Folks, I’ll be honest with you: I decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo on a whim, a mere week before it was supposed to start.
Despite having many textbooks about writing in my possession for a while (I’ve always wanted to write and publish a book), there was no time to read them all before it started. I was ill prepared, had no plot other than a loose idea or theme and hadn’t spent any time outlining, plotting, sketching or planning at all. What was worse was having never done it before, I had no idea what to expect.
I did my best to read some of those books on writing as I went along, but I wasn’t able to finish any of them. The daily word quota beckoned.
That said, I did learn a few things. So here are some of the tricks, tips and tools that I discovered on my 30 day NaNoWriMo journey that helped me get through it.
Scrivener was the software tool I used to write everything this month. I had bought it on the Mac App Store earlier in the year because, like I said, I always wanted to write a novel, fiction or non-fiction. If I had known that they were a sponsor of NaNoWriMo and all winners would receive a coupon code for 50% off, I probably would have waited.
But even at full price, it’s worth it. It’s much more than a word processor. You can write different scenes and move them around within a chapter or transfer them to other chapters by clicking and dragging. There’s a handy outliner that you can use to plot your novel, and character and setting templates you can use when designing your backstory. There’s even sections for your research material (where it can grab pages from the web and store a local copy for future offline reading) and sections for front and back material like covers or dedications and acknowledgements.
The best part is that when you’re done your manuscript, there are easy compile options that let you produce a manuscript in .doc, .rtf, .pdf or various eBook formats like Kindle, .mobi and .epub. No need to know SGML and no need for fancy compile tools or converters, Scrivener does it all.
It even has templates for screenplays, comic books and other forms of writing, so it’s a very versatile tool. I haven’t even scratched the surface of its functionality this year, and I look forward to learning more about the tool in the off-season so that I’ll be more efficient come next year’s NaNoWriMo.
It’s available for Mac and Windows, but I only have the Mac copy. I’m tempted to purchase it again for Windows as well for my PCs because this is such a useful tool and it’d be nice to be platform agnostic when it comes to writing and editing.
I found out about Aeon Timeline late in the game, but this is a simple program that came out of a desire for a better time lining tool. Think of it like Microsoft Project on steroids and geared towards writers trying to tell a story. They can be fiction writers, script writers, etc.
It allows you to plot your story on a timeline using whatever units you want to use for whatever duration of time. It sounds simple, but there isn’t a tool that I’ve found yet that does it well. This is the closest thing.
You can organize events based on story arc or character arc, which makes sorting through various plot points easy. I didn’t have enough time to learn how to leverage it properly, but I’m excited to learn how to utilize it to its full potential for next year.
That said, you could easily use project management software like Microsoft Project to achieve similar results, although the interface isn’t geared towards writing a story. Conversely, you could use Aeon Timeline for project management when it comes to tracking project milestones, as the interface is customizable and all the data is kept in standards compliant XML. This makes Aeon Timeline very versatile, especially if you’re willing to put the time into customizing it.
I love stories that have long arcs, keep things consistent and reward readers for re-reading stories, and I think this tool can help me keep my thoughts organized enough to tell those kinds of stories myself in the future. I’ll definitely be purchasing a copy of this once the NaNoWriMo Winning Prizes are posted (40% discount code for winners which makes it well worth it.).
It’s only available for Mac at the moment, but a Windows version is in development for release sometime next year.
Write or Die
When I was 13,000+ words in the hole with only three days left to go and desperation set in, Write or Die saved my life.
There’s a web version that’s free for anyone to use and I started with that. When I saw my productivity increase because of the tool, I bought a license for the offline desktop version. It’s written in Adobe AIR so it can run on Windows, Linux and OSX. There’s also a version for the iPad, but I find typing on an iPad difficult.
Its catch line is “Putting the ‘Prod’ in Productivity” and that’s exactly what it does.
How it works is that you set a target word count and time limit (for example, 1,000 words in 30 minutes), and hit start. You then have that time limit to hit that word count. If you slack off in writing, notifications and prompts pop up motivating you to continue writing.
Those prompts could be as unobtrusive or intrusive as you like. The base level shows a visual indicator where your screen slowly turns red until a pop-up notice appears telling you to write, to blaring alarms until you start writing again. There’s even a mode that eats (re: deletes) words that you previously written if you start to slack off, but I never used it because it would be a shame to lose something I had written and for NaNoWriMo, every word counts.
I never thought having a program nag at me could be helpful, but I think what was more helpful was seeing my word count progress go up as the time ticked down. Psychologically, it allowed me to see my progress and it let me see that the end was coming. It’s so easy to get lost in word counts and minor details that you lose track of the bigger picture. So when I saw that I was consistently racking up 1,200+ words in 30 minute chunks, it made that 13,000 word hole seem not as deep.
The bad thing about the program is that it doesn’t let you think too hard about the words you’re writing or give you a moment to breathe. But sometimes, that’s what you need. You need to let go of your inner editor and just write. Even if you’re stuck, write something and fix it later.
This program taught me that and was well worth the $10. If you’re ever stuck on something, give Write or Die a try. It might just motivate you to power through the writer’s block!
When experimenting with Write or Die, I realized that my peak productivity happened when I was working in bursts of 25-35 minutes, taking breaks thereafter. I was surprised to learn that my productivity habits mimicked something called the Pomodoro Technique, which was developed in the late 1980s. Pomodoro is Italian for ‘tomato’ because the guy who came up with the technique originally used a timer shaped like a tomato.
In short, the Pomodoro Technique consists of the following:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the timer rings. Record your progress.
- Take a short 3-5 minute break.
- Every four “pomodoros” take a longer 15-30 minute break.
If you don’t finish your task in one pomodoro, continue it on the next one. If you finish your task early, then the extra time left in the pomodoro is dedicated to overlearning, or what I like to call overkill.
And it works! Or at least, it works for me. I was only introduced to the concept late into NaNoWriMo so I haven’t played around with it much, but it’s something I’m going to experiment with in the off-season in other fields as well. Hopefully it’ll make more productive, especially when it comes to working on tedious tasks.
The Pomodoro Technique relies on the use of a timer, and while old-fashioned manual timers are encouraged because the mechanical process of setting the timer mentally reinforces your commitment to undertaking the task at hand, sometimes when you’re in a coffee shop or library, a loud tomato timer simply isn’t an option.
There are tons of timer programs for your computer or smartphone out there, many free and many not. I decided to use Focus Booster, which is free and written in Adobe AIR so it’ll work on Windows, Linux and OSX machines. I’m platform agnostic, so while I believe in using the best tool for the job, I also have a preference for software tools that are consistent across platforms.
I didn’t use it much for NaNoWriMo since Write or Die had its own timer, but I can see how it can be handy for blogging or other tasks on the computer, which is why I decided to install an offline timer on my machine.
Freedom and Anti-Social
It wasn’t until I started using Write or Die that I realized that software motivators actually do have value.
Freedom and Anti-Social are simple programs that block your internet access for a time limit you specify, and the only way to restore it outside of waiting for the time limit to expire is to reboot the computer. It affects you psychologically because if you really want to slack off and distract yourself with the Internet, you have to make a conscious decision to reboot your machine, which is embarrassing. It’s much easier to let the timer run down, and while you wait for that to occur, you may as well try to get some work done.
Freedom blocks all network access while Anti-Social just limits it to social media and other time waster websites, which is handy if you still need to access the Internet for legitimate research purposes.
Before Write or Die, I figured that personal discipline alone would be just as effective, but I’ve long since realized that I can easily get distracted. I was too busy trying to survive the Write or Die word sprints to get distracted so during those times I was extremely productive in a short amount of time. These programs, while I didn’t end up using them specifically for NaNoWriMo, might help me later on in other types of work when I really need to focus which is why I purchased them.
Freedom is $10 and Anti-Social is $15, or you can get them both for $20 in a bundle pack (which is the one I bought). I look forward to experimenting with these two programs in the future.
Speaking of word sprinting, a constant source of inspiration was the NaNoWordSprint Twitter account. I have written about it before, but I want to reiterate how helpful it was as a source of inspiration and how well the sprint leaders around the world led people in them.
I never realized the value of creative writing prompts until I got stuck or experienced writer’s block, so I’m wondering what I’ll do in the off season when the NaNoWordSprint account is inactive. I’m currently looking for a good set of offline writing prompts or a software program that incorporates them in a generator-like format. If you know of a good one that’ll work on a Macbook, let me know!
StoryToolz and WriteTrack
I loved NaNoWriMo’s daily word count tracker as it organized the data in easily understandable visual chunks. I’ll miss it now that it’s over, so I’m trying to find replacement tools that I can use in the off-season.
While my preference is for an offline tool that I can use locally on my machine without an Internet connection, I found two tools that might be able to work, both free after registering for an account.
WriteTrack keeps track of your daily word counts and targets, while StoryToolz does that and much more. StoryToolz can generate random conflicts, story ideas and titles and can detect readability issues or writing cliches. It’s iPad friendly as well.
StoryToolz might be my go-to creative writing tool for inspiration and project tracking outside of NaNoWriMo, but I’ll need to play around with it some more to determine that.
Remember that I’m always on the lookout for offline tools that can do the same things, so if you know of any, let me know!
To Sum Up
So there you have it. Some of the tools or resources that I used to help me sprint (or limp, depending on how you look at it) over the finish line of this year’s NaNoWriMo, and things that I intend to continue to use in the off-season.
If you have any other tips, tricks or tools that you have found that work for you, please let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about it.