Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Writing #1: Your Basic Tools

Since I've actually gotten some traction on writing and releasing my own works, I thought I'd write a few articles on my writing processes from the past, present, and future. I know some of you who read PMP have considered or are yourselves independently publishing, so I hope this provides some helpful information.

For today, I want to focus on the basic tools you need to self-publish: Computer, Word Processing, File Backup, etc..

The Computer

I'm fortunate enough to work in a job (academic information technology management) where I have ready access to fast, reliable, modern computers. I have a very nice setup at work, with all the software I need, and I have a couple of work laptops, a work-purchased iPad, and my own home computer. At home I have a fairly beefy laptop which I've hooked up to a nice big swivel-mounted monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Lots of people prefer laptops as their home computer these days (and the numbers I've seen show that in the consumer market, laptops have been outselling desktops for years) but if you're going to sit at it for hours at a stretch, writing and editing and formatting and photoshopping, I strongly suggest you invest in a desktop system of some sort. The keyboard will allow for less stressful typing, and a larger monitor will help with doing layouts and cover designs. You can get a relatively inexpensive home PC for a few hundred dollars.

If you have the money for it, a lightweight, very portable laptop makes a good companion to the desktop. You can take the laptop with you to Starbucks or to a co-working space, or when you travel or otherwise need to get out of the house to do writing. If you're crafty with your purchases, you can probably get both a decent PC and small low-powered laptop together for $1,000-1,500.

In addition to this, I suggest you get an ebook reader. Kindles are dirt cheap, starting around $80, all the way up to the much more expensive tablets like the iPad. You're going to want a tablet or ebook reader because there's a great difference between seeing your ebook laid out on a pc in the Kindle Previewer, and seeing it in an actual ebook reader. Also, there's the "reader edit pass", which I'll talk about later. The Kindle Fire is $199, and there's a Google tablet coming out that's at a similar price point. Believe me, it is well worth the investment to at least get a basic Kindle.

Some of you may ask, Mac or PC? I am in a position where I am bi-lingual when it comes to the two platforms because of my professional obligations. Personally, I have been more of a PC user, but I think both platforms have merit. You'll want to make sure, if you go with a Mac, that the ebook converter you want to use is supported. Calibre ebook manager comes in PC, Mac, and Linux flavors, so a Mac should be no hindrance. However, you will pay a significant cost difference. The desktop/laptop/tablet combo I suggest will probably run you close to $3,000.

Writing Software

The most important thing for me is that the software doesn't get in the way. Programs that require a lot of fussing with, that do a lot of auto-formatting and auto-correcting by default, kinda annoy me. Fiction doesn't require bizarre tabbing, formatting, bulleted lists, and so forth, so the simpler, the better. Personally, I do all my draft writing and most of my editing in Google Docs. This is for a number of reasons:
  1. I can access the documents anywhere, including off of a tablet or even my cell phone. This means I never need to worry about transferring around a single file to multiple computers.
  2. The document is backed up for me automatically, auto-saved constantly, and has version control built in, so I can revert changes easily.
  3. I can share the document with other Google Docs users or even non-users, and give varying levels of permissions. My primary editor / consultant does all his work by making comments in Google Docs, and you can even work on a document together in real time.
  4. Although it isn't as full-featured as Microsoft Word, Google Docs is simple and I can "hide" all the toolbars etc. to make it a simple white page that I type on, eliminating distractions and maximizing screen size.
There is nothing wrong with using good old fashioned MS Word, or heck, even Wordpad if you really want to keep it simple. You want to make sure that your platform can save in a generic file format like .doc, .rtf, .pdf, and .html, so that you can convert or share the file easily.  Just make sure you are saving in a generic file format by default, so that if something ever happens to your computer, that file can be used in a different program on a different computer.

Backup Solution

Which brings me to the single most important piece of software you can have: your backup solution. I cannot tell you how many clients I have dealt with over the years who've lost papers, projects, e-mails, files, heck - even whole books - because they just assumed nothing would ever happen to their computer. However, that is stupid. Laptops can be banged around, dropped, stolen, spilt on, or just plain die of old age or parts failure. Destops can fail too, just a little less often. Disaster can strike and you can have a fire, or a flood, or a nasty power surge. You can even get a virus on your computer (more on this in a second), or suffer file corruption, or just plain accidentally delete your file (I've seen this happen more than you think).

Because of all these, YOU NEED TO BACK UP YOUR WORK. I cannot stress this enough. And not just to a USB key; you need what I call "off-site backup". Save your work to a location different from where your computer lives. This is one of the reasons I like Google Docs - it backs up my data automatically. There are also cloud storage solutions like Microsoft Skydrive, Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Drive, and many others. Although they all have their pros and cons, the most important thing is to simply have one, and use it consistently and constantly. I do my actual writing and editing in Google Docs, but I format my manuscripts and ebook files, and do all my PDFs and cover images, on my laptop, and I save all those files to a Dropbox account. Dropbox is free, it is easy to use, it is web-accessible, has mobile apps, and can hold a lot of content. The other solutions out there are all equally as good in their own way, but I can't speak for any of the others, as Dropbox is the only one I use. Please, please, please get one of these solutions, and use it regularly.


Finally, you're going to want to take care of your computer and your software. Get a good anti-virus program, and make sure it runs regularly. I know people who run anti-virus and several anti-malware programs at once, and I don't recommend it; this will slow down your system and frustrate you as something (or multiple somethings) will constantly be running scans, file indexing, and so forth. Pick a good solution and do some research into how to configure it properly, and make sure it is updated.

In addition to this, make sure your computer has regular software updates. Update your browser, Flash, Java, and your computer's own system files, as well as updating any other programs, such as Office or Acrobat. A lot of security vulnerabilities can be exploited through these programs, and many virus or malware attacks take place because of improper or insufficient patching and updating of system software. Getting a nasty virus can take your computer out of commission for days or even weeks, so treat this seriously.

All right, that's it for now. Next up, we'll talk about your other software needs; ebook publishing, graphic design, and so forth.


Darkwing said...

Instead of a PC *and* a laptop, you could always get a laptop and a docking station.

Jack Badelaire said...

Definitely, although not every (or even most) laptops come designed for docking stations. However, you could jury-rig something like what I have at home.