Tools, Process and Organization, Oh My!

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This post is not about the substance of writing. Rather, it is about how to stay sane while writing, not lose all your painstakingly-created work, and build an environment in which you can craft a coherent, complete story.

Everyone’s approach is different; this happens to be mine. You should use a process which works for you and complements your natural habits. But if you’re serious about embarking on any major project, you do need a process, an organization method and the tools to implement them.

I try to follow three principles: compatibility, control and access. I need to know my work isn’t going to disappear when a website does, I’m not limited by a program’s idea of what I should and shouldn’t be able to do, and I can access my work anywhere. I’m willing to bend the rules on the frills, but for substantive material they are vital.

Writing tool of choice:  Microsoft Word

I know—boring, right? I use Word for two reasons.

Objectively, Word is the most popular word processor in the world; it works everywhere, on every machine, and will be available for a very long time. Word documents easily convert to RTF, TXT, HTML and PDF. Personally, I enjoy the aesthetically pleasing appearance a word processor creates. The font is lovely, paragraphs group nicely and the headings are attractive. (Yes, the voluminous formatting tags create e-book conversion difficulties. Alas, nothing is perfect).

‘Distraction-free’ writing programs, writing software, etc. all have advantages, but for me nothing beats the easy, anywhere, all-the-time access (when paired with Dropbox) of Word.

Document Organization:  Windows Folders

Yep, still boring. A master folder contains folders for writing, characters, maps/graphs/charts, art, science and miscellany.

‘Art’ includes folders for concept art, book covers and visual inspiration—space art, cities and landscapes, ships and tech. ‘Writing’ is broken down into ‘Parts,’ which are further separated by broad location. This was done mainly to break the scene lists into more manageable chunks, and would differ for every story.

I keep an archive folder for older versions of scenes—DON’T DISCARD WHAT YOU WROTE!

Notes/Ideas/Outlines:  Evernote

I’ve always ‘used’ Evernote, but I didn’t really use it until I started planning Aurora Rising.

The story is a notebook ‘stack.’ Within it are notebooks for World, Plot, Themes, Enemy, Ideas, etc. ‘World’ includes notes for Timeline, Colonies, Space Travel, Tech/Medical, Pop Culture, Government, etc. Much of the information in here will never overtly appear in the story; rather, it will inform the world. But I need to know all of it to ensure the story is consistent and logical.

‘Plot’ is where the outlines reside: it contains outlines for the trilogy, each novel, a detailed one for Starshine and for major plot arcs, as well as a list of significant plot events (‘beats’ in writing vernacular) and a scene list.

Yes, I could use Word for all of this. Evernote offers several advantages:

  • It’s easy to add a note spur of the moment (I use it a lot on my phone when I’m out and a random thought strikes me).

  • You can view a lot of information at once (it’s great for small items I don’t want to open a Word doc for every time I need to check something).

  • Syncing. The mobile apps are polished and fast; I’m able to add a thought on the fly and have it waiting for me at home.

I deeply, deeply wish Evernote had one more level of notebook tier. If it did, I would use it for a lot more. Note (ha!), Evernote notes export to HTML (which Word can convert to anything).

Project Planning/Management/To Do List: Well…

I’ll be honest—I tried a number of project planning apps and sites. Most of them are far more complex than anyone needs to write even a trilogy.

For me, a ‘to do’ system needs a few specific features:

  • a tiered structure;

  • easy access;

  • mobile availability; and

  • reminders.

Option #1 (Free): Trello + Wunderlist

For project planning, Trello has two features which made it stand out:

  • You can easily see everything on one page, organized however you like.

  • Calendar view: every item you put a due date on is viewable in a standard monthly calendar. Also, Trello will export to Google Calendar.

Trello works well for long-term and ‘big picture’ items: What major issues in the story do I need to address? What are the top level items I need to complete in order to publish? I don’t find Trello ideal for more detailed ‘to do’ lists. You can add details to the back of cards, but extra steps are required to see them; also, if you add too many cards then you can’t see everything on one page, which defeats the purpose.

However, you can pair Trello with a specialized ‘to do’ app. For some of the features above, Google Tasks, Notepad, Word or a variety of websites (WorkFlowy is lovely) would work. For all of them, I found Wunderlist to be the best free option. It has a clean, polished interface, a reasonable set of features, desktop, web and mobile apps and syncing. Its sub-task implementation isn’t great and it lacks tagging and prioritization (beyond ‘starring’), but it shines in the ability to add detailed notes to any task.

Option #2 ($):  Todoist

I try to avoid spending money unless I feel I’m paying for real value. The free version of Todoist is itself quite nice, but for me the feature set the premium version of Todoist offers ($29/year) was ultimately worth the price.

Todoist features a minimalist yet powerful design across all its apps. It offers four levels of subtasks (projects can also be tiered), four priority levels, color-coded tagging, notes and file attachments, email and text reminders, easy filtering and searching, and calendar integration with Google, Outlook and others.

The combination of filtering and calendar integration meant I could eliminate Trello and centralize more of my process in a single tool, which I’m finding a great effort- and time-saver. (Sub-principle: when a process is too complicated, it becomes a hindrance rather than a help.)

There are a number of great ‘to do’ systems out there. Asana is a lovely site that straddles the to do/project management line; Remember the Milk is another popular alternative. I think the most important point here is that you choose one method and stick with it. If you need to know what you need to do, have one place to go. Make it a part of your routine.


This is going on a bit long, so…

Syncing/Backup: Dropbox (invaluable tool, don’t leave home without it). If you're not a fan of Dropbox and are looking for an alternative, check out Cloudwards' analysis of cloud storage services.

Story organization and analysis: yWriter (a later blog post will cover ‘writing software’ in depth)

Thesaurus: TheSage,

Charts, Graphs, Timelines, etc.: Microsoft Visio, The Timeline Project