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6 tools for nonfiction authors.

The water dispenser in our fridge has been leaking for over a week now. Drip, drip, drip. You can imagine that one drip per second adds up over the course of a day. But we have a solution: a large plastic cup attached to the water dispenser with two rubber bands. Every hour we decant it into a glass and drink it. We are drinking a lot of water right now.


A handyperson I am not. However, I have found some tools to be very helpful when I am working on a book.


There are many moving parts to keep track of in a nonfiction book. Ideas, arguments, anecdotes, research, factoids, confessions, revelations. Always, there is a risk you will forget a piece, or use it twice, or lump all the funny stuff up front and the serious stuff at the end, or contradict yourself somewhere along the line.


Here are six planning tools to help you keep your pieces in their place.


PowerPoint: especially if you are a very visual person, setting up a set of slides can be an effective way to catch the big picture. (Slides, Prezi, Keynote, and other presentation software work much the same way.) I’m not talking about a PowerPoint presentation you plan to convert into an e-book. No, this is purely a planning document for your idea-generation stage. You might use slides to capture a “mood” image for your chapter, key quotes, central arguments. Some authors draft their whole book in PowerPoint, because its modular nature allows them to “chunk” ideas and shift them around with abandon. There’s something liberating about starting the day knowing you need to sketch out ten slides, rather than fill a blank page with brilliance.


Bestselling author Nancy Duarte drafts whole books in PowerPoint. As Nancy points out, when you’re ready, you can download your PowerPoint into a Word document and keep writing and editing it.


Mural: Described as a digital workspace for visual collaboration, Mural lets you use any combination of notes, diagrams, doodles, and colors to plan, brainstorm, and evaluate. Bottom line? It’s pretty. And if you are collaborating with others on your book, you can share it.


One of my clients is planning her book in Mural. For each of her 17 chapters, she uses different columns and colors to depict the main story arc, core hypothesis, questions readers will want answered, interviews to be used, and other details.


For me, Mural isn’t entirely intuitive. It takes a learning curve to figure out how to move elements around the screen (maybe I should watch the intro video to learn how to do it right!).. But it does allow you to display the entirety of your book in detail and zoom in on one section or chapter at a time without losing sight of the whole.


Index cards: If PowerPoint and Mural are the high-tech tools of the authoring world, index cards are the mallet or the handsaw. Ageless and fundamental, you can’t go wrong with a set of index cards. With them, you can lay out the steps in a process, set up the pillars of your argument, and shuffle around your favorite one-liners from one chapter to another. For many years, I used index cards to plan the interview-based books that were my specialty.


Whiteboard: One of my colleagues creates a post-it grid for every memoir she ghostwrites. (Many of them are bestsellers, so when she tells me how she works, I listen.) Up there on her wall, she creates the outline for the book, section by section. Within each section, she notes the theme, the story (the narrative flow), and the takeaway. This way, as she writes, she always has the grand scheme of things in view, keeping her on track.


Scrivener: Never used it myself. Never finished watching the intro video. (Is this a recurring theme?) But many authors swear by it. Scrivener is a word-processing program and outliner designed for authors. With it, you can organize notes, concepts, research, and whole documents in one place. That complex tree or folders that you set up on your computer to store research, interviews, outlines, and the rest? You can put them all into Scrivener. Scrivener is certainly a custom tool for authors because it’s designed to handle long-form writing projects.


Blank sheet of paper: Your tools don’t have to be fancy. A large sheet of paper drawn up in columns can work, too. Joseph Heller created a vast and complex handwritten outline grid for Catch-22, capturing the story's events in chronological order in a way that the novel itself does not. The vertical axis runs from January 1944 to December 1944, and the horizontal axis lists the book's major characters. Apparently, a free-form flow, Catch-22 was the product of deeply rigorous planning.



A combination of two or more tools can also be effective. For one project, I started planning the grand arc and scope of the chapters using PowerPoint, then moved on to index cards to shuffle anecdotes between chapters.


What are your favorite plotting and planning tools? Or do you prefer to wing it and see where the pieces fall?


By the way, if you’re still worried about our fridge, all is well. Help is on its way: the technician will be with us on Friday. Cheers.



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