A Toolbox Full of Wonders

Software Resources For The Modern Writer

or

The Future Is Here And Wants You To Download It

Updated:

Your computer kicks ass. Even if you're reading this on a machine so old that your friends' jaws drop when you tell them it's on-line, your computer can do things that, fifty years ago, were the stuff of science fiction. And we're not necessarily talking plausible science fiction, either. Pie in the sky kinda stuff. (Footnote -- Pie) Things that would have elicited a "Yeah, whatever" from anybody reading it.

On some level, you know this. You have piles of electronic manuscripts that you can edit easily and put to hardcopy on a whim. Your word processor makes sure that only the sneakiest spelling errors have any chance of getting past you, preventing the ugliest typos from even getting a sniff of freedom. You can submit stories to some markets without spending a dime on paper or postage, after perusing their archives to see if your story might fit in.

Your computer is the single most versatile writing tool you will ever own. (Footnote -- Versatile) In fact, it's more like a toolbox unto itself; what it can provide is more a reflection on its owner than itself.

So that brings us to the point of this article: are there any tools you're missing? Are there any nifty little (or big) programs you've overlooked that you'd find extremely useful?

Almost certainly.

I'm going to try point you towards some of the wonderful things out there that have, until now, escaped your notice. I'm also going to point out some ways to protect your precious toolbox from the less-than-wonderful realities of life on the internet. Will any of this make you a better writer? Probably not, no more than a good drill will make you a carpenter. But even so, what carpenter wouldn't want to be using the best tools they could lay hands on?

I'm following these principles:

  1. You know how to use your computer, but aren't necessarily in love with it.

  2. Commercial software is okay, free software is better, open-source software is best.

  3. Legal, legal, legal!

  4. This article is based on my own experience. Most of my experience is based on Windows. You do the math.

Enough high-tech navel-gazing. Let's get on with it.


Getting Started: Protecting Yourself

This part doesn't pertain to "writers" so much as "ever single person who owns a computer and uses it on the internet."

However, it seems that you're one of those people. Which means you need to take security very seriously; your computer is under attack.

The internet is a pretty lively place these days, and by "lively" I mean "dangerous." While most of your fellow users are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, there are enough vandals and thieves -- in other words, crackers (Footnote -- No, Not Hackers) -- out there to cause some real problems. According to a recent article, a Windows computer hooked to the internet should expect an attack within minutes of being turned-on.

And if that computer isn't secured adequately, the attack will be successful. Meaning somebody else has hijacked your computer and will be able to do whatever they like with it; swipe any information you enter (like, say, your credit card number), use it to attack other computers, whatever they damn well please.

Be paranoid; they really are out to get you.

However, you don't have to just sit there and take it. There are five fundamental steps for keeping your computer secure; skip any of them at your peril.

Right, you're all protected from the Forces of Darkness. Enough fear and loathing; let's get to the cool stuff.


Word Processor

Nutshell:

If you're happy with your current word processor, then love the one you're with, baby. However, if you're dissatisfied or looking to make a switch, then OpenOffice.org is a fabulous free, open-source option.

Details:

Of course, there are some handy word-processor tricks that you might not be aware of. Version management, for example.

If you have a word processor, you have a spreadsheet. And if you have a spreadsheet, you have a great submission tracking tool. Are you using it?


Web Browser

Nutshell:

Microsoft's overwhelmingly popular Internet Explorer is a piece of junk, obsolete and dangerous. Sometimes it's a necessary evil, but it's a wretched primary browser.

Of the available alternatives, Opera is probably the best. However, Mozilla and Firefox have also earned strong followings and are both solid choices.

Details:

Regardless of which browser you choose, there are a few things you can do to make switching to it easier.

Whatever browser you choose, keep it up to date! By their very nature, browsers are a security vulnerability; IE just happens to be the absolute worst example of the breed. Make sure you check back in with your browser's homepage every month or so to download the latest released version and keep yourself safe.


Email Client

Nutshell:

If you use your web browser to handle all your emailing needs, then you really don't need one of these; carry on.

If you're using an email client to compose messages and that downloads and stores all your messages on your machine's hard drive, then you have some choices. Microsoft flagbearers Outlook and Outlook Express are notoriously insecure, but seem to have cleaned up their act in recent years.

If your browser comes with an email client, I recommend trying that first. However, if it doesn't have one or you hate the one it comes with, give Firefox's cousin Thunderbird a look, or maybe try the free version of Eudora.

Details:

However, it's always worth remembering that while switching browsers is easy, switching email clients kinda freakin' hurts. Still, it can be done, and hopefully done without too much trouble.


Operating System

Nutshell:

This is big; the operating system is the foundation, the glue holding everything together, the uber-program that tells your computer how to be a computer.

Stand pat, unless you're a Mac user with something older than OS X. If your computer can handle an upgrade to OS X, I hear it's a really good idea; and if it can't, it may be time to get a new computer.

Windows users of any stripe who are feeling saucy might consider switching over to Linux, but it's not something to be done lightly; you'd definitely want to read the "Details" first.

Details:


Image Processing

Okay, strictly speaking, this isn't necessarily a tool for writers. There's nothing about creating and submitting a manuscript that requires you to play around with JPEG images. But you do have a creative streak, and you might do some desktop publishing or website design on the side. Being able to make and manipulate images might come in handy. And hey, you never know when self-promotion will require you to print out some fliers with your smilin' face on them.

The big kid on the block is, of course, Adobe Photoshop. And there's nothing offered (Footnote -- Well . . .) by the open-source community that can compete with it head-to-head; it's the 800-pound Gorilla, and nobody's getting it to vacate the living room any time soon.

Trouble is, they know they're the big kid on the block. Adobe Photoshop is priced as though your career depends on you getting a copy of it; a big-ol' $600 as of this writing. If your career doesn't depend on it, there's there's gotta be something else you can use, (Footnote -- Other Than . . .) right?

Right.

The GIMP

Meet the GNU (Footnote -- What's GNU?) Image Manipulation Program, aka "The GIMP" (requirements). (Footnote -- GIMP Requirements) This is a full-featured graphics program with lots of bells and whistles, good for retouching photos, editing other peoples' images, or creating your own. It has a bit of a learning curve; the interface takes some getting used to. However, it's open-source, it's free, and it can do lots of things. If you need a graphics program, try this one.


Astronomy Simulator

Celestia

Celestia (requirements) (Footnote -- Celestia Requirements) is a real-time space simulation that lets you cruise the solar system -- hell, the universe -- to your heart's content. Are you a hard SF writer curious to know how far 14 Herculis is from 18 Scorpii? Need to know the positions of the planets on August 18, 2259? Curious to see the extraordinary profusion of moons (Footnote -- "Moons.") orbiting Jupiter?

Download this program. Play. Explore. Find out.

What's more, the data that defines the universe as represented by Celestia is quite hackable. Meaning that, if you're so inspired, you can create a working model of your own universe, (Footnote -- Do It Yourself) to play with at your leisure. Meaning that folks have already created stuff for other peoples' universes. Meaning that if you want to travel around a universe that contains Bajor and Vulcan, or one with Tatooine and Coruscant, they're just a download away.

It's open-source, completely free, and great fun.


Earth Viewer

NASA's World Wind

Explore your world. World Wind (requirements) (Footnote -- World Wind Requirements) gives you satellite images (Footnote -- Spying?) of the entire world, USGS images of the United States, and a whole bunch of other little nifties that you'll have lots of fun exploring.

It doesn't work perfectly; the satellite imagery in particular has some problems. Since the complete dataset is 20 Terabytes, (Footnote -- What's That?) the program is set up to download what you're trying to see on an as-needed basis. Well, it had a big spike in popularity after Slashdot linked to it, and guess what? The server is having a hard time coping with the demand. So, it may well be that the cool Landsat 7 images won't be available to you.

But everything else will work. Especially the USGS images; I can find every house I've ever lived in.

And guess what? It's open-source! If your computer and internet connection are both advanced enough to tame this beast, download and enjoy.


Honorable Mentions

I've encountered a few other programs that look like they might have something to offer, but that I haven't taken the time to truly learn. Users with more to say about them are invited to drop me a line.

ProFantasy Software

A group of programs built for gaming, but the applications for a world-building specfic author fairly beat you over the head. They're not free, but the prices look reasonable, especially if you get some of the bundle packs. Of all the entries here in the HM section, this is the one I most want to see closer. (Read More)

The Literary Machine

This looks interesting; if only I could figure out what it actually does. Without spending $28 on documentation, I mean. (Read More)

MojoWorld

World-building in the most literal sense possible -- create and explore your very own planets. A pity you have to devote so much time and money, though. (Read More)


Parting Thoughts

I'm sure I've missed something.

In this article, I tried to cover what I felt were the essentials for any computer user (operating system, security), the essentials for a writer (word processor, spreadsheet, web browser, email client) and a couple of not-so-essentials that I thought writers might find handy.

But I'm sure there are literally dozens of other programs that would be either very useful or lots of fun -- or both -- for the average writer.

I just don't know what they are. So, you tell me.

Do you have something on your computer you think I should know about, be it a nifty toy, critical resource, or anything in between? Then drop me a line at "pete at blairhippo dot com". I'm certainly willing to turn this article into a living document, to be changed as more cool stuff finds its way in front of my eyes.

After all, whose toolbox couldn't use a few more wonders in it?


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