So you’re an old hand at National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as November. You’ve already got your route lined up, and you’re all set to write a novel (50,000 words) starting November 1, and finishing by 11:59 PM November 30.
It’s perfectly legitimate to mull over ideas, maybe do some free writing or brainstorming or outlining or basic plot crafting ahead of time; that’s not cheating. There are lots of ways writers “plan” their story crafting; whatever works is right for that particular writer and story, and it varies from writer to writer (and sometimes, even from story to story). Here are some possible tools and techniques:
Pen and Paper
For hundreds of years, writers have been using notebooks or paper of one sort or another to jot down ideas, snatches of dialog or scenes to flesh out later, to brainstorm or mind map and to free write. One virtue of a notebook (or index cards) is that they’re portable; you can use them anywhere.
Some people like to use notecards or post-it notes instead of a notebook, possibly color coding based on character or plot line, because cards and post-its can easily be moved around to reflect the bit you’re working on, or to consider a different arrangement of scenes.
Some writers use special mind-mapping software. There are lots of software options, free Web-based apps like Coggle and Mindmup, free for personal use Web-based MindMeister, and paid, online Web-based, or apps for every conceivable kind of computer, smart phone or tablet, like MindNode for OX X and iOS, or the Java-based Freemind for Windows/OS X/Linux. Freemind is completely free; here’s how one writer uses Freemind.
Outlines, which can be standard “classical” outline with headings and subheadings, or simply a list of plot points, or details plot summaries are helpful as planning tools for many writers. You can use a WordProcessor (checkout Microsoft Word’s Outline View) or any text editor like Note Pad, of course, or a dedicated app just for outlining, but there are inexpensive and free alternatives.
Oak is a free in-browser plain text outliner that’s useful for quick, short outlines (there’s no built-in way to save; it relies on your browser’s cache or copy-and-paste).
Workflowy is an interesting, free for basic personal use (250 items per month), web-based list-making tool that is surprisingly easy to use, and flexible. A fair number of books began in Workflowy. There are apps for Workflowy (iOS, Android and Chromebook) as well as the Web version.
The Outliner for Giants is free for basic accounts (5 outline/1,000 nodes per outline) but a paid account is just $10.00/year and allows backup via DropBox or email. You can login with a Google or Facebook account. You can use The Outliner Of Giants in many browsers and devices/OSs (there’s a Chrome browser extension), and there are a number of templates to get you started. It’s really easy to export your online outline into your word processor or even a Google Doc.
Fargo is a free outliner/list-maker that relies on DropBox to store data.
Note Taking and Research
Many people use a more specialized note-taking tool or digital notebook app. Note taking apps typically handle text, outlines, images, and allow you to organize your notes in lots of different ways. They let you incorporate data from the Web, for instance, if you’re setting your story in a particular location, you might want to stash photos of the area, or a map, in your notes.
Evernote is perhaps the ultimate research notebook. First, you create am account (basic accounts are free) on their site. Then, you can clip notes from the Web, including pictures, as well as write notes in Evernote. You can use Evernote via your web browser or using an Evernote app for OS X, iOS, Android, or Windows. Many writers use Evernote to store information about locations, for instance, or to write character notes and rough plot summaries, because it’s easy to write a quick note on one device, and have it saved and available everywhere. A basic account is free.
To kickstart NaNo novels, Evernote has created some free Evernote templates to use in novel planning. Templates include a three act story plotting template, a character profile template, a world building basics template, and others.
Calendars and Timelines
A calendar is a useful tool for planning a story, in terms of things like timing, or the sequence of events in a particular timeline. Sometimes it’s useful to track each character’s personal timeline via a dedicated character calendar. You can easily generate a calendar from a spreadsheet, or make a dedicated calendar in Google Calendar or iCal or Outlook, though if you’re writing before the Gregorian calendar became the standard European calendar, or you’re using a setting that requires a Jewish, Chinese, Hindu, or other calendar system, you may need to be a little creative. Consider using a project management tool or spreadsheet instead of a standard calendar if you need to know where various characters are and what their doing a particular time.
There are Google spreadsheet templates and project planning templates, Excel calendar templates (more here) and calendar templates for Apple’s Numbers. These are not terribly difficult to modify for other dates.
Timeline software might be helpful in terms of plot-planning. Tiki-Toki has a free limited account option (1 timeline with 200 events) for creating a timeline on the Web.
MyHistro combines timeline with Google Maps.
Location and Scene Images
Consider using an album in Flicker or Photobucket or Pinterest to store inspirational images or images that help stage a scene or a location. You can store location or building or room images, or maps, or all sorts of images
The Scrivener Toolbox
Scrivener from Literature and Latte for OS X and Windows is a much loved toolbox for writers, and a long-term sponsor of NaNoWriMo (since 2005). It’s an enormously powerful and flexible app, with a bit of a learning curve, but it’s designed so you can use just the parts that you find useful, and ignore the rest. There’s a basic word processor that’s built in and that exports easily and let’s you track word counts for a doc a session or a day. There’s a corkboard for working with and organizing ideas. It allows you to keep all your notes and research and your ms. in one place, and searchable. It supports backup via DropBox. It’s particularly useful for drafting now and organizing and revising later, or for people who write scenes out of order. There’s a generous free trial, one that won’t expire until December 7, 2015, and that is by far the way to start; people either love or hate Scrivener. And there’s a special offer for NaNoWriMo, including a special version of Scrivener and a discount of 20% for NaNoWriMo participants, and 50% for those who finish.
Do take advantage of all the support for Scrivener, including video tutorials.