I started using virtual index cards back in 2006 when planning for my first NaNoWriMo, and I still find them a useful way of managing a big project like a novel. I like physical index cards as well, but they’re a pain to carry around with you – which is where an app like Story Skeleton comes in.
is an iPhone app that allows you create and export outlines in a variety of formats, including as a Scrivener .scriv project. It’s this that first interested me, and I used it for an initial outline of The Prince of Lies.
Overall it’s quite a nice little app. The design is a bit fussy in some respects – on a small screen, I prefer the controls to adhere more closely to Apple conventions – but not difficult to get the hang of. You can display cards fullscreen and swipe between them, or list them as thumbnails (see screenshot, right) and scroll up and down.
There’s no hierarchical structure, however. If you want to assign scenes to chapters or acts, a workaround is to set up “card types” (a customisable list of categories), but then of course you have to recategorise cards when you move them. It’s also iPhone-only – you can use it on an iPad but the whole interface gets resized to fit the large screen and is therefore rather blurry.
Another point against it from my point of view is that whilst it has import and export capabilities, it doesn’t actually sync with Scrivener as such – you can only import outlines previously created in StorySkeleton and exported in its custom format (e.g. as backup). As a result, I found it useful for quick’n'dirty outlining at the beginning of a project, but the limitations of both synchronisation and screen real-estate mean that it doesn’t really fit well into my workflow.
StorySkeleton is available from the iTunes App Store, currently priced at $2.99.
So, you’ve put yourself out there online, with a website and social media – but that’s only half the story. If your self-promotion is successful, then other people are going to start talking about you online. Sometimes they’ll let you know, but often they won’t. That’s where Google Alerts comes in.
What kind of information will Alerts find for you? Basically, anything that you could find out by manually searching on, say, your author name and/or title. That includes:
<li>your social media profile pages</li>
<li>interviews and guest blog posts</li>
<li>online bookshop listings</li>
* unless your publisher has issued a DCMA take-down notice to the site – thankfully Google is now omitting these hits from its search results
Note that it only sends you newly-indexed results, so if you are already active online, it probably won’t return any results for those outlets. It’s mainly useful for catching the last three: reviews, shop listings and piracy listings.
<h2>Setting up your alerts</h2>
Google Alerts are something you can set up as part of your Google account, so if you don’t have one of those (via Gmail or Google+ or whatever), go forth and sort that out first. Done? OK, onwards…
The Alerts page is tucked away, so you’ll need to poke around to find it – at the time of writing, you’ll need to sign into Google and click on “More” in the black linkbar, and then on “Even More”. Scroll down that page to the header “Specialised Search” to find the section about Alerts. Click on the link and fill in the simple form, and you will receive emails whenever Google adds a new search result based on the terms you specified.
As for what terms to search for, your author name and book title are obviously a good start. If your name is common, or your title includes common words, you’ll probably get a lot of false positives, like you would if you did that search manually. If so, try out your search terms on Google itself until you get the kind of results you want. For example, the search “John Smith fantasy novel” will probably find a lot more results about you and your book than just “John Smith”.
Google Alerts won’t find everything, of course. It doesn’t index social media sites (apart from user profiles), so you can’t use it to find out if people are talking about you on Twitter or Facebook, but those sites have their own search mechanisms you can use if you’re really that paranoid! However if you are keen to keep tabs on your online presence, it’s a very useful tool.
This is the last of my posts in the Web Presence for Writers series – I hope you found it useful!
A few weeks ago I reviewed the IRISnotes Executive 1.0 smartpen, not entirely favourably. To my surprise, two days later I received an email from rival company LiveScribe, asking if they could send me one of their smartpens to review. Of course I said yes; how could I resist a free gadget? I thus arrived back from FantasyCon to find a LiveScribe Echo waiting for me…
Unlike the IRISnotes pen, the LiveScribe can record audio as well as handwritten notes, and comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB versions. Since I said I was mostly interested in the transcription and handwriting recognition side of things, they sent me the basic 2GB model plus a couple of extra notebooks. Current retail price of this model is £69.99, which is less than half the price of the new IRISnotes Executive 2 smartpen.
I tested the pen and software on OSX Mountain Lion, but it’s compatible with Leopard upwards and of course Windows (XP or better).
Setup was very easy; I downloaded and installed the desktop software and followed the instructions in the Quick Start guide. One clever feature of the Echo is that it comes preloaded with audio instructions that can be triggered by pressing the nib on various “smart icons” in the instruction booklet. I didn’t find them particularly necessary—the pen is pretty intuitive—but they provide extra handholding for non-technical users without requiring a lengthy user manual. A similar system is used to set up the pen itself (language options and date/time). All of this makes getting started with the Echo very, very simple.
Using the LiveScribe Echo
The pen itself is chunkier than the IRISnotes but much lighter than its bulk suggests; still it felt a bit of a stretch compared to the regular pens I use. The higher capacity versions have a rubberised grip, which I think would be more comfortable for writing. I also found the supplied Fine refill a bit scratchy on the microdot paper, so I bought a pack of Medium Black refills which turned out to be smoother.
One major difference from the IRISnotes is that it relies on special paper for its transcription functionality, rather than a receiver unit. I was provided with three notebooks: the standard A5 lined, spiralbound starter notebook that comes with this model; a similar gridded notebook; and a 7.5 x 11.5 cm mini-notepad. A variety of notebooks are available from retailers, at prices roughly comparable with Moleskines; not cheap, but not extortionate either. You can use more than one notebook at a time as long as they are different types (so that the desktop software can keep track of them); when you finish a notebook, you need to archive it before you can use a replacement one of the same type.
Getting your notes out of the pen and onto your computer
Connecting the pen to the computer is also easy, and in fact uses the same type of micro-USB cable as my Kobo ereader, thus avoiding having to have a hundred and one cables plugged into my Mac. There’s no need for a separate ink-retrieval utility as with the IRISnotes—just plug the pen in, go to the desktop software and it is automatically synced. The pen has a rechargeable battery that charges via the same cable; according to their FAQs, the battery is good for five hours of combined audio and note-taking, or twelve hours of note-taking alone.
I have to confess that I find it slightly spooky the way the pen always knows which page of which notebook you are writing on. Obviously this is an important part of the functionality and down to clever use of microdot technology, but it’s uncanny nonetheless. The plus side is that you can stop and start, even go back and add to a page, and not have to worry about the software getting confused and overwriting a file (a very real problem with the IRISnotes). It’s just like an ordinary pen and paper, except that it’s dead easy to get your notes onto your computer and searchable. I wish I’d had something like this years ago!
Handwriting recognition is comparable to the IRISnotes pen, but this is hardly surprising since they both use MyScript. The big difference is that it is far better integrated into LiveScribe: you just click on the MyScript icon in the toolbar to launch the MyScript utility and then select the pages you want to convert. One minor gripe is that unless you buy the 8GB Pro pack, the MyScript handwriting recognition software has to be bought separately (I downloaded the trial version, which is good for 30 days), but since the pen is much cheaper it averages out in the end.
I’ve been a bit more methodical with the tests this time, although the handwriting recognition results are not dissimilar from what I got with the IRISnotes. In each case I’ve uploaded the input as a PDF (so you can see my handwriting) and then given the output as text, exactly as exported to TextEdit.
Test 1 – handwritten text
For my first test, I just wrote a page of thoughts about the pen, making it up as I went along:
This is the Livescribe Echo 2GB smatpen. J’ m testing it for a blog review, for comparison with the IRIS notes Executive, which uses a receiver rather than this dotted smatpaper. J’ m mostly interested in transcription and handwriting recognition rather than audio, but J will also be trying it out at a convention later this month to see how well it works in the context of a panel, which can be quite noisy. Im interested in the possibility of using it for things at work, so that s can record proceedings that haring to take too many written notes.
I have to say that J find the large size of this pen a little uncomfortable, but then s’ m unaccustomed to writing longhand fur etensive periods. Perhaps if J start doing it more often, my hand will no longer cramp up!
J shall be interested to see how well this transcribes. My experience so far has been quite post positive, but I’m dihberatehy not trying to be too neat, as a test for the software. After all J won’t always be in a position to write slowly and dearly.
J’ m also not impressed by the ballpoint refill. Maybe it’s well-used, but it feels scratchy and the ink flow is a little uneven.
Well, that’s enough for starters-time to upload!
As you can see, the main problem I had was with my cursive capital ‘i’, which looks more like a ‘j’ or an ‘s’ to the software. I guess I’ll have to be a bit less fancy with my handwriting in future! Also, MyScript recommends not crossing out errors but correcting them after conversion; if you compare the PDF to the transcript, you’ll see that the stray ‘post’ before ‘positive’ is me doing the former because I hadn’t read the help file before doing this test.
Test 2 – handwritten fiction
Since prose with long sentences and normal vocabulary tested well on both pens, I thought I’d also test the Echo on fiction with plenty of dialogue and punctuation, and for good measure some odd character names. I therefore grabbed my Kobo and copied out a page or so from the final chapter of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (warning: minor spoilers).
Tnl nodded. “You’ re the chief. We’ve all agreed it.”
”Uh,” said Grim, not even looking up.
“Ninefingers gone,” said Dow, “and Threetrees gone, and that leaves you.”
Dogman winced. He was waiting for shivers to say ”You what? Him? Chief” He was waiting for them all to start laughing, and tell him it was a joke, Black Dow, and Tue Dura Thunderhead, and Harding Grim, not to mention two dozen carls besides, all taking his say-so. Stupidest idea he ever heard. But shivers didn’t laugh.
“That’s a good choice, I reckon. Speaking for my has, that’s what I was going to suggest. I’ll let ‘em know.” And he turned and made off through the trees, with Dogman gawping after him.
“But what about them others?” he hissed once Shivers was well out of hearing, wincing at the stab of pain in his ribs. “There’s twenty fucking Carls down there, and jumpy! They need a name to follow!”
As you can see, the software did a pretty good job, apart from a couple of badly-written words and punctuation marks (e.g. “has” instead of “lads” and some pairs of quotes instead of double quotes). Only Tul Duru gave it a real problem, though it also didn’t capitalise ordinary nouns like Shivers unless I made the first letter big enough. You can add words to the software’s dictionary, however, so accuracy can be improved with time.
The recognition on this test was better than the IRISnotes, but I’m not sure if that’s because I was copying from an existing text rather than composing it myself on the fly and therefore wrote more neatly; I will have to experiment further to find out.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this smartpen’s capabilities in this review; if you are interested in audio recording options, how to share your recordings as “pencasts”, its ability to send files to Evernote, Google Docs, etc. or the many apps (dictionaries, games, etc) that can be loaded into the smartpen, you’ll have to search online for more!
Wide price range – the low-end model is attractively priced compared to rivals
Simple to use – no fiddling with a receiver unit, just switch it on and start writing
Intuitive desktop software, well integrated with MyScript
Send your data to other applications with only a couple of clicks
Handwriting recognition is pretty good (as long as your handwriting is neat!)
The pen is a bit bulky for my liking (but then I do have smaller hands than most people)
You have to pay extra for handwriting software
Having to rely on special paper is always going to be a bit irksome – but on the other hand it’s a good excuse to buy more stationery!
Overall, I think that if you are going to get a smartpen, the Echo is a great choice. I would suggest going for the mid-range 4GB model with the rubberised grip plus a few extras, unless you plan on doing a lot of audio recording or want even more accessories bundled with your pen.
Pinterest in the new kid on the social media block that debuted in 2010. Taking a leaf out of Tumblr’s book, it’s a social media scrapbook, encouraging you to share pictures with your friends. Each image is called a “pin”, and you can organise them into “boards”, or categories. As with other social media, you can follow other people and they can follow you; images pinned by you and your followees appear on your homepage. You can then pin them to your own boards, so that your followers get to see them, or just comment or like them, as on Facebook.
At first, Pinterest was invitation-only—I picked up an invitation earlier this year through fellow author Jody Hedlund, whose blog I follow (somewhat erratically)—but it’s now open for everyone to sign up. So why would you want to? What use is a virtual pinboard to a writer? We deal in words, not pictures, right?
Well, they do say that a picture paints a thousand words, and visual material can really help to spark your imagination. Sure, you could spend hours on Google image search, but Pinterest feeds you a constant stream of material chosen by real people rather than a computer algorithm. I do find I have to be selective, though; some of the people I follow have quite a diversity of boards (image categories), and whilst I might be interested in some, others just clog my feed with irrelevance. Thankfully you can follow individual boards rather than a member’s whole collection.
This all sounds very jolly—and it is!—but there’s a catch. Whereas other social media revolve around words and informal images (e.g. photos of your cat that you took with your phone camera), Pinterest’s focus is on sharing professional-quality images. Most people cannot easily create this kind of content, which means that most members’ chosen images are predominantly or wholly created by other people. I think you can see where this is going…
What it boils down to is that it’s against Pinterest’s T&C to distribute images without permission from the copyright owner. Whilst I totally sympathise with artists whose work is being distributed for free, I don’t see how this can be squared with social media. The whole point of Pinterest is to share interesting images, and if you can’t rely on other users to obey the rules and only pin images they have the rights to (which you obviously can’t), that means you are breaking the rules unless you follow every image back to its source.
Personally I feel there’s a big moral difference between redistributing high-resolution artwork that’s intended for sale (especially if you remove any link or attribution) and linking to pictures that have been used for illustrative purposes only, but legally there is no difference at all. At any rate, I try to restrict myself to pinning book covers (which is generally considered fair use since you’re helping to promote the product), public domain artwork, and small photo-illustrations – and I always ensure I link back to the originating site.
Because of these problems, I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pinterest. Yes, it’s fun to browse the beautiful images your friends have found online, and liking/commenting is harmless enough, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with breaking the law…
Note: this review is for the original (1.0) smartpen, which I bought a couple of years ago. A new (2.0) version is out with more capabilities, including iPad integration, but I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading yet.
The IRISnotes Executive is one of several smartpens vying for market share. Unlike most of the others, however, it does not use special (read, expensive) gridded paper, nor does it store the transcribed text in a heavy, high-tech pen. Instead it uses a normal-sized ballpoint pen with a infrared transmitter around its nib, and a receiver unit that you clip to whatever notepad or loose-leaf paper you desire.
Since a) I have small hands and b) I don’t want to have to buy a load of expensive notebooks on top of the pen, this makes the IRISnotes Executive an attractive choice. And since I have quite neat cursive handwriting, I find the recognition accuracy of the software to be pretty good. At least, it is when I’m writing non-fiction with lots of long sentences and standard vocabulary. It struggles a lot more with fiction, which is heavily punctuated and includes a lot of words the software doesn’t recognise, such as character names.
The biggest downside though is that the desktop software is clunky, unintuitive and poorly documented. Firstly it relies on a separate utility, MyScript Retriever, to transfer data from the receiver to your computer, which is not integrated into the IRIS software but must be run separately. Once you have transferred your files, you can then switch to the main IRISnotes Executive program, which is frankly over-designed, using a non-standard interface for no good reason. The Quick Start Guide covers the basics, but finding out anything else about the program has proved problematic. That red cross next to an uploaded file? I eventually worked out that it means the file is corrupted and can’t be imported, but there’s nothing about that in the manual, nor a tooltip to explain its function. Very frustrating!
The software runs on both Windows and Mac, although the MyScript Notes utility, which allows you to use the pen as a virtual tablet, is Windows only. I recommend you download the latest version of IRISnotes from the manufacturer’s website; however on the Mac at least, it keeps warning you that you are using an older version of MyScript and would you like to convert to the latest format. Well, yes, yes I would. But I wish it wouldn’t keep asking me!
My overall feeling is that this is a nice piece of hardware and a decent handwriting recognition algorithm that are badly let down by the desktop software. If you can stick with it long enough to get the program trained to your handwriting it may prove useful, but it’s not a toy for the impatient. And because it is weak on transcribing fiction, it’s not an ideal solution for novelists on the go. Which is a pity, because that’s exactly what I’m still looking for…
Like pretty much every writer nowadays, I do most of my writing via a keyboard, whether that’s on my laptop, on the bluetooth keyboard tethered to my iPad, or (occasionally) using the software keyboard on my iPhone. However anything big enough to comfortably touch-type on is also too big to slip into my everyday shoulder bag, so I’ve been looking for alternative solutions. There’s also the issue that whilst I’ve long since become accustomed to writing the stories themselves on a keyboard, I still prefer to do background note-taking (world-building, plot brainstorming, etc) in longhand; it just feels more natural and organic. Unfortunately this means I end up with a lot of paper notebooks, which are difficult to search through!
There seem to be two major strategies for solving this problem: digitising your handwriting as you do it, and digitising the image of the handwritten text using OCR. Either way, the usefulness of the end result depends a great deal on both how neat your handwriting is, and how good the software is at recognition. If humans can barely read your handwriting, a computer isn’t going to have a snowball’s chance in Hell—and a garbled file full of nonsense words mixed with random characters is unlikely to be of much use to you.
With that caveat, here are my thoughts on the various hardware and software solutions I’ve tried.
On-screen handwriting recognition
This is the type of digitisation I was most familiar with for years. As a long-time user of the Palm series of PDAs, I became fluent in Graffiti, their stylised “handwriting” that allowed direct digital input using letters handwritten on the device’s screen with a stylus. As a result, I’ve spent a long time looking for an equivalent for iOS (I have several styli, as they come in handy in cold weather when I need to wear gloves), and I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed. All the apps I’ve tested assume that you’ll want to use your normal handwriting, and so they put a lot of processing power into full handwriting recognition, which makes the app painfully slow even on an iPhone 4S. I’ve yet to find one that, like Graffiti, expects you to learn a simplified alphabet which the computer can easily recognise, which is highly frustrating for me. If you know of such an app, please, please let me know!
Optical character recognition (OCR)
OCR has been around for quite a while, and is often used for digitising printed books that were never released in an electronic version. As software has become more powerful, however, it is now possible to digitise handwritten text as well.
The traditional method is to scan a document page-by-page using either a flat-bed scanner (necessary if your pages are bound into a book) or a more compact feed-through scanner. The latter takes up less desk space, but if you’re like me and mostly write in bound notebooks, a flat-bed scanner is your only option. Or rather it was, until very recently. The advent of smartphones with relatively high resolution cameras means you effectively have a portable scanner in your pocket—a fact that has now been exploited by popular note-taking app Evernote. Using the Page Camera option (available on the Add Note screen), you can take snaps of your notebook pages and slurp them into Evernote. They are even teaming up with Moleskine to create “smart notebooks” that make scanning more accurate. Naturally these don’t come cheap, but they might make a nice addition to your Christmas list!
The desktop version of Evernote also has basic handwriting OCR built in, so you can search the images of your notebook pages, but at the moment it doesn’t offer full digital conversion of text. Hence it’s no use for content that you need to put into a word processor, so you can’t handwrite your novel and then use Evernote to transfer it into, say, Scrivener. Also, I’ve tried using Evernote and Page Camera on my project notebook, but its handwriting recognition isn’t all that great unless you write very neatly, which I tend not to do in the heat of inspiration!
Finally, large high-resolution images use up a lot of bandwidth, which means that if you have more than a few notes, you’ll be obliged to pay for Evernote’s premium service (they cunningly include 3 months’ free subscription with the smart notebook) and presumably also consume more bandwidth on your mobile devices. If Evernote introduces the ability to do reasonably accurate OCR on files and then archive the actual images, I think it might be worth scanning in more of my notes, but right now it’s not a complete solution.
This is the latest, most high-tech solution: you write on real paper with an electronic pen, and the image produced by your writing movements can be uploaded to your computer and then run through OCR software to produce a digital version. There are two main kinds of smartpen: one requires special paper marked with a grid of dots, the other uses normal paper but relies on a receiver unit to detect the pen’s movements. I own one of the latter type, an IRISnotes Executive, and I have to say that it’s pretty nifty. I’ll review it in detail next week, but so far I’m impressed by its handwriting recognition capabilities, at least when it comes to non-fiction. Of course smartpens are pretty expensive (prices start around $100) and require more practice to get right than using a normal pen and paper and then scanning the page. On the other hand they’re lightweight and don’t require you to buy (or find room on your desk for) a scanner.
In summary, there are now a number of ways to get your handwritten text into your computer, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Still, they offer a potential bridge between paper and screen for those of us who still enjoy writing the old-fashioned way!
Goodreads is an online reading community that’s grown rapidly in the past couple of years, easily outstripping LibraryThing and other rivals. You can use it to help manage your book collection, post reviews and ratings, and join in online bookclubs. And if you’re a writer, once you have a book out (whether self-published or through a conventional publishing house), you can upgrade your account to “Goodreads Author”, which makes it easier to find out what your readers think of your book!
As I don’t get a lot of time for reading these days, I don’t have much experience of the reading side of Goodreads. I’ve added a selection of books from my shelves, though it’s by no means comprehensive, and I use it to maintain my to-read list. If you do want to add books to Goodreads and have a smartphone, they do a great app that includes a barcode scanner—it only works with fairly recent books that have the long ISBN numbers, but it speeds up the process considerably.
Once you have an author account, you’ll get a dashboard that gives you easy access to all your books as well as a bunch of widgets to use on your website plus other promotional tools.
I’ve written elsewhere about why I read reviews, but whether or not you choose to read them I think Goodreads deserves a special caveat: do not trust the numbers! Because it’s a large busy site, they cache a lot of the statistics (total numbers of reviews and ratings, average ratings, etc) and you will soon discover that these numbers differ on different parts of your dashboard. At the time of writing, my dashboard says I have 77 text reviews but I can find only 75. Sometimes this is because people write comments in the ‘review’ field before they’ve finished and rated a book, and Goodreads doesn’t filter these out. And if a reader changes their mind about a rating, both values may be listed for a day or two. For the sake of your sanity, take the figures as a rough guide only!
Also, as with all reviews, don’t let the lower ratings get you down. You can’t please all the people even some of the time, and I’m sure you know of plenty of well-written and/or popular books that you didn’t enjoy, so cut your readers some slack. And sometimes those 1-star ratings are from people who haven’t even read your book—they may for example be attempting to “train” the suggestion algorithm by downgrading books that don’t look interesting. No fun for you, but luckily these people are in a minority.
Goodreads have created a range of buttons and widgets that you can incorporate into your own website, such as the “Read reviews on Goodreads” button that I use in my little promo box in the margin of my blog. I advise caution when it comes to the interactive widgets, however; Goodreads is down quite often, which means your widget will be empty or even slightly broken-looking whenever that happens.
Other promotional tools
If you have physical copies of your book, you can arrange a giveaway before it comes out or up to six months after publication. In my case my publisher did it for me, in the US at least, and nearly 900 people signed up! Of course a great many of these unlisted my book when they didn’t win, but around a third still have it listed as to-read, so it’s definitely an effective promotional tool. Note that you can’t give away ebooks; I don’t know if this is to prevent the system being swamped with self-published titles (since most self-pubs are ebook only), or whether the abundance of free ebooks means they aren’t seen as a valued promo, but either way you’re limited to print copies and the expense of postage that entails.
Free tools include a Facebook fan page app and the ability to set up a Q&A group, but I’ve never managed to get the former to work and I have yet to try the latter. I guess I’m worried that, being a debut author, no-one would turn up, and it would just be me and the tumbleweed!
If you’re self-published you might also want to consider advertising your book, but I know nothing about this side of Goodreads.
In summary, Goodreads is a great site to connect with readers—just don’t let yourself get obsessed with the numbers!
One of the trickiest things to keep track of when writing a novel can be the passage of time, especially if you have two or more concurrent plotlines. Tolkien was apparently very good at this; I read somewhere that if you compare his published timeline to the text, you’ll find that not only does it all match up but that things like the phases of the moon are correct. Now, most of us writers are never going to have fans rabid enough to go into this level of detail, but I work on the principle that if I get it wrong, someone might just notice and lose their faith in my control over the story.
Of course you can plan your novel’s timeline on paper, and with Night’s Masque I’ve done some of that, particularly in the early stages, but software can make the task a bit easier and the results a lot neater. The best program I’ve found for Mac OSX, and the only one (as far as I know) written with fantasy and SF writers in mind, is Aeon Timeline from Scribblecode. I’ve been using this program since an early beta was posted on the Scrivener forums, but version 1 is now complete and available to buy (there’s a 30-day free trial as well).
On first startup the program looks rather intimidating, and I have to say that the video tutorial on the website isn’t much help – there’s no sound, and it runs too fast to really take in. However the user manual is fairly comprehensive and the program isn’t that complex once you get your head around it.
The core concepts are Events, Entities and Arcs. Events are pretty self-explanatory; they can be anything with a time duration, from the birth of a character to a war lasting many years. Entities are things that span multiple events; the default entity type is a person, but entities can also be places, objects, organisations, and so on.
Events and entities thus potentially intersect, and the program calculates the entity’s age at the intersection point. Note that you have to manually assign these intersection points; after all, not all events will affect all entities, and vice versa.
For example, my hero Mal Catlyn fought in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1588, so I added an intersection point for that (click on the screenshot to enlarge it, and look for the blue line across the middle of the screen). The program then worked out that he would have been 20 at the time. Ages are automatically recalculated if you move the starting point of an entity or the date of an event. You can also hide the ages if they’re not relevant to your usage or are cluttering up the display.
Sets of events can be further divided up into arcs for clarity. I use three arcs in this overall timeline: one to track the history of the Tudor dynasty (my main alternate history element), one for other historical events that impinge upon the characters’ lives, and one for the characters themselves and events within the books.
One of the most useful features from an SFF writer’s perspective is the ability to define custom calendars. For Night’s Masque I use a tweaked version of the standard calendar, because England was still using the old Julian calendar in the sixteenth century; if I were to use the modern Gregorian one, the days of the week wouldn’t be right for the dates. However you’re not limited to minor changes like this. You can create an entirely fictional calendar for a fantasy world or an alien planet, with as many hours in the day and days in the year as you please, and of course with custom names.
When you’ve completed your timeline, you can export it in a number of formats, including an HTML table (great for putting on your website!) and also synchronise the file with Scrivener. I haven’t tried out this latter feature yet, as I’m mainly using Aeon for a higher level view of my story world, but I can see how it might be useful.
Aeon Timeline has lots of other cool features that I’m just finding my way around, like the ability to label events (similar to the Label field in Scrivener) and then filter by that label; hide selected entities and arcs (which I did when creating my screenshot, to avoid spoilers); and lock events so that they can’t be accidentally altered. As this is the first full version, I expect new features to be added with time, but even in its current state it’s perfectly useable.
In conclusion, this is a hugely useful program for any writer planning a complex novel, and I strongly recommend you give it a try!
It’s been a while since one of these posts, since spring was such a busy time for me, but with new social networks cropping up I thought I should get the ball rolling again.
Facebook is still (in 2012) the biggest and best-known social media site. There are two main kinds of Facebook content stream: individual user accounts, which is what most people are familiar with, and Pages, which are a bit like micro-websites within Facebook. You’ll need the former to use Facebook at all, and when you get close to being published, the latter is a good idea too.
I’ll admit right now that I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and don’t use it much, but it’s impossible to ignore, particularly as they have started creating “community pages” (read, “content sucked in from Wikipedia”) about every topic under the sun; presumably including any author with a Wikipedia page about them. Like it or not, unless you create your own Facebook page about yourself, someone else will probably do so—and you won’t control that content.
I won’t say much about user accounts except: be careful! Don’t friend all and sundry, and don’t be tempted to fill in all the information fields just because they’re there. There was a very disturbing story doing the rounds a few months ago, about a smartphone app that combined social media content to produce what was in effect the perfect stalking tool. Keep an eye on the privacy setting, or better still don’t put anything into your profile that you wouldn’t want made public. There have been plenty of articles published on the subject, and I invite you to check them out. Suffice to say that I post as little personal information on FB as I can get away with!
It might seem egocentric to have a “fan page” about yourself when you’re not even published yet, but really it’s just a handy way around the “mutual friending” structure of Facebook. If you don’t have a fan page, you will have to friend every single reader who wants to follow you – which means they get access to all the personal stuff you post! Much better—and safer—to set up a page they can Like. There’s also the advantage that Facebook pages are visible to the wider internet, including search engines, whereas your ordinary Facebook account is not.
Also, as mentioned above, once you are big enough to merit a Wikipedia page, Facebook will create a Page about you that you don’t control, so it’s worth getting in on the ground floor and attracting a following. That will push your Page above the automated one in any search results and ensure than anyone on Facebook who’s looking for you will find real, fresh information, not a bunch of third-hand, rarely updated stuff.
As you can see from the screenshot of my own page, the new “timeline” view allows, nay encourages, you to add an image to the top of your page. The size is fixed and a bit weird, so you may have to do some fiddling around with your chosen image to get something suitable.
I populate the page with my blog feed via RSS, and check back once or twice a day to see if anyone’s left a message. I also post the occasional bit of unique content, usually if I have some news that isn’t significant enough for a blog post but is too long for a tweet. Because I mostly post on here rather than my personal account, my friends who follow me aren’t swamped with content.
A word about “reach”
Since posting this article, my attention has been drawn to the fact that posts on your Page are not automatically added to the feed of everyone who Likes your page (betcha didn’t know that, did you? No, neither did I until just before I wrote this.). The probability of an individual fan getting your posts depends on how often they like and comment on other posts, i.e. how engaged they are with your content, but also how much interest the post is getting from other, more dedicated fans. Fortunately Facebook shows the percentage reach at the bottom of each item, so you can see how many of your fans are seeing the content.
On the one hand this is a blatant ploy by Facebook to get you to pay for advertising, but you can also see it as a way to judge how effective your content is. If you post boring stuff that no-one responds to, your reach will go down (the average is apparently only 16%!) – which is a good incentive to post better content! Mine usually range between 20 and 50 percent, and of course major announcements like cover art and publication dates get more interest than more general blog posts (the same is true of the number of comments on the blog itself). So, do keep an eye on these numbers!
That’s really all I have to say about Facebook. If you love it you may find it a great promotional tool, but for me it’s just a way to reach a few more fans, particularly who don’t use Twitter.
It’s been a while since I did a techie post, but this is a topic that came up on Twitter the other day in conversation with my fellow Angry Robot author Matt Forbeck. We’re both using the word-count tracking features of Scrivener but in slightly different ways, so here for Matt’s edification (and anyone else’s!) is a quick tour of how I use it.
I like tracking word count. Writing is such a slog sometimes, and it’s good to see yourself making actual progress. I guess it all dates back to my first NaNoWriMo in 2006 – the whole point is to hit a word count target (in this case, 50k) and not worry too much about quality because, heck, you can edit it later. However I now find word count tracking to be even more useful in the revision phase of a project, helping me keep an eye on scene length and pacing.
Scrivener has a number of word count tools:
A live word count at the bottom of the main document screen, that increments as you type
A per-document word count target, set using the target icon in the bottom left of the same screen
A Project Statistics window, showing total word counts, pages, etc for the whole draft and for the selected document(s)
and probably some other features I haven’t found yet!
I used to use spreadsheets, which had to be manually updated by copying the word counts from each document’s total. They were fun, but time-consuming to maintain, especially if I was juggling scenes around. A few months ago I realised I needed something that was less hassle and most importantly, didn’t take valuable time away from the actual writing. I poked around in Scrivener and almost by accident discovered that not only could you show word counts and targets in Scrivener’s outline view, but it would create cumulative totals for each folder. It did almost everything my spreadsheet could do, with zero extra work on my part. I was hooked!
In the picture below you can see my outliner setup for The Merchant of Dreams, the second book in the Nights Masque trilogy (note that I’ve blurred out the scene titles to avoid spoilers!).
I got this view as follows:
In the menu bar, go to Group Mode and select the lefthand option to show the Outliner
On the far right of the column headers you’ll see a double arrow symbol (>>) – click on that and select ‘Word Count’, ‘Total Word Count’, ‘Target’, ‘Total Target’ and ‘Total Progress’.
Voila! You now have a “spreadsheet” view of your manuscript, totalled by folder. Note however that if you want to see the total for the whole draft, you’ll need to insert a dummy top-level folder and drag all your existing folders into it – if you look at the Binder in the screenshot, you’ll see there’s a ‘Draft’ folder inside the ‘Manuscript’ one. This is because the outliner can only show documents inside another folder, not the folder itself.
The outliner preserves its state independent of other views and hierarchies, so you can flip back and forth between editing individual scenes in the normal document view, opening up your folders in the Binder, etc, and still come back to exactly the same view when you click on the Outliner button.
So there you have it, Scrivener fans – how to obsessively manage your word counts without resorting to spreadsheets. Enjoy!