Writing tools

Triggering the memories

Sherylyn and I sat down the other night and planned six months’ worth of blogs we could write. Some of the ideas were truly interesting.  We know they were. Except …

We didn’t write them down, and six days later the memories are gone.

Some of them will come back over time, but right now neither of us can remember even one of them.

Many writers keep notebooks.  A scribbled note jotted down can trigger a memory months later that might turn into a book. Or talking through a problem piece—a week later when you need to use the solution you came up with, you need those notes.

Likewise, story ideas. Stars Uncharted, which is the story we just handed in to our editor, was an idea we had back around the time Linesman came out.   We had a contract to write two more books, but we quickly wrote down the first three chapters of this new story, then went back Linesman.

Thus when we were ready to start the new story, we had something to work with.  Because for us, stories take a long time to come together with other ideas, so that we have something to work with.

I was reminded of this the other day when Sherylyn was looking for her ‘ideas’ file.

Now, we’ve been burned with computers going awry in the past. Hard drives dying, computers eating our work, and so on.  We’ve learned.  We do daily backups of our novels now. If we ever become rich and famous someone could do a thesis on how we edit, for believe me, we have all the daily changes.

There are still ‘accidents’, but we’ve got the big stuff sorted.

The small stuff, not so much.  We often do take notes when we’re discussing story plot points or new ideas. Unfortunately, those notes are often on the paper napkins that come with a meal.  We put them into our bag and months later, throw them out. Or maybe use them when we need to wipe our hands.

We’re not super organised.

Likewise, Sherylyn knows her ideas folder is somewhere, she just doesn’t know where.

Every once in a while I do break out and buy a notebook. They’re useful, for a while, until I misplace them.  But I think that if I tried harder, and pulled the notebook out over our dinner talks, how much easier it would be later when I want to refer to what we talked about.

Especially if I was super-organised and transposed the ideas to my PC the following day.  And if I reorganised our files on the PC into something a tad more logical.  So the ideas were in a folder marked, say, ‘Ideas’.

Maybe I’ll give it a try.


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And the giveaways keep coming

Would you like to win a copy of LINESMAN?

SF Signal is giving away three copies of LINESMAN, which is book one in the series. Send an email to win. Pop over to their site to find out what to put into the email.

If you haven’t read LINESMAN yet, here’s your chance
Writing tools

Adventures with Microsoft (episode 294)

I failed the Apple quiz.

But then, I’m not really an Apple fan, although I do like the iPad as an eReader. I’m a Microsoft user from way back. Sometimes I think I’m the only person in the world who likes their products, but Word is still my favourite word processor by a long way.

I’ve been using Office 365 ever since it was introduced, and it took a while but I really got to like OneDrive.

OneDrive is Microsoft’s cloud service, where you can store files online and access them anywhere you have access to the internet. Think DropBox or Google Drive.

It’s fabulous when you’re writing together, because both authors can work on the same manuscript at the same time. It’s especially ideal when you’re fine-tuning the story in those last weeks before sending the finished product away, or when you get the edited version back and want to work through the edits together.

Plus, it stores an off-line copy of the document you are working on, and synchronises it when you’re back on line.

It had some weird habits, like sometimes reinserting deleted text, so you’d get sections with duplicates, and some other strange stuff, but in general, it worked well.

Best of all, both Sherylyn and I can link to the same OneDrive files no matter which computer we are using.

Along came Windows 10

Writing tools

Word’s latest weirdness

Or not so much Word, but Microsoft’s cloud, aka OneDrive.

Revisions. We keep our files on OneDrive, so we can both edit the file and, theoretically, when the one person opens the document they can see what changes the other has made.

It’s working a lot better than it used to. Microsoft seems to have fixed some bugs. The two users are playing nice in the same file nowadays, which is more than they used to. (Four users really, since there are two at home and two for the daily commute).

Until we start tracking changes.

Well, actually, track changes is fine. The problem is accepting changes.

You accept the changes on one computer. Everything looks fine.

Then you open the file on another computer. Only to find that both sets of changes have disappeared altogether, or the changes have been inserted twice.


Writing tools

Reading aloud in Microsoft Word

We read our stories aloud, and can’t recommend it enough to other writers.

No matter how many times you read something on the screen, you will always pick up extra problems reading aloud. Awkward sentence construction, words that don’t fit, repetitive sentences and other issues. Even so, we still read what we expect to read, so sometimes we miss glaringly obvious bloopers, particularly words that don’t belong.

For example, until the second edit, the first sentence above was (my emphasis):

We read the our stories aloud

That’s why we love it when our mother comes visiting and takes part in the read-throughs, for she reads every word.

Alas, she’s gone home now and we’re looking for alternatives.

One such alternative is the ‘Speak selected text’ function in Microsoft Word.

‘Speak selected text’ works well for finding words that shouldn’t be there, and really well to show pacing.

How it works

Use Andrew Gordon’s You Tube video How to enable Text To Speech in Microsoft Word 2010 to add the ‘speak selected text’ button to your Quick Access toolbar. You only have to do this once. Once it’s on the toolbar, it stays there.

Then, highlight the text you want read aloud, and click on the ‘speak selected text’ button. Voila, spoken words.

Some things we have learned

It works better in Windows 8 than it does in Windows 7. Our desktop PCs are Windows 7 and some words are spoken normally but some are spoken really fast. It’s quite strange. Windows 8.1 is lovely. Both our laptops are Windows 8.1.

Speak selected text has helped identify out-of-place words, but it also helps with misplaced commas. The narrator pauses at every comma.

The only weirdness you have to accept is the way the names are pronounced. I’ve gotten used to Ean being ‘Een’, but I can’t wait to hear what the narrator is going to do with Tinatin.

Writing tools

The latest strangeness from Office 365

I keep unpinning them, but every time I open the file, a second one pops up. And sometimes a third.
I keep unpinning them, but every time I open the file, a second one pops up. And sometimes a third.

Microsoft’s OneDrive isn’t perfect yet. The latest strangeness? Double-pinning and sometimes triple-pinning. It started happening a few days ago, and it started happening on all four PCs (both desktops and both laptops) on the same day.

The url under each filename is slightly different, but it points to the same file. I can open one, edit it, then open the other and the edits are carried across.

Methinks it’s another Microsoft ‘feature’*.

I hope they fix it soon. It’s driving me crazy.

* aka a bug.

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Problems in the cloud

Microsoft, Microsoft, what have you done to us?

I add comments to a document on my local (c:) drive. The comments are fine, attributed to me. I add comments to a document on my One Drive. The comments are fine, attributed to me.

Sherylyn adds comments to a document on her local drive. The comments are fine, attributed to her. She adds comments to a document on her One Drive. The comments are fine, attributed to her.

Then she adds comment to a document on my One Drive. Those comments are attributed to me. Even though she’s done them from her PC, under her user name, and she’s just added comments to other documents where it recognises who she is.

It seems that Microsoft still has a few bugs to iron out in the cloud.

Writing tools

Word vs Scrivener

Word and Scrivener are not the same. They are both writing tools that will help you craft novels. They produce a similar end result. A novel.

Scrivener is a content generation tool for writers. Word is a word processor.

Scrivener started out as a Mac program, Word as a Windows program, so users used to divide along the lines Windows users used Word while Mac users used Scrivener (or a Mac word processor). Nowadays, both programs work for both types of operating systems, so it’s more a case of preference.

Many of the things you do in one program can be done in the other, even if not the same way.

Scrivener was designed for novel writing, while Word is a general purpose word processor. You can write letters or reports on it just as easily as you can write novels. So I imagine that many novelists would find Scrivener useful and easy to use. Especially if you’re a plotter. Almost certainly if you already use index cards or similar to plan out your stories.

Me, I use Word. I’m a Word guru from way back, a Microsoft user all the way. I’m also a pantser—or as Brandon Sanderson calls it, a gardener (he borrowed the term from George R. R. Martin). I’m happy to let my words flow. I go back and rewrite along the way, and move big chunks of text around while I do it. I like having the whole book in one document.

My co-author, Sherylyn, uses both. Scrivener when she’s planning out a story, or writing non-linearly, Word when she’s just letting the story flow.

Neither program is necessarily better than the other. Both have good and bad points. It’s what works for you and the way you write.

Writing tools

Evaluating predefined manuscript templates in Word

There’s a standard novel manuscript format and it goes something like this:

  • A4 or letter paper
  • Times New Roman 12 pt
  • 2.5 cm or 1 inch margins
  • Double spacing
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph 1 cm or half an inch
  • No extra space between paragraphs
  • Author, title and page number in the top right-hand corner of each page
  • Begin new chapters on a new page.

Letter/1 inch/half inch are for countries that use imperial units, A4/2.5cm/1cm for those that use metric.

Most writers set this up every time they start a new story in Word. But you don’t have to. If you use a template you will turn out consistently formatted novels every time without having to do any manual setup.

Where to get templates

Microsoft has some standard manuscript formatting templates already set up. Or you can create your own. Today, I’ll show you how to find Microsoft’s preformatted templates. Next time I’ll show you how to create your own from scratch.

Preformatted templates using Office 2013

I’m using Office 2013. If you’re using an earlier version of Word, you can do a similar thing, the actual steps may not be quite the same.

  • Open Word
  • This opens on the template page
  • Type manuscript into the search field and start searching (press <Enter> or click on the magnifying glass)

This brings up five potential templates you can use. The three that look most promising are:

  • Book manuscript
  • Story manuscript format
  • Story manuscript
Results from a template search using 'manuscript' as the search term
Results from a template search using ‘manuscript’ as the search term

Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Book manuscript

Book manuscript template. This is the only template that includes a front page
Book manuscript template. This is the only template that includes a front page

Book manuscript looks good. Inspecting it I can see that:

  • It’s letter size. Good for the US market, and I can easily change this to A4 if I’m in a metric country
  • It has all the author information you need on the front page
  • The header contains the story name, author name and page numbers
  • Text is 12 point Times New Roman
  • Margins, strangely enough, pick up my metric 2.5cm. Again, that’s easy to change
  • Text is double spaced
  • Chapter name is styled and defined as a heading type

So far, I’m liking it. Now I’ll put on my Word guru hat and look more closely.

What don’t I like about it?

  • There’s no line indent for the start of each paragraph. That means you have to tab in at the start of each paragraph. You shouldn’t have to do that.
  • Chapter name is not in the Style Gallery, so how does the poor inexperienced writer know how to use it

Things I’m ‘meh’ about but that only impact me (in other words, personal preference)

  • It overrode my default dictionary
  • It uses content controls for the first page, in the header and in the chapter title but they don’t seem to do anything. (Think of content controls as fields you can fill in, like a form.)

Outside of that, it’s definitely something you could use if you wanted to be up and running fast.

Story manuscript

Let’s look at the story manuscript template next. This one doesn’t have a front page. I’d consider this more of a short story manuscript.

Story manuscript. Behind-the-scenes, this setup is similar to the Book Manuscript template.
Story manuscript. Behind-the-scenes, this setup is similar to the Book Manuscript template.

It looks similar to book manuscript template except that it doesn’t have a chapter title style. I’d guess that it was created by the same person, or that one was based off the other.

It has the same issues as book manuscript template. The biggest of these is needing to tab at the start of every paragraph.

Story manuscript format

At first glance story manuscript format looks almost the same as the story manuscript template. It’s not.

Again, it’s more suited to a short story than to a novel because I think that for a novel a title page is good. The styles are very basic.

Story manuscript format template. Looks similar, but it's not.
Story manuscript format template. Looks similar, but it’s not.

I like:

  • Finally, yes, indented first paragraph, so you don’t have to tab to start each paragraph. You cannot imagine how much time this will save you
  • The styling is basic, but it works. (Note however, that if you’re writing a novel, when you add your title page you’ll have a couple of problems with basic styling. I’ll get to that in another blog)

Meh about:

  • The name and address at the top of the first page are in a table
  • Plus it overwrote my default dictionary again.

The verdict

If I had to recommend a template, I’d use the story manuscript format. For one reason, and one reason alone. Indented first line.

There are things you can do to customise the templates, but that’s for another blog.

Writing tools

What authors need to know to use Word effectively

The first in a series of occasional posts about things writers who use Microsoft Word should know about the software if they want to get the most out of it.

Learn the basics

If you want to write novels in Word, you need to know something about:

  • Templates
  • Styles
  • Revisions (tracking and comments)
  • Navigation pane
  • Word count

You don’t need to know them in-depth, just enough to use them properly.

Look and feel

The look and feel of your Word document is controlled by templates, themes and styles. The Microsoft Office site explains how the three fit together.

For an author:

  • Template—sets your page size, margins, double spacing, font, headers and footers and page numbers
  • Theme—we don’t use theme for a standard novel template
  • Styles—controls chapter headings and breaks.

Most authors do all of this manually. My recommendation is don’t. Just don’t. It makes formatting your novel much so much harder.


Whether you track changes before you send your novel out is up to you (just make sure you clear them before you do send). I track mine, but that’s because I write with a co-author, and she needs to know what I have changed and vice-versa. Once you have an agent or an editor, however, you’re going to have to do it.

You should be able to use:

  • Track changes—how to actually track the changes, and the different ways to see what you have marked up; also accepting and rejecting said changes
  • Comments—alpha/beta readers, editors and agents will all make comments. You need to know how to see the comments, how to add your own, and how to delete them
  • Compare documents—great for when you want to show your agent/editor what’s actually changed since the last time they saw the novel
  • Navigation pane—since you’re now using styles you can use the navigation pane to move chapters around quickly. Or you can do a similar thing in Outline view.

Proofing and language and other tools

There are a couple of other things you should/can use as an author.

  • Word count—it’s is a simple thing, but it’s important
  • Document properties—in particular the user name and initials
  • Spelling and grammar—do I even need to mention these?
  • Language—even if your only language is English, it’s useful to know how to set the dictionary

In the next post we’ll set up a manuscript template.