Writing with Evernote

I’ve written before about being a big fan of Scrivener. As writing software goes, especially for long projects such as novels, it takes some beating.

Currently, for me, there’s one fly in the Scrivener ointment – the lack of an iPad version. Although I don’t want to write entire projects on my iPad, when I’m out and about without my laptop I do want to write, make notes, add to my research, edit and review. (In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be just on my iPad either – sometimes I only have my iPhone with me.)

This got me thinking about what I really need from writing software – and setting aside the fact that I’ll later need to have the manuscript reviewed, edited and proofed by someone else. If it needs to be exported into Word at some point, so be it. (I’m not allergic to Word; I use it daily for copywriting. This makes sense since it’s what my clients and my proofreader use. But I find that it’s next to hopeless for long documents. Why? It forces you to work and think in a linear way. It has no mechanism to easily reshuffle chapters and scenes. And, the bigger your document, the slower it gets. I could go on…)

I decided that, when it boils down to it, a writer needs surprisingly little of the word processing power. Here’s my personal bottom line:

  • Non-linear document structure – a way to break the project down into manageable chunks which can be easily reorganised.
  • Word count.
  • Basic formatting (bold, italic).
  • Easy and robust synchronisation with other devices – computers, tablets and phones.
  • The ability to incorporate research, including images, video and audio – plus links to Web pages.

That’s about all I need. Sure, there are lots of things I’d really like – but I’m trying to identify my most needed word processing elements.

This led me to an interesting conclusion. Most writing software just doesn’t suit my needs or workflow. Google Docs, Word and Pages may be the most-used writing software, but they’re the first to be struck off my list – since they’re linear and can’t readily incorporate research into the same document.

Good old Scrivener does everything I need (and more) but document replication between different devices relies (currently) on clunky workarounds using Dropbox to transfer files and then using an entirely different editing application on the iPad. It works, but it isn’t pretty.

There is one contender, though. It’s a surprising one: Evernote.

I’ve been using Evernote for ages – for its intended purpose, to take notes. It’s very useful – there are versions for PC, OS X and iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, BlackBerry and even WebOS. Not enough? Well – perhaps you work on Linux occasionally. In that case, there’s a Web interface to fall back on. Everything you type gets replicated automatically to the cloud and is quickly available on any other device. It’s built for a multi-device world – and one where your data can live anywhere.

This is powerful stuff. You can work on your laptop – and then go review on your iPad. Got ten minutes to kill? Review your manuscript on your phone. Stuck somewhere where there’s no Mac? Fire up a Windows or Linux PC and just login to your Evernote account. You can work online or offline – and replicate when you can connect to the Internet.

Editing the same document on different platforms, with Evernote

Evernote for OS X, Windows, iPad and iPhone – all in sync

So, that’s replication taken care of very neatly. What about non-linear document structure?

Evernote can handle this, but it’s not quite a hit clear out of the ballpark. Evernote breaks things down into shorter documents, true, but it doesn’t give a lot of control over how these are organised. Within Evernote, you create ‘notebooks’ – which then contain individual ‘notes’. So, these could either be the projects and chapters, or chapters and scenes, depending on how you work. It’s adequate – although nowhere near as functional as either Scrivener or Storyist (with their visual corkboards) but way better than Word.

Currently, there isn’t a live word count in all versions of Evernote, but they’re working on it. There isn’t any word count in the iOS version, although there is in the Windows and OS X apps. This isn’t ideal, but it’s workable.

Basic formatting is present and correct – there’s not much, but there’s everything you need: bold, italic, underline, paragraph indents, strikethrough and bullets.

Incorporating research and notes is part of what Evernote ‘just does’. Evernote documents can incorporate video, images and audio. You just fire up the camera or microphone on your iPad or Mac and that’s it – take photos or make audio notes right from within Evernote. You can also drag and drop images or add website URLs.

Again, Scrivener’s ability to incorporate research wins because of its organisational finesse – but there’s more than enough here to get by. And anything you add on one device automatically appears on your others. Evernote even has a widget for your browser – to make it easy to clip Web pages straight into your notebooks without even launching Evernote itself.

Adding rich media does become an issue – once you’re incorporating lots of images, audio and video into your notebooks, you’ll quickly move beyond the space that’s offered by a free Evernote account. But you can upgrade to a premium account for £4 a month, so you’re hardly being stiffed.

There are lots of compromises. Word and Pages run rings around Evernote in terms of layout ability. Scrivener and Storyist are built with the writer in mind and have lots of features to help manage large projects. Evernote is more workmanlike than slick – and at some point you will have to get your creative gem out of Evernote and into a file format your editor or proofreader uses. I’ve found that you do need to check over exported text for formatting errors or special characters that aren’t properly converted.

But it’s the workflow and replication where Evernote shines. It just works. You edit on one device, pick up another and carry on where you left off. It’s liberating. It makes switching between Mac and iPad (or PC and Android tablet) as simple as it gets.

There’s another advantage. Right now, I’m an Apple user – but that might not last forever. So knowing that I can move to another platform – or even just use a different one temporarily – is a bonus.

For novel-writing, I’m pretty tied to Scrivener for a multitude of reasons – and the team behind Scrivener is thankfully working on an iPad version, though that’s some way off. Scrivener for Mac and iPad, with easy file synchronisation – perhaps via iCloud – would be ideal. But for other projects, I’m very tempted by Evernote’s workflow.

Frankenstein: a review

What on Earth can I say about Frankenstein that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over?

I added this book to my reading list some time ago, along with Dracula, to put right the wrong of not having read these classic horror books.

Dracula was a disappointment to me. True, it’s a rollicking good yarn, but it seemed to me to lack texture and depth – with no real layers beyond the plot it could excite but not move.

Not so with Frankenstein.

The story is familiar enough, but it’s not the plot points of this story which are so compelling. The language of this book is simply, stunningly beautiful. True, it’s of its age (as was Dracula) but it’s soulful and poetic – with a depth of emotion that conveys the real depths of despair felt by Victor Frankenstein as he comes to terms with the consequences of his actions.

The origin of this book is as well-known as the story itself. A challenge thrown down by Byron for he, Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and her then lover Percy Bysshe Shelley to write a tale of the supernatural. Mary Shelley’s short story was so strong that with Percy Shelley’s encouragement she expanded it into a novel.

The legacy of Frankenstein is visual: Boris Karloff, with a flat head and bolts through his neck. What an injustice, when the writing itself can hold its head high in the company of the story’s co-progenitors.

Indeed, I was taken by surprise by the quality of the writing; by the elegance of the prose. It’s heartfelt, sincere, mournful – not absolute as the black of night, but rather an ever-darkening sadness that wraps itself around you as you press towards the end. It was with pleasure that I re-read many of the passages – torn between racing ahead and savouring each word.

Here, the monster faces his creator, “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.

We hear the story from three viewpoints – of the sea captain, who rescues the exhausted Frankenstein, of Frankenstein himself and, of course, of the monster Frankenstein created – all wrapped cleverly into a single narrative. So, we’re afforded a greater insight into the torment of both Frankenstein and his unnamed creation – our sympathies changing with new insights into their motives and feelings.

The plot may be described as lightweight compared to the film versions most of us know – in fact, I’m sure this is the reason that various writers felt it necessary to embellish the story, to keep it moving along in a cinematic way. What a shame that, in so doing, they’ve mainly lost this book’s unique poignancy and depth. The greater shame is that the real story remains untold for those who don’t venture beyond celluloid.

11.22.63 by Stephen King – a review

I think there was a point at which it was fashionable to say that Stephen King’s best words were long since typed – perhaps around the time when he announced his retirement.

Just like his retirement, the notion that King has lost his mojo has been proven false – and nothing underlines the calibre of King’s recent creativity as much as 11.22.63.

I’ve long held the belief that the fact that King is so easy to read often leads people to conclude that while he might be a commercial heavyweight, he’s a literary lightweight. Personally, I think this is about as true as the idea that he’s a spent force.

Delving into the first pages of 11.22.63 was like revisiting an old friend. That easy style was welcoming, like a firm handshake or even a hug. Welcome back, reader. Sit yourself down.

And then 11.22.63 does what any good book should do – it draws you in. Within a few pages, you’re part of the story, being carried along for the ride.

The premise is simple: if you could go back in time, would you stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if you did, wouldn’t it make the world a better place? The proprietor of a local diner, Al Templeton, believes that this would be the case – and that he has the means to do it. But, for reasons better explained by King, he can’t – so he passes the baton to an initially reluctant English teacher, Jake Epping.

So Epping takes a trip or two back in time – the first to familiarise himself with the world of the past, a second to prove that the future can be changed. And then – the main mission.

The problem is that the doorway to the past lands you on the same day in 1958, so there’s some hanging around waiting to catch up with history. A few years when it’s important to stay out of history’s way, not make waves – and not change anything.

That’s enough in the way of spoilers. The book itself I’d describe as well-balanced – gripping when it needs to be, laid-back when life’s more normal. I’ve seen this described in other reviews as ‘sagging in the middle’ but I’d challenge that – King’s giving Epping time to grow, make friends, form relationships. And it’s this that I found more endearing than many of King’s other books. Sure, he writes great, believable characters, but I’ve not personally felt that the relationship between any come off so well – and be so moving – as that between Jake and Sadie in 11.22.63.

There’s also some lovely writing – sections which show King not just as a master of plot and character, but as someone who really can twist words to his will. But he’s not an indulgent showman – for the most part, he lets the story do the talking. He’s out to entertain, not impress.

There were a few parts – not many – where I felt things were a little overplayed, but these were brief and didn’t detract from what is a great read. 11.22.63 is entertaining from end to end, gripping, emotionally intelligent and at times moving.

Looking at things from a different angle

I’ve recently added website video production to what I do as part of my day job (developing websites).

I’ve always really loved to learn – and boy, this is one learning curve and a half. Or possibly two learning curves, who’s counting?

As with any new skill, it’s interesting to discover the parts of the job at which you do well – and the parts with which you struggle.

Video production breaks down into several – often quite difficult – tasks. Broadly, they are:

  • planning the shoot.
  • setting up the shots and equipment.
  • filming.
  • post-production and editing.

It was only after working on half a dozen or so videos that I began to realise the parallels with writing – and the differences.

Planning the shot is broadly the equivalent of plotting. There might be a storyboard, there might be a full script, there might be a shooting script – or there might be nothing, for those pantsers of you out there. There are pros and cons to each approach. Each can be successful and each can fail.

The reality I found was that no matter how much you plan, you will film something differently on the day. You just will. Opportunities will arise which are just too tempting to overlook. Barriers will be put in your way which are too solid to circumnavigate. Logistics will shift and you’ll have no option other than to accommodate them.

But, if you’re creative, these won’t blow your masterpiece out of the water. Frustrating they might be, but they’re likely to fuel your creativity in unexpected ways.

You’ll shoot far more footage than you expected, which will escalate the editing – but improve the product. Just because you shot more doesn’t mean you have to use it, you just use the best – even if the job of sifting through it is harder and longer.

Setting up the shots is like the research, combined with technical skills. I’m personally a big researcher. I’ve found if you “just check that later” a core assumption of your plot can be wildly wrong, leading to significant rewrites. Better to do as much as you can either upfront, or as you go.

There’s the technical as well as creative side to attend to. How far your lights are from a person affects the exposure. How far the microphone is from his or her mouth affects the sound. Plus there are settings for the lights, sound equipment and camera. These have to be managed diligently. If not, then you can be in for a lot, lot more editing and post-production. Or, worse still, a re-shoot.

The filming itself is enjoyable and usually less problematic than other aspects of production. That’s not to say it always runs smoothly – people say the wrong things and have to say them again, doors slam so you have to roll again or perhaps the battery in your camera or microphone runs out, but you don’t notice. But, with decent planning, this is more like the actual writing. You’re getting the stuff down.

Yet there’s always the story to attend to. As with a novel, we have to consider everything that’s going on around the shoot – from props in the room, to people in the background. We have to consider how using different camera angles of the primary subject can draw someone into the story we’re telling. Also, we need to look at how much more effective the story is when we’re cutting away to other places – things which illustrate what the primary subject is describing. Some of these will be considered during planning, others will happen on the day.

Finally, there’s the bit where it all comes together. Yet, it’s possibly the most time-consuming and difficult part of all. During the editing, the story is built up gradually,  using clips from different takes, adding different audio, using different camera angles – all of this modular construction is part of ‘telling the story’.

This may be the same story you set out to tell originally, it may differ slightly or it may differ enormously. The editor works with the footage and sound available and from it builds up the best story that he or she can. It takes a lot of time. A two-minute video, cut from three or four hours’ filming, can take eight hours to edit.

There can be happy accidents. For example, I’ve discovered footage that was shot on the off chance (and unknown to me, by an assistant). The footage might have been intended simply as a possible filler, or shot because something looked interesting – and this chance footage has been interesting enough to become a central part of the video narrative.

Interestingly, writing a book is a journey that’s most usually undertaken from first chapter to final – regardless of how/when you do the planning and editing. Filming is different; it can be a real jumble – you work in a way that’s time-efficient, often grabbing what you can, going with the flow and getting as much filmed as possible.

There’s no real reason that writing can’t be undertaken in this way; I’m sure many writers do – though mostly I don’t. I do often create ‘unplaced scenes’ in a manuscript. I may or may not use these later. They may become stories on their own. They may never be used. Sometimes, I write scenes for my own benefit – for example, what happened when two characters met for the first time. I may not want to use the scene, but I might want to have a deeper understanding of their meeting than I’d get from writing “Sarah met Jim, at firs they didn’t get on”, or whatever. When I write them, I may have no idea how they’re going to fit in.

What is especially interesting about the process of film-making is how much it encourages you to explore different angles, view close-ups and film others’ reactions to a primary character’s dialogue or actions. You’re working in 3D space – the real world – and experiencing the fourth dimension of time. You do this in a way that’s more intuitive and explorative than you would when writing the same scene – which is why a filmed version of a scene can be radically different from the script.

For me, the process of film-making encourages me to be braver and looser with the writing; to explore different viewpoints of the same event; to plan even more – and edit even more than that. The more you put in, the more you polish, the better the end result – and the more it looks as though the whole process was effortless.

When is a monologue not a monologue?

I was reflecting recently on the nature of interior monologues (yes, I know, that in itself is an interior monologue).

Setting aside for a later blog the question of whether it’s good for the narrative to expose thoughts of a character in a way that’s impossible in real life, it occurred to me that an interior monologue is frequently anything but a monologue.

True, in real life, much of our thinking takes place without us thinking in words. But this is written fiction, we need the words to be understood, so the interior monologue will be, for the sake of the medium, better constructed than our real-life thoughts.

A monologue, though, is literally the thoughts of one person – and true, when expressing thought in fiction, that’s entirely valid, as in: ‘Bitch, thought Gerald’.

Yet people aren’t comprised only of their own thoughts. We’re all the sum of our past, our surroundings, our family and our friends. When we reflect on an issue, we take it apart using our own views – but we also test it with the views of others. We consider how others would feel; what they would say. That’s one way, perhaps, that we reach a viewpoint that’s different to the one we previously held.

So a monologue can involve the thoughts and influences of more than one character. Not as a conversation (unless the character is schizophrenic – I’m thinking in particular of the excellent Gollum to Gollum monologue/dialogue in The Lord of the Rings film The Return of the King) but as a single voice, albeit a mental one.

It’s the nature of people to be multifaceted – and so should be the nature of fictional characters. Our views are seldom that black and white. Sometimes we do things which seem to be contradictory to our nature, at least as others understand it.

Thoughts in fiction, then, are where these different facets of our lives can crystallise. Where internal debate can become a force, like opposing waves crashing each other – or, more gently, like two different coloured paints meeting, to make a third colour. It’s where decisions are made, choices debated – and where even what others might assume is unthinkable can be considered.

If the only viewpoints in the interior monologue were those of the one character, then there’s less scope for that character to behave as a real person would, to change, to go on a journey, to grow apart from another character or perhaps grow closer to one.

Sure, the voice of the interior monologue will be one voice, but more than the single character holding that voice will shape it.

An unexpected gift

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers, but I was overwhelmed when I received this e-mail from reader Adam Hall yesterday: “Just finished reading The Well and I must say it was a brilliant book. So, in celebration of that fact, I drew you some fan art, which can be found either via the link below or on my website.”

Here’s the illustration:

Becca in The Well

Becca in The Well, by Adam Hall

I posted the drawing to my personal Facebook page, and comments from friends included: “Brilliant,” “That’s incredible,” “That’s awesome,” “What a fab illustration,” “Creepy and excellent,” “What a wonderful tribute” and, my favourite, “I propose a graphic novel of The Well”.

What can I say? I’m always grateful for comments, but for someone to spend so much time creating such a wonderful illustration – I’m literally overwhelmed. Thank you, Adam – you’re very talented. (For those who are interested, Adam says that it was drawn in Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop.)

The Well voted ‘best Halloween read’ by members of Goodreads

I’m somewhat blown away today, 31 October 2011, to find that The Well has been voted number one in a Goodreads poll for the ‘best books to read for Halloween’.

Goodreads best Halloween read poll 2011

It’s very humbling to be listed even on the same page as heroes of mine, such as Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe – let alone be above them.

What’s also especially encouraging is that The Well has the highest average reader rating out of all of the top ten books on the list.

I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who voted – a wonderful Halloween present, in a month where The Well has also been in Amazon UK’s top-ten UK horror books.