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Bullet Journal and the analogue revolution

The good thing about getting away from the social media circus for a while is that you don’t get so easily distracted by trivialities; the bad thing is that you miss out on a lot of the cool stuff that everyone’s talking about. Like Bullet Journal, which I only heard about the other day when I was catching up on summer 2014 episodes of my favourite knitting podcast, The Knitmore Girls.

X-17 leather refillable journal and Parker fountain pen
X-17 leather refillable journal and Parker fountain pen

The concept is simple: a single physical notebook in which you jot down all your To-Do lists, appointments, random thoughts, etc. Forget apps – this is Slow Food for the mind. Or Slow Organisation, if you will.

Hang on, you’re saying, you have to give up electronics? Entirely? No, thank goodness! There’s still a place for Google Calendar, Reminders and other apps that help you to collaborate with others or just get prompted automatically to put the bins out on a Tuesday morning. But the idea is that writing things down helps you to remember them, as well as detaching you for a short while from the digital umbilicus that can sometimes feel like it’s sucking your brain out through your fingertips. Read more

GTD for beginners, Part 3

With apologies for the skipped week, here is the final post in my introduction to GTD!

(ICYMI: Part 1 and Part 2)

Unlike many organisation methods, Getting Things Done works in a bottom-up way; that is, you start with the small tasks and work your way up to the big picture. This has the advantage that you can get to work right away and only have to worry about the long term once you have the day-to-day landscape under control. However you can’t put off the higher-level planning forever! Read more

GTD for beginners, Part 2

This week’s post is a tad later in the day than planned, as I’m back at the day-job this week and – more crucially – didn’t put “Write next GTD blog post” in Things (the ToDo app I use on my phone and various Macs). A good example of why you should write things down the moment they occur to you!

So, last week I talked about setting up your buckets: places to save everything that needs dealing with, whether it’s a bill to be paid (your in-tray) or a blog post that needs writing (your notebook or ToDo app). If you’ve been following along, you’ll probably have a long list of stuff in your bucket and may be feeling a little overwhelmed by it all! Don’t panic – today I’m going to cover organising your tasks. Read more

GTD for beginners, Part 1

One of the things you get asked a lot, as a writer (after “Where do you get your ideas from?”) is “How do you find time to write?”. The simplest answer is that you have to give up other time-consuming activities: watching TV, playing video games, even—to some extent—reading. But even that will only get you so far if, like me, you are juggling other responsibilities, such as a day job or family. And you still need some time for yourself to recharge your creative batteries, or you’ll burn out. Read more

Tech review: Story Skeleton

I started using virtual index cards back in 2006 when planning for my first NaNoWriMo, and I still find them a useful way of managing a big project like a novel. I like physical index cards as well, but they’re a pain to carry around with you – which is where an app like Story Skeleton comes in.

Story Skeleton

is an iPhone app that allows you create and export outlines in a variety of formats, including as a Scrivener .scriv project. It’s this that first interested me, and I used it for an initial outline of The Prince of Lies.

Overall it’s quite a nice little app. The design is a bit fussy in some respects – on a small screen, I prefer the controls to adhere more closely to Apple conventions – but not difficult to get the hang of. You can display cards fullscreen and swipe between them, or list them as thumbnails (see screenshot, right) and scroll up and down.

There’s no hierarchical structure, however. If you want to assign scenes to chapters or acts, a workaround is to set up “card types” (a customisable list of categories), but then of course you have to recategorise cards when you move them. It’s also iPhone-only – you can use it on an iPad but the whole interface gets resized to fit the large screen and is therefore rather blurry.

Another point against it from my point of view is that whilst it has import and export capabilities, it doesn’t actually sync with Scrivener as such – you can only import outlines previously created in StorySkeleton and exported in its custom format (e.g. as backup). As a result, I found it useful for quick’n’dirty outlining at the beginning of a project, but the limitations of both synchronisation and screen real-estate mean that it doesn’t really fit well into my workflow.

StorySkeleton is available from the iTunes App Store, currently priced at $2.99.

Web presence 101.9 – Google Alerts

So, you’ve put yourself out there online, with a website and social media – but that’s only half the story. If your self-promotion is successful, then other people are going to start talking about you online. Sometimes they’ll let you know, but often they won’t. That’s where Google Alerts comes in.

What kind of information will Alerts find for you? Basically, anything that you could find out by manually searching on, say, your author name and/or title. That includes:
<li>your website</li>
<li>your social media profile pages</li>
<li>interviews and guest blog posts</li>
<li>book reviews</li>
<li>online bookshop listings</li>
<li>piracy listings*</li>
* unless your publisher has issued a DCMA take-down notice to the site – thankfully Google is now omitting these hits from its search results

Note that it only sends you newly-indexed results, so if you are already active online, it probably won’t return any results for those outlets. It’s mainly useful for catching the last three: reviews, shop listings and piracy listings.
<h2>Setting up your alerts</h2>
Google Alerts are something you can set up as part of your Google account, so if you don’t have one of those (via Gmail or Google+ or whatever), go forth and sort that out first. Done? OK, onwards…

The Alerts page is tucked away, so you’ll need to poke around to find it – at the time of writing, you’ll need to sign into Google and click on “More” in the black linkbar, and then on “Even More”. Scroll down that page to the header “Specialised Search” to find the section about Alerts. Click on the link and fill in the simple form, and you will receive emails whenever Google adds a new search result based on the terms you specified.

As for what terms to search for, your author name and book title are obviously a good start. If your name is common, or your title includes common words, you’ll probably get a lot of false positives, like you would if you did that search manually. If so, try out your search terms on Google itself until you get the kind of results you want. For example, the search “John Smith fantasy novel” will probably find a lot more results about you and your book than just “John Smith”.

Google Alerts won’t find everything, of course. It doesn’t index social media sites (apart from user profiles), so you can’t use it to find out if people are talking about you on Twitter or Facebook, but those sites have their own search mechanisms you can use if you’re really that paranoid! However if you are keen to keep tabs on your online presence, it’s a very useful tool.

This is the last of my posts in the Web Presence for Writers series – I hope you found it useful!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Tech review: LiveScribe Echo smartpen

A few weeks ago I reviewed the IRISnotes Executive 1.0 smartpen, not entirely favourably. To my surprise, two days later I received an email from rival company LiveScribe, asking if they could send me one of their smartpens to review. Of course I said yes; how could I resist a free gadget? I thus arrived back from FantasyCon to find a LiveScribe Echo waiting for me…

Unlike the IRISnotes pen, the LiveScribe can record audio as well as handwritten notes, and comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB versions. Since I said I was mostly interested in the transcription and handwriting recognition side of things, they sent me the basic 2GB model plus a couple of extra notebooks. Current retail price of this model is £69.99, which is less than half the price of the new IRISnotes Executive 2 smartpen.

I tested the pen and software on OSX Mountain Lion, but it’s compatible with Leopard upwards and of course Windows (XP or better).

Getting started

Setup was very easy; I downloaded and installed the desktop software and followed the instructions in the Quick Start guide. One clever feature of the Echo is that it comes preloaded with audio instructions that can be triggered by pressing the nib on various “smart icons” in the instruction booklet. I didn’t find them particularly necessary—the pen is pretty intuitive—but they provide extra handholding for non-technical users without requiring a lengthy user manual. A similar system is used to set up the pen itself (language options and date/time). All of this makes getting started with the Echo very, very simple.

Using the LiveScribe Echo

The pen itself is chunkier than the IRISnotes but much lighter than its bulk suggests; still it felt a bit of a stretch compared to the regular pens I use. The higher capacity versions have a rubberised grip, which I think would be more comfortable for writing. I also found the supplied Fine refill a bit scratchy on the microdot paper, so I bought a pack of Medium Black refills which turned out to be smoother.

One major difference from the IRISnotes is that it relies on special paper for its transcription functionality, rather than a receiver unit. I was provided with three notebooks: the standard A5 lined, spiralbound starter notebook that comes with this model; a similar gridded notebook; and a 7.5 x 11.5 cm mini-notepad. A variety of notebooks are available from retailers, at prices roughly comparable with Moleskines; not cheap, but not extortionate either. You can use more than one notebook at a time as long as they are different types (so that the desktop software can keep track of them); when you finish a notebook, you need to archive it before you can use a replacement one of the same type.

Getting your notes out of the pen and onto your computer

Connecting the pen to the computer is also easy, and in fact uses the same type of micro-USB cable as my Kobo ereader, thus avoiding having to have a hundred and one cables plugged into my Mac. There’s no need for a separate ink-retrieval utility as with the IRISnotes—just plug the pen in, go to the desktop software and it is automatically synced. The pen has a rechargeable battery that charges via the same cable; according to their FAQs, the battery is good for five hours of combined audio and note-taking, or twelve hours of note-taking alone.

I have to confess that I find it slightly spooky the way the pen always knows which page of which notebook you are writing on. Obviously this is an important part of the functionality and down to clever use of microdot technology, but it’s uncanny nonetheless. The plus side is that you can stop and start, even go back and add to a page, and not have to worry about the software getting confused and overwriting a file (a very real problem with the IRISnotes). It’s just like an ordinary pen and paper, except that it’s dead easy to get your notes onto your computer and searchable. I wish I’d had something like this years ago!

Handwriting recognition is comparable to the IRISnotes pen, but this is hardly surprising since they both use MyScript. The big difference is that it is far better integrated into LiveScribe: you just click on the MyScript icon in the toolbar to launch the MyScript utility and then select the pages you want to convert. One minor gripe is that unless you buy the 8GB Pro pack, the MyScript handwriting recognition software has to be bought separately (I downloaded the trial version, which is good for 30 days), but since the pen is much cheaper it averages out in the end.


I’ve been a bit more methodical with the tests this time, although the handwriting recognition results are not dissimilar from what I got with the IRISnotes. In each case I’ve uploaded the input as a PDF (so you can see my handwriting) and then given the output as text, exactly as exported to TextEdit.

Test 1 – handwritten text

For my first test, I just wrote a page of thoughts about the pen, making it up as I went along:

InputA5 Starter Notebook p. 1


This is the Livescribe Echo 2GB smatpen. J’ m testing it for a blog review, for comparison with the IRIS notes Executive, which uses a receiver rather than this dotted smatpaper. J’ m mostly interested in transcription and handwriting recognition rather than audio, but J will also be trying it out at a convention later this month to see how well it works in the context of a panel, which can be quite noisy. Im interested in the possibility of using it for things at work, so that s can record proceedings that haring to take too many written notes.
I have to say that J find the large size of this pen a little uncomfortable, but then s’ m unaccustomed to writing longhand fur etensive periods. Perhaps if J start doing it more often, my hand will no longer cramp up!
J shall be interested to see how well this transcribes. My experience so far has been quite post positive, but I’m dihberatehy not trying to be too neat, as a test for the software. After all J won’t always be in a position to write slowly and dearly.
J’ m also not impressed by the ballpoint refill. Maybe it’s well-used, but it feels scratchy and the ink flow is a little uneven.
Well, that’s enough for starters-time to upload!

As you can see, the main problem I had was with my cursive capital ‘i’, which looks more like a ‘j’ or an ‘s’ to the software. I guess I’ll have to be a bit less fancy with my handwriting in future! Also, MyScript recommends not crossing out errors but correcting them after conversion; if you compare the PDF to the transcript, you’ll see that the stray ‘post’ before ‘positive’ is me doing the former because I hadn’t read the help file before doing this test.

Test 2 – handwritten fiction

Since prose with long sentences and normal vocabulary tested well on both pens, I thought I’d also test the Echo on fiction with plenty of dialogue and punctuation, and for good measure some odd character names. I therefore grabbed my Kobo and copied out a page or so from the final chapter of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (warning: minor spoilers).

InputA5 Starter Notebook p. 2


Tnl nodded. “You’ re the chief. We’ve all agreed it.”
”Uh,” said Grim, not even looking up.
“Ninefingers gone,” said Dow, “and Threetrees gone, and that leaves you.”
Dogman winced. He was waiting for shivers to say ”You what? Him? Chief” He was waiting for them all to start laughing, and tell him it was a joke, Black Dow, and Tue Dura Thunderhead, and Harding Grim, not to mention two dozen carls besides, all taking his say-so. Stupidest idea he ever heard. But shivers didn’t laugh.
“That’s a good choice, I reckon. Speaking for my has, that’s what I was going to suggest. I’ll let ’em know.” And he turned and made off through the trees, with Dogman gawping after him.
“But what about them others?” he hissed once Shivers was well out of hearing, wincing at the stab of pain in his ribs. “There’s twenty fucking Carls down there, and jumpy! They need a name to follow!”

As you can see, the software did a pretty good job, apart from a couple of badly-written words and punctuation marks (e.g. “has” instead of “lads” and some pairs of quotes instead of double quotes). Only Tul Duru gave it a real problem, though it also didn’t capitalise ordinary nouns like Shivers unless I made the first letter big enough. You can add words to the software’s dictionary, however, so accuracy can be improved with time.

The recognition on this test was better than the IRISnotes, but I’m not sure if that’s because I was copying from an existing text rather than composing it myself on the fly and therefore wrote more neatly; I will have to experiment further to find out.


I’ve only scratched the surface of this smartpen’s capabilities in this review; if you are interested in audio recording options, how to share your recordings as “pencasts”, its ability to send files to Evernote, Google Docs, etc. or the many apps (dictionaries, games, etc) that can be loaded into the smartpen, you’ll have to search online for more!


  • Wide price range – the low-end model is attractively priced compared to rivals
  • Simple to use – no fiddling with a receiver unit, just switch it on and start writing
  • Intuitive desktop software, well integrated with MyScript
  • Send your data to other applications with only a couple of clicks
  • Handwriting recognition is pretty good (as long as your handwriting is neat!)


  • The pen is a bit bulky for my liking (but then I do have smaller hands than most people)
  • You have to pay extra for handwriting software
  • Having to rely on special paper is always going to be a bit irksome – but on the other hand it’s a good excuse to buy more stationery!

Overall, I think that if you are going to get a smartpen, the Echo is a great choice. I would suggest going for the mid-range 4GB model with the rubberised grip plus a few extras, unless you plan on doing a lot of audio recording or want even more accessories bundled with your pen.

Web presence 101.8 – Pinterest

Pinterest in the new kid on the social media block that debuted in 2010. Taking a leaf out of Tumblr’s book, it’s a social media scrapbook, encouraging you to share pictures with your friends. Each image is called a “pin”, and you can organise them into “boards”, or categories. As with other social media, you can follow other people and they can follow you; images pinned by you and your followees appear on your homepage. You can then pin them to your own boards, so that your followers get to see them, or just comment or like them, as on Facebook.

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</script></noindex> Today’s random selection of images!
Today’s random selection of images!

At first, Pinterest was invitation-only—I picked up an invitation earlier this year through fellow author Jody Hedlund, whose blog I follow (somewhat erratically)—but it’s now open for everyone to sign up. So why would you want to? What use is a virtual pinboard to a writer? We deal in words, not pictures, right?

Well, they do say that a picture paints a thousand words, and visual material can really help to spark your imagination. Sure, you could spend hours on Google image search, but Pinterest feeds you a constant stream of material chosen by real people rather than a computer algorithm. I do find I have to be selective, though; some of the people I follow have quite a diversity of boards (image categories), and whilst I might be interested in some, others just clog my feed with irrelevance. Thankfully you can follow individual boards rather than a member’s whole collection.

This all sounds very jolly—and it is!—but there’s a catch. Whereas other social media revolve around words and informal images (e.g. photos of your cat that you took with your phone camera), Pinterest’s focus is on sharing professional-quality images. Most people cannot easily create this kind of content, which means that most members’ chosen images are predominantly or wholly created by other people. I think you can see where this is going…

What it boils down to is that it’s against Pinterest’s T&C to distribute images without permission from the copyright owner. Whilst I totally sympathise with artists whose work is being distributed for free, I don’t see how this can be squared with social media. The whole point of Pinterest is to share interesting images, and if you can’t rely on other users to obey the rules and only pin images they have the rights to (which you obviously can’t), that means you are breaking the rules unless you follow every image back to its source.

Personally I feel there’s a big moral difference between redistributing high-resolution artwork that’s intended for sale (especially if you remove any link or attribution) and linking to pictures that have been used for illustrative purposes only, but legally there is no difference at all. At any rate, I try to restrict myself to pinning book covers (which is generally considered fair use since you’re helping to promote the product), public domain artwork, and small photo-illustrations – and I always ensure I link back to the originating site.

Because of these problems, I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pinterest. Yes, it’s fun to browse the beautiful images your friends have found online, and liking/commenting is harmless enough, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with breaking the law…

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Tech review: IRISnotes Executive smartpen

Note: this review is for the original (1.0) smartpen, which I bought a couple of years ago. A new (2.0) version is out with more capabilities, including iPad integration, but I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading yet.

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</script></noindex> IRISnotes pen and receiver
IRISnotes pen and receiver

The IRISnotes Executive is one of several smartpens vying for market share. Unlike most of the others, however, it does not use special (read, expensive) gridded paper, nor does it store the transcribed text in a heavy, high-tech pen. Instead it uses a normal-sized ballpoint pen with a infrared transmitter around its nib, and a receiver unit that you clip to whatever notepad or loose-leaf paper you desire.

Since a) I have small hands and b) I don’t want to have to buy a load of expensive notebooks on top of the pen, this makes the IRISnotes Executive an attractive choice. And since I have quite neat cursive handwriting, I find the recognition accuracy of the software to be pretty good. At least, it is when I’m writing non-fiction with lots of long sentences and standard vocabulary. It struggles a lot more with fiction, which is heavily punctuated and includes a lot of words the software doesn’t recognise, such as character names.

Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…
Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…

The biggest downside though is that the desktop software is clunky, unintuitive and poorly documented. Firstly it relies on a separate utility, MyScript Retriever, to transfer data from the receiver to your computer, which is not integrated into the IRIS software but must be run separately. Once you have transferred your files, you can then switch to the main IRISnotes Executive program, which is frankly over-designed, using a non-standard interface for no good reason. The Quick Start Guide covers the basics, but finding out anything else about the program has proved problematic. That red cross next to an uploaded file? I eventually worked out that it means the file is corrupted and can’t be imported, but there’s nothing about that in the manual, nor a tooltip to explain its function. Very frustrating!

The software runs on both Windows and Mac, although the MyScript Notes utility, which allows you to use the pen as a virtual tablet, is Windows only. I recommend you download the latest version of IRISnotes from the manufacturer’s website; however on the Mac at least, it keeps warning you that you are using an older version of MyScript and would you like to convert to the latest format. Well, yes, yes I would. But I wish it wouldn’t keep asking me!

My overall feeling is that this is a nice piece of hardware and a decent handwriting recognition algorithm that are badly let down by the desktop software. If you can stick with it long enough to get the program trained to your handwriting it may prove useful, but it’s not a toy for the impatient. And because it is weak on transcribing fiction, it’s not an ideal solution for novelists on the go. Which is a pity, because that’s exactly what I’m still looking for…

Human computer interface: digitising your handwritten prose

Like pretty much every writer nowadays, I do most of my writing via a keyboard, whether that’s on my laptop, on the bluetooth keyboard tethered to my iPad, or (occasionally) using the software keyboard on my iPhone. However anything big enough to comfortably touch-type on is also too big to slip into my everyday shoulder bag, so I’ve been looking for alternative solutions. There’s also the issue that whilst I’ve long since become accustomed to writing the stories themselves on a keyboard, I still prefer to do background note-taking (world-building, plot brainstorming, etc) in longhand; it just feels more natural and organic. Unfortunately this means I end up with a lot of paper notebooks, which are difficult to search through!

There seem to be two major strategies for solving this problem: digitising your handwriting as you do it, and digitising the image of the handwritten text using OCR. Either way, the usefulness of the end result depends a great deal on both how neat your handwriting is, and how good the software is at recognition. If humans can barely read your handwriting, a computer isn’t going to have a snowball’s chance in Hell—and a garbled file full of nonsense words mixed with random characters is unlikely to be of much use to you.

With that caveat, here are my thoughts on the various hardware and software solutions I’ve tried.

On-screen handwriting recognition

This is the type of digitisation I was most familiar with for years. As a long-time user of the Palm series of PDAs, I became fluent in Graffiti, their stylised “handwriting” that allowed direct digital input using letters handwritten on the device’s screen with a stylus. As a result, I’ve spent a long time looking for an equivalent for iOS (I have several styli, as they come in handy in cold weather when I need to wear gloves), and I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed. All the apps I’ve tested assume that you’ll want to use your normal handwriting, and so they put a lot of processing power into full handwriting recognition, which makes the app painfully slow even on an iPhone 4S. I’ve yet to find one that, like Graffiti, expects you to learn a simplified alphabet which the computer can easily recognise, which is highly frustrating for me. If you know of such an app, please, please let me know!

Optical character recognition (OCR)

OCR has been around for quite a while, and is often used for digitising printed books that were never released in an electronic version. As software has become more powerful, however, it is now possible to digitise handwritten text as well.

The traditional method is to scan a document page-by-page using either a flat-bed scanner (necessary if your pages are bound into a book) or a more compact feed-through scanner. The latter takes up less desk space, but if you’re like me and mostly write in bound notebooks, a flat-bed scanner is your only option. Or rather it was, until very recently. The advent of smartphones with relatively high resolution cameras means you effectively have a portable scanner in your pocket—a fact that has now been exploited by popular note-taking app Evernote. Using the Page Camera option (available on the Add Note screen), you can take snaps of your notebook pages and slurp them into Evernote. They are even teaming up with Moleskine to create “smart notebooks” that make scanning more accurate. Naturally these don’t come cheap, but they might make a nice addition to your Christmas list!

The desktop version of Evernote also has basic handwriting OCR built in, so you can search the images of your notebook pages, but at the moment it doesn’t offer full digital conversion of text. Hence it’s no use for content that you need to put into a word processor, so you can’t handwrite your novel and then use Evernote to transfer it into, say, Scrivener. Also, I’ve tried using Evernote and Page Camera on my project notebook, but its handwriting recognition isn’t all that great unless you write very neatly, which I tend not to do in the heat of inspiration!

Finally, large high-resolution images use up a lot of bandwidth, which means that if you have more than a few notes, you’ll be obliged to pay for Evernote’s premium service (they cunningly include 3 months’ free subscription with the smart notebook) and presumably also consume more bandwidth on your mobile devices. If Evernote introduces the ability to do reasonably accurate OCR on files and then archive the actual images, I think it might be worth scanning in more of my notes, but right now it’s not a complete solution.


This is the latest, most high-tech solution: you write on real paper with an electronic pen, and the image produced by your writing movements can be uploaded to your computer and then run through OCR software to produce a digital version. There are two main kinds of smartpen: one requires special paper marked with a grid of dots, the other uses normal paper but relies on a receiver unit to detect the pen’s movements. I own one of the latter type, an IRISnotes Executive, and I have to say that it’s pretty nifty. I’ll review it in detail next week, but so far I’m impressed by its handwriting recognition capabilities, at least when it comes to non-fiction. Of course smartpens are pretty expensive (prices start around $100) and require more practice to get right than using a normal pen and paper and then scanning the page. On the other hand they’re lightweight and don’t require you to buy (or find room on your desk for) a scanner.


In summary, there are now a number of ways to get your handwritten text into your computer, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Still, they offer a potential bridge between paper and screen for those of us who still enjoy writing the old-fashioned way!