Writers and free stuff: it's a natural relationship. For a writer, feast or famine isn't just a saying, it's a life cycle. Whether you're going through the lean times or just remember them vividly, these free online tools will help as you toil in the word mines, hammering together those manuscripts.
1. iGoogle. How did I live without this for so long? This handy tool allows you to create your own pimped-out homepage from hundreds of widgets, including a preview of your Gmail. Writers will appreciate many of the add-ons, including Literary Quotes of the Day, Shakespearean insults, a Dictionary.com search box, or the excellent and handy Writer's Unblock prompts. Also add any flavor of news, from Fox to NPR, weather, horoscopes, moon phases, and nearly anything else you can imagine. I tried out the Office Paintball game widget, which was great fun but a bit noisy, but the Magic Trick of the Day shows promise. Tired of searching page after page on Craigslist for writing jobs? Add the Craigslist search widget, tweak the settings for your needs, and gather job leads whenever you have a spare moment between queries. Having all the widgets on one page saved time for me, because now I don't surf over to three or four sites in my usual procrastination routine, and I actually start working a little earlier in the day.
2. Project Gutenberg. All the fun of a book sale, without having to cart heavy boxes home. Sure, you're familiar with all your favorites here: Poe, Twain, Austen, Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, and the rest of the gang. But have you ever searched for writing texts? I was thrilled to find an early book on freelance writing, originally published in 1920, complete with example essays ripped from the current publications of the time. It was a fascinating read, and so much of the advice remains the same. Do a bit of digging, and you'll find books on short story writing, screenwriting, American literature, Italian poetry, and many other treats, all free for the downloading. An extra bonus for the holiday season: the site has an online advent calendar, with a different children's book under each day that you and the munchkin can read together.
3. NaNoWriMo. Yes, November is over, and most people consider this an event. But I truly consider it a great writing tool; each year, I'm amazed that I've finished this truly crappy novel by December 1. Writing a crappy novel in a month teaches you all sorts of things about writing, including how to just get the words out on a page, and how to wrangle characters so they do what you want. Starting this year, sign-ups for NaNoWriMo will be available all year long, so you can sign up, hop on the message boards, and get involved with writing and editing, or jump straight into procrastinating for 2008. Each regional lounge is also open so you can communicate with other writers in your area. The NaNofather, Chris Baty, has a knack for inspiration, so when you're dragging a bit, check out his pep talks, or peruse this year's pep talks from Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, Garth Nix, and other notable authors.
4. Rainlendar (and other software). This program is a writer's dream. It will display several months in advance on your desktop, a great thing when your body is in December, but your mind is in March or April planning queries. The free version also has to-do lists and alerts, and you can customize it with skins. Bump up to the paid version if you want Rainlendar to network with Outlook or Google Calendar. Other freebie must-haves that get a brief mention: OpenOffice, a free and very handy office suite, and FoxIt PDF Reader, which takes up a lot less room and works faster than Adobe Reader.
For a bonus freebie, I'll mention another calendar I can't do without: the annual Free Writer's Planner from Julie Hood and Organized Writer. Even though I never make it through step one of her five-step daily checklist, I still love her newsletter, and print out the planner every year in a burst of New Year's-resolution-I can-do-it frenzy. I try to carry it in the car with me at all times, so when I'm stuck waiting on the hubby I can whip out my planner and make a few notes. Thanks to Julie, and when the wind is just right, I almost feel....organized. Then the universe notices my self-satisfied feeling and drops a dab of chaos right on my head.
Even if you've seen some of these free tools before, take a second look and get the most out of them. After all, you can't beat the price.