a blog by J.M. Cottle
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My writing toolbox: collaboration edition

My partner and I are working on our second novel together. (Yay!) There’s a lot to coordinate when you’re writing with someone else, especially when you’re doing historical fiction with significant research involved, and along the way we’ve collected a nice bunch of software that helps us stay on track.

For staying in sync

  • Dropbox: We have a shared folder in Dropbox where we keep some of our files. With Dropbox we have to make sure we don’t open the same file at the same time, so generally these are our research files, not our actual writing files. I have my own copies of our writing files in my personal Dropbox folder just for backup purposes. Dropbox is wonderful.
  • Google Drive: We keep our shared writing files in Google Drive because we can edit them simultaneously, in real time. Since we alternate scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence, it’s important for us to be able to work on the same file at the same time! It’s also great to have it automatically backed up online, and to have access to it anywhere we have internet, including on our smartphones.

For research and outlining

  • Scrivener: If you have a lot of different files, especially if you’re doing research, Scrivener is a great way to keep it organized. The cork board is also my favorite for outlining and editing. You can use Scrivener to write, if you want to, and there’s a fullscreen option, but I prefer to only use it for all the organization that goes on behind the scenes. I keep my Scrivener files in Dropbox so that my partner can see them, but she doesn’t like to use Scrivener – she prefers…
  • Evernote: I have my partner’s research and plotting notebooks in Evernote synced so that I can see her notes. It’s probably the most popular note-taking system out there. One thing that is really awesome about Evernote, of course, is that it syncs with mobile devices, which is an advantage over Scrivener, but I prefer Scrivener personally because I like the outline and corkboard features.
  • Aeon Timeline: Since we are sticking fairly close to Actual Things That Happened, having a timeline is essential. Since we have several different plotlines intersecting with these Actual Things That Happened, Aeon Timeline is pretty much the only way I can keep track of everything without getting lost. My favorite feature is the ability to tag characters in each event, because then you can track each character and quickly see how old they were when each thing happened (and when you are plotting out people’s entire lives, this is SO USEFUL).
  • MyHeritage Family Tree Builder: When your characters have large families and are named after great-great-great-aunt’s cousins or whatever, it’s nice to have a family tree so that you don’t forget how they’re all related, and MyHeritage Family Tree Builder is my favorite way to make one. It’s a program that you can download, but it also publishes your work to the MyHeritage website in a nice format that is good for sharing with your collaborator (or family members, if you’re using it the way they intended). This was, of course, designed for real ancestry research, not characters, but I’ve found that it works perfectly for historical fiction. It even allows you to have divorces, separations, children of mixed families, same sex partners, and people with no gender!

For writing

  • FocusWriter: This is still my all-time favorite software for writing. FocusWriter lets you decide whether you want to make it fullscreen or a normal window. You can set it up so that your cursor is always in the middle of the screen instead of at the bottom while you’re writing. You can set a custom background. It has tabs so that you can have more than one document open without minimizing the program. You can use basic formatting, which most other distraction-free writing software does not have — they usually use .txt files, which are great but do not let you use italics, and italics are not a distraction for me. They are an integral part of the text, especially because half of our characters are German and we use a lot of foreign words.
  • JotterPad X: Now that I have a smartphone, I basically wanted FocusWriter to be on it. Since that’s not possible, JotterPad X is the next best thing. It’s the best free writing app I could find for Android. It’s very attractive and connects with Dropbox, but unfortunately it doesn’t do italics — which is bearable, because I only use it as a scratchpad and copy the text from it into Google Docs to share with my partner, where I can add the italics. (I don’t like to write directly in Google Docs, because I am a strange and paranoid person and I freeze up if someone can see my words as I write them.) Later on when I get back to my computer I download the document in .rtf from Google Docs and open it with FocusWriter, and everything is fine. Now I can write on my phone and I don’t have to carry my laptop anywhere! It’s wonderful.
  • Pandora One: Pandora itself is great, but Pandora One is totally worth paying $3.99 a month. (Though I think their price is about to go up, so get it now before it’s higher!) High sound quality, a desktop client, and most importantly, NO ADS. When you’re in a writing groove, the worst thing is being interrupted by an ad.
  • Spotify Premium: Spotify itself is great, but again, ads. Ugh. When you have Spotify Premium, you don’t have to buy music anymore and you don’t have to use up space on your device with all of your music files. It costs $9.99 a month. It’s relevant to writing because we can share playlists of our novel soundtracks, and because the Spotify team has created a ton of playlists for all different moods and there are some that are great for writing! My partner likes “Intense Studying,” a collection of classical music.

Special mention goes to my wonderful Bluetooth keyboard by Anker, which is obviously not software but has made it possible to write on my phone and leave my heavy laptop at home. It’s good because it has a rechargeable internal battery that lasts a long long time, and it’s tiny and lightweight but sturdy, with an aluminum back and comfortable matte keys. My partner has a similar one and we look pretty cool when we’re set up in a coffee shop to work, let me tell you. ;)

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