A Month with Novlr

NaNoWriMo is coming up soon, which means a new crop of writers will be looking for the right software to help write their 50,000-word opus. Enter Novlr, a web-based writing platform that is simple, clean, and eager to motivate you to reach your goal. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo for the first time, Novlr is a great choice. But what about the rest of us? What about the seasoned amateurs who haven’t done NaNo (as the kids called it back then) since they were tiny little dystopian cyber-thriller writers? Is Novlr a good choice for writing novls? Let’s take a look.

Previously, in novling…

Every novl I’ve ever published began as a Scrivener project, a blank page in a program with more features than I know what to do with. When I write a first draft, I need to be able to manage individual chapters, rearrange them, and archive them if they’re not working. I use a divide-and-conquer method of outlining that requires hitting word counts for beats, chapters, and the project as a whole.

Scrivener does these things exceedingly well, and if it weren’t for the fact that Scrivener 3 still isn’t available on Windows, I probably wouldn’t have given Novlr a second look. That’s probably true of many writers: they’re comfortable with Scrivener or Word or Google Docs, and they don’t want to learn something new and risk interrupting their workflow. Trust me. I get it.

But I’m here to tell you, fellow stubborn writer, Novlr is worth a look.

What I Like

The design. There is simply no excuse for web apps to be ugly in 2020, and the Novlr team have put a lot of effort into designing an attractive, streamlined interface. Menus slide in and out, there’s tons of white space, and the app is intuitive enough to use without watching a ton of training videos. Most importantly, when it comes time to write, the app itself seems to fade into the background, and all you’re left with are your words.

Dark mode. One of my favorite apps for scratch writing is Dark Room, which when loaded, gives you a black screen with a green cursor, and that’s it. Novlr has a similar mode, with a blue-black background and off-white text. Since I write in the early morning and late at night, I find this theme much easier on the eyes, so much so that when I switch out of full screen back to Google to do some research on how many people have had heart attacks while golfing at Pebble Beach, the bright white background of the search results is jarring.

Dark mode editing in Novlr 3.

Organization. Like Scrivener, Novlr gives you the ability to chunk your Novl any way you like, whether that’s parts or chapters or individual scenes. Need to reorder them? No problem. Just drag and drop. Since I organize in chapters, this feature suits me well, and it’s almost perfect. Almost.

Chapter and Notes organization in Novlr 3.

Encouragement. This is a feature I did not know I needed, but Novlr has “achievements” built into the app. When you reach a milestone, a little message pops up at the bottom of the screen and cheers you on. I don’t know why this is so touching. Perhaps it’s the lonely nature of writing. It’s nice to have some acknowledgement when you’re slogging away at your sixth attempt at a chapter. This feature makes Scrivener look cold and uncaring by comparison.

Encouragement in Novlr 3.

Word Count. It’s amazing how something so simple could be so vital to someone’s workflow. I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t set a word target for the chapter, but then I found that when I hit my customary 2,000 words, a little pop-up appeared and congratulated me, thus solving the problem. This, like the sidebars in the app, can be hidden in Focus Mode, if you find it a distraction.

Word counter in Novlr 3.

Backup. What if Novlr disappears tomorrow? What happens to my work? These are the questions I asked back in 2016, when I first tried Novlr. When I came back to it a month ago, I was happy to discover those questions had been answered in the form of Integrations. Now, you can have your novls automatically backed up to Dropbox or Google Drive. I would love to create a local backup to sync in OneDrive, but having a PDF version of each novl safely stored in Dropbox is the next best thing.

Backup in Novlr 3.

What I Don’t Like as Much

Goals. If you’re using Novlr for NaNoWriMo, the goals feature is exactly what you want. It allows you to set daily and monthly targets, so you know how far ahead or behind you are. And that’s great, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo. I can also see someone using these goals as motivation, to simply force themselves to write. But if you write at your own pace, if you can skip a day or two without wincing, the goals aren’t very useful.

Easily keep track of your NaNoWriMo goals in Novlr 3.

Not all is lost though. Novlr does tell you how many words you’ve written in each of your projects–you just have to go back to the dashboard to view the numbers.

Project word counts in Novlr 3.

Organization. Novlr provides two sections for your content: Chapters and Notes. While you can drag and drop within the two sections, you can’t drag and drop between them. If you need to abandon a chapter but want to keep the content, you have to create a new entry under Notes, copy/paste your work, and then delete the original chapter. As someone who does this frequently, it’s a major annoyance.

Give me a place to store my unused writing, Novlr.

Update June 23, 2022 – Novlr support says this is supported, but I’m still having trouble making it stick. Probably just me.

Notes. Despite the distinction in name, Novlr treats notes like any other chapter in your project. The formatting is the same, the idents are the same. Nothing really sets it apart as a scratch pad where you can jot down character backstories or a rough timeline. What might work better here is plain text or MarkDown, with a monospace font that screams these are notes!

Notes in Novlr 3.

Browser Jitter. There are certain challenges to developing a web app that performs well in all browsers, and while 99% of Novlr works exactly as expected, there is one tiny piece that makes the skin under my fingernails itch. It happens when you start a new chapter, get to the end of the line, and the cursor jumps down. There is something about this action that (I think) causes a scrollbar to appear and disappear quickly. This has the effect of shifting the paragraph block to the left a miniscule amount, and then back.

It doesn’t happen when you get far enough into a chapter that text scrolls off the top because (I assume) the scrollbar is now always present. Obviously, I don’t know enough about web apps to know why it happens, I just know that when it does, I lose my damn mind. And honestly, at this point, there’s not much of it left.

Why I Purchased a Subscription

The short (sarcastic) answer is that I was tired of waiting for Scrivener 3, but honestly, Novlr 3 is a solid app that should check many of your writerly boxes. As mentioned, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, it’s a no-brainer, and Novlr will even take care of updating your NaNo word count automatically.

For everyone else who needs help organizing their first drafts, Novlr is a great option. The interface is simple, you can track your progress, and backups happen automatically in the cloud and in Dropbox/GDrive. And honestly, who couldn’t use one of the random attaboys that pop up every now and then while they’re writing?

I’m usually opposed to software as a service, but Novlr’s current pricing is reasonable, and there are bound to be some discounts with NaNo starting next month. More than that, I find myself believing in what Novlr is trying to accomplish: a simple, hassle-free writing environment to help people focus on the actual fun part.

Every writer’s workflow is different, but we can probably all agree that the last thing we want is to spend our time fighting software (he said, glaring at Word). Novlr doesn’t want to fight with you. It wants you to turn on Focus Mode and put your browser in fullscreen so it can disappear into the background, a silent witness to the deluge of words pouring from your fingers.

Try it here: novlr.org (not an affiliate link)

And sign up for NaNo2020 here: nanowrimo.org

Once you’ve seen what Novlr has to offer, come back and let me know what you thought below!

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  • I’m working my way through the Mac software options for “helping me write” – a euphemism for “avoiding writing but pretending to be doing something”. I have Ulysses and Scrivener right now. I like them both equally up to now – they’re good for organizing my scraps of ideas and the more formal writing that comes, occasionally, from them. In reality, I think Word and a properly structured set of folders would work as well, but it would not feel as neat, ordered and automatic. Eventually, it’s what feels right that’s important. The thing that removes as many obstacles as possible from between me and getting words on a page.

    • It really burns me that I can’t find equivalents of Scrivener and Ulysses in Windows. IA Writer comes close to Ulysses, but like all Windows to Mac comparisons, it’s not as polished. But yeah, you have to find what works for you… at each stage. I couldn’t imagine starting a first draft in Word. It would just be too daunting.

Notes From the Author
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