The Right Tool For The Job: Dabble Writer

When I signed up for NaNoWriMo last year I decided to take a chance on a brand new writing platform. I had tried several, including Scrivener (too complicated), Apollopad (unreliable), and one which was so relentlessly awful I can’t being myself to name and shame it.

As I write in various locations and on several different devices, my main priority was finding a platform that allowed me to save my work to a remote server, something I had been waiting in vain for Scrivener to provide for years.

Fortunately, I found just such an application was one of NaNoWriMo’s sponsors for 2017, a new platform called Dabble. Usually I’m a bit wary of being a pioneer for a new piece of software. I prefer to wait until other users have identified the major bugs before I bog myself down in frustration, but this time I figured, why the hell not? I could always resort to pen and paper if it all went wrong. And besides, the creators of Dabble were providing a free month long trial for everyone who signed up during NaNoWriMo. Count me in, I said.

Well, I’ve been using Dabble now since the end of October, and what a wonderful experience it has been. Sure there were one or two kinks to iron out. What new piece of software wouldn’t have those? But the guys at Dabble understand good customer service and are pretty quick to respond, even though they’re a small team and must require sleep at some point.

In terms of Dabble’s functionality, it’s simplicity may not appeal to devotees of Scrivener, but that’s exactly what I love about it. It does share the same project ‘tree’ layout, with individual scenes nested inside chapter folders, and separate branches for characters and world building, but it’s very much on a no frills basis. There are no fancy cork boards or index card graphics, just simple backgrounds and text boxes in a plain, grey colour scheme which is wonderfully easy on a tired writer’s eyes.

Where Dabble really did blow it’s competitors out of the water for me though, was the plot grid function. I was never able to get to grips with it in Scrivener, and Apollopad doesn’t have one at all. In Dabble, plot lines can be arranged as columns, with individual plot points dropped in at the relevant point in the overall narrative. Best of all, it required no tutorial to get the hang of the interface. Anyone who has arranged their desktop icons using drag and drop will get it. Perfect for complexity challenged people like me.

Then there’s the actual writing interface itself, which is wonderfully minimal, not unlike writing on a blank piece of paper. Dabble does simple formatting for you as you write, and has an auto-save function that saves your work to the cloud on a regular basis, making sure you don’t lose anything. It also means that whatever you write is instantly available on any other device, whether you’re using the Dabble desktop app, or accessing the platform via your web browser. This is an absolute must for me.

Dabble’s creators are adding new functionality all the time. A post NaNoWriMo progress tracker has just come online and I love it. You specify your total word count and the day you’d like to finish on and Dabble automatically works out a daily word limit for you. Like it’s predecessor, the NaNoWriMo tracker, you can even use the calendar function to book ‘days off’.

There are some functions which most writer’s would consider vital, which are currently still in development. A spell checker for the desktop version for instance, but Dabble’s creators are nothing if not transparent about their development process. All the upcoming functionality is listed on the website with it’s place in the programmer’s queue. Users can even upvote the development ideas they would like to see most.

Access to Dabble is on a subscription basis – there’s no licence fee – and new users can take advantage of a 14 day trial. If you find other platforms frustrating, dull or simply not suited to the way you write I recommend giving Dabble a try. It’s been an enormously enjoyable experience so far and after three months of regular use, during which I’ve been more productive than ever, I certainly won’t be using anything else.

Murder Monday On Twitter

Today I decided to join in with the #MurderMonday challenge on Twitter, but rather than writing a one shot in 250 characters, I decided to skip ahead several chapters in my WIP and write a scene between my two main characters. This will be quite near the end of the story, when Haas and Strand have finally started to warm to one another. ūüėČ

“The truth has a cost.” He whispered. “Are you willing to pay it?” She was on the run, with a bounty on her life, but nothing had threatened her resolve until the moment his lips had brushed against hers.
“Damn you, Strand.” She muttered. “I don’t know anymore.”

Of course, because it’s me, when I originally had a go at writing this scene it came out way longer than this. Cutting it down to something Tweet sized has taken something away from the atmosphere I feel. Tell you what, you decide. Here’s the original version.

“The truth comes at a cost.” He whispered, his breath warming her cheek. “Are you willing to pay it?”
She was marooned, on the run, with a bounty on her life, but nothing, not even a near miss with an assassin’s bullet had threatened her resolve until this moment, until his lips had made fleeting contact with hers.
“Damn you, Strand.” She muttered. “I don’t know anymore.”

Which one do you prefer?

Twitter Micro-fiction And Writing Hashtags

One bonus of throwing myself into NaNoWriMo this year has been the discovery of a whole world of micro-fiction challenges on Twitter, each governed by its own hashtag.

As someone who greatly misses the old Kindle Weekend Write-Ins I have been looking for an alternative to their 500 words in 48 hours challenge, and the variety of micro-fiction hashtags on Twitter is bewildering. There’s certainly something for everyone.

Throughout NaNoWriMo I have been taking part in the #WIPitWed challenge, posting a small, Twitter friendly excerpt of my Work In Progress every Wednesday. Of course, that has meant letting bits of my first draft out in to the wild, snippets like this one for instance. But at least no-one’s told me I’m shit yet. ūüôā

NaNoWriMo 2017: Devising A Writing Schedule

medicine bottleAs someone who has a full time job, finding the time to write 1667 words a day for a month, has been something of a worry for the last few weeks. Being time poor has led me to fail spectacularly for the last two years. So this year I decided to come up with a definite writing schedule.

To do so, I had to think long and hard about how I write, when I would get the most time, and what time of day I am alert enough to rattle off a decent amount of words.

Answering the first question did not bode well. I tend only to write a few hundred words at a time before I get distracted by something else. That meant doing the full word count in a single hit was going to be very challenging and I didn’t want to set myself an unrealistic goal. I was therefore going to have to split my writing into small chunks throughout the day.

Time was also going to be a big issue, so I looked at my working day. I start and finish early and for the most part I get the majority of my mundane workload done in the few hours before lunch. That left me with the early morning, mid afternoon and early evening, in which I could be reasonably confident of getting some words in.

Finally, I had to think about how I work and when I’m alert enough to churn out a few hundred words in a single sitting. I’m a lark rather than a night owl. I get up early and I’m usually in bed by 9.30pm. In terms of alertness I’m good first thing in the morning and in the early evening, but tend to flag a bit in between.

Taking all this into account I decided my best option would be to do short word sprints. Splitting the word count in half would not suit my short attention span. Even 800 words tends to be beyond my capabilities in a single sitting. So I settled on three, very short word sprints of 555 words each, per day. That gives me a daily word count of 1665 words. Two extra words and I’ve hit the target for each day.

In terms of the time of day I would be most likely to be successful at producing 555 words, early morning and early evening were going to be my two best options. That would mean adding the third word sprint in after lunch. Not my best time of day, but it gives me the optimum amount of time to recharge my batteries between the morning and evening sessions.

So my prescription for NaNoWriMo is set; three word sprints of 555 words per day, morning, afternoon, and evening. Rather like taking a course of medicine. I’m going to call it The Spoonful Of Sugar Method.

NaNoWriMo 2017: Finding My Voice

NaNo-2017-Participant-BadgeIn order to prep for this year’s NaNoWriMo I have been working on my opening scene. A bit of a cheat as far as the word count goes, but it does mean I’m not faced with thee dreaded blank page on day one.

Reading back over my first efforts I was not entirely comfortable with it. I wanted to sound like a ‘serious writer’ dammit, and my writing was coming out stuffed full of snark!

Nevertheless I took the leap and posted my first paragraph on the NaNoWriMo site as my novel excerpt. A day later I received an IM from a NaNo buddy with the following feedback.

“Your novel sounds really interesting and it’s something I’d love to read! Also love your writing style.”

A pleasant surprise, considering the one thing I was most disappointed with was my style! Knowing that someone else enjoyed reading my very rough first paragraph, saved me from ditching the whole lot and writing it differently,¬†in what would probably have turned out to be a completely characterless style. I will have to keep reminding myself of this experience and that, ultimately I am writing from a human point of view. We’re allowed to have our own, unique voice, with¬†bouts of sarcasm, humour, cynicism and weariness.

NaNoWriMo 2017: The Partner in Crime

Joel: The Last Of UsI have to say it has been bloody tough finding a visual reference for Commander Haas’ sidekick. Dr Silas Strand is a human who arrived on our alien world over a decade ago to assist with the plague relief effort. He’s been stranded inside the quarantine zone ever since.

Away from his home world and with no real human company to speak of, Dr Strand has become a bit worn around the edges. His clothes have seen better days and so have his ethics. The occasional aid drops from outside the quarantine zone are not nearly enough to keep his medical practice supplied, so over the years he’s been forced to do deals with smugglers and turn a blind eye to the dubious business¬†practices of local whore master and Mayor of Badr City, Pin Hunh.

The arrival of by-the-book law enforcer Neylan Haas is going to cause a few wrinkles for Strand to say the least.

I had a pretty definite idea of how I wanted Strand to look; a dark haired man in his forties, disheveled and world-weary but with the self-confidence that many physicians possess. Hunting through my usual sources though I was left with the definite impression that most men in the future will either be steroid enhanced super-warriors, n’er do well thieves or elvish princes.

Finally however, I found my man, in the shape of a video game character. There were plenty of pieces of fan art for Joel from The Last Of Us that were just what I was looking for, but I’ve selected this one as my principle muse. I think he and Neylan will have quite a sparky friendship in the end.

NaNoWriMo 2017: Announce Your Novel

The Regulator coverWell, I’ve had quite a busy morning. The next NaNoWriMo challenge dropped into my inbox last night, and it was ‘Announce Your Novel’.

So after breakfast I duly headed over to Pixlr to cobble together a book cover for my story (paying a designer to do it is always the kiss of death for an unfinished work), and with a bit of assistance from the Flaming Text title generator this was the result.

Considering my graphics skills are extremely rusty I’m quite happy with that.

My next task was to come up with a synopsis and an excerpt.

Well the excerpt is still in my head, but I did manage to come up with a partial synopsis / book jacket blurb. I¬†had to keep it simple, primarily because I’m not absolutely sure how the story will end yet, so for inspiration I drew on the micro-blurbs for the Alex Benedict novels by Jack McDevitt.

“You can’t win a war when the people you expect to fight it for you are already dead. The Pavonovirus left entire civilisations ruined, the survivors scattered across planets locked in a perpetual quarantine. That’s how peace was gained on Orion’s Arm, not through the efforts of diplomats and governments, but through¬†a¬†random, indiscriminate act of nature.

At least that’s the official story. Then someone tries to frame Commander Neylan Haas for murder. Sworn to uphold the law, Haas now finds herself hunted by her own colleagues. Stranded on a quarantine planet, where the locals have a much more frontier approach to justice, she’ll have to resort to some unorthodox methods to unpick a decade old conspiracy¬†and clear her name.

The truth, when it is finally revealed, will prove that some secrets are best left buried among the distant stars.”

It needs a little work I’ll admit, but with NaNoWriMo the story is the priority, and it’s nearly time to knuckle down.

NaNoWriMo 2017: Creating A Character

Amongst all the aspects I’ve been thinking about for my NaNoWriMo story this year, my principal character is probably the one piece of the puzzle I am most sure of.

Her name is Neylan Haas and she holds the rank of Commander with the Solarian Regulators, the principle law enforcement agency for the Solarian¬†Admiralty (think NCIS in space). She is an accomplished navigator and sat in the co-pilot’s seat on the Armed Pursuit Vehicle Abilene, until it crashed, stranding her on a plague planet with more of a frontier approach to law and order than she’s used to.

Science fiction female pilotFinding a look for her has been a challenge. Science fiction and fantasy art are awash with female characters. Sadly most of them are squeezed into skin tight outfits, masquerading as flight suits, and pictured in unrealistic pin-up style poses. All tits and bum. Not what I want for Commander Haas.

Fortunately, I stumbled on to this image yesterday. I don’t know who the artist is, but she’s as close to perfect as I could hope for, especially as I had planned to make Haas a red head.

Her uniform is not bordering on soft-core, her footwear is practical for someone in her line of work and I can tell that her jacket has been inspired by the Naval frock coats of the 18th century. Perfect for a navy style organisation.

As the majority of Neylan’s story will take place on a planet, rather than in space, this style of uniform also makes much more sense than a full flight suit, although I will no doubt have to provide her with some civvies too.

The other aspect of Neylan’s look I needed to¬†deal with was finding her a prosthetic arm. This will play an integral part Female prostheticin the story and was probably the only part of her overall look that I considered non-negotiable.

I was surprised, and then not surprised, to discover that when it comes to art and even technical concept drawings, prosthetics for women are given little consideration. All the designs I could find were drawn with over-muscled men in mind, and as a non-engineer this was the one aspect of Neylan’s look that I really needed a visual cue for. But after weeks of searching things were not looking hopeful.

Finally though, and just at the point when I was about to give up, I found this image on Pinterest. It’s just what I was looking for; a fully integrated prosthetic arm, designed for an average female physique. It even matches her uniform!

So, that is Commander Haas in a nutshell, or as much of her as I can give away at this stage. Now, I have to give her a partner in crime…