Writing Tools – Snowflake Pro, Google Docs, and a Chromebook

When I set out to write my last novel I was armed with a few tools accessible to most people: An idea, a notebook, friends, and a couple options for a word processor.

I filled many pages of my notebook with notes, drawings, scribbles, and ideas, spent many an evening discussing my story and my ideas with my close friend, and jotted down a few paragraphs in Google Docs. It all lead me to nothing.

Then my close friend told me about some software he used to organize his novel, Snowflake Pro, and bought me a copy of it. I read about it, went through the tutorials, played around with it, and thought “this could work.”

For the uninitiated, the Snowflake Method is a process of writing a novel developed by Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D. that focuses on the small stuff, then building on it. The full method, helps you not only build your novel, but build a proposal to help you sell your book.

The software, Snowflake Pro, walks you through the method. It is a fair tool, and still usable, but as it came out in 2009, it is looking a little antiquated (according to their support email box, a new version is in the works). The other issue is, like Scrivener it is a thick client, but unlike Scrivener it is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux. I won’t take up real estate here for screenshots, you can see them in the link above. There are 9 steps in the Snowflake Method, but by the time I finished step 5 (fleshing out your characters), I was itching to write, and abandoned it. That being said, it was extremely useful, and I used it again with my current novel.

In the ramp up to writing my book, I decided I needed a laptop (my only PC was a desktop as I am a programmer and PC gamer, so I gravitate toward more power and big screens), but set a budget, so I was looking at either a minimalist Windows 10 machine, a used Window 8 box, or a Chromebook. After a ton of research, I chose a Toshiba Chromebook 2 (2014 edition). It is light, has a great screen with a better resolution than most Chromebooks, and has an 8 hour battery life.

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In combination with the Chromebook, I chose Google Drive apps (Docs, Sheets, etc). Microsoft Office Online was an option, but as I have fully drank the Google Kool-Aid, and have used Docs for many other tasks, I went the Google direction. Working in the cloud offers the ability to work on multiple platforms and devices, collaborate with others, and plug into Add-Ons and extensions to the applications. Another nice feature of the Chromebook is Chrome Remote Desktop, which allowed me to access my home desktop PC from anywhere (including thick apps like Snowflake). And now that Google applications support offline mode, I could work on my book regardless if I had an internet connection. All was exceptional… for a while.

Once my manuscript approached 100 pages, working within the doc slowed down. Paging was slow, typing was laggy, especially when Docs tried to autosave, which is does almost constantly. In order to test whether this was Docs or the new laptop, I worked on my desktop machine from time to time and saw a vast improvement in performance. (as an aside, it takes about a minute to open my full 458 page manuscript in Google Docs, but if I save it as a MS Word file, it takes over 3 minutes to open it in Libre/Open Office)

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Loads of research revealed little, as apparently writing a novel on a Chromebook is a rare thing. In order to finish my book with a minimum of irritation and loss of hair, I did my work in a second document that contained only the current chapter, then pasted it into the large file upon completion.

Zoom forward to 2016, and my novel is with my beta readers, and I am well into my new one. I briefly toyed with a website for writing called Scriptito.com which is an online tool with functionality similar to Scrivener. Fortunately I only made it through the first chapter before I noticed that the website blog and Twitter account have been inactive since 2011. The day after I decided to stop using it, the website’s security certificate expired, and the website started to get “wonky”. It is unfortunate because it is one of the better web apps I have ever used.

So back to Docs. I am still dealing with the slowness, so I have segmented my book into multiple documents, one for each chapter, but this makes it difficult to track things like word count. What to do? Enter the next generation of Chromebooks. The 2015 model of the Toshiba has a faster processor, and based on the performance of Docs on my home machine, this is where the bottleneck is on my current machine. I plan on purchasing the new one shortly and will update this blog accordingly. The base model benchmarks at more than twice what my model does, and the better model with an Intel i3 processor is about 2.5 times the performance. Based on research, I am not going to spend the extra money for the i3.

There are other options. Other manufactures such as Dell and Acer offer Chromebooks with similar specs and price, and the Google Pixel is a showcase of what’s possible, but at $1000 to start, I’ll look elsewhere. I have been so impressed with the Toshiba Chromebook 2 (outside of the one deficiency) that I will stick with them.

I received my new Chromebook today, and initial impressions are very positive. Scrolling around in my 470 page book is smooth, and I can edit without an annoying lag. If I was a speed typer, I might have a problem, but as I am barely more than an hunt and peck typist, I seem to be ok.

More to come as I use it as my daily writing machine.

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