2020 was not the year I wrote my first book—but it was the year I started thinking about it. And in typical freelance writer fashion, I decided to take advantage of my position and get some advice on how to go about it from people much more accomplished than me under the guise of researching this article. Here’s what I managed to learn.
A Way to Take Notes
Apparently books don’t spring fully formed from the ether. You kind of have to work on them, brainstorming different ideas, doing research, and taking notes before you can really get started. News to me, but oh well.
Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, and all-around productivity guru, is obsessive about taking notes for his books. He has legal pads stashed around his home, carries a small notepad when he walks around town, and even has a waterproof notepad in his shower. If he can’t commit his thoughts to paper, he uses Simplenote.
Epic fantasy writer Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage series, is a little less over-the-top about note-taking, but he also prefers the paper approach and carries a notepad with him—or at least tries to. Whenever he leaves it in his car, he “whips out” his smartphone and uses whatever notes app came preinstalled.
Both writers stressed that what tool you use for taking notes doesn’t matter as much as the act of doing it. Notes can be anything from a cool word or an idea for a magic system to transcribed conversations or annotated historical documents. But, whatever form they take, they’re likely to be the base of your book.
Some (Any) Kind of Writing App
Unfortunately, neither McClellan nor Bailey has some super-secret writing tool that does all the work for them. They did, however, have a few suggestions for apps to use while you do all the work.
For short works with a single point-of-view character, McClellan uses Word 2003—not out of some kind of George R. R. Martin-style embracing of defunct writing tech, but because it’s what he has. “The writing bit is the most important thing,” he explained over Zoom. “It’s just about getting it down. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing it on.”
For longer, more complex projects with multiple point-of-view characters McClellan uses Scrivener. He said all its note-taking, outlining, and other book-focused features make it easier to keep his 200,000-plus word drafts in some semblance of order.
Bailey has a different way of breaking his books into manageable chunks. He starts with a concrete outline and then creates one TextEdit—yes, the TextEdit that comes pre-installed on macOS—file for each chapter.
A Second, Safe Copy of Your Work
Tech writers go on and on about backing up your work but it’s even more important if you’re going to spend months or years working on a book. You don’t want a single spilled cup of coffee or dropped laptop bag to wipe out your as-yet-unpublished masterpiece.
McClellan saves all his files to Dropbox. And, while Bailey didn’t specifically mention which backup service he uses, I could see the small green ticks next to every Text Edit file over the screen share that indicated each one was safely stored in the cloud. Personally, for all my articles I have my writing app Ulysses sync everything through iCloud.
If you don’t know where to start, we have a great guide here on Wired. Give it a read—and get backing up.
Something to Track Your Progress
Over the course of a year, writing the first draft of a book is shockingly attainable. At 1,500 words a week (or a few hour’s work) you can have a 75,000-word draft written in 50 weeks. Put a few more hours in here and there to edit, and you really could be looking at a rough manuscript by December without having to do anything crazy like locking yourself away in a cavern.