Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guest in Progress: Dan Ryan

I met Dan Ryan when he took a couple of my workshops at the Writer’s Center; we immediately hit it off because he, too, is from Iowa. (If you need a refresher on why people from Iowa are so special, please go listen to the soundtrack from The Music Man.)

I also admired his ambitious reading: during one workshop he noted that he was a tremendous Anthony Trollope fan. This is an author not so much in favor today—not sure why; I remember his work as enjoyable—he was the Joyce Carol Oates of his time, in terms of productivity; check out the lengthy list of novels at the end of this post.

In the next workshop, Dan had decided to read James Joyce’s Ulysses…always a noble undertaking. I needed a college class to force me into it (with a forgiving syllabus that let us skip one or two chapters). And, okay…secret confession: Cliff’s notes to get through some of the more challenging parts. (Lest I sound too much of a slacker, in my defense, the summer before I was to take that class, I did read Homer’s Odyssey on my own so I could more fully appreciate Ulysses.)

Back to Dan—along with this ambitious reading schedule, he has finished a draft of the fascinating coming-of-age novel that he was working on back then, and lately he’s been trying his hand at short stories. As with the reading—Dan is always pushing ahead into new territory, which I very much admire.

Here is his amusing piece on a more technical matter of interest to writers: a computer program that helps with formatting issues. Speaking for myself, I need all the help I can get when it comes to computer issues…maybe this will help me get the pages numbers on my manuscript into the same font as the text!

A few years ago I decided I wanted to write the Great American Novel. On that glorious first day when I started my manuscript, I opened Microsoft Word and started typing Great Words of Wisdom. Immediately I started to wonder about format. What should be the size of the margins? Should it be double-spaced? What should be on each page’s header and footer? How should chapters be formatted?

I found the answers on the Internet, and made the necessary changes to my Microsoft Word document. But as I did so, I thought to myself, “This isn’t the first time someone has formatted a manuscript. Surely somebody has created a Microsoft Word template that has all these settings configured so I don’t have to do it each time.”

A Microsoft Word template is a file that specifies how a document should be formatted. When you open Microsoft Word and start typing, behind the scenes you are using a template. The default template is the psychologically-charged name “” But Microsoft Word allows you to create your own custom template to define your own settings for options such as spacing and margin. Once you have a custom template, you can create documents from it.

The problem with templates is that they’re difficult to understand. Indeed, most people don’t know they exist. Below are the typical steps people use to format their documents:

1. Spend a bunch of time getting the format correct for your first masterpiece.
2. Create a copy of Masterpiece.doc. (ThisTimeItsReallyAMasterpiece.doc)
3. Delete everything in ThisTimeItsReallyAMasterpiece.doc.
4. Curse the computer gods that you’ve accidentally deleted much of the formatting

Fortunately there’s a better way. ProsePro from ScriptWizard ($49, available for PCs only) makes it easy to create a document that conforms to Writers Market specifications with the push of a button.

I’ve been using ProsePro for over three years and am very happy with it. With ProsePro I spend less time fighting with Microsoft Word. This is particularly true at two crucial points of the writing process: the beginning and the end.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m creating a document for the first time, I’m brimming with all sorts of wonderful ideas. The last thing I want to do is kill that creative energy trying to remember what the header is supposed to look like (Name/Title or Title/Name?)

Maybe you blow off all that formatting nonsense until your manuscript is done and you’re ready to send your masterpiece out to the world. Now all of a sudden your darling manuscript needs to look pretty. At this point, you’re completely stressed out and not thinking clearly. Maybe you’ll format everything correctly or maybe you won’t. Wouldn’t you rather rely on a product written by people who has thought about document formatting a heck of a lot more than you’ll ever care to?

One feature I particularly like is that it automatically puts the page number and word count on the cover page. I use this feature to monitor my progress while I’m writing.

ProsePro isn’t perfect and has a few annoying bugs. Given the amount of capability provided, I think the product should cost only $19. Perhaps the $49 price tag reflects the fact that the audience for this product is extremely small and, to my knowledge, there aren’t any competitors.

Should you buy it? That depends on how much money is in your writing budget. One thing to consider is that you’ll actually use it every time you write. How often can you say that about a writing-related purchase?

About: Dan Ryan is an aspiring writer who writes software for a living. He lives in Cheverly, MD. (Also, check out Dan’s previous help on the blog when I briefly became obsessed with “the language of corn.”)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.