Writing: a System I Used to Write a 508 Page Novel…

This last spring I finally finished the first draft on a NaNoWriMo novel I started back in November, 2011. Spanning several years, computers and locations, I thought I’d share the software/hardware system I used for writing it.

The Software:

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It’s quite simple really (with a few twists), I used Literature and Latte’s Scrivener for almost all of it. Scrivener’s superior handling of MASSIVE documents in tiny chunks (in my case, chapters divided up into individual scenes) is solely responsible for me completing this novel. Period. The ability to manipulate your manuscript on a modular level – dragging and dropping individual chunks to where ever you see fit – completely changed the way that I write long and short form documents.

But it doesn’t even come close to stopping there! Nope, no way! There’s also a place in the app for character descriptions, corkboards for resources, images, notes; anything really. Word and page counts (along with goals), a mind-blowing set of preferences, full screen modes, support for several different coding languages (!?), a character name generator, the ability to add inspirational pictures as backgrounds whilst in full screen mode… the list is genuinely exhausting (in a good way) and I haven’t even brought up the various ways you can export your manuscript once you are done with it (epub, Kindle, pdf, MS Word, rich text, plain text, you name it and Scrivener can export to it)!

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Scrivener’s main strength however has always been in the way that it easily gets out of your way and lets you write. Sure, you can do everything I mentioned above (and WAY more), but you also don’t have to at all. It’s as complex or as simple as you want it to be. It easily and elegantly adapts to you and your workflows. It simply enables you to write.

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A lot of care clearly went into the making of this software and you can see this attention to detail when you use it.

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For the more complexly layered scenes I also used L&L’s mind-mapping software Scapple. I’ve already written an overview about this software on this very site in the past, so I won’t reiterate it but I will say that if you have any scene that contains a lot of moving parts, I can’t recommend Scapple enough. It really succeeds in getting your thoughts and moments organized and in order. I formed the climax of my novel entirely in Scapple before I wrote it. Because of this, writing it wasn’t nearly the herculean task I thought it was going to be. Sure, working the scene up in Scapple was additional work on top of everything else, but in the end it was absolutely worth it and that scene was much, much better for it.

Add in Scapple’s drag and drop compatibility with Scrivener and you’ve got a one-two punch that’s hard to beat.

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Those two programs alone did about 90% of the heavy lifting, the rest spanned across two iOS text editors that I took notes, or wrote a few scenes in. In those instances I used Agile Tortoise’s “Drafts” and Second Gear’s “Elements 2”, both of which I have mentioned and written about several times here on this site. What can I say! When I love something, I like to write about it! With the syncing capabilities of these apps, I was able to transfer scenes, notes, outlines, etc… very easily and in plain text/markdown, to where ever I needed them (mostly Dropbox, where I also stored a periodic back-up of the entire manuscript). They played a small role, but were vital to the process nonetheless.

Hardware used:

The novel at any given time could be found on a 7 year old iMac, a Mac Mini and a retina Macbook Pro when I worked through OSX. A small portion of it was written on a 3rd gen iPad with a bluetooth keyboard.

Other tidbits:

  • Music-wise, I wrote this book almost entirely while listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “The Social Network” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” soundtracks. It was a work of science fiction and those soundtracks suited the scenes in my head so well that they never got old. They are a good length too, so you know when to take a break when one finishes.
  • When I originally was writing I was compiling weekly .epub’s so that my wife Melinda could read along, but she caught up too quickly and I couldn’t write fast enough so I eventually stopped. She loved the process (and the story) though.
  • I finished the final scene on an Amtrak train heading back home to Durham from Charlotte. I certainly hadn’t planned it that way, but that’s how it happened. Trains here in the states are rarely used when compared to other forms of transportation, so it was a pretty cool and unexpected moment.

***All images in this post were supplied from Literature and Latte’s Press Kits for Scapple and Scrivener***

Software: A Wonderful Passbook Experience…

Taken from Apple's Website at - http://www.apple.com/ios/whats-new/#passbook

A great idea…

When Apple announced Passbook with iOS6 I, like quite a few iOS enthusiasts, was very intrigued.

The idea of going to a concert and, when I got to the venue, having my tickets show up on my lock screen a swipe away from being scannable at the door, was not only an incredible concept, but it was also an amazing convenience!

Then when I saw the companies involved, companies like Ticketmaster and Eventbrite, Fandango, major Airlines, Target and even REI… I suddenly had this wonderful feeling that all of that fishing around in my wallet that I do at the register or at a venue entrance, would finally be done with! It was a nice thought!

So what happened?

Well, I don’t go to too many Ticketmaster-based shows (and my experience so far, a lot of Ticketmaster venues don’t even support scanning tickets on phone screens anyways). I like seeing movies in independently owned theaters. I rarely shop at Target. REI’s implementation is pretty weak (it only displays my member card number), and my main Airline (for better or worse, US Airways), has somewhat of a “if you blink, you’ll miss it” integration of Passbook. So when I do occasionally fly, I completely overlook it.

With the exception of one concert that had tickets setup through Eventbrite (which worked quite well by the way), I had yet to have that quintessential Passbook experience: where several tasks in one outing were completely handled without me having to unlock my phone or print something out on paper.

Not until this last weekend that is. :)

The Situation…

I was getting away for the weekend, for a self-imposed writing retreat in Charlotte. I booked a flat in the downtown area through AirBnB (I’m a HUGE fan of the service) and found the fares for a round trip ticket from Durham on Amtrak to be surprisingly cheap. I knew AirBnB had Passbook integration but I was honestly surprised when I found that Amtrak did too!

Two train tickets, one accommodation reservation and just like that: I finally had my test case!

The game was afoot! :)

All my info in one place!

I added both train tickets and my AirBnB reservation to Passbook a week prior and went on with life until the weekend came for me to leave.

My expectations were fairly basic. I wanted to arrive at the train station in Durham (and Charlotte on the way home), get a notification, swipe the notification on my lock screen, have the conductor scan the displayed ticket, and board the train. Upon arrival to where I was staying, I wanted another notification to pop up when I got close to the address and have all of my reservation info readily accessible, with clickable phone numbers and addresses (postal and electronic).

In fairness, I already knew that the info I needed for where I was staying would be displayed on the AirBnB Passbook card. But what I didn’t know, was if it would show up on the lock screen automatically when I got close to the address.

That all said, how did it work?

Amazingly well! The day of my Amtrak departure, as the time got close, a notification came up telling me the time that my train was supposed to leave. Not only that, it also told me that the train station I was leaving from was nearby (info I already knew, but still)!

Passbook Lockscreen NotificationPassbook Amtrak Ticket to Charlotte!
When the train got to the station and the conductor started asking for tickets, I swiped the notification on my lock screen and there was my ticket, with my name, order number, departure/arrival time and a scannable bar code that worked perfectly with their scanners. I showed the conductor my phone, he scanned my lock screen and I hopped aboard. It was that easy! No questions were asked and many other passengers had the exact same experience.

Next up? My arrival at my accommodations for the weekend.

The place I was staying at was within walking distance from the train station in Charlotte, so I hoofed it. As I got within a half a mile from the address (give or take), I took my iPhone out and, lo and behold, there was the AirBnB reservation notification on my lock screen! When I got to the location, I swiped right on the notification and it instantly gave me my reservation info, including phone numbers to reach the owner and instructions on how to check in and check out. After I settled in, I texted the owner as a courtesy to let him know that I arrived (and on the day I left), but other than that, I never spoke to, or saw him.

Honestly, it couldn’t have worked better! The train ride back to Durham worked just as well as the train ride to Charlotte: without a single hitch.

Such Potential…

The idea behind Passbook is an experience that is totally in Apple’s wheelhouse. They have always thrived on making those mundane, “everyday life” experiences that we simply put up with, easier and better.

With a such a great Passbook experience under my belt, I was instantly left wondering why it had taken me this long to experience it (hard to believe it’s been 8 months since iOS 6 was released into the wild). Though I am sure there are totally rational reasons why so little companies have added Passbook integration to their respective apps, I do think it’s a shame and a total missed opportunity. Because these two companies did, I have even more love for AirBnB’s service and I absolutely look forward to riding Amtrak again. For the first time ever, I went on a trip away from home and didn’t have print a single sheet of paper before I left. I mean, how cool is that?

Until more adoption takes place, I guess we’ll just have to take these great and ultra-convenient moments when we can get them.

If anything, I just wanted to share my experience with you all, so that you know these kinds of textbook “Apple moments” do exist. That they don’t just look cool in the commercials.

What do you think? Have any of you had good experiences with Passbook? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about them!

Paperless: Digitizing Your Life and Going Paperless…

Last August, my wife and I decided to downsize our home situation moving from a 1500 square foot home, into a 500 square foot studio apartment.

That’s right… we moved into a home that was a third the size of what we were used to.

The reasoning behind this decision is worthy of another post entirely, but one of the results of this move was the act of us digitizing our entertainment, as well attaining a paperless lifestyle.

It certainly wasn’t easy and like all expected challenges in my/our life, I had to have a plan of attack from the outset. First and foremost we needed get rid of a lot of stuff! Physical CD’s, DVD’s and books take up a lot of space in your home (whether you notice it or not) and our new tiny apartment simply wasn’t going to have the room to house everything we collected over the years. So it didn’t take long before I decided that anything that could be transferred to a hard drive or cloud-based storage, would be.

Sounds simple enough right? It is actually. But, another problem reared its ugly head. After ripping and selling all of our music and DVD’s over the years, I knew immediately that this process would take time, and lots of it.

The good news though? It’s totally worth it. The even better news? There are a lot of ingenious services out there that will help make the process much, much easier. So I thought I’d share my findings with you all.

Entertainment…

With the advent of cloud-based services like iTunes Match and the low price points of external storage nowadays, it’s simple (and relatively cheap) to come up with digital backups of your entire entertainment library. I ended up subscribing to iTunes Match, transferring my entire music library there and buying a USB hard-drive cradle like this one for everything that Match wouldn’t cater to. By the way, if you have a lot of old hard drives laying around, this cradle is awesome, as it caters to both desktop and laptop drives.

On the software end, to rip our CD’s I’d used iTunes over the years and for the DVD’s, I used RipIt. Both apps are incredibly easy to use and I never ran into copywrite issues ripping the DVD’s either. Please note that the time this takes has EVERYTHING to do with the speed of your CD/DVD drive. I think collectively, I was at it for about a week, just evenings though. It’s boring “work” and you should find something to do between rips. As I mentioned, we were moving so I had plenty to do.

Once everything was ripped, I sold all of the physical copies on Craig’s List or gave them to friends and family. And no, that wasn’t easy.

The Dead Tree Stuff…

So, that obstacle behind me, I moved on to everything else. It didn’t take long at all to realize that digitizing your music and movie collection is dead simple compared to digitizing all of the paper that’s been in your life.

Next I dealt with the books.  The books weren’t that big of a deal. We basically kept our treasured copies (the ones you read more than once, or the ones that changed your life) and got rid of, or sold, the ones that were literally collecting dust. Then, after you have done that bit of curation, you look at the remaining stuff and see if it’s worth buying their e-book counterparts. It’s surprising how this simple process whittles down the bulk of your book collection. I am not going to lie, if you love books, this process is really hard to go through. Prepare yourself and steel your resolve. You can do it!

In the end, we sold the bulk of our book collection to used book stores around the area, but another great find was donating the rest to charity programs that routed your books to other countries or even prisons. If you have books after this process (I had an old HTML 3 book the no one wanted, can’t blame them either), at the very worst you should be able to recycle whatever is left.

Once the books were gone, we felt like we were really making progress! The house we were selling suddenly seemed downright cavernous! We were well on our way! But then we started opening our closets and saw all the white file boxes with Sharpie-scrawled years on them.

The Rest…

What was in these boxes were all of the documents we’d collected over the years. It was either important stuff (like tax info) or things that we thought we might need in a pinch (like service manuals for your vacuum). There was a lot of crap too that we simply didn’t need at all: it would all have to get recycled.

When it was all there, sitting out in front of us, it was intimidating thinking about everything we were going to have to do to make this work. But you start simple and go from there. We started the process by going through everything quickly, separating everything into two basic piles: the stuff we planned on keeping and the stuff we were going to shred and recycle. After that was done, it seemed a little more manageable which was great psychological booster. I went ahead shredded everything we were going to recycle and brought it in bags to the local recycling center. We actually used some of it for packing material too!

At this point in the process, we had gotten rid of about 60% of it all. It was time to digitize the rest!

How We Did It

First things first: move to paperless billing. Log into the respective site of any of your monthly bills, or give them a call and make that switch. Almost every service offers it now.  Just bite the bullet and make the change, I think you’ll find the adjustment period very short. :)

You also need to realize that you are not the first person who has done this. Today, there are TONS of resources out there. But if I had offer one to you? I’d recommend this: “Paperless Field Guide” by David Sparks.

This book is invaluable in breaking down the process of creating a paperless, workflow-based system in your life that is not only space-saving (physically and digitally), but is also immensely useful and reliable going forward. Sparks offers great hardware and software suggestions and his writing and overall approach to the subject matter is very accessible and not overwhelming in the slightest. He also offers excellent examples and though I found Sparks’ personal workflow system a bit overkill for me (he’s a lawyer, so it kind of needs to be), I ended up with my own, much simpler workflow; borrowing a lot of best practices from the book and adapting it to my life.

That’s what is so great about this book! It isn’t a blue print for what you need to do, it’s merely a guide.

Here is my paperless workflow, in a very barebones format:

  1. Find, or receive, a piece of information that’s worth keeping forever.
  2. Scan this document somehow (more on this below) into a PDF document, preferably with OCR (again, more on that below).
  3. Move this document into a predefined folder structure that’s easy to navigate through, with a predefined title structure. I went with “year_date_description” (i.e. “2013_0410_utility_bill”).
  4. Verify everything saved properly and get on with your life.

Sounds simple right? Well, it is, but not until you get a hold of the right tools.

What We Ended Up Using…

A Document Scanner of Some Kind: This is pretty crucial and, luckily, there are a TON of options out there. We bought an HP Scanner/Printer combo a long time ago for $50, so we used that. It doesn’t have to scan spectacularly, but it definitely should scan documents so that they are highly legible. The faster it scans, the more time you will save.

PDFScanner: This software works incredibly well with any scanner you plug into your Mac and, compared to it’s competition, it is very low-priced at just shy of $15. Just turn your scanner on, launch “PDFScanner”, click the “Scan” button”. That’s it! It will take your paper document and create a PDF out of it in no time.

Other things this software can do that are pretty invaluable are OCR – Optical Character Recognition as well as preset naming conventions (if you want the date it was scanned, inserted in front of the title every time you scan a document for instance). Both of these features are key, if you are trying to organize your documents so that they are easily searchable. “PDFScanner” can also mimic duplex printing as well, which is nice when you have a multi-page document that you want to transfer into one multi-page PDF document.

I was initially skeptical at the price, and while it’s more expensive counterparts can in fact do more, this software catered to my needs/paperless workflow nicely! I used it to scan literally everything we had left on file (read: 100’s of documents).

Dropbox: There are a ton of online cloud storage solutions out there. I use Dropbox because it’s flexible and I am already familiar with how it works. If you go with another one, make sure the service you choose supports folder structures. Most of them do nowadays, but I thought I’d throw that out there. PDF’s don’t take up much space, so I have been working with a free Dropbox account at the moment. I haven’t even come close to my 5gig limit, you/I can always pay for more storage if you run out.

JotNotPro: Mentioned in the “Paperless: Field Guide”, this is my mobile “Plan B”, for when I am not going to be near my home scanner anytime soon, or if I am just being plain old lazy. It’s an iOS app that you use to snap a picture of your document and then it automatically turns the pic into a pdf for you to send where ever you’d like. You can also link this app to automatically upload to a location on Dropbox as well, which made it no-brainer for me.

There’s a free version of this app that might suit you just fine, but I ponied up a couple of bucks for the Pro version. It provides extra functionality and it’s just a great app, so I wanted to support the developers.

Evernote: I’ve mentioned Evernote several times on this site. No bones, I love it. But as far as my paperless workflow is concerned, I use this only to file non-paper based things, like prescription and insurance cards, my license, my passport… you know, the important stuff that you need to literally have at your fingertips, tagged and in full color.

A lot of people use Evernote as their complete paperless eco-system/workflow. I didn’t only because I use Evernote for a lot of other digital-memory-based systems in my life and didn’t want my important/crucial documents getting buried in all of that. If this fits the bill for you though, go for it. You can’t beat free and their mobile apps are second to none.

Worth the Time and the Effort.

Whether your life necessitates it or not, digitizing your entertainment and important life documents, as time-consuming as it was initially, was an incredibly smart move for us. I no longer have to drag boxes out and leaf through a ton of folders to find my insurance info, past salary amounts or my tax info from five years ago. Now that it’s organized and searchable, I can find pretty much anything in a matter of minutes (at home, or on my phone even). That’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

Developing a good workflow makes this task WAY less arduous and having the right tools (hardware and software) can automate scanning and filing into a process that takes less than ten minutes out of your day.

The minute you need it and you see, firsthand, how much your hard work paid off?  I tell you, it really is a thing of beauty. And seeing all of that extra closet space you just regained?

Well, that’s pretty awesome too! :)

The Web: App.net Goes Freemium…

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I’ve been curious about App.net since it’s inception. When it was announced it made quite the splash!

Ok So What Is It?

For those who don’t know, App.net is an alternative to Twitter (a service that’s made some questionable changes of late), that’s subscription-based, ad-free and, up until now, somewhat of a “gated” community.

The subscription format, while keeping them afloat, also crippled the much-needed adoption that the service needed to continue (speculation of course, but at the end of the day you need people to, you know, actually use your service).  Well, that all changed today when they added the long-awaited “free tier” to their account offerings.

But I Like Twitter. Are there many differences between the two services?

Thankfully, to the average Twitter user, no.  After all, to compete with Twitter you wouldn’t want to reinvent the wheel and luckily they don’t. So don’t worry, the usual ingredients are here: posts (like tweets, only with a 256 character limit), replies, favoriting, reposts (identical to retweets), the developers/API’s aren’t beholden to anyone and there are no limits to development on their platform.  Also, and this pretty important: they will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers.

They also have a veritable army of apps for phones, tablets and pretty much every desktop OS out there.

Ok, so if I get an account, what do I get?

The free account gets you the following:

  • Free tier accounts can follow a maximum of 40 users
  • Free tier accounts have 500 MB of available file storage
  • Free tier accounts can upload a file with a maximum size of 10 MB

Yes, it’s limited, but for a lot of people (myself included) this all they will ever want out of the service at first. Let me kick the tires a little, give it a test drive and if the service is worth the time and I need the premium options being sold, of course I’ll subscribe. But I am glad I don’t have to, just to simply get through the door.

So I know they took a good bit to get this point, but as far as I can tell, the wait was worth it.  I’ll give a follow-up to this post after I’ve used the service for a few weeks, but I can already tell you this now, if they can get the buy in?  Just from the very brief usage, I can tell that Twitter will have a viable competitor on its hands.  

And really, at the end of the day? If all else fails, having a good competitor might make Twitter that much better. Everyone wins when these news service rise and compete.

All right I am IN! Where do I get a free account?!

As of today you can only get a free account via and invite from an existing subscribed user. I personally got mine by logging into Twitter (oh the irony) and searching for “app.net”.  That brought up a TON of people offering invites!  

So go get ’em folks! Check out the service and find out what all the hubbub is about!