Category Archives: Writing

All about atmosphere

Feet of Clay is my favourite Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, not only because at its heart it’s a murder mystery (a genre I love) but also because it’s one of those books that draws the reader into the world the author has created so completely that I can almost feel the cobbles of Ankh Morpork underneath my feet. The city becomes a character in its own right, the perfect backdrop to the unfolding mystery plot and Pratchett’s usual incisive moral dilemmas and glorious turn of phrase.

alphaville i k o via Compfight

Where Pratchett really gets it right, I think, is by judicious use of the less is more principle. Rather than endless descriptive paragraphs (which can drop a reader out of a novel very quickly), he uses description sparingly; an adjective here, an adverb there. This lets the reader build up their own mental picture, rather than having everything spelled out to them.

Another aspect Pratchett is excellent at, not only in this novel, is using all five senses to evoke a mood, rather than just telling the reader what the characters can see. Smell and touch, especially, are very powerful, and can convey so much with very few words.

Finally, the weather seems to be under-used in many novels, but here the fog and the rain add to the gritty mystery novel feel, building up the sense of claustrophobia and suspense.

And now I’m going to go and read it again…

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Reading matter: Medieval underpants and Other Blunders

photo I was half-way through the book when it happened. Up until that point it had been a perfectly enjoyable historical fiction novel: good plot, strong characters, authentic-sounding dialogue, and plenty of research that grounded the novel in the era in which it was set without being overwhelming.

And then it happened. The Thing that pulled me right out of the world the author had created. A simple, trivial little thing. Perhaps, to many readers, it would have gone unnoticed but to a local it was glaring: the hero travelled to Sheffield and spoke admiringly of the flat, open expanses of fields to the west of the city.

The most trivial online research will tell you that Sheffield is a city built on hills, and to the west lies the Peak District/South Pennines. Oops.

Which brings me to Susanne Alleyn’s excellent book, Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths. Not only is this highly educational for anyone who likes their history with a side of geekery, I think it’s also a must-read for anyone writing – or thinking of writing – historical fiction.

It won’t tell you how to write, or how to write HF; what it does instead is walk the reader through the most common errors and misunderstandings (and why you really shouldn’t use Hollywood movies as a source) about all kinds of topics. Food and drink, social customs, clothing, modes of address, travel, arms and armour – it’s all here, explained simply and clearly.

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Mobile scribbling

Apple iPad Tablet Concept Photo Giddy via Compfight

Yesterday I talked about how much I use my iPad these days and it got me thinking about how the iPad has changed how I write. Years ago, I used to write exclusively on my desktop PC. Then I bought a laptop, and began to use that more for “on the road” writing, with editing still done on the desktop. These days much of the quick writing is done on the iPad instead and, after much trial and error, I’ve come to rely on three main apps.

(NB: I still use the desktop – and in particular Scrivener – for anything that requires heavy formatting, organising long documents, and editing. The iPad is just for getting the words down in the first place!)

pages 1. Pages

Price: £6.99

Pages is the most expensive writing app I own and ironically it’s the one I tend to use the least, although that’s more because it doesn’t entirely suit me personally instead of any inherent fault with the app. If you’re looking for a proper word processor, with easy and comprehensive formatting, Pages is for you. You can export documents in Pages, Word, pdf, and epub formats.

Notebooks 2. Notebooks

Price: £5.99

The big draw of Notebooks is the fantastic integration with Dropbox, which makes sharing documents between multiple devices a breeze. You can write in plain text, rich text, or markdown, and organise files into folders to your heart’s content. I’m not a huge fan of the writing environment but I love the organisational functions of this app.

iA Writer 3. iA Writer

Price: £2.99

The cheapest of my three main apps and the one I use the most on days when I just need to get some words down. If you need a clean, distraction-free app, iA Writer is a winner. I’m never going to be doing heavy editing in this app and formatting is a no-no, but it’s still a pleasure to use.

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Make sure you’re punctuating the story you want people to read

Reading this post about the Oxford comma – from which I’ve taken the title of this post – reminded me of a discussion I had with someone I had the misfortune to edit for a few years ago. He didn’t believe in punctuation: “You know what I mean!” was the constant retort to any attempt on my part to find out what he did mean.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on grammar and punctuation and I’m not a fan of overly-prescriptive rules: language is a living thing, constantly evolving, and can’t be preserved in aspic. There is a case for punctuation without being too pedantic, though; especially if you want your message to come across the way you meant it. Lynne Truss’ classic book Eats, shoots and Leaves gives plenty of examples of how disastrous punctuation can radically change the meaning of our writing.

Every time the reader has to stop, go back, and work out what you meant, it’s taking them out of the moment. In non-fiction perhaps that matters less, but in fiction – where the reader needs to be drawn into the world the writer has created – it is jarring (and sometimes inadvertently comical) and can take the reader completely out of the story.

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Beating procrastination

When it comes to actually getting words written, I like a distraction-free environment. Scrivener is my go-to for planning and organising but I need something even more stripped down for really beating my habit of procrastinating wildly (cleaning the oven is a popular way of avoiding something that really needs writing!).

I’ve tried a few programs and websites over the years but these are my four favourites, in no particular order except the first one!

Q10

q10

Cost: Free
Customisable: Yes
Music: No
Standalone: Yes

Q10 is far and away my favourite writing tool. It’s standalone, so I don’t have to be online to work, and I can set it up exactly how I like it. No distractions, no bells and whistles, just a simple, practical typing tool with a handy wordcount feature and a clock so I can keep an eye on the time. Did I mention that it’s free?

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Writer

Writer

Cost: Free
Customisable: Yes
Music: No
Standalone: No

Writer is really an online version of Q10, and again it’s very customisable. What sets Writer apart is that you can download in PDF format as well as plain text, and if you write on various different devices it’s a great way of keeping everything in sync. Again, there’s a wordcount feature but the drawback for me is that I’m online – which means the urge to procrastinate is still there!

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ZenWriter

zen

Cost: $9.95
Customisable: Yes
Music: Yes
Standalone: Yes

If you’re looking for something slightly more aesthetically pleasing you really can’t go wrong with ZenWriter. It looks beautiful, there’s a choice of music (or you can add your own), and you can choose one of the included wallpapers or use your own. It’s not free – but it’s not too expensive either.

Website

 

Write Or Die

WriteOrDie

Cost: $20
Customisable: Yes
Music: No
Standalone: Yes

I’m not really a fan of Write Or Die, although I have used it in the past and I know plenty of people who use it and love it. If you need to be poked to write, this is probably the software for you. If, like me, you just get irritated and resentful by reminders, this isn’t. It’s also the most expensive program on my list (although still not exhorbitant).

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Writing tools – Scrivener

scriv3

Sometimes you need a piece of software that just lets you write. Sometimes you need a piece of software that lets you plan, organise, and edit. Sometimes you need both and the answer to your prayers is Scrivener.

I’m a big fan of Scrivener. A friend told me about it a couple of years ago and at first I wasn’t too interested – the Windows version didn’t seem as shiny as the Mac version and who needs another piece of software to help them write? I’d tried a few before and generally lost interest once it became clear they were designed to make me write one way and one way only.

Then I tried Scrivener, and became an instant convert.

Just to be clear, Scrivener doesn’t “force” you to do anything or write in a way you’re not comfortable with. It’s hugely feature-rich, but you don’t have to use the features. It works well just as a basic writing environment (especially if you hit F11 for a distraction-free screen) and it’ll compile your finished work into all sorts of useful formats including PDF and epub.

If you decide to explore, however – and I probably use 50% of its capabilities, if that – Scrivener becomes an incredibly powerful tool to help you organise your thoughts and easily edit your work.

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Those “cards” you see on the corkboard up there? They’re not just a way of organising your thoughts into something like a coherent order. They’re actual files – which means you can easily drag and drop cards to rearrange the order and the words move too. Editing made easy!

I particularly love the “Research” area, where I can create folders to organise different strands of research, mark up exactly what I need to do more work on, and quickly move from topic to topic whenever I need to check something.

Scrivener can handle all sorts of writing: fiction, non-fiction, screen-writing – you name it, there’s probably a template for it. Whether you’re writing a novel or a research paper, Scrivener can handle it. And it can pop out lots of stats for those of us who like to know exactly how our work’s going – and targets too.

You can try Scrivener for free and the full version is $40 (~£25).

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