Sure, it’s not very good, but it’s done (first drafts count as done, and don’t try to convince me otherwise!). I wrote a whole damn novel (first draft, I know, I know) and I can do it again—and this time, I’ll take everything I’ve learned since that first attempt and I’ll make something worth reading. Here then, are five lessons I learned along the way:

  1. My problems with using my friends as templates: first, that I did that at all. Second, that what I wrote presumed the reader knew my friends. Perhaps I meant to flesh it out later, but in the end, there are a lot of gaps in the writing that should have been filled with characterization. It all made sense to me at one point in time, but it’s gibberish now—and nobody else will get it either.
  2. Passion is important. It’s hard as hell to finish a book without a passion for it. My second two novels failed, in part, because passion faded.
  3. Planning is important. The Fifth City failed, in part, because I did not plan anything out. Flying by the seat of your pants is exciting, and practiced writers might be able to pull it off, but aspiring novelists? Not so much.
  4. It’s the balance that counts, though. Too much passion, not enough planning is a bad thing. Too much planning, not enough passion, as in the case of Michael MacNamara, is also bad.
  5. Don’t let your mom read your stuff. She’ll bug you for years to finish Michael MacNamara. Or, you know, whatever you’re working on.

Well, there you have it—my brief, 1,964 word account of my attempts to write fiction. From this point forward, it’s a whole new world. I’m glad you’re here to read it. Thank you.

Pen and Notebook