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A thought on writing novels

As I’m now starting to get more serious about writing novels, I recently made a list of the next few books I want to write after the one I’m working on, and I ran into an unexpected side effect: knowing what the next few items in the queue are has somehow made writing a novel feel far more doable. It’s now a task that has an ending, rather than being something with no end in sight.

Sidenote: I’m not sure how much I’ll talk here about the novel in progress, at least not until I finish a full draft, but I do plan to talk about tools and process. (For example, I’ll write more about this later, but I’m using Vim with a Git repo and a post-commit hook that generates a print-ready proof PDF of the full book via TeX whenever I commit.)

Writing and retooling

I’m currently working on a short story (working title is “A Glass Darkly”), outlining the whole thing before I write it. For a while I thought I might be a discovery writer, but I’ve learned that I do better if I have a solid plan. Figuring out the structure of the story beforehand — the overall arc, the individual scene arcs, the character arcs, etc. — seems to help me write better stories, and not to panic when I get to the middle and usually have no idea what should come next. Structure is my friend.

Anyway, I’m wrapping up the outline (figuring out the middle, as it happens), and should have a first draft banged out a week or so after that. This time, rather than releasing it on my site immediately after I finish it, I’m going to start submitting it to magazines, something I haven’t done before. Racking up a few rejection slips will be a good thing for me as a writer, I think. (Sidenote: I’m very much on the fence re: trying to get my fiction traditionally published vs. self-publishing it. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Tool-wise, I put together a Google spreadsheet for tracking daily word counts, but I realized that when I’m not drafting — when I’m outlining — it doesn’t make sense. Time spent (plus deadlines) is a better metric. So I’ve revised my spreadsheet to track minutes instead.

I’ve also been itching to have a better place to do the actual outlining and writing. This may just be my neverending toolmaking itch, but I think it’ll help me be more productive. I want to write an outline, then flesh it out in place into a list of scenes, then flesh that out into an actual draft. A simplified version of the snowflake method, basically. Forest, trees, branches, leaves.

While you could do this fairly easily in Word or any other writing app, some of the other bits I want (easily moving between levels of abstraction, drag and drop reordering of scenes, etc.) might not be as easy, so to work through the ideas and figure out what I really need, I’m working on a new web app called Storybook. I built an initial prototype a few months ago, but it isn’t very good, for a number of reasons (it isn’t mobile-friendly, it’s too cluttered, etc.). I’m in the middle of rethinking how it should work, and I think I’ve got a better handle now on how the UI should work.

A final word: back in my younger days, I would build tools and then stop using them after a short time. I’m not entirely sure what changed, but now the tools I build stick with me a lot longer, and I can easily see the productivity gains from using them. Toolmaking does take time away from whatever it is the tool is supposed to help me with (writing, in this case), but I’ve found it to be well worth the investment.