Story plotting and writing poetry with Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is not the first app you would associate with creative writing, but it has become my go to app for thinking through story structure, composing poetry, and doing story outlining.

This is how it started. I was working on a proposal that had four major characters, most of whom were not in the same place at the same time, and all four stories were progressing simultaneously. I needed a way to track everything that was happening with each major character, on or off the page, and I wanted to be able to visualize each character’s story in connection to the other stories. Even that sentence is complex. I tried every software tool I could think of, from timeline apps like Beedocs Timeline 3D to cork board apps, but none of them was quite what I needed. By accident, I was staring at a spreadsheet at work, with several columns of data, and I was struck by the notion that my plot points were just data.
That night, I took all my notes and plugged them into Excel and it was like someone just took blinders off my eyes. I could visualize my story from start to finish AND I could cut across story lines at any point in my story. I very quickly saw where I had gaps, where timing didn’t line up quite right, and even where best to switch from one character to the next to advance the story. It was like magic. The more I fiddled around with Excel, the more revealing it was. I was able to block off areas by day, or color code which scenes I wanted to include in the actual story.

That project ended up not being greenlit, but when I started work on my sequel to Elvis Sightings, I used Excel both to plot it out and write the treatment. In my story, there are several mysteries being investigated simultaneously, so with three columns in my spreadsheet, I could visualize which mystery was getting too much time, or needed to be re-sequenced to work better narratively. When it came to write the treatment, I used each row as a beat in a scene, then used formatting to delineate rows into scenes, chapters and days. I sent the combination of plot outline and treatment to my editor, and she was able to make beat by beat notes in a second column. When I rewrote my treatment, I was able to keep the original in one column, the notes in a second, and my changes in a third. I could see exactly how my story was evolving.

Excel Poetry

From a forthcoming Zombie poetry project

But what about poetry, you say? How could a spreadsheet help with something so artistic? Well, I was working on some poetry where I needed to think in syllables and rhyme pattern. I color coded each line for the a-b-b-a-c rhyming sequence. Then as I wrote, I used each cell as a syllable. It took a while for my brain to stop trying to write a few letters at a time before hitting the tab key, but once I got used to it, I was able to very quickly figure out the right words to fit my syllable counts. I’d start with the words I wanted to try to rhyme, plug them in at the end of each line, then work backwards in syllables to the start of each line. It worked really, really well, and it’s not something I could have easily done in a traditional writing app like Byword (which I’m using now and  love, btw.)

It’s totally counter intuitive, but every writer I’ve discussed this with who’s tried it has been  pleasantly surprised how useful a spreadsheet can be. Obviously, you don’t have to use Excel – any spreadsheet app will do. If you find yourself trying to figure out  some complex plotting or want to try your hand at sonnet, give this technique a try then tell me how you used it. I’d love to hear other creative ways to employ a spreadsheet.

Scrivener and the iPad

Scrivener on Mac

Scrivener on Mac

Like a lot of writers, Scrivener is my go to app for writing. There simply is no better way to write and manage a long project like a novel. Unlike traditional text editors like Word or Pages, Scrivener is a binder of individual text documents. The way I use it, each scene in a chapter is a unique file. It’s an approach I first encountered back with the first version of Ulysses, which is now in it’s third version, but was perfected (for me at least) by Scrivener. Although I have to admit I haven’t played with Ulysses III yet. But the problem with Scrivener is that I have been waiting for YEARS for an iPad version of the app. “It’s coming,” they say, and I believe them, but I have a novel to write, right now.

For the sequel to Elvis Sightings, I considered switching to Storyist. It has a Mac and iPad version that can sync files back and forth to each other, so it makes cross platform writing pretty easy. I played with the Mac version of the software, and while it approximates maybe 70% of the writing experience of Scrivener, that missing 30% was too much for me, so I was back to no iPad solution. Sort of.


Scrivener’s Sync Options

Since Scrivener 2.0 was released, it’s had the ability to sync with Simplenote, a plain text editor that works across platforms and is free, thanks to the people at Automatic, the same people who create the software this site runs on. The sync process is pretty easy, but because Scrivener has this funky file format, what you get in Simplenote is a jumble of files with messed up names – and you have to ingest the whole Scrivener project which could be hundreds of files in my case, making using the app for anything else pretty painful.

Scrivener also has the ability to sync it’s text files to an external folder. Another long time feature. I’d been resisting it until now, but once I finally used it, I discovered it wasn’t nearly as awful as using Simplenote, even if it wasn’t as clean as I’d like. The way it works, you pick an external folder in your Dropbox, and Scrivener dumps all your designated text files into the folder. You can then use a Dropbox text editor, like Byword or iA Writer, to open the files on your iPad. Much cleaner than using Simplenote, as you only open the specific file you want to work on.

Byword writing app on Mac

Byword writing app on Mac

Both Byword and Writer have iPad/Mac native apps. I ultimately ended up choosing Byword for my iPad writing app. The two apps are pretty similar, but I liked the way Byword does file management and I was interested in Byword’s ability to publish to WordPress. It’s an extra fee, but I’d been looking for a better blog writing environment than the somewhat buggy WordPress app and the web interface. The feature is somewhat spartan at the moment, but it’s a good way to get a draft onto the server, that you can finish up using the native interface.

I’m late to the party in discussing how to move Scrivener projects to the iPad and back, but the upside for me is this process is already pretty well baked and bug free. My recommendation if you want to write on iPad and Mac, and be able to use Scrivener, is to use Byword via Dropbox. It’s not perfect, but it will do until the iPad version of Scrivener comes out.

What is the best iOS WordPress app?

WordPress makes a great app for posting to your or self hosted site, but sometimes the official app doesn’t cut it. In my case, for some reason I’ve not been able to figure out, I cant upload photos to my website with the official app, so I had to resort to alternatives.

I will say upfront that when it works, the official iOS WordPress app is pretty much the best, but each of the following apps can replace it as long as you’re willing to make trade-offs. Some are paid, some are free, but all of them can get you posting.

I only looked at apps for iPhone. There are a number of iPad only apps, but if I’m working on a device that big, might as well open up the MacBook.

Tinydesk – free with IAP to remove post footer
wpid-20140823-112603.jpgThis app is both the best and the worst of the bunch. Its major drawbacks are that you can’t edit posts or pages once they’ve been saved to your server and it doesn’t support the iOS dictionary.

On the plus side, it is one of only two apps that let’s you insert images from your media library.

TinyDeskThe app also uses a unique method for post creation. It treats each block of text or image as a discreet block. As you create these blocks, you can drag them up and down to reorder. It is a novel approach that is pretty useful in longer form posts.

And for what it’s worth, this app is the most consistently compatible with my sites and always uploads images.

BlogPress $4.99
1408917849.jpgThis app has a distinctly odd approach to content creation. Any formatting options are hidden away and can take several screens to do things like insert a link. Switching between sites is quite easy, however a site’s pages and posts are listed separately, which feels odd at first but you quickly get used to.

wpid-20140823-112558.jpgBlogPress has an interesting approach to image and movie management. You can set up a photo or movie service to upload your assets to instead of your blog. If you want to keep your images in Flickr or Picassa, for example, this is the tool for you. You can also post to Facebook and Twitter when you post to your blog, and send posts to multiple blogs.

This app has some great features, but it is just so painful to use that I have a hard time recommending it. Although my interest is strictly in WordPress compatibility, BlogPress does get credit for having the largest list of supported platforms.

PosterPoster has a minimalist, flat, UX, which works to give you the most space available for writing, but takes some getting used to because it isn’t always obvious where the feature you’re looking for is hiding. For example, to give a post a title, you have to go into an options area, where you can also set categories, tags and the post format. It seems non-intuitive at first, but once you’re used to it, it feels natural to handle all the post set up in one screen and the composition in another.

PosterDespite it’s minimalist design, there is power hiding inside, with support for sticky posts and other features tucked away. You just have to look to find them.

Poster also has a unique feature that let’s you create posts based on templates or copy which you can store on your DropBox account or that is in the iOS clipboard. This is a pretty handy feature if you are working with existing content you want to move into WordPress or if you frequently post content that is formulaic.

UPDATE: It turns out this app was so good, Automatic, the people behind WordPress, bought the app, hired the developer, and discontinued the app. Which is a damn shame because it works when the official app doesn’t.

PressSync – Ad supported or $4.99
wpid-20140823-112747.jpgPressSync is an interesting app. Organizationally, it keeps all of your published, draft and local content separated, but mixes posts and pages together by publish status – so all your draft pages and posts are grouped together. I make extensive use of drafts and really like this feature, but it can get unwieldy if you have lots of posts and pages.

The listings of content is very informative, giving you and clear view what category and post is in, as well as any tags, and displays a thumbnail for attached media.

wpid-20140823-112754.jpgPressSync is also the only other app that gives you access to your media library, either for directly uploading media or adding media to a post. But despite showing an image thumbnail in the list of posts, it does not show images in the posts themselves.

One of PressSync’s strengths is that it gives you a LOT of control over the way it interacts with your media and content. It supports slugs and sticky posts, although that feature doesn’t seem to work with my themes. You can also specify exactly what size you want your images to uploaded at, which is nice if you are trying to match images into certain templates.
1408917837.jpgThe app also gives you control over the app itself, and allows you to toggle on and off things like auto-capitalization and spell checking.

On the down side, switching between posts and pages is cumbersome, as is accessing basic formatting, which is located in a different pane. That said, it supports a lot of HTML and markdown formatting and gives you access to frequently used formatting.
For total feature set, PressSync clobbers all the other apps, but it also gives it the highest learning curve.

Pressgram – free with IAP
wpid-20140823-112820.jpgThis app isn’t, strictly speaking, a WordPress blogging app. The best way to think about it is a photo manipulation app with a minimum feature set for photo blogging.

On the image side, either take a photo or load an image from your camera roll, crop it, apply filters or blur, and add text to it. When you’re done, you can give your post a title and add some text to it, or add another image, then upload your post to one or more services simultaneously.

wpid-20140823-112839.jpgIt is extremely convenient if you want to post an image to two blogs, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter simultaneously. It is the only photo blogging app that I’ve found that supports self hosted WordPress sites.

All the IAP are for things like filter packs and effects, not core posting functionality.

To sum up…
So which is the best one?

PressSync is the power user app. Lots of control, lots of features, and offers the most complete set of blogging tools. If you’re only going to grab one app on this list, make it this one and invest the time to learn how to use it.

Poster is probably the most straight forward WordPress app replacement. It is a bitch that Automatic cancelled it. I wish they would at least make the official app work better.

TinyDesk…if only it let you edit drafts this would be my top choice. I find myself turning to TinyDesk fairly often despite that draw back because it does the best job of uploading images.

PressGram should be on your phone regardless of what app you pick as your steady. It’s ability to quickly post images is unrivaled.

BlogPress, despite it’s massive list of supported platforms and some neat features, is just quirky enough I don’t recommend it.