It’s hard to believe sometimes that these characters I think about have existed in some form for half of my life. Three of them came into being when I was seventeen; the fourth, a few years later. They’ve gone through various incarnations and evolved; the protagonist has become the antagonist, and the former antagonist has a love story. Sometimes it feels like visiting a universe in my head and I’m not sure what I should write down. I don’t know if I’m doing their story justice. I don’t know if their story is all that interesting. But I am finally writing it.

Why the Echo Dot is great for writers (and everyone)

Disclaimer: Links to Amazon.com are affiliate links. There’s no charge to you, but if you make a purchase using them, it gives us a little money for dog biscuits. Luke and Leia thank you.

I’ve been a member of Amazon Prime for years. For about $8.50 a month (pre-paid once a year), Prime members enjoy free two-day shipping on any items marked “Prime” throughout the year. I order my dog food from Amazon and it arrives (in a 38lb bag–yikes) on my porch two days later. Plus, you can set up virtual Dash Buttons, which makes ordering as simple as a single click. This is good for someone like me, who is motivated to be productive but sometimes won’t leave the house because the idea of braving the pet store is too much for my introvert heart.

(It’s also fantastic when you have forgotten an upcoming birthday.)

But Amazon Prime isn’t just about free shipping anymore! Prime membership includes extras like a free e-book every month, access to Prime Pantry (where you can buy nonperishable grocery items and have them shipped for a flat-rate per box), Audible Channels (which I like to listen to at work), Amazon Video (lots of free movies and TV shows, which might be satisfying enough for you to drop Netflix), and Amazon Music.

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My Echo Dot at home on the microwave.

I use iTunes across my devices, so I didn’t pay Amazon Music much attention until last December when my mom gave me an Echo Dot. This unassuming device sits on top of my microwave and responds to voice commands. Alexa (that’s what you call her) is the closest I’ve gotten to my dream of a robot butler. Here’s why, as a human and a writer, I love Alexa:

  • Alexa can answer simple questions like, “How far is it from New York to Orlando?” and “What time is it in Toyko?” and “Who is the president of France?” and “What year was Vladimir Nabokov born?” That keeps me from opening a new tab and getting distracted by the internet. She can’t look up anything too complex yet, but I have my fingers crossed.
  • She can add items to to-do and shopping lists
  • She can read your upcoming Google Calendar entries
  • She can place an Amazon Prime order for you (I haven’t been brave enough to try this yet)
  • She can play any album, artist, or playlist included with Amazon Music! I like the playlist “Classical for Writing” and use it often. If you have the unlimited music subscription, you apparently have access to more.
  • She can play your custom playlists on Amazon Music! I have a few mood-specific writing playlists that she can fire up.
  • She can play dog sleep sounds for those times your dogs are feisty. They calm mine down within minutes. It’s magic. We use them so often, we have a playlist called “Go to sleep, Luke.”
  • You can pause, resume, and adjust Alexa’s volume with voice commands
  • She can hear you down the hall!
  • She can read to you. If you need a break and want to recharge your brain with someone else’s words, she can read any of your Audible books to you. If you have multiple Echo Dots (I have another one in my bedroom), she remembers where she left off reading and can pick up again in another room.
  • She’s an alarm clock and a timer. Alexa wakes me up every morning and times my writing sprints. And yes, you can tell her to snooze.
  • She can connect to your smart devices and turn lamps on/off by voice command, handy when you don’t want to crawl under the desk again to turn a rocker switch.
  • If you tell her that you love her, she says “thank you.”
  • She tells me she likes all AIs. 🙂

Things Alexa cannot do that I wish she could:

  • Take notes for me. Sometimes I don’t have my hands free and a line has popped into my head. Alexa can’t do this, but Siri can if plugged in with “Hey, Siri” activated.
  • Sync with Last.fm to keep track of my listening history (I’m hopeful this will eventually be integrated)
  • Play songs from my iTunes Match account
  • Let Luke outside
  • Make tea
  • Fold the laundry

The Echo Dot runs about $50, but last year it went on sale for $25, so you can sometimes find one a little cheaper. There are refurbished models available as well. It’s made my life a little easier and lot more pleasant.

Do you have an Echo Dot or another voice-activated device? How do you use it in your daily life?

Writing tools for authors using a Chromebook

Disclaimer: Links to Amazon are affiliate links and help pay for dog treats. There’s absolutely no cost to you. Luke and Leia thank you. 

I grew up on PC and graduated to Macintosh when I got into a design field. A couple years ago, I made the decision to transition to a Google Chromebook. The primary factor was cost. (The second factor is that Luke the Dog likes to smack my laptop with his paw to get my attention.) I’m a dedicated, passionate writer–I write every day–but I don’t write for profit and couldn’t justify the cost of a MacBook. I picked up an Acer Chromebook for under $200 on Amazon, and it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

That said, Chromebooks don’t support the novel-writing software I have on my Macintosh, which brings me to the point of this post: What are the best writing apps available to writers using a Google Chromebook?

If you already write on a Chromebook, you probably have favorite programs already. These are mine. And they might not work for you, but maybe you’ll get an idea or two out of this post. 

If you’re considering the switch to a Chromebook, I’ll be honest: your choice of writing programs is limited. Storyist and Scrivener don’t work on this platform. But if you’re adaptable, Chromebooks are fast and affordable.

Google Docs

Google Docs has been my go-to writing program for years. My documents are available on any computer, iPhone, and iPad, and it offers collaboration tools–invaluable if you work with one or more editors. Google Docs (part of Google Drive) is free to use and works on all browsers. There are apps as well for IOS and Android, so you can take your novel on the go.

The only downside I’ve noticed is that larger documents do not play well with my Acer, which does not have a lot of memory. I have to split anything over 20,000 words into multiple documents, but that’s no big sacrifice.

Google recently integrated Google Keep into Google Docs, giving you virtual post-its in the sidebar. You can drop and drag notes into the document, and they paste as text. I use it to hold cut material or the line that just popped into my head. No more jumping between my notes and the actual manuscript. It’s a lot closer to the Storyist experience now.

Calmly Writer

This Chrome extension costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it. It provides a distraction free, full screen environment in light and dark clothes, and you have the option of turning on the delightful typewriter sound! Ahh, the sound of productivity. It’s good when I need to write in sprints. Bonus: Calmly Writer can sync with Google Drive to back up your documents.

If you don’t want to pay for the extension, there’s a free browser-based version!


Writing-adjacent Tools

These tools add back some of the functionality found in novel-writing software.

Airtable

In February, I was invited to join a private writing group where we report our daily word totals, and since I have a poor memory, I knew I wouldn’t remember whether or not I had reported on any given day. I needed a way to track my daily writing progress, what I worked on, whether I had reported it.

If you’ve ever spent time around me, you’ve probably heard me gush about Airtable. It’s a database program with a clean, easy-to-use interface. The day I signed up, I was up and running in five minutes. I use it to organize everything from Christmas card lists to city-wide events. It’s free to use (there are paid levels) and can be fully tailored to your needs with a variety of field types.

I use it to track my daily writing progress and keep track of my works in progress. I’ve seen it used as a way to hold story notes and storyboard ideas.

Airtable’s website (if you sign up, I earn a $10 credit that goes toward writing challenges I organize)

Trello

Trello is an organizing tool. Create boards and move items between them to easily keep track of a list of story ideas, works in progress, characters, scenes, settings–you get the idea. How you use Trello is completely up to you. It is free to use and there are apps for on-the-go use. I use it to hold a list of story ideas that I might want to work on at some point, and I move them between likelihood boards.

Pinterest

I adored Pinterest when it first came out–all of those recipes I would never make! Houses I would never own! I stopped visiting it after a while, but a few years ago, when I was working on an intimidating story, I needed to collect visuals to nudge me along. I’m a visual person, so I came up with the idea of creating a Pinterest board for that story.

Since then, I’ve made Pinterest boards for nearly every large project I worked on. It’s an easy way for me to keep everything in one place, from links to research to inspirational photographs that remind me of a person or place in the story itself. Pinterest is free to use, has a Chrome extension to easily add articles or photographs to your board, and also has mobile apps.

If your manuscript’s content can’t be publicized, you can create a secret board visible only to you.

Canva

“Jess, this post is supposed to be about writing tools.”

Yes, well, writers need to create graphics sometimes. Canva is graphic design software right in your browser. If you need to make a new Twitter banner or design a shareable graphic to promote your work, it’s a fantastic tool. I like it so much for personal use, we’ve started to use it at my company. It saves time and doesn’t chain me to my desktop computer.


Luke just smacked the computer. A fitting end to this post.