NaNoWriMo: My Writing Setup

Many of the great novels of the past were written using merely pen and ink, but there's no way I'm going to deny myself the flexibility of a PC and a word processor. Which one is best equipped for writing 50,000 or more words?

After I decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge, one of the first decisions I made was that I would use a separate notebook PC for the majority of my novel writing activities. Using a distinct machine without all my usual work stuff installed would mean it would be harder to get distracted by non-novel tasks. Ideally, I'd come to associate the device with the activity of writing, and that would make the words flow more easily. I'd also be forced to find a best-fit word processor, rather than just sticking with Word, which would almost certainly be what would happen on my main work PC.

HP generously agreed to lend me an EliteBook 2450p for the project, which is a pretty compact machine but boasts a full-size keyboard. HP also threw in an extended life battery, which will be useful midway through the project when I've assigned myself a couple of extended writing stints in locations where power might be an issue.

I've been impressed with the EliteBook's keyboard and general performance, but it did give me a rude shock when I first switched it on and discovered that, despite being a brand new machine, it was running Windows Vista rather than Windows 7. I've blocked out the memories of how hideous Vista can be, but they came flooding back rather quickly.

I briefly contemplated installing Ubuntu, but then realised that might cause even more problems when I want to use wireless broadband to sync the machine. In the end, I decided to treat Vista's presence as a virtue of sorts. Provided my word processor ran OK, I'd have no incentive to do anything on the PC other than writing, and perhaps the occasional bit of research to check something mid-stream.

The first two bits of software onto the machine were obvious: Firefox for when I need to go online, and Dropbox to sync my novel text into the cloud. That gave me an automatic backup, and means I can throw material into the novel if an urgent idea strikes elsewhere.

For writing the text itself, I checked out many of the writing-centric word processors we've reviewed in the past here at Lifehacker. I didn't want to use a web-based system, as I won't always be writing in areas where there's a live or reliable Internet connection. The one that looked like it best matched my needs was FocusWriter, and that's what I started with.

I liked FocusWriter's minimal interface, automatic word count and lack of unwanted frills. What I didn't like was the size at which text rendered on the screen of the EliteBook, and the fact that there was no obvious way to change that. If I'm going to spend a month staring at the screen, I want the text to be at a reasonable size.

So one hour into my first two-hour stint, I abandoned FocusWriter and continued in WordPad, for no other reason than it was already present on the machine and I didn't want to interrupt the flow. And despite its lack of some fairly basic features — no word count, no spell check — it immediately felt more comfortable, just because everything looked the right size on screen.

Right now, I'm still using FocusWriter every 30 minutes or so to check the word count, while working in WordPad for the most part. I may hunt around later in the week for an alternative; even if I don't switch for the main writing, the editing of the manuscript will need to be done in an environment that supports spell checking. But we're some distance away from that.

For those of you watching the word count: at the end of day 2, I was at 5,577 words, which means I'm still punching above my weight — and still waiting for the sense of panic that will kick in the first day that doesn't happen.

Throughout November, Angus Kidman will be blogging about his participation in NaNoWriMo to unearth lessons about writing, project management and creativity.


    I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, as I'm too busy and not brave or motivated enough, but I have total respect for people who do it!

    For minimalist writing software, I've got JDarkRoom, which is essentially just a notepad, but it goes fullscreen, you can change the colours, and it does a word and line count.

    I've also got the desktop version of Dr Wicked's Write or Die, which includes punishments for pausing in your writing (and you can do 'word wars' with friends). I think it's great, but I haven't used it for a serious project (yet).

    Good luck!

    To change font size (and colours etc) in focuswriter just go settings>themes> then add a new theme or modify the current one with the font size you want. Easy :). I wrote the school play in focuswriter and it is perfectly suited to long stints of low battery usage writing, yet with useful multiple documents, spellcheck and wordcount unlike the various darkroom clones.

    am also using a relatively new and software sparse lappy, am using Open Office which is bare enough - less distracting then Word, it has the usually spellcheck, and wordcount available when I need it, I wouldn't like a contant running word count because when I am typing out a chunk of text I should be in a zone rather then worrying if I will make it with that chunk. Day three and I've done my word goal plus a little more, and I shall have a good half hour on the train home to do some more. Its starting to get messy though, and I'm trying not to do too much editing.

    I've been using Scrivener on my MacBook, which is my primary computer so it means that try as I might, I will succumb to distractions. It took me way too long last night to boost my word count up to 5519, simply because I was chatting in IRC to some other Briswegian WriMos.

    Full screen mode of Scrivener offers the same sort of distraction free writing that WriteRoom does, but the outliner helps keep everything sorted, so that when you come back later for editing you aren't just staring at a giant block of text.

    I'm currently using WriteMonkey (; it's free-as-in-beer software that's pretty light and has the whole "darkroom" motif, and has some nifty features, like a "repository" for notes, uses a .txt file backend, and you can add MarkDown to export to Word/RTF.

    Took me ages to find one I liked.

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