The fourth-last day of the NaNo is probably not the best time to point this out, but while many of the NaNo sponsors provide editing and self-publishing services, a particular few provide programs that can actually help you in the writing stage. And sure, they have deals that you might have been able to use during the NaNo, but what’s more important is that these are tools that you can use to help with your writing all year round. As you would expect, they start with word processing and text editing, but you can do that just with Word or Open Office if you want to. All of them go well beyond that, though; these particular tools actually help you plan and keep track of where your story is going. Some even help you create characters. And one is spectacular at helping keep track of timelines.
If you have visited or joined the official NaNo site, you have probably noticed that every time you log in and are taken to your front page, there’s a space down along the left margin that is labelled, “Visit Our Sponsors.” There are several main sponsors, although you only see one sponsor in that square each time you go to that main page. (If you want to see all of them, plus the names of all NaNoers who have donated to support the site, go way down to the bottom of the front page and click on the “Brought to You By” link. Then you’ll get to this page. Not only are these organizations kind enough to sponsor the NaNo site and help us all have as full an experience as possible, but sometimes they offer free trials while we’re doing the NaNoing and discounts on their programs afterward. It’s too late to take advantage of those this year, but you can watch for them next year, because they often repeat their offers. Let’s look at the programs that are most pertinent to the actual writing process, whether that includes NaNoWriMo or not.
MAC & iOS ONLY
Ulysses is an app that Mac or iPad users can download, and it includes a text editor; a library where you can see the folders for all your ongoing projects at a glance and where you can store materials (for example, blog posts, photos, and other snippets) that relate to particular projects; and an export tool that turns your project into a PDF, a Word file, a web page, or an ebook. The text and materials are stored in the Cloud, so you can sync all your Apple devices that have this app and access your projects from any of them.
This app is really versatile, especially if you have several different devices you’d like to access your materials on. It’s not a bad deal at all, but as I say, it’s only available to Apple device users.
The description of Storyist is much the same as that of Ulysses, although it also shares some features that Scrivener has (see below). This is another program that runs only on Apple devices. It lets you use it as a word processor, but it also has the extra features of allowing you to track both your word count and your writing time. It gives you a choice of either storing your files in the Cloud or in Dropbox, the online storage site, and this means that you can access the files by either method. I don’t know if Ulysses also has a feature that lets you share your files with others through the Cloud, but you can certainly do that through Storyist, with Dropbox. So if you had finished a first draft of something and wanted someone’s opinion, you could send the person a link to that particular document, and they’d be able to read it.
Storyist also lets you make “index cards” for the individual parts of your story, and then you can show them on a “corkboard” and move them around as you need to. The program supplies templates and stylesheets if you need them, but you can also create your own. One thing Storyist has that I haven’t seen the other tools mention is plot, character, and setting sheets that you can fill in and customize as you want. And another thing I have only seen with Storyist is that it can export documents as Open Office documents as well as Word, HTML, and other standard formats. It will even export a file as a Scrivener file (the competition!). So this program sounds like a great all-around program for writers wanting help to keep track of everything. Too bad we PC and Windows users can’t use it, but it’s great for those who can.
BOTH MAC & WINDOWS
Full disclosure: I got the free trial of Scrivener for the 2014 NaNo (after two previous years of constant urging by friends who had used the free trial and then both bought the program afterwards). I did my anime encyclopedia project using Scrivener, to see how it would go. And I loved it! In fact, I liked it so much that as my friends had done in previous years, I bought a copy of my own afterwards, and I would have bought one even if there hadn’t been a discount for NaNo writers at the time. (I don’t think there is necessarily a discount every year, but Scrivener is certainly a regular NaNo sponsor.) The bonus with Scrivener is that there is a version of this program for both the PC and the Mac, and there’s a beta version being worked on for Linux too. So even we non-Apple users are not shut out in the cold.
(Since I have this program, I know more about its workings than I do about programs like Ulysses or Storyist. But if you’re interested in programs that help you collect all your documents and snippets of information for a project, you can go to their sites yourself and get more details beyond the summaries I’m providing here.)
One thing Scrivener is great for is letting you work on smaller, separate parts of your project as discrete chunks. You can make the smaller parts into their own files and just work on them individually, or you can temporarily put all the chunks together and have the chance to work on them as a complete document. You can open a “card” along the right margin to give a brief description of what’s going to be in that file, along with other meta-data about whether this is a draft or a later copy or the final copy, and whether this information will go into the larger document when you compile everything, and how it will go in. You can switch to a “corkboard” mode to see representations of these basic “cards” for each chunk or file of your project, and you can rearrange and reorder them if you need to. We saw this concept of “index cards” with Storyist too, but I couldn’t tell from their site whether those cards are linked to the actual files of text for each chunk of story or whether they are just used as an elaborate outlining device and you have to create the actual text files separately.
In Scrivener, there are also folders where you can keep photos you may use in your project, links you want to insert, videos you plan to put in, and other types of research material (e.g., scans of newspaper articles or other types of copies of materials). You can then export your finished project into the same types of files that Ulysses can create, including ePub and Kindle ebook formats. All of your material is saved on your own computer, and as far as I know, there is no saving to the Cloud and syncing with other devices—at least not with Windows. But I have discovered that Scrivener on the Mac can be synced with the product below, which ought to make you rejoice mightily if you have a Mac. Because the next program is wonderful!
Remember some of the things I mentioned earlier this month when talking about making your plot too complicated, advising you to keep it simple? The reason for that was, in part, that it’s just too difficult to keep track of how your characters and storyline might relate to world events and histories. It is very easy to get a story wrong if you can’t keep track of all the political stirrings or other events or important real-world in the region where your story is placed. You can easily be surprised by having your characters run into an event or person unexpectedly, and that could blow your plot idea to bits.
Well. If you use Aeon Timeline, you may no longer need to worry about that, or at least, not as much. This is a tool that helps you create an actual timeline for your story over however many weeks, months, or years it might occur. You can use a real-world calendar, or you can create your own calendar for your own world. Then you enter major events at the right places in the timeline in the top half of the screen, and you enter your characters’ lives in the bottom half of the screen, and you can see where and when their life histories intersect with major events. You can also indicate whether your character participated in, observed, or just knew about the events, and you can intersect them with other characters as well.
You can zoom in on your timeline and keep track of events day by day, for example, to make sure that Character A doesn’t find the key to the locked door two days before Character B accepts Character C’s marriage proposal, but finds the key the day after the proposal, the way it was supposed to happen. Or you can zoom out from the timeline to see the bigger picture, so you’ll know, for example, how long a war lasted and whether Character D died too soon, since she was supposed to see the end of the war and be glad that it was over.
You must surely have written something where two people were doing things in different locations over a certain span of time, or two ongoing things were happening in different places, and you wanted to make sure that they didn’t end sooner than they were supposed to or that they didn’t intersect some other thing that was supposed to happen after they happened. In my own case, I have an 800-page novel I need to edit, and for the first time since I wrote it (many years ago), I need to figure out when the seasons are, and how long certain stages of an extended rebellion actually last, and which things are occurring in which countries and when, and how they overlap with each other. I am not trying to be a free promoter of this program, but Aeon Timeline is going to be the perfect tool for figuring out the timeline of that novel—a task I have put off for years, because this one task was so daunting! (Never mind the Excel spreadsheets I thought I was going to have to resort to!)
You can watch the first of their series of videos if you like, to see how it works, and you may end up just as sold as I was after I saw it. I know what I’m buying after the NaNo is over.
These are just some of the sponsors of the NaNo experience. Many of the others are primarily sites that offer to help you edit and format and publish your novel after it’s written, while others offer storage across devices or offer only editing services. (And SelfPub Book Covers offers the unique service of helping you to find a cover for your book.)
But if you want assistance in the actual planning, keeping track of, and writing of your NaNo project and other writing projects that you work on after this month, I think you’re unlikely to go wrong with any of the three main options (Ulysses, Storyist, and Scrivener) or with the help of Aeon Timeline to help keep the times coordinated. Isn’t it a wonderful time to be a writer? And isn’t it great that we’ve had the help of NaNoWriMo to discover these fantastic tools?