10 November 2009

Write-or-Die spreads fear toxin from your desktop

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I crossed the 37,000 word line today in my novel. And this get me to thinking about some of writing help that other National Novel Writing Month folks use…

Last year I did a series of posts about the “hi-tech lo-tech” devices that have emerged to help authors remove themselves from the distractions of today’s tech-crammed environment. The temptations that lure people away from writing seem to increase exponentially with each month, but these clever creations have found ways to use technology to create settings that don’t evoke technology, combining ease of use with the simple feeling of a clean sheet of typing paper. I’m as devoted this year as I was last year to the Alphasmart NEO and WriteRoom (which has a PC equivalent called DarkRoom), but I had reservations about the third lo-tech helper I discussed, Write-or-Die, the work of a certain Jeff “Dr. Wicked” Printy.

I blogged at the time that Write-or-Die wasn’t the sort of writing help that I needed: a web application that provides punishment if the writer did not continue to pound away at the keys in a steady beat. Many people love it, and claim they would never meet any of their daily deadlines without the program’s specter of terror, like the Scarecrow from Batman Begins hovering over them with his fear toxin, forcing them to dash forward. But I never found it that useful a tool—and I had a fear of losing my writing that was stronger than Write-or-Die’s punishments of annoying sounds and un-typing my last few words.

However, Dr. Wicked has a November present for writers: a desktop version of Write-or-Die, which he wrote using Adobe AIR so it runs on both PCs and Mac OS X. It isn’t free like the older online version, but Dr. Wicked asks for the modest fee of $10 for the application. If you find the online version immensely helpful, you’ll discover the desktop version doubly so because of its new features, and worth the investment.

I took the desktop Write-or-Die for a spin, and it does provide a major improvement in functionality, giving users visual control that they lacked on the online version. For me, the biggest improvement is the lesser fear about losing my hard-typed prose to some internet error or a wonky “auto-paste” to the clipboard. (This never worked for me on the online version, so I always did a “select all-copy” before leaving the screen.) Hitting the “done” button on the application saves the document in a text file onto the hard drive, and writers can save multiple times and overwrite the old file. The program even asks you if you want to provide a chapter marker when you do a further save.

The full-screen feature and the ability to format the screen with the common web fonts and different colors are also immensely appealing. And there’s finally a “tab” function! The lack of any kind of “tab” was one of my serious gripes with the online Write-or-Die. Although the desktop program doesn’t add an an actual tab character, instead making three spaces, this at least breaks up text on the screen for easier reading. The application also allows users to disable the “done” button (and hence the ability to save) until the reach the word- or time-goal they set before starting the session.

Other advantages: users can choose their own annoying sound, set any time or word goal desires instead of settling for the menu choices, and greater control over the grace period before the punishment starts. Still no electro-shocks, as promised. Get to work on that, Wicked Ph.D. (Or should I just come out with it and call you Dr. Jonathan Crane?)

It’s all good stuff . . . but I am still not going to use Write-or-Die for any of my important fiction writing. Even with all these new advantages, the push-push-push “where there’s a whip there’s a way” style of writing doesn’t work for me. I write speedily as it is, and I do believe in concentrated writing, letting energy flow, and not turning back to make extensive edits when working on a first draft, but I only need a block of time, a full-screen writing environment like WriteRoom, and a stopwatch hidden on the desktop to clang after the period of time I’ve promised myself to fill up to get me into a good authorial zone. I don’t go back far to do any tinkering—that sort of editing would kill my forward momentum—but I often need a bit of time to think about the next sentence or idea before moving forward. I don’t see this as wasted time, but productive writing time and part of the process. When I use Write-or-Die, I find myself thinking too much about time and numbers, and not about what I’m writing; this make Write-or-Die a form of distraction. The improvements for the desktop edition are great ones, and I’ll use it for writing experiments and “sprints” to get ideas flowing, more than I ever did the online version, but it doesn’t jell with my standard writing style.

However, it does work for many writers and gives them a boost of energy. For them the desktop edition will come as a gift from the muses. Well, not a gift, but ten bucks is a bargain.