Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.30: Tools for Writers

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

We are often asked what software we use to get our work done. In this episode we answer that question in a bit of detail.

Liner Notes: Here’s a linked list of the tools referenced during this episode.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered via great mastery by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick one of the tools from this list (one which you’re not using) and try it out.

Thing of the week: Nexus, by Ramez Naam.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Consider your tools and how they support your process and creativity. Scrivener supports component-based authoring. Other people prefer a key to screen word processor that is bare bones. Index cards, a pen, and Post-it notes. Write or Die for word sprints. Word 2010 and the document map. Wikidpad and other wikis, for encyclopedia or book bibles. Aeon Timeline for dates and times, or an Excel spreadsheet? Excel for outlining — columns for character, subplot, mystery, then shuffle rows to organize. Spreadsheets for story beats. The browser for research! Asana for time management.  

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 30.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Tools for Writers.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’ve got tools that make us smarter.
[Brandon] Well, make us pretend to be smarter. Really. They make up for our human deficiencies.
[Howard] Well, you know what, my handbrain…
[Brandon] Just a reminder, because we’re switching around the cast a lot. I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Yes. This is a weird year. I’m very excited how it’s going. We’re going to dig into a topic… I get asked this question all the time at signings. I don’t know if it happens to you guys as well. People want to know what software I use. So we’re going to talk the actual physical software, the computers we use, stuff like that. So, what’s your writing software? Piper?
[Piper] Oh, gosh, that’s a complex answer.
[Piper] So here we go, bear with me. I travel 85% of my time, because I manage a day job in which I am a road warrior and frequent flyer, as well as being at home and writing in an office. So when I am at home, I write on an Alienware… Well, I switch. At my desk is an Alienware and I have Office 365…
[Dan] Alienware laptop or tower?
[Piper] Laptop. Then when I need to stay away from my desk, because I have cramps in my lower back and I have to go sit someplace else, I have a MacBook Air. I’ve been… So what I use is I use Scrivener on my MacBook, because Scrivener is… Was originally designed for Apple software. So while there is… It is available for Windows for PC users, I actually like Scrivener on the MacBook better.
[Howard] I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener for Mac. Explicitly as opposed to Scrivener on the PC.
[Piper] The idea behind Scrivener, happy listeners, and if you are a person who participates in National Novel Writing Month, there… Usually Scrivener has a 50% off coupon if you win the month. So trying out the software, totally feasible, especially if you win the Nanowrimo. But the idea behind Scrivener is that it’s multi-functionality. The idea is that you can do what I call component-based authoring, is you can split up your writing chapter by chapter, scene by scene, act by act, whatever level of granularity works for you. It also has different views. So you can look at it like it’s Microsoft Word with the word processing section, you can have a little section for notes, you can even store images in there. You can store links and research in different spots, or you can also use their index card view to do your plotting. So I know a lot of writers, and I do, use those index cards to help me plot. Scene by scene, or I personally break it up chapter by chapter, for my novels. You can also use it for your character development, because you can start a new folder and use index cards for your characters, and however you like to build your characters, you can build them there in Scrivener. The nice thing about it is you can sync it to Dropbox and you can also access it from multiple computers. Scrivener’s now out for iPad. So you can switch from machine to machine, if you’re the type of person that [garbled]
[Brandon] Sounds like an advertisement, but…
[Piper] Sorry.
[Brandon] I know that people who love Scrivener all talk like that. It is one of the big things that people like to advocate for.

[Dan] I have tried it, and I… It sounds like you and I are very opposite in our writing styles, Piper. Because I hate software.
[Dan] I hate any time that my computer thinks it’s smarter than I and tries to automate something. I use the most basic word processor I can find, and I use barely any of its functionality. All I want to do is to be able to hit a key on the keyboard and have that letter show up on the word processor, and that’s all I need.
[Howard] He’s in WordPerfect 3 for DOS.
[Piper] You know what, I miss WordPerfect. Like, if you gave me WordPerfect, I’d choose it over Word.
[Brandon] You joke, but I think that George Martin still writes in WordStar.
[Dan] I wouldn’t be surprised. I actually right in Pages on my iPad. Even when I am at home. I do travel a lot, and I just have a Bluetooth keyboard and I have Pages, and that’s where I do all of my writing. Both at home and on airplanes and everywhere.

[Howard] Now, I think after the Scrivener pitch it’s worth pointing out that the… We talk about tools for writers. Things that if I don’t have on hand, I will panic. A brick of index cards. A pen. Post-it notes. Because sometimes the idea comes and I’m like, “Oh…ohohohoh… I need to…” And I grab an index card and I grab a pen and I write it down, and as I’m writing, I’m like, “Nope, this is more than just one index card.” I will start writing on index cards. I’m pantomiming that as I talk. There is no video feed, so nobody’s getting the whole story.
[Brandon] I appreciated it, Howard.
[Piper] Someday, there will be video, maybe.
[Howard] But the stacks of index cards, I will then carry into my office and use with… Typically with Microsoft Word. Also in my office, I have Post-it notes, because even though I have four monitors and can be putting research and notes and whatever else to my left and my right while I’m writing on the main window, sometimes the low-tech solution of scribbling something on a Post-it note and sticking it to the edge of the screen is the best way for me to get the work done.

[Piper] Now, we’re talking about drafting, right?
[Brandon] Yes.
[Piper] So when we talk about drafting, and sometimes I… Whether it’s Microsoft Word or some other wordprocessing software that you’re using to write, sometimes word sprints are a really great way to get your writing done. There’s a whole bunch of different apps that I’ve used for word sprints, and then transferred into my main manuscript. So, the one that I’ve used the longest is called Write or Die. Basically, what Write Or Die does is that it’s a window that you use, and if you stop typing for a specific amount of time, the screen starts to turn red and noise starts to happen and like evil things like spiders and stuff start crawling across your page.
[Piper] Then your words start to delete. Like in the hard-core…
[Brandon] Really?
[Piper] Yeah, in the hard-core version, if you wait long enough, your words start to get deleted off the page.
[Piper] I prefer the positive reinforcement version of Write Or Die.
[Howard] There are video games that give you nightmares. This one would give me waking nightmares.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Howard] And anxiety attacks.
[Piper] It’s tough, but there’s a positive… There’s positive aspects of Write or Die in the fact that… And I use the reward version. So every 250 words, I get puppies on my screen…
[Piper] And I get this purring noise as it shows me kittens.
[Piper] Right. And then when I hit my word goal for that writing sprint, I get a DunTaTaTun chime and Whew! and more puppies. So Write or Die is kind of fun, because it’s incentive-based like that.

[Brandon] Oh, wow. All right. So, I worry that as I get older, I’m turning into Ray Bradbury. In the bad ways.
[Dan] I was going to say, that’s not something to worry about.
[Brandon] I know. In the bad ways. So, Ray Bradbury’s like famously refused to use a computer, right? He learned on a typewriter, he used a typewriter, he had his process. Talking about it has become a metaphor for the fact that writers find something they like and refuse to change.
[Dan] And never change. I’ve been worrying about this with myself lately.
[Brandon] Like, when I was younger, I am like every new software version, I’ve got the most updated thing. I am nerdy hip. Now, Word 2010… I’ve like latched onto.
[Brandon] I didn’t like 2013 or 2016. I’m like, “No. 2010 is my tool.” So I like have to make it work on newer versions of Windows that it’s not built for…
[Brandon] And things like this. I’m turning into one of these legacy software nightmares.
[Dan] Well, in 2010… That tracks almost perfectly with Douglas Adams. You’ve heard his quote, right? Any technology that existed when you were a kid is the way the world has always been. Anything that was invented before you were 35 is new and exciting. Anything that’s invented after you were 35 is evil and terrible.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. That tracks pretty well for me.
[Dan] That tracks almost exactly.
[Brandon] I like using the document map to do my structure. If you don’t know Microsoft Word, you can build an outline that just appears on the left side of your screen. It’s very Scrivener-like in that aspect. I use that document map a lot. I just work in Microsoft Word. I have all these little things I tweak to make it do what I want it to do, because I want certain things to be auto replaced and not other things to be auto replaced. I want to see certain things on the screen. I’m just turning into a real crotchety old man…
[Brandon] When it comes to my software. The other thing… Let’s talk about PCs and computers. You mentioned yours. I work on a PC, though it’s out of stubbornness because I probably should move to Macs. Because the number one thing I want on a PC is I want a laptop that doesn’t change between iterations. That I don’t have to get used to a new keyboard layout or a new touchpad that does… That tracks differently. That stuff just makes me annoyed because it distracts me from my writing.
[Dan] Microsoft is awful for that.
[Brandon] Yeah. So I use ThinkPads. ThinkPad is kind of put together with different components inside of it, even though they look the same. So the trackpad is different every time I get a new computer. I’m like, “Rargh…”
[Brandon] Just have the same resolution in the same trackpad, but it doesn’t. So I should be a Mac person, but giving more money to the ghost of Steve Jobs just rubs me the wrong way, I guess.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, why don’t you tell us about Nexus?
[Dan] Nexus by Ramez Naam is the first of a cyberpunk trilogy that he wrote. It is fantastic. I have been trying to read a lot more of the new cyberpunk, because we’re kind of in a little mini… I don’t know if it’s going to turn into a Renaissance or if it’s just yay, more cyberpunk. Anyway, Nexus is about a drug called Nexus that people can use to network their brains together. In the very first chapter, you learn that this kind of college kid in California has figured out how to keep it in his system permanently rather than the dose running out and needing another fix. Suddenly, everyone in the world is trying to recruit him to design their technology and their weaponry and everything else. It deals with trans-humanism. It deals with networked emotions and social experiences with what is essentially telepathy. Incredibly well written, fast-paced thriller that will make you think hard-core about what the future of technology is going to be.
[Brandon] Awesome. Repeat the name.
[Dan] It is called Nexus, and the author’s name is Ramez Naam. N-A-A-M.

[Brandon] Excellent. So let’s shift this… I want to pitch it back at Howard for a moment, because he got me hooked on a software that I know he at least used to use. This is wikidpad.
[Howard] Yeah. Wikidpad. I no longer use wikidpad. I no longer maintain a private local wiki. I have… There is a Schlock Mercenary wiki that I roll out to and throw world building notes into on a regular basis. But having a searchable online source for back story things… I mean, if it’s supersecret stuff, I don’t put it out there. But the supersecret stuff never is really ratified until I put it into the comic. So I’m fine with that. But having a… Having an encyclopedia of some sort for the world you are building… If you’re building a world that’s bigger than just one book, so that… Or if you’re writing the book over a long enough period of time that you can’t keep the facts straight, having some sort of way to keep that world straight in an encyclopedia is going to be super useful.
[Brandon] Yeah, I agree with this. I use the wikidpad still because what I needed, and this is so perfect for me, I needed something I can look at and that my assistants can look at. They can be…
[Howard] And that no one else can look at.
[Brandon] And no one else can see. So it’s not on the Internet. It is stored locally. But we can all access it and that someone… Karen, when I finish a book, goes through and… She’s our continuity editor. She puts everything in from the new book and canonizes everything…
[Brandon] Then, anything that we’ve tweaked in the writing of this book, she kind of puts down below as old information and whatnot. Oh, it is so handy.
[Dan] see, I think if I had someone like that, then I might actually use a wiki. I have tried a couple of times to set up a wiki, and, once again, I kind of defaulted to the low-tech version. With the Mirador series, i have a world bible that is a word processor file in which I just wrote everything down. I sent one to my assistant and I sent one to my editor and we all just read that.
[Piper] I have to say that I have not ever tried a wiki, and now I’m tempted to. I keep my series bible or world bible in OneNote and use the page organization, because you can share that out to somebody else, like your editors and stuff. As a note for some of the aspiring authors, as you get more into your process, you do need to share that out, right, to your editor so that they can see it. Especially because when you get with any publishing house, whether it’s traditional or digital, your editors could change mid series. It’s actually very likely to happen. So being able to give them access to your series bible as they’re editing your book is a really good thing [garbled]
[Brandon] I should give Moshe on mine. I hadn’t even thought of that.

[Piper] I also use Aeon Timeline. Now that specifically for timing notes. Aeon Timeline allows you to capture key dates and times that are happening through your story for continuity. Now that could be huge, big dates and times that have happened in your world, whether you’re an romance in a contemporary setting or whether you’re in fantasy or in sci-fi. These are key dates that you need, or you need something as simple as what was the setting of the last book? Was that in the fall? Was that in the spring? Like, when was that? Because I need to think of how much later this next book is. How much time has passed, and what things could happen? Like, did characters age? That kind of thing. So, Aeon timeline’s actually pretty handy if you’re going to have a lot of dates and times that are going to happen across your series. Or, if you’re going to be doing flashbacks.
[Howard] I use a… I just use Microsoft Excel. I’ve got a spreadsheet full of important dates. When we wrote the 70 Maxims Of Maximally Effective Mercenaries, and I had Karl Tagon, Kaff Tagon, Alexia Murtaugh, and Sgt. Schlock all had handwritten notes in the book, I was keeping track of when the book was in each individual’s possession and when they wrote the note. As I started doing that, I thought, “Oh, this is fun. Oh, crap…”
[Howard] This I cannot hold in my head because it was completely nonlinear. So I just threw open a spreadsheet and date date date date date… And it was awesome, because I realized, and this is one of the reasons why I think tools are so… When I said at the beginning of the podcast that the tools make us smarter, when I looked at the spreadsheet and realized, “Wait. According to this, Karl and Alexia were both in the same star system during this war. I have never addressed that. What was she doing?” By asking that question, I came up with a whole bunch of back story for her that the spreadsheet exposed for me.
[Brandon] I love that, because this year is about structure, and this is how structure inspired story to you, looking at the structure.

[Brandon] All right. We’re going to do any other apps or any other discussions or programs or things you use?
[Dan] I just wanted to add really quickly that I’m glad he brought up Excel, because that is the one software tool that I use all the time. I use it as an outlining tool. My books will always start as handwritten notes, and then they get transferred into Excel, which is where I figure out how the outline’s going to work. The columns are usually split into character or subplot, or in the most recent book, mystery. Each column is a mystery that they are trying to track.
[Brandon] That’s an awesome way of doing it.
[Dan] The rows are… I will shuffle them up and down within their column to figure out which has to come first and which comes second. That helps me know where the chapters line up and what’s going to happen in each scene.
[Brandon] That is a really clever method.
[Howard] I use spreadsheets for story beats as well. The tool that we haven’t talked about at all that is supercritical for me, and it also factors into this whole handbrain idea, is the browser. I have multiple windows on my PC, or, excuse me, multiple monitors. The monitor to my left… It needs to not be the one right in front of me… I will open up to a browser, and I will be doing research. Sometimes I ask myself, “Wait. How… How old is the black hole at the center of the galactic core?” Answer? We don’t know. I looked at that… I researched that for an hour and found out that nope, we just don’t have a good answer to that question. But I keep it to my left so that I am never relaxing and just staring at the browser window. When I relax and look forward, I see, “Oh, wait, there’s this blank page in front of me that needs words about this crap that I’m researching over to the left.”

[Piper] So I used two different tools. One is in the digital world. In fact, I use Asana, right now, but I’m always open to a new time management sort of app. But Asana is nice because you can assign yourself tasks within a project, and you can view them in boards. What that allows me to do is organize them in a kanban board style.
[Brandon] Can you spell that? Asana?
[Howard] A-S-A-N-A. It’s a time management tool. I’m going to provide links for Aeon Timeline, for Asana, and for Scrivener and these other things.
[Piper] So Asana allows you both to look at tasks in a linear fashion, so you get a list of todos. Right? Which was something that I’ll do for a weekend of intense writing. I’ll say, “Oh, I need to build out this character or I wanted to write this scene or I wanted to figure out this plot thing.” Right? So I’ll write those down. Then, also, because authors very rarely, once your published, have just writing to do… We have like blog posts and highlights and interviews to fill out. I’ll also have those tasks in there so I don’t forget about them. But what you can do is, you can set it up and manage it kanban style. Which allows you to have boards to manage your workflow. So the way that I do it, and I’ve done a blog for it, as well as a podcast, that you can find at But what I do is, I set up a column for triage. That lets me know all my tasks. Then I have Due Today. I have In Progress for right now. I have Done. I just move those tasks. I never have more than two or three of those tasks in a particular column. The In Progress column should only have one at a time. Right? So Due Today will have two or three…
[Howard] If only.
[Piper] Right? The idea is that you can manage your time. So, Asana allows me to do that in both ways, and it also allows me to manage it so if I’m working on a collaboration project, like an anthology, all of us have our tasks and our dates and our times. And we can also manage discussion in there. That’s a fun tool.
[Howard] On the subject of managing time… We are probably out of it by now.
[Brandon] We are.
[Howard] We could keep going and going and going…
[Piper] Oh, we could.

[Howard] Who’s got our homework?
[Brandon] I do. It’s very easy. You’re just going to try one of these programs, these different methods. It doesn’t even have to be a program, you could try the index card thing if you’ve never done that. I want this year, this season of Writing Excuses to get you to try to shake up your structure, your planning, your organization, a little bit to see if there are tools that will help you be more creative. This is a perfect example of something that might help you be more creative. Give it a try. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.