What Works for Me…

In the course of writing, and throughout life overall, I’ve found that many people, men and women, alone or in groups, young and old, in any social strata or structure—they have a way of accumulating tools and tricks and shortcuts and services that are indispensable to them.

Yet if you were to look into the physical and virtual tool chests of people around the globe, the variety of “what works for me” is shockingly diverse.  Some people make do, and some go free, or cheap.  Some people pay thousands of dollars for a wonderful tool they never use.

On the whole, however, there is always a short list of indispensable articles and items and techniques and assisting wonders.  I have mine, you have yours, and some overlap, and some are uniquely wonderful.

This page is 100% from the heart, and I guarantee I have used every single item on here, much of it for longer than half the earth’s human population has been alive.

Authors don’t make much of a living, or average ones do not—one reason for this list in the first place is to provide as many free or inexpensive solutions as I can—but I also use affiliate programs, partly to make an extra buck or two, partly to “see” via the trickle of revenues that comes in, what I’ve recommended and how it works for my readers here.

And if something doesn’t work well for you, please, I encourage you to let me know.  At the present, I tend to primarily use the Windows 7 Pro and/or Windows 10 Pro OS (operating system) on Apple hardware.  What this means is that I have high-end Apple MacBook Pro 13.3″ and 15″ laptops with i7 processors and SSD drives with maxed-out RAM, and a program (free) called Basecamp allows me to then run 99% of my life in Windows, but I can flip back to Mac OS at any time.  Rarely will I recommend a Mac OS-only item, simply because I use Mac OS relatively less often for PC or “real” laptop computing power—this ignores iPhones and various other Apple products, on which I do use iOS or Mac OS and applications and iTunes and the Apple Store and so forth.

Let’s get this party started.

General Inspiration…

Other authors and their works! But, you knew that one. I love to read, but I try to go “dark” on day-eating and soul-bending topics to include all but catastrophic news, politics, religion, and yes, even other authors/books when I am trying to write. Exceptions, very important exceptions, are reference works, nonfiction, word references, etymologies, Wikipedia (laugh if you want, but go lose yourself fifty-tabs-open-deep for several hours in some esoteric topic(s) you know little to nothing about, and see if you don’t want to write something about that before you’re done.

Newsletters and Mailings…

Wikipedia has a good one(s) such as English Wikipedia Article of the Day that can spur productivity (or lack thereof) via email. A bit more deliberately unusual is the newsletter from Atlas Obscura, which is quite random and not always the final word, but if an idea captures your interest, it could capture a reader’s just as easily. Similar is the excellent Mental Floss, Dictionary.com has a WOTD (word of the day) and many another does as well: Merriam-Webster and a bunch of others. I personally don’t get excited by QOTD (quote of the day) most of the time, but you do you.

Depending on your genre and scope and interests, Latest Science News: ScienceDaily could be a quick-scroll way to see if anything’s shaking today in the world of graphene nanostructures or solar wind harvesters or strong artificial intelligence (AI) or whatever else. Also a good bit of health and happiness rolls through there, which can remind you to include various kinds of non-Barbie, non-Ken characters. Disease, age, diet, illness, death—to really “appreciate” the variety of human suffering, medical journals are… great. Pinterest can be very good for certain things, one of which will deserve its own note.

The OED—the Oxford English Dictionary (online).  This is expensive.  Period.  Your local school or library may very well have a subscription, and if they do, and you can limit your awe to their hours of operation and physical premises, lovely.  I can’t.  For $300-400 USD annually, this is one of the highest-return (ROI) products I have ever paid for, and I cannot imagine life without it.  The dictionary is wonderful, and the Historical Thesaurus is divine—sometimes I wish it were organized better, but the HT is only a couple of years “old” at the time of this writing (2017) and has come along a little: human design interfaces often change incrementally with feedback and time.  I remember when it was paper or nothing, and it was pricey then, too.  The one-volume teeny-tiny “literally comes with a totally necessary magnifying glass” edition is one of my favorite physical volumes to hold, tough, smell, and use.  But the whole “search and click” kills that nostalgia dead in efficiency terms.  Speaking of searching, head to DuckDuckGo or Google or whatever you prefer, and you can often find 10-35% promotional discount codes. PS—not an affiliate link.

Images for Facebook, Blogging, Promotions, Illustrations, and Content…

Unsplash is fantastic. These are searchable, extremely high-resolution images you can use, with or without credit, with or without changes and modifications and they’re royalty-free and just, wow, really? It is, of course, polite to credit the photographers, but it’s also nice to not be forced to worry about doing so, and to bite your fingernails because lawyers could bang on the door in a small herd the second you make an honest mistake because nobody can understand royalties and how they work. That said, note that sometimes products or brands or service marks and AnythingTM like that may be present in the photographs, so a reminder to be careful and know your rights and requirements when it comes to using a Pepsi or Oakley or a ton of other stuff for cover art, even when the art itself was not attribute-required or demanded a complex licensing model. Searchable and I recommend subscribing to the (this remains the case as of 2017) weekly “download a curated pack of images this week” email reminder, which previews what you’ll be grabbing. Or hope they do great forever and take your chances and save on external hard drives. Whatever works for you. The images used on this blog are either my own photographs, or, increasingly over the years, images from Unsplash. See the pencils at the top of this blog post? Yup. Unsplash.

For paid photography and vectors and illustrations, I used iStockPhoto.com for many years, and they rewarded my roughly $300-500 USD/year by resetting my “credits” to zero every anniversary and raising their prices in rampant, blatant inflation (by diluting “credits”) in a manner that was so lame I don’t even go back for their monthly freebies of 1-2 stock images, 1 audio sample, and 1 video as of 2017. It is quite possible this set of policies, which upset many people, had been reversed, but as iStock was happy to behave in this manner for a long, long time, I will be equally slow to recommend them as a company. If I had to buy images of a general sort, I’d look at Shutterstock, where you can go broke just as quickly, but at least you know you are getting—for example, you can get 25 images for $229 USD today (June 2017) versus 24 arbitrary credits for $220 on iStockPhoto, or iStock by Getty Images, as it is now named. Some items you would likely not want on your cover are 1-credit, most are 3-credit or higher.

Affordable, Quality Book “Covers” (Digital) and Custom Cover Work…

Fiverr and oodles of similar systems exist. I have no real ethical problem with paying someone a pittance they find satisfactory because it sure is better than straining the river water for edible bits of whatever is floating past today. Heck, I have done a hundred gigs on such sites to “stay grounded” (spoiler: it is hard to stay grounded if you are wealthy) those times I’ve found myself booking a quarter million a year doing everything that is not related to starving and arting. Yes, that’s a word. Remember how I recommended the OED? Yeah, that’s why. So maybe I used the word incorrectly, and maybe it is obsolete and rare, but… look, this is why you have to get the OED. Want a character name? I hereby present you with the delightful M. Fotherby (research shows he was the Bishop of Salisbury) in his endearingly-titled Atheomastix, which in 1622 immortalized the noun “arting, or fained palliation” in his opus, precisely here, since you’re surely ordering a copy right now: i. xii. §2. 125. Anyway. Fiverr does offer some fine services. Perhaps ones very much like, or even used by, services like the one I am about to recommend. However, I’ve also seen a lot of cheap, but not free, utter garbage come from Fiverr gigs, and there are often queues and lines and, no fault to those poor sods flinging-out fifty covers a day to eke an existence, it’s not exactly a one-on-one. It’s transactional and it’s faceless, and if that works for you, then, no sarcasm, go for it—there are some absolute gems to be found on Fiverr and friends.

Or.

I have never met James from Go On, Write, I do not know what James looks like, but I will say this: I spent thousands upon thousands of dollars over 10+ years—this was very much a collaborative failure, and I played my part well there, but still—laboring over “traditional artists” with commissioned cover pieces, actual paintings and my helpful feedback or original statements like “so what I need is a sense of creeping cultural appropriation with a dash of hormonal teen lust, symbolized by a high school mascot, except alive, so think like, a real barn owl withdraw into shadow, but with human eyes, judging and carefully not stepping in a pool of what might be blood that is touching a crucifix on a necklace that has clearly been dropped and might be broken, the blood reaching for the cross…” yeah so, that’s great if you’re… actually, no it isn’t. If you are spending $10,000 USD on your novel’s cover art and fonts, plus three months of elbow-to-elbow work with an artist who has more color in their hair than on canvas, then “you” are not the author, but “you” are instead an intern or agent or publishing assistant or helper of some sort, and power and love to you, because such people are indispensable at that level. But if you are reading this, you probably have a “not ten thousand” cover budget, and in that case, “you is you” and you are probably guilty of the crime of opening an image-manipulation program and trying a combination of the Comica Sans and Papyrus fonts on top of some cute photograph you took of your cat with your phone, but the cat sort of moved and… but isn’t she just adorable? No. She isn’t. Or she is, but not on the front of your book. Probably. You’re trying to sell stuff, or if you are anti-capitalist and can’t stand to imagine you will eat or pay rent from the proceeds of your four-year sabbatical in mom’s basement, fine, you are trying to… “reach the masses” or something, and the masses won’t reach back if your cover is junk.

So, this brings us back to James. I’ve seen “secret” (plastered on the front page, but you do need to check from time to time so as not to miss such things) $20/cover sales. Not Fiverr $20, like, stuff you can use, $20 (normally $50 but even then, worth it). So what do you get? Thanks for asking. You get one or more composited image(s) from ShutterStock you cannot ask (for $20-50) James to mess-with, and you get a master designer and complementary-color fonts and so forth all ready-made. Namely, you get to say “I like that cover” and then you replace W. SHERIDAN BRADFORD or whatever amazing name is a placeholder on the cover with your own… less amazing name. I kid, I kid. Your name is pretty freaking sweet. So, author name-swap. Likewise for the title and, if applicable, taglines or sub-titles, e.g. “Billy Gruffbridge #9” or whatever you are unleashing on an unsuspecting world. Normally, as of late 2017, the covers run $50 off-sale. These covers are as simple as stated, but I have yet to see a response take more than 12-24 hours, James speaks native English and is helpful with stupid questions (mine; yours will be smart, obviously) pre-sales and post-sales—the guy is simply great. You can also go wild and get a semi-custom cover where you pick an image (from Shutterstock or whatever else; ask James about it first, is my advice) and you can ask that he fiddle with font picks and get not only the Amazon-style 2D front “cover” art, but even the real-deal paperback sort of wraparound “print on demand” sort of cover. All that will set you back a couple hundred USD, or that range, but if you like what you see on his site, especially a specific something you see, and think “darn, if it could just…” then you should really love working with James. Fun fact: James sells his covers one time. I have seen books by different authors in the same and different genres with the same exact stock-photo model or whatever literally half a dozen times, and while this won’t matter to most readers, who probably have not seen as many covers as I do… eh, it’s nice to know your cover is somewhat original, but didn’t cost the moon. As of late-2017, I’ve had six covers from James. Only one wasn’t “good enough” when it arrived, and guess whose fault that was? Yeah, not James. It cost $50, then I found one that worked better on-sale and spent $20 on the other five, so $70 USD on the one (two) cover, all the rest ran $20 each. Phenomenal.

Human Editors… and Lawyers and Accountants and Agents and…

This is not a non-endorsement of human editors. Please, for the love of all that is holy and the warding-off of much that is not, get an editor. Not you, not your boyfriend, not that lady walking dogs in the park who you know has her B.A. from an online source and loves to read… you really, really need an editor. And so do I. Which is why I am not including an editor or an agent, nor for that matter, legal or accounting links here for the time being. Yes, I have an accountant. And lawyers, and stuff. I also have a corporation that is not feeding from my book profits, which is why it can afford such people and services. Keep track of what you spend in a simple spreadsheet and file deductions if you can and if you need a lawyer, you probably don’t need me to tell you that—you already know. I do “know of” several human editors and audio / Aubidle narrators and more, but as I have not worked with any of them—none I strongly endorse in a positive way—sorry, blank here. Have a favorite? I’d love to hear from you, and if they check-out, they could well show here someday.

Organizing and Backups and Tracking Web, Social, and your Manuscripts and Research / Reference Work…

This is boring, but here is my process. I save like a caged rat with a button to press for more meth, Ctrl+S, all day long. I have a 256Gb SSD microdrive (fingernail sized; often seen inside cell phones as an expansion, though rarely this large in capacity; I could easily get by with 32Gb or 64Gb for even pretty ambitious projects) and/or the larger format SD/SDHC/SDXC cards such as are often used in large dSLR cameras. I’m looking at you, Canon (and loving you). These are slightly bigger than a stamp, if anyone remembers what a stamp looks like… and also external “spinning” hard drives because 4Tb is not ridiculously expensive and you can ghost entire internal (PC/laptop) HDDs onto a 4Tb drive and still have room for research of a lifetime unless you work with or reference gobs of video. Oftentimes a small-format “plug into the USB, powered by laptop/PC” 2Tb drive that is about the size of a pack of playing cards. Those large external drives cycle into a firesafe by the handful, and are sized like a VCR cassette tape and weigh a couple of pounds each; and yes, I know, VCR tapes are something many of you have never seen before, so get off my lawn… uh, right… so, a lawn is a piece of property, often flat and covered with grass that… you know what, just leave, okay?

Aside from linking to a bunch of USB thumb drives and other goodies, the one thing I will offer is Pinterest. I have strong, loud opinions on not using what someone else owns as a critical failure point in your own work and life, and for this reason I do not push for or use Medium, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram—you get the idea—for anything I care even a tiny bit about, in professional terms of long-haul reference, storage, creation, art, etc. That said…

Pinterest is good for a variety of creative reasons. In keeping with my “never park your favorite pickup in another person’s pasture” mindset, I have not done this with truly critical research, yet, and I am old and set in my ways, and have numerous alternatives because I have the funding to be picky, but here is where Pinterest can really shine: characters, clothing, locales, atmosphere, the list is endless. With private boards, and this depends entirely on your creation, but say you have a detective novel with five suspects and one good guy/gal and one bad guy/gal and a handful of important locations, e.g. the murder scene or a location of a fight, or some place described in high detail such as the protagonist’s home or flat or vehicle. Pinterest can allow you to create endless visual representations of the exact weapons, clothing, physical approximations of people, exact or near-exact vehicles from many angles, tons of “rooms” and buildings, and you can supply your own images or use anything (almost; some sites block Pinterest) you find on the internet, or the search within Pinterest itself to flesh-out major concepts. That can really help with family trees and other “collections” you might not think to use such a site or service for otherwise. Or use endless nested folders and 500,000 word-count documents like I do—yup, it’s insane.

Tools for Word Processing, Drafting, Text Formatting, ePub and MOBI and Amazon Kindle-ready…

NotePad++ is a Windows-only product as of the present (2017) time, it costs nothing, and it is perhaps the best simple text editor of all time—also HTML and CSS and more, if you are into web design or maintain your own site—oh, and it is “free” in that it costs nothing and does not flood you with ads.  Barebones, it is excellent.  Add custom language packs (if necessary) and dictionaries and more, and it is truly a powerhouse of a program with extreme capabilities, even on non-extreme Windows computers and tablets.  Where MS Word will crash for “understandable” reasons, NotePad++ rarely will follow suit, and remains stable when I am dealing with fifty open chapters or a million words of open documents.  Even when I do something weird like search in all open documents or perform a global find-and-replace—that has been my experience for a decade and counting, and I hope this lovely tool never fades away.

Sigil—as I personally spent thirty years on computers, from command-line prompts to the first Word Processors such as WordStar, and given a heavy technical background and web-focused jobs and interests throughout that entire time, programs such as NotePad++ (above) are much more familiar to me, and “better” in my estimation, than dedication book-making and formatting tools such as Sigil.  That said, there is little to complain about in Sigil, and even if you wrote a novel or whatever else in Microsoft Word (MS Word) or something else that uses “smart” quotes and automatic curling ‘single’ apostrophes and ellipses (…) and so forth, Sigil allows for basic, functional find-and-replace, it has real-time formatting previews, a table of contents (helps to know a teeny bit of HTML style markup there), and it’s been around a while and… it’s no-cost, as in, “free” without adverting or other distractions.  Hard to complain about that!  Sigil will pop-out an ePub format novel (or whatever) in seconds if you are not too worried about code bloat or hidden junk Microsoft or other source programs may have introduced, and in an easy afternoon even if you are an optimization freak like… some people I know.  Cough.  I will say that Sigil does “crash” from time to time, and I would not rely upon this program as a primary source, script, document, or other repository for work in progress as far as the creative process goes.  Personal opinion there!

Calibre—Okay, so the short version of how I personally do things is, while I should know better at my age, I tend to use MS Word to handle manuscript creation and the fifty-three billionteen ancillary and referential documents, links, images, and so forth, all of which got thrown into date-iterative folders on redundant backup drives.  So once I finish a manuscript in MS Word, to the point of publication, having used its grammar and dictionary and custom dictionary features liberally, real-time word-count and all that sort of joy, such that on a very large-dimensioned 4K or 5K monitor, I can read 10+ pages of the book without scrolling around, I then use NotePad++ to handle any global find-and-replaces for special characters, possible typos or fumble-fingered or even mid-book name changes where Lilly becomes Lily.  And then Sigil to make an ePub and then Calibre to handle cover-art assignation and final prep, to include the creation of a MOBI file/folder, which then gets me into the rollicking world of Amazon and the Kindle Store (or similar destinations online).  Calibre is visually imperfect and what snooty designers such as myself used to call “developer-grade UI” and since I was a snooty developer, too, I feel fine with that mild criticism.  However, as mentioned before, the user interface is “simple” to change, and in the end, as long as your eBook or pamphlet or dissertation or novel or whatever else looks good at final destination, e.g. on a Kindle-type device, do you care too much about the tool that got you there?  The well-documented, user-friendly, entirely no-cost, no-ads tool?  Didn’t think so.

There are many other tools I use, and I am ashamed to admit I have thousands of dollars in “oh, I will need that to be a writer” junk, to include a very nice mechanical pencil and leadholder and ink pen collection, and… guess what? They don’t write any better ideas down than any other instrument with a similar functionality. If you don’t have everyday access or all-day access to a computer, I use SMS messages (with dictation) or Gmail (with dictation) and clearly articulated if softly-spoken “Note to Self” (NTS) to handle my middle of the night and “honey, I don’t care if it’s a Retina model, this is a wedding” and other such emergencies. If you have no super-mobile-phone, buy or borrow or steal (most people will hand you one if they find one in their purse or pack; true story) any kind of #2 pencil, or a cheapie 0.5mm or 0.7mm or 0.9mm mech-pencil, and steal some printer-copier paper, no Moleskine needed, and if you have something you need to say, you will write.

Cheers!

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