Plan Your Novel with Trello

Starting a new project, whether for NaNoWriMo or something longer term, is a great opportunity to seek out new tools and methods for planning your novel. When I worked on The Last April, I found a number of tools that helped me, and I want to use them again for a new project… with some tweaks.

Even though I write first drafts in a paper notebook, most of my planning and research is digital for quick reference. The Last April had spreadsheets for character details and motivations, plot timelines, and news media excerpts. It had book plan documents and plot diagrams. I had to bounce between too many documents to get the big picture.

I need to see my characters, plot, historical timeline, and marketing plan in one location so I don’t lose sight of the objective. Enter Trello.

Why Trello?

Trello is a powerful tool because it is so simple. You create an account, open a board, and start creating lists. Within each list, you create cards.

What do you do with the lists and cards? The lists could be family member names, while the cards are chores for the week. The lists could be phases of a project (to do, in progress, done, blocked) and the cards could be components of the project. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the reasons why I chose Trello to plan the next book, whatever it may be.

Trello is…

  • Free, though you can pay for a subscription and get additional features
  • Both textual and visual planning
  • Accessed from any web browser and has a mobile app
  • Popular enough for some pretty cool extensions

The extensions are what really make this planning method shine. The default Trello experience is a series of columns in a single row. To combine my character sheets, story arc planning, marketing definition (book plan), timeline, and historical research into one board, I need rows of lists, preferably with a heading so the grouping is clear.

Default Trello is a single row of lists

Trello comes with what they call Power-Ups to extend the experience, but I didn’t see anything that met my need. Plus, for free accounts, you only get one power-up. Enter browser extensions.

Set Up Your Trello Board

Create a Trello account if you don’t have one already.

  • Create a new board
  • Create lists to plan your novel, like
    • Characters
    • Eleven stages of a three-act story
    • References (setting, newspaper clippings, maps)
    • Timeline (my stories span a couple weeks)
    • Book plan (goals, market demographics, marketing plan)
  • If you know the content already, add cards to your lists

Create Your Swim Lanes

For this to work, you need the Chrome or Firefox web browser and its associated browser extension. These extensions only work on desktop/laptop views. I have Firefox, so the instructions at this point might differ for Chrome users.

Swimlanes for Trello is pretty simple. To make a new swim lane, or row, type the pipe character (the vertical bar) into the name of your list. To make a characters row in the screenshot below, I named the first list “Main |Characters.” I waited about two seconds, and the board shifted to having headings above rows of lists. That’s it!

Browser extensions make multiple rows of Trello lists

You will need to follow the instructions for List Layouts if you are on Chrome but I assume it is just as simple.

Success! What was multiple documents is now a single board. The fun thing about Trello is you can add labels to cards; I will like do this for the plot to chart where characters have pivotal moments. You can also add images , which I think will be useful for character sheets, setting, building references, etc.

Caveats and Disclaimers

This stacked list style only works on a Firefox desktop display. Since I write first drafts on paper, often with a mobile device beside me, it is easy to scroll the single list view if needed. When I’m in generative thinking mode and need the entire view, I’m probably on my laptop anyway.

If you make more lists after creating your swim lanes and have to move them around, it can confuse the extension back into a single row. If this happens, refresh the page and everything should return to the stacked view.

Those are the two glitches I’ve found so far, neither of which is a deal breaker for me.

I hope this tutorial helps; let me know in the comments how you set up your board or if you’re using a different tool to plan your novel. If after this post you realize you still prefer pen and paper, check out my Etsy shop where I have novel planning notebooks for sale.

– Belinda

Eep! NaNoWriMo Around the Corner?

Dear Reader,

I’m in a pickle because I can’t decide if I want to do NaNoWriMo this year. NaNoWrimo is the National Novel Writing Month, and depending who you talk to, it’s the best or worst thing to hit the writing community, ever. The entire point of NaNoWriMo is to write 50k words in 30 days. That’s it. They don’t have to be good, make sense, anything. Just write. Write for your life.

There are authors who contend that NaNoWriMo makes anyone feel they can write and publish a book… the self-publishing explosion hasn’t helped matters because it seems people often publish what they wrote during NaNoWriMo without vetting it with an editor. There are authors who encourage and support NaNoWriMo because it is a wonderful way to connect and network with other writers, either locally or online.

Why am I hesitating?

My dilemma is that I’m still figuring things out for The Rebel’s Hero. I didn’t tell you this because I was afraid you would get upset, but I restarted it (again!) a couple of weeks ago for the fourth time. Never fear! I’m already past the word count from the third attempt… I’m around 17k words with an estimated goal of 70k. I’m doing my best to learn from the critiques I’ve received, which means I’m focusing on tightening the plot (no wild chases or random characters popping in at critical moments for no reason), and exploring relationships (why is it people are doing these things, and why do we care?).

My writing schedule has dropped from attempting something every day, to writing once a week. That is, the act of writing happens once a week… I spend a lot of my down time thinking, reading philosophy and historical texts, and having deep discussions with people, much like my characters. When I do sit down to write, I bust out a couple thousand words. At least I’m making progress!

Writing Vacation

I’ve been considering, quite seriously, taking a weekend trip somewhere. Just holing myself up in a charming little bed and breakfast and seeing how much I can write without distractions. I think the money spent might be worth it. Exercise helps, for sure, but my schedule has been so hectic lately I haven’t had a chance to really beat myself up and free those toxins creating the writer’s block.

Heh it feels like I’m saying I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, due to schedules, etc. I might just be making excuses. Or I might feel confident in my new writing schedule. Whatever the case, I’m curious… are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? What are your thoughts about it?

Set Yourself on Fire

Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.
– Arnold H. Glasow

A somewhat creepy quote just in time for Halloween, I think. Can you imagine what it must feel like, to set yourself on fire? Let’s think of it in the literal sense, first.

There are the branches and twigs, all dried to a satisfying crisp so they will catch flame. There are the ropes, to keep you in place as the flames grow higher and start to lick at your feet. There is the stake to which you bind yourself, and the gasoline in which you douse yourself. There is the doubtful assistant, who ties you up, and lights the flame for you. There are your shrieks, though of triumph or horror for completing the task, we’ll never know.

Gruesome. Happy Halloween.

Now let’s look at this as a giant metaphor, because who doesn’t like a good metaphor?

As a writer, you must set yourself on fire.

There are your ideas (branches and twigs), happily fermenting in the back of your mind and ready to explode on the page. There are your goals and aspirations (ropes), to keep you going as the going gets tough and the rejections evermore painful. There is the blog to which you commit yourself (the stake), and the people who comment (gasoline), holding you accountable. There is your critique partner (doubtful assistant), who asks you questions, and encourages you when you’re ready to give up. There are your shrieks, though of triumph or horror for completing the first draft and having to start the second, we’ll never know.

I encourage all of you to set yourself on fire. Be the passion that brings your work to life, and others will feel it in your writing. As sung in The Sound of Music, “Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever should.” What does that mean? It means that, like in the quote at the beginning of this entry, success won’t spontaneously combust for you. Success will be a result of an arduous process into which you pour your heart, soul, patience, and resources.

Set yourself on fire. Join NaNoWriMo, and feel the flames burn ever higher as you blaze toward the finish line. Good luck, and may the muse be with you.

Leave a comment about something you do to get fired up about writing. Do you listen to music? Do you watch a favorite movie or read a favorite book? Do you talk to people about your writing?

WIP: First Paragraphs

Caricature drawn by Worderella
Caricature drawn by Worderella

Everyone talks about how important a first line is, how important the first page is, of any good piece of writing. We go on about how the idea needs to grab the reader, to hook them as one might hook a fish. But we never really give our own examples, unless we’re sure we’ve got it down. And the thing is, I don’t know if I have it down. I’m fairly certain I don’t, if only because I’m a type A perfectionist who second-guesses herself a lot.

So this is what I’m going to do: Below is the hook, and first lines of my working!title Trentwood’s Orphan. Give me your honest opinion, otherwise, I’ll never learn my lesson. But… also keep in mind that this is First Draft B, so I realize it’s still pretty rough.

As always, this is my writing and it is copyright protected, so please, let’s not spread this around and take it for yourself.

The hook for the novel is as follows: A grieving daughter encounters love and ghosts in Victorian England.

And so the novel begins…

Continue reading


Crazy Writer by Ultima_chocoboHow many of you are doing NaNoWriMo this year? I did it last year, my first time ever, and I loved it. I won, which was exciting, and it inspired me to go back and start First Draft B of working!title Trentwood’s Orphan. I don’t have time to do it this year, which I’m sad about, but I’m being extra crazy and doing it again this year, to motivate me through the last half of my WIP. I started browsing the website and, not so surprisingly, I was sucked back in. I also want the following from their store: the “Can’t talk, noveling” mug and the 2007 t-shirt.

Now, as a fellow writer, I want to say the following to you NaNo-ers:

Don’t give up, even if you are already behind! You are a writer, no matter what you may think. You are doing the good thing by pushing yourself to achieve that goal of 50k words in 30 days. Don’t waste time on negativity, on thinking you might not finish, that you might not “win”. Anything you have on the page, whether it is crap or The Next Great Novel, is more than what you had before, and you should be proud! You should do the dance of triumph. You should crow the Xena yell. You should stand on the deck of a ship and shout to the heavens “I’m king/queen of the written word!”

So write that “shitty first draft” and revel in it for you are doing something that most people cannot do: You are challenging yourself. You have the persistence to keep going even when the Block chokes your imagination. If the Block has you in its throes, know that at least one person believes you can do it: Me. I know you have it in you to write that 1000+ words today. Don’t edit it, just write! Go wherever your imagination takes you, even if it makes your story fantastic and silly. Don’t worry about it, you can go back in December and change that paragraph, or page, or chapter.

The only one holding you back is yourself. We are often too hard, excusing in others what we despise in ourselves. Give yourself a break and rekindle your love of the written word. Be self-affirming, don’t waste your time thinking you can’t do it, just do it. It’s like that song once said:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr In-Between.
No! Don’t mess with Mr In-Between.

* Crazy writer image courtesy of Ultima Chocobo at LiveJournal.

The Importance of Theme for Organization

I often read that the biggest things a writer should worry about are theme and organization. Theme, because that is the heart of your work; organization because that’s the skeleton to help you write about the theme.

For the longest time I wondered, How does one find a theme in the first place? Maybe something happened in your life that you want to write about. Let’s face it, wanting to write about that topic isn’t enough. You need a focus, something that connects you to the topic and distances you from it at the same time, so that you can communicate clearly with your reader.

I began with “I want to write a romance, but I don’t want the heroine to be the typical spunky girl. I want her flawed, and with heavy concerns.” So, I worked from there, writing character descriptions and first drafts; I wrote an entire 94k first draft just throwing whatever came to me onto the page. I celebrated, because we all should celebrate the completion of a draft, especially when it takes three years to do it (full-time student, remember). Then, I stuffed it under my bed (or maybe in the back of my closet, I’m always re-organizing so I never completely know where some things are) and started over.

Step One: Write a shitty first draft and be done with it.

After that, I walked away from the work for a month. Namely, NaNoWriMo month. The crazy speed of that writing month invigorated me, and in December I said hello to the original work with a new focus. I started over with this new focus, with a new understanding of the characters, and with a pretty solid understanding of their initial back stories.

Side Note: a back story, if you don’t recognize the term, is a short story and/or history about a character, location, or object that happened before your current time line.

Step Two: Use the extraneous parts of your shitty first draft as a collection of back stories to your characters.

Now I’m halfway through First Draft B, as I like to call it (props to Redshoeson for the naming idea). I know where I would like the story to go. But my initial back stories aren’t full enough. I have to go back. Give each main, secondary, and even tertiary character additional back stories about their history with the other characters. These back stories lead to motivation, motivation to decision, and decision to action. But my back stories all need a theme. There must be something connecting these characters. But… how to write the theme?

The theme is a single sentence that succinctly describes what your work is about. Also known as a thesis, blurb or hook: the main idea that keeps you writing, and grabs the reader’s interest. Still, it’s hard to know how to write this magical sentence. So, look at examples. The first sentence on the back cover of a paperback is usually the hook, which the copywriter expands into paragraphs about the main characters and why we should read about them. I also found reading the New York Times bestseller list really helpful, because the top ten have one-sentence summaries.

Step Three: Read the New York Times bestseller list.

Try to keep your theme/hook/blurb/thesis at fifteen words or less. You want this to be focused but universal, so don’t use the main character’s name unless it is a sequel or part of a series. Don’t use passive voice! Choose your words carefully; every word in your theme should be there because there is no better word for it.

Here are some examples from the bestseller list in July:

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: A young man — and an elephant — save a Depression-era circus.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards: A doctor’s decision to secretly send his newborn daughter to an institution haunts everyone involved.

Peony in Love by Lisa See: Love, death and ghosts in 17th-century China.

The Quickie by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge: A police officer’s attempt to get back at her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her, goes dangerously awry.

After you have the main theme, things will fall into place, slowly at first. Your theme is your thesis, so tie everything back to it and you’ll have a tight, organized work.

An Update

So. How is the WIP going? Fairly well, I would say. It’s a new month, which means I’ve printed out the previous month’s (incomplete) draft, kissed it, set it aside, and convinced my mind that I’m starting this month with a new inspired view of the WIP. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems to work for me. I’m 29% complete with this draft that I call The Rewrite of Novel # 2 ™.

It’s sort of a running joke between my friends, or, at least, those who are interested in my writing, to call my books by the order in which I started them. There is, of course, Number One, which is my self-published (subsidy) book from high school, Catching the Rose. Number Two is what I keep calling the WIP here, while Number Three is the sequel to Number Two, and the result of my participating in NaNoWriMo 2006. Number Three’s fun and quick tone convinced me to rewrite Number Two. (All of this is more information than you cared to know about, I’m sure, but I find the writing habits of other writers fascinating… so every once in a while, I indulge myslf.) I haven’t had a chance to write in the last four days or so, other than blogging, and I can feel the strain. This is funny, in a not-so-funny way, because last week I suffered from a mini-Block. This week, I’m struggling to hold the reins of my imagination until I have control of everything and know the exact route I want to take. Talking through the plot, or just talking about the WIP in general, does help, however, which is what happened this time around to kill the infamous WB.

I’d like to make an update, however, about a previous post in which I talked about Lulu’s Published By You package. According to POD Critic, while the package claims that the author (which would be you) is designated as the publisher (which essentially means you are the publisher and Lulu is merely the printer), the truth of the matter is that everywhere else you submit your book, Lulu will be listed as the publisher.

I began to think about this, and what the implications are. So, let’s walk through this. By registering your book with, Barnes &, etc, POD Critic claims that these websites still list Lulu as the publisher. Which means Lulu is still a subsidy press, rather than a community of self-run micropresses. It does make sense. After all, you can’t actually buy ISBNs separately, you have to buy them in groups of ten. So, Lulu is still being the middle-man by buying the blocks, and then allowing you, the author, to buy the ISBN separately, from them, Lulu. The U.S. ISBN Agency, however, will still list the ISBN as owned by Lulu. Anything that happens to the ISBN after selling it to Lulu is not really their problem.

Tricky, no? I think it’s a tricky move, and kind of mean, actually, but then, I suppose it is the author’s responsibility to look up and understand all the details of such a transaction. And really, if you’re going through all the trouble of buying the ISBN from Lulu, you might as well just set up your own micropress, like how POD Critic advocates. If you’re that serious about self-publishing, you might as well go all the way and just do it yourself.

Shameful Admission

All right kiddos, it’s admission time: I have let life get in the way of my writing. I know, I know, one should always make time to write. That’s been my personal mantra the last couple months, anyway. However, there have been extenuating circumstances, such as my health, school…basically, the sources of big bummers in my writing life.

As such, in this semi-depressed mood that always seems to fall during the last final weeks of winter, I have lost the will to write. I want to write, but every time I open the file, I just stare at the last bit I wrote. I can’t get past the last paragraph, because I hate it so. I take it away, and I can’t write anything new because…I can’t? This is the oddest sort of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I know where I want to go next. I just can’t transition to that point. Usually, I don’t know where I want to go next, I panic, and the Block Against Writing pummels me to the point that my ego breaks, and, to add insult to injury, throws me in a pit to fend off Doubt, Anxiety, and Cliche-Turns-of-Phrase.

It’s a traumatic experience.

But this time, I feel different. I’m in the dark but I can see the light; I can almost reach its source, I just can’t seem to unsquint my eyes long enough to know exactly where to grab.

So, I’m waiting. I’m letting it come to me, rather than forcing it out like I did with NaNoWriMo. Each night, I think about my characters rather than worry about my health or school: I do this so I will dream about my characters–my dreams tend to be eerily vivid and dreaming about my characters brings me some of the most interesting ideas. (Not that it’s worked yet in this instance, but it doesn’t hurt to try?)

Anyway, I thought I would throw this out to the blogosphere*. Maybe letting some steam off will allow my ideas to cool and solidify into something I can actually write about.

* blogosphere: the social phenomenon of blogs linking to other blogs. Term respectfully taken from Questionable Content.

Can’t Slow Down

I can’t remember if I mentioned this already (and I’m too lazy to look at the last couple entries to find out), so let me say this now: school is back in session. This surely explains the lack of posts and the reason why it is taking me three weeks to finish one book when normally, I finish three books in one week.

That aside, I am fighting for my right to write. I am taking six classes when the normal is three or four, I am working more hours than I have ever before, and I am the new editor-in-chief of my college’s magazine. Busy girl? That I am. Finding time to write? Surprisingly, I am. Because I’m so busy, I end up freaking out that I won’t be able to get everything done, so I start my homework and projects as soon as they are assigned, I end up getting them done a couple days ahead of time, and suddenly, my Friday morning shift at work is spent writing another chapter or so (in-between answering programming questions).

Life is hectic, but it’s good. Then again, life is always good when I find time to write and I feel like what I’m writing isn’t complete and utter dross*. Plus, the writing is easier this time around since I’ve put aside that first complete draft that I finished this past October. Following the sage advice of writers who have come before me, I’ve laid that draft to rest as utter trash and started anew with the same characters, now knowing what works and what doesn’t. I know now, that the phenomenon of the adult orphan will play a much bigger part. Yet, I don’t want the story to be bogged down with it, I want my characters to learn and grow. I know now not to force my characters, especially in terms of shoving the plot in one direction when the characters are plainly telling me to go the opposite way.

So tell me, how have your projects been going? The new draft is approximately 11,000 words, which I’m proud of. I gotta say, NaNoWriMo really loosened those fears that I have to write pretty the first time around.

* dross (n): worthless material that should be removed.

Re-Writing Woes

So. I’ve begun working on the prequel again, after taking a seven week hiatus to participate in NaNoWriMo and then study for Finals Week. I’m glad I took all that time off, because after reading the first three chapters I realized chapters 1 needs to be cut, chapter 2 if kept should be put after chapter 3, and chapter 3 should be the new chapter 1, but only after an extensive re-write.

Remind me why I write, again? Haha I’ve sort of been in a slight despair ever since I realized my beginning is well-written, but boring as all heck. Way too much backstory. Not enough action. I hate stories that begin with characters just sitting around talking to one another, explaining the story to the reader, and that’s exactly how this novel begins. So, I’ve decided to completely start over from scratch. Consider that first complete draft as a three-year warm-up, as it were. You might think me crazy, considering it took me three years to write almost 100,000 words, but then, you have to remember I did NaNoWriMo, and finished, so…writing another 50,000 words shouldn’t be too hard, right? Not when I know the entire story this time? And can outline what I want to keep in the story and what I want to throw out?

Is this wishful thinking?