How Trello is helping me write my new novel

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Time management is a key challenge for anyone intent on writing more than just randomly timed blog posts. Having struggled last year to get the ball rolling properly on my new writing project, I decided enough was enough. It was time to let my work life cross over with my home life for once.

You see, at work I like to think I have a pretty good handle on time management – organising the multitude of tasks I need to complete, keeping track of deadlines and all the sources of input and stakeholders I might have to consider when I am creating content. This isn’t achieved through some dark art that I’ve been secretly initiated into – it’s achieved using the online kanban tool Trello.

9 to 5

When I started my swishy sounding job as a communication consultant for a large multi-national organisation I was transferring from an IT role in which I used a help-desk software system daily. This help-desk system let me log calls, assign calls, add notes and deadlines to calls and apply categories as I saw fit. When I came to the communications job I thought I’d miss this system like a hole in the head, but then I found that I didn’t seem to be able to function efficiently without it. Trello to the rescue!

Trello is a stupidly easy to use online app similar to the help-desk system I was using without any of the user or asset tracking we needed in IT. Simply put it is a way of managing tasks that you write onto cards and arrange in vertical lists much like you would do Post-It notes on a whiteboard (if you could ‘open’ a Post-It and see more details inside). It’s traditional kanban in an optimal UX form.

trello-board-example-1

At work I have ‘Planned’, ‘Incoming’, ‘Doing’, ‘Waiting/On Hold’ and ‘Done’ columns. In these columns are arranged the various cards representing each task I need to get done over time. Each card has a meaningful title and a deadline assigned to it. I can also categorise the card by Type (e.g. intranet news, email, presentation etc.) and Status (e.g. Waiting Input, WIP, Waiting Feedback, Ready to publish etc.). These categories are available to me via the ‘Custom Fields’ power-up, and the cards can be arranged on a calendar via another power-up.

Power-ups are add-ons for Trello that you can get by virtue of paying a licence fee. In the free version of Trello I use at home you can take advantage of one power-up. I chose the calendar. I will tell you why in a bit. At work what’s on the calendar that’s scheduled over two months ahead goes in my ‘Planned’ column, anything due sooner goes into ‘Incoming’ and then will systematically be dragged and dropped by me into ‘Doing’.

Home

At home it’s a bit different. I have ‘To do – later’, ‘To do – now’, ‘Doing’, ‘Notes’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Done’ columns.

In previous novel-writing projects I would have notes handwritten in a dedicated notebook along with other notes in the Word document I was building the novel in, perhaps some Post-It notes inside the notebook and more recently Notes on my iPhone. Notes all over the bloody place basically. Once they’re on a page in a notebook and you turn the page you’re obscuring what you’ve noted down before. I started using coloured page markers to try and help. It didn’t.

Now I can put down my notes in the ‘Notes’ column, organised on cards. That’s the first thing I did. I wrote individual cards of all the notes I had and along the way was able to delete or compress these notes to reflect all the changes of mind I had had over the course of ‘planning’ my book. I say ‘planning’ like that because it was a mess. I’m not saying it’s perfect now, but Trello has certainly made it far easier to map out the story points I want to write. It has allowed me to get my head around sometimes conflicting ideas and make some key decisions which have helped move the project forward.

Some of the notes were reminders of corrections I needed to make to the 100 or so pages I already had written based on my usual organic approach to creating a story (which really didn’t go so well last year), so these went into ‘To do – Now’. The pages were already there in Word, so there was nothing stopping me, apart from my disorganisation, in rewriting them.

trello-board-example-2

In ‘To do – later’ I have things like proof reading, checking chapter names to make sure there are no repeats in previous books, adding topical news into the story to add a bit of flavour, checking characters’ tone of voice etc. The things you do once you’ve arrived at a first draft, and the things you’ll probably repeat for each draft until it’s done.

In ‘Resources’ I put little factoids I’ve got from the internet along with the URLs of pages of interest. For instance, some of the book is going to be based in Russia during the 1980s and 1990s, so I need to know stuff about Russian names, Moscow, the USSR and glasnost. Previously these would have been jotted down all over the place and often lost – usually just when I needed to fact check something.

In the ‘Doing’ column at home, unlike at work, I only have one card at a time. I set a deadline on this card and work to that deadline as if I am at work (although I’m allowed alcohol at home, yay!). Then when the task is complete, I can drag and drop the card into ‘Done’ and feel the unparalleled joy of avoiding procrastination and actually having written something. Even if it’s only a page or a correction to a previously written paragraph. I don’t care. It’s progress and I can see the list building up in the ‘Done’ column. Ah sweet sweet bliss!

Also because Trello is web-based, I can access my board from any internet-connected device. So if I have a bright idea in the middle of the night (it happens a lot, you’d be surprised) I can jump onto my iPad and add a card. In the car while driving? No problem just whip out my iPhone… only joking…

Face-palm

I no longer feel unorganised or frustrated by my lack of progress with my new novel. I have clear goals and a way forward. I can see everything I need to do all in one place and all I need to do now is work through it. It’s even helping me get the structure of the chapters sorted out and helping me realise where there are holes in my narrative.

I’ve been using Trello at work for at least four years and it feels like a major face-palm moment realising that it can help me at home too.

I’ve even added a column for ‘Birthdays’ because if I’m going to be busy beavering away at the book I best not forget people’s cards or presents, eh? That’s kind of the reason why I chose the calendar power-up.

Check out Trello for yourself here. This is not some kind of disguised advert that I’ve been paid to do by the way. Do you think it’d be this long?

I am genuinely a big fan of this product and it has helped me immensely to kick start an otherwise floundering project.

5 comments

  1. Since writing this post I’ve been trying out having a couple of columns for two of the key characters’ plot lines with a card for each chapter in the order they will appear in the book. This is working okay and is helping me with structure i.e. placement of the chapters.

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