A Novel Idea: The Only iOS App A Writer Needs

So, I got super-lucky this year and scored an iPhone for Christmas. I’m pretty infatuated with it so far, and I’m proud to say that Goodreads gets a top spot in my app list alongside Angry Birds and Bejeweled.

There’s something like 1 million apps available for iPhone users, free and paid, for pretty much every purpose on the planet. By some strange fortune or by divine guidance, I managed to find a total gem among all the games, podcasts, and pizza delivery assistants. My friends, I introduce you to A Novel Idea.

No matter what platform or device you use, there’s no shortage of apps and software programs designed for the fiction writer out there. I’ve tried many of them and was never fully satisfied. A Novel Idea is the first such program that looks like it was actually designed for writers, by a writer, and by one who understands the need for a certain balance between structure and chaos and is realistic in his estimation of just how much time most writers actually spend writing on their phones/tablets.

Open up the free version of this app and you get all the basics — Novels, Characters, Scenes, Locations, Ideas. You can add and edit an unlimited number of entries to each section, then leave them floating free or attach them. I went in and made a page for each character in one of my novels, then linked each character to the Novel page. I added scenes and ideas and linked them to certain characters and novels, I could even link characters by their relationships — So and So is Such and Such’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/boss. And the best thing is that all of this linking and customization is completely optional, and there are no annoying reminders or notifications that pop up if you choose not to include them.

This is just one aspect of the beauty of A Novel Idea. For each novel, you can include a title, plot details, themes, premise, point of view, and more details. And even better, most of the sections are free-writes, so you can add as much or as little detail as you like. The same goes for Characters, where you can key in gender, age, physical attributes, roles, species, internal and external motivation, conflicts, skills & talents, education, and much more. When you’ve got all that information together, you can create custom groups to put your characters or your novels or whatever into. I grouped mine by genre — fantasy and contemporary fiction — and then by trilogy, since some characters belonged to multiple books, etc., etc.

It’s a lot of information. But the layout is so user-friendly that it’s as if some excellent friend went and organized all my notes and files in a way that’s actually organized but doesn’t feel awkward to me. (I had a friend like that once. In college. After graduation we moved to separate states. Sigh.)

I am, as you could probably tell, in total head-over-heels love with this app. My only complaint is that the Pro version — which allows you to sync between your devices, your computer, and Dropbox; export to iTunes, turn off the ads, and write scenes with word counts — is on the pricey side for an app at $2.99. But, the app is so great for note-taking and world-building on-the-go (or when I get an idea in bed and don’t want to dig out my notebooks or drag out my laptop) that I plan to most willingly pay the price next payday. Bottom line — if you are a fiction writer and you own any iOS device, you should be ashamed not to have A Novel Idea.

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The “O” Word: Outlines

With NaNoWriMo coming soon, I am going to start pushing my old agenda again — why and how fiction writers should use outlines.  I’ve probably already lost at least 1/3 of you, but if you’re still reading, thank you for hearing me out.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you I am not an organized person.  It’s not in my nature to keep things where I can easily find them again.  Only the most important things — money stuff, tax records, my passport — are kept in special places.  So, when I say “outline,” I in no way mean one of those Roman numeral-infested abominations we all had to do at least once in high school.  Those make me shudder and they’re a pain in the ass to format in Microsoft Word.

They also do exactly what a good outline should not — they stifle creativity and box the maker’s ideas into a predetermined, inflexible format.  When I say “outline,” I mean “guide,” or maybe “road map.”  An outline should be a tool you can use to find out what your story is about and where it’s going.

Two of the most common misconceptions about outlines is that 1) they have to follow a set format, and 2) they’re set in stone once written out.  I’d like to debunk both those myths here and now.

An outline should take whatever form works for the individual writer or project.  Outlines don’t even have to look like what you think they might.  For example, here are two of my outlines for past projects:

A rambling trail of imagination...
Yes, I kept schoolwork this old. Don't judge me.

The first one is for a story I wrote in high school and the other was for a literature paper in college.  They’re almost complete opposites in structure, but they both worked for their respective projects.  But even on the more formal one, I still went with what I felt was most comfortable and what worked for how my mind jumped from idea to idea.  Neither included just one aspect of the work, either — the top was generated on notes about plot, character, setting, and theme, and the bottom included my thesis idea, supporting facts, and so on.

Neither one was intended to box my writing into a format or keep it from growing or developing as I wrote.  These outlines were written with the express purpose of getting my ideas onto paper and figuring out what the hell I wanted to say.  If and when I got lost while writing, my outline showed me where my ending was.   My outline is the skeleton of my story, where I make notes, ask questions, try on new ideas.  If I get into writing and find the characters take me somewhere else, the outline gets stashed away (since I keep everything o.O).

THAT is why I think outlines can be so helpful to Nano writers.  They can give us a basic plan so we can jump in headfirst, screaming, and not sit there staring at the blank page wondering what to write (or writing “I don’t know what to write” a thousand times).  Outlines, for me at least, also help calm the pre-Nano “I love this story and I want to write it NOW!” jitters.

Hear a few others’ thoughts on outlining:

Nano 2011: To Outline or Not to Outline?

How To Set Up A Plotting Notebook