One thing you’re quickly going to learn about this bear is that he’s well prepared – probably too prepared. Thus, I have a whole lot of tools in my arsenal that I find myself using. Trouble is, I usually end up going back and forth quite a bit.
(Secret is, I think a lot of it is just the “thrill” of the new. As I’ve said before, I tend to thrive on creativity and developing ways to use all of the stuff has been one way I’ve dealt with this need. Ex-software developer, remember? Unfortunately, what has happened is that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time creating systems with all this stuff and then switching to something else and starting all over again. I’ve got a whole mess of cool toys but nothing ever gets used. That. Stops. Now.)
I’m hereby making a conscious decision about what I’m going to use. Yeah, if I find later on that something doesn’t do what I really need it to do, I’ll investigate something else. This doesn’t mean, however, that simply not liking the way a piece of software is themed is a reasonable enough reason for ditching a product. Bad bear!
With that in mind, here’s where things stand. I’ll be writing more, in-depth reviews of these products in later blog posts here to help you decide if they’re something you can use for your own writing. Also, I’ll be going more in-depth in how I use them, both singularly and together, in the Writing Process category.
(Note: the links I provide are not affiliate links and I make no money if you use them to purchase a product. They’re there simply to help you find something easier.)
The Initial Needs Assessment
Initially, what I was looking for was some place to keep track of absolutely everything relating to the story – a virtual story bible – using just one tool. I wanted it to be flexible, aesthetically pleasing, and work offline but be able to sync across devices. I also aimed at finding something that worked both on Mac OS and iOS so I could also use my iPad Air if needed.
It first began as a web site that I created but I didn’t like that I only could use it when online. So I began looking at other tools. Every time I thought I found something, I would soon see its shortcomings. After a couple frustrating weeks of trying demo after demo, I decided that I was better off using the strengths of several tools instead of forcing one to do everything in a mediocre manner. Thus, I’ve divided the information that follows into the topics shown below. To view each one, simply click on it’s header. The first one is already displayed.
Mac. Although I spent the majority of my life programming in the Windows world, about 4 years ago I bought a used 2012 MacBook Pro from a pawn shop and never went back to the Microsoft camp. (Over the years, I upgraded the memory to 16 gigs of RAM and switched out the hard drive for a SSD.) It’s still a great machine except it’s reached the end of it’s upgradability OS-wise.
My home setup is one of the new M1 Mac Mini’s (the base model – 8 gigs of memory/256 gigs of storage) which I absolutely love. I initially was concerned both about memory and storage, but everything I read about memory usage showed me 8 gigs was fine. I did add an external 1 terrabyte Samsung T7 SSD for file storage for the same price Apple was charging for an addition 256 gigs. For working out and about, I have the aforementioned MacBook Pro as well as an iPad Air with keyboard and mouse.
(I apologize to you Windows users out there as I know a lot of this isn’t going to be helpful to you. Still, there are some tools listed that are multi-platform and I’ve indicated them. Also, with the price of the Mac Mini being what it is, the cost of switching is becoming less and less of a problem. Plus, I’ve had way fewer problems in the Mac world than I ever had in the Windows world.)
Software - General Notetaking
In this category, there’s currently a tie:
Bear Notes (MacOS/iOS)
And no, this isn’t just because of it’s name. This software is fast and flexible. (Almost too flexible – you really have to think about how you want things organized as notes are grouped by tags you create. The fewer the tags, the harder it is to find what you’re looking for.)
It’s also beautiful to look at which makes it a joy to use. It runs offline but does have syncing between devices using iCloud for a nominal yearly fee. (https://bear.app)
Craft Docs (MacOS/iOS)
Craft Docs is relatively new to the scene and I’m still playing with it. I know I will be using it for something – I’m just not sure in what capacity. Craft has a lot of overlap with Bear but there’s just a totally different feel to it. Think index cards (Bear) versus wiki-like documents (Craft Docs). Craft Docs is still in the 1.x stage so it’s missing some features, but they have a great team who is very responsive to the needs of it’s users and it’s being constantly updated. Even if I don’t use it exclusively now, I can soon see a time when that happens if they continue with their current progress. Craft Docs works offline and syncs with other devices through the cloud automatically when you connect to the internet. (https://www.craft.do)
Note: Craft is constantly changing for the better – in the few days since I originally wrote this, they’ve added some important new features. As such, I think I’m going to be using it as my primary notetaking tool. (If it doesn’t work out, it won’t take long to transfer everything over to Bear and go from there.)
Software - Outlining/Plotting
- Plotter – someone who, when writing, plans out everything beforehand, creating detailed outlines, character histories, etc. Only after this process is complete do they begin to actually write.
- Pantser – someone who immediately begins writing by the “seat of their pants” with little or no pre-planning whatsoever.
I fall more in the plotter camp so this is an important area for me.
Plottr is a cool app whose sole purpose is to help you plot out a story similarly to a corkboard and index cards. (Yeah, I know Scrivener has a corkboard too, but it’s pretty limited compared to Plottr.) Columns can be defined however you choose to group your story (chapters, sequences, beats, etc.), and multiple color-coded rows designate the various plotlines of your story. (A picture of Plottr is found in the beginning of this post.) It does have a lot of customization available and provides templates for several different story structures. Besides what comes with it, you can create your own templates. Work done here can also be exported to Scrivener if you write in that product. (https://plottr.com)
Note: I initially gave up on Plottr when I first got it: I was trying to use my iPad as my main computer and the iPad app sucked. (I think they realized it too as I notice on their site now, they seem to be discouraging it’s use on the iPad until they can rewrite the app.) Since I’m now using the Mini and the MacBook Pro – both MacOS devices – I’ve decided to give it another chance. So far, so good. Plus, they keep adding useful features. Also, I tried for a while using other software listed here to accomplish this function, but Plottr makes it so much easier.
Software - Writing
Since I’m a plotter, actual writing will come a little later for me in the scheme of things. Still, here’s what I’m planning on using:
I used to be a big Scrivener user but decided I needed something that didn’t feel so heavy. (I just don’t know how else to describe it – it just felt like I had to slog through getting anything done whenever I tried to use it.) When I found Ulysses, that feeling immediately went away. Ulysses has a similar look and feel to Bear although their organizational methods are quite different inside. (I did at one time try taking notes also in Ulysses but felt Bear was much more usable.) Entire books and series can be written in Ulysses and exported in a variety of methods including pdf’s and epubs. Syncing is done through iCloud although you can use other services also. (https://ulysses.app)
Software - Utilities
TextExpander is a cool little utility that I use in conjunction with notetaking. It allows you to set up snippets that replace shortcut keys when you type them in your apps. For instance, say you have a general template for all your scene notes – headings, prompts, etc. Instead of having to copy and paste it each time you create a new scene, you would just set up a shortcut combination in TextExpander (named “n-scene” for example). In Bear, whenever you wanted to add a new scene, you would just create a new note, type in n-scene, and your template would automatically replace the shortcut. TextExpander isn’t only useful for notetaking – you can use it for emails, general documents, etc. Snippets can be as simple as dates in a specific format to entire documents several pages long. (https://textexpander.com)
Mythulu Creation Cards and Narata Storytelling Cards – (I just got these so I haven’t had a whole lot of time to play with them. Still, they look quite fun and useful.)
I’ve never been a fan of writing prompts – the vast majority of them seem so generic and don’t really fit what I’m currently working on. These cards, though, work in a similar fashion while still allowing me to remain true to my story. Each deck is divided into a number of “suits” representing various aspects of story. Each card has a title, picture, and brief description/list of key words. To use, you just select cards randomly from the desired suits and see what connections unfold in your mind.
I’ve always been a fan of Tarot as a journaling/contemplation tool (predictive? not so much). Cards such as these seem to perform similar tasks. They’re there to let you see possibilities that you might not otherwise see because you’re too close to the subject. I’ll let you know in other blog posts how useful these actually are. Both decks can be found on Amazon. (Mythulu’s web site: https://mythulu.com. Narata doesn’t seem to have one but here’s their kickstarter site: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kentjensen/narata-storytelling-cards-a-powerful-brainstorming-tool )
Story Aspects Used By Each Deck
Mythulu: Elements, Habitats, Characters, Relationships, Traits, Textures
Narata: Character, Creature, Society, Goal, Activity, Situation, Event, Object, Location, Meta
Books/Story Structure Method
Confession – you don’t even want to see my Writing category on my Kindle. (Let’s just say we’re talking in the hundreds and it’s definitely not just one or even three.) It’s extremely diverse and deals with all kinds of writing: novels, plays, screenplays, short stories, you name it. And just about every story structure method is represented.
I’ve been a student of story for a long time. This is all well and good except when it comes down to actually doing the work. Then I get all fermished (yeah, more Yiddish picked up from my spouse). Well, this person said to do it this way, but these three said to do this. I’m like the proverbial chamaleon on a tie-dyed t-shirt. So, I usually just take a deep breath, quickly skim through the library for something that grabs me, and give jump in.
When I get into it the details of this “universal” method, however, it just doesn’t feel right – don’t ask me to explain because that’s all I’ve got. It’s an INFJ kinda thing I guess. Intuitively things just feel off. If I force myself to continue, I eventually see the problem and know that I need to switch to something else. So then I start the process all over again.
I can hear some of you saying, “Well, just pants then! You don’t have to worry about all that nonsense.” Yeah, I’ve tried that. Nada. I’ve also tried some hybrid methods where you don’t start out with a predefined set of beats/steps to follow but rather create a chain of causally-related scenes. You start with your opening scene and write it. Then, you outline the next scene and then write that. You keep repeating the process until you’re done. This process seemed to work a little better than most but I ended up quickly writing something that bore little resemblance to what was in my mind.
I’d hoped to have all this hashed out in my brain and be able to succinctly tell you what I’m going to do here. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case as I’ve changed my mind twice already and I haven’t even published the article. I’ve decided I’m going to continue this discussion in it’s own post where I have a little more breathing room to sort things out. It will be up soon, I promise – without a formal definitition, I really can’t start moving on with developing a process around it. Decisions have been made and the post written. It’s called, “Deciding on a Story Structure” and is also found in the Writing Tools category of the blog.
I almost forgot to include this which would have been unforgivable. Music plays a huge role in what I do.
As you may already know if you’ve read other parts of this site, I write more toward the darker end of the spectrum. Thus, just playing anything in the background doesn’t cut. I initially started listening to soundtracks from horror flicks but found that a lot of tracks on them were just a couple minutes long. I didn’t find this very helpful to get in the “mood” so I started looking for something else.
I eventually found a music label called Cryo Chamber which produces a lot of stuff “focusing on high quality dark ambient with a cinematic edge.” Let me tell you, this is great stuff. If you’re into sci-fi, there’s artists that produce music geared toward that. Fantasy? Check. Gritty urban? You betcha. And of course some excellent dark Lovecraftian-themed music.
You can find Cryo Chamber on Bandcamp (https://cryochamber.bandcamp.com) and the music runs on average around $7 per album. (There are some multidisk collaborations that cost more; they also usually put an artist on sale for half price.) You can listen to anything from start to end before you buy so you’re not stuck just hearing the first 30 seconds of each track.
Also, you can check out their stuff on YouTube as they’ve put together some mashups that average an hour or so in length. (https://www.youtube.com/user/cryochamberlabel) If you’re looking for something different, give them a try.
Favorite artists (so far): Flowers for Bodysnatchers, Aegri Somnia, Keosz, Council of Nine.
Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash