W hen I talk to writers, one of the questions I get a lot is “what tools do you use?”. How do you keep track of your research, how do you do your plotting, how do you manage your social media? So here’s a list of the tools that I use on a weekly, if not daily, basis. There are probably others that are better, but these are the ones that seem to do the job for me and I don’t regret paying for the ones that aren’t free. And to be clear, I wasn't paid by any of the vendors mentioned here.
A nd in no particular order, here we go.
Salton Mug Warmer ($15 CAD). Laugh if you want, but for a very modest investment this little hotplate keeps hot drinks hot so that when I finally look up after two hours of wrestling with the manuscript, I don’t face the additional despair (and insult) of cold coffee. Bonus: I write best when there’s a scented candle going. When candles have burned down but there’s still wax in the glass or metal container, I put them on the mug warmer, which melts the wax and acts as a diffuser.
Aeon Timeline ($84 CAD). Visual timeline software that's has saved me from much head-bashing. Once you’ve got your plot, map out your story arc using Aeon, which lets you map multiple story arcs by character or by sub plot, whichever makes the most sense. Then you get a view of whether the flow of events works. This is so useful when you’re halfway through drafting your story and then decide to add, remove, or change something. But how does that affect the timing or logic or flow of events? And so important for historical fiction – when do various relevant historical events happen when mapped against the timeline of my novel?
The 80/20 rule says you use 20% of software features 80% of the time, and I’m sure this is true. I have a friend who says that just having Aeon show you what age your characters are at different points of the story is worth the price. There are probably tons more features I haven’t learned to use, but relative time is one of my favourites. For example: pregnancy. A protagonist conceives (Event A) on Day X and has the baby 9 months later. If you change Event A to happen on Day Y instead, then Aeon shows the resulting birth date on Day Y plus 9 months, without you having to calculate it, and which also allows you to view the impact of this date change. Does it still make sense or does it disrupt some other plot element?
Pocket (free or $45 US/year). Lets you save online articles and videos to an online Pocket library. Honestly, the worst thing is when you are revising or editing your manuscript and realize you need to provide a source from months ago. And you didn't save it. And can't remember where you saw it. I use Pocket for saving, tagging, and organizing online sources. It installs a button or bookmarklet on your browser and when you come across a web page that contains useful information (article or video), click on the button to save to Pocket. You can tag the article so that when you open up your Pocket list, you can search by tag. I pay for the Premium version because: it auto-generates tags based on the content of the article, and you can choose to use or not use their suggested tags; it saves a copy of the article in your Pocket list so you have it in a permanent library (this matters because sometimes websites shut down or pages vanish and 18 months later when you need to look up something, it could be gone); you can highlight content in the article that’s most relevant to your research.
Kindle for PC (free). Download this desktop reader from Amazon. Again, this is for saving or quoting sources. Turns out the Kindle reader has a useful feature for this. I often buy reference books as eBooks because the hardcopy versions are out of print or really expensive. Although I write fiction, I do want to show editors that events are consistent with historical fact so I include sources in footnotes or comments (which are removed before going to print). The benefit of using Kindle for PC is that you can copy and paste from a Kindle book for your footnote or comment and the snippet automatically includes the book title, author, and edition along with the copied text. Kobo does not do this. Saves time and headaches later. As you can see from the actual snippet below.
“A full company had five hundred men, including 476 labourers and several officers and non-commissioned officers, plus an orderly. And, like members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who travelled overseas with hometown units only to be broken up and attached to another unit in England or France, members of the CLC continued to be siphoned off depending on what labour was required and where. Black, Dan. Harry Livingstone's Forgotten Men (Kindle Locations 5369-5372). James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers. Kindle Edition.”
Canva (free or Pro starting at $150 USD/year. Free for classrooms and non-profits). Graphic design software. I once read that rather than worry about an expensive item of clothing, divide the cost by how often you wear it to get the ROI. This is how I feel about Canva Pro, which I use every single time I post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Every. Single. Time. I also use it for graphics on my blog, for creating booklets, for designing bookmarks and posters that are print-ready files that my my printer can use. I haven’t had to use Adobe Photoshop in ages since Canva. Great feature: Canva Pro will automatically resize your design to the optimal dimensions for each type of social media platform. There’s access to tons of images, which makes life so much easier because you don’t need to go outside of Canva to hunt down graphics. Love playing with this.
Social media dashboard. The main reason for using a dashboard is that they give you one interface that lets you view, monitor, post, and reply to all your social media platforms. This is a big time saver for posting. Instead of posting on Facebook, then posting on Instagram, then posting on Twitter, you can schedule a post for all three platforms, with the option to change the content text, image (see Canva, above), or timing of each. I use SproutSocial, but only because I signed up when they were beta testing so when they launched for real they grandfathered me in with the same low monthly fee. Their current pricing targets enterprises, not authors. Hootsuite is popular and has a free forever option. I’m sure there are other dashboards and would be interested in your comments since I haven’t tried out any new ones in years. I do log into Facebook and Instagram, etc. to engage with followers and do not use a dashboard exclusively because dashboards give you the lowest common denominator for features, and sometimes you want the full experience. Such as they are. Hah.
HTML Online Editor (free). Converts your text into HTML. Sure I can sling basic HTML. But it’s a pain. So when it comes time to add another blog or page to my website, I write it up using Word, including embedded links, and then paste it into the left-hand column of this free tool. The right-hand column turns it into HTML which I paste into WordPress. I could migrate my website to one that’s more WYSIWYG but that would mean, yeah, learning something new.
Tools I’m Trying to Decide On
Mailchimp (free, up to 2,000 names) Email marketing software. This is how I send out newsletters. Mailchimp has been around a while and is admittedly looking clunky. All the fancy new email marketing platforms assure me I’d send out newsletters more regularly if I used their fancy interface. I’ve tried Flodesk and may need to work harder at learning it, because it’s supposed to be intuitive and Mailchimp has trained me to be procedural. But the bottom line is that learning a new tool takes time. And if you use it infrequently, you just don’t feel like learning a new tool unless someone really, really urges you to give it a try (see Scrivener, below). Anyway, here’s an article that popped up when I Googled ‘best email marketing platform for authors’ : Best Email Services for Authors.
Scrivener ($67 CAD) Software for long writing projects. Speaking of learning something new. I used Scrivener for the first time to plot my most recent novel. Not to write, to plot and plan. Turns out lots of author friends use Scrivener to plot and plan. Characters, motivations, conflicts, goals and how they are thwarted in achieving these goals … you can even stash research articles and images in there.
But when the plot is fleshed out, when you have almost a chapter-by-chapter summary of the whole novel and it’s time to work on a manuscript, we export to Word and click into power typing mode (OK, 'power typing' may be an exaggeration because I still spend a lot of time staring at a screen but at least it isn’t a blank one).
In thinking about the experience of learning and using Scrivener, I feel that a big chunk of benefits came from using a template that a more knowledgeable author provided. I was a pantser for my first couple of novels and have been drifting toward a more efficient plotting process. Besides learning the technical features of Scrivener, one of the things I did was get disciplined about going through the exercise of filling in all the background information for the novel’s characters and story arcs. In other words, think things through first. Which is so, so hard when you’re in the honeymoon stages of a book and all you want to do is get those shining words out of your brain and onto paper. So I’m wondering whether I would do just as well by being disciplined and following the template’s prep work, but using Word instead of Scrivener.
I would be so interested in knowing what you use to make your writing life more productive!