A Novel Way to Stay Organized

Any novelist knows that between juggling multiple plot lines, characters, settings, backstories, and research, writing a book is a lengthy and complex endeavor that can easily eat up 3 months to several years of your life. And everybody who writes stories will tell you that they have a specific method to their magic (or madness, as it were). Some create story notes with enough pages to rival the current health care legislation, complete with colored tabs and paperclips, with information filled from margin to margin about everything from fictitious maps to a character's favorite dessert to his or her entire family tree. Others fly completely by the seats of their pants and somehow manage to keep every scrap of information about their characters, settings, and plots jammed inside their heads, without even using so much as a Post-It note to catch the overflow. I was this way when I was younger, but as I've aged, I've realized that I've fried far too many of my neurons to keep it up.

Still, that doesn't mean I've enrolled at the Academy of Anal Retentiveness. I've only moved on to haphazard notepads with sometimes barely legible scribbles about a new plot idea or character motivation that may or may not be relevant by the time I get around to using it. The notes or no-notes methods aren't wrong, at least objectively. It only becomes that way if either of them prevent you from actually writing or finishing your story. On the one hand, so many people get caught up in research before writing that they really don't ever get around to beginning a single chapter. It's as if what they're really doing is stalling.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you're just living for the moment and writing like you're in permanent NaNoWriMo mode, you stand a really good chance of getting tangled up or lost in your own plot (depending on how complex your story is), and you will either end up writing something very confusing, or you will become fatigued and frustrated and give up entirely. I was in the latter camp. If you've ever seen my kitchen, my desk, my bathroom closet, my makeup bag, my old class notes, my computer hard drive, and my story notes, you would see a haphazard set of sandbags just barely holding back a destructive flood of chaos. And for the most part, I'm fine with this. I'm one of those people who say, "it may look like a mess to you, but I know where everything is." But I also say just as often, "Where the heck are my car keys?" So my instincts are not always in my best interests. They're really just dumb habits that I'm too lazy to change.

 I've attempted writing five or so novels and they are all at varying stages of completion, but I've noticed a pattern: almost all of them ended up defeating me when the deluge of information ended up outweighing my capacity to keep track of it all. And like a waitress with an overloaded tray, I ended up dropping the damn thing and walking away from the whole mess in disgust. The problem is, I am not--nor will I ever be--a "plotter." And I REALLY hate outlining a story that I haven't started writing yet. In my opinion, any story that starts out with a perfect template ends up reading like one, and there is something mechanical and dull about that kind of fiction. I truly believe in the organic process of story building. I start with a glimmer, a shady concept. Sometimes I already know the ending, but it's all the middle parts that need to be developed as I go, and I love how it surprises me with its twists and turns along the way. For me, writing a story--long or short--is like a great treasure hunt or an archeological dig. At least when the story is good.

Still, I have conceded that I need a way to organize the monster as it grows, and chicken scratch on mini yellow legal pads was ceasing to be effective. With this current story, it had reached the point to where I wasn't even sure where my plot was heading. And I still didn't have a very clear picture of who these people were yet. Not only that, I was developing two subplots whose directions were nebulous at best. Compounding that, I had taken it upon myself to rewrite vampire mythology as I know it, something that in itself should require its own 3-ring binder. It was frustrating, and I knew that after a few more days of this, I'd end up hearing that familiar siren call urging me to just walk away and start something new. There was absolutely no way I was going to let that happen again.

Enter yWriter. What is yWriter, you ask? Well, if you click on one of those links there and read about it and watch the online tutorial, you will find that it is perhaps one of the most ingenious pieces of story writing software around. I'd seen yWriter before, but back then I still didn't think I needed it. Of course, just ask my husband and he'll tell you I'm one of the hardest converts you'll ever come across for new software. I don't like things too complicated (even if it would make things LESS complicated, if you can dig it), and I don't require an app for every purpose. However, after trying and failing to finish 5 novels due to a basic lack of organization, I thought that enough was enough.

What makes yWriter more effective than a simple notebook? It's all about structure. It's a fully-formatted, intuitive interface with neat little slots just waiting for you to fill in all of your pertinent information. You can create complete character lists that include descriptions, biographical information, notes, and even pictures if you were feeling so artistically inclined. You can do the same for all of your setting information as well. Write about your fictional towns/cities, or particular settings within those places, like the town pub where everyone gathers during the zombie apocalypse. But perhaps the most brilliant thing about yWriter is that you list each of your chapters, and then go in and write summaries for each one. Then, you can break each chapter down into scenes. This is really good if your chapters are long or have a lot going on in them. If you want to go beyond descriptions, you can paste the content of each chapter or scene in there if you already have it written in another document. Then you can select which characters are in that scene or chapter from your character list, whose viewpoint it's told from, where it is located, what the time and date is (great for if you're writing something that is time-based), what--if any--items are in use in that particular chapter/scene, and so much more.

The layers for organization are endless and you can customize it completely based on the type of story you're writing. For each scene, chapter, character, location, etc, you can write additional notes and goals, assign priorities and tags, and tell it whether it's part of your plot or subplot, whether it's action or reaction, or even make storyboards. You can even write the whole story within yWriter, as it has a built-in word processor, but I don't plan to use it for that. I'm taking what I've already written in Word and am using the software to help me make sense of the whole thing and get it organized. Doing it this way will help me flesh out ambiguous parts, find plot holes, and overall refine the story and make it more cohesive so I can finish it more easily. But if you want to build your story from start to finish within the program, go for it! You can also import your existing story into it if it has chapter headings already laid out.

After you've finished your novel, you can export your yWriter file into an RTF document and put it into manuscript format. yWriter also has a feature that compiles all of your scene descriptions into a document, which is particularly helpful for that most-dreaded-by-all-writers task: synopsis writing. Imagine writing scene descriptions as you go and having your synopsis all but written by the time you finish your book! This software makes that so much easier. So far, I've written detailed character bios (something I've never taken the time to do before), a background and demographic summary on my fictional town, and I've gotten each my chapters listed and broken down into specific scenes so that if I have to backtrack and look something up, I can find it so much quicker than scrolling up in a 200+ page document.

This is a screen shot I took a couple days ago when I first started using it. You'll notice the chapter list on the left, then the scene breakdown just to the right of that. On the bottom, you can tab between the actual chapter content, notes, characters, locations, etc. Also, it's a very clean and efficient piece of software. I've yet to detect any bugs, it doesn't use any ads, and it doesn't hog any resources. It's also another way of backing up your book should something happen to your original document. The person who wrote this program is a genius. And perhaps best of all: it's FREE. I think yWriter can unite the stalwarts of both camps: note takers and note haters. And believe me, if I ever thought for a moment that it sucked in any way or wasn't worth using, I wouldn't have spent the last 45 minutes writing this blog for you.

I urge anyone who writes novels and feels even the slightest bit bogged down by it to try it out. I can't wait to go back and give my other unfinished books the yWriter treatment. Who knows, maybe I'll actually finish them. Download it HERE.



    Downloading it in 3... 2... 2...

    Thanks, Allison!

  2. I'm a big fan of Simon Haynes and his Hal Spacejock series, but I completely failed to get yWriter working. Your enthusiasm will have me taking another look at it when the NaNoWriMo rolls around in November.

    You should plug Simon's first book which is available as a free download!


    Comedy SF with broad Aussie humour. I love them.

    Actually if you dig around his site there's a pretty interesting story about how he went from writing it to publication in about seven short years, including a phase when he was printing it himself and having it bound locally.

  3. Anton -- Have you tried yWriter5? It seems to work really smoothly so far! And I will definitely check out his book. The premise sounds like my kind of thing! I'm writing a vampire satire/comedy right now and it could give me some inspiration. :)