How do you turn a collection of story ideas into a coherent 100,000-word novel? Novel planning was one of the most daunting tasks I faced as a first-time novelist.
As a journalist, I’d got used to writing a few hundred words without an outline, or jotting down a few ideas for a thousand-word article or blog post. But I’m a bear of little brain, and a novel is a thousand times more complex.
There are pantsers who claim the words flow naturally into a three-act story, planners who painstakingly detail every scene in advance, and plantsers like me in between. Wherever you stand, you’ll need an outline because agents want a synopsis of your whole novel if your 10,000-word taster gets their attention.
As a taster, my MA in Creative Writing at St Mary’s University demanded a 3,000-word chapter-by-chapter breakdown of our WIPs to show that we could produce a full-length work. Wherever you are in the writing process, finding the right tool to produce your outline is more than a thought experiment.
Adventures in novel planning
On my way through five novels (one unfinished, one about to be self-published, one in beta, two in pre-planning), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to experiment. I’ve tried a few tools and discovered some of their strengths and weaknesses for my process. I’ve also discovered what happens without a plan (did I mention the unfinished novel?).
The range of tools available to writers has expanded enormously since I wrote the original version of this post for my 5×5 Medium blog. You could dedicate a website to reviewing writing tools, but for this rewrite I’ve decided to focus on the five I know best.
Where’s Microsoft Word? I admire anyone who attempts to produce a novel-length work in Microsoft’s jack-of-all-trades word processor. But that’s all it is, a word processor. It has an outline mode, but in my opinion it doesn’t scale to 100k works. As for Google Docs, it’s great for short works but grinds to a halt when you get above 10,000 words. YMMV.
Scrivener was one of the first dedicated long form writing environments, and is now available for Windows and iOS as well as the original Mac edition. It’s gained a loyal following amongst professional and amateur writers, and even has a podcast, Write Now with Scrivener, as well as active Facebook and Reddit communities.
There are three key features for planning a novel in Scrivener: the binder, the corkboard and the outliner.
The binder sidebar allows you to view and alter the structure of your novel in parts, chapters and scenes. You can colour-code to show their status, narrator or location, or add logos to indicate other properties. Moving scenes around is a simple drag-and-drop process, and there are dedicated sections for research, character profiles and location notes.
Each part, chapter and scene has a synopsis card, and you can view all of these as virtual index cards on the corkboard. These synopsis cards can hold as much detail as you want, and you can drag them around the corkboard until your story has the shape you prefer. Once you start writing, the synopsis card for your current chapter is visible on the right of your screen.
The outliner gives a different overview, showing the synopsis information (or a shortened version) along with things like word counts, status indicators, when you wrote the section and progress bars if you’ve set yourself targets.
Scrivener is both ridiculously feature-rich (I’m still finding new ways to use it) and absurdly cheap. The current price is £47/€53, with a big discount if you take part in Nanowrimo or you’re a student, and the 30-day free trial offers a genuine 30 days of non-consecutive use. Once you buy it, it’s yours with all the minor updates that come along until the next major overhaul. (In six years, the only major update has been to make the Windows edition identical to the Mac version.)
While the learning curve can be steep if you’re coming over from Word or Google Docs, I can honestly find very little to say against Scrivener. It even lets you export to Word, PDF and many other formats including ebooks.
Scrivener doesn’t include a cloud function for sharing, but works reliably through Dropbox. I consider that a bonus, because Dropbox know how to make a reliable cloud storage system, and Literature & Latte know how to make Scrivener.
Literature & Latte produced Scapple as a companion to Scrivener. It’s a simple mind-mapping tool which imports your notes into Scrivener’s binder structure. You can even drag and drop from Scapple into Scrivener, and vice-versa.
If you don’t have a mind-mapping tool already and you like to lay out your ideas with the freedom of a mind map before you start writing, it’s an ideal companion to Scrivener. The learning curve is very shallow, but you can import images and create simple, elegant maps while your ideas are fresh.
My MA project, now The Awakening of William 47, began life as a Scapple outline that I imported in Scrivener.
Personally, I found the mind-mapping features too basic after using other packages. I like to have a hard-copy of my outline on the wall while I’m writing, and I found it hard to turn my mind-map into something I could print easily.
On the other hand, it’s £17/€19 after the 30-day trial (again, not just 30 calendar days), with L&L’s usual student discount.
This is my go-to mind-mapping software, a powerful package that allows me to do everything from free-form thinking to timelines and organisational charts. There are a lot of mind-mapping packages, but for reasons lost to the mists of time, I chose Xmind.
I’ve been using Xmind for more than 10 years, so it was my first choice for planning a novel. I used it to plan all of Blood River, from the outline/timeline to character relationship diagrams. It’s taken me through numerous revisions, from Nanowrimo novella to full-length novel and back to its published novella format.
I’ve also used it for many other projects. I like the ability to zoom in and out at different levels of detail, apply a wide range of formatting and create linked mind-maps for complex projects. You can also import images, embed web links and print at useful scales.
There are two desktop flavours for MacOS, both available in a highly-functional free edition and a fully-featured Pro version. The Pro edition adds things like Gannt charts and exports to Word/Excel/OPML. (OPML can be ingested by Scrivener as a binder structure.) There’s also a mobile version for iOS/Android and a web version which integrates with Dropbox, Google Drive and One Drive so that you can edit through a browser.
Xmind 8 is a standalone package for which the Pro edition costs US$129. It’s my preferred format, because I don’t like subscription software.
The subscription Xmind has a new engine and is probably better, but maps converted to its new format cannot return to Xmind 8. The subscription costs US$60/year and comes with the full mobile version for iOS/Android as well as the web edition. Students/teachers can get around 50% discount.
Simple outlining tools like Scrivener’s corkboard and mind maps like Scapple or Xmind show their limits when you try writing something with an epic or historical scale. It can be hard to keep track of who’s doing what to whom, when and where.
Aeon Timeline lets you create a a story outline, complete characters, locations and story arcs. You place them on a timeline view that lets you zoom in and out, at any scale from seconds to millennia. It defaults to conventional Western calendars, but you can use alternative human timescales or create your own calendar for the Munchkin kingdom on the planet Zarg.
Aeon Timeline is popular among Scrivener’s planner-writers because your calendar can sync to Scrivener. Imported timelines become events that you can organise as chapters and scenes, with dates and times visible in Scrivener’s metadata.
It’s also fairly complex, and doesn’t welcome you with easy-setup wizards. The example project — an intriguing breakdown of Wuthering Heights — is impressive but made it no less welcoming.
I tried it out with a short story that gave me some confidence. For my MA project, I outlined in Scapple and Scrivener, then imported the outline into AT. The timing of events, character’s ages and back story became more precise. It helped me to make sense of events, but reintegrating the outline into Scrivener was a tense process.
Aeon Timeline has moved from version two to version three since I wrote the first version of this guide, and I will admit that I haven’t tried it yet. I found the learning curve for AT2 too steep and — unlike Scrivener — I didn’t find the results sufficiently rewarding when I reached the top.
I understand that Aeon Timeline 3 has many dedicated features for novel writing which enable non-linear narratives, multi-novel timelines and much more. I’d like to try it again, even if some of them feel like duplications of features Scrivener already provides, but the thought of a week or more trying things I might not use is not inviting. It also syncs with the web-based Ulysses writing platform.
The £55/€58 standalone cost is very reasonable, but updates are £30/€32 annually after the first year.
Some writers use Trello for everything for fundamentals like story outlining and character planning — and there’s no reason why not. The card-based interface is like Scrivener’s cork-board on steroids. It’s also a highly collaborative environment that would work well for co-producing a novel.
I prefer to use Trello for the processes around my novels. During my MA, it helped me to keep track of research tasks, workshop deadlines, reading lists, course submissions and appointments to make.
Since then, I’ve used it to shortlist agents and create pitches for Blood River’s novel-length incarnation; now I’m using it to keep track of my author website and the self-publishing process for Blood River’s novella version.
Trello’s flexible like that, plus you can use it across devices through dedicated apps and the web interface. Most importantly, it’s free unless you’re working in large groups or you want extra bells and whistles.
However, it’s now owned by Atlassian, one of those nebulous productivity companies whose business model is stripping down popular free online services and reselling their features as upgrades. The other downside is that you might already suffer Trello as a micro-management tool in your day job, which may put you off using it for the thing you love.
If that’s the case, there are other kanban-style organisation tools, and they’re very similar to Trello. Go for one of those.
Plottr is a fairly new entrant to the visual story planning world. I gave Plottr an in-depth test-drive and its combination of simplicity and features impressed me. I particularly liked the range of detailed templates and the resources its team offer for helping writers to make the most of their package.
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