Monkeys are evil. Just ask (that’s ask, inquire, query) my wife and kids.
But in this case, the “monkey” is WriteMonkey, a simple, feature-rich, distraction-free (that last one’s key) text editor. It’s a great little program, and while I’ve got plenty of software I paid for, and some of it reasonably expensive, I chose to use WriteMonkey for my last novel. This post will tell you why.
When I sit down to write a new book, or even a short story or flash fiction, the first mental hoops I jump through include which software to use for the writing. No joke, that’s the first major decision I have to make. It’s a big deal because, if I find the software too limiting down the road, the piece will gradually get harder to migrate as I continue.
Here’s the method I used to create my last manuscript. It’s a process called “Writing into the Dark,” which involves specific steps and processes. The software I use has to be able to work with those processes or I’m just shooting myself in the foot. Here they are:
- Writing without an outline or plan for the story
- Writing the next sentence, whether that’s the next thing the reader will read in the story or not
- Cycling back through the previous session’s output to clean up, edit, revise, rewrite if necessary, and otherwise finalize the writing before moving on to the current day’s session
- Reverse outlining the current day’s session with pen/pencil and paper on a legal pad (or, y’know, anyway you want to do it, as long as it’s handwritten) for reference only
More than the method’s demands – which can be met with most writing software – my own personal demands for the project made choosing the software a bit more challenging. In this case, my demands were:
- Had to be distraction free; I get distracted too easily after so much time away from the writing computer and need all the help I can get
- Had to provide word count capability so I can track progress and see each day’s output (but I wasn’t writing the story to a length, I was writing to tell the story, period)
- Had to allow some interface control so I could at least dim the screen to prevent eye fatigue
That’s a tall order. A very tall order, actually. So, I started looking at what I had on hand already. No more buying software for me.
Word is your basic go-to word processing defacto standard. It’s got a lot of nice things it can do, and if you need more than what Word’s capable of, you might be doing something wrong. Most writers will complain about the number of features it has which aren’t necessary, or get in the way. I don’t do that, but I do have a problem staring at Word’s harsh, glaring white landscape. The 2013 version’s even worse, and there’s not a doggone thing you can do to edit the interface appearance.
So while I love Word’s power, it’s not going to work for me when some of my writing sprints can be three or four hour sessions. Staring at hard white for that long will tire anyone’s eyes. My feeble ones simply won’t tolerate it.
So, coupled with not having a “distraction free” mode – something I knew I wanted this time, and Word’s full-screen mode doesn’t fill that gap to me – I decided, not Word. Not this time, anyway.
Scrivener is the most powerful fiction-specific writing software I’ve ever used. It’s amazing, and has a great way to use customized interface colors for its full-screen writing mode. Very nice. But…
It has limitations on the ease of movement through the document. Let me explain.
The way I work in Scrivener, each scene becomes its own independent text file in a folder which makes up a chapter. I suppose I could alter that and do things differently, but movement through the document would be key for what I was doing.
With Scrivener, moving around a document is a non-issue. Go from file to file, folder to folder, and it’s a snap. But, if you’re in the full-screen mode? Moving around the document in Scrivener’s full-screen mode is another matter.
I can move around easily enough if I exit the full-screen mode. And in full-screen mode, moving around the current chapter is fine. But if I need to go back to an earlier chapter and see other text files in the project, that’s going to be a bit more hoop-jumping. Not impossible. Not difficult. But not intuitive, and very distracting.
Okay, so, until I learn to master Scrivener better (because I’m convinced it’s my shortcoming, not the software’s), it’s a no-go too, because I’d have to jump in and out of the “distraction-free” mode to find earlier (or, in some cases, later) points in the document.
So, that left me without my beloved Scrivener for the first time in a few years. (Insert deep sorrowful violin music here, and dark clouds and rain.)
Therefore, I could either investigate other editors and word processors, or find something specifically distraction-free, which allows me control over the interface appearance, the navigation of the document, and which would be universal when exported so Scrivener could still make my ebooks for me.
I spent a long time looking around and finally settled on WriteMonkey. It allows you to use some formatting keystrokes (Ctrl + B for bold, Ctrl + I for italics, etc.), and if you put a hash symbol at the front of each heading level you want to use (i.e., one hash symbol for level one header, two for level two headers, and so on), it will format those (in WriteMonkey, at least) according to the heading level.
(This is pretty standard Markdown formatting, by the bye.)
For instance, I used one hash symbol before every chapter heading, and it would center the heading on the line. Just like that, nothing else to it. Nice! And if I used two hash symbols, it would format that line as a second-level heading. Sweet!
WriteMonkey’s got a bunch of other really cool features too. One of my favorites became the “bookmark” feature, wherein you type Alt + M and get three slashes (“///”, no quotes of course), which is a bookmark. This marks the place in the document.
When you want to see your bookmarks, you can open the bookmark and file list window with Alt + right arrow (you know, the arrow buttons on your keyboard? the one that points right, like this: →). The text immediately following the bookmark is shown along with the bookmark number. Oh, wow! How cool is that?
So, I put one before and after each chapter heading. I put one just after each scene marker, too, and that gave me a list of my scenes by chapter. So I had a fully functional representation of my book very much like Word’s navigation pane, and while remaining in my distraction-free environment. Awesome.
So, now moving around my document’s a snap. Using major headings is easy too. And as a bonus, when it’s time to import into Scrivener, Scrivener’s going to look at the import document for a hash symbol, and can break the document into various text files at each marker! Win!
WriteMonkey allows the writer to control the height of the editor pane, too. For instance, if I want the column of text where I’m writing to be a certain width and only show x-number of lines, I can do that. And it’s done with slider controls rather than entering digits, so you can customize it to the font you’re using for each project.
Now, there are plenty of other good distraction-free editors out there. I like Poe a lot for my Windows 8.1 environment, for instance, but I can’t use it on any Win7 computers I still have. Others don’t have the column height control WriteMonkey has…including Word and Scrivener. So I stuck with WriteMonkey for this project.
(If you’re into typewriter scrolling, WriteMonkey does that too.)
Finally, the last piece was speed. Nothing’s really “slow” on my new computer, but some software’s more “bloated” than others and takes longer to boot up or shut down.
I could pop in and out of WriteMonkey pretty fast, and it generated a lightweight text document (.txt format) which can be pulled into your favorite writing software for consumption by…well, anything else. Like I said, I’ve pulled the WM text file into Scrivener, and turned it into a Word document. I’ll explain why and how next time.