Over time, I've developed a suite of tools I use to craft fiction and keep a web presence. At the same time, I've been developing my technical skills, so I've been able to leverage more powerful technologies, which has in turn increased my productivity. This article is an effort to bring some of these tools, both low-tech and intermediate/high-tech, to your attention in the hope they help you become a better, more productive writer as well.
By and large, I prefer free, Open Source solutions for writing. I compose in gedit and format submissions in Open Office, outline in Freemind and store my world-buiding in MediaWiki. So very few of the tools in this article will cost you anything but time and effort to use. The only exceptions are the dictionary and thesaurus tools, which request/require a nominal monthly subscription fee.
I write in the plain text editor gedit, which is a Gnome application available for KDE (and Windows as well, though the spell-check feature doesn't work out of the box in Windows). Not only does it spell-check, it has a word-count feature as well, which means I can write, check my spelling and keep track of my word count without the distraction of formatting issues. Then, when I'm ready to submit, I plug the plain text into my Open Office manuscript submission template and send it away.
That said, it's absolutely ridiculous to waste your money on Microsoft Office when Sun Microsystems sponsors the competitive Open Office suite of tools. This suite looks and operates almost exactly like its Microsoft equivalent, and it's FREE.
Open Office prefers to save documents in its own native formats, but it will just as happily save them in Microsoft standard formats and can be configured to do so by default. Finally, distributions exist for PC and Mac. I don't need to tell you Linux folk it comes pre-installed with the OS, now do I? ;)
Open Office Distributions
Dictionaries , Thesauri and Grammar
Dictionary.com: It's completely worth the $2.95 per month it takes to access this suite of tools free of advertisements, but if you don't mind being sold to while you work, you can access it for free as well.
Visual Thesaurus: This tool is wonderful for those times when you can't quite think of the word you want to use, but know a word that's close. A $2.95 per month subscription fee is required, but there are annual options for membership and downloadable software as well.
The Elements of Style: Strunk & White free and online. Gotta love it.
I use two techniques for outlining long fiction. the first is the 10,000-foot view, one-sentence-per-chapter outline. The other is mind-mapping software, since plots are rarely linear, and for that matter neither are thoughts themselves!
Freemind is my favorite of the mind-mapping options, since it's easy to learn and free. If you're planning a long work of fiction, I highly recommend you at least download it and try it out.
When I finally stopped world-building for Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom and started writing, my world-building alone topped 100,000 words. I haven't done a recent word count, but I've no doubt it's quite a bit more than that now. So needless to say, it was difficult to organize all that information. At first, the disparate documents I had created and gathered occupied a folder on my hard drive, but I couldn't cross-reference those. I went from there to an internal web site, which was good but still didn't provide the level of organization I needed.
Sean recommended MediaWiki, and I balked at first, since I didn't want to have to learn a new technology in order to keep writing. There's such a learning curve in that sort of undertaking, and I'd rather be telling stories. But I'm very glad I finally listened to him, because the result has been a robust organization of my burgeoning world into a format I can easily cross-reference.
I won't lie to you. If you have no technical skill at all, MediaWiki is not the solution for you. It's database-driven and requires a rudimentary level of comfort with PHP in order to configure properly (you can't upload files to your wiki otherwise). However, there are numerous personal solutions out there you might try for this purpose. I haven't used any of them, since I like MediaWiki. But I'm providing a Wikipedia link below in case you find that sort of thing interesting.
Other Personal Wiki Solutions
I use the Drupal CMS over a mySQL database to manage my web site. I've been well-pleased with Drupal's extensibility and the willingness of the Open Source community to participate in active development of Drupal modules. I'm not skilled enough to write modules myself, but I know a little about mySQL databases, can hack somebody else's PHP code and have a reasonable hand at CSS. If your skills are somewhere in that range, you should have no problem using Drupal.