Writer’s Toolkit: Writings, Travels and Tools

Tomorrow, I’m down in Birmingham at the Writers’ Toolkit day, taking part in a couple of panels. Firstly, I’ll be talking about writing work overseas, and secondly about digital tools for writers. These are rather large, rag-bag subjects, and as these are panels rather than stirring orations, I will need to keep things rather brief; but I thought that here I might present a few thoughts on both topics — both for the benefit of those who might be interested and not make it to Birmingham, and also so that I can use this blog post as a crib-sheet tomorrow, and thus not have to lug my Macbook down to Brum.

Working Overseas

As a writer, I tend to write about elsewhere. The great literary critic and writer Walter Benjamin one divided storytellers into two tribes: those who wander here and there, gathering tales from far-off places, and those who stay put and till the soil close to home. And whilst Benjamin points out that the storyteller is most fully realised in the conjunction of the distant and the close-to-home, most storytellers and spinners of tales fall more into one camp than another. And this is certainly true for me: I am a writer in love with the idea of “elsewhere”. My first novel, [amazon_link id=”0955138426″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Cargo Fever[/amazon_link], is set in Indonesia; my second novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre[/amazon_link], is set in Bulgaria. And I’m now working on a number of projects related to both Indonesia and China.

So the main thing I’ll be talking about tomorrow is research for writers, and what it means. I’ll be talking about heading out to Indonesia to hang out with sculptors, for the research which eventually led to my novel Cargo Fever (and, eventually, to another current work in progress).


Abraham Amelwatin in Tanimbar
Abraham Amelwatin in Tanimbar


Damianus Masele in Tumbur, Tanimbar
Damianus Masele in Tumbur, Tanimbar


I’ll also be talking about travelling to the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria to make the acquaintance of non-existent saints, to research old traditions of music and folk-belief, and to explore the old sites associated with the myth of Orpheus, for the sake of my second novel, The Descent of the Lyre.


Tatul - Bulgaria
Tatul – Bulgaria


Shiroka Luka - Bulgaria
Shiroka Luka – Bulgaria


And, of course, I’ll be talking about China and my forthcoming book, A Book of Changes.


Child in a Lotus - Jinan
Child in a Lotus – Jinan


Finally, I’ll round things off by talking a bit about what it means to travel for research as a writer, questions of language, questions about funding, and also perhaps a few things about the increasing internationalisation of the writing and publishing world and how this kind of kind of research work overseas can lead to all kinds of other fun opportunities opening up.

OK, that’s enough for working overseas. In the section on tools, I’m simply going to open up for pubic scrutiny the various bits of my toolkit as a writer.


The Tools I Use

I love good tools. They fill me with joy. And there are some particularly wonderful tools out there that have made my life as a writer immeasurably easier. I’m going to mention a few in this session, under the following headings: i) Research; ii) Hammering out ideas; iii) Writing; iv) Keeping Track; and v) Keeping Sane.


i) Research

Writers are often parasitic upon the labour of scholars, and I am particularly obsessive about reading scholarly stuff as a way of preparing for writing projects. In particular — being lucky enough to have access to university libraries — I make use of PDF articles. One of the tools I love to keep track of these is Bookends. It is more or less an extremely powerful bibliographic database, but also one that keeps your PDFs in order and searchable. It’s not the prettiest beast, but it is fantastically functional.


Bookends for Mac
Bookends for Mac


Also in the not-pretty-but-wonderfully-functional category is DevonThink, which I use to throw all of my bits and pieces of research into, so that I can cross-reference, search through it, make notes and so on and so forth. I save clippings and snippets from the web, even scan documents into it, which I can then search. Here’s a picture.


DevonThink for Mac
DevonThink for Mac


ii) Hammering Out Ideas

Here we enter the realms of the beauty of pure, unadulterated simplicity. Scapple is my new favourite tool. It is a kind of free-form mind-map that doesn’t force you into thinking in trees and hierarchies. It is a mind-map, in other words, for the anarchic mind, a visual, spatial note-taker. And I’m in love with it. Here’s Scapple in action with one of my current projects.


Scapple on the Mac
Scapple on the Mac


iii) Writing

Of course, there’s also writing. And writers use Word, right? Well, wrong. Some writers do, and good luck to them. But Word is horrible in the way it fails to reflect the way that the writing process works. So my heart lies with Scrivener, from the same people as those who make Scapple, and about the most wonderful writing environment I know. Here’s a screenshot.


Scrivener on the Mac
Scrivener on the Mac


Scrivener is wonderful for too many reasons to note: because of its flexibility; because of the way it is designed to work with you as a writer, not against you; because it is easy to move stuff from here to there; because the full-screen, distraction-free editing is glorious; and because it is very, very stable.


iv) Keeping Track

Once my writing is done, however, there’s the question of what to do with it. And if you send a lot of stuff out, then it is hard to keep track of what has gone where. Who have you submitted to before? Who has rejected your work before? Who has asked you to send more? For this, I use Bento — now discontinued by Apple, a bit clunky and unloved, but good at its job. Here’s a picture.


Clunky but still useful: Bento
Clunky but still useful: Bento


v) Keeping Sane

Finally, I should give a shout-out to Self-Control, the app that can lock down Facebook, Twitter, even the whole internet, so that you can get work done. There are some other similar tools out there as well, like the wonderfully-named Anti-Social, which works on PCs as well as Macs. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d get anything done without these.


Self-Control, for those who don't have any!
Self-Control, for those who don’t have any!



So, this is a rough overview of what I’m talking about in my two very different panels tomorrow. I’m looking forward to the day, and to being back in Birmingham catching up with old friends. If you are there, come and say hello!

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