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A couple of people have asked what was in my toolkit for NaNoWriMo this year, ranging from what computer I used all the way through to what music did I listen to. So here’s a roundup of what was in my Writer’s Toolkit this year…and what will be staying as I go back to a normal (if such a word can be applied to a writer) writing process.

First, let me note that at no time was my television on while I was writing. There is nothing more destructively distracting than a television. If you’re planning to write, start by turning the TV off! :-)

Apple 13” Retina MacBook Pro: This replaced my 13” MacBook Air back in August, and is a sturdy, steadfast writing partner. No crashes, no hiccups, no slowdowns. I’ve had a few little issues since upgrading to Yosemite (OS 10.10), but nothing that rebooting and a few third-party programs didn’t fix. The Retina display is a bigger deal than I thought it would be…after hours of staring at the screen, my eyes aren’t nearly as tired on the Retina display as they are with a normal monitor, so the high-resolution screen definitely makes a big difference.

Scrivener: (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/) For a few years now, Scrivener has been my go-to tool for organizing all of my notes about a novel as I’m writing. Whether I’m doing research (it can import and store web pages, images, PDFs, and almost every document format), creating characters, outlining, storyboarding, or keeping track of draft revisions, Scrivener is flat out the best tool for the job. Each book gets its own Scrivener file, into which all of the material for that book – including the book itself – goes, making it a fantastic top-level organizational tool as well.

Scrivener comes in both Mac and Windows flavors, and its format is cross-platform. They’ve been talking about an iPad version for a couple of years now, but don’t plan to release it until its feature-set matches the desktop version. At $45 (often on sale), it’s a bargain.

FocusWriter: (http://gottcode.org/focuswriter/) FocusWriter is a new addition to my toolkit this year, and will be staying in it for the forseeable future. After trying a huge variety of the new “Distration Free Writing Solutions” (including iA Writer, OmmWriter, WriteRoom, and Byword, amongst others), I settled on FocusWriter for several reasons:

First, it’s Donationware. Which is nice, since I got to try it out without having to pay for it, and when I found myself at home with it, I made a nice donation to the programmer to help support it. I like this business model, because I don’t get fleeced up front for a product I’ll never use again (I’m looking at you, iA Writer and Byword).

Second, I like the fact that it’s distraction free, not feature free. I do not like Markdown, which has become the go-to tool for so-called “distraction free” word processors…it feels like programming, and distracts me from the creative process of writing. FocusWriter is a traditional Rich Text (RTF, though it can also save as ODT and DOCX) editor with a hidden and minimalized user interface…so I can write with nothing between me and the words, without losing basic and critical formatting options like italics and bold.

Finally, it has a customizable writing environment, and I love the old-school green text on black interface option it comes with. It’s surprising how easy it is on the eyes.

Microsoft Word for Mac 2011: Unfortunately still the industry standard for word processing. I don’t say unfortunately because it’s not useful, but because it’s been almost five years since Microsoft’s last serious update to Word for Mac, and it’s spectacularly long in the tooth. However, its collaborative tools are unparalleled, and I will happily continue using it with my editors to make it easier for them to make corrections and comments.

Apple Pages 5: For several years, I felt that Pages had the potential to be a major competitor for Microsoft Word. Unfortunately, the most recent version is a disaster. Apple stripped out major features, crippled the user interface, and made the collaborative tools difficult to use effectively – all in an attempt to match the feature set with the iPad version. The previous version still runs well enough in Yosemite that it’s still useful for compiling the book into various formats – including the easiest ePub conversion on the market – but for actual editing, Microsoft Word crushes it.

Microsoft Sculpt Ergononic Keyboard: (http://www.amazon.com/Microsoft-Ergonomic-Keyboard-Business-5KV-00001/dp/B00CYX26BC) Anyone who’s spent enough time around me knows that I have a tendency to replace my keyboard on a regular basis. I’m very hard on keyboards, and have a long-standing tendency (thanks to having learned to type on old manual typewriters) to pound on the keys. For years, I’ve been relying on Apple’s low-profile keyboards and a variety of Logitech keyboards to provide me with comfortable and reliable typing experiences.

This year, I decided to try out the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, because my hands have been bothering me lately, and writing 50,000 words in a month is guaranteed to cause wear and tear on both computer hardware and on your hands.

After a month and almost 60,000 words (not counting email and chat), I’m pleased to say that this keyboard was an excellent investment. My hands feel better than they did before I started, and the keyboard has performed admirably. It’s comfortable to type on for long periods of time, and being wireless is easy to place precisely where it’s most comfortable for you. The detached numeric keypad makes it even easier to lay out well – I find that putting on the left side of the keyboard actually makes it more comfortable to use.

I highly recommend the keyboard. In fact, I plan to buy a spare for when this one inevitably fails. :-)

Music: What to listen to while writing is a highly subjective and wildly variable thing. This year, Jazz appeared to be the order of the day. Fortunately, iTunes’ Internet Radio provides easy access to a wide variety of options, including a full range of JazzRadio.com’s stations. My favorites are their Piano Jazz, Saxophone Jazz and Trumpet Jazz channels.

Other music included my usual bizarre range of music from movie soundtracks (Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1999 version of The Mummy and Basil Poledouris’ score from Conan the Barbarian were popular this year) to Japanese pop music. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing.

Thoughts on Doctor Who

I think I’ve finally put my finger on what’s been dampening my enjoyment of New Who since 2005.

In the original Doctor Who, with only one or two exceptions the Doctor’s companions were just people. Everyday, regular, ordinary folks trying to cope with his weirdness. They were us, in other words. They were there to give us a frame of reference when viewing the universe through the Doctor’s old, tired, jaded eyes. Sometimes they were useful (Sarah Jane, we miss you!), sometimes they were a bit hapless (poor Harry), and sometimes they were victims of the Doctor’s zeal and unconscious tendency to push people to be as larger-than-life as he was (poor Adric).

With the exception of Martha Jones (who the writers couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with), NONE of the new Doctor Who companions have been “just people.” They’ve been destined to travel with him, been vital to his continued travels in more than support ways, become something other than normal people while traveling with him, or – twice now, Donna literally and Clara figuratively – have effectively become the Doctor for a while.

They have a greater purpose in the universe, which stunts our ability to identify with them. They are, in other words, almost as alien as the Doctor himself. Something Liz Sladen managed to capture in her own series is that even after growing out of being ‘just a reporter,’ Sarah Jane was still only human at the end of the day. She had no great destiny, no special powers. She was just…us, trying to follow in the Doctor’s footsteps and make him proud.

Most of the Doctor’s new companions have not been us. We can’t follow in their footsteps.

Ask Alys – 6/15/14

Mandy asks: What do you like to do in your spare time? It seems that you are on cases, learning or training a lot. In the last book, you went on a few dates with Ben…but other than that, what interests you that isn’t in a way related to your work?

Alys: I’m studying to be a professional wizard. That has a tendency to eat up time like you wouldn’t believe. The end result is not having much spare time for hobbies.

Athena: Or sleep, sometimes.

Alys: Too true. That said…the best thing about studying to be a wizard is how spectacularly multidisciplinary a field it is. Since I began my apprenticeship with Jonathan Tremane, I’ve studied – in addition to the Art of spellcasting – an incredibly wide variety of subjects, including psychology and sociology, comparative religion and mythology, chemistry, physics, woodworking and metalsmithing, law and history.

Jonathan assures me that if I decided to sit for exams at Oxford or Cambridge, I could get degrees in at least half of those. Frankly, I don’t doubt it…while my peers were in grammar school, I was already studying college-level material.

Unfortunately, that means that the worst thing about studying to be a wizard is that everything you do is eventually related to your work in some way or another. Whether you mean it to be, want it to be, or not. For example: I’ve been playing the Celtic Flute (a wooden flute with a lovely, rich sound) since I was a little girl. At first, I did it because I thought that learning an instrument of some sort would help me be accepted by the other kids. I stuck with it because I enjoy the discipline of it, and because it’s very relaxing to let myself go in the music.

I’m not professionally good, but I get by without making people wince.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that some species of supernatural predators can be calmed and lulled into sleep through the proper application of music. I have no doubt that sooner or later, playing the flute will come in handy in my work. In the meantime, it’s a lovely hobby.

What else? I read voraciously (obviously), and I have a fondness for Breton poetry (the works of T.S. Elliot and Robert Browning are amongst my favorites) and mysteries. Conan Doyle is a special favorite.

I also love going to the theater, be it for concerts, musicals or plays. And I’ve been known to go to the occasional film, though I find the tendency of movie theater owners to turn up the sound to deafening levels rather annoying.

Athena and Ben have been conspiring recently to get me out of the house as often as possible, and not just for work. But we lead busy, active lives, and our schedules don’t always mesh. Fortunately, I love what I’m doing…and as the saying goes, if you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work.

I’m not even all that popular or well-known yet, and I’ve already had a few people ask me the question all authors dread…”Where do you get your ideas?”

I could steal a joke from an author (I wish I could remember who) that I read years ago and claim that I get my ideas from a P.O. Box in Schenectady, NY. “Only $19.95 will get you a dozen top-quality ideas that you can use to produce your very own stories! Checks, Money Orders and Paypal accepted, no credit cards.”

If only it were that easy. :-D

I could talk about how my ideas are drawn from experiences in real life. The plot ideas are drawn from news items and things I read online, the characters from people I’ve met, and so on. But since I’m writing urban fantasy, that’s a little bit of a cop-out. Sure, the plot of Alys helping track a kidnapper (for example) and the details of the kidnapping could have been drawn from something that I read about which really happened…but magic certainly wasn’t used to find them, and there weren’t real monsters involved.

Okay, there probably were…but human monsters, not supernatural ones. You know what I mean.

I could talk about my inspirations: The different authors I love to read, the TV shows, movies and anime I’ve consumed over the years. All of them helped shape my imagination, and I have no doubt that some of my ideas come from there.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t precisely know where my ideas come from. My subconscious is a minefield, and I never know what sort of mine I’m going to step on when I go poking through it. Sometimes it’s not even that clear cut. There have been times when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with an idea that I absolutely have to get out of my head and onto paper. That’s why I kept a pad and pen by my bed for years, until my iPad took their place (thank you, Apple).

Sometimes, the next morning, I don’t even remember waking up and writing the idea down. A lot of the time they’re fragments, disjointed bits of imagery or pieces of a scene. Quite often, they have no bearing on whatever my current project is.

Fortunately, I’m a long-time fan of Stephen King, and remembered him saying (I believe it was in the forward to The Gunslinger, or possibly in Danse Macabre or On Writing) that the first line of The Gunslinger was written twenty years before the rest of the book. As I recall the story – I should have gone hunting for it before writing this – he pinned the scrap of paper it was written on to his bulletin board and swore that something would someday come out of it. That scrap of paper, the story went, travelled with him from home to home over the years, until one day the rest of the story started to take shape.

I have two bulletin boards today; one is a physical one, covered with pieces of paper with little scraps of ideas, some as small as a single sentence, some several pages long; the other is a digital one, stored in a Scrivener file and backed up religiously.

So…where do my ideas come from? The deepest, darkest corners of my mind. I don’t always understand them, I don’t always know what brought them about…but I know they’ll all come in handy. Sooner or later.