My Two Tech Loves: Scrivener and ToodleDo

In thinking about my favorite technology, there are two applications that stand out for me. Ultimately they’re both about productivity. One is about productivity in writing, and the other is about productivity in organizing all the other aspects of my life.

imagesThe writing productivity app is Scrivener, which is getting a lot of love on the blog this week as an incredible tool for outlining. However, not every writer is an outliner. Last year, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, I attended a session called “B.A.M! Creating Commercial Fiction with the Three-Draft Book Architecture Method” with Stuart Horwitz, and he explained that novelists fit into two groups: outliners and pantsers. Outliners methodically sketch out where we’re going, and pantsers fly by the seat of their pants (and apparently it works out for them). I’ve always been an outliner, which means I work best with a very carefully constructed plot, like a skeleton. After I lay out the bones, then I flesh out the body.

The outline is not just for the plot, it’s also for the character arc. My debut novel UPTOWN THIEF is a heist book, so of course I needed to outline the heist at the center of the plot. Initially, I didn’t have a strong character arc, so that needed a lot of work. Eventually, with the help of a number of teachers and editors, I was able to develop and integrate a satisfying character development arc into the outline—it even has some elements of the hero’s journey. The outline for UPTOWN THIEF has three main elements: the heist plot, the romance, and the family drama.

UPTOWN THIEF was sold in a two-book deal, and I wanted to replicate a lot of the structure in the second book. So outlining book 2 in Scrivener was relatively effortless. I already knew the main character. She was a secondary protagonisht in UPTOWN THIEF, the right hand woman of the protagonist from the first book. And I knew the three components of the outline: the central heist plot, the romance (her love interest is introduced in UPTOWN THEIF) and her family drama, which she alludes to in the first book, as well. The particulars of these elements are very distinct from the first book—the protagonists share a few traits, but they are very different overall, and their plots and romances and family dramas are very different, as well. But the books still share the same structure and many of the same themes.

Another element that both books share is “set pieces.” I went to BoucherCon in 2010, when I still thought I was writing a straight-up thriller. There was a pre-conference writing workshop put on by Sisters In Crime that featured Elizabeth Lyon. She talked about “set pieces,” major critical scenes that were pivotal in the story. I had those set piece scenes in both books. In UPTOWN THIEF, it’s a gala fundraiser, where many critical characters are introduced and elements of the plot are put into motion. In Book #2, there are a series of press conferences, which are also critical for elements of the plot and character transformation to be set into motion.

Scrivener is your friend. Going back to the metaphor of the body, Scrivener is amazing because you can either look at everything you’ve written (outline, notes, scraps of scenes), or put the document it in x-ray mode, and only see your outline, the skeleton of your story. Overall, you can zoom in and look at any individual chapter or portion, and easily zoom out to see the whole thing. This is critical for me, because when I’m developing an outline, sometimes all I write for a scene is “the girls break into the strip club and search the office.” Other times, however, the scene is “Tyesha confronts her mother,” and in I may suddenly begin to hear or imagine the corresponding dialogue in my head. So when I begin to brainstorm parts of my book, I never want to shut that down. Stop it! We’re just writing an outline. Please, book, don’t write yourself. On the contrary, I want to capture that language. So of course, I start writing down those ideas. And that’s what Scriviener is great for. I can easily take down those scraps of scenes while I’m outlining.

I used to outline in Microsoft Word, but it was a hassle, because there was no easy way to go back and forth between the outline and the scraps of dialogue or action or description that came to me during the outlining process. And the Word files were always a mess, because you can’t collapse into the bare outline. But that’s one of my favorite the things that differentiates Scrivener from Word.

My one other tip with Scrivener is that it can be confusing or overwhelming at first. There are some great YouTube videos to help you get started. I watched one that was about 12-15 minutes long, and that really helped me to get oriented so that I could start using it right away.

My only complaint is that Scrivener made outlining so easy that it lulled me into a false sense of security. I thought that everything about the second book would be a breeze. However, when it was time to put muscle and skin and ligaments and tendons on those bones–the big challenges of writing–I found it just as slow as ever. Plus it’s been particularly difficult to find time while I’m preparing for my debut novel to come out. But that’s not Scriviener’s fault.

IMG_6241If Scrivener is my favorite technology for writing, then ToodleDo is my favorite technology managing my workload. One of my publicists, Dana Kaye, suggested it. My agent had pitched a magazine for a piece about UPTOWN THIEF, and the magazine gave us a tentative yes, along with some due dates. Dana was interacting directly with the magazine, and I asked if she could remind me about the deadlines. She agreed, but cautioned that she didn’t want me to depend exclusively on her to keep me on task. I told her I was desperate for some technology that could help me get organized. She suggested three: todoist, ToodleDo, and The Sweet Set-Up.

I already had a very long to-do list of things that I kept in MS Word and another one in the notes page of my iPhone. Of the three applications Dana suggested, I ended up choosing ToodleDo because it was the most user-friendly for importing the lists I already had. I didn’t want to add “data entry of todo list” to my todo list. I had some trouble figuring out how to import the data in xl, but I contacted my favorite computer consultant referral service, and got that handled. Once I imported the data, I started using the application immediately. I bought the iPhone app for $2.99. It has basics for due dates, prioritization, categorization, notes, etc. As a debut author, things will be heating up as we get closer to the book launch, so I’m thrilled to have an easy way to keep track of it all.

Basically, I need the same thing from both apps: creating some sort of order in the exciting chaos of being a debut author.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

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