Of all the stereotypes we hear about Apple owners, there is perhaps none so enduring as the guy writing a novel on his MacBook in Starbucks. Well, one November, I became that guy. Fast-forward a few years, and I have a 110,000-word technothriller ready to unleash on an unsuspecting public.
I’d had an idea for a novel years earlier, but I’d initially done what almost everyone does when they have an idea for a novel: absolutely nothing. The gap between having an idea and having a completed novel seemed too enormous to contemplate, especially when it would have to be combined with, you know, working for a living.
But then someone told me about something called NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. Every November, around 400,000 people across the USA, UK, Canada and a number of other countries around the world attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel. I decided to become one of them–using Apple technology, naturally …
The idea behind NaNoWriMo is a simple yet effective one. You tell everyone you know you’re going to do it, to create peer pressure. You put your social life on hold for a month, and you write 1,667 words a day, working evenings and weekends. If all goes to plan, you wake up on 1st December with 50,000 words of a novel.
50,000 words is not a novel–they normally start at around 80,000 words–but it’s a big chunk of one, and once you have that much written, the prospect of writing the rest, albeit at a slower pace, doesn’t seem so daunting.
Writing can be a lonely existence, especially if it’s what you do for a living anyway, so there’s one extra component: what NaNoWriMo calls ‘write-ins.’ Bunches of people gather together in coffee shops and do some mix of socialising and writing. Having at times an entire coffee shop full of people all doing the same thing at the same time is surprisingly motivating.
Using Scrivener for planning & writing
I soon learned the hard way that I needed to plan the novel, in detail, before I wrote a single word of it. Being a tech-lover, I figured there had to be some software around to help with the planning, and there was indeed: a Mac app called Scrivener.
I reviewed Scrivener back in 2013, but the tl;dr version is that it’s an app created for writers by someone who really understands how writers work. And that begins with the planning.
One Scrivener view is a set of virtual cards or Post-it notes on a virtual corkboard. You can type notes onto these, then organize them as you like: give them titles, shuffle them around, stack groups of them together and so on. The end result is a novel in kit form.
When you’re ready to begin the writing, the cards transform themselves into documents (chapters, scenes, whatever structure works best for your novel) and you start writing.
While writing, Scrivener helps you keep everything you might need to refer to, all in one place. Previously, I had an unholy mess of windows from different apps positioned around my screen: research notes and character pen-portraits in Notes, webpages in Safari, photos in Preview (handy when describing, say, the flight deck of an Airbus airliner), a spreadsheet with the structure of the novel in Excel, and the manuscript itself in Word.
The combination of Scrivener and a large screen allowed me to open everything at once within a single document in a single app.
Having a detailed plan, and writing every single day, means you never begin a writing session staring forlornly at a blank page: you can begin tapping away at the keyboard within seconds. I soon realised an additional benefit of this: anytime I had a few minutes to spare, I could write a paragraph or three. On the metro, waiting in reception to meet someone, even waiting for the kettle to boil … all that dead time became writing time.
Of course, a MacBook–especially a 17-inch one–isn’t always the most practical of devices to use on a crowded subway, so I took to using my iPad for these ‘filler’ sessions. By keeping my Scrivener document (which is really a disguised folder containing RFT files) on Dropbox, I could sync plain text versions to an iPad app called Plain Text.
The name gives a small clue that the app handles only text files, but it did have one huge advantage over a conventional wordprocessor like Pages or Word: it has the same sidebar to show the overall structure of the novel. Although I mostly wrote sequentially, there are times when writing something would make me realise I needed to change something that happened earlier. Clicking directly on a section heading is far quicker than scrolling or searching.
Once I had a first draft complete, I no longer needed to display notes or photos alongside the piece I was writing, so at that point my MacBook Air 11 took over the coffee-shop duties. I upgraded to the Haswell version when it came out to take advantage of the amazing battery-life, which freed me from the need to carry a power brick.
With what was, prior to the new MacBook, Apple’s sleekest machine, I was that Starbucks stereotype. Much of the editing was also done on my MacBook Air.
Finally, since there are few things as painful as losing your hard-wrung words, you want a robust backup regime. I use a combination of a Time Capsule, wired USB drive for a second Time Machine backup, Dropbox and manually saving work to a USB key at the end of each writing session.
The path to publication
Writing a novel is one thing, getting it published is another. After a false start with a well-known agent, I ended up deciding to enlist the help of some technology, which is how it ended up as a Kickstarter project. More on the publishing process in a separate piece coming soon.
Meantime, if you’d like to check out the Kickstarter and see whether it sounds like your kind of novel, please do.