Paul Doiron here—
One question every novelist seems to get asked is: “Do you use a computer or write longhand?” I would like to answer that I scratch out my game warden mysteries on birchbark using a porcupine quill dipped in moose blood. Alas, I use a MacBook.
As a former aspiring writer—who still aspires to write better books—I know how easy it is to become focused on these sorts of distracting questions. You always hope that finding success is just a matter of discovering the right pen, or the right Moleskine journal, or the right brand of tea or whiskey to drink while you labor over your sentences. The only trick that has ever worked for me was sitting down at my desk for about 10,000 hours.
For that reason, I am reluctant to recommend writing software, because I know that there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. Switching from Microsoft Word to Apple Pages won’t turn you into Janet Evanovich or Dennis Lehane overnight (but it might decrease your stress level). I do know, however, that you can become a more organized writer by using the right program. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorites (and no, I am not a paid endorser for any of these products although I will cash any checks that might come my way).
I wrote The Poacher’s Son and Trespasser using a word processor called Scrivener. There are many reasons why I love Scrivener, not least because it is the rare software program created by an actual writer. Scrivener knows that writers are pack rats who gather and store all sorts of information: clippings from Web pages, photos, mp3s, PDFs, character sheets. We don’t know what we’re going to do with this research, but we need a place to store it and a way to move bits and pieces around until we figure out how our project will come together. Scrivener allows you to create outlines and annotations, drag and drop scenes from one chapter to another, transform files into folders and folders into files, and transcribe notes in split windows, all without learning a bunch of arcane rules and keystrokes. If you’re working on a long project like a novel, I’d highly recommend that you check it out.
My favorite program these days might just be Evernote. It’s basically a cloud-synching, universal, multimedia notebook that advertises itself as “your external brain.” The idea is that you can clip web pages, scan receipts and documents, take photos, jot notes, and record voice memos on any device, and your clips gets uploaded into one secure database that you can access anywhere. (I have installed Evernote on my personal laptop, my office computer, my iPad, and my iPhone.) I store all kinds of information related to my books in Evernote—from newspaper clippings about the Maine Warden Service to snatches of interesting dialogue I overhear in restaurants to reviews of my novels in magazines to photographs of locations where I might set a future novel.
I also use all the various iterations of the Things to-do program (for Mac, iPad, and iPhone). It’s expensive as far as these programs go, and far from flawless (for the moment, you have to sync your devices yourself over a local wifi network). But It works to keep me organized, or as organized as I am ever likely to be.
I think that’s the biggest takeaway here. Like most activities in life (I’m thinking of things like exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, but also writing), what matters isn’t what other people do, it’s what works for you on a consistent basis.
But you’re still going to need to put in those 10,000 hours.