New tools

“Don’t blame the carpenter. Blame the tool.” –Howie Long in a new Chevy commercial

Am I the only one who thinks he’s calling that guy a tool? Anyway, I’m not going to complain about my tools today, so much as document one more step in my never-ending quest to find better tools for writing.

My grand Google Docs experiment lasted all of two chapters into Crusade, the second book in the Unification Chronicles series. It’s entirely possible that this has nothing to do with Google Docs, but when I hit a slump one of my first impulses is to mix up how I do things. As it happens, a major improvement to an old friend happened along at just the right time.

Evernote

Two days before Christmas, Evernote gave us iPhone users an early gift. Evernote for the iPhone version 3.2 fixes most of the problems I had with the iPhone version. Syncing is no longer modal, meaning you can search and do other things while syncing to your database, and you can store selected notebooks locally on the device, meaning you can always access them offline even if you’ve never opened that particular note on your iPhone before. While Evernote for the iPhone still doesn’t allow you to edit rich text notes directly, version 3.2 does allow you to make a plain text copy and edit that rather than just appending to the rich text note. This allows for revisions I couldn’t do before.

These changes make Evernote vastly more useful to me for writing on the go. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the latest build of the 3.5 beta—yes, I know I said I wasn’t upgrading, I have a sickness—is pretty solid as well. These changes are so impressive, in fact, that I’ve gone back to Evernote for my actual drafting. I keep each chapter in a separate note, tagged as “draft” and in the Unification Chronicles notebook. I really like having all my stuff in one place again.

BTstack Keyboard Driver

Of course, writing on the go with just the on-screen keyboard on my iPhone only works for relatively short passages. For any kind of speed, I’d still need my netbook, with the additional five pounds—3 for the netbook, 2 for the AC adaptor and cables—to lug around that this would entail, right? Not so much. The BTstack Keyboard Driver also appeared on Cydia last week. This is part of the overall BTstack project, intended to provide an alternative Bluetooth stack for the iPhone that handles profiles Apple chooses not to support. The keyboard driver, as you might expect, allows the iPhone to use external Bluetooth keyboards using the Bluetooth HID (Human Interface Devices) profile.

I still have my ThinkOutside Bluetooth Stowaway from my Windows Mobile days, so I paid my five bucks, downloaded and installed the driver and set about testing it. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it’s very promising. Not all of the ancillary keys work, and sometimes I get a string of garbage characters, but overall, it works for getting text into the iPhone fast and easy on a full-size keyboard (my Stowaway is actually marginally more comfortable than my 92% full size keyboard on my netbook). So add this to Evernote and now I don’t have to take my netbook with me to Chipotle for lunch. My back and shoulders already thank me.

Enso Words

Writing in Evernote has a few disadvantages, chief among them that Evernote has no word count function. How do I track my progress without work count? Enter Enso Words. This is a small utility program that runs all the time in your Windows system tray and waits to be called either by holding down the Capslock key like a second shift key, or as I prefer, tapping the Capslock key and entering a command and enter, or esc to go back to what you were doing. When you have Enso Words activated, you can have it perform a variety of functions on whatever text you have selected in virtually any application.

So to get a word count on my current note in Evernote, I:

  1. Hit Ctrl-A to select all text
  2. Tap Capslock to invoke Enso Words
  3. Type “wo” to narrow down the command selection to “word count”
  4. Hit Enter

Enso words then pops up a little box on screen with my current word count, and that box fades away automatically as soon as I type something or move the mouse. With a little practice, this becomes second nature. I could even shave off a keystroke if I used Enso in “quasimodal” mode and just released Capslock after typing “wo”, no longer having to hit enter to send the command. Enso is also great for looking up definitions and synonyms, spell checking in any application, changing case, searching Google and more. It’s free, and takes up very little system resources, even on my netbook.

WriteMonkey

When I want to get hardcore, though, I break out the monkey. WriteMonkey. This is a text processor for Windows inspired by the popular WriteRoom on the Mac. While it works windowed—and that’s how I use it at the office—it’s really intended to run full screen. In full screen mode, WriteMonkey takes up your entire monitor, hiding even your Windows taskbar and shows you just what you need to see to write. It’s small, fast, portable and keeps a running word count at the top or bottom of the screen so you can see how you’re doing. The idea here is to remove all the distractions and just write.

WriteMonkey doesn’t integrate automatically with Evernote, but it’s not all that hard to get them to play together. I select all the text in a note like I would with Enso, but then copy it, fire up WriteMonkey, paste and start writing. When I’m done, I select all and copy from WriteMonkey and then paste back into the note in Evernote. Pretty simple.

Google Docs

I still use Google Docs for one thing: spreadsheets. I keep my word counts there in a simple sheet that holds the word count for each chapter and then sums them to tell me the word count for the overall novel. And hey, I can even update Google Docs spreadsheets on my iPhone! (Now I just need Enso Words for the iPhone.)

So that’s it, my new system, designed to be the simplest I’ve come up with yet (since it can’t really handle formatting, there’s no temptation to spend time making it pretty). How do you take your writing on the go?

Blaming my tools

I was going to talk about my new sooper seekrit plan to release and market Unification Chronicles today, but I experienced some technical difficulties recently that I just have to rant about. We’ll get to the business plan stuff, I promise. Eventually.

But first, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

For quite some time now, my writing system has been relatively simple and has served me well. I have a notebook in Evernote for each of my major projects. In each, I have various support materials along with a note for the manuscript itself. In this note, I have the outline for the book in plain text and a .docx file attachment for the manuscript. When it comes time to edit, I open the note, double click on the attachment and edit the document. Evernote is smart enough to update the note/attachment every time the file I’m working on is saved (it’s in a temp folder on my hard drive, but that doesn’t usually matter). I also keep my progress spreadsheets in similar notes and work on them in a similar way.

Until yesterday, this system worked flawlessly. I have Evernote on every PC I use: my work desktop and laptop, my personal netbook, my iPhone. It all works great. Right up until it doesn’t.

A while back, I upgraded my netbook to use the new Evernote 3.5 beta. Keep in mind, here, that I used to be a professional software developer. I would never trust my writing to something in the alpha stage of development, but a beta is supposed to be relatively stable, just not feature complete (see the Windows 7 beta as an example). Evernote has made it clear that they will not be supporting 3.1 very long after 3.5 is officially released, so I figured I may as well start getting used to it. So I installed 3.5 Beta 4(!) and set about my work.

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Somehow, as I was opening the note containing my manuscript, the attachment for my manuscript completely disappeared! I wasn’t able to undo, and the desktop synced the change back to the server, so I wasn’t able to pull the attachment from any of my other Evernote clients. It was just gone. Nothing in the trash in Evernote, just gone. 57,000 words of fiction, nearly 60 hours of work.

I scoured my hard drive looking for a backup or copy of the file. In the third place I looked, I found something that looked promising, and was able to get the file back. If that hadn’t worked, I would have been forced to reconstruct it from emails sent each day to my beta readers.

Psst, programmers. Yeah, you. C’mere. You NEVER, EVER screw with the user’s data! A friend of mine pointed out that I was using beta software, but ANY bug that can irretrievably destroy a user’s data should never have made it past alpha stage! I’ll accept a beta program crashing, but I will NEVER be okay with it trashing my data!

/whacks Dave Engberg in the head

So I decided to take my data elsewhere. If I can’t trust Evernote to never, ever lose my data, I can’t trust it at all. What else is out there?

A lot of people recommend Dropbox. So if figured, sure, I’ll give it a go. I installed it on my netbook, and hey, so far, so good. The UI is clean and efficient, and it doesn’t seem to kill my Via CPU netbook (it predates the Atom, we’re talking stone age netbook). Documents saved to folders inside the “dropbox” folder on my desktop are automatically synced both to the cloud and any other PCs I have linked to my Dropbox account. Feels a lot like Microsoft’s Live Mesh, only about a kajillion times faster.

And it worked great until I got to work this morning and tried to install it on my office PC. Evernote works fine over my corporate proxy server. It uses the same proxy settings as Internet Explorer, set up in the Control Panel, so it never even asked. It just worked. And while Dropbox claims to do the same, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work if I manually set up the proxy settings in Dropbox itself, which it does allow for (Seesmic for Windows doesn’t, which is why I can’t use it at the office). No matter what I do, I can’t get Dropbox to connect to the cloud through our corporate network goblins. Stupid goblins.

So that’s two highly regarded file sync solutions blown out of the water by my particular circumstances. I don’t trust Evernote anymore—even after downgrading it back to 3.1, because I know I can’t keep 3.1 indefinitely—and I can’t use Dropbox on the PC where I spend half my waking hours. So what’s left?

Sadly, the only thing that comes to mind is good old Sneakernet. I have a 2GB thumbdrive on my keychain, and for now, I’m just going to put everything on there, and periodically use Microsoft’s SyncToy to back it up to the Dropbox folder on my netbook. That way I can access my files on any PC—well, any PC that uses Microsoft Office 2007, because I’m not giving up Word; I’ve tried Google Docs and found it lacking—and as long as I remember to run SyncToy every so often, they’ll get backed up to both my netbook hard drive and the cloud. It’s an inelegant solution, because it relies on my markedly undependable wetware to remember to back it up, but that’s all I’ve got. Every other solution I know of doesn’t meet my requirements: support my corporate network, run on both the iPhone and Windows, and be safe and dependable.

How do you store your working manuscripts?