Software for writers

Most authors persist with Microsoft Word, first released over thirty years ago, and ignore the plethora of new writers’ tools out there. There seems to be virtual assistance for every stage of the process, from developing ideas to generating sales, so let’s look at some.

First, let me say, writing is art, not science, there’s no shortcut key for the hours an author needs to invest in reading, writing and developing their craft. But technology, or the right technology, can certainly improve efficiency. Take the word count increasers: there’s a program that teaches ways of using a keyboard to increase writing speed (, one that allows writers to set word targets, with rewards and punishments if they’re met/missed ( and another that disables distractions such as Facebook and Twitter ( They sound a bit gimmicky, I almost hear you say, and, productivity is one thing, what about quality?

Authors will tell you that first drafts are often rubbish, and that writing is rewriting. Software can help, allowing passages to be scanned and checked for the overuse of certain words or phrases, or the use of adverbs, even clichés ( Or perhaps you are working on a story thread and want to call up all the chapters featuring a specific character, or all those with a certain setting. This can be done, easily, and you can view the chapters exclusively (Scrivner).

There is so much choice the difficulty comes in separating the useful programs from the pricy promises of success. The best way to do this is to ignore the imagination substitutes; the idea generators and formulaic structure templates that often produce uninspired results, recognised or standardised plots that fall flat. Creative writing software can sharpen your thoughts which in turn can help develop conflict, plot, characters and setting (yWriter) but often the best creative writing programs focus on recording your ideas through brainstorming tools (Freemind) or storyboarding applications (WriteItNow). Just remember, technology should support creativity, not supply it.

As far as research is concerned, search engines are the new libraries. Keeping this research accessible and organised is not so easy. Software can help the storing of files, images, notes and useful webpages; logging them in a virtual scrapbook that saves work to the cloud, making research and writing available in one place, and, if online, accessible through any computer or device you’re working on ( Not all research is electronic but it soon can be. Paper data, either a printout or handwritten, can be converted to information that you can edit at your leisure (SimpleOCR).

Backing up all this work, form a variety of sources, is important. Synchronising it all and automatically uploading everything to the internet can save time. Software that enables this, whilst also saving old versions, is crucial (

A final pointer on writing: there are many websites and groups where finished manuscripts can receive free critiques from communities of authors, editors, publishers and readers. This can provide vital feedback from peers, help grow an audience or even lead to a publishing contract (

Finding a publisher is often the next stage. Once a manuscript is ready, having been copy-edited and proofread properly (Preditors and Editors) more software becomes relevant.

Many of the well-known publishers’ commissioning editors accept new submissions via agents they trust. Authors must find the respectable genre specific agents and, if they’re accepting new work, follow their submission requirements exactly. One place to look is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and bear in mind that good agents don’t ask authors for reading fees or any money up-front.

Agents are now tougher to land than publishers but it’s a good time to be an author. Software has made self publishing affordable and potentially profitable. Ebooks are a great place to start as they can be produced, marketed and distributed so cheaply. They can be uploaded with software that allows for a table of contents, embed audio files or video, and makes books available on multiple platforms (Sigil). Big hitters like Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing offer free set up and take a percentage of royalties per sale. Others (BookBaby) can provide 100% royalties in exchange for an upfront fee.

Then there’s software to monitor sales across several stores (Trackerbox) and websites where agents sell a book’s foreign rights (pubmatch). You can even turn your book into an audiobook. Readers of Kindle books can now switch from reading to hearing a story, and this can be done mid-flow, flipping seamlessly between the two (Whispersync). The advancement of Apps has meant that many phones now play audiobooks. People are getting their content on the move and listening to stories is proving increasingly popular.

Print-on-demand is the most common method of publishing hard copies, and it avoids a garage full of unsold books. Amazon’s POD company (Createspace) has a wizard to guide authors through the process. There are other services that offer distribution to bookstores and libraries (Ingram). In addition to the manuscript assistance and editing help mentioned above, software can be used to create the covers. There are template-generated covers with the art and titling provided but it’s easy to create your own, technically speaking at least. If you can’t afford Photoshop then there are free alternatives (GIMP).

Having written and published a book, the other difficult part of an author’s triathlon is letting people know about it. One mistake many authors make is relying on others to do the marketing for them. Even if you have a publisher, or pay a marketing company, there’s no better person to sell your books than you. Another mistake is leaving the marketing until the book is available on Amazon. An online presence is important from the off and the right software can be effective in making sales.

Social media can help reach readers but it can also be time sapping. Thankfully there are useful tools for managing social media accounts. For example, you can schedule tweets to work for you while you’re offline ( and link various social media networks together so that one message can be shared everywhere through a mobile App (Postcard).

Email marketing and list management is another key tactic and there’s free software that lets you compile email lists, track them and create professional looking emails that won’t appear as spam (AWeber).

Many writers now create and manage their own websites and have the advantage being able to update the content themselves ( Communicating with readers is important and some authors are now producing Podcasts (Audacity) and YouTube videos (Pamela for Skype).

The more copies an author sells the more chance a new reader has of finding the book on the web. Racking up the 5 star reviews on amazon or Goodreads doesn’t affect their algorithms as much as sales. For reviews it’s better to focus on popular blogs and respected websites such as, for crime novels, crimefictionlover. Blog tours can also be of benefit and there are sites that manage these for you (Xpresso).

The software linked to above is a fraction of the help available. Some of it is free, some isn’t. It’s a case of finding what works for you. In my opinion the best of the programs for novelists is Scrivner. You can get a free trial here and learn the basics in the video above. For scriptwriters, try Final Draft where scripts can be translated into industry standard formats for film, TV or stage; scripts that can then be used to create multimedia productions ( While poets can access different structures and find rhymes at Poetreat.

It’s time to let technology work for you.


Gedling Book Festival 2015

Gedling Book Festival 2015, supported by Gedling Borough Council, New Writers UK and Waterstones Nottingham.
June 12-14, Arnot Hill House, Arnot Hill Park, Arnold, Nottingham NG5 6LU
Free to attend. No booking required.
The line-up includes Stephen Booth, Alison Moore, Eve Makis and Vince Eager. From Dr Who to Tolkien there are over twenty talks and workshops to enjoy.
Friday 12th June
10am Mayor of Gedling Borough Council.
10.30am Historical novelist David Ebsworth talks about the women on the Napoleonic battlefields.
11.30am Alison Moore discusses the transition from her Booker nominated debut to her second novel He Wants.
12.30pm. From Authonomy to Scrivener, John Baird looks at some of the best websites and software for writers.
2.00pm Join the crime writer Stephen Booth for his talk entitled ‘Bring in the bodies!’
3.00pm Discover how Eve Makis has written history fiction through human stories.
Saturday 13th June
Children’s Day
10.10am, 10.30am and 3.00pm Storytelling for children with Julie Malone, Rob Hann and Steve Taylor.
Writing workshops with Steve Bowkett running at various times throughout the day
11.10am Tales from the TARDIS with David J Howe, contributor to over thirty titles about Dr Who.
12.20pm Best literary character, children’s costume award.
12.30pm Adventures of a visiting author, with children’s author Steve Bowkett.
1.30pm A spooky creative writing workshop for children with Sam Stone.
2.30pm Launch of the New Writers UK creative writing competition.
4.00pm Katy Perry tribute.
Sunday 14th June
Non-Fiction Day
10.30am The truth is out there somewhere, says Dr Nick Thom in his talk on writing about ancient history.
11.15am Ex-con Frankie Owens talks about life in prison and how he came to write a book about it.
12.15pm Frank Earp looks at the A to Z of Curious Nottinghamshire.
12.45pm Joe Earp examined Nottingham from old photographs.
2.00pm Rock ‘n’ roll star Vince Eager talks about his life, career and book.
3.00pm Professor Alison Milbank discusses J R R Tolkien.


Crime Day - Gedling Book Festival


Held in the lovely grounds of Arnot Hill Park

I opened the day with a talk on the ten most influential crime books

Nottingham Theatre Royal's over 55s writing group performed
'Rhymes and Misdemeanors'

Nicola Monaghan talked about her career and offered writing tips

David Bell focused on real-life crimes

Stephen Booth wowed his audience

Snooze you lose

All part of the Gedling Book Festival


The TEN Most Influential Crime Novels

The Ten Most Influential Crime Novels

As part of the Gedling Book Festival's Crime Day (and the CWA's National Crime Writing Month) I am giving a talk on the most important crime novels of all time, discussing the books that have had the biggest influence on crime writing, as well as those titles that have been so successful they've created new sub-genres, defining the crime books we read today.

Three classics that don't quite make the list

Nope, these didn't make the cut either.

It's all happening on Sunday July 14th at Arnot Hill Park in Arnold, Nottingham.
My talk is at 10.30am. Later in the day you can watch live performances and listen to the likes of Stephen Booth and David Bell. Should be fun.

More information on the Crime Day HERE


Crime Day - Gedling Book Festival


Killing A Mockingbird In Cold Blood


When naming a great American novel, you might choose To Kill A Mockingbird, or maybe In Cold Blood. But who wrote them?

In the 1930s, in Monroeville, Alabama, a young girl named Nelle, became best friends with the boy next door. She was mouthy, a non-conformist, a tomboy, a playground scrapper. He was small and, as a result, often grateful for his friend’s protection. They shared a love of reading and after being given an old typewriter they began writing stories together. They were to grow up to become two of the America’s finest authors: Harper Lee and Truman Capote.

Capote moved to New York City, joining his mother. In 1948 his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published. Around that time, Lee headed to New York to pursue her writing career. After eight years of working menial jobs, she finally showed a manuscript to a publishing editor. Told that the novel was more like a string of short stories, Lee began rewriting and her frustration grew. Rumour has it that, one cold winter’s night in 1958, Lee chucked her entire manuscript out of her apartment window. That novel was To Kill A Mockingbird. Fortunately, she called the editor to inform him of her act and he insisted that she went straight outside to retrieve the work. She rescued the manuscript, literally, from the slush pile.

The story is told from the view of a six year old girl, Scout Finch, and clear similarities can be made with Lee’s own childhood in Alabama. In the book, a character called Dill spends his summers with Scout. He lives next door and brings with him a city boy’s perspective, whilst entertaining her with his tales. Dill is surely based on Capote, who, having left in the third grade, returned to Alabama every summer where he lived with his uncles and aunts. The hero of the novel is Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, who, like Harper Lee’s father, is a lawyer. The plot deals with class, morality and gender roles, but, most of all, it deals with race and prejudice. It is possible that a case involving Lee’s father directly shaped the story: In 1919 he had defended two black men (a father and son) who had been accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. Both clients were hanged. In the book, Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a young white woman.

The plot certainly points to the pen of Lee but did Capote turn it into a masterpiece? It is on record that he read the manuscript and helped with the editing but how much of To Kill a Mocking Bird did he actually write?

In 1959, Capote is drawn to an article in the New York Times. It outlines the brutal shotgun killing of a farmer (Herb Clutter), his wife (Bonnie), and their two children (Nancy and Kenyon). The Clutters had been discovered bound and murdered at their home in Kansas, the mother and daughter found in their beds, the father and son slain in the basement. Capote decided to write about the murders and headed to Kansas, accompanied by his friend, Harper Lee.

Whilst they worked on a book about the murders, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was published, with a quote from Capote on the jacket. The novel achieves rave reviews and becomes a bestseller. A year later, the novel lands the Pulitzer Prize. It has been said that Capote resented the book’s success – he was reluctant to quash suggestions that he was actually the author – but their friendship survived as the methodical, pragmatic Lee worked tirelessly on Capote’s 1966 novel, In Cold Blood. Was Lee in debt to Capote for his contribution to her success?

She spent the best part of six years researching the Clutter murders and interviewing the locals. Her findings provided the bedrock for the novel, and her interviews with the killers allowed the book to show their views from death row.

Capote thanked Lee in his dedication but did she get enough credit? 

Since In Cold Blood came out, it has never gone out of print. It’s spawned several movies and defined its own genre. When we begin the book, the reader knows that the Clutter family have been brutally murdered. This real family; hardworking, solid members of society, engage us and we soon become emotionally involved with their lives and the town folk, fearing their inevitable path.  

Both books have strong narratives; they raise questions about capital punishment and victimisation, and deal with uncovering the truth but, like Lee and Capote, they were quite different.

In Cold Blood was difficult to classify. It has been hailed as the first true crime book, and described as gothic fiction, but, I like Capote’s view that it’s a ‘non-fiction novel’. The idea of applying a strong story narrative to a non-fiction book was inventive. It reads like a stylish, haunting crime novel, but is also true account of the murders, the perpetrators’ arrest and their trail.

We will probably never know who had the most input into these seminal works of literature but it does seem that the authors conspired. Readers like the idea that a book has an author, singular, but that’s not always the case. With Lee and Capote, we have two great talents at work, neither of whom produced any work of note after the publication of In Cold Blood.

The fact that Capote failed to receive the Pulitzer Prize he was expecting did nothing for his relationship with Lee. His jealously and drinking may have led to problems in their friendship. What is known is that they never worked together again. Writing alone they were not the same force.

In the aftermath of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee was uncomfortable with the public attention thrust upon her and went on to adopt a reclusive, private lifestyle. Capote, however, lived off the success of In Cold Blood, hobnobbing with the rich and famous whilst drug and alcohol abuse caused a slow public demise, resulting in his death in 1984.



Strangers On A Movie

When the master of suspense hired the legendary hard-boiled detective writer

It is 1950 and Alfred Hitchcock is suffering a mid-career crisis. His latest films, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright have flopped. In need of a hit he comes across a thriller from first time novelist Patricia Highsmith entitled Strangers on a Train.

In the book, tennis player Guy Haines meets a stranger on train and, after sharing their problems, the two men agree to an exchange of murders. This way their crimes would appear motiveless. It seems a perfect plan as each will benefit from a murder for which they will have an alibi. Guy doesn't take the agreement seriously until his wife winds up dead. He is warned that he must fulfil his part of the deal or else…
Hitchcock secures the movie rights to the novel, paying $7,500. Highsmith would later be annoyed when she discovers that Hitchcock had bought the rights at a low price as a result of keeping his name out the negotiations.

Nervous of another failure, Hitchcock and Warne Bros. want an acclaimed writer to pen the screenplay. Eight big names are approached, including John Steinbeck, but they all reject the opportunity. Hitchcock turns to the great American crime writers and, after a deal with Dashiell Hammett falls through, he contacts Raymond Chandler. On reading the treatment, Chandler describes it is a “silly little story" and “implausible” but he takes the job anyway.  

It seems like a perfect collaboration; a script from the respected master of hardboiled crime fiction and a cinematic genius in the director’s chair.

Chandler is a no-nonsense writer. He wants to crack on with the script and works best alone. Hitchcock demands an input, making suggestions and putting forward his ideas for a scene. It is a recipe for disaster. In no time their relationship is in ruins. Chandler tells Hitchcock, “If you can go it alone, why the hell do you need me?” He describes their meetings as, "god-awful jabber sessions which seem to be an inevitable although painful part of the picture business.” His main gripe is the director’s willingness to forgo story and logic for dramatic effect.

On seeing Hitchcock arrive for a meeting, Chandler shouts, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!"

Overhearing the remark, Hitchcock ceases talking to the writer. Chandler completes two drafts of the screenplay, without hearing a word from Hitchcock, before being dismissed.

Czenzi Ormonde is hired to write the screenplay. A fair-haired beauty with long shimmering hair, she resembles one of Hitchcock’s leading ladies and has no formal screenwriting credit to her name. Meeting her to discuss the script, Hitchcock makes a show of pinching his nose, then holding up Chandler's draft with his thumb and forefinger before dropping it into a wastebasket. Ormonde is informed that Chandler hasn't written a solitary line he intends to use. 

After reading the final script, Chandler writes the following letter to Hitchcock:

Dear Hitch,
In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing you mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a "far less brilliant mind than mine" to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I'm not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They'll know damn well I didn't. I shouldn't have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn't. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It's no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.
(Signed, 'Raymond Chandler')

On the verge of releasing the film, Hitchcock and Chandler agree that the novelist should be removed from the credits. However, still wanting the prestige of the Chandler name, Warner Bros. list him as one of the film’s writers.

Strangers on a Train is a success and marks Hitchcock’s comeback. It endures as one of the director’s most popular movies.

Patricia Highsmith's career blossoms. She produces other psychological mystery novels that become adapted for the screen including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley's Game and Edith's Diary.