Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Writing Productively (1): Tracking Story Ideas with Insightly Projects

This is the first in a series on productivity tools for writers. I use technology to minimize the tasks that I find tedious, or to help me avoid errors, and maximize the time I have to be creative.
[03/31/2014 Edited to update screenshots reflecting latest version of Insightly.]
Several months back a writer friend of mine idly asked his Facebook friends what he should write about next. This started a brief discussion about how we keep track of story ideas. He had literally hundreds of story ideas jotted down in documents on his computer's hard drive. I realized that a lot of my story ideas from over the years were even less organized: in a big notebook, or on loose sheets of paper in a file cabinet.

Well, it wasn't all that bad. I'd recently converted a number of writing projects to Scrivener, which I started using last year. They were still not viewable as a list, but the stories I cared most about were at least in one place. I had also been trying to adapt an app called Sonar to scheduling when I was going to submit stories to some upcoming contests, but that wasn't going well.

As an IT professional, I've used a few project management and tracking applications that allow me to queue up and schedule work. So I decided to put my Business Analyst / Project Manager expertise to use in my writing career. What I'll present here is the process I've come up with. After describing my process, then I'll describe how you can set it up for yourself.

Insightly ( is a web-based CRM app which is free at the basic level, and can be upgraded to premium account with additional features. A CRM (Customer Resource Management) system is essentially a tool for keeping track of your customers and managing the workflow of selling your goods or services to them. I tried out several of these before settling on Insightly because it allowed me to add a handful of custom fields and adapt it to the purposes of a writer. The free features meet all my current needs, and the premium features will come in handy when my first novel is published.

Granted, Insightly is not specifically built for my purposes. If it were, Projects would be the first tab, because that's where a writer like me usually starts, with the writing project. Currently, tab order is not customizable, and Projects is the second-from-last tab:

As you can see, there's color coding for the different type of project (Short Story, Novel, Flash Fiction, Blog). You can control what those types are and what color they are. However, the status (In Progress, Not Started, Deferred) is not customizable. You're stuck with those words and those colors. I use Deferred to mean that I have set it aside (trunked it). I don't like to change it to Completed, because then it just turns grey. (Tip: if you change a project to Completed and you want to change it back to In Progress, you have to first change it back to Not Started).

There is an Add New Project button in the upper right corner of the screenshot above, but we'll see that page (I call it the project detail page) in a moment. First let's click on an existing project and look at what I call the project summary:

From this project summary view you can change the Current Status. You actually can't change the status from the project detail page (when you're creating a project). There are a variety of tabs along the bottom. There's a tab for notes, and if you want easy access to notes, you'll want to enter them here instead of the project detail page. You can see I have a couple tasks associated with this project, and it's convenient to create tasks from here (more on that later).

Notice the Project Links at the bottom. I only link Opportunities to projects, which I'll discuss later still. In a nutshell, I use Opportunities to track submissions to contests and markets.

You could use the Milestones tab for various phases of the writing project. However, I have opted just to use Tasks.

If you click on the Actions drop-down and choose Edit This Project (or just click the pencil button), you'll get the same form that's used to create the project, and it shows the project details:

Description is the field where I usually jot down my ideas for a story. I often paste in URL's to articles that inspired the story. The Details field will be visible on the summary page if there's anything in the field. URL's will be click-able links as well.

As I mentioned before, the Category values are customizable. However, it is a standard field. Word Count, Genre, and Sub-Genre, however are totally custom fields. Genre is a drop-down field, which makes it easy to enter and not have to worry about spelling (or misspelling). You may want to customize these fields in a different way. You might even prefer to use Tags (click Add Tags at the top) to indicate Genre. You can have multiple tags to represent genre blending, etc. There's no setup for Tags, you just enter them directly into that area. I don't use tags on Projects.

When you click the Save Project Details button, it takes you to the project summary page. If you want to get back to the project list, just click the Projects tab header again.

I also use the Insightly app on my smartphone, so I can jot down a new story idea and create a new project anytime. When I'm asking myself, "Ok, what do I work on next?" I can peruse my list of projects and see what jumps out at me.

The next article on this topic will show how I set up the custom fields, categories, and color coding for Projects. No programming is required.

Other posts in this series:
  1. Tracking Story Ideas with Insightly Projects
  2. Configuring Insightly Projects 
  3. Insightly Tasks & Life-Cycle of a Story
  4. Configuring Tasks in Insightly
  5. The Tasks Tab 
  6. Organizations Tab
  7. Configuring Custom Fields for Organizations Tab 

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