Writing tools – a review of apps I use


After two years forging a fairly inaccurate furrow through the field of attempted writing, I thought it might be time for me to do a little review of the myriad ways in which a writer can avoid actual writing by playing around with apps. Or, if I want to be a little more constructive about this, a review of the apps that have helped me and that I use often in the pursuit of writing nirvana.

In no particular order (although Scrivener is definitely top!)…


1. Scrivener http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php – Around £28 from the App Store

Scrivener screengrab

This is the writing software I now use. It wasn’t always the case. I spent a while writing in MS Word, Open Office, even Googledocs, but when it came down to it Scrivener was , I found, everything I needed, or what I could ever expect to use. The blurb, from the website…

Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.

It cannot be understated; this software is AWESOME, and I use that word reservedly at best. The list of options is incredible, and the ways in which it can help organise a draft is mind-boggling. There are criticisms, but only a few, but I have tried any number of alternatives (Ulysses, rWriter etc) and they are all inferior in one or a number of ways, to Scrivener. I wholly recommend. One downside is there is no tablet/iphone version, though we are persistently assured it will one day arrive. However, you can get past this in other ways – dropbox etc, as you will see later…


2. Evernote https://evernote.com/ FREE

Evernote screengrab

Evernote is a free online notebook that syncs with your devices, has loads of great embedded tools for clipping notes while you browse the internet, and, like Scrivener, a whole heap of options. Plus – and this is the best bit – it’s free. FREE! You can purchase additional features and storage, but I have yet to find the need. It’s just great for organising your notes. For instance, I have notebooks for non-writing stuff, for research, for images and so on. I have found this invaluable, especially because you can add notes wherever you are – through my phone or iPad, and it all syncs up. I could even log onto my Evernote through any browser on any computer and find all my notes there. Love it. Nuff said.


3. Dropbox https://www.dropbox.com/home FREE

Dropbox screengrab

Quite what I used to do before Dropbox I will never know, and I shouldn’t really have to tell you what it does, because everyone should know.

Most importantly I can sync my Scrivener files in Dropbox and edit them on my iPad/iPhone with Textilus (http://www.textilusapp.com/) – a simple yet powerful text editor – and then it syncs right back with Scrivener when I’m done.

Storage is upgradeable (like with Evernote) but I’ve not even nearly got close to my limits, so all is good in this world. Ah…life in da cloud…

The alternative to this is google drive (like you’d bother) or iCloud (which is looking threateningly good), but in the meantime Dropbox has the answers to my needs. Now, if only it could get me to actually write…


4. Pixelmator http://www.pixelmator.com/ FREE

Pixelmator screengrab

In the perfect world I would buy Photoshop. But the world isn’t perfect and I refuse to spend that much on software, no matter how ace it is (and it is…I’m slap bang in the middle of a 30 day Photoshop trial and it’s flamin’ brilliant), so I turn to cheaper alternatives for my image needs. I have tried quite a few (Gimp, Artrage et al) and they all have their good an bad points, mostly that they don’t have the features of Photoshop, and although Pixelmator has this problem too, it seems the best of a free bunch. I managed to make a map of sorts, for the first time working out how to do it thanks to youtube tutorials.

It really helps in worldbuilding to be able to visualise your setting, and Pixelmator has allowed me to do this. It is a good app, especially because it is free.


5. Aeon Timeline http://www.scribblecode.com/ Around £28

Aeon Timeline screengrab

I think the best way to describe this is to let the blurb tell you all…

Aeon Timeline is more than a series of events on a never ending line. With Aeon, you can divide your timeline into logical groups, projects, or concurrent arcs. You can model the relationships between events and people, places and ideas. Aeon calculates people’s ages for you. And you can link your events with research material such as external files or images that can be displayed inside the application.

Worldbuilding is difficult. Organisation is required (and I am not good at that). Aeon Timeline allows me to make a timeline that fits with my own calendar, own rules (want fifteen days in a month, three months in a year? You can do it here). When it comes to wasting time, this is the king of all. It can also sync with Scrivener and organise your chapters into a visual representation of events. It is very handy. That said, it is not going to be for everybody, but it works for me.

There you have it. Some software that I use in my everyday avoidance of actual writing. That said, I’ve written over a million words in the two-plus years I’ve been writing seriously, so they aren’t as good as all that for avoiding work.

Happy writing, people!

Dammit, man, it’s bigger than Crime and Punishment…


231,000 words, give or take a few hundred. That’s how it ended up. I started the process of writing my ‘magnificent octopus’ (to quote Baldrick) in May, but this story itself in the latter days of September, I think. Seven or eight months, over 130k words of dead-end scenes pruned, and a lot of pondering. Ridiculous, really, the lengths a man has to go to to write. And after all that, the end result is too big by an order of magnitude.

But just recall what my conditions were. Start something and bloody well finish it. And I did – well, a first draft anyway. Achievement, er, achieved.

It’s very much a first attempt at writing. It’s got plot holes, story-line cul-de-sacs, inconsistencies and is, basically, meandering. But I finished something, which offers me some hope that I can finish something else. I have learned loads (posted previously) and, I think, improved. Now it isn’t so hard to dredge a scene out of me. Now I can do one almost easily. That isn’t the problem. The problem is the ever elusive storytelling skill. That is the work in progress.

Still, if you read my ‘About’ page on here you’ll see that was the intention.

It is called ‘Apt’, and is told from the perspective of an indolent young man, and is about finding himself being forced into responsibilities that see him brought low. It is about how he changes himself to battle the realities of his world, and to save his home. He’s no hero, he’s not much of anything at the start, but in the end he finds the reluctant hero inside.

Sounds vague? Well, that’s because , (a) it is, and, (b) I am not sure how to describe it. I’m a ‘pantser’, not a ‘plotter’, so I really just go where the story takes me. If I was forced, I’d say it was a story about adopting responsibility and exceeding your self-imposed limitations. See…vague…

It is set in a fantasy world with no magic. There are no dragons or monsters, save the all too real mortal ones among us. I try to write stories featuring magic – I’ve even worked out one or two derivative magic systems, only to feel foolish writing it down. I don’t want to write children’s or ‘young adult’ stories, and whenever I try to write about magic it just makes me feel stupid. Not sure what that means…

Anyway, onwards and upwards… With a friend doing some editing on ‘Apt’, I am busy making changes, but I also have other writing irons in other writing fires, so lets see where that takes me…


Damn you BT. Damn your feeble attempts to connect me to the internet with indifferent effectiveness. Damn your blocking of the pirate bay, damn your corporateness (I think I just made that up) but mostly, er, well mostly the first one. STOP DEPRIVING ME OF THE SERVICE I PAID FOR.

And don’t get me started on the miraculously diminishing download speed, where it appears phantom cyber-monkeys are throttling the living hell out of some wires in a tube underground.

But, meh, I’m not really that bothered. It’s too warm to bother. Why bother, I think in intemperate misery.

Yeah, the internet keeps freezing, or becoming the wiry equivalent of an annoying dribble. When I write (and I do, despite the lack of evidence in support of that fact at the moment) I find I am forever nipping off to obscure websites to gather bizarre and, on the face of it, completely pointless spasms of information (yes, that is my new name for piles of pointless information).

For instance, how do you address a Seneschal? And then what are the ingredients required for candle making? How do you make leaf-spring suspension? How do meteors work?

I simply don’t have the wherewithal to make a note, search later and then seamlessly remember what the hell I was scribbling about and why I suddenly needed to know what the best knot for a rabbit snare is. I need instant access. Evernote (bless the damn thing. Really…I love it) can only do so much. It is simply INTOLERABLE I cannot get on the tinterwebby thing on demand. My toys are hereby ejected from my cot.

It’s either that or actually plan what I write, but forty years of evidence to the contrary says that ain’t gonna happen.

As far as the new effort goes, well I realise that I was having problems with my character development. This is not news, and I do not mean to imply that I now do not have a problem, but I am trying to amend that by concentrating on a solitary character a bit more. I borrowed strands from previous efforts, and decided that the quest idea should be less central to the story and I am also trying to address the character of the city I am choosing to set this stuff in. This is the city of Alagaunt (oh yeah, they say, that’s the name of the blog! How clever… Fade to black).

I reckon the city needs to be more central too. So I am working on less overall main characters which always helps. One has to start small, after all. Of course, this will probably all change…but therein lies the interesting bit. I get to pack the characters and city with spasms of stuff. Cool.

The lure of software

In a fit of optimism I started a database using the ever-average Open Office software, ‘Base’. Boy, was that a mistake. You see, I have, er, about six different nations, a whole host of cities, and a rapidly swelling cast of characters. So you’d have thunk it ’bout right that a database was the way to go, yes?

No. I forgot one crucial thing. I am rubbish at databases.

In fact, I think this all stems from my Uni experience twenty years back when I studied Computer Studies. Well, I say ‘studied’, but that would require a redefinition of the word – I had four percent attendance in the database subject (two words say why….Hard Drivin’). Needless to say I passed, but no-one will ever understand how, least of all me.

I struggled with tables, forms and the Open Office lack of any user-friendliness then gave up in a steaming huff.

So I begin the search for software to help me. And what I come up with is this mind mapping software called MyThoughts which is simple as anything and actually does what it says on the tin….no, hold on….no tin…

Well…screenshot ahoy… It’s a nifty app…a bit pricey, but stuff for free is usually rubbish (evernote the exception)

(published 10 June 2012)