Must-Have Tools for the Professional Novelist

The writing world is full of resources, gadgets, and programs, but do you need to spring for all of them?

Short answer? Nah… You don’t need to spend a ton of money to improve your craft. But, I have found a few specific things invaluable for my own writing. So, here’s a breakdown of what I find most helpful, and why.

For Writing…

If you’re writing electronically, there aren’t many options for *how* you do that, but the following are as standard as it gets.

MS Word
  • Obviously, most people have Microsoft Office (sorry, Pages fans, you’ll have to put that thing in a .doc/.docx eventually). But you should know how to do more than open the program and type words. Familiarize yourself with page numbers and header/footer rules, at a minimum, and get comfortable with Track Changes–they’re the name of the editing game.

I like using Word for line edits, freelance editing, and critiquing for friends.

I also found it valuable to learn basic Excel formatting and functions. When it came time to query, I could make a detailed, sortable, color-coded (!!) spreadsheet that contained all the information I needed about the agents I planned to query.

Scrivener
  • Scrivener can have a steep learning curve, but it is MORE than worth it for outliners or those writing in complex genres like historical/high fantasy/sci-fi/anything long or heavy on the research.

I love how easy it is to move scenes around the outline (click and drag! no joke!) and reorganize at a higher level There’s also a built-in section to deposit all your research in the same place as your draft–no more sloppy folders and bookmarks!

If you are a NaNoWriMo person, and you win, you typically get a 50% off code for Scrivener, which makes the software $20 as of this writing. Even if you don’t use it for everything (I don’t), it is more than worth the cost.

Workaround

Many writers swear by Google Docs. I find it most useful for sharing material quickly with several people (hello, AMM query hive mind!). If you’re changing your work while they read it, Word’s comment merge feature gets messy quickly, and Google Docs works around that. It can also be handy if you use several devices and want to write from all of them without emailing yourself constantly. You can activate offline mode if you need to work without internet. My main beef with this program is it gets slow with novel-length projects.

For Reading…

I’m a paper-books fan when it comes to reading for pleasure, but I also read a ton for other people. It’s not always practical to do that at home/at a desk, so I use…

Kindle
  • If your CPs don’t need in-line comments, a Kindle will be your lifesaver for helping friends with their work. I especially like CPing on a Kindle because I’m constantly staring at screens, both for writing and my day job, and my eyes need the break.
Light Laptop/Tablet
  • If you travel a lot and have the funds, a netbook or tablet is a great investment. I write primarily on my lunch break and commute, so portability is key for getting daily word counts in. I find this kind of device impractical for most other things (too small and underpowered) so this is definitely a luxury item.
Workaround

If you can’t buy a Kindle right now, you can still avoid some eye strain. The f.lux app for Mac (here are some PC alternates ) allows you to set your screen to a redder bandwidth so its light will be easier on your eyes in the evenings.

For Networking…

Especially if you write kidlit, writing doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavor. But it’s hard to meet people at first! Here is where I’ve had the most success.

Twitter
  • Twitter is very much where the MG/YA writer crowd hangs out. There are a fair number of readers as well. Publishing is an extremely relational, word-of-mouth type of industry, and there is no faster way to get on the pulse of it and learn about current trends, discussions, and opportunities. You don’t have to use Twitter a lot, but creating an account to follow other professionals and writers at your stage will do so much for your basic education.
Free Pitch/Revision Contests
  • There’s no shortage of free contests and mentorships. I especially recommend PitchWars, Writing In the Margins, and Author Mentor Match. These opportunities tend to be Twitter-based for MG and YA writers, so look there for most of the updates and community-building opportunities.

I have another post about what to consider when entering a writing contest, but for the purposes of this post, I can say they’re like writer college–they’re a concentrated group of writers all working toward the same goal. It’s a golden opportunity to meet new CPs!

Workaround

Facebook groups are also a good spot to make friends with other writers. In my experiences, they’re often either crowded or totally dead, but they’re an ideal platform for asking longer questions of the group, or finding people with whom to swap short amounts of material. The most useful ones for kidlit writers tend to form around the larger, seasonal contests (PitchWars, DVpit and AMM for example).

For Continuing Education…

If you want to write well, you should read as much as possible. But that’s just the baseline! There are some other ways you can deep-dive into craft and shore up your own weaknesses.

Craft Books
  • Treat craft books like free writing classes. Carefully reading them–and doing the exercises, if you feel inclined–will help you develop your theoretical understanding of story. Target your practice on elements of craft you think you need to work on. There are so many great ones out there! I have found Anatomy of Story, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Story Engineering most helpful. Most of these you can buy used for less than $10.
Critiques from Industry Professionals
  • From time to time, industry professionals (published writers, agents, and reputable freelance editors) will offer critiques and consultations. They are often raffles or charity auctions, though freelance editors (while expensive) are bookable anytime. If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know how to take your craft to the next level, these generous people can provide you with game-changing craft and market advice.

If budget is a concern, know that such critiques are NOT a requirement, and you should never feel like you need your whole manuscript critiqued in order to succeed. Instead, keep an eye out something cheaper like the MSWLMA , which allows you to chat with an agent for a few minutes for $45.

Workaround

Attend your most local writing conference. Personally, I don’t love crowds and retreats, so these only tend to be worthwhile if they’re nearby, so I’m not dropping money on hotels and gas. But, they can be extremely fun to attend with friends, and a great way for outgoing writers to meet people. (Or, for introverted writers to push themselves and meet people and realize it was fun after all!!).

If your conference offers in-depth sessions, save some money and take advantage of them, as well as face-to-face critiques or pitch sessions. Most conferences tend to repeat basic material if you’ve been to a lot, so these more personalized, small-group sessions are well worth the extra money, over stretching your budget to attend more conferences or conferences that aren’t geographically convenient.

For Researching Agents…

Before you go into the query trenches, know this: not all agents are equal! Publishing is a relational business. Querying is not just about finding an agent who likes what you write. That’s step one, but an agent’s job is to shop your work to publishing houses, get you in doors you can’t open on your own, advocate for the best possible deal for your book, and guide you through contracts. Not all agents have all these skills, or have the right contacts to place your book in a good home. So, how do you find agents who can do all of this?

Publisher’s Marketplace
  • One of the best starting points for vetting agents is Publisher’s Marketplace, the industry website where most (note: not all) deals are recorded. The deal archives are subscription-only, and it is expensive. $25/mo. But, I found it to be a fantastic investment.

My recommendation would be to strategize. Pick a month or two near the end of your revisions to do most of your agent recon, and subscribe for that time only. Go through the archives and record information that isn’t available elsewhere, such as recent sales, number of deals, and houses and editors to whom they have sold.

Manuscript Wishlist
  • While you should always rely primarily on agency websites for submission info, Manuscript Wishlist is an awesome secondary source. Many agents have profiles on the site that break down their taste more comprehensively so you have a better sense of whether your book is a good fit. I find this helpful especially when choosing between two agents at the same agency. MSWL has Twitter update days from time to time, where agents tweet out current specific topics they want to see in their inboxes.
Workaround

Talk to people. Again, this is something you should do anyway. As you make writer friends, start asking them questions about their experiences with agents. You will learn about subjective things like an agent’s communication style, past treatment of clients, editorial inclination, and personality—all of which are a huge part of your agent-author relationship. An agent’s business savvy is only one part of the equation. (And, make sure to mold yourself into the kind of person who’s good to work with. Everything’s a two-way street, folks.)

 

That’s it for my favorite tools, but there are many more useful resources out there! If I’ve missed one of your favorites, please don’t hesitate to drop it in the comments.

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