The longer you write, the more set you become in your process, and the more you start looking for tools to make that process more efficient so you can focus on the pieces you actually enjoy. Here are some of the tools, resources, and physical objects that I use to take a novel from idea to a finished product.
Note: If you’re one of those people who actually plan out their stories, you’re going to find this list lacking in areas.
Phase 1 – Exploration
However ideas occur to people, there comes a moment when it’s time to sit down and explore that idea. I call it scratch writing, and it’s such a different type of writing than what comes later. A full-fledged word processor is overkill at this stage, as is most “novel writing” software. What I prefer here is a very basic, no-frills, distraction-free text editor. I used to use Dark Room on Windows, which was a clone of WriteRoom for Mac. More recently, I’ve switched to Ulysses on Mac because of its full screen editor and word counter.
- Dark Room – http://jjafuller.com/dark-room/
- WriteRoom – http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom
- Ulysses – https://ulysses.app/
- Note: I use the version prior to Ulysses’ move to a subscription model, which is pretty ridiculous, IMO. If you’re saving your files in OneDrive or Dropbox, you don’t need their sync unless you want to use it on your phone.
Phase 2 – Information Management
If a story idea lives beyond a chapter or two of scratch writing, it’s time to start keeping track of the characters and places I’m introducing. I used to be all about a program called FreeMind, which allows you to build out a mind map and show the relationship between different elements of your story. I liked using it for organizing characters into factions and relationships. When I switched to Mac for writing, I found Scapple to be a reasonable replacement. These days, every idea comes from the Vinestead Anthology universe, so I’ve been using MediaWiki to keep track of relationships that span all six books.
- FreeMind – http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/
- Scapple – https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple/overview
- MediaWiki – https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/MediaWiki
- Note: A self-hosted wiki is likely overkill unless you’re writing out of an extended universe. Every new thing I write has to fit in the Vinestead Universe, so it’s a necessity for me. If you’re writing a truly standalone novel, I recommend one of the other solutions.
Phase 3 – The Zero Draft
Once I have a good half-dozen chapters of a new idea, I’ll move everything over to the tried-and-true Scrivener, which I have used to write every novel since Veneer. I probably use only a fraction of its functionality, but my favorite features are the ability to organize chapters in “separate” text files, a sidebar for writing notes and summaries, and the word counter. Every time I get a pop-up saying I’ve met my session target, I get a happy feeling inside. Seriously, this app is a no-brainer.
Update November 2020: I grew tired of waiting for Scrivener 3 on Windows, so I’m writing Book 7 with Novlr.
- Scrivener – https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview
- Novlr – https://novlr.org/
- See: A Month with Novlr
Phase 4 – The First & Second Draft
As much as I love Scrivener, I have no idea how to edit/revise a book with it. Once I’ve finished the zero draft, I open Microsoft Word and start retyping the story into a new document. No copy/paste; just rewriting on the fly until all 120k+ words have been moved over. When I’m done with that, I open a new blank document, and do it again. What’s important to me at this stage is to see the book in more of a “book form.” I want to see how the paragraphs break and how the whitespace rivers flow. There’s an element of formatting that takes place as the visual style of the book comes together (but mostly it’s about smoothing out the writing and making it look like I knew what I was doing the whole time, plot-wise).
- Microsoft 365 – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365
Yes, this breaks with my preference to avoid subscription services, but this is one instance where there is just not other alternative for me. For $10 a month, you get all of the Office products and OneDrive. If I had to choose between this and Scrivener, I’d still have to keep Word. It’s what I know. However, if Microsoft isn’t your bag, here are some alternatives:
- Open Office – https://www.openoffice.org/
- Google Docs – https://docs.google.com/
- Dropbox – https://dropbox.com
Phase 4 – Edits & Revisions
After rewrites, the editing and revision process begins. This mostly involves correcting errors, making final plot changes, and cutting (so much cutting!). There are a lot of different ways to edit your book, but I always start with the classic it “print it out and mark it up.” For this, you need a printer that can keep up. I recommend any of the monochrome laser printers from Brother. It spits out pages crazy fast and the toner lasts forever.
After several rounds of printing and marking, the words will start to lose their meaning, which means it’s time for some Text-to-Speech. Word has a built-in TTS feature, but I’ve found better functionality in the Mac’s accessibility TTS, for which you can download different versions of Siri to suit your mood.
- Brother Monochrome Laser Printer – https://amzn.to/3hysMEF
- Word TTS – https://support.microsoft.com/
- Mac TTS – https://www.csuohio.edu/disability/voiceover-and-text-speech-for-mac-os-x
Phase 5 – Designing the Cover
I used to do all my covers myself, and it really, really showed. For Perion Synthetics and Por Vida, I relied on friends for photographs, digital artwork, and graphic design. For Hybrid Mechanics and Brigham Plaza, I enlisted the services of 99Designs, a site I was skeptical about at first, but after having used them twice, I’m now completely sold on the idea.
Unless you’re crazy good at graphic design, spend the money to hire a professional to design your book cover. I don’t recommend you splurge on a lot of things, but cover design is one of them. This may sound silly to have to read, but your book needs to look like a real book.
- 99Designs – https://99designs.com/
Phase 6 – Marketing Graphics
I like to start teasing a new book as soon as I’m confident it will actually be a book. This means spamming social media with all sorts of thinly veiled advertisements like quotes from the book or glimpses of the new cover. For all things graphical, I’ve come to rely heavily on Canva. So heavily, in fact, that I pay for the pro version. It’s just that useful. I don’t even want to go into all the things it can do, so I’ll just say this: almost every graphic I put out was built in Canva, whether it’s for social media or my website or the wrap-around cover for my book. Canva does it all, and I love it.
Phase 7 – Marketing
The only marketing gimmick I still use these days is Goodreads Giveaways, and even those are starting to feel pointless. The ROI on a giveway can be downright dismal sometimes. The hope is that a giveaway will lead to more reviews and more sales, but when you get 1 review out of three giveaways (@ $119 each), it starts to feel like a waste of money. Goodreads gives you the option of offering print or Kindle copies, and my advice is to do Kindle. I cannot begin to describe the rage that accompanies seeing a Goodreads user sell their “NEW” and “UNREAD” copy of your book on eBay.
Try it once. YMMV.
- Goodreads Giveaways – https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway
Phase 8 – Advertising
If you really want to learn how to sell books, I recommend following David Gaughran at davidgaughran.com. I’ve subscribed to his emails for a long time now, and though I understand maybe 10% of what he’s talking about, you may have better luck. I’ve been flying blind since 2004, and what I’ve experienced in that time is that only one method results in sales, and that’s Amazon Advertising. It makes sense; pay money to get your book seen in the biggest bookstore on the web, by people who probably own Kindles, who are already probably looking for something to read.
I’ve tried advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, BookBub, email lists, my mom’s blog, and none of those came close to what Amazon’s built-in ad service. It’s pricey, but it works for me, driving people not just to sales, but to Kindle Unlimited reads as well. Being an indie publisher means spending your limited money where it will have the most impact, so try them all and see what works for you.
- Amazon Advertising – https://advertising.amazon.com
Here are some other links you may find useful:
- Aeon Timeline – http://www.scribblecode.com/
- rainymood.com (Put a storm in the background while you write)
- defonic.com (Ambient soundscape generator)
I hope you found some of these resources useful.
Best of luck and happy writing!