Writing Tools

I’ve been on a bit of an electronics consolidation tear lately. A few months ago, I bought a new desktop computer rig (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, 250 GB SSD, 1 TB HDD and an Nvidia GTX-1060 GPU) to replace my all-in-one machine with aged specs and a failing connection between the integrated video card and the motherboard. That old computer was banished to my writing desk, where it (usually) worked just fine for light-duty activities.
Today, I bought a higher-spec’d Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM). This new device will retire my Caffeinated Press laptop—which, while decent, is a bit underpowered—and several older devices I still intermittently use. Like an HP convertible that was awful from Day One. And like the Surface Pro (as in, “Surface Pro 1”) I’ve been carrying around in my bag. And the iPad Mini 4. And my Surface 3, which I now only use for reading the news on the back porch. Oh, and the old all-in-one PC, which joins its siblings on the storage shelf, its footprint replaced with a gorgeous new 28-inch monitor and a Surface Dock, so I can just plug the new tablet in with a single cable and voila life is good at my writing desk, too.
If you forget the iPhone for a moment, I’m now officially a two-computer household. Instead of six.
As I’m setting up this new Surface Pro 4, I’m reminded of how much stuff I have to migrate among devices. And in particular, of the stuff that’s essential to my writing toolkit.
Here’s what I use:

  • Non-Electronic
    • An old, trusty Cross fountain pen filled exclusively with Montblanc Irish Green ink—it’s my go-to device for editing content on paper
    • Moleskine classic notebooks, black, XL, either plain or squared rules—these I use for notes when I’m away from my electronic devices (often, while hiking or on airplanes)
    • Pilot G2 7mm mechanical pencils—I take notes in pencil inside my notebooks
  • Electronic
    • Aeon Timeline—a simple but powerful timeline tool that plugs cleanly into Scrivener projects
    • InCopy—part of the Adobe Creative Suite, InCopy is the text-editing component designed to interface with InDesign
    • InDesign—one of the foremost document-design platforms on the planet; I use it at Caffeinated Press (duh!) but it gets surprisingly frequent workouts in my personal projects, too
    • JabRef—a bibliography/citation manager (multi-platform)
    • KDiff3—compares or merges files and directories; useful for checking differences with plain-text files like my short stories written in Markdown
    • MultiMarkdown—support files for working in MultiMarkdown
    • OneNote—the godfather of note-taking software; I rely on OneNote to take notes, plan and organize before I’m ready to load things into Scrivener
    • Pandoc—converts between file formats; especially useful for taking Markdown and making it something else (like Word, PDF, HTML or … wait for it … Adobe InCopy)
    • PhraseExpress—a freemium software (I bought a license) that’s like the Windows version of the Mac’s Text Expander, but on steroids; I use it for repetitive phrases or templates
    • Q10—a bare-bones full-screen plain-text editor, optimized for creative writing
    • Scapple—a delightfully curious hybrid between mind-mapping and note-taking software, released by the people who produce Scrivener
    • Scrivenerthe platform for creative writing; I use Scrivener pretty much exclusively for long-form writing and fifty-fifty (with plain-text) for short-form writing
    • Sigil—a powerful ebook editor
    • Sonar 3—a very simple, but quite useful, submission-tracking tool
    • Visual Studio Code—an all-purpose text editor, optimized for computer coding but quite useful for complicated Markdown projects like a novel

Credit’s also due to the tools that aren’t directly part of the writing process but nevertheless support it, including Spotify for the tunes, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for the art, and Bing for the research lift.
And, of course, much love to my typewriters, which I actually sometimes use: The Royal KMM and the Royal Safari.
Here’s my toolkit. What’s in yours?

The New @SkyDrive: Positive First Impressions

Earlier this week our friends in Redmond launched the next major update for Microsoft’s cloud service, called SkyDrive. I’ve had a SkyDrive account for, oh, years and was a fan of Windows Live Mesh. My only beef with the SkyDrive service? A depressing lack of integration with the Windows operating system. You had to open a browser to upload files and you couldn’t upload entire folders. Booo.

The newest SkyDrive release fixes these shortcomings. The beta app released on Monday adds a set of folders under the user account that background sync across connected devices and the cloud service; the devices and account are managed through a single Windows Live ID. Better yet, Mesh becomes superfluous because users can remotely traverse the complete file systems of connected computers (with SMS-based two-step authorization required) provided they’re powered-up.

Initial impressions:

  • The SkyDrive desktop app installed quickly and provided adequate instruction about the new SkyDrive folder under the user’s account.
  • First-pass uploading took a while. I had the 25 GB storage option already enabled by virtue of having had more than 5 GB of data on my account. I purchased an additional 20 GB ($10/year) to give me a total of 45 GB. Uploading roughly 25 GB of additional data took almost two full days. Whether this slowness is because of Microsoft bottlenecks or because our local Comcast service provides blazing-fast downloads but snail-like uploads, is a question I cannot answer.
  • Once all my files migrated between my desktop computer (running Windows 8 Consumer Preview) and my netbook (running Windows 7 Professional) through the SkyDrive tool, life was good. I’ve tested a few different sync scenarios and the service performs flawlessly.
  • The SkyDrive app for my Windows Phone 7.5 took it all in stride. The recently refreshed WP7 app added multi-select capability — a delicious addition to the feature set.
  • For some odd reason, I cannot actually access SkyDrive on IE 10 on the Win8 CP.  The site kills the IE instance. Every. Single. Time.
  • The desktop app’s notification icon provides a lovely little green bar animation to indicate a synchronization action in progress. Nice touch.

Suggestions for other SkyDrive users:

  1. The SkyDrive folder tree on your local machine contains real files, not pointers to network files. If you re-map your Windows libraries to point to your SkyDrive folder tree, you get an instant, full-fledged cloud option with zero additional work and complete transparency as you go about your daily computer-related tasks.  If you work offline, you need not worry about losing data; the service will sync the next time you have a network connection.
  2. Another tip: Put a desktop shortcut to a “temp” folder that’s stored in your SkyDrive folder tree to keep work-in-progress/unsorted files up-to-date across all your devices with a minimum of drama.
  3. I formerly employed an external hard drive as my “source of truth” storage location, with Live Mesh keeping a subset of folders in sync between that HDD and the Mesh servers (and, thereby, a folder tree on my netbook). I no longer have a need for Mesh at all. Team Microsoft fixed the “wall between Skydrive and Mesh” that so haunted my nightmares these past few years. And I probably will use the external drive only for archiving huge raw temp audio files from the podcast I produce.
  4. Have an Android tablet? Microsoft highlights a few third-party apps that integrate with SkyDrive. I use one on my dual-boot Touchpad and have no trouble with it whatsoever.

Short version: The SkyDrive update brings this cloud solution into maturity; it’s fast, easy-to-use and comprehensive — earning this humble scribe’s enthusiastic endorsement.