Writing tools

In honour of NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, here’s a post on how I get writing done.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

What is NaNo?

If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, where an awful lot of people commit to writing 50,000 words (in classic form, of a novel or other fictional work. But there are lots of Nano Rebels, too.) There are write-in events in many locations, and lots of other ways to connect. I’ve done things for Nanos before, but I think I have a really good shot at winning (that is, getting to 50K) this year.

(Learn more here.)

My writing

Since last Nanowrimo, I have been alternating between a fiction project and various shorter forms of non-fiction (blog posts here, posts for Seeking, etc.) I keep a daily spreadsheet for a lot of things, including my daily wordcount, and I average about 1000 words a day (give or take a couple of hundred), though I have some days with only a few hundred, and a few days where I do three thousand or more. (I can’t keep that up for very long, though!)

When: I do my writing in the evenings. I come home from work (a pretty standard day job, though I start work at 7:30am and end at 4, getting home between 4:30 and 5.) I make dinner, putter around online, and then sometime between 8 and 9, I settle in and write for an hour.

If something’s being really demanding in my head, wanting to get own on the page, I sometimes write for half an hour over lunch, but that’s pretty rare.

How:¬†Like a lot of writers, I have some little rituals that help. I usually have something to drink (seltzer water or herbal tea). I have a series of playlists in Spotify for different moods that don’t have words (try mining other people’s playlists for ideas – lots of movie soundtracks work. Try searching for RPG (role playing game) playlists: there are a bunch out there for different moods or energy levels (fight scenes vs. resting, etc.)

Tools

I’m currently doing most of my initial drafting on a site called 4thewords.com which is a gamification tool for writers. You write a certain number of words in a certain time frame to defeat monsters and complete quests. (And they do special quest series for Nanowrimo and a couple of other events during the year!) There’s a small fee to support the site, $4 a month (with some options for winning additional time in some ways.)

Turns out, I am in fact a sucker for completely quests to get nifty clothes for my avatar. It’s also handy to have a (sometimes very rough) draft somewhere web accessible.

When I finish a fiction section or longer non-fiction (usually a chapter), it goes into Scrivener (an app beloved by many writers, that lets you manipulate sections and has a number of additional handy tools) where I can more easily do additional editing.

For shorter things (like blog posts), it goes into Ulysses, a writing app that has a convenient posting tool from right inside the app.

Then I make notes about how many words I wrote in my spreadsheet. I have one sheet that is a log of what I wrote (how many words, what it was in general terms – so “BookTitle – 35” for chapter 35 of that particular book. or “Seeking – cost” for a reminder of the topic. Then I have another sheet that calculates by type of writing, so I can see the different projects over the course of the month. (At the end of the month, this gets transferred to a yearly archive spreadsheet, so I can look at long-term stats if I want to.)

You’ll want different tools, quite possibly, but I’ve discovered this combination works well for me, and keeps me chugging along with good productivity.

Inexpensive information sources

I was talking to someone last weekend about Pagan topics, and money’s tight for her (like it is for a lot of people), so we got to talking a bit about the usefulness of the library.

Which leads me to wanting to talk about some tips for getting books inexpensively in general.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

‚ÄčThe library

Let’s start with the most obvious – libraries exist to share materials so we don’t all have to buy our own. This is a win for basically everyone involved. (Even for authors. If their work is popular, the library will probably buy more copies. A copy in the library means many more people may explore their work, and eventually start buying it.)

There are some complexities, though.

1) Library purchasing practices

Libraries do buy books on a huge range of topics (unless they’re a specialised library). However, many libraries rely on a fairly limited set of sources to figure out what they’re going to buy. Large library systems may have a structure to how items are selected (some libraries routinely order a certain number of copies of books in particular categories, like award winners or new books by a list of much-loved authors.) In many cases, libraries look at a number of review publications (designed for librarians) and make selections from that.

That is a great start, but there are a lot of limitations to it. One big one (for Pagans and other people with esoteric interests – and I’m using that word both in the magical and occult sense, and in the sense of ‘interests that are uncommon and not widely shared’) is that those review publications don’t include a wide range of books in the relevant field.

In a previous library job we got Booklist, one of the major publications for library reviews, and there’d be a handful of books a year on explicitly Pagan, magical, or divinatory topics that got reviewed. There’d be other relevant titles (myths, herbs, history, and so on.) There’s only so much room in the publication, after all. Mostly those would be books from mainstream publishing houses that publish an occasional Pagan title, and a select few from the bigger metaphysical and magical publishers like Llewellyn or Weiser.

2) Publishing methods

Libraries buy most of their books from traditional publishers. While there’s been a big rise in the number of self-published books (and I’m gearing up to do some of that!) it’s been a big challenge for libraries. That’s because the quality is so incredibly varied, and because people doing independent publishing methods often aren’t aware of what information libraries used to make their decisions, or what they need to consider adding.

(Take a look at the copyright page of a traditionally published book, and you’ll see a lot of information that looks a bit incomprehensible, but has cataloging information for libraries. When a book doesn’t have that, someone has to create it for the library to use, and that takes staff time and therefore money. When the publisher provides it, the library still has to do some steps, but most of the time-consuming part is already done, and they just have to make the changes for their particular standards.)

It’s also just plain hard for libraries to find out about small press or indie published books. It can take really significant time to search sites, figure out what formats are available, and so on. (And quality for format of printed books can also be poor, and not hold up to circulation.)

Because of this, many libraries have limited selections of indie books. Sometimes their collection development policy will be available online and explain how they handle this (for example, they may collect books from local authors, or set in or about the local area, but not others.)

3) Library networks and interlibrary loan

Getting books via the library network is often what happens with esoteric books (more specialised topics, in less active demand). You may need to plan ahead a bit, but if some library in the system has it, you can get it fairly quickly, check it out as many times as your library lets you renew it, and enjoy!

4) Requesting books

One great way to get books into public libraries is to see if the library has an option for requesting titles. You enter the information about the book (title, author, publisher) and usually there’s a way to comment on why you think it’s of interest. There’s usually a box where you can sign up to be the first person to check it out if the library buys the title.

Libraries review these requests, and if there’s money in the budget and the book seems like a good fit for the collection, they may well buy it. Picking books that have really solid reviews will help a lot.

A word about libraries and privacy

Privacy when using the library is a key part of library ethics, and librarians and library staff shouldn’t be sharing what you’ve checked out unless required to by law (which in many libraries involves a subpoena). Many libraries actually delete loan records once the item is returned specifically so they can’t be forced to share that information.

That said, if you use a local library where the staff know you, they can’t erase the part of their brain that’s about you checking out books on a particular topic. Library ethics says they shouldn’t talk about it, but sometimes people do gossip. If you have concerns about privacy, consider getting your esoteric topic books at a different library, or even a different library network.

Used books

If you’re trying to save money, used books are a great way to go. Amazon has extensive listings for used books, and ABE Books is now a subsidiary company of Amazon, but has independent listings. There are other used book seller online tools.

In general, for online sellers, look for ones who have a good rating (I look for 95% or better satisfaction), and whose shipping prices are reasonable. (A lot of places price the book very cheaply, but make it up in shipping charges. If the book is cheap enough, that’s not a big deal, but it can make it harder to make comparisons.)

Another option is to find a used bookstore – if you find a store that has the kinds of books you’re generally interested in, the owner or staff may be willing to keep a wish list for you, or to help you search for particular titles.

Some Pagan, esoteric, or metaphysical stores have used book sections, or Pagan community groups may have periodic book sales or other chances to swap materials.

If you get to know people in the community, you may also hear about chances to pick up books inexpensively – sometimes if people are moving, or their focus has shifted, they’ll be glad to part with books to someone who will appreciate them.

You can also occasionally find great things at library book sales. (Often these books are donations, not books from the library collection that have been withdrawn.)

Ebooks

If you can read ebooks, they can sometimes be very affordable options. I subscribe to a couple of announcement lists for ebooks on sale, and have a running list of titles that I’m interested in.

This is harder to do specifically with esoteric books (though if you have favourite authors, it can be worth getting on their newsletter or email announcement list) but for history, cookbooks, and some types of wellness or lifestyle books, it can be a great way to pick up books you’re interested in at a steep discount.

(It can also be hard on your bank account, so be cautious here!)

What not to do

If money’s tight, it can be easy to be tempted by pirated copies – PDFs of books that sometimes get circulated in various ways. There’s a couple of reasons not to do this.

First, it can destroy the market for an author’s future work getting published. (Which, if you like their work, is something you probably care about.) It can also damage the ability of publishers to put out new works. (Especially smaller publishers – and basically, every esoteric or magical book publisher is a small publisher, just for different definitions of small.)

Publishers rely on data about what’s selling (and how) to make decisions not just about an author’s books, but about other books on similar topics or similar approaches.

Second, it can open your computer up to viruses, malware, and other bad things. Not worth it!

And finally but most importantly, it’s just wrong. Authors work hard on their books. They may choose to share some material for free, but that choice needs to be up to them. They can benefit from library sales or giveaways, or other ways of sharing books that put them out in the world cheaply, without the utterly destructive effects of pirated books.

For the same reasons, don’t take copies from libraries and not bring them back. Libraries have limited resources, and in many cases, they can’t afford to replace copies that go missing (or not quickly). Bring your books back. If you’ve honestly lost a copy and can’t find it, talk to the library staff: they can suggest the best options.

In case of emergency: finding information in a crisis

Finding out what’s going on in an emergency can be complicated. Figuring out what to believe is even more so.

Quick! Research Needed!

I’ve been thinking about that this week because the gas line explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley (north of Boston) and the communities of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover were right near me. (I’ve spent a lot of time in the latter two places earlier in my life, and I have friends living in one of those towns. I live closer to Boston.)

If you’re in the middle of a crisis, and you need information, here’s the key things you need to know (there’s explanation further down the page.)

Key tips

1) Texts (and sometimes emails) get through when other kinds of information won’t. Try those if you’re having problems with other options.

Text is tiny, in computer terms. Images, webpages, voice connections, all take up a lot more data.

2) Figure out who will be in charge of the problem.

Look at their sites and social media accounts for information and pointers. If it’s a natural disaster, that might mean state and federal emergency management. If the problem is in a town or city, look for the local government accounts and pages. You may want to check the relevant police departments.

3) Pick a couple of reliable sources for information.

Good choices include major local news stations (If you don’t know what to pick I recommend the local public radio station in the US.) Big main station, though, somewhere that’s got enough local staff to send people out on the scene and do deeper investigation.

You may also want to check out official sources like the town or city government page, the town or city Twitter feed or other social media pages, and relevant police departments or emergency management resources.

4) See if you can get a friend who’s in a different physical location to help with information.

They’ll have access to more resources, and less trouble getting them to load (or they can more easily look for options.)

5) Be conscious of battery and signal issues.

Limit use if you’re not sure how you’re going to recharge. Get yourself somewhere safe, let people know you’re safe, and then use it only for critical information.

Things you can do before a crisis hits:

1) Have a go bag.

There are lots of great resources out there for what to pack, so let me address the information front. Consider:

  • A battery or method of recharging electronic devices. Charging plugs are also a great idea. (If you have one for travel, have it live in your go bag when you’re not using it for that.)
  • Key information (phone numbers, addresses, basic directions) in case you can’t use your devices. Include a couple of people not in your local area who are likely to pick up or answer.
  • Index cards or a notebook (and a pen) for making notes about what you need, what’s happening, or information you’re told.
  • If you might need to evacuate, add some form of identification. If you don’t want to bring a passport or birth certificate, consider high quality photocopies.

2) Know where pet carriers and related equipment are.

Some evacuation shelters will take pets, other places will make arrangements for animal shelters or vets to help. Whatever the solution, if you need to get your pet out, you need a way to do that safely. That might mean a carrier, a sturdy leash and harness, or something else. Make sure to have some pet food you can pack and rotate in your go bag or with the carrier.

3) Think about places you could go.

If there’s a hurricane or a blizzard, your entire area is probably going to have problems – in that case you either need to make a significant evacuation, or you need to stay put. (Depending on the situation.)

But in other cases, getting a town or two away may be enough. Do you have friends nearby you could stay with in a pinch? Or who would at least let you regroup there and figure out the next options? Talk to people, make a note, so that if there’s a situation, you don’t have to decide who you call first.

4) Identify good sources of news in advance. Write them down if you need to.

You don’t need to listen to the news every day, or watch it, but have a sense of what the most reliable and helpful stations are that you can get easily. That way, if there’s an issue, you have a place to start.

I suggest the local public radio or TV stations (in Boston, these are WGBH and WBUR) because they tend to be right on top of regional news, but have the resources of a national news organization if it’s a really big crisis (including journalists who focus on particular areas).

Another good option is the local paper of record: the main paper for a region, where legal notices have to be posted.

5) Know how to use key features of your technology.

Even if you don’t text or email regularly from your phone, know where your text app is, or your email app.

When signal strength is low, or bandwidth is in high demand, plain text messages will get through when webpages, voice, or video might not. Give yourself options.

6) Ask friends or family in other parts of the country to be a point of contact.

Do you have a friend who lives across the country? Would they be willing to help with information (or be a contact point) for a regional emergency? Often, people well outside the immediate area will have a much easier time getting information and maintaining connectivity. If you check in them, and others in your family check in there, they can pass along information.

Why does this matter? In some kinds of emergencies, telecommunications tools may go down. Cell towers might be destroyed, local routing equipment might fail. Even if the physical technology is in one piece, lots of people trying to make calls or find information can flood the connection and make it hard to get messages through. A friend who can do more complex web searches or figure out the best sources of information can be priceless.

During a crisis

1) Get somewhere safe.

First step.

2) Figure out what’s going on.

Check those sources I talked about: major news stations in your area, local police or fire departments, or emergency management.

At the moment, Twitter is often the best source for quick urgent messages (check local police departments, fire departments, or town/city official accounts), but check city or town government pages. Facebook and many websites may be very sluggish to respond (lots of images and other higher-size content), and many of them have lousy search tools.

If you need to use a site that isn’t loading for you, see if you can get to a mobile version.

3) Get in touch with a friend or friends outside the area.

Let them know you’re okay, ask if they can help you get the info you need.

4) Once you have more information, figure out what your next steps are.

This is going to depend a whole lot on the specific situation, so I can’t suggest practical details. However, you may want to consider:

  • Can you recharge your phone? If not, turn it off or put it in low-power mode and turn off all but the most essential functions. Check once an hour, or every two hours, then stop using it again.
  • Do you urgently need medications or medical help (or will you, if the crisis continues for any length of time?) That’s a good time to let emergency services know about the specifics if that’s possible.
  • Do you have pets who need care? Reach out to get help for them.

At this point, you can focus your research and resources on figuring out the specific stuff you need, and who can help you with that. If you’re not sure (and you’re able to reach one), local libraries will likely be glad to help you figure out the good information options and help you connect with services.