Friday, 12 February 2016

3 Things that have Excited my Writer-Brain.

Every now and then I discover something - either all by myself or thanks to a heads-up from a fellow writer - that makes me do a happy dance. In the past two weeks this has happened to me three times, with the discovery of two nifty bits of software and one informative tv programme that are gold dust to the writer. And because I like to spread the love, I thought I'd post about them here. It may be a touch over-the-top to say 'they've changed my life,' but... they probably will.

Now I'll be the first to admit when it comes to hoovering up the latest technology, I've probably got at least one foot planted in the dinosaur gene pool. You're reading the words of a person who's never likely to own a smartphone because she struggles to remember how to even make a call on her dumbphone. (Although in my defence this is mostly because I'm hearing-impaired, so I can only ever use a cellphone in near-silent environments or by using the loudspeaker option. As a result, I next to never use mine anyway and instead do most of my phone-calling on my land line at home.) So while I'm raving about these wonderful things, some (if not a lot) of you might well be raising an eyebrow and going "Huh? You mean you've only just found this thing now?" But look at this way; if these things have even impressed little ol' semi-Luddite me, they've got to be pretty good. And feel free to feel superior to me if you knew about them first.

1 - Text-to-Speech software.

If you'd suggested to me one week ago that having a robotic voice read something to me that I'm perfectly capable of reading myself would transform the way I looked at my own writing, I'd probably have responded with a polite but very definite 'meh.' A lot of writers who've done very well for themselves recommend reading your own work aloud, to pick out mistakes and areas where it just sounds all out of whack, and I can see the wisdom in it and have found it very useful in the past. So if I do it myself already, why, I reasoned, would I need someone who sounded like the Speaking Clock to garble it on my behalf instead?

But then I heard that many of the text-to-speech programs have a variety of voices to choose from; not just different male and female voices but different accents too - British, American and even foreign ones. And since my w-i-p  Redemption is set in the US, with a young female POV character, I thought to myself "I wonder what my writing would sound like in a genuine American female accent instead of my half-cocked attempt at one?" I didn't have high hopes that the emotional context would come through - I imagined my microwave could do a better job of putting the passion into it - but I was curious enough to Google for some potential programs. And when I found out many of them were free... well, I had nothing to lose, did I?

There are quite a few to choose from, but the one I went with was NaturalReader, which has a free demo that's not time-restricted (i..e doesn't have that dumb thing where it works for thirty days and then refuses to work ever again until you buy the full version.) I may upgrade to the full version of it in future, but so far it's proved perfectly functional as a free demo and even lets you download a couple of extra voices, again for free. And once I'd installed it and loaded in Chapter One, I plugged in my headphones (so I can turn it up to cloth-ears loud without terrifying everyone else in the house) and settled down for a good talking-to.

Yes, it was like listening to a female Stephen Hawking reading my work to me. But on the first 'talk-through' it highlighted three major typos that I'd missed completely in the five times  I'd previously read the same chapter out loud to myself. It's the same reason software engineering companies discourage employees from bug-testing their own computer code; even when you read your own work out loud, you often only see what you meant to write rather than what you actually did write. So hearing another voice  - even a disembodied 'borg-voice - saying 'he' when you were sure you wrote 'his' can be a real "Whoa, wait - what was that again?" moment. 

I am now a convert. When it comes to picking up typos, vague, wishy-washy sentences and just general clumsy wording,  a 'borg-voice is merciless. For this reason alone, it rocks. But there's also the added bonus of... well, hearing someone else other than you reading your work, that you wrote, for a change. If you haven't got to the beta-reading stage yet, that's a warm and fuzzy little ego-boost - even if the person isn't real.

2 - Send-To-Kindle software.

On occasions when I know I'm going away for a few days (and therefore parting from my beloved 'puter) I have made pdf copies of a chapter or two of writing I'm working on and uploaded them via USB from my PC to my Kindle, so I can at least review them while I'm away. The problem with them being pdf files though, is that I can't make any notes on them; they're not much more than pictures of the original Word documents. And I can't just directly copy them over in the original Word format either, because my Kindle doesn't recognise the Word format and won't open them at all. Jotting down notes in a separate paper pad while reading my work as pdf files on the Kindle is the compromise I've been stuck with... until a bright spark on the writers' forum I frequent gave us all a heads-up about this lovely little app (cheers, Gaius Coffey!)

It's called Send-To-Kindle, and it does exactly what its name suggests. You get it through Amazon, and it enables you to send files directly and wirelessly to your Kindle from a choice of sources; your desktop (PC or Mac), your browser (Google Chrome or Mozilla FireFox), your email or your Android device. No more fiddling around with USB connections! Even better, it lets you send Word documents straight to your Kindle that will not only be recognised but can be opened with the word-processing software on your device, so you can actually make edits inside the document.

I picked the PC version, and it makes sending files to a Kindle so ridiculously easy I've been kicking myself all day for not knowing about this program sooner. Once installed, you can send files in three different ways; by right-clicking on it and picking the option which is now added to the pop-up menu, by electing to Print the file and then choosing the option from the Print Menu or simply dragging-and-dropping the file into the Send-To-Kindle program window. You can also store copies of anything you send to your Kindle Cloud, as an extra backup (especially if you're making edits to a file once it's been sent to your Kindle.) Then fire up your Kindle, and your newly-uploaded file is magically there. If it's a Word document, when you tap on it it'll open up, and when you hit the 'Back' option a toolbar for editing appears at the top.

You can get the Send-To-Kindle software in all its various formats here, and instructions for installing and setting up the software here.

3 - The Mystery of Murder: A Horizon Guide

Okay, I know this sounds like a weird thing to get 'excited' about. Or then again, if you are a writer, it probably doesn't. I hadn't been actively looking for tv programmes about murderers, but I was chilling out one afternoon, looking for something to watch on Catch-Up tv and this one jumped out at me as a useful resource. And I'm glad I took a chance on it.

There are tonnes of documentaries that claim to delve into the minds of murderers, but there are two things in particular that make this one distinctive. One, it's a compilation of some fifty years of BBC Horizon documentaries, containing all the best-substantiated science about murderers. And two, it's presented by the wonderful Dr Michael Mosley, who has done many brilliant documentaries for the BBC in the past and has a style that perfectly balances scientific gravitas with friendly accessibility (think Science's answer to Michael Palin.) 

If you are a writer of thrillers, or anything that involves crime and murder, this is a mind-expanding programme and incredibly useful for helping to create and understand believable murderers - and indeed any character that has to kill another as part of a story. I thought I already knew quite a bit about the psychology of murder, but I learned a lot of new things after watching this. In the UK it will still be available on BBC iPlayer for about another week, but after that (and if you can't get BBC iPlayer for whatever reason) you can find it on YouTube here. Be advised: it is about murder, so it's probably NSFW.

It's the perfect way to get a window into the minds of different kinds of murderers without making the NSA panic when they monitor your internet searches. Just tell them it's the BBC, so it can't possibly be subversive.

Have you discovered anything recently that's changed your writing life and is worthy of a shout-out? Let's share them around!