So let’s get down to doing it.
What has been crippling you has often been a lack of knowledge of your software. Odds are, there’s a click somewhere to create outlines automatically in your word-processing program. Either you never heard of such a thing, you didn’t know where it was, or you were afraid to touch it. This extends through most of the stuff you should be using. Get past being afraid. The bunny won’t bite.
Otherwise, your problem is probably that the machine is full of games and you only have very primitive work programs. Of course, trying to write your novel with nothing but TextEdit isn’t going to give you much to work with. In that case, look at a certain site with auctions (which we shall not name, but whose initials are Ebay) to find cheap second-hand working software. What used to cost $1500 now goes for $30, if you’re talking legacy software.
True story: we priced getting a copy of Adobe Acrobat for building PDFs on our newest machines (but still legacy). It was, in fact, cheaper to buy a version too old to run on OS9, let alone OSX, and buy an old machine to run it on. That program remains freakin’ expensive. You may run into that on some very top of the line programs, or if you are running the latest OS and trying to do this on the cheap. (It may be cheaper to just go out and buy one of those lovely writer’s-aid programs.) Scale yourself down. Read through this series first so you know how little you can get away with.
One thing that’s going to make listings messy is my compulsion to include system requirements. As with the originating interest in specialized writing programs, I really would like to know up front that something is only one platform and its minimum version. You may not even know what you’re running. You will have to figure how to look that up. Start with your basic screen with no programs up. On a Mac, check under the apple icon.
The basic programs you will need are (I’m assuming you know little or nothing about these):
1. A word-processor or desktop publisher to write your manuscript in. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend Nisus Writer Express 3.4.4 (http://nisus.com/Express/) for Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later. This is the 15-day demo you then buy for $45. Nisus Writer 3.3.2 for older ops, can be downloaded for free (http://nisus-writer-express.en.softonic.com/mac). On the other end, Nisus Writer Pro (http://nisus.com/pro/) is $79 and closer to a desktop publisher. On the Windows platform, you should probably pick up (sigh) an old copy of Word for Windows. Too many places use it as a baseline, like if you want to self-publish through Smashwords. Most modern word-processors will do very simple HTML formatting. (HTML, hyper-text markup language, for building hyper-text stacks: it’s what all web pages are, basically, but before then, it was used for organizing notes and linking information).
2. A spreadsheet program for calculations, from “Character Age in This Year” to “Total Wordage” or “Words to Date.” If your word-processor does tables with simple calculations, you may not need this.
3. A database program, an electronic card file with tachyonic imps who sort your cards all sorts of ways.
4. A graphics program like Adobe Photoshop to manipulate your graphics. Invaluable for reading maps, then drawing the route over it, and putting in distances and days to travel. The “writer’s programs” don’t include that yet.
5. (optional) A picture viewer to look at your graphics or multimedia program to do all the fancy slideshow stuff.
6. (optional) A music program that will let you build playlists to write to. You can probably do this on your phone.
Many writers rely on the OpenOffice suite (http://www.openoffice.org/why/), and I don’t blame them (I’m just sick of learning new software). The latest version works on Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) or higher; or Windows XP, Windows 2003, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 *; or Linux kernel version 2.6 or higher, glibc2 version 2.5 or higher; all in Java runtime environment 1.4.0_02 / 1.4.1_01 or newer. The legacy releases are here at http://www.openoffice.org/download/archive.html.
Basically, OpenOffice combines word-processor, spreadsheet, multimedia program, graphics, database, and a mathematical equations program that science fiction writers handling astrogation and radiation fall-off should treasure.
Me, on my main office machine, a laptop named Blue, either I’m in Nisus Writer Express for OSX or I bring up OS9 to use WordPerfect. WordPerfect is a desk-top publishing program, so it has a lot of fancy tricks. Nisus was designed to be a writing program, not a publisher, and takes less drive space, less resources, and does somewhat less. In addition, I run a little old gem called Adobe Page Mill for building HTML pages without excess thought. I used to hand-code pages before it. Most word-processor and browsers today have some sort of page-building software running around in them. I also have an antique suite called ClarisWorks, that was later bought and turned into AppleWorks. I mainly use it for the database.
The hardware you will need is:
1. Your working computer.
2. The biggest hard drive it will handle, or a series of hard drives, or a fistful of thumb drives/jump drives/flash drives. I once heard someone describe these as really tiny hard drives in a case, so you had to treat them like delicate china and not move them when they were spinning. Really. [shakes head] Don’t drop them, don’t step on them, but they aren’t spinnning drives: they’re solid chips, that can be constantly electronically re-programmed, which is what saving to them does. Thumb drives are good if you want to carry your files around from one machine to another, like I do from Rosy, that I take to my job, to Blue in the nights-only office to Thinky the IBM Thinkpad I use in the bedroom (the only room we air-condition). (Yes, we have so many computers we have to give them names like pets to know which laptop or G3 we’re talking about.)
3. A means of backing up your files. Recordable DVDs are not reliable, in my very recent experience. CDROMs only hold 700 MB or so, but I can cover my writing and research in three or four of them. (Okay, on historical projects I make a whole set of CDRs with PDFs and such on them, and keep them in a multi-disc holder.) A secondary hard drive, used just to duplicate the main one, can be kept in a hard drive case, only hooked up on back-up day, and normally stored in a different place so the lightning surge doesn’t toast it, too, when it gets your machine.
4. A B&W printer. To this day, if you can’t print, it’s only a toy. We’re talking manuscripts and reference notebooks, not to mention cover letters. Color for maps can be done at the print store if you can’t afford your own color printer, but look into second-hand.
5. An expandable file folder, one of those big letter-sized file folders with accordion sides. You use it for the hardcopy of your manuscript.
6. (optional) A loose-leaf notebook, slant-D-ring preferred. You use this for your maps, character bios, floor plans, &c.
Don’t say “paperless office.” Don’t even think it. Hardcopy is the ultimate backup, and I lost two novels and a few half-built non-fiction works thanks to the “paperless office” propaganda. It’s a beautiful ideal, but all digital media have a chance of going wonky and your work disappearing.