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  1. Again, I'm going to share some tips that probably won't work for everyone, but they work for me. (Then again, you should automatically assume that such a caveat applies to all writing tips.) Obviously, if you haven't made the leap from typewriters to computers, you can disregard this entry unless you're thinking about making the change.

    One day I was staring at my computer's desktop screen and I wondered why it wasn't more like my real life desktop. My real life desktop is, to the untrained eye, cluttered. Some have even said it's "chaotic." But despite this perceived chaos, here's a funny thing: I can find what I'm looking for each and every time I go looking for it. Take that neat freaks!

    The same wasn't true about my virtual desktop. My virtual desktop was neat and meticulous. Every file and folder was not only arranged alphabetically, but divided symmetrically on each side of the screen so I could see my stupid Dr. Who background. I'd been trashing my actual desk, which cost me about two hundred bucks, and cherishing my computer background, which I downloaded off of the Internet for free. I thought, To hell with this silly habit!

    Now I have a new system. Read further if you want to be like me. (Who wouldn't want that?)

    Folder Arrangement

    Unless otherwise specified, your word processor saves your files to your Documents folder, right? No problem. Just right-click it and copy a shortcut to your desktop. Now create a new folder on your desktop called Current Projects. Whenever you're working on something and it looks like it's going to have legs, move it from the Documents folder, which really ought to be reserved for notes and abandoned projects, into your Current Projects folder. Your next order of business should be creating a Finished Projects folder. It's where you place all those Current Projects that you saw to the end and it offers a quick glance of your progress as a writer.

    There's a fourth folder that I hope every one of us here gets to make use of: the Published Projects folder. It offers yet another at-a-glance gauge of your progress. If you want, you can take all four of these folders and stuff them into a single folder, named Writing or whatever else might float your boat, so that your hierarchy looks something like this:

    |_ Documents
    |_ Current Projects
    |_ Finished Projects
    |_ Published Projects

    Now that I'm not as anal about how my desktop looks, I don't bother with the containing folder. I like having the four main folders right on my desktop because it makes for fewer mouse clicks. But if you're still cherishing that background image, you should look into a program called ObjectDock by Stardock which is a utility that "docks" your shortcuts in an expanding sidebar that's fully customizable.

    So now that's all fine and dandy, but what if your hard drive bricks or someone steals your computer?

    Play It Safe

    Another reason to keep your writing-related documents arranged this way is that it makes backing up your files a cakewalk. (Just admit it: unless you're a robot, you just don't backup your files as often as you should.) I suggest Mozi, a password-protected service that takes the files you specify, encrypts them, and transfers them to a remote server. So if anything happens to your current computer, you can use another computer to retrieve your documents.

    The best part is Mozi is currently free as long as you don't try to backup more than two gigabytes. Word processor files are very tiny; I can't imagine anyone writing two gigabytes worth, no matter how many copies of their novels they make. Mozi lets you specify which folders you want to keep backed up, so that any document that your create within that folder is automatically uploaded to their server. I only choose to backup my writing folders, in particular the Current, Finished, and Published Projects folders, as large downloads and pictures sometimes find themselves in the Documents folder.

    Mozi runs in the background. As for performance, I haven't noticed any change. Each and every time my computer idles for fifteen minutes, Mozi automatically backups everything in the specified folders. Pretty cool, huh?

    Word Processor Programs

    When I was a kid, a "word processor" was a typewriter wannabe with an LCD screen that couldn't be viewed unless you properly broke your neck at the appropriate angle. Now a word processor is a program. (Thank goodness for that.)

    My favorite is Open Office. It's free and not only does it do everything that the fancy programs do (most similarly Microsoft Word) it lets you export .pdfs. At the time I switched to Open Office, nothing let you save to .pdf unless it cost a ridiculous amount of money; though the same might not be true today. I like it because I own an untoward amount of computers and I can just download a new copy of the program whenever I need it; there's no searching for the installation CD or, worse, buying a new copy.

    And screenwriters: get Final Draft. I'm not kidding here. I used to write screenplays the traditional way, too, but the first time I used FD, I swore I'd never go back. Stop kidding yourself.
  2. Sometimes you find that you're less motivated to write than usual. For me, the problem usually isn't the material, though I have been known to abandon projects. But before you abandon your own project due to lack of motivation, hear me out.

    I'm writing this from my kitchen table. Actually, it's my girlfriend's kitchen table and I think it's the most expensive thing we own. (I have a feeling that it's the most expensive thing I will ever own.) Her parents gave it to us when we moved in together. It has a beautiful cherry finish, intricate engravings, and it has managed to teach me the true value of Pledge. But we don't eat on it much; no, I have found a much better use for it than something as silly as a sit-down meal with friends and family. This table is a really awesome workspace.

    I can spread out my book stacks, my paper piles, my snack foods and, best of all, I'm that much closer to the refrigerator. Plus, the light's better in here than it is in the spare bedroom that I converted to an office. I find it kind of inspiring, too; I mean, it really is a piece of art. It's kind of like table-topping a priceless Picasso and using it as a workspace. You get infected by the beauty of it. Somehow the inspiration soaks up into your writing device and transfers to your fingers.

    Okay, it's not that magical, but I trust that my fellow writers understand what I'm saying.

    I always dreamed of having an office dedicated to nothing but reading and writing, but now that I have one, I find myself making any excuse to get out of it. I hate being tied down. I don't have one little spot where I do my reading -- I literally read anywhere and everywhere I go -- so why do writers often find themselves writing in that same little corner of the world, all the time?

    Maybe you hate being tied down, too. Try changing up where you write every once and a while. If you have a laptop or a portable typewriter, hit Staples and get one of those tiny computer tables with the casters on it. On nice days, I like to take mine outside to the backyard driveway and pound my stories out while I get a tan. I'm thinking about buying a netbook so I can really take writing with me wherever I go.

    Now, this doesn't work for everyone, but a few of you are probably going to tell me you've been doing this for years. So, go on, tell me the "unusual" places where you have been known to write and why you think it works.
  3. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self just one thing, it'd be this: don't write it if you don't feel it. I can't go back in time, but I can tell beginning writers now what I wish I knew then. It's a simple rule. Unlike most rules in writing, it's one I believe can never be broken.

    Don't write it if you don't feel it.

    I would have avoided so many unfinished projects, so many false starts. Which isn't to say I don't have the occasional failure these days, but I have definitely seen an increase in my yearly production.

    It's the secret that any great writer who deserves his or her fame knows. For me, it was like a revelation. Today, I don't even consider anything I wrote before I learned the secret worth publishing.

    In his book about writing, Ray Bradbury says he stumbled upon the secret in his early twenties. Up until then, he had never written anything meaningful at all. One day he wrote a short story about a childhood event: he was at the beach and a little girl he had been playing with went into the ocean, but didn't come out. For the first time in his life, he felt that he had written something truly beautiful because he had written something that he felt.

    Later, he wrote Fahrenheit 451, which he claims wasn't the cautionary tale about censorship that many made it out to be; he says the concept arose from his love for books, plain and simple. Whatever his reasons, he felt something when he wrote that story. It wasn't just a cool idea he had one day.

    And another example: in an article published in the June issue of this year's Asimov's, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow claims the best piece of advice he ever received was when James Patrick Kelly told him: "You need to learn to sit down at a keyboard and open a vein."

    Many beginning writers try to make a story out of any and every cool idea that comes along. Then they wonder why only their friends and family love it. Yes, the story itself is the most important element, but it's meaningless without the heart.