A Writer’s Toolbox
Welcome to the first in my series of Big Ass, Bad Ass Lists for Writers. A lot of posts on my blog are short-to-medium pieces of conceptual advice, but I wanted to add longer posts with lists of specific actions, tasks, changes, and tools the writers who look to me can use right away.
This list is the result of my simply writing down every website I have an account at that I used in the course of one week of my writing career. These are the tools of my trade, and if you’re looking for a tool to do parts of this job, they might be good tools for you, too.
For mid-level book covers and advertising art, this is the best site on the web. You post with a description of your project and pay $300 or so up front. Then a bunch of artists and designers from around the world show you a mock-up of what they would do for you. You pick some finalists, they double-down on your efforts, and you choose the winner who makes the last changes and tweaks to build you a perfect cover. A great service at a solid price, with very responsive customer service.
This isn’t just for my shopping addiction and adding still more books to a library that’s already so big I couldn’t actually read it in my lifetime. My Amazon Author Page is among the most powerful and important sales tools in my arsenal. It lets me post content about my books, life and writing, provides important sales and audience insights, and gives me hints about who to ally myself with to build up my career.
Alternatives I Hear Are Also Good For This: Goodreads
You know how Microsoft Publisher is sort of bad for everything it does, but it’s the only thing that does exactly what it does if you don’t want to pay out the nose for some super-advanced Adobe product? Canva is a free, online graphics program that lets you build things like ebook covers, social media graphics, and product photos quickly and easily. I’m talking ten minutes and you’re done and it looks beautiful quick and easy. It’s a fabulous writer’s tool and one I surprise myself with how often I use it.
This writer’s tool does one job but does it swiftly and with effect. You log in already armed with a regular book cover file, and five minutes later you have one of those 3D mockups of the book, an image on the book cover on a tablet, or both. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t do other things, but this thing it does just right.
This is my webhosting service, and has been since one of my best friends stopped hosting sites. It’s quick. It’s cheap. It has many (MANY) robust options for people at most skill levels. They recently added an intuitive website builder like you see on Wix and Squarespace, which is nice for beginners. In honesty, if you don’t actively enjoy tinkering with the bones of your website, those other services are very likely worth the extra money. It’s a skill I’ve learned, but you don’t necessarily need to. That said, they might have the best customer service of anybody I’ve worked with, anywhere.
I’ll be honest. I don’t love Dropbox. It’s clunky to me, and they monetize too early. That said, every damn body is on Dropbox. If I didn’t have an account there, I wouldn’t be able to do business with my three favorite clients. You need an account, and enough knowledge to use it. That second part’s not very hard, though. I navigates a lot like the File Manager on your computer.
Here’s the thing about Facebook. If you want to sell your writing, social media is one of the essential writer’s tools for that purpose. If you want to succeed with a social media campaign, you must be on Facebook. There’s no way around this. It’s where everybody is. Making a different choice would be like saying “I want to sell books, but I don’t want to be in libraries or bookstores.”
Alternatives I Hear Are Also Good For This: None. You have to be here, and on one other social media platform.
Cheap creative and personal assistant services on demand from around the globe. This is not the place to get high-quality covers like you’d want to put on a print book, or the sort of editing you need to successfully self publish. It is the place to get a good ebook cover, or a Facebook ad graphic, a whiteboard video, or solid voiceover at a fraction of what you’d pay otherwise. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but once you find a good vendor over there it’s a dream.
It’s my mail service. There’s not much else to say. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without me, my email is nothing. Without my email, I am nothing…
I use a Chromebook primarily, and have for the past four years. That means Google Drive is my productivity suite. I compose in Google Docs, organize a lot of things in Google Sheets, and create both presentations and ebooks in Google Slides. It has a few disadvantages (including the fact that one of my favorite clients loathes it with the burning passion of a thousands suns), but overall the sharing functionality and frequent automatic backups make it a big winner for me.
Another unitasker I love. ImgFlip lets you take any picture you want and turn it into a meme for purposes of jokes, communication, and marketing. Quick and easy like Canva. Doesn’t do anything else, but does this one thing super-well. If you’ve my Dad Jokes Facebook Page, this is where I make them.
Remember up there when I said you need to be on Facebook and one other social media channel? Instagram is the other one I’m starting to use. It used to be G+, but they closed that down. It doesn’t have to be Instagram, but that’s where I’m landing.
One of my personal book series written by me goes through traditional publishing channels. So do another 30 or so books I contributed to in one way or another. The rest I self-published. The overwhelming majority of those I self-published on the Kindle Direct Publishing channel. The convenience with distribution and tools for marketing just make it the best option available. To be honest, I’ve been having concerns with large batch production quality…but we’ll see what develops.
I’m often surprised when I present at conferences how many people don’t yet know what crowdfunding is. Short version: it’s a way of taking preorders for a book you want to write. The long version is much longer, but that will do for now. I’ve used Kickstarter to fund all three of my flash fiction anthologies, and backed many (MANY) Kickstarter projects. It’s a game-changer, having democratized funding for everything from creative projects to cool technologies.
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Mailchimp is the service I use to compose my emails, host my landing pages, and organize my mailing lists. It’s free, intuitive to use, and generally problem free (except when they change the interface without warning me and I suddenly have to go hunting for stuff. The jerks.)
You know this one. It gets me paid. It lets me pay. I feel about it like pretty much all the other banks and bank-adjacent entities I’ve dealt with in my life. I’m not passionate about it, but they don’t annoy me enough or charge me so much that I’m angry with them all the time. It’s convenient.
This used to be the very best video calling platform on the planet. Then Microsoft bought it and made it very hard to use without logging in to their mess of a website and generally adding four extra steps for every one thing you want to accomplish. Still, the functionality is solid and enough people only want to use it that you should maintain an account.
A simple chat platform you can keep running on your computer or phone to maintain strong communication with anybody you feel the need to. To be honest, I didn’t choose this one. Enough of my clients chose it for me that it’s a regular part of my life. Still, it’s intuitive and convenient and free. If you need this sort of thing and nobody comes forward with something else, give it a try.
Square is a middleman between my website store and my Paypal account, and also how I process credit card payments with my phone when I do live events. It’s not good. It’s not bad. Like my relationship with Paypal, it’s a writer’s tool I use because it’s good enough and cheap enough I’m not highly motivated to change it.
This website and app lets you track work with a team, and has been the platform for five of my favorite clients. It’s got a slightly steep learning curve, and honestly for my own stuff I just use Google Docs. But if you have a complicated team, especially if it’s distributed, it’s a good writer’s tool with a good reputation.
I don’t know what their business model is, but this is the most robust, easy to use collection of free images for commercial use I’ve found. Wikipedia Commons is easy, but has a small collection with questionable quality. The bigger ones like Flickr and Getty say they have free images, but they’re a real pain in the butt to get to (and most of them are only kind of free anyway). Also there’s that whole thing about how Getty does a lot of copyright trolling, which hurts the whole industry. Unsplash has a good selection and fast interface. No muss. No fuss.
I found this one by accident because one of my clients only bills via it, but I stayed there because it’s a really good resource for small business financials. The invoice builder is quick and intuitive. It tracks who’s paid and who hasn’t. They have reasonable fees for payroll and bookkeeping. You can run credit card invoices and payments for super-cheap. Good financial management isn’t what most people think of when considering writer’s tools, but it really helps with the business end of things.
You use this already. Even if you build your website on a fancy WYSIWYG editor like on Wix, that’s a new skin on the bones that is WordPress. This free to use software rules the web. I can’t say I love it, but I can say it makes web publishing easy enough that I’ve been doing it successfully for a decade. Half my clients use WordPress, so if you want to be a freelancer you have to be able to use it well. If you want to sell your own books, you want to know it well enough to know whether your web designer is boning you. You want to know this stuff. In your writer’s toolbox, this is your screw gun. It’s the thing you didn’t know how badly you needed it until you finally started to use it.
Alternatives I Hear Are Also Good For This: There are none. Like I said, the alternatives (other than hand-coding from scratch) are pretty much WordPress wearing a costume. Don’t talk to be about Blogspot.
I don’t use YouTube (much or well) to create my own video content. I can and I should, and I probably will in the next couple of years, but that’s not what I use it for right now. These days, YouTube is my first stop when I want to know how to do something. In the past three months, I’ve used somebody’s tutorial for the following:
- Setting up Facebook ads in their new interface
- Wiring a three-way switch correctly
- Choosing which font to use for a book
- Replacing the window switch in my car
- About a dozen Mailchimp functionalities
- Installing a new toilet
- Research for a science-heavy writing assignment
- Advanced chess moves for the team I’m coaching
It really is one of the best resources in the world for autodidacts. And that’s not even counting the entertaining and inspiration available there, too.
But That’s Not All!
A few writer’s tools are popular among many successful folks, but I just haven’t gotten it together to research, acquire, and learn to use one. A good calendar app, for example, could probably help me a lot. See also social media scheduling like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. See also also how I manage contact information using a spreadsheet instead of some kind of CRM software.
I have a lot to learn still, but when I start to learn it you’ll hear about it here, or on my Iron Writers Facebook group, or in my newsletter.
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