Friday, 16 October 2015

Get Set For National Novel Writing Month

It’s that time of year again – every November, writers from around the world commit to producing a 50000 word novel draft in just 30 days – starting on the first of November, and finishing on the 30th.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a wonderful way of getting your writing done, so why not give it a try this year? While you can get writing with just a pen and paper, it will be much easier if you have either a computer or tablet to write with – especially when it comes to keeping track of your progress! There’s a whole range of software available that can help you write, as well as keep track of your progress, so here’s a rundown of some of the options available.

Full disclosure: Some of my own apps are included below.

If you want to plan things in detail

Available for Mac
Story Mill lets you plan your story in some detail (characters, scenes, locations), as well as write the story itself.
Available for Mac
Subplot allows you to plan a novel (or screenplay), based around 5 core principles: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. These ideas translate into the characters, props, locations, events, and story goals that make up your novel. While Subplot allows you to lay out the scenes of your story, it is solely a planning tool, so you will need to write the actual content of your story in a word processor.

Writer’s Café by Anthemion Software Ltd 
Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
Writer’s Café is a suite of writing tools, but the main one I look at is StoryLines, which “is a multi-storyline planning tool that helps you weave a set of virtual index cards into a finished, formatted story.”

If you want to plan more loosely, but not go into too much depth

Plotline (my own app) 
Available for iPad
Plotline focuses on the flow of your story – you can create the plotlines (the major strands of your story), and lay out scenes that deal with each plotline on a unique Act-Scene view, which breaks the structure down into the classic 3-act story structure (Plotline actually uses four sections: Act 1, Act 2 Part 1, Act 2 Part 2, and Act 3). You don’t worry so much about characters or props in Plotline, you focus on getting the skeleton of the story in place. Once you’re done, you can even export the structure into Scrivener, ready to start writing.

Why should I plan my story? 

You really don’t have to – and some people don’t like doing it at all, while others can’t get started until they’ve planned everything in meticulous detail. It can be very helpful though, to at least know roughly where your story is headed, so that when you sit down to write each day, you’re not sat in front of a blank screen waiting for inspiration.

I just want something to help me design the characters

The characters in your story are the most important part – you can have the most amazing story or sequence of events, but if they’re all happening to someone the reader doesn’t care about, the story will fall flat on its face.

Persona by Mariner Software 
Available for Mac, Windows
Persona has some straight-forward options for character creation, and also has a “character wheel” that can help with creating archetypes for characters. I haven't used Persona myself.

Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
I haven’t used Character Writer, but it’s one of only a limited number of programs available that deal with characters specifically, so it’s worth having a look at if you’re interested.

Character Folio (my own app) 
Available for Mac
I wrote Character Folio because I wanted to force myself to think about my characters in a more comprehensive way. Character Folio has over 100 fields for each character, ranging from vital statistics and special abilities, to Personality traits, Beliefs, Relationships and the character’s attitude to work and wealth, as well as a general notes section that means you can store anything else that isn’t covered by the app’s main sections.

Actually writing the story

There are plenty of word processor choices available, from Pages on the Mac, to Microsoft Word on Windows (and the Mac). There are some free productivity tools available though for all platforms.

Open Office by Apache 
Available for Mac, Windows, Linux

Libre Office by The Document Foundation 
Available for Mac, Windows, Linux
An alternative version of Open Office.

Scrivener by Literature & Latte 
Available for Mac, Windows
While it isn’t free, Scrivener is “a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.”

Scrivener is pretty much universally loved in the writing community – and justifiably so. While I plan my writing using my own apps, I write the books themselves using Scrivener.

Keeping track of progress

While almost all word processors will have a word count function, seeing that figure creep up over time can be a little dry and uninspiring.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel, Spark of Humanity, I repurposed one of my own apps, Savings Jar, to help me keep track of the word counts. Savings Jar was actually designed to count money, but I just ignored the decimals points, and used it to track my word counts. It worked – I wrote 85000 words in under 90 days. I then took Savings Jar and created a writer-specific version: Word Count Dashboard.

Available for Mac, iPad
Word Count Dashboard is a very simple app – you tell it when you’re starting your writing project, and how long you have to finish it. Then, each day, once you’ve written all you’re going to write, you update the app with your progress. Word Count Dashboard will then tell you how far along you are, how much you’ve done, your % completion. It will also tell you how much you need to write each day in order to achieve your goal.

That’s what I found most useful: if I missed a day’s writing, the next time I opened the app, I’d see that total creeping up – and knew that I had to get back to writing if I wanted to hit my target.


There are of course other tools out there, and I’m never one to suggest one thing over another – even for my own apps, I’ve always stressed to customers when they’ve asked, that they may find something else that better suits their way of working.

The best advice I have is this: find what works for you, and stick with it – there’s no one “right way” to write a novel – it depends so much on your own personality and approach to how you plan things – or even whether you plan things at all!

To everyone who’s going to attempt NaNoWriMo this year: good luck.

Happy writing!