Tag Archives: Computers

So far, so fun

A couple of weeks ago I bought a Surface Pro 4. I had thought about waiting for SP5, but that’s an endless spiral–at some point you just have to buy the tech thing you want, knowing that it will all too soon be superseded by a newer model. So far, though, I’m pleased with the SP4.

It’s as light and portable as I had hoped, making my former portable seem ridiculously ponderous, although it too had seemed like a featherweight when new. I like the Surface Pro’s screen and keyboard a lot. The battery life has received some criticism but seems fine to me. However, I don’t game, edit video, or run multiple demanding apps simultaneously, so YMMV. I haven’t yet mde much use of the SP4 as a tablet, although perhaps that factor will grow on me. Mostly I wanted a portable robust enough to serve as my sole computer, at least on an interim basis, if and when my touchscreen desktop machine dies. My main tools–Scrivener, OpenOffice, and Evernote–run beautifully on the SP4, so I’m happy.


Forward to the computing past

I got a new computer this week. I went retro and got a desktop, which was kind of a big deal.

Every computer I’ve ever had, all the way back to the Kaypro II I bought in 1982, has been a portable. The Kaypro was the size and weight of a 1950s sewing machine, maybe one with a couple of bowling balls tied to it, but technically it was portable. A series of ever-sleeker and more powerful laptops, mostly Toshibas, followed it over the years. The most recent  went into commission in June 2007, just before I went to New Mexico for Taos Toolbox.

Five years is a long lifetime for a laptop that functions as a writer’s primary computer.  My work spreadsheet reveals that I’ve written 31 nonfiction books on it, in addition to tens of thousands of words of fiction, correspondence, journal entries, and blog posts. I needed a new machine–but what to get?

For years I’d staunchly maintained that only a portable computer would do for me. I liked knowing that I could take it anywhere, and I did take my laptops on quite a few journeys. But now that I have a smaller, lighter, netbook for travel, and do email on my phone, and will soon have one of these, it’s been a few years since I moved my primary computer at all. So why not think outside the laptop box?

I chose an HP all-in-one that actually takes up less space on my standing desk than the Toshiba laptop. I didn’t get the biggest or the flashiest screen, just a 20-incher, but trust me, it’s like Cinemascope next to the 15-inch laptop screen I’ve comfortably used for lo, these many years. Not great news, productivity-wise: movies and video look really good on it. The wireless keyboard and mouse that came with the computer are cheap and janky, but easily swapped out for something better. Otherwise, I’m happy with it.

Did I mention the touchscreen? It’s sweet. I may never mouse again.






Zachary’s in Italy for a couple of weeks. At such times I enjoy taking on projects: sorting out the hall closet, say, or organizing the pantry. This time I’ve inventoried my fiction output.

Two realizations led me to spend the last couple of hours sorting files, an enterprise that eventually required me to fire up Z’s oldest, most dust-covered computer.

One realization was that I want to use Scrivener for writing and revising fiction from now on. To this end I consolidated all the files for current or recent stories and novels from my laptop and netbook into one set of files with a consistent labeling system. The next step will be to decide what’s worth working on, prioritize it, and import those files into Scrivener.

The other realization was that there was a shocking amount of stuff–from mss. of romance novels that were published in the 90s to proposals, ideas, and correspondence–languishing on 3.5-inch floppies in a box in my office. Hence the firing up of the aforementioned ancient computer, the copying of files from many floppies onto a flash drive, and the examination of those files on my laptop.

They were full of surprises related to my nonfiction career and to fiction projects I’d started but set aside long ago. In addition to the usual kind of thing–letters I don’t remember writing to people I don’t remember meeting–I found that I have full mss. (some in WordPerfect 4.2! but OpenOffice converted it) of successful nonfic books from decades ago. That got me thinking about self-pubbing some of them, now that rights have reverted, on the “nothing to lose” principle.

On the fiction front, I found proposals and ideas for romance novels from back when I was writing for Harlequin. Some that got turned down then as too weird or unconventional would seem tame in today’s romance market. I also rediscovered a fat Civil War novel I ghost-wrote for a CEO in the 1980s; the surprise here was how little I got paid for it, although I must’ve thought it was enough at the time.

The best part was that while copying the files for a historical novel I started a long time ago, but gave up on after 105 pages, I got an idea for turning it into a steampunk novella, so now I can be excited about it all over again.

After all this filing, an afternoon of yard work might be positively refreshing. But probably not.

Media matters

I’ve been following the Twitter feed of my publisher, Marshall Cavendish, since I started Twittering, not all that long ago. I didn’t realize that they have a Facebook page, too, until just now I looked at their website for some reason and saw a “Find Us on Facebook” button. So I did, became a fan,and saw to my surprise that of MC’s recent posts–www.facebook.com/ext/share.php–was about a 10-book YA series on Forensics, for which I’ve written 9 of the titles. (Okay, some of them aren’t finished yet, but 4 are out and look great.)

All of which made me realize that:

1) I am spending more time than I expected to do on LJ, FB, and Twitter

2) I like finding out about things that way, and I should start using those tools more intelligently

3) Marshall Cavendish’s little FB post is about 40,000 times better-looking than my own two crapulous websites, which are the Internet equivalent of tarpaper shacks and waaaay overdue for a makeover. Which in turn has made me resolve that when I get back from Iceland I will either learn how to build a decent website and do so, or pay someone to do it. I’d love to launch shiny redesigned sites with a splash about the Human Evolution series, which is coming off press soon.

Tools or Time-wasters?

So many things can be used for either good or evil (or idle).

Over the years I’ve collected odds and ends of software, things that purport to be–and in some cases are–useful tools for the writer. Here, in no particular order, are a few of them:

Evernote is one of the great free downloads of all time. I use this shareware a lot. It’s basically an endless scroll of notepaper. You can write to it, but I use it mostly for clipping items–with one click you can copy anything, text or image, from email, files, or the Internet (I had to download an extra software extension to use it with Mozilla Thunderbird and Firefox, but it’s simple). You can tag each entry with as many categories as you want; the program comes with a handful of preset categories, and you can create more of your own. Then you can sort the entries by category. One of my recent clips–a book review I read on salon.com–is tagged as belonging to my Atheism, To Read, Consciousness, and Science Fiction categories. That piece on The Well-Tempered Plot Device that I posted at Taos is tagged to Science Fiction, Writing, and Funny. And so on. The entries collapse into headings for quick scanning. Overall, Evernote is one of my favorite utilities. I use it to keep track of all the miscellaneous stuff I want to download/remember, without having to do anything more than select and click. Periodically I scroll through recent entries to update the categories or delete stale items, but it requires very little maintenance. You can check Evernote out at http://www.evernote.com

PageFour is another easy-to-use piece of shareware. It’s a set of simple notebooks that you can name whatever you want (you get three notebooks with the free version; if you buy the license–not very expensive–you can create as many as you want).  Within each notebook you create pages–for example, if you are using a notebook to work on a novel, you might have one page devoted to character notes, another to a chapter outline, and another to the text you are composing. PageFour is basically a stripped-down word-processing program that its designer says is put together to serve writers, not businesspeople. It imports and exports to/from Word, OpenOffice, and other WP programs. I have not yet written a long document in PF and may never do so; I like the OpenOffice word processor just fine. But PF makes a nice notebook for journaling, collecting thoughts, and organizing projects. The interface is simple and colorful; it reminds me of the new notebooks and pencil cases I used to love getting before each school year. Details and downloads are at http://www.softwareforwriting.com/pagefour.html

FreeMind is another piece of freeware. It’s mindmapping software for the visual thinker. I haven’t used any other mindmapping programs, but I found FreeMind super-easy to customize with color, shape, font, symbols, etc. It also accommodates long notes and other blocks of text that collapse and open again with a single click. FreeMind files are exportable as PDFs. I have a large whiteboard in my office, with many different colors of pens, that I have used to make notes for the three novels in my time-travel story. At one point the whiteboard was so filled with notes–ideas for names, notes of things to fix or add, and so on–that I couldn’t use it for anything new for a long time. It just sat there, colorful but static. After downloading FreeMind I took an hour to transfer all of the stuff from the whiteboard to a mindmap (and got a bunch of good new ideas while doing so). Now I have a single big mindmap for the series, with a section for each novel, each with its own color. Within each novel I can unfold many subsections with such titles as Quotes, Character names, Settings, Scenes, and Random Cool Ideas. Each subsection can hold as many separate notes or entries as I want to put there, all linked to their place in the overall scheme of things. I still use the whiteboard to jot stuff down in the heat of the moment, but now I transfer things to FreeMind when I have a minute, so I can back it up and erase the board. You can look at this software at http://freemind.sourceforge.net

Power Structure and Power Writer are full of bells and whistles; they also come with unusually whimsical Helps. (Note: These are not freeware.) I got the two as a bundled package, but they are usually sold separately; there is a great deal of overlap. PS is specifically a planning and outlining program; PW is similar but includes a word-processor that is compatible with Word, etc. These programs are designed to serve as story-development tools for novelists and screenwriters. I haven’t used them much, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read the first novel in my series. But I intend to use the Note-Card function in PS to do a Taos-style plot break of BS one of these days, when I have a chunk of time. You can get more info on these programs at http://www.write-brain.com

So that’s my little arsenal. Anyone else have any writing-related tools to recommend, or any experiences with these to share?