the creative process

My Favorite Creativity Tools Online, Not Ranked

I like to make things. They don’t even have to be good things. In fact, I’m often happiest when I’m churning out piles of terrible art.

Here are some of my favorite online creativity rabbit holes to fall into. Each of these is free unless otherwise noted.

creativity

Botnik

If you’re unfamiliar with my love affair with Botnik‘s predictive-text keyboard, it’s because you’re new here. (Welcome!)

Basically, Botnik is your phone’s predictive text on a much larger scale and with a potentially much larger dataset that isn’t confined to things you text most often. Botnik has dozens of pre-loaded keyboard options ranging from “John Keats” to Radiohead lyrics or The Joy of Cooking. You can also feed it your own text banks as UTF-8 encoded .txt files.

For examples of the fun nonsense you can make with Botnik, check out this list of predictive-text New Year’s resolutions or this predictive-text history of Mother’s Day.

Noteflight (freemium)

If you’ve ever wanted to write music but (a) don’t know if you can, (b) don’t play an instrument and/or (c) hate having to draw all those little dots on manuscript paper which you (d) don’t even own anyway, Noteflight is the obsession for you.

Noteflight is web-based music notation software, which does what it says on the tin: It allows you to write music. Also to play it back immediately, change/edit instruments and voices, and so on.

Check out examples of music I wrote in Noteflight in the Bad Carols series.

The full version requires a subscription, but if you’re new to writing music you can get a lot of mileage out of the free version before you make the switch.

As an occasional music teacher, I especially appreciate features of Noteflight that are annoying af at first, like its insistence on subdividing measures for you. It’s really helpful if you’re not already 100 percent comfortable with the concept of how many beats go in a measure and what that should look like.

Soundation (freemium)

If you want to write music but the previous paragraph’s mention of “subdividing measures” made your eyes cross, try Soundation. It allows you to create music mixer-style, by stacking, looping and editing tracks.

Again, you can pay for a subscription or not, but the free version lets you do quite a bit before you decide whether or not an upgrade is worth your money.

I’ve found that Soundation is highly accessible for middle schoolers and older, whether or not they have any kind of previous music-related education. So put some headphones on your kids and let them mix away.

Scratch

Scratch is an MIT project designed to teach kids how to code, but even as an adult in my 30s I find it’s a lot of fun to put together my own animations and games.

The interface is very user-friendly and intuitive. If you’re super intimidated by anything with the word “coding” in it, though, there’s also a series of tutorials that will walk you through every aspect of Scratch.

Scratch is the kind of thing I would have killed for when I was ten years old and programming my Apple IIGS in BASIC that I learned out of my fifth-grade math textbook. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to make goofy things to share with friends.

Canva (freemium)

Canva is a graphic design tool for those of us with zero graphic design chops.  It offers hundreds, maybe thousands, of templates for social media images, blog post headers, invitations and a bunch of other things.

I use it primarily to make graphics for this blog, but there are plenty of other options for Canva use. Many of the templates and images are free, but some of them require payment or a Canva subscription to access – though I’m not sure you need one if you’re only using Canva for amusement.

An alternative to Canva is Snappa, which does basically the same things except with an arguably more intuitive (and definitely more touchscreen-friendly) interface. Canva’s one major failing is that it’s not optimized for touchscreens, so if you’re creating on a tablet, consider giving Snappa a go.

Micro Marching League (freemium)

Micro Marching League might be in the running for most nerdy niche option on this list. It’s basically Pyware but for kids.

…If you’re thinking “there’s no way you can make Pyware kid-friendly,” you’re right.

Micro Marching League (MML) allows you to design your own marching band drill and watch it play out…more or less effectively? It’s not a tool I’d actually use to write drill I would actually put on the field or floor, but it’s a fun introduction to drill-writing for anyone who hasn’t actually tried it before.

The free version offers enough scope to get started. You can pay for options like inserting your own uniform colors or creating indoor drill, but if you’re that serious about writing drill I’d recommend just switching to Pyware.

Master MML and your learning curve for Pyware won’t be any shorter, but at least you’ll have some idea what you want certain forms to look like.

Seventh Sanctum

I’ve been messing around on Seventh Sanctum since…years? The site’s biggest draw for creatives is probably its massive collection of idea generators, from sci-fi plots to made-up 1980s cartoon heroes.

It also offers a huge list of resources for creatives, including stock photography sources, publishing outlets, online portfolio hosting sites and so on. It’s a decades-old standby of the creative community, but I’ve included it here in case you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000.

Springhole

Like Seventh Sanctum, Springhole is also (a) ancient (in Internet terms) and (b) full of creativity resources. Springhole, however, is geared almost entirely at writers.

In addition to various generators, you’ll also find a wealth of writing advice, from how to know when you should write a novel to how to determine whether your main character is actually a “Mary Sue” or just being called that by disgruntled dudebros who haven’t realized that “being female” is a default state for half the population.

I used to get lost in Springhole for hours on end. It’s still one of my favorite online rabbit holes.

Zompist

Zompist is Mark Rosenfelder’s personal website, and it’s absolutely fantastic if you’re into any kind of worldbuilding or conlanging.

Rosenfelder is the author of several books on how to construct conlangs (which I also recommend). The website both provides an introduction to those books and hosts many of the in-depth examples that didn’t fit on the physical pages.

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own fantasy world/language, or having built one you now have no idea what to do with it, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. It’s where I found the format for this Niralan culture test, for example.

Lexiconga

Lexiconga is the other Extremely Niche tool on this list. It’s a dictionary compiler, which means it’s probably most useful to folks who are already in the vocabulary-building phase of conlanging.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with using an Excel spreadsheet for vocabulary purposes. I do. But I appreciate the way Lexiconga is built to manage your word hoard. My Excel sheet for Niralanes, for instance, has nearly a thousand entries currently. That’s a lot of scrolling, and it’s scrolling Lexiconga doesn’t make me do.

One of my favorite parts of social distancing/sheltering in place so far is that I feel even freer than usual to spend hours making terrible art (like this abomination my brain woke me up at 4 am to write). I cannot encourage it enough. Making terrible art is how we make good art (eventually) – but more importantly, it’s just plain fun.

Go forth and make terrible art. ❤


Support an artist: buy me a coffee or share this post with all your online friends.

 

 

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writing

Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.

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writing

The Joy of Writing

“Why do writers always talk about how hard writing is?” lamented an anonymous query in my inbox recently. “Can’t you all talk about the good stuff for a change?”

Sure. Let’s talk about the joy of writing.

thesushiplace

Why Do We Talk About the Hard Stuff, Anyway?

Anonymous Commenter isn’t wrong here: a lot of writing advice on the Internet is about how dang hard writing is. The percentage of “how dang hard writing is” advice appears to be even higher on sites like Quora. And there’s a reason for this.

A lot of people who seek out writing advice want two things:

  • Shortcuts to the hard work, and/or
  • To skip the work altogether and get to the luxurious utopia of Having Written.

The replies, then, are aimed at bursting this double bubble. Because there aren’t any shortcuts, and nobody reaches the halcyon shores of Having Written without first braving the turbulent seas of Doing Writing.

And Doing Writing is hard. If The Odyssey wasn’t an allegory about writing The Odyssey, it should be.

If Writing Is That Hard, Why Does Anyone Do It?

My high school band handbook included the promise that participation in band would teach us “the joy (as opposed to the “fun”) of hard work.” Like most of the high achievers in the room, however, I didn’t learn that joy in band. I enjoyed band because I already knew how hard work paid off.

I learned it by writing.

Writing is…not that fun, actually. At least not for me. Having written is fun. Turning things in ahead of deadline and watching them get published without a single editorial change is fun. Hearing people tell me how much they liked my novel is fun.

Writing is not fun. Writing is joy.

I used to share a rink with several Olympic champions, hopefuls, and hopefuls-turned-champions. I knew from watching them that they skated on a totally different level than I did, and I’m not talking about technical skill. They were driven to excel at every aspect of figure skating in a way that I simply wasn’t. I was content to be good. They weren’t even content to be great.

Writing is my Olympic sport. I’m not content to be good at it, and the moment I achieve “great,” I guarantee I’ll be looking past it asking, “What’s next?”

That kind of joy is tough to explain. Most people look at drudgery and see drudgery. Those of us who look at the same drudgery and see the deepest desires of our hearts seem weird, if not downright insane.

A handful of recent “joy moments” I found in writing:

  • Tossing my manuscript across the room and yelling, “I am sick of finding plot holes in this damn thing!”, while being proud of myself for finding them because it means I can send a stronger book out the door.
  • Realizing why my B plot felt contrived while in the middle of a wind symphony rehearsal and scribbling notes on how to fix it on the back the first clarinet part of Grainger’s Themes From “Green Bushes” (it was a photocopy) instead of actually playing Themes from “Green Bushes.”
  • Reading four cases on expert witness evidentiary standards in order to write one clean, concise, accurate paragraph.
  • Typing up 5000 words of revisions and realizing, hey, these actually aren’t terrible.

But there’s something more important than joy.

Writing isn’t merely joyful for me. Writing is my Hedgehog Concept.

Your Hedgehog Concept, as Jim Collins explains in Good to Great (2001), is the idea, process, or goal that fits into all three of the following categories:

  • You can become better than anyone in the world at it.
  • You’re passionate about it.
  • People will pay you to do it.

Most companies and even more individuals never find their Hedgehog Concept. Some never find the thing they have the skills, character or talent to become the best in the world at. Some never find their passion. Some never figure out how to get paid for what they do even if it meets the first two criteria.

My Hedgehog Concept is writing.

I’m not the best in the world at it, but I have the education, talent, character and drive to become so, if I choose. I’m passionate about it, and I have been since I understood what books were. And people have been paying me to do it ever since I started submitting work to places that paid for it.

Yes, writing is hard. It’s not “fun.” It’s deeper than fun. It’s my Hedgehog Concept, and having realized that, I’d be a fool to abandon it.

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