Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Do You Need Novel-Writing Software?

A reader of this blog recently e-mailed me asking for a recommendation for a novel-writing software package. A few months ago, I reviewed some of the major novel-writing suites for PC Mag ("Ten Tools for Your Bestseller"). For Windows users, I thought yWriter4 was the best all-around package for writers. And the fact that it is a free download makes it an even better value.

But the question remains: Does using novel-writing software significantly the process or greatly reduce the time it takes to crank out a decent draft? Obviously, writers have been creating magnificent literature for hundreds of years without computers or novel software. So here's my take: If you are a beginner, working on your first novel, or without much academic training, this software can be very helpful. At its core, most novel-writing suites are organization tools. They use the scene as the basic building block of fiction and shape their programs around that premise. Any package worth its salt should let you create character profiles, scene summaries, plot and story arcs, setting descriptions, and more. Such features can be incredibly handy for those who constantly struggle to keep notes and outlines organized.

Keep in mind that most suites are better utilized when you are at square 1 in the process, instead of trying to incorporate the software in the middle of writing or editing your novel. Also, I've found the word processors in these programs awkward. Most are not nearly as powerful or feature rich as Microsoft Word. Another problem with novel-writing software is that it will probably be difficult to use for those who are accustomed to tactile, physical world notebooks, index cards, and even sketch pads. And since these programs are often very robust, you can easily spend more time writing character profiles, scene notes, and summaries than actually writing your novel. Finally, if you're not diligent about backing up and you have no hard copies, your entire novel--outline, manuscript, everything--can be obliterated if your computer dies or is stolen.

I think the best way to approach novel-writing software is to download yWriter4 and give it a shot. If it appeals to you, you can stick with it or go for one of the for-pay packages. Writing a novel is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, and no software can change that essential fact. It is also one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, no matter whether the novel gets published.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Write on the Dark Side

For anyone out there looking for an alternative to Microsoft Word, I recently found out about a cool word-processing app from Lifehacker. The program is called Darkroom, and it's perfect for those who are easily distracted by the menus, toolbars, flashing IM buttons, and other features of modern computing that are both multifunctional and aggravating. Darkroom is a throwback to the old days of computing, with green Courier text on a black screen. Darkroom is configured for full-screen, so there are no menus or toolbars to get in the way. But there is still enough functionality to do basic tasks like scrolling up and down quickly, perform word counts, change font color, and so on.

I was in a slump with my novel when I discovered Darkroom, and it really helped me stay focused and hit my daily word counts. And it's a very small download, so it doesn't consume the system resources many other word processors do--and you can run it even on an old system. There is also a version for Mac OS called WriteRoom and even an online version called DarkCopy, which you can use anywhere you can get Internet access without downloading and installing the app. In the breakneck pace at which technology moves, it's nice to see a throwback program that reminds us of the old days when computers actually increased productivity.

Monday, March 31, 2008

What You Can Learn From Genre Writers

During my MFA program, the mere mention of "genre fiction" sent my fellow writers a-cringin'. There is a feeling of superiority that literary fiction writers have over writers who write mystery, romance, science fiction, erotica, and so on. Even most lit journals clearly specify that genre writers need not apply. I'm not defending genre writing in terms of prose or other artistic considerations (there's the lit snob in me again). But recently I was researching different drafting and editing methods online, and the best advice out there seemed to be from genre writers. Here's one good example from YA writer Holly Lisle.

In terms of productivity, genre writers have literary fiction writers beat. With the exception of a few truly exceptional literary fiction writers (Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, John Steinbeck, Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.) genre writers outproduce us about 5 to 1. You could stop me right there and try to slap me down with the "quality over quantity" argument, and in some ways you'd be right. But too often literary fiction writers look at each book as his or her magnum opus, and therefore spend 10 years writing them and often never finish them.

I think many genre writers have a healthy understanding that this is a job as well as a craft. You write a book, then try your damndest to get it published, meanwhile already starting on your second book. You could also say that it's easier for genre writers to write books fast because many write serials starring the same characters or the plots are formulaic to that genre. We lit fiction writers are not as original as we think, however. In fact, if I had a McGriddle sandwich for every "Mom with cancer" short story and half-ass metafiction novel I've read, I'd be fatter than James Gandolfini.

There seems to be a healthy acceptance in the genre world that what you write will be used and eventually end up in the bargain bin or landfill--because it will. Craftspeople like woodworkers, ceramists, and jewelry makers produce artistic products, sell as many as they can, and make more. Every writing instructor will tell you that writing a lot is the only way to make you a better writer. I realized that I was writing my novel particularly slowly because I was afraid of finishing. I didn't know what was next. But after getting some good advice online, I realized that I have to finish this damn book already and start the next one.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Those Who Can't Make Money Writing Teach Writing

Today is my first foray in a long time into the world of teaching. Many of my colleagues from my MFA program took the undergrad route, and most of them are teaching freshman comp 101. I chose to go the adult/continuing ed path, since that was the basis of my teaching experience. The upside is that you get to teach what you want if the program agrees to list your class. The downside is that the class depends on enrollment. If not enough people sign up, you don't teach it.

I'm finding this out the hard way with a couple schools that listed my courses and hardly anyone enrolled. There's a lot more salesmanship that goes into pitching a continuing ed class. You have to make it sound like a one-day conference at the Ramada Inn. "Write That Breakout Novel," "Get Rich With Writing," "Secrets of Fiction," and so on. But in most cases, you get a more interested audience than a bunch of bored business majors taking the required English courses for their degree.

I'm wondering how teaching--even part-time--will affect my writing? Often, I work better when I am busier. But teaching will no doubt detract from my writing time. Anyone out there want to share experiences about balancing teaching and writing? Please post a comment.