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Avoid a Writing Cat-astrophe

[1]Last year, events conspired to threaten the life of our geriatric cat.

Now, I don’t like to see any creature suffer, but Needles is special. He manages to be independent without being aloof. He greets strangers with a tongue-bath and an intense stare that says, I see you. And he is intuitive about psychological pain, often curling up in the laps of the distressed. In fact, when one of my children went through a profound episode of depression during elementary school, Needles was a rare and consistent source of comfort.

So when he fell ill and the treatment meant a big financial investment with little promise of good results, we were grateful we could afford the expense. Still more grateful when he pulled through.

Then, during a routine followup visit to the vet’s, we nearly lost him, anyway.

It was partly our fault. Because we didn’t know any better, we were making do with a hard-sided kennel meant for a medium-sized dog. That’s fine when the goal is to prevent a cat from walking around loose in a vehicle. It’s not ideal when dealing with lane-changing idiots.

Picture this: my husband forced to slam on the brakes. Momentum flinging Needles’s 6.5-pound, still emaciated body against the bars. His low-key yowling—an unfortunate and constant feature of car trips—stopping altogether. And into the ominous silence, the piercing scent of ammonia, signifying that our fastidious cat had lost control of his bladder.

Thankfully he survived, with dignity and body sullied but spirit intact.

After this near cat-astrophe we got smarter, purchasing a soft-sided, properly sized, airline approved pet carrier that Needles occasionally uses for naps.

What does this have to do with your writing?

Well, perhaps you’re like us, motoring along, making decent progress in your work-in-progress with the equipment at hand, unaware that said equipment contains built-in vulnerabilities. Why wait until a sudden jolt threatens a crisis? Periodically, take a few minutes to question your assumptions and ensure that you’re using the right tool for the right job. While you’re at it, see if you can become more efficient.

For instance, when I started writing, I made do with pen, scribblers, and Microsoft Word. Over the years, I’ve gradually come to see the following items as useful or indispensable:

Backup equipment and routine

Are you prepared for a localized computer problem such as a hard drive failure? Awesome. But is your backup system in the cloud and potentially vulnerable to hackers? Or local and vulnerable to the same house fire that could destroy the original files?

It’s worth taking a few minutes to build in true redundancy.

Please do your own research and come to conclusions about best practices, but to get you started, here’s a post from the Passive Guy explaining risks and potential solutions [2].

Computer glasses

If your optical prescription is stable and you use bifocals or progressives, consider having a special pair of glasses made just for office work. The larger visual field reduces eyestrain and headache frequency, making it possible to spend longer periods at the keyboard.

Recipe cards, sticky notes, and poster board 

Though I began writing as a pure pantser, once I learned to use these items, I successfully transitioned to becoming a quilter. (For me, it provides the perfect blend of reassurance that my story has a solid structure without feeling hogtied by a strict outline.) Before starting a new project, I try to flesh out my plot using one card or sticky per scene. Then I move the cards around on a segmented poster board until I’ve found the right sequence of events. Finally, I mount the board on a wall and revisit it whenever circumstances dictate a change or addition.

Want to learn more? For a good primer on plotting and story beats and an example of a plotting board, it’s hard to beat Alexandra Sokoloff’s work here [3].


If you are a linear thinker, you might not care for the design of this program, which chunks your manuscript into visible sections. There are areas where you can input your outline, areas for keywords, a section where you commit the actual writing, and yet another for project notes.

But if, like me, you already have a ton of sticky notes or files attached to the same writing project, you might appreciate Scrivener [4]’s ability to capture and organize the chaos. (Important: Scrivener makes the chaos more easily portable!)

Further, if you do any sort of indie publishing, you can use this program to generate decent ebooks and paperbacks.

That said, I prefer the next program for actual publication.


I wrote my first published book in Scrivener, exported it into Word, and then formatted the manuscript there with chapter header images and everything. It was a useful exercise and I learned a lot about customization. It was also painfully time-consuming.

Vellum [5] (which is only available on the Mac platform), simplifies and streamlines options for those with modest technical ability.

For example, with the click of a button, you can generate store-specific ebooks. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you upload directly to Kobo and Apple and Amazon. Let’s further say that you write in a series and want your readers to be able to click a link in the backmatter of Book 1 and be led directly to Book 2’s purchase page—within the relevant vendor. (Readers are never more likely to purchase another book from you than when still high from your last book. Don’t make them hunt for a link. Do whatever you can to reduce the friction of a purchase.)

To do that in Word, you’d need to create three different versions of your book. And if you discover a typo down the road? You need to remember to correct all three versions. In Vellum, you simply fill out a table of urls, click one button, and it generates each store’s version simultaneously. i.e. Your Kobo book will contain a Kobo-specific link, and so on.

Regarding print, Vellum makes it a breeze to offer your readers different trim sizes. In fact, I did this just recently for Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures. My sister suggested I offer an illustrated cover on top of the photorealistic one I had already chosen for the trade paperback. I figured, why not? Once I had the new cover, it took all of five minutes to create a mass market paperback.

Down the road, if any of my books generate sufficient demand, it would be a simple task to generate a large-print version, too.

Internet blocker

Have no self-control when it comes to the internet? That’s okay; neither do I. That’s why I purchased Freedom [6], a program that allows you to create custom block lists, schedule recurrent sessions, and sync across platforms.

Intrigued? Sign up for their newsletter and try it for free. Eventually they’ll send you a code for 50% off, allowing you to purchase it for life for a modest fee. (Maybe hop to it now, as I wouldn’t be surprised if they make this offer during NaNoWriMo.)

Over to you, Unboxeders. Which writing tools do you consider indispensable? Any near-disasters that inspired their acquisition? And what one new writing tool would you love to purchase or master? Please share.


About Jan O'Hara [7]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [8] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [9]; Cold and Hottie [10]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [11]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.