Here’s the sixteenth episode of the Writing Talk Podcast.
In this episode of the Writing Talk Podcast, we’re looking at organising your writing and keeping it organised.
Plus this week’s writers’ toolbox tip and some listener feedback. There’s also a quick review of my news.
Hope you enjoy listening.
NB: You can support the show by subscribing from the links above. Please also consider sharing the show with your writer friends.
This week I’ve been in full postproduction mode, and that means I’ve been delving into the murky world of formatting e-books. Fortunately I have a background in hand coding websites and so I’m familiar with HTML and CSS, and that has made my learning curve a lot shallower. I’ve been evaluating several tools for e-book production and I’ll put my findings together in another episode quite soon. But for the moment, I’m still trying to make these episodes follow a fairly logical sequence through the writing process. So previous episodes have dealt with defining the scope of a project, outlining, creating characters, and so on. And I thought it was about time we dealt with one of the nuts and bolts aspects of writing, namely the business of getting organised and staying organised. So that is the main topic for the show.
It’s all too easy for a big project, like a full-length novel, to generate vast amount of information: plans, outlines, ideas, drafts, and even different versions of the same manuscript. Before long, you can find yourself drowning in files, notebooks, and pieces of paper. I’m all for a bit of creative chaos, but I hate to waste time searching for information, especially when writing time is so valuable.
So how do we go about organising all this information?
There are some tools out there, like Scrivener, which offer a jack of all trades solution to writers, but most people will need some other tools as well, not least because the best ideas often come to us when we don’t have a desktop or laptop computer available. Added to that, I’m a great believer in using the right tool for the right task. There are a great many tools out there that we can use as writers, even if those tools aren’t directly aimed at creative users. Don’t be afraid to branch out in order to find the most efficient ways of working. After all, if you want to approach your writing with a professional attitude, it makes sense to use tools that have been created for business users.
I’ve tried a number of different tools over the years, so I’ll run through some of the lessons I’ve learned. Of course, there will be other tools available, and if you have your own favourites that I haven’t mentioned, please remember the listener feedback section of the show, and feel free to comment below.
Remember, if I choose your comment to read out in the show, you’ll get a mention and a link in the show notes, so please don’t forget to provide a link to your site when you are filling in the comment form. It’s better not to leave the link in the body of your comment, as that may make your comment look like spam and prevent it from appearing. Thank you.
Let’s break down the tools we use according to their purpose
There’s something very nice about carrying a physical notebook around with you. It never needs recharging, it’s easy to pick up and put down to moment’s notice, and unlike your smart phone, it presents no real opportunities for distraction and procrastination. I like to keep a notepad by the side of my bed, and I recommend you try that, especially if you’ve had the good sense to ban phones from your bedroom. The downside of notebooks is that they have a habit of multiplying, and then it can be difficult to find the right notebook at the right time. If, like me, you have a butterfly mind, you’ll probably find that your precious ideas notebook becomes filled with shopping lists, important dates, and reminders to send a birthday card to your Great Aunt Mildred. This is where smart phone apps have a great advantage: they centralise your notes. Of the many notebook apps available, probably the most popular with writers is Evernote. It allows for a high degree of organisation for those users who want to nail everything down, e.g. you can set up separate notebooks within the app so that the notes for each project are kept together. You can add tags to emphasise the links between notes, e.g. you could tag all your character notes with a label so that you can cross-reference them between projects. But if all that sounds like too much hard work, you can also just open the app and add a quick note without filing it away or labelling it at all. I tend to use Evernote that way if I’m out and about somewhere, and I especially like the speech note function that allows me to dictate a brief note which is then stored as a sound clip. When I do that, I always make sure to give the note a proper title, as otherwise, the note will have very little searchable content. And that’s important because if you don’t file your note carefully, you’ll need to rely on the app’s built-in search function to find your note later. Another plus of using Evernote, is that your notes can be synchronised across all your devices. This is a major point in Evernote’s favour.
Again, it’s a great idea to have your plans stored centrally. You never know when you might be able to find a few minutes to work feverishly on the outline for your latest project, and the solution to a thorny plot problem may well come to you while you’re away from your desk.
If you want to keep everything relating to your project in one app, then Scrivener could be a good solution for you. But while Scrivener has many useful planning features, it does not work well with cloud-based storage solutions such as Dropbox or One Drive, so if centralisation is a must, I recommend using a different tool to maintain and coordinate your outline documents.
A popular solution is to set up your plans in a folder on Google Drive, but I prefer to use Microsoft’s One Drive because it works seamlessly with Microsoft Word, and as I’ve mentioned before, Word works well with the Dragon dictation software. Another solution is to keep your plans in a folder on Dropbox or one of the other popular file sharing services. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with Microsoft’s OneNote app which seems to have some really nice functions and was free to install on my android phone. It does seem to have a lot of potential, but I haven’t experimented with it enough to comment on it properly.
When it comes to drafting, Scrivener comes into its own. I’d find it hard to recommend any other piece of software for creating drafts for a full-length novel. The ability to label the progress of each section of your work, the built-in word count tracker, the ease with which you can reorder sections of your work, and its general writer centric design, are just some of the features that have made Scrivener so popular with writers the world over. If you’re not familiar with Scrivener, then I’ll just briefly explain that it makes it easy to break down a full-length novel into a folder structure, e.g. to divide it by chapters or even individual scenes. You can label the state of each scene or chapter as first draft, revised draft, etc. You can also see a word count for each scene or chapter, and changing the sequence of scenes or chapters is as easy as dragging a document to a different place in the structure.
The licensing terms of Scrivener allow you to install the software on as many machines as you like, so you’ll be able to work on your drafts on your desktop or your laptop (note: always check licensing conditions at the time of purchasing). I believe that there is also a version of Scrivener in development for the iPad and I predict that this will be a popular addition. The fact that Scrivener does not work well with cloud storage should not really be a factor here, since I do not recommend that you work on a file in the cloud anyway. Services like Dropbox can give a false sense of security; they are not backup solutions, they are designed for sharing. If you inadvertently delete a shared file on one device, the service will delete it from all your devices. So if you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, then always work on a locally stored file, and then manually transfer it to any other devices that you wish to use. With the proviso that you must always take regular backups, local storage is almost fool proof, and it is inherently stable. Cloud storage on the other hand, depends on your Internet connection as well as the synchronisation ability of the app that you’re using. If one of those components experiences a delay or an error, you can lose valuable work, and it just isn’t worth the risk.
If you don’t want to use Scrivener, and there are plenty of writers who do not, then Microsoft Word is a great alternative. But how can we make it easier to organise our work when dealing with a whole novel in one huge document?
I’d recommend that you look into the outline view in Word, which is a vastly underused feature. Similarly, I suggest that you learn how to add your chapter headings to the structure of the document so that you can navigate around your document more easily. Also, if you want to have an easier time with formatting your book later on, take a moment to understand the way that styles work in Word. Word is a much maligned piece of software, but the fact remains that it is extremely powerful, it just needs an investment in time to learn how to use its features properly. Microsoft has provided a wealth of very good online documentation, and a quick online search will reveal a lot of helpful information that can help you to become a power user in a short time. Fifteen minutes of learning can save you many hours of frustration.
When it comes to organising your work, it’s a good idea to work out a convention for naming your files: pick a method that is meaningful to you and stick to it. Use save as to create a new copy of your file every time you hit a milestone. It doesn’t take much to figure out a file naming method that includes the title of the piece, the drafting stage, and the date. For example, your file could be called: the great Gatsby – first draft – May 17, 2016
Similarly, it’s a good idea to have a structured approach when you’re labelling your folders.
Certainly, when it comes to sending your work to a professional editor, you won’t find many people who will work with anything other than a Word document. The track changes feature in Word is a standard way of working, and I know of nothing to equal it. The lack of this feature in programs like Scrivener, is an absolute deal breaker as far as editing is concerned. Personally, I don’t go back into Scrivener once I’ve exported a book to Word, because I don’t like unnecessary steps, but it is not difficult to import a word file into Scrivener and have Scrivener automatically divide the chapters back into separate sections.
Keeping track of it all
There are many to-do apps, and it sometimes feels like I’ve tried all of them. They have many features in common, and most of them are free to try, so I suggest that you experiment with several and find one that works for you. I’ve been using an app called Asana to list tasks according to each project, but it isn’t proving quite as good as I’d hoped. Unless you set a due date for each task, the dashboard can become quite cluttered and I find that I quickly lose the sense of order that I’m looking for. For more detail on this, and for a link to a resource that I’ve made for you to download for free, please listen to the end of the show for this week’s writers’ toolbox.
In last week’s show, I asked some questions about how writers developed their fictional characters. I had a very good response this week and here are some of the highlights:
John Hancock said:
I form a general impression of how they look, their basic personality in my mind. Then I pick a name. It has to be the right name. I probably spend more time selecting just the right name than most people. Once I have their name, their personality, a general hint of how they would act, then I open the gates and let them run. I find they inform me what they would say or how they would say it. I think it’s more that I play a video in my head, very visual, and I try to stay true to them. When I edit, I often let the character tell me they would or wouldn’t say the thing. Also, I try to ask myself what they want or are afraid of. This colors a lot of behavior for all of us, and the characters deserve that kind of honest motivation.
You can see John Hancock’s work at: http://amzn.to/1V7SQY9
Sci-fi writer Drew Avera said:
My process lately has made discovering these characters more rewarding. I also tend to not write outlines with much detail, maybe a single sentence or two about the scene. I’ve been burned too many times by characters who have a mind of their own after I’ve toiled over the most awesome outline ever. Now, me and my characters are in the dark together. I do think it takes longer to build them up, but each time they react there is an opportunity for character growth without having to make it conform to a previously detailed description.
You can see Drew’s site at: https://drewavera.wordpress.com/
Budding writer Chet Sandberg said:
When I’m really stuck, I write the same scene from two or more POVs so that, at the very least, I’m aware of what the other characters are thinking and can put their reactions in the other POV as observed facial features or movements.
Chet doesn’t’ have a site at the moment but watch out for his name in the future!
I particularly like that suggestion from Chet because it shows a great deal of determination to get the writing as good as it can be by applying a process and putting the effort in.
I’m going to suggest a project management tool that I’ve used before when building websites. It’s called Trello (http://trello.com/) and while it is aimed at business users rather than writers, I think that a lot of you would find it helpful. It’s a very flexible way of arranging tasks on a free-form board, and it gives an instant overview of your progress at any one time. Tasks are typed onto cards which can then be dragged from one column to another to show progress, e.g. if you had a card labelled chapter 1, you could drag it from the to-do column to the first draft column. You can also add details onto each card and I find the checklists particularly helpful. Trello is a very flexible tool that you can use in any way you see fit, for example you could use it to track the launch of a new book by setting out the cards and checklists in order before you begin. It will then only take you a few moments to review your cards and make sure that you don’t miss any vital steps.
Once you set a board up in a way that you like, you can keep it as a master copy and simply duplicate it for your next project. To get you started I’ve made a public board that you can copy and adapt to your own requirements.
Here’s the link: https://trello.com/b/AmP95YBt
You will need a Trello account to use this resource, but basic accounts are free and they will provide everything you need. Sign into your Trello account and then save a copy of the board. You can then edit it as you see fit.
That’s it for this week. I hope you found this episode useful, if you have, please share the podcast with your writer friends, e.g. you could post a link in any writing groups you’re a member of. Also, please consider supporting the podcast by subscribing. The show is on itunes, stitcher and youtube, or you can subscribe by other methods on the site at writingtalkpodcast.com e.g. you can have new episodes emailed to you.
Thank you very much for listening and for all your support. Until next week, keep writing, keep tapping at the keys, keep scribbling, and above all, keep smiling.
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