Trello for Writers and Beyond – Part Two

In my last article, I spent some time discussing my latest discovery for organizing my writing projects, a website called Trello.com. In this article I want to focus on one of my works in progress, a novel I’ve been working on for a few years now called BLACK CASTLE.

I will freely admit that part of the reason this novel is still not finished is that it suffers from scope creep -- my desire to keep adding storylines to it. This has lead me to spin-off stories of their own, like BLACK MAGIC which you’ll see referenced on the screenshot. I needed to get this unruly beast organized and figure out what remains to be written. Trello has been a welcome tool for managing this.

For those unfamiliar with Trello, please read my previous post as it gives a good background on what Trello is and what it can do.  In a nutshell, it is a way to visualize tasks in various states of completion, so it is much more than a to-do list. Furthermore, writers who are familiar with Scrivener’s corkboard method of outlining with index cards, or beat sheets popularized by screenwriting books like Blake Snyder’s excellent Save The Cat!, will find Trello makes an excellent story board.

So, before I go too far, here’s a screenshot of my Trello board for BLACK CASTLE.

What I have here are cards that are organized into the following columns: Notes, Characters, Locations, Acts 1, 2, 2.5, and 3. Offscreen to the right are columns for what I am writing, editing, and what is out with beta readers. Since this is still an outline with some completed scenes (about 20k words out of an 80k word goal), the writing column only has one card that represents the first draft, with a link to the Google Doc where I do the actual writing.

The first three columns are all of my research and background materials. The Notes column has a link to my Series Bible, a timeline (that I keep in Aeon Timeline, which I highly recommend), a note from Evernote where I have documented the basic rules and organizations of the supernatural characters in the series, and an old mind map I made that shows how my villain, the infamous Dr. H. H. Holmes, is connected to all of the events of the novel. For what it is worth, I gave up other mind-mapping tools in favor of Trello, which itself really is a form of mind map -- structured as a kanban board, where each column is a branch and the cards are leaves.

With the characters, I take advantage of the cover pictures that cards can have to show what the characters look like in my head. I do the same with locations. First, you have to change the settings on your board to enable the use of card cover images. The trick with cover pictures is that they are attachments uploaded from your computer. I have found that I can drag graphics from web pages and drop them onto cards for covers. This saves me the steps of downloading the photos and then uploading them to Trello.

I have made use of labels to make visible some traits of the characters. Their gender, species, organization they work for, etc. The Custom Fields Power-Up allows me to add a few more traits like their sexual orientation and whether they are historical figures, fictional characters, or legendary figures. (Why distinguish legendary characters? I have characters that are based on Arthurian legend or Greek myth, for example.) Each character has a bit of essential description as well as links to the Evernotes where I keep their complete dossiers.

The real fun is in the next block of columns. We’re all familiar with the Three-Act narrative structure, and while I don’t always follow it, with this novel’s size and scope, it has been helpful. In fact, I split up the second act into two parts. This isn’t all that unusual; many visualizations of the second act show that it has a mid-point. Also I find that many authors break up their three acts into a ratio of 25%-50%-25%. For example, author Margaret Dilloway suggests using 60 index cards in a ratio of 15-30-15 for a novelEach of my columns is roughly 25% each, so it fits the model. If I’m being honest though, if all of my second act cards were in one column, the bulk of them would not be visible “above the fold” of my browser. So, four columns it is.

Each card in the acts represents a scene. The title gives a brief overview but you can click on a card to see any description, attachments to notes, etc. These scene cards use labels to indicate which primary characters are in the scene. These character labels are also color-coded. Green is for heroes, red is for villains, and orange is for anti-heroes. (If they were D&D characters, these would be Good, Evil, and Neutral.) My characters are more nuanced, of course, but at a high level, these color codings help me see scenes where my characters should clash.

I also have a yellow label marked “MOVE THIS”, which are for scenes that I don’t think are really where they ought to be and will need to be moved around. Of course I can move all cards around, but without this tag, I can expect the scene will stay put.

At one point I had a Custom Field for the point of view character for the scene, but sometimes I shift POV in these early stages, so I’m not using it right now. The primary character labels currently work better for me to see what’s going down and I can pick a voice later.

I have a Custom Field for the stage of draft for the scene: To-Do, Outline, First Draft, Revised, and Done. To-Do means it is little more than just what the title says; more thought needs to be done or this scene might get absorbed into another scene. Outline is what the majority of my scenes are here. Some may be a full page of notes but there’s no prose drafted up. First Draft is for those scenes that I’ve written but will have to edit later. Revised has been heavily edited, just by me at this point; I’ll have an editor come through later. Done is for a scene that I am completely happy with (for now) and can move on.

Finally, the last Custom Field is a date which represents when the scene takes place. For most of these the date is important because the scene is tied to a specific historical event. In some cases, the date helps me make sure that important plot points happen in chronological order. Any cards without dates are flexible on when they happen. Some cards also have word counts and goals, but at the scene level that fluctuates until I’m writing specific chapters.

That’s about it. The real takeaway here is that not only can you use Trello to keep track of the progress of your writing, but being creative with what the columns are used for provides you a nice story board for plotting world domination… I mean, your work in progress.

If you have any questions, drop me a line in the comments. Thank you.

Now, *cracks knuckles* I should be writing.

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