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Getting into the writing habit – with, or without, NaNoWriMo

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I don’t know what it is about November. Maybe it’s the clocks going back, maybe it’s coming down from the sugar high of Halloween trick-or-treating. The chances are, someone you know is either growing a moustache for charity or attempting to write a book.

The latter project is part of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Although, since the project started in America and has spread further afield, it’s no longer national – and several people (myself included) are attempting to write a work other than a full-length novel. While the title itself is now overly specific, the intent remains the same – to get people writing creatively.

The set up of NaNoWriMo has at its heart two key principles – firstly, to get writers into the habit of writing a minimum number of words a day, every day, until you get to the end of a first draft. For people unused to the discipline, this can seem daunting – and personally, I think NaNoWriMo’s target of 50,000 words in a 30-day period (which works out at 1,667 words a day) can make the first few days seem far too tortuous. When starting at a gym, you wouldn’t start with long reps on the biggest weights straight away. Writing should be no different. The only way to ensure getting to the end of that first draft is by setting realistic goals that will work for you.

But by the same analogy, the only way to get better is through practice and discipline – and getting into a routine with friends can help provide motivation when you might otherwise give up. That’s why for me, NaNoWriMo’s motivational and support network is far more important than a daily word target.

But this is supposed to be a column about technology – so which apps can help you get to the end of that first draft most effectively? In theory, all you would need is a stack of blank paper and a sharp pencil, but realistically, if you’re serious about writing you’ll be using a computer. Which applications and websites can help you the most?

Writing applications

Any text editor will do. Every copy of Windows or Mac OSX comes with a text editor which is absolutely good enough to record your words. When it comes to formatting your finished manuscript for other people to read, though, there are standard rules to obey. If you’re just starting out, and getting your first project onto paper, it may actually help you to not worry about getting the formatting right, though: your first draft is only to be seen by you.

That said, you can find on the internet several templates for Microsoft Word and other general purpose word processors that set up your document so that it looks like a novel manuscript, play or other script from the outset. Or you can invest in specialist software which adds additional functionality, like autocompleting character names and scene locations in your script.

Final Draft is the granddaddy of screenplay writing software, although I sometimes wonder if the company earns its revenue more from wannabe writers than your actual commissioned ones. Certainly it’s overkill for most people.

In contrast, CeltX is much less polished as an application, but much, much cheaper – basically, free with registration (although you can pay for additional services, including iPad apps). It’s designed for creative work, with templates for audio, theatre, storyboarding and comic book scripts. It also comes with a Google Docs-style cloud storage account, which you can use to move scripts between computers and mobile devices, and share with your collaborators.

Several of my writer friends who I worked to spoke highly of Scrivener (US$40, Windows and Mac OSX). This combines a number of creative templates – from short stories and novels to stage play, screenplay and several non-fiction works – with a workflow that takes script formatting out of the frame until you’re ready to export your work into a format you can send.

For me, this is one of the keys to concentrating on the task at hand of writing. For people (like me) who find it easy to procrastinate, it can be tempting to think that spending 10 minutes on deciding which typeface your editor should be set to is a productive use of time. It’s not.

For this reason, although I’ve taken advantage of Scrivener’s research management tools – which allow you to retain PDFs, documents, notes, and audio visual materials within your projects – for some of the longer features I’ve written for The Stage, most of the time I prefer to use a far simpler text editor. Byword (OSX/iOS only) has a completely uncluttered screen, a plain grey window with a very subtle word count at the bottom. You can further reduce distraction by switching to OSX’s full screen mode, which expands the grey screen to fill the entire display. Further switching to “Typewriter mode” keeps the cursor central on the screen, scrolling text upwards as you type. And it’s for this that I find Byword most useful – there’s something satisfying about the promise of all that blank space on screen, waiting for you to type.

Collating research

As I mentioned before, Scrivener allows you to keep your research notes inside your project. But if you’re not using Scrivener, or it doesn’t fit your needs, there are all sorts of applications that can help you. Keeping your documents folder organised within your computer is a good start, but when it comes to web research, printing out pages and pages or saving them as HTML or PDF files quickly becomes a chore.

Some web browsers, including Safari, now allow you to bookmark pages and store them for offline use. Such built-in ‘reading list’ facilities aren’t particularly powerful or organised, but can do at a pinch. A step up from these is the free web service Pocket (which used to be known as ‘Read It Later’). As its previous name suggests, it’s designed for quickly saving web pages that you want to read at a later date, but its ability to add meaningful tags to each saved page make it a nice and easy way to collate links for future use. Extensions are available for most of the major browsers, and some third party Twitter clients (e.g., Tweetbot) also let you save links other people post direct into your Pocket account.

For all-round document collection and searching, though, you can’t really beat Evernote (Windows, Mac OSX & mobile – free, with premium upgrades available), which allows you to mix your own documents with snapshots of web pages and more. Tagging each item as you go can help you keep track of various source materials – and it can even scan images to make printed text (and some handwriting) searchable, too.

Handling the writing sprint

So you’ve set yourself a time limit in which to get through a certain number of words. Motivating yourself to do this can be hard. Write or Die is a fun little app in which you set yourself a time and/or word count and sets you off just typing. If you meet your targets, you’re rewarded with pleasant and soothing sounds – but if you slow down and miss them, all manner of alarms, screeches and annoyances go off. It’s not really to my taste – and definitely not suitable for an open plan office environment such as the one I tend to work in – but can be a fun way to get into a habit.

Alternatively, you can join with others and all agree to do a writing sprint together. US TV writer Jane Espenson (who has many of my favourite shows on her CV) often publicises writing sprints via her Twitter stream:


Personally, the time difference between the UK and US – plus the whole temptation of using Twitter as a procrastination tool – would prevent me from using this technique. Instead, I’ve been trying out a time management and focus technique called Pomodoro, named after the tomato-shaped clockwork timer that the technique’s creator first used.

Put basically, you break your time up into 25-minute sprint sessions. Each session should be focussed on one task and one only. The technique attempts to teach you how to deal with interruptions, deferring them until the end of your 25-minute task period. What also appeals to me, though, is that it also emphasises the need to take regular breaks – after each 25-minute work period, you take a 5-minute break, and after every four periods you take a longer break.

On the website pomodorotechnique.com you can find a free PDF ebook, task list templates and a quick reference ‘cheat sheet’. A number of timers are available for download (one that looks gorgeous, as well as integrating with the Mac’s built-in ‘Reminders’ to-do lists, is Pomodorable, which currently seems to be only available from the US Mac Store). But any timer will do – it’s getting the work done that matters.

And for all the computer-based apps to help you knuckle down on focus on the hard work of writing creatively, I must admit the idea that the most useful piece of technology could be a clockwork timer has a definite appeal.

If you’re using NaNoWriMo for the purpose of writing something, anything, then remember this one piece of advice from the LA Times, billed as the “only advice you’ll need”:

Get off the Internet.

So bye-bye then. Go and write something awesome.

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