11 Sep

How I write a novel

Note, this entry has been updated to reflect different tools that I’m using now in 2008.

Someone in the comments section asked how I wrote my novels. Here’s a quick peek at how I seem to handle it grabbed from an email sent to a friend and with a couple screenshots I snagged.

First off, I spend time lying upside down on the couch with a pillow over my head. This is called ‘plotting,’ although I understand that *sometimes* it can look like I’m actually napping.

Sometimes that does happen, but usually if the pillow is over the face that indicates plotting.

But the truth is that is only when I have dedicated couch-plotting time. As ideas strike me (either via the couch or just when out and about) I write them down on scraps of paper, voice record them into my pda, or just keep muttering with a glazed expression until I get back to my office and grab a pad. As I research online and with books I jot notes on pads as well.

This is usually the result. I give you the germination stage of the 3rd book, Sly Mongoose:

Some of those pieces of paper are actually stacked (there is order in there, I didn’t want to randomly shuffle them for you all) and are usually laid out across my desk, not on the floor. It’s about 100 pieces of paper.

Next up comes compression. I take these pieces of paper and write a 2-3 page synopsis to capture the idea of the book and try and sell it (Crystal Rain to pitch to my agent, Ragamuffin to pitch to my editor, and Sly Mongoose has only been half written).

Once I have the go ahead the next stage rolls out. Writing the damn thing.

I’m not much of an outliner, I’m what I call a ‘bucketer.’ I take all the pieces of paper and use a program called Omnioutliner and retype all the bits of information into it. Sections are created like Setting, Characters, Thematic fun, Plot. All the writing gets dumped into a category.

I take the synopsis and paste that into the plot area of Omnioutliner.

Then I split Omnioutliner’s plot area into subsections by rough parts to help me figure out where the &*%^ to put the information.

By this time I have a very good idea of how the first 3-8 chapters will run, so I put in everything I can think about them into the first part subsection’s outline. I add a different color for each POV, and write a rough 1 line description of the chapter. Omnioutliner will let me add another field that can collapse out from under it that contains detailed chapter notes if I want.

So then I start writing the first chapter. As ideas occur to me, I type them into Omnioutliner.

For example if I write that someone picks up a gun to shoot someone later in the story, I’ll pause, click on that chapter in Omnioutliner and type “Y shoots X with found in chap. Z.”

So I have a rough outline, a place to slap ideas as they occur to me, and a nice balance between ‘by the headlights’ writing and the safety of an outline to keep me on track. A finished outline makes me look anal, but here’s a peek at what Crystal Rain’s looked like by the end of the process:

I write each chapter in its own file. Text Edit on the mac is what I used. It’s like Notepad on Windows. Barebones and without extra crap.

Here I use expose to show them all on one screen:

I also keep an excel chart and spreadsheet of my wordcount as I write. So when I’m in full form, this is what my desktop looked like towards the end of Crystal Rain:

The 5-8 previous chapters are folded up using windowshading just above what I’m working on so I can edit them as I’m writing the current chapter. The current chapter is open. The synopsis summarizing the last part of the novel is open right next to the current chapter. The wordcount is below those two items, and the outline is on the right, always visible.

When I wrote Ragamuffin I used a different program, called MacJournal, to write in. It allowed me to manage the text of the first draft better. Instead of all those windows it allowed me to create chapters inside one document that were hierarchal and easy to navigate.

After the first draft I move it all into MS Word and send it to my agent or editor, and then I edit it in MS Word using the outlining features to designate each chapter as a subsection of the document so I can jump around and use document map.

Everyone’s process is completely different, however. I intend this as sheer novel-writing wank, and not any authoritative voice on the subject. The important thing is not how, but that you *do* get a novel written.

12 thoughts on “How I write a novel

  1. I don’t know. I like Writely a lot, and it would certainly make your workspace portable, but they’re just not quite there for me. They tend to be more useful in collaboration. If I were to write a short story with a co-author, I might be sorely tempted to use Writely…

  2. Hi there,

    Have you tried Copywrite (another mac program). Its an extremely barebones text editor but a bit like a video editor it works as a project, in which you can have many documents from basic ideas to all the chapters. It also has a very nifty automatic save function, so it saves pretty much every few seconds. Plus it has a pretty cool versioning system.

    It also does stats and has a notes function to add notes side by side with the text, which are viewable in a drawer on one side. I’m a big textedit fan but i liek the way this lets you organise ifnormation. You can check it out at http://www.bartastechnologies.com/products/copywrite/

  3. Owen, I’ve used Copywrite, and even supported them by buying a license, but at the last point I used it there were some annoying quirks that made MacJournal more exciting for me. MacJournal and Copywrite are very identical in terms of how they work, but I feel that once you get a couple hundred thousand words of information into Copywrite its performance started hanging up, and exporting to word via macjournal worked better for me.

    But I do like Copywrite, and may download it before novel #3 to see if those quirks from last year are no longer true.

  4. Wow. Fascinating, although my first thought was, “Toby’s insane.” I’m a much more jump off a cliff kind of writer, although I took some of David Morrell’s advice the last couple books and open a journal where I converse with myself about the book and I generally find that’s helpful. Here’s a bit from something well, here, I’ll show you:

    “Okay. Why?

    Go back to ZZ for a minute. What’s the problem?
    Don’t know. Can’t get enthused about it.
    Character problem or plot problem?
    Maybe it’s a serial killer book.
    Always a market for them.
    I know. And the idea of Jo Dancing is interesting. Reminiscent of Joe Konrath’s books.

    [list of titles here]

    Don’t know about the last one. I know, but you get the idea.

    Tell me about her.

    Joanna Dancing. Homicide lieutenant in the Detroit Police Department. Major cases, crimes against person.


    No way in hell I want to try to write from the perspective of a black female, girlfrien’.

    Okay. White woman. Or you could go back and look at Parker Marks. He’s a good fucked up character. Think Jack Kerley. Or change his name to Joe Dancing. There’s some good writing in there, Mark.

    Yeah, I know. Or maybe just Parker Marks.

    Go back and look at it.


    Later: I did. Kind of faded in the middle of chapter 2 or 3. Maybe I’m just bored with the concept.

    Okay. What about Twist?”

    The joke of it is I did eventually write a novel featuring Joanna Dancing and my agent is shopping it around now. She’s not a homicide cop, she runs an executive security firm and she used to work for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (The State Department’s version of the Secret Service). But I had to kind of work my way through ideas and concepts before I could settle on things.

    And so it goes.

    Mark Terry

  5. Thanks Mark, that was an interesting look 🙂

    Julia, I didn’t sell Crystal Rain first, but I had an agent who said he’d really like to represent it if I wrote it, which I considered pretty close 🙂

  6. No topic is ever closed!

    Seriously, I just read this, and I find it interesting. I’ve been looking at various writing apps — including not only MacJournal and CopyWrite, but Avenir, Jer’s Novel Writer, and Ulysses, but the one I think I am going to start using is Scrivenir.

    Of course, as I type this I am playing hookey from working on a paper I am writing using SuperNoteCard. My plan is to do enough writing in the next few months that I can do at least one project in all of the contenders — it’s the only way to really kick the tires.

  7. Hi,

    Great to read a “real” account of how you deal with the writing process. I’ve tried most of the Mac apps for novel writing, and found that my process just doesn’t fit. I don’t want to change my process to fit an app, I want the app to fit me!

    Tinderbox fits! And, I seriously recommend you check it out Tobias. Why does it fit? Because there is no “one way” to use it. You could do everything you’ve mentioned in this post in Tinderbox, And, if you change your mind and want to work differently, Tinderbox can handle that too.


  8. Pingback: How I write a novel… revisited at Tobias Buckell Online

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