As much as the act of writing seems like a pie-in-the-sky activity, for most professional authors it is grounded in the reality of deadlines, contracts, promotion, and marketing. We create a product, from concept to execution. To do so, a writer needs tools. And many of these tools are supported by infrastructure — which traditionally has been very concrete (paper, ink, desk, chair) and has semi-morphed to the digital age (computers, printers, hard drives, USBs). Recently, it has evolved to include a rather intangible element: the cloud.
I recently spent several months upgrading my computer system. I’m fairly tech proficient, which I attribute to a nascent mechanical-engineering gene passed down from my father. But technology for the sake of it doesn’t thrill me. I don’t buy game apps, I don’t play video games, and I don’t play hooky at the Apple store.
That being said, I do appreciate having technology to support my work. I do not write longhand, so I rely on having a laptop and a desktop to support my work schedule. But the past few years of tight deadlines and pressing family demands resulted in a system that had not been upgraded, and had two overflowing inboxes that hit four digits because I hadn’t figured out how to sync my systems. (I read and responded to emails on my laptop, and others on my desktop. Unable to sync them, I was worried about deleting them and losing business correspondence, so they all stayed in my inbox). My anxiety grew as my inbox became more and more unruly.
I knew the solution was to create a home network. And since I had slowly converted my home system to Mac, I knew I needed to join to iCloud, something I had resisted as I am inherently suspicious of saving data to something as nebulous-sounding as a cloud – over which I have little control (don’t worry, I also use Time Machine). However, when my cellular contract for my outdated Blackberry expired, I bought a new iPhone, and began the long, sometimes frustrating, occasionally baffling journey to upgrading, syncing, and iCloud-ing all of my computers and devices.
It was worth it. I now have my emails, contacts, and calendar synced across all of my devices. I am finally maximizing the potential of my technology infrastructure.
I have to give a big shout-out to all those people around the world who quietly populate tech help forums and provide solutions that actually work. They truly are the heroes of the cyber age. I can’t tell you how many times I googled various error messages and found solutions. I also hired an IT guy to help with some of the setup because the issues were not solvable via the Apple Genius Bar, etc.
Once I put that layer in place, I decided to explore the productivity apps for my system. I am in a very intensive research phase of my new book. It is a historical thriller, and the scope of research is enormous.
Here is where I have taken my technology infrastructure to a new level through a clever and functional app: Evernote (free!). I’ve always been a bit skeptical about productivity apps, usually finding they languish on my home screen while I resort to tried-and-trued methods of simple note taking on blank paper.
However, while sick over Christmas, I decided to use my downtime on the sofa to explore Evernote. And I’m very happy I did. Quite simply, it is an app for keeping notes organized. One creates a notebook, ie. “Research”. Within the notebook, one creates individual notes. These notes can be in the form of a photo, a PDF scan (using an app such as GeniusScan, see below), a document cut and pasted into a note, or a note written directly on the note template.
The feature that I am finding indispensible is the “web clipper”, which one installs on the browser tool bar. When one finds a web link to add to the notebook, one can click the Evernote web clipper icon, and then save the entire web page or a selected section. I am addicted to this function! It saves me from littering my computer screen with urls, or having to dig around in my bookmark bar on my browser. All my notes, regardless of the medium, are saved in one place. One caveat: the web clipper icon does not install properly in IOS, so I use my laptop or desktop to do web research, and then sync it to my iPad. And Evernote syncs across all my devices, so my notes are available on whichever device I happen to be working.
Once I have created the note, I then tag it, usually with several tags. Then, when I need to find a reference about the subject, I search for notes with those tags.
Finally, I’ve used Evernote in conjunction with GeniusScan, a free app (which I upgraded for $2.99 to take advantage of its cloud functions), that will allow one to use an iPad or iPhone to “scan” (take a photo) of a document, and convert it to PDF format. This app has allowed me to scan the title page and colophon of library books which I might wish to borrow again. I can add tags to the scan, then upload it directly to my notebook in Evernote. The apps work seamlessly together.
Evernote has become an indispensable tool for me to organize information. Of course, how I use that information is where the art of writing takes off. The infrastructure upgrades have made the takeoff much smoother and reduced the turbulence.
P.S. My computer system and research organization isn’t the only infrastructure I’ve been improving. I’ve been trying to add more whole grains and veggies to the family diet. I created a “Recipes Notebook” in Evernote, and have been clipping all the recipes I find online. When I’m out grocery shopping, I can double-check them on my phone to make sure I haven’t forgotten something, and then I load the recipe on my iPad to prepare the meal.
I leave you with a favorite recipe that has been improving my personal infrastructure: Arugula and Roasted Chickpea Salad with Feta, from Bon Appetit. I can prepare this in 10-15 minutes, with the following tweaks:
It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love coffee. Americanos, to be precise.
This ritual is multi-layered for me. First of all, the Starbucks counter is my equivalent of an office water cooler. I know all the staff. If the lineup is short, we chat for a brief minute, and then I head home.
There is nothing I love better than sitting down at my desk with an Americano by my elbow. It signals to my subconscious the beginning of my work day. The added benefit, of course, is the caffeine to help kick start my brain in gear.
So is it any wonder that with my obvious love of morning java that I am a big believer in the power of percolation? By that I mean the ongoing filtering of thoughts, ideas, dreams, images, facts, fantasies and knowledge to create a story. It is an important process. Rush the percolation and the final product loses its depth and nuance.
Over the course of writing three thrillers, I have become familiar with the general flow of my writing process. Despite my love of structure, it is difficult for me to produce the exact same page count from Day One to Day One Hundred. My brain requires a slow build, where I saturate myself with research until I know more than my story requires. Then I make decisions about how I use that research to develop storylines and create conflict. Percolation is essential for me. I am in this stage of the writing process at present, and I am allowing myself to absorb, reflect, and play with ideas as I delve into the various subject areas of my work in progress.
I need time to let the elements that I draw into my writing to percolate and stream into a cohesive flow onto the page. Time, as most published authors know, is in short supply. I have written my series under tight deadlines. But I am not a pantser. I need to begin a new book feeling in command of my research, my characters, my plot lines, and my approach. Rushing this step of the process can be counter-productive for me. And yet, with no measurable page count produced at this stage, it can be panic-inducing.That is where having a few books under my belt and knowing my process helps. I know that I need this time. That forcing myself to put words on the page before I am ready merely leads to me staring at a blank page and retreating back to Step One.
Not only does percolation help the story development process, but it takes it one step further. It allows me to figure out my angle, how I want to cast my lens on the story. That, to me, is where a book can grab a reader or make them put it down. For example, in my third thriller TATTOOED, one of the antagonists is a tattoo artist. For years, I had been intrigued by the mainstreaming of tattooing in our society. I have long been a lover of Japanese woodblock art. I decided to create a character who is celebrated for her skill at Japanese tattoos, whose own tattoo of a koi fish is a metaphor for her journey. As the antagonist in my book, the question is whether her tattoos are a symbol of redemption – or whether they camouflage a killer’s heart. The creation of her character was the result of filtering long-held interests, and took months of research to develop. Yet the result was very satisfying: she was one of the most fascinating characters for me to write — and, judging from the feedback from my readers, one of the most intriguing.
Percolation can be powerful beyond the story-formation stage. It can produce epiphanies, giving a work in progress a jolt that can elevate a book to a new level. I have had that experience more than once. Doing mundane tasks can often allow the subconscious to break through. I was slogging it out on the treadmill a few weeks ago, counting down the minutes, when several ideas floating around in my head suddenly gelled to create one of the storylines for my current work in progress. I was so excited, I burned rubber on that treadmill!
Deadlines can steamroll percolation as a writer races to produce a book. But I’m learning to respect the need for it, to let it be the silent partner to my daily java ritual.
Do you have a ritual that anchors your writing process? Do you find percolation helpful when you work? If not, what works for you?
I didn’t grow up surrounded by books, at least not to the degree my children have. (I was, however, given the gift of thousands of hours listening to jazz and classical vinyl played on an audiophile’s system). A bookworm at heart, I was a regular fixture at my local bookmobile. Nothing delighted me more than filling my plastic grocery bag until the handles stretched.
Fast track to the digitization of books. One of the first successful online publishers of ebooks was an erotica publisher. The ebook format was perfect for readers who wanted to be discreet about their reading material. Especially since most bookstores had a limited supply of erotica on the shelves. I had the inside track, thanks to my dear friend romantica/erotica author Cathryn Fox, who was published with Ellora’s Cave as well as most of the major NYC houses years before FIFTY SHADES made its debut.
For various market reasons, other publishers saw the value of a digital press and they began to add these to their enterprises. My critique partner Kelly Boyce, who writes fabulous Western historical romances, sold her debut novel THE OUTLAW BRIDE to Carina press. Her book was only available in digital form. I realized that to read my friends’ books — and stay current with my industry — I needed to buy an e-reader. Two years ago, I asked for one for Christmas. My husband surprised me with an iPad, as he knew it could be a useful tool for when I travel to conferences. So I downloaded the Kindle app, the iBooks app, and the Kobo app, and quickly became a convert to ebooks.
Amazon is an incredibly clever corporation, and even though I knew I was falling prey to the lure of instant gratification with their “one-click” buy button, I couldn’t help myself ☺. I love the option of sampling first chapters, and being able to buy according to mood or need.
In addition to convenience, the beauty of my iPad is that I can turn it horizontally and read with the leather cover acting as a bookstand. This gives a two-page view, just like reading a book. At night, I balance it on my stomach, and I don’t have to hold it. This is important to me, as I suffer from a condition in both shoulders, and holding a heavy book is problematic for me.
For the first year of using my iPad as an e-reader, I loved it. I have a small house, and our bookshelves are always at more than 100% capacity (despite the cleanout I just performed, resulting in five banker boxes of YA books for my local library). I was delighted that I didn’t have all these extra books taking up space.
However, I have recently noticed that my reading habits had seriously declined on the iPad. Having internet and email access temptingly available at the touch of a screen meant that I often would peruse the news, Facebook, and check emails every few pages of a book. It was too much like a computer screen and all my bad internet habits resurfaced.
So this summer, I returned to reading physical books. I started with James Rollins’ BLOODLINE. The book itself is quite lovely: beautiful hardback, nice quality paper, and it has obviously been created with care and elegance. It also has the signature ink illustrations that James Rollins often includes as visual clues to his stories.
I enjoyed that book. And I enjoyed the reading experience. I looked forward to it when I went to bed at night. And I realized that I missed reading physical books. I missed the textured smoothness of paper under my fingers, the crisp pulpy smell of the pages, the heft of a book in my arms. I missed holding my spot with the flyleaf.
I did not miss my iPad (shhh….).
Yesterday, I conducted an extremely impromptu and unscientific poll on my Facebook page to find out whether physical books trumped ebooks for my readers. I was blown away by how many people responded, and by their obvious passion for the written word, whatever the format. They provided thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to the debate that is currently consuming the publishing world.
And now, dear readers, I turn you over to the experts: my dear readers who shared their thoughts in my oh-so-unscientific yet extremely illuminating poll. Here are a few of their comments. (You can read the full post on my page.)
“I need a good ‘tub book’ and for that it must be paper!”
“I…like how the print [of an ebook] can be adjustable for the elderly.”
“I…prefer e-readers for their capability of carrying lots and lots of books.”
“I like the feel of a book in my hands and the simple action of turning the pages, one by one, as the story unfolds.” [As a writer, this comment made my heart smile].
“I collect hardcovers of my favorite authors, the rest – ebooks!”
“…one can’t beat the versatility or convenience of e-books. A library in your pocket!”
“There is no such thing as cuddling up with a good laptop or e-reader.”
“I love to use my iPad to read, especially in bed at night… I don’t need a light on and I am not disturbing my husband.”
The readers who preferred paper books are whom I will coin, “experiential” readers – those who immerse all their senses in the reading experience and describe the pleasure of holding, smelling and cuddling with a book.
I hear you! They also like the fact they can lend their books, read them in the bathtub, and although this wasn’t mentioned, I’m sure enjoy the physical beauty of a book.
The readers who have switched to ebooks cite factors such as:
And then there are hybrid users, like myself. People who still love paper, and will buy their favorite authors to keep on the shelf– but buy ebooks to keep the bookshelves under control. Or choose ebooks because they can afford to buy more books if they are in digital form. Or because the convenience of e-readers sometimes overrides the pleasures of paper books. Did I mention that my iPad was extremely useful when we went camping? I could read by the campfire because my screen was backlit, thereby freeing up a flashlight for my kids to use on their own books.
What is interesting to me is that the hybrid user seems to be the most prevalent trend both in my poll on Facebook, and at book clubs where I am a guest. When DAMAGED was first released in June 2010, I can hardly recall anyone who had read the e-version at a book club. But over the course of the past two years, it seemed more readers had switched to e-readers. Most recently, the general consensus at book clubs was that they now use their e-readers for vacation reads.
As a reader, I prefer paper. As the owner of a house bursting with books owned by teenagers who have refused to give up the pleasures of paper books despite the fact they can text at the speed of light, I am thrilled that my children derive so much pleasure from a book. And yet, after cleaning out those bookcases yet again, I value e-readers.
As an author, I get paid roughly the same for either format, so it doesn’t affect my earnings (at this point in time). However, a significant benefit of a paper book for a new author, is that one’s book can be more easily discovered when it sits face out on a bookshelf in a bookstore. I believe I gained many of my readers at retail stores, who saw the cover of my books and decided to give them a try. The vertical Top 100 lists on Amazon are really only helpful for readers to discover a small number of authors.
I have had a few readers attend my signings and almost sheepishly admit they read the e-version of my books. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me whether my readers enjoy my series in paper or on an e-reader. Just as long as they enjoy it. ☺
What do think? Has the pendulum stopped swinging between e-books and paper books? Which format do you prefer?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
- Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads
As a novelist, I am always impressed by the potency of good song lyrics, ones that can convey the universality of human experience in pithy yet eloquent phrases. Although I don’t listen to music when I write, I am often inspired by a specific song or lyric that speaks to some element of my work in progress. The bleak, gruff exhortation of Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah underscored all of my scenes of wrongfully accused lawyer Randall Barrett in INDEFENSIBLE. And the haunting lyrics of Tears for Fears’ Mad World (the dreams in which I’m dying/ are the best I ever had) set the tone for the love-obsessed ex-con in TATTOOED.
But this post is not about the theme songs for my works. It is about the personal playlist of my life as a published author. I’ve thought long and hard about sharing it, because I come from a corporate culture of keeping my professional life very separate from the personal. One was perceived as weak and below-par if life interfered with work. But life doesn’t always grant you the power to declare, “and never the twain shall meet.”
Mine collided two years ago, when I…
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late…
This lyric from the Beatles’ Day in the Life summed up my life pretty neatly: I was in react mode, dealing with family circumstances beyond my control, and recovering from a serious bout of H1N1 — while writing and releasing the first two books of my thriller series. I’ll spare you all the details, but it was one of the most challenging (or to quote my husband, “awful”) periods of my life.
I haven’t spoken about it much in a public way, but then I heard Lee Child being interviewed at Thrillerfest this past year. He was asked about whether he was, in fact, his iconic character Jack Reacher. I expected him to deny it, to talk about how Jack was just a character with abilities he admired. But no, he related the character to an incident in his childhood, and admitted that Jack Reacher was pretty similar to Lee Child. This fascinated me, as I have been asked many times if I am Kate Lange, the struggling lawyer in my thriller series. My response was that Kate shared some of my experiences, but I wasn’t “her.” This was a truthful response, but it was also a careful response. I hadn’t wanted to blur the professional boundaries with my personal life.
I had no choice when things went south over the past two years. Fortunately, those events have stabilized. I view that period as a transition to a “new normal”, where things have been shaken up and now have settled into a new pattern. But I’ve been shaken up along the way. The old patterns that sustained me for the past ten years when I first began this journey towards author-dom aren’t what they used to be. Which leads me to The Talking Heads’ lyric from Once in a Lifetime:
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
As writers, we ask that of our characters all the time. But in the throes of daily life – ensuring children are fed, watered and transported on time, emails are answered, pages are drafted, interviews are conducted, et cetera, et ecetera – the et ceteras and deadlines lead to a panicked reviewing of the to-do list in the middle of the night. I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of wondering — with a sense of dread that does nothing to help you get back to sleep – what haven’t I done?
Realizing my oldest will be ready to embark on her own life in three years, that question resounds with considerable import. Like many of my peers, I’m now marking the passage of time, knowing how quickly it will pass. The question has refused to be appeased with the checking off of my to-do list.
What haven’t I done?
And rather than being a panicked knee-jerk reaction to my to-do list, it has become a very freeing thought.
What haven’t I done yet with my life?
What haven’t I done yet with my work?
Carpe diem, my friends, carpe diem. Another pithy phrase (although not a lyric) that has resonated with me for a long time. But now, more than ever.
How about you? Do you have a lyric or motto that has inspired you?