In this guest blog Crime writer John Baird explores some of the software packages available to writers. John is appearing at this year’s Gedling Book Festival, now in its third year. Highlights of this year’s festival include talks from the novelists Stephen Booth, Alison Moore and Eve Makis, plus former rock ‘n’ roll star Vince Eager. The festival also aims to engage and develop younger writers, with a variety of workshops and storytelling activities for children.
As part of this year’s festival I will be giving a talk on some of the best software and websites for writers. Most authors persist with Microsoft Word, first released over thirty years ago, and ignore the plethora of new writers’ tools out there. There seems to be virtual assistance for every stage of the process, from developing ideas to generating sales, so let’s look at some.
First, let me say, writing is art, not science, there’s no shortcut key for the hours an author needs to invest in reading, writing and developing their craft. But technology, or the right technology, can certainly improve efficiency. Take the word count increasers: there’s a program that teaches ways of using a keyboard to increase writing speed (rapidtyping.com), one that allows writers to set word targets, with rewards and punishments if they’re met/missed (WriteorDie.com) and another that disables distractions such as Facebook and Twitter (anti-social.cc). They sound a bit gimmicky, I almost hear you say, and, productivity is one thing, what about quality?
Authors will tell you that first drafts are often rubbish, and that writing is rewriting. Software can help, allowing passages to be scanned and checked for the overuse of certain words or phrases, or the use of adverbs, even clichés (smart-edit.com). Or perhaps you are working on a story thread and want to call up all the chapters featuring a specific character, or all those with a certain setting. This can be done, easily, and you can view the chapters exclusively (Scrivner).
There is so much choice the difficulty comes in separating the useful programs from the pricy promises of success. The best way to do this is to ignore the imagination substitutes; the idea generators and formulaic structure templates that often produce uninspired results, recognised or standardised plots that fall flat. Creative writing software can sharpen your thoughts which in turn can help develop conflict, plot, characters and setting (yWriter) but often the best creative writing programs focus on recording your ideas through brainstorming tools (Freemind) or storyboarding applications (WriteItNow). Just remember, technology should support creativity, not supply it.
As far as research is concerned, search engines are the new libraries. Keeping this research accessible and organised is not so easy. Software can help the storing of files, images, notes and useful webpages; logging them in a virtual scrapbook that saves work to the cloud, making research and writing available in one place, and, if online, accessible through any computer or device you’re working on (Evernote.com). Not all research is electronic but it soon can be. Paper data, either a printout or handwritten, can be converted to information that you can edit at your leisure (SimpleOCR).
Backing up all this work, form a variety of sources, is important. Synchronising it all and automatically uploading everything to the internet can save time. Software that enables this, whilst also saving old versions, is crucial (Dropbox.com).
A final pointer on writing: there are many websites and groups where finished manuscripts can receive free critiques from communities of authors, editors, publishers and readers. This can provide vital feedback from peers, help grow an audience or even lead to a publishing contract (Authonomy.com).
Finding a publisher is often the next stage. Once a manuscript is ready, having been copy-edited and proofread properly (Preditors and Editors) more software becomes relevant.
Many of the well-known publishers’ commissioning editors accept new submissions via agents they trust. Authors must find the respectable genre specific agents and, if they’re accepting new work, follow their submission requirements exactly. One place to look is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and bear in mind that good agents don’t ask authors for reading fees or any money up-front.
Agents are now tougher to land than publishers but it’s a good time to be an author. Software has made self publishing affordable and potentially profitable. Ebooks are a great place to start as they can be produced, marketed and distributed so cheaply. They can be uploaded with software that allows for a table of contents, embed audio files or video, and makes books available on multiple platforms (Sigil). Big hitters like Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing offer free set up and take a percentage of royalties per sale. Others (BookBaby) can provide 100% royalties in exchange for an upfront fee.
Then there’s software to monitor sales across several stores (Trackerbox) and websites where agents sell a book’s foreign rights (pubmatch). You can even turn your book into an audiobook. Readers of Kindle books can now switch from reading to hearing a story, and this can be done mid-flow, flipping seamlessly between the two (Whispersync). The advancement of Apps has meant that many phones now play audiobooks. People are getting their content on the move and listening to stories is proving increasingly popular.
Print-on-demand is the most common method of publishing hard copies, and it avoids a garage full of unsold books. Amazon’s POD company (Createspace) has a wizard to guide authors through the process. There are other services that offer distribution to bookstores and libraries (Ingram). In addition to the manuscript assistance and editing help mentioned above, software can be used to create the covers. There are template-generated covers with the art and titling provided but it’s easy to create your own, technically speaking at least. If you can’t afford Photoshop then there are free alternatives (GIMP).
Having written and published a book, the other difficult part of an author’s triathlon is letting people know about it. One mistake many authors make is relying on others to do the marketing for them. Even if you have a publisher, or pay a marketing company, there’s no better person to sell your books than you. Another mistake is leaving the marketing until the book is available on Amazon. An online presence is important from the off and the right software can be effective in making sales.
Social media can help reach readers but it can also be time sapping. Thankfully there are useful tools for managing social media accounts. For example, you can schedule tweets to work for you while you’re offline (hootsuite.com) and link various social media networks together so that one message can be shared everywhere through a mobile App (Postcard).
Email marketing and list management is another key tactic and there’s free software that lets you compile email lists, track them and create professional looking emails that won’t appear as spam (AWeber).
Many writers now create and manage their own websites and have the advantage being able to update the content themselves (Wix.com). Communicating with readers is important and some authors are now producing Podcasts (Audacity) and YouTube videos (Pamela for Skype).
The more copies an author sells the more chance a new reader has of finding the book on the web. Racking up the 5 star reviews on amazon or Goodreads doesn’t affect their algorithms as much as sales. For reviews it’s better to focus on popular blogs and respected websites such as, for crime novels, crimefictionlover. Blog tours can also be of benefit and there are sites that manage these for you (Xpresso).
The software linked to above is a fraction of the help available. Some of it is free, some isn’t. It’s a case of finding what works for you. In my opinion the best of the programs for novelists is Scrivner. You can get a free trial here and learn the basics in the video above. For scriptwriters, try Final Draft where scripts can be translated into industry standard formats for film, TV or stage; scripts that can then be used to create multimedia productions (Celtx.com). While poets can access different structures and find rhymes at Poetreat.
It’s time to let technology work for you.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- John Baird’s website johnbairdauthor.com
- Gedling Book Festival website newwritersuk.co.uk
- Smashwords official blog blog.smashwords.com
- Writing from two views: Computers v books the-edison-lightbulb.com
- In 15 years, 90% of news will be written by algorithms theatlantic.com
- Wordmongering, write, or die surlymuse.com