When I first started writing stories, poetry, and (attempts) at novels (I’m still actively attempting btw), I thought the act of creation all came from the hand of God or a lightning strike from the muse, but honestly, what I’ve realized is that whenever an author talks like this he or she is mostly full of shit. Inspiration, of course, strikes, but saying that a novel is completed because it came to an author in a dream or was written in one night after a hallucinogenic trip is mostly marketing and exaggeration. For example, Kerouac wrote his draft of “On the Road” so many times that when he wrote it in two weeks that just meant that’s when he wrote the final draft. The marketing behind that gave the book mystique, and writers and artists capitalize on this branding (admit it!) all the time. Don’t believe the hype. (Kerouac’s credibility as a writer has suffered and thrived based on this idea.)
Well, honestly, I did believe the hype before, and I would try to write in a way that believed in the sudden strike of inspiration: waiting in my office for the muse to tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear. What this led to was a pile of digital shit. Yeah. But now that I’m older and I have a profession where I’m required to stay organized and structured, I’ve started to apply a lot of the knowledge I’ve learned from marketing and project management to my creative work. I’ve learned that there are tools that I can use to ensure that I’m focused, organized, and motivated. I should probably thank Clayton Dean, the co-founder of Circa Interactive, for showing me several apps that have helped me harness my creativity. So here are my top 3 apps that I recommend for every writer to stay organized and on track to finishing your gigantic project.
Evernote is the app I just can’t live without. I’ve heard people from corporations to creative agencies swear by this app, but I didn’t really understand how to use this tool until I read The Secret Weapon. Evernote keeps everything in my life prioritized and organized, and if this app ever shut down, then I would probably, legitimately, collapse. I’m able to create a tag system that allows me to move my tasks around, send emails directly to my app so I can look at them later, and sync my notes across my lap top, smart phone and desktop. Without Evernote, I wouldn’t be able to keep track of the countless tasks in my life (from writing, to work, to my relationships) and then organize them depending on need. What’s really important about this app is that it allows me to stop exerting so much mental energy trying to remember what tasks I need to care of (Did I send that email to my client? Did I remember to buy flowers for my wife for our anniversary? When was I supposed to send the editor those revisions?) and focus on creating my art in my free time. It allows my subconscious to focus on building stories rather than organization.
2. Aeon Timeline
When I’m writing a novel or a complicated short story, the hardest part for me is figuring out the backstory. It’s not that I can’t create the ideas and build a rich life for my characters; it’s that it’s so hard for me to keep them together and know exactly when and where dates and events
happen in time. Right now, I’m working on a novel that is fairly complex and needs to be carefully plotted. It spans generations but the actually telling of the story happens in just under a week and a half. While I’m not actually going to include all of the events of the characters’ backstory in the novel, I need to know what they are, because for these characters, the past is always pulling at them, altering the present and causing characters to sometimes take dangerous paths to find answers to personal histories. So I was looking at organizing generations of characters lives and trying to find ways to keep them organized. I was stuck. So I just started Googling for tools to help. That’s when I came across Aeon Timeline.
What I love about Aeon Timeline is that it’s easy to use. You can watch a couple of videos on YouTube, and you’ll know the interface pretty well. But it really captures exactly what I need to build a novel. I can create birthdays for characters and then add events on a timeline, and it will automatically calculate their ages based on the event. I can see from an aggregate when characters meet, when tragic events happen, and how much time happens between events. I can separate events by characters, highlight the characters who are involved in the scene, and build separate timelines for what actually happens on stage (to borrow a plot phraseology from the great author Lynne Barrett) and off stage. In other words, I’m able to see what the reader is seeing while I need to know what is happening elsewhere in the world of the novel. I am able to figure out when I can reveal these developments to the reader and create precision with plotting and build suspense. Of course, you have to come up with the idea first, but Aeon Timeline provides an author with the tool to digitally map a story while using modern technology to build a plot rather than the messy colored pencil method, which of course works. It’s just that for me I need to see the story digitally and zoom in and out and manipulate the information ad nauseam.
For writing long manuscripts, I’ve always felt that Microsoft Word never really performed. Of course, Word has a pretty solid UX, but it’s clearly not designed with the author in mind. It’s meant for the business professional and the daily lives of American people. Clayton was really pushing me to find a writing app that was targeted specifically for writers. He’s a major supporter of Evernote, and he encouraged me to consider Evernote’s writing platforms. He loves the simplicity of the UX, but it just wasn’t feeling quite right for my work. Evernote drips with my professional life as well as my creative. It’s sort of the essence of my work life, and I wanted to have another arm of my being that was devoted just to creative projects. That’s when I came across Scrivener.
It’s not easy for me to describe why Scrivener is so important, but in a nutshell, it allows writers to break down gigantic texts into parts, move back and forth between displays, and create flash cards for chapters. It’s really an amazing product that does everything Evernote does — organize research, save audio and video, and build a tag structure around content to easily search between parts — but it’s made with the writer in mind. I love their distraction free writing mode, too, which has a typewriter effect, which allows the mouse to stay in the center of the screen…like a typewriter. I’m never going back to Word. I’ll literally never write the same way again.