Dump That Brain

Have you ever had a great idea for a story that kept spawning plot points along with the perfect protagonist and the most wonderfully annoying antagonist? This burst of creativity keeps swimming around in your head continually building on itself. It’s consuming all your brain power just to keep it straight. You’re jotting notes down on every piece of scrap paper you can find. Smoke wafts from your keyboard as your fingers go numb from the hours long session. Off to the side, you family watches and wonders if you have some new form of OCD. When the brain dump is finally over, you’re left with a mix of handwritten notes, a long typo ridden narrative that you won’t understand a week from now.

There is an easier way. Mind mapping. No I’m not talking about hiring a cartographer to translate your latest CT scan. Mind mapping is a concept that has been around, in various forms, for some time. Anyone that’s been involved in project management has probably seen an Ishikawa diagram, or fishbone diagram. Don’t worry I’m not going to dig into the intricacies of cause and effect as it applies to risk analysis.

Mind mapping is an easy thing to do. Chances are you’ve done it with pen and paper. It involves creating a central idea and then associating other ideas and concepts. You can draw pictures, use color coded lines, and different fonts. There is no limit to what you can do.

Here’s a sample mind map created with FreeMind for Windows.

There really is no limit what you can do with mind mapping. Google mind map and you’ll get a variety of choices you can use. Software is available for almost any platform, including iOS and Android, allowing you to use your finger and tablet while waiting to see the doctor or while the kids are practicing their seasonal sport.

Good software will allow you to quickly move your ideas and branches around. Keep in mind there will be a learning curve, so take some time to learn your software. However, if you find you just can’t figure it out, try another program. On my iPad I use Mindjet to quickly capture project ideas for my day job. If you’re all Apple, all the time, this could be a good solution for you. But there will be some cost.

A low tech ways of mind mapping include white board. Using a Sharpie on whatever surface is at hand. Paper and pen. If you want flexibility and low tech, try note cards. Simply put one idea per card and then you can arrange the cards however you need to. Of course this will require a large table or bulletin board. Levenger‘s has a nice note card bleacher for this purpose.

Unless you’re an author who rigidly follows the original outline, stories evolve, plot points change, character traits change, and settings get altered. Mind mapping quickly allows you to see all this in a visual form and easily rearrange or change it. Next time you’re kicking an idea for a story around, or creating a main character, give it a try.

Do you currently use mind mapping or similar techniques? Please leave a comment and tell us about your methodology or favorite program.

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Filed under Application, Methodology, Writing

Writing and Banking Do Not Belong Together

The mantra “writing time is for writing and only writing” is drilled into the mindset of anyone serious about succeeding as a author. But let’s take it one step further, “your writing laptop is for writing and only writing.”

Now you’re thinking why on earth would you limit the use of a computer to one task. In a word, security. Writers today are mobile. Working at coffee houses, favorite sandwich shop, waiting on flights at the airport, or sitting in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment. All of these scenarios are opportunity for a thief to strike.

The obvious threat is that someone steals your laptop. If you use it for everything, you’ve lost everything. This includes any user IDs and passwords stored in your browser. A bad guy just needs to click on your banking bookmark and sit back while your browser automatically logs in. Presto they have full access to your accounts.

A hidden threat of using your laptop on a public network is getting hacked. The quiet guy in the corner could be scanning the coffee house’s public network. Even if you’re running a firewall, it has to allow your programs to interact with the Internet. The industry refers to this a punching a hole. If you punch a hole in a section of cardboard does it only allow you to see through it in one direction? This may be a bit  simplified, but you get the idea. If you let programs out through your firewall, data usually comes back through the same way. Given the right circumstances, a hacker and exploit this. Even if you update your computer’s OS and programs on a regular basis, hackers can also exploit known flaws. Years ago the Blaster Worm exploited an existing security hole affecting part of Microsoft’s Windows OS and impacted computers all over the world.


I’m not trying to scare anyone, but think about what would happen if your laptop disappeared. What information would go with it? Do you know all your IDs and passwords to every account you use your laptop to access? Do you have the phone numbers to these institutions to call and have your online account disabled?

What are some steps you can take? An easy one is do not store usernames, IDs, or passwords in your browser. Storing them in your browser creates a file on your computer containing this information. Hackers can access these files and thus your accounts. You can use password programs like LastPass to store your information. Programs like this remember your IDs and passwords, but do not store information locally. I’m partial to LastPass because it has the added benefit of working on multiple platforms. No matter what device I’m using, I can find the password I need.

The best thing to do is to separate your financial information from the laptop you carry with you. Today you can buy a basic laptop in the $300-$400 range. If you’re really thrifty and shop around, you can get something for around $200, but you’ll have to be dedicated to find these bargins. Think of it as insurance. A small investment to ensure that your information is safe. After all, you wouldn’t carry around your bank statements to the coffee shop and leave them on the table for all to see. Why do the electronic equivalent with your laptop?

Word processing files can be backed up with little effort and this topic will be explored in a future post. However, once money is drained from your checking or retirement account, it’s gone. You may be able to recover some of it, but in the short term you’ll have no cash and you’ll have the stress of dealing a complete preventable mess. And if you’re stressed and on the phone with your bank all day, you won’t be able to write. And if you don’t write you won’t sell anything. Then you’ll have even less money and more stress.

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Filed under Best Practices, Writing

If I Only Had More Time

This post will be more about methodology than technology.

If you have ever attended a presentation by Robyn Conley aka The Book Doctor, you most likely received a button sometime during the presentation. It is supposed to serve as a reminder to keep your butt on the chair and write. This is important because so many things can interrupt good writing time. Facebook and Twitter aside, there are important things to be done. Like washing those gym clothes you haven’t used since that time…two or was it three months ago. Or watering those brown plants. Or dusting light bulbs. Or just random self indulging web surfing. You justify these things because you write a little here and there. When the end of writing time comes and you only cranked out four sentences during the last ninety minutes, you wonder where did all that time go?

Writing is hard and we often look forward to the next break to give our brains and keyboard worn fingers (or in my case ink stained) fingers a rest. You’re thinking there has to be a way, a complex productivity system, a bloated Windows application, a spiffy iPad app, a nifty Android driod-something, that will magically force brilliant writing.

Guess what? The answer is no.

But… (Just when we think we have the perfect excuse to be lazy, a big but gets in the way.)

There is a methodology call Pomodoro . It was created long long ago in a century almost forgotten, the 1980’s. For my generation, it was the time of high school and big hair. But I digress. An individual named Francesco Cirillo created it. The goal is to focus your concentration on a single task in 25 minute blocks.

It goes something like this. You schedule a block of minutes, 25 by default, and work on a single task during that time block. If you finish early, take a break and then start a new 25 minutes time block. If you run long, take a five minute break, and start a new 25 minute time block to finish out the task.

I don’t confess to be a Pomodoro guru but I have played around with the concept. Several apps exist for this methodology. You can Google Pomodoro on your PC or MAC and download a timer or use a web base solution. Or you can search in the Android Market or the App Store. Each will present you with a list of choices. I have an app on my Android phone and on my iPad. A good timer will allow you to configure the Pomodoro unit and break time. Or you can opt for the Luddite version and grab your favorite vintage oven timer. Choose a timer that is simple, accurate, and most importantly, one that you will use.

I’m not a purist so I do change my time intervals around. Sometimes I’ll go in 15 minute time blocks or stretch it out to 45 minutes. You can adjust it to match your task, mood, or the environment you are working in. But once that timer starts you mind needs to be on your task and only that one task. The alarm will tell you when it’s time to break.

To me this is one of the great mysteries of the universe. If you surrender to a timer you mind frees itself and the task at hand gets worked. If you try to keep it all in your head, then your like a sugar charged, caffeine infused seven year old with ADHD. You have enough energy to power a third world nation, but nothing gets done.

All I can say is it works for me when I need to get things done at my day job. Work for 25 minutes, take a 5-10 minute walk outside, and then start it all over again. Give it try, don’t be afraid to be creative. If you’re working on a draft, write for 25 minutes and then take a 20 minute walk. While you’re walking, work out the next scene in your head, or use the time to reconcile conflicting plot points. After the walk, spend the next 25 minutes writing it all down.

You can combine a New Years resolution into this methodology. Write for 25 minutes and then hop on the stationary bike for 10 minutes. Exercise, lose weight, and finish that novel all at the same time.

Same goes for editing. Line edit for 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, put the pen down and spend the next 15 minutes reading over the next section. When the 15 minutes of reading is up, reset the timer to 25 minutes, pick up the red pen and start chopping words like you just received a deluxe set of Ginsu Knives.

My point is, we’re not all wired the same. Find what works for you and stick to it. As long as your spending writing time writing, then life can’t be anything but good.


Filed under Methodology, Writing

Speed Up Your Editing in Word

I’ll state this up front. This post is about Microsoft Word. If you don’t use Word feel free to exit this blog quietly. But please do so in a manner as not to disturb the other readers.

Over the years I’ve used a variety of word processing programs. All have their quirks, strengths, and complex functions that make you want to break your keyboard in half and pound your computer into compost. Don’t worry we not going to get into complex functions. Instead we’re going to go over several handy keyboard shortcuts to increase you editing speed.

For clarity purposes let me explain how I’ll denote these shortcuts. For some of you this may be obvious, but for others I have met, they have only used mouse functions.

Control Key = CTRL,  Alt Key = ALT, you get the idea. I use the plus sign ‘+’ to denote combinations. So CTRL+C means to use press and hold the control key then press the C key.

Some of the shortcuts do require mouse interaction so here is an explanation on my terminology.

All mouse clicks will be for the left button unless noted.

Single click = single left click, Double click = two left clicks, again you get the idea.

Click and Hold = push down on the mouse button and hold it.

Why use keyboard short cuts? For me, moving my hand back and forth from keyboard to mouse to keyboard gets a bit annoying.  Especially if all you want to do is switch to underlining or italic. Also if you’re trying to select text, clicking and dragging that cursor to select everything can be tedious. So let’s start with some easy ways to select text.

Word makes it easy to select a single word, sentence, paragraph or all the text in the document.

To select a single word, double-click the word.

To select a single sentence, CTRL+Single Click on any part of the sentence.

To select an entire paragraph, triple click the paragraph.

To manually select individual characters, words, sentences, or paragraphs, SHIFT+Arrow Key. Using SHIFT+Down-Arrow is a quick way to select multiple lines within a paragraph.

Once you have your text selected you can right-click on it. A pop up menu will appear providing all kinds of options. Did you know you can click and hold on your selected text and drag it to a new location in the document? This can be handy when moving sentences around in a paragraph or rearranging action sequences in a scene.

When editing, I typically hit CTRL+A, this is the short cut for Select All. It highlights every word in your document. Once all the text selected, I right-click, select Font, and increase the font size to an 18 or 20 point size. This makes it much easier to catch typos that spell check missed, find those pesky punctuation faux pas, and any hapless homophones to — or is that pronounced too? Anyway, after I’m done editing, CTRL+A, right-click, Font, and it’s back to 12 point.

I’ll finish this out with a simple list of shortcuts. If you have any handy tricks for Word, please post a comment.

CTRL+C = Copy
CTRL+X = Cut
CTRL+Z=Undo last change
CTRL+Y=Redo last Undo
CTRL+O=Open File
CTRL+A=Select all


Filed under Application, Writing

Don’t Sign That Contract!

Writers live on a budget. There are times when money is tight and you’re looking for a contract to sign. However, there is one contract you should never sign. That’s right by not signing a contract, you’ll be saving money — on your cell phone.

Over the years I’ve heard author after author claim this one particular piece of technology helps them manage the social networking aspect of being a writer. It’s used for Facebook updates, a blog reader, Twitter, Google+, email, texting, and believe it or not, a phone. But you don’t have to pay $80-$200 a month to get the service you need. And you don’t have to be locked into a restrictive contract. Yes, I’m talking about prepaid cellular service.

Before your imagination runs off with images of the worst customers Wal-Mart has to offer and a constant lack of bars, keep reading. You can purchase prepaid cellular service just about anywhere, including online and signal coverage can be as good as one of the big four cell providers.

A year ago I upgrade to an Android phone and switched to Virgin mobile. Their plan of 300 voice minutes and unlimited data/text fit my usage perfectly. Now I did have to buy the phone, but I waited until it went on sale for $180. The price for this plan, at the time I purchased the phone was $25. That’s right. I pay $25 a month for unlimited data and text. I’ve never gone over the 300 minute voice limit. So let’s compare.

(At the time unlimited voice and data averaged about $80/mo before taxes.)

Prepaid                                                              Standard Contract

Phone:    $180                                                     Free with contract

Service:  $325 (13 months at $25)                  $1,040 (13 months at $80)

Total:     $ 505                                                      $1,040

Savings: $535

I can go out and purchase another $200 phone and still be saving money compared to a standard contract plan. But you’re thinking, That was thirteen months ago, the economy has changed things. No one can get a deal that good these days.

You’re right, things have change. Virgin Mobile has raised this plan from $25 to $35. That means in 13 months you’ll pay $455 instead of $325. I don’t know about you, but that is still significant savings and could easily pay for lodging at the next writers convention. Keep in mind that voice/text/data contract plans are much more expensive these days.

You also may be thinking that the coverage sucks. Virgin rides on the Sprint network and I haven’t had any more coverage problems than my wife has had her ATT contract phone. If we’re out in the sticks, usually one of us will have service.

The Virgin Mobile plans may not be right for you, the company is geared toward the young crowd. Some of the other services out there are T-Mobile, ATT, TracFone, Net10, Straight TalkBoost, and the list goes on. Heck just Google “prepaid cell providers” and your eyes will glaze over before you can compare all the pricing plans. You can also check out Clark Howard, he always has the latest scoop on the cheap cell phones.

Most of the prepaid companies have agreements with Sprint, ATT, T-Mobile, and Verizon to use their networks, so you’ll want to pay attention to the coverage maps for your areas. Be brutally honest on how you use for phone. Some prepaid services will charge you a daily usage fee if you make a call. If you’re on your phone hours a day, this may not be an issue, but if you’re like me you may make one or two short calls a day, if any. The extra fee adds up quickly. Also, do not overestimate your data usage. Cell phones are fairly efficient on data usage. But if you must have unlimited everything, Straight Talk has a plan for $45 a month and Virgin has one for $55.

I’m not saying this is the best way to go and there are some draw backs. You have to buy the phone outright. You lose it, break it, or don’t like it after six months…tough. You’re stuck with it. Also the prepaid service doesn’t get the same data priority as the contract customers. For the most part this has not been an issue for me. However, if you are moving a lot of data, being throttled may cause problems. A huge draw back for some people is the fact you are limited on the phones you can purchase. You cannot go out and buy the latest iPhone off Craigslist and active it the next day. If you want an iPhone, you’re stuck with a contract. If you can use an Android or Blackberry you’ll have a few of options. And don’t just look at the specifications of the phone you’re thinking about. Read customer reviews. These can be found by searching for the phone model and the word reviews.

Smartphones are very much required tech for the modern writer. Are you paying over $1,000 a year when you don’t need to? Look over your last few statements. Pay attention to the voice, data, and text totals. Maybe you could save hundreds, over the course of a year, by dumping the contract and going to prepaid.

Now stop reading blogs and playing Angry Birds on your phone and get back to writing.


Filed under Writing

Every Writer Needs a Little Focus Once in a While

You’ve waited all day. You’ve thought of every way to kill off your protagonist’s love interest. Car wreck—too convenient. Serial killer—too cliché. Freak can-opener accident—no one will see that one coming. It’s all worked out in your mind, waiting to be downloaded to your manuscript.

Now the kids are in bed, the spouse is off reading somewhere; it’s just you, the keyboard, and a word processing window partially filling an icon dotted screen. Time to get to work.

But wait—there’s the Quicken icon and you still haven’t balanced last month’s statement.

Done. Time to write.

But wait—there’s the IE icon and you’ve only checked Facebook 18 times today and still haven’t seen anything about your Aunt’s cupcake baking retreat.

Done. Time to Write.

But wait—it’s now 1:30AM and you have a presentation at 8:30AM. Writing will have to wait.

A quick game of solitaire to clear your mind and then it’s off to bed.

Sound familiar? It shouldn’t.

How would you like to sit down to a screen full of this:

All black screen with white text.

Or if you need some inspiration:

Theme with custom image.

This is what FocusWriter can provide. It’s basic. It fills your screen. It blocks out distractions. Best of all, it’s free, the gnu license is a wonderful thing. (But if you like it, you may want to contribute to the tip jar).

It’s a basic word processor that has all the features you would expect, foreground, background, text colors; font formatting; text indenting and offsetting; smart quote formatting; dictionary; you get the idea. It can save files in Rich Text Format (.rtf) or OpenDocument Text (.odt). Both are common file types almost any word processor can use. Most publishers accepting electronic submissions will take rft too.

A couple of nice features. FocusWriter fills your entire screen with nothing but document space. The menu bar disappears unless you navigate your mouse to the top of your screen. This frees you to type, type, and type some more. The other cool feature is a built-in timer. This permits you to schedule your breaks.

There is a bit of assumed knowledge when it comes to installation. There are multiple Linux packages, chances are one will work on your flavor of the OS. There is a Universal MAC install or one just for Intel platforms. I do not have access to a MAC. Maybe a MAC User can leave a comment on how easy or difficult it was to install.

Windows XP, Vista and 7 are supported. The download file is a standard ZIP file. There is no install routine, you simple expand/uncompress/unzip your download file to a directory of your choice. Once unzipped, open Explorer, navigate to that directory and double-click on FocusWriter.exe.

Now your screen is filled with a word processor and you’re ready to write. If not, then you need to take the ruler out of the desk drawer with your right hand and slap it down hard on the backside of your left hand. Repeat until you are focused on your writing. After all you have a work in progress to complete. Now get to it.

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Filed under Application, Writing

Resolutions – Low Tech Style

Since Christmas I’ve been seeing posts about how to make and keep New Years Resolutions. There are plenty of software apps available allowing you to input your resolutions and other annual goals. My suggestion, ignore all of them.

When I decided to become a writer, it was with the intent to make a living at it. So I set out to learn the industry, how the business works and what makes one author a success while another remains unpublished. First and foremost a writer has to write. You either do or you don’t, it’s that simple. Why do you need to set a goal for something you’re supposed to be doing anyway? You may say, “I need to write 1,000 words a day to met a deadline.” But should that be considered a general writing goal or is it part of a work breakdown structure to meet a project deadline. There is a difference.

I’ve heard people talk about writing X number of words or pages a day, but when they are pressed to discuss their current work in progress, they confess to not have a project, they are just writing.

Are you just just writing to see yourself put words on paper? I hope not. If you’re not working to complete a project or story then are you working through exercises to improve a weakness you have in the craft? All writing should have purpose or your just passing time.

My New Years Resolution is to make no resolutions. Why wait to a certain date to start something. If you are making a resolution because you want to do something new, why are you not doing it right now? If you have to wait what’s holding you back? Ask yourself if it is something you really want to do or maybe deep down you realize the timing isn’t right. Be brutally honest with yourself.

If you are wanting to start a new project or alter your behavior I have a free low tech solution you can use right now. No waiting until 01 January 2012. Get you favorite pen and some note cards. If you don’t have note cards, cut a larger sheet of paper into smaller sections. Now write down what is is you want to accomplish at the top in big letters. Be concise. — Writing by hand as opposed to typing it into an app, will connect you to goal. Your brain will pay attention and not treat it like a text message you’re pounding out to someone to be sent and forgotten. — Below your end goal write down the next action needed to accomplish it. Be specific. Use action words. This is no time for lofty wording or wishful thinking.

Here’s an example:

Write a book detailing actions of the 2nd Armored Division during WWII.

Create chapter outline

Each and everyday you look at that card until the task is done. Then write down the next tasker you need to complete. Looking at that card everyday focuses you on what you want to achieve and it tells you specifically what you need to do next.

Put these cards on top of you alarm clock, tape them to the bathroom mirror, paper clip them to you day planner. Put them somewhere that will force you to read it. Create copies and keep them in your purse or wallet. Low tech means you can review these anywhere you want. You don’t need an iPad, or cell phone, or laptop. You don’t have to worry about the battery going dead or losing Internet connectivity.

A word of advice, don’t get carried away with the cards. You should only work on two or three at a time. Anything more and you’ll start feeling overwhelmed. The purpose is to be able glance at the cards and instantly know what you are trying to accomplish and what you need to do next.

Remember, as soon as you finish one card you can start another, no more waiting for the New Year and no more excuses.

Now get to work.

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