We spend a lot of time staring at our computers, so I figure we may as well make the most of them. Here’s a few ideas as to how to maximise your computer to boost your inspiration, creativity and productivity.
Visual inspiration is crucial to me, particularly at the start of a project. Pinterest has been invaluable for collecting inspiring images, including videos and links back to articles and other sites. I’m going to have to admit, I’m a teensy bit addicted to Pinterest. Just a teensy bit. The upside is that I’ve stopped buying magazines, as Pinterest fulfils my need for pretty pictures and visual inspiration. It’s seen as social media by some, but I’m using it on a purely personal level. For anyone who hasn’t ventured over to Pinterest, it works on the principle of being your digital pinboard on which you can pin images from anywhere on the internet. You can create as many boards as you want (I think – at least they haven’t told me to stop yet) on the themes of your choice – food, fashion, interiors, or in the case of writers there’ll be boards like “Horror storyboard,” “Ways to die” or “Big WestEnd Musical” – that last one containing pictures of grim industrial estates and people wearing scary clown masks. You also choose people/boards to follow, giving you a feed of images that you can repin to your own board. Check this one out for atmosphere.
You already know about Flikr.com, I’m guessing, and of course there’s always the trusty Google images – but then once you’ve found a picture you want to keep looking at, the handy Pinterest toolbar button lets you collect images to your boards, without filling up your hard drive.
What’s your current desktop picture? Does it relate to the project you’re writing? Why not have your desktop background set as an image that links to whatever you’re working on? Or perhaps an image of the theatre you’d most like to work with, a collage of your fantasy cast, or Hollywood writ large across the hill – whatever it’s going to take to get you most inspired. Hit Google or Pinterest for images and download one as your wallpaper. Windows 7 or 8 users can download desktop themes, including my personal heaven here:
If you’re even slightly technically capable you can also create your own theme – but please Google the How-to rather than asking me. Ta.
Sound and music
Writers tend to be divided between those who must work in ABSOLUTE SILENCE (they tend to be pretty clear about that), or at best having Radio 4 switched on in a distant room as a kind of background white noise, and those who crank up the volume and create a thematic playlist for each project. I tend to be in the second camp, or at least I was until I filled out my first tax return, which required the silence of the entire postcode district. Normally though, creating a playlist is one of the first things that happens with a writing project. Often when I’m writing, I’ll have a particular song playing on repeat, over and over until someone else in the house cracks and demands I change track. With The Crow King, I found that none of the music I had was suitable, and ended up searching through Spotify to find artists and tracks that were new to me – their radio function was invaluable. If you’re one of the writing-to-music writers, Spotify is genius for coming up with playlists based on a particular track or artist, or you can browse other playlists that people have created or create your own if you prefer. I’ve been working on something recently that demands listening to the soundtrack from Peaky Blinders, demands it, I tell you. It’s also a great way of finding new music and artists. You won’t find everyone you’re looking for, but there’s a very good spread on offer.
Youtube can be a similar starting point, and there’s often a playlist option with 40 or more tracks that will play consecutively. It’s also handy for research on any given theme, if you can trust yourself not to get sucked into the black hole of procrastination. The downside with both Youtube and Spotify is having to put up with occasional adverts, but that’s the deal when you try and get stuff for free. Just that when you’re deeply immersed in the world of your story, it’s hugely disconcerting to suddenly be jogged out of it by a bloody car advert or similar. You can upgrade Spotify to get rid of the adverts, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen. We’re a cheapskate bunch.
As well as music, the internet contains a wealth of sound effects, all of which can help you to get into the right frame of mind, set the scene and ease you into the imaginative world that you’re trying to create. In terms of scriptwriting, it’s essential to start thinking in a more 3D sense, to think about sounds and sights, not just dialogue. How much of your story can be told through sound? What can sound add to a scene? While creating a soundscape is unlikely to be the writer’s responsibility, unless you’re seriously self-producing or the genius Tim X Atack, sound is an essential tool in the writer’s kitbag whether you’re writing plays, films or novels. If you have characters talking to each other in a busy market, try writing the scene with the market sounds playing in the background. Yes, it sounds obvious – but how many writers actually try it? Google the particular effect or ambience you’re looking for eg “Haunted house free audio.” You’ll also find audio environments on Youtube – I mean, seriously, people go out and record things like “Greek fishing village” for half an hour or more. I don’t know why they do this, but I’m prepared to take advantage of the fact. And if you’re writing a play called The Crow King, then something like this is pretty much perfect. Sound dogs is another good site to check out, if you don’t mind trawling through random sound effects – they have a search engine, so it’s not that bad. Sometimes it can help get the juice going. Sometimes.
Writing, notes, research.
Evernote is a fantastic multi-platform app that allows you to record notes and pictures, and clip entire articles or highlighted phrases using a handy little toolbar button, sorting it into different notebooks. I can start a blog post on Evernote on my laptop, add to it later on my phone or tablet, come home and pick it back up on the laptop again. Notes are stored in Notebooks, one for each project, with a small snapshot of each note visible while you’re working so you can jump between them. It has a toolbar button for clipping items from the web, so it’s easy to store up research and ideas for future posts and inspiration. If I get a good idea while I’m out, I can type it into my phone’s Evernote app, adding to an existing note/notebook or creating a new one, then sync it so it shows up on my laptop when I get home. It’s a great way of collating research, recording ideas and being able to access your notes from a variety of locations/platforms. You can use it as a form of file-sharing, allowing for collaboration on a project, although you might have to upgrade to the full version in order to do that. It’s big advantage is the ability to work within Evernote, using it as a word-processor, and have your project synced to all the various platforms you’re using. Great for recording snippets of inspiration and research, clipping articles you know you want to re-read and working on the go. I’ve got a notebook on the go for each of the projects I’m working on, and it’s so much easier than saving masses of articles onto my hard drive.
I’m currently trialling Scrivener and thinking that I like it so far. If you’re a novelist, it would quickly become a vital tool, but it has its place for other forms of writing as well. Basically it’s a jazzed up word-processor (Desktop environment, sorry) which allows you to organize your writing project in a much more streamlined way. Watch the video and be impressed. I should mention I’m not an affiliate for any of these sites – ooh, maybe I should become one. Similar programs exist, such as Liquid Story Binder, but Scrivener seems more comprehensive and easier to use. I’ve used Liquid Story Binder before, but struggled a bit with stupid things like page and font colour – everything was in strange, eye-unfriendly colours. LSB has a very handy time-line tool, which I haven’t come across on Scrivener. But I’m loving the way Scrivener makes it easy to organize your work and move stuff around, have instant access to notes (including a split screen function so you can have a research file open while you work) and just have everything in the one easy-to-access place rather than repeatedly opening and searching through multiple files on Word. The snapshot function is genius too, allowing you to archive a section before you alter it, so that if you change your mind it’s easy to put it back to how it was. Yes I know you can use “Save as,” in Word, but Scrivener seems much more intuitive. There are Youtube tutorials created by Scrivener users for further information and cleverness. You can compile your draft and export it in various file formats, ranging from Word docs to PDFs to Final Draft. The only issue I’ve had is with trying to copy and paste from Word into Scrivener – it goes horribly wrong unless you remember to use the Paste – match style option under the Edit menu. At the time of writing, there’s a special offer for the full version, $15 off.
OmmWriter – A sweet little writing environment designed to be distraction-free. You don a pair of headphones and type away, with tiny little sounds whenever you press a key, in a way that encourages you to keep going rather than pulling you out of the zone. Customizable so you can choose the background image, sounds and music, or turn them off as you prefer. I haven’t tried writing a script in it, I’m not sure what the formatting would be like but you’d have to copy and paste it into a proper word-processor afterwards to get it into shape. My kids love it, so it comes in handy for homework writing assignments. Free to download, with the option of paying to upgrade to the full version. Very zen.
Stickies are virtual post-it notes you can stick on your desktop. More recent versions of Windows may have a similar app installed, but if not it’s worth getting so you can keep a variety of To Do lists up there on your screen without having to clean off the sticky gunk that comes with the real thing.
Get your Google or Hotmail calendar working for you. It’s easy to lose track of opportunities, competitions and deadlines, so now I keep tabs on them by adding them to my To Do/task list in the Hotmail calendar, which also syncs to my phone and tablet. I’ll copy and paste relevant info such as website details, set the deadline and ask it to send me a reminder. You can also create a colour-coded project schedule on your virtual calendar so that you know what you’re supposed to be working on and when. If I want to know what’s coming up, it’s easy to check out the list of deadlines stored up in my calendar. Writing things out manually on a paper calendar just didn’t work for me, partly because the calendar was upstairs, while I was checking my email and discovering opportunities while downstairs. Yeah, I know. I doubt I’m the only one though.
Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t break the chain wallplanner has become legend, so much so that he’s started discrediting it. His simple-but-effective tip was to buy a year planner, and put a large X against every day that you write. You only need a small row of X’s before it becomes a habit that you don’t want to break. For a digital version, try out something like Lift. There are various Don’t break the chain style apps – here’s a free one for iPhone, but given that I don’t have an iPhone, I can’t test it out for you. Looks good though.
Words, words, words.
My attitude tends to be one of throw everything you’ve got at it. What are your passwords? Obscure combinations of letters, numbers and symbols that have to be recorded in a little book because you’ve got no chance of remembering them? Slightly more obvious things like your cat’s name or MyPa$$word? How about switching them to something that’s going to inspire you, a mini affirmation every time you type – like BAFTAwinner2014! or GreatWriter01? Yes I know I’m a hopeless hippy, but if it can’t harm you and might just help then I say go for it. If nothing else, pick something that’s going to make you smile. Oh, and tweak a few characters to make it more secure. Obvs.
What works for you? If you’ve spotted something I’m missing out on, a magic tool of the trade that works for you, hit the comments and let me know.