The Writers Circle: Tools and Technology

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We have discussed this topic before, but given how rapidly technology is changing, we like to check in on this subject every so often.  What tools have do you use or have you found useful to your writing efforts?  Is there software you’ve found helpful for writing, editing or preparing a manuscript for self publishing? A particular type of laptop or tablet that has a particularly useful feature for writers? If you go with pen and paper, do you use specific types of notebooks or other means of organizing and filing your work?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


What’s My Writers Space Look Like?

Fellow blogger, Rebecca Bradley at Rebecca Bradley Crime (author of the DI Hannah Robbins detective stories, which I am not-so-patiently awaiting #2 in the series) does a fun column where she interviews authors about their first drafts. She always includes a request for a picture (or a description) of their writing space. Although everything about the posts is spot-on, a lurker’s peek into where brilliance is born is one of my favorite parts.

Naturally, I assumed you-all would like to see where I write. I have a warm home office that’s perfectly sized to avail me of my varied digital devices as well as piles of reference books I often refer to. Though my two monitors hide the view, if I crane my neck up and to the side, I get a glorious sight of my verdant back yard with the occasional horse trotting by on our homeowner equestrian trail. Here’s a picture:


For those of you who have already seen my device-filled desk, I’ve collected other offices of writers–some my blogging friends (shared with permission) and others from people who posted them as available to all. Take a look:

photoediting on dual display...

photoediting on dual display…


Desktop mix on a wooden office table background. View from above.

Desktop mix on a wooden office table background. View from above.

Yellow notes on a laptop screen

Yellow notes on a laptop screen

photoediting on dual display...

photoediting on dual display…




What do you think? Which is your favorite? What do you have that isn’t included in these?

More on writing:

4 Ways to Plan Your Writing

Proofing Your Manuscript–Ten Tips

3 Desk Organizers You Need

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

The Writers Circle: How Has Your Writing Changed?

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

As with most things in life, change is inevitable.  Thinking specifically about your writing, how has it changed over the years since you started writing?  This can be thematic, stylistic, technological or any other way in which writing has grown or changed over the years that you have been a writer.


Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

Just for Fun: Technical Failure

Just for fun, write a scene in which all technology suddenly fails to work (perhaps for an extended period of time). How do your characters react to the sudden lack of technology? How does the world in your story change without modern technology?

If you are comfortable doing so, share your work in the comments, on the forums or via a link to it on your blog.

Technology, Skimming, and the Future of Creativity

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been making my slow way through a nonfiction book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The book is a fair and fascinating look at how our brains have developed over time in response to new technologies. Carr not only looks at more recent technological developments, like the internet, but he also ventures farther back, and reflects on how our minds have changed as a result of maps, clocks, and bound and printed books, amongst other innovations.

This book is not about bashing technology or bemoaning the state of “kids these days” with their iPads and Twitter accounts and Whosits and Whatsits. It is about doing some honest reflection about what this technology might be doing to our brains, neurologically speaking, and the way we think. Carr suggests that we have become more adept at skimming and quickly collecting data, and less adept at deep thought and tasks that require prolonged attention and contemplation.

I teach both traditional and online college classes, and I have noticed in the last couple of years that my patience for anything slow is nearly non-existent. I blame the online teaching. (I’m only partly joking.) I don’t seem to have time for peripheral information, that is, anything that doesn’t serve my immediate purposes. I jump from tab to tab at staccato pacing. I do not linger. But this was not always the case.

I used to linger a lot. As a lover of literature, I lingered all the time—over long Thomas Hardy passages, over the verbal trickery of Jane Austen’s characters, over “boring” texts assigned in college classes (even if I found them boring, I still read them). I don’t think it occurred to me to skip or skim over something; to me, that seemed taboo and tantamount to disrespect. I still believe this to be true of literature, but as far as reading emails or articles, I have become a skimmer.

Regardless of where you fall in this debate, and regardless of whether you are in favor of skimming or diving (to borrow Carr’s terminology), I think the ideas in this book have some interesting implications for writers. If we accept Carr’s premise that technology is rerouting our brains, and disallowing deep thought, then will this affect our writing? Will our writing suffer because we skim? Will we have less patience for polishing our drafts, for smoothing out the rough patches? Writing takes time, thought, and revision.  As I see it, writing is not an art form for skimmers.

I’ve noticed that in the last few years, when writing or planning what to write, I have been heavily concerned with finishing.  To address that concern, I write quickly to get everything out. I have to make sure I finished what I started. Even more lately, the fear that I won’t finish, or that I’ll become disenchanted or disinterested with my topic, has stopped me from writing anything at all. It’s as if I want to be assured of the finished product, and if I can’t be, then I won’t start. I seem to have forgotten that producing something worth reading takes many iterations.

My dad, who is enjoying a second career as a writer after having been an engineer (a job that demands a methodical and patient mind), has a term for what he does when he writes and edits: editate. It’s a cross between edit and meditate, and I think it accurately conveys what a writer’s job is after the rough draft has been constructed: to get into a contemplative place, and work through the problems the draft presents in a mindful, meditative way.

Editating sounds divine, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. It’s not quick enough. It’s not immediately gratifying. And therein lies the problem: the need for immediate gratification. I get this from the internet, from my phone, from clicking between tabs, from little noises that tell me when mail or messages have arrived or when a friend has updated her Facebook account. Carr writes that all these little pings and blips are pleasurable to receive, and the more we receive them, the more we expect them, and the more of them we want.

I have never thought of myself as someone particularly up to date with technology. I don’t get the latest and greatest of any product on the market. Yet, I think I want those pings. And I don’t get them after slogging through a cumbersome sentence. I don’t get them after connecting two previously disconnected ideas. I do get something else, I suppose: a sense of slow gratification, earned and prolonged, which should be better, should be enough, but sadly, doesn’t seem to be.

If slow food is something to be praised, then so should slow writing be. But slow writing seems like death to me—like paralysis. It feels this way, despite knowing what I know about the pace of some successful writers. In an article called “How Many Words a Day?” James Thayer writes that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. And J. R. R. Tolkien took 11 years to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which comes out to a slow, and deliberate, 245 words per day. That’s a paragraph, folks. Per day.

Now, I’m not trying to say that pre-internet, writers wrote fewer words because they didn’t have all the distractions. Not so. Plenty of writers pre- and post-internet wrote/write very, very fast. Stephen King finishes a rough draft in three months (and bear in mind, his books often creep toward the 1,000 page mark). Victor Hugo produced 20 pages per day.

What I am saying is that the influence of technology’s pace may eventually show itself in our work. We may fall prey more easily to sloppy plots, quick cuts, bad edits, and misspellings. And so it’s worth asking, will a link eventually be seen between technology and the results of our (maybe) not so contemplative work? Will we be skimmers in writing, as many of us already are in reading? And what will that look like for the future of creativity?

The Writers Circle: Technology

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

There is a point where the types of technology included within your story can “date” it or limit its appeal to future readers (think rotary phones or flip-style cell phones or VCRs). Some types of fiction will benefit from such technological references, but other styles may be hampered by it.  Do you avoid specific technological references in your stories? What pros and cons do you see about including technology as part of your storytelling?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


Do you have an idea you think would be a great topic for a future The Writer’s Circle post?  Do you have a question you’d like to ask our authors?  Fill out the form on our Contact Us page to share your ideas and questions.


Software review: “Editor” by Serenity Software

I’m working with a piece of software that might be of interest to those who self-publish. It’s got the catchy name of “Editor”, a product of Serenity Software. (I bought it retail and have no sort of relationship with the company.) I’m using it to go over my novel. So far, I like it. PC World gave it four out of five stars. Since I’ve started using it, it’s pointed out some mushy text that benefited from being changed.

The software scans the text for the following (click the image to enlarge it):

Editor - usage

Notice that this goes well beyond the spelling and grammar check that’s part of MS Word. Fortunately, I haven’t yet had any of my prose flagged for “pretentious term”, but I have gotten flagged for weak constructions such as starting a sentence with “It was…”

Editor scans the prose, numbering each sentence. It then checks each sentence for potentially incorrect, odd or clumsy constructions, punctuations, spellings, etc. The basic version of the software then gives you an output listing each sentence in which it found a potential problem.

This is the first part of the output for Editor’s scan of my book, “Verbosity’s Vengeance”. It’s telling me what it sees as potential problems with sentences 49 through 219. To fix these, I scroll through the amended OUTPUT version of my file, looking at the sentence numbers it’s inserted. Here’s what the analysis output looks like:


      –finds many mechanical errors and lists words and phrases
      that are often incorrect in novice writers’ work.

  <49> [sentence structure]
  <52> onto – the
  <58> eloquence… you
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
  <62> “- struggle
  <62> which
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; use “that” or insert leading comma [G]
  <62> use – entirely
  <62> you – as
 < > [in paragraph ending with sentence 65]
  <69> is me
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR: in formal English, “is I” [I] [G]
  <81> There are
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <127> Full stop
         POSSIBLE BRITISH SPELLING OR USAGE; (if punctuation) period(s) [B]
 <154> had of
         PROBABLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; omit “of”? [G]
 <154> was him
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; in formal English, “was he” [I] [G]
 <155> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <159> lever – a
 <159> retort – he
 <167> ?!
 <176> maintaining . . . escaped
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; dangling or misplaced modifier? [G]
 <177> [sentence structure]
 <177> ..
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
 <182> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <198> free – I’m
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 209]
 <219> more pain-suppression
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 250]

How about that? There’s a grammatical mistake in sentence 69.

Note that I considered this book finished enough that I’ve been querying it to agents for months, yet in the first five minutes, I’ve gotten three dozen relatively subtle suggestions for improvement. These are things that I missed, that my beta readers missed, that my test reader missed and that MS Word missed.

Another form of analysis within Editor offers stylistic suggestions. Here are some potential issues with sentences 2171 through 2186:

<2171> I’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2174> man
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM: do you mean “humanity”? [M]
 <2176> I’ll
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2182> toast
         SLANG EXPRESSION if you mean “finished” or “done for” [O] [L]
 <2183> great
 <2184> if
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM; rule of thumb: if “whether” fits, use it [M]
 <2184> hasn’t
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2184> lifestyle
         JARGON TERM OR BUZZWORD; way(s) of life? [J]
 <2186> you’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]

So I might have used the empty intensifier “great” in sentence 2183? That’s good to know.

Another part of the Editor software looks for word repetition patterns. Have you ever read a book where the author used the word “gleaming” twice in one sentence? Or repeated a phrase he or she apparently loved, like “her eyes flashed darkly”? Phrases like that can pop up only a couple of times in a book, but they stick in the reader’s mind. This software looks for all repetitions of all phrases up to 6 words, throughout the entire book. This is VERY useful for weeding out those scenes that got moved, but not completely deleted from the original location.

In another analysis mode, Editor numbers the paragraphs and tells you which words get repeated in each and how many times. Here is the analysis of paragraphs #965 through #974:

#965.  The miasmic fog projectors . . .
     Words in paragraph: 75
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) in(3)

#966.  Around the ring of . . .
     Words in paragraph: 106
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) it(3)
       mean(3) only(3) was(3)

#968.  The Grammarian’s eyes scanned . . .
     Words in paragraph: 141
     Words used 3 or more times: he(6) of(6) to(6) his(3)
       room(3) that(3) was(3)

#970.  Professor Verbosity hadn’t been . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: to(4) be(3)

#971.  He looked around for . . .
     Words in paragraph: 119
     Words used 3 or more times: of(5) from(4) he(4) in(4)
       been(3) floor(3) part(3)

#972.  He grimaced. Anyone… including . . .
     Words in paragraph: 74
     Words used 3 or more times: was(5) he(4) that(3)

#973.  A thought formed in . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: himself(3) of(3) to(3)

#974.  The rest of the . . .
     Words in paragraph: 28
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4)

Repeating of, to, he, it, was, that, etc. might not be a problem, but I see that I also use the word “himself” three times in paragraph 973, which is relatively short at 66 words. Worth taking another look at?

The slightly more expensive version of this software comes with a plug-in for MS Word. It will analyze a .doc file on the fly, then walk you through it sentence by sentence. You can make the corrections on the spot, decide to ignore the suggestion or flag it for a later rewrite. I’ve only just started using Editor, but it has already shown me a number of ways my prose could be tightened, sharpened and cleaned up.

Is this software a substitute for a talented human content editor, copy editor and/or line editor? No. It assumes that you are already saying essentially what you want to say with your prose. It won’t tell you that the plot is too slow in the middle third or that your hero is an ass or that you spend too much time describing the food your characters are about to eat.

However, it is several important steps up from the spelling and grammar tools loaded into MS Word. The high end version of Editor is $75, a moderately significant chunk of change for an indie writer, but it’s much less than what you’d pay a decent copy editor to proofread your work.

The Kid in the Second Row

There’s always a kid in the second row who reacts to the ordinary events in class by laughing hysterically. She engages the other kids in companion giggles and breaks up the rhythm the teacher has so carefully plotted. A lesson on carrying numbers from one column to the next, and the kid in the second row is laughing because the lines of numbers on the board wobble like a falling tower. A lesson on the construction of a sentence into parts that move, parts that enhance, and parts that command, and the kid in the second row is laughing because the teacher finds more life in those parts than in the kids listening to her.

The kid doesn’t mean to interrupt any more than the teacher means to forget it’s kids she is teaching and not rows of boxed crackers. It’s just that the kid takes in more than the teacher intends. The second row kid sees the irony of stringing words on a page to describe things that never happen. Tommy sits in a tall tree reading a book. But the Tommy the second row kid knows throws apples at Jimmy trying to climb the tree, and neither boy is supposed to be there anyway because it’s Mr. Hutchins’ tree, and he hates kids. What’s the point of parsing a sentence about paper kids doing bland things when very real kids are doing forbidden things? The second row kid finds it funny.

I know. I was the kid in the second row, laughing at things no one else found funny. Laughter has carried me through turmoil after turmoil as it has many of us. You know what they say. Keep ‘em laughing. Laughter is the best medicine. Laugh first then cry. All the frayed adages about how to get from 6:00 A.M. to 12:00 A.M. without collapsing from grief, anger, frustration. Ten-year-old kids aren’t supposed to feel such dense emotions, but they do, and I did, so I laughed. Hysterically. Bouts of exploding, pulsing, shrieking, breathless, unladylike laughter. All of it one hiccup from torrents of tears.

Four weeks ago I accepted an invitation to join the Today’s Author team. Three weeks ago my husband and I committed to bundling our communication systems. Our house is old, as in old, dangerously-eroded wiring, a TV the size and shape of a doghouse, a phone system so old it can’t identify friends from solicitors, an old computer patch-worked from still-older computer components. More than a decade into the new century and we finally decided to update and bundle. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? This bundling meant dumping our old multiple-provider communication systems and importing one company for better access to the world. One big cable slithering through our house and we’d have phone, TV, and computer all spooning like teenage lovers. The salesman was at our door, and we broke down against all our better senses not to purchase on impulse. We bought the whole system. I would submit my first work to Today’s Author on newly laid cables.

And then the trouble began. I wanted to move the computer to another room. Bob wanted to move our sorta new big screen TV into the cabinet where the doghouse still transmitted network shows. We wanted a new phone whose buttons didn’t stick. Impulse means you never plan as much as you should. In our case we didn’t plan anything, we just signed papers.

So when the new computer modem got plugged into the room where the computer isn’t yet located, the old modem refused to connect us to the information highway, and I was stuck on the road to nowhere – a writer with tools no more current than a stylus pouncing into clay tablets. No Internet, and of course no email, and it took forever to figure out why. (New cable company cut the cord to the old phone company and therefore the cord to the old Internet provider – oh, we said, that’s the problem! The computer problem will get fixed when our personal communications administrator, our son, comes this weekend to hook us up to the new modem.)

The landline phone didn’t work at all. No messages outgoing. Nothing incoming, not even, and for this I will be forever thankful, those damned uninvited solicitors. New cable company couldn’t figure out why and came to our house many times trying to correct the problem, after many, many complaining calls from our cell phones. Nearly a week without the landline or the solicitors, and the house phones finally worked. No one has called except the solicitors, though there are 15 unrecoverable messages. If you left a message, let us know.

We’d packed the stuff out of the two bookcases adjacent and connected to the cabinet where our doghouse used to sit in all its antique broadcast glory. Boxes and boxes of books, knickknacks, and framed photos are stacked on the floor and tables, so we could move the cabinet that awaited the sorta new big screen TV to take its place in the doghouse space. This required my resident handyman, my husband Bob, to craft a steel frame to support the big screen in a space too small to house it. Tedious to explain, just trust me that Bob designed an ingenious solution where most people would have dumped the old cabinets and purchased new.

Understand also that we’ve owned the big screen for two years and four months, but it has sat on a table near the doghouse. We only used it to watch rented movies a few hours each weekend, because it wasn’t installed in the new housing location, and we hadn’t yet signed up for new digital something-or-other for better reception. (Now you know why our personal administrator doesn’t let us fix our own computer.) We’ve perhaps used our sorta new big screen for 250 hours since purchasing it.

Finally set into its new frame, plugged in to the new cable system, bundled for efficiency and one slightly smaller bill, we watched our first show on the big screen. The brilliant colors, the crisp definition, the clear sounds all brought sighs of ecstasy. Bundling was fun.

And then the sorta new big screen failed. I turned it on the second day and it turned itself off. Click, just like that. It flashed its brand across the bottom and then flickered out. Nothing, no channel surfing, no network TV, no cable shows, no music, nada, nothing at all, baby. The thing wouldn’t do its job. Many more angry phone calls to the cable company and to the TV maker, and we found out that an unlikely confluence of black stars and skewed orbits had scourged our little plot of earthly connectivity. The sorta new big screen TV was broken. Its main circuit, its motherboard, four months past warranty, was beyond reasonable repair, unless you think that fixing the thing for about half its cost with only a three-month guarantee is a repairable commodity. We didn’t. We were unbundled as quick as that.

Still no Internet (or email), still no phones calls worth receiving (doesn’t anyone love us a little?), still no big screen TV. We’ve shopped around a bit but a bona fide brand new TV will cost more than we planned to leave to our sons. We’ll be researching for a while yet. Don’t send the door-to-door salesmen our way. We will not be tempted to any more impulse purchases.

Bob had one more brilliant idea. He hauled the broken big screen off its steel mount and banned it to the shadowy sidelines. He lifted the old dog house (wow, do those things weigh a lot) to its original space in the bookcase, hooked up the cable, and turned it on. “Look,” he said, “it works.” And it did. We got the weather channel. All stations, all weather, all the time. The old TV worked, at least it worked in the sense that it stayed on, but all we could see was snow. Bushels and bushels of snow.

A week of being without modern communication, the kind I’m told yak shepherds in Outer Mongolia can access via cell phones with more technology than the first rockets thrust into outer space in the 1950’s, and here we were in Southern California in 2013, bundled with our new all-purpose provider, unable to connect to the Internet, getting sporadic phone service, and watching snow on our old TV.

I am still the kid in the second row, and I did what that ten-year-old did: I laughed. Hysterically. A bout of exploding, pulsing, shrieking, breathless, unladylike laughter. All of it one hiccup from torrents of tears. For about three full minutes. I couldn’t stop. Bob clicked all the channel buttons, dozens of them, and got snow after snow, and I laughed.

In the coming months I’d like to make friends with you and tell you about my stories and my writing journey. I hope my writing will make you laugh till you cry and cry without shame. I want you to see the kid in the second row for what she is, and maybe you will tell me about yourself. We’ll talk, we’ll write, we’ll share, we’ll cry, and we’ll laugh lots. Be well, friend.