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Revising your novel in 10 easy steps

Writing a novel is hard work, but for many aspiring authors the much harder part is revising that first draft into something fit to send out into the wide world. Since I’ve just finished revising The Merchant of Dreams, I thought it might be useful to document how I went about it.

[Note: the process I describe below is distilled from what I’ve learnt through the online workshops and courses given by fantasy author Holly Lisle, particularly How to Revise Your Novel. However this is my own personal take on the process, based on what works for me. YMMV.]

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Tracking word count with Scrivener

It’s been a while since I did a techie post, but this is a topic that came up on Twitter the other day in conversation with my fellow Angry Robot author Matt Forbeck. We’re both using the word-count tracking features of Scrivener but in slightly different ways, so here for Matt’s edification (and anyone else’s!) is a quick tour of how I use it.

I like tracking word count. Writing is such a slog sometimes, and it’s good to see yourself making actual progress. I guess it all dates back to my first NaNoWriMo in 2006 – the whole point is to hit a word count target (in this case, 50k) and not worry too much about quality because, heck, you can edit it later. However I now find word count tracking to be even more useful in the revision phase of a project, helping me keep an eye on scene length and pacing.

Scrivener has a number of word count tools:

  • A live word count at the bottom of the main document screen, that increments as you type
  • A per-document word count target, set using the target icon in the bottom left of the same screen
  • A Project Statistics window, showing total word counts, pages, etc for the whole draft and for the selected document(s)

and probably some other features I haven’t found yet!

I used to use spreadsheets, which had to be manually updated by copying the word counts from each document’s total. They were fun, but time-consuming to maintain, especially if I was juggling scenes around. A few months ago I realised I needed something that was less hassle and most importantly, didn’t take valuable time away from the actual writing. I poked around in Scrivener and almost by accident discovered that not only could you show word counts and targets in Scrivener’s outline view, but it would create cumulative totals for each folder. It did almost everything my spreadsheet could do, with zero extra work on my part. I was hooked!

In the picture below you can see my outliner setup for The Merchant of Dreams, the second book in the Nights Masque trilogy (note that I’ve blurred out the scene titles to avoid spoilers!).

Clickety-click to enlarge!
Clickety-click to enlarge!

I got this view as follows:

  1. In the menu bar, go to Group Mode and select the lefthand option to show the Outliner
  2. On the far right of the column headers you’ll see a double arrow symbol (>>) – click on that and select ‘Word Count’, ‘Total Word Count’, ‘Target’, ‘Total Target’ and ‘Total Progress’.

Voila! You now have a “spreadsheet” view of your manuscript, totalled by folder. Note however that if you want to see the total for the whole draft, you’ll need to insert a dummy top-level folder and drag all your existing folders into it – if you look at the Binder in the screenshot, you’ll see there’s a ‘Draft’ folder inside the ‘Manuscript’ one. This is because the outliner can only show documents inside another folder, not the folder itself.

The outliner preserves its state independent of other views and hierarchies, so you can flip back and forth between editing individual scenes in the normal document view, opening up your folders in the Binder, etc, and still come back to exactly the same view when you click on the Outliner button.

So there you have it, Scrivener fans – how to obsessively manage your word counts without resorting to spreadsheets. Enjoy!

Action? Figures!

One of my favourite bits of writing fantasy is the action scenes. I rarely bother to plan them in advance – one sword-fighting scene in The Alchemist of Souls was described as “Big fight!” in my outline – as I find they’re more fun, and more fluid, if I just make things up as I go along. However occasionally I want to write something that involves more than a single pair of combatants, and it’s at that point I have to plan the logistics a bit more carefully. Writers have various techniques for doing this, but one I’m trying out during the writing of The Merchant of Dreams is to use Playmobil figures. They’re a handy size, come with lots of different weapons – and of course they’re fun to collect!

Note: After taking photos* of the various stages of the fight scene, I realised they were potentially massive spoilers for the ending of the book, so for the purpose of this blog I mocked up a generic fight scene as an illustration, using the same figures for my protagonists and some random pirates. I might post the real photos after the book comes out…

From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!
From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!

The setting for this scene is a square in Venice, hence the cardboard “palazzo” in the background and the terracotta “well” in the centre. In the above photo we see a nice street-level view of all the separate combats, and having chosen the figures carefully (and swapped hair, hats, etc around as needed) it’s easy to tell who’s who. However it can be hard to get an accurate idea of distance from this angle, so you might want to take a top-down photo as well:

Birds-eye view of the same scene
Birds-eye view of the same scene

Now we can see exactly who is fighting whom, lines of fire, that kind of thing, so this kind of shot is great for logistical planning.

Finally, you can use close-up shots to get an “over-the-shoulder” perspective from a single character’s viewpoint:

Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight
Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight

Not only is this rather cute, it can give you ideas for the next move in the combat. That pirate in the red bandana is looking like a good candidate for a head shot!

That’s really all there is to it – I moved the characters through the combat, taking photos at each stage, then when I came to write the scene, I used the photos as reference material. I didn’t always stick exactly to the original plan, and I dare say it may change again in the next draft, but it gets the creative juices flowing 🙂

Do you have any favourite outside-the-box techniques to share for handling the trickier aspects of writing?

Technical note: I used a Panasonic Lumix FX-55 with no flash (it tends to create too much over-exposure) and manipulated the light levels in The GIMP.

Mental breaks and GTD

I’m still on the Alchemist of Souls proofs re-read: typos are being slain, poor word choices whipped into shape, and formatting double-checked. Not that there’s many in each category, but I’d hate this book to go out in anything less than pristine condition.

Even so, it’s hard work. I think I managed to get just over halfway through before my brain exploded and I needed to do something else for a while! And, since it’s autumn, my instincts say I need to sort out my “nest” before winter comes, so I have a snug place to hibernate. At least that’s my explanation for why I prefer to do “spring cleaning” at this time of year…

First step has been to get organised. If I’m going to juggle a full-time day job and a writing career, I need to be able to keep all those plates spinning! I was converted to Getting Things Done a couple of years ago, but I’ve let things slide lately: I keep skipping my weekly reviews, and I know my lists aren’t as up-to-date as they could be. As GTDers will know, this is A Bad Thing; you have to be able to trust your lists, or you might as well not be doing it at all.

I use two different programs to organise my lists, so that I can keep my day-job and personal life separated. Omnifocus is ideal for the former, as I have lots of time-sensitive projects on the go at once; for the latter I use Things, which is less complex but still has enough features to use it for GTD. Neither program is cheap (especially if you want them on Mac, iPad and iPhone, as I do), but I’ve found that not being organised actually costs me money, so I don’t resent paying for good tools. Both are quite complex, too, so I’ve been using the excellent video tutorials at ScreenCastsOnline to help me get back up to speed.

All this organising has obviously eaten into my proofreading time, but I reckon I’m more productive when I’m less stressed, so I don’t think it’s going to impact adversely on my deadlines. If anything it should give me just the confidence boost I need, going into NaNoWriMo!


This is, I have to confess, something I’ve never really had. I’m terrible at establishing new habits because I can’t even keep them up for the 21 (or 28, or whatever) days it takes to establish them. I succeed in this writing game by sheer bloody-minded refusal to actually give up, rather than positive self-discipline.

And yet I can also never give up the good intentions: to write every day, to focus on my work instead of goofing off online, to exercise and eat healthily and do all those other little things I know I ought to. Apparently we only have so much discipline to go round, so even if you manage to sort one thing out, you’re bound to succumb to temptation on another front. It explains a lot about my life…

Anyway, I really do want to press on with this draft, so I’m going to try and post to this journal more often. Not necessarily daily (nothing is more depressing than having to record one’s lack of progress during a dry spell), but maybe a minimum of weekly, to record how I’m doing. Put it public and shame myself into doing something. Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Gestating Elephants

I don’t usually blog about writing because, yanno, I’m trying to avoid creating Yet Another Writer’s Blog. But a number of things have happened this week that got me thinking, and I felt I had to share them.

On the personal side, I’m struggling with the plot of The Merchant of Dreams, Book Two in my trilogy Night’s Masque; I feel like I’m peeling back the layers of an onion to get to the real story, and it’s slow, painful going. And in the public sphere, there was this weekend’s kerfuffle over Steph Swainston’s announcement that she’s giving up full-time writing to go back to the day job. I won’t go into all the details – the article has been analysed and discussed at length by bloggers and on forums and social media – but will focus on one aspect: the “book a year” model of commercial publishing that Swainston evidently finds so onerous.

The reason this strikes a chord is that I am currently in much the same position Swainston was, back in 2003: on the verge of having a debut novel published, with two more under contract. If anything, my situation is a lot tougher. Swainston’s trilogy came out 2004-2007, i.e. over a three year period; the publication schedule for mine is nearer eighteen months. I don’t know about her, but I went into this deal with only one finished novel, an unusably raw draft of another and a heap of notes. This means that, having spent four years (on and off) writing book one, I have about ten months each to write the other two from scratch.

It’s certainly not an unusual situation to be in. Most professional authors write novels on proposal, that is, they pitch an idea, usually followed up by a synopsis and/or sample chapters, and only then do they write the book. However that’s completely the reverse of the process aspiring writers go through, whereby first you write the novel, and only then do you write a synopsis and a pitch and approach agents (or publishers). It’s therefore a huge, huge culture shock for the newly signed author, to go from that “write what you want, at your own pace” process to “write what you’ve agreed to, in a fixed time span”. I know it’s something I’m still adjusting to, even though I was better prepared for it than most thanks to having taken Holly Lisle’s excellent writing courses, which are as much about learning professional discipline as they are about the nuts and bolts of the craft. Clearly, not all writers can make this transition, as Swainston has discovered.

Some critics of Swainston have said that it’s not hard to write a book in a year, especially if you have the luxury of doing it full-time. And I agree, up to a point. The physical act of writing a book is not onerous, if you are disciplined. Let’s say your novel is going to be around 120,000 words – a good ballpark figure for most fantasy. Writing a thousand words a day, six days a week, you can get that finished in five months and thus have plenty of time left over to revise and edit. A thousand words a day is doable even if you have a day-job; if you’re a full-time writer, it’s a stroll in the park.

No, the time-consuming part of writing a book is developing the ideas. Before you can sit down and hammer out the first (or second) draft, you have to have a good idea of where you are going. For some writers, this involves lots of outlining, world-building, and so on; for others, it happens at a deeper level of the brain, beyond conscious attention. But either way, the story doesn’t spring fully developed from the writer’s fingers, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus – it gestates for many, many months, like an elephant foetus. The entire process, from initial idea to finished manuscript, may well take two years, or three, or more.

So how do you make this work with the “book a year” mentality of commercial publishing? First of all, I’ll say that one book a year is not an unrealistic expectation. If you want to earn a living from your writing, you have to be either prolific or wildly successful – and there lies the rub for Swainston. As a writer of literary, “New Weird” fantasy she has had a lot of critical acclaim but, somewhat inevitably, rather less commercial success. Not that this is a bad thing; the genre should have room for experimental works, and I applaud Gollancz for supporting edgier writers as well as surefire hits. But it’s unrealistic to expect to earn a living by writing niche books at a slow pace.

If you want to write a book a year, and a good book at that, I think the only way to achieve it is by multi-tasking. You can’t focus on one book to the exclusion of all others. You have to be thinking about the next book even whilst you are writing the current one, and probably gathering ideas for future projects as well. I have to hand over a synopsis for book three of my trilogy this November, but I already have a partial draft of that underway, and as I work on book two I’m on the lookout for plot ideas that will lay the foundations for book three. Once book two is handed in, I’ll be working on number three, obviously – but I’ll also be thinking about what I’m going to write after these contracted novels are done.

If you’re an unpublished writer on the submissions merry-go-round, for the love of God write another book whilst you’re waiting! And another. Because come the happy day when you get The Call (or more likely, The Email), one of the first things your would-be agent or editor will ask is: “What else do you have?”. Sure, you pitch just the one book in the initial query, but agents and publishers don’t want one-hit wonders. Write a sequel or, if your book doesn’t have sequel potential, something similar enough that people who enjoy the first book will be interested in the second. The last thing you want is to be in the same position as my friend Stephen Deas, who had to come up with a proposal package for an entire trilogy in a weekend*!

Capture those embryonic ideas and let them embed themselves in your subconscious, so your elephants have time to gestate.

* Don’t try this at home, kids. Stephen Deas is indestructible; you are not.


Writing a novel on the iPad

When the iPad first came out, I dismissed it as a “toy” because it was clearly designed for the consumption of media, rather than creation. But more and more productivity apps were released, until I was forced to admit that it might actually be useful as well as pretty! Add in a battery life that was triple that of my laptop, and the iPad started to look like a practical device for writing.

The decisive moment, however, came with the availability of the Zaggmate bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Suddenly I could seriously see myself actually drafting a novel on the iPad, even if I needed the power of Scrivener for later revisions. So, I decided I would use the iPad as my main device for writing my work-in-progress, The Merchant of Dreams (sequel to The Alchemist of Souls).


In addition to the iPad itself and the keyboard, I’ve been using a number of key apps:


A plain text editor with the big advantage that it syncs easily with Scrivener via Dropbox (there’s a nice video tutorial to walk you through the process). You can sync just your Draft folder, or all the text documents in your project, and whilst Notebooks doesn’t allow subfolders within the Draft, each folder is transferred as a text document, so you can at least see where your chapter breaks fall (if you have them).
There are a few gotchas, principally that if you add formatting in Notebooks, the file is synced to Dropbox as HTML and then won’t import into Scrivener. On the plus side, any formatting changes you make in Scrivener are retained (in the Scrivener document) even though what you are syncing is plain text – which is pretty awesome!

Index Card

This is a corkboard emulator very similar in appearance to Scrivener’s corkboard, and it syncs with the synopsis fields in a Scrivener project. You can drag cards around, and they will be reordered in Scrivener after syncing. It has a few problems that make it less useful than Notebooks – it has no hierarchy at all, and it requires using a Collection in order to sync, which means that if you add new cards in Scrivener, you have to add them to the Collection as well before you can sync them to Index Card.

Carbon Fin Outliner

When I’m brainstorming a plot, I don’t necessarily want a one-to-one relationship between items in my outline and scene documents within Scrivener – a single plot point could require several scenes, or several plot minutiae might fit into a single scene. Hence I like to use simple notetaking tools for this stage. Outliner from Carbon Fin is very basic, but it does the job with the minimum of fuss.


I’ve only just bought this one, but it looks like an interesting alternative to Index Card and/or Outliner. Unlike Index Card, it allows freeform arrangement of cards on the corkboard, so I think it will be better for brainstorming.

With all this kit, I’ve found it surprisingly efficient to get writing done without a proper laptop. I still go back to my desktop regularly to sync Notebooks and keep a tally of my finished wordcount, but even that is far from essential, since I also have a copy of Numbers, the iWork spreadsheet app. I reckon the iPad can be considered a serious weapon in the writer’s arsenal.

Files, files everywhere!

I spent a big chunk of yesterday copying files from my MacBook Air onto my “deskbook” (an old MacBook that I use, lid closed and connected to a keyboard and monitor, as a desktop machine). Part of that was because I’ve been suffering from high-pitched tinnitus lately and the MBA is a prime suspect, and partly it was because my Writing folder was a total mess! I had multiple copies of various files scattered across folders, and my backups were huge because I just kept backing up the entire folder!

Now I have separate folders for finished drafts, backburner projects and works in progress, so only the latter needs frequent backups. This weekend I want to burn them all to disk – not quite a permanent archive, but as close as one can get. I already have a printout of my most recent draft of The Alchemist of Souls. It’s good to back up the old-fashioned way as well, and who knows, posterity might be interested to see a pre-publication version of my magnificent octopus 🙂

Making the transition

Right now I’m feeling slightly stunned by the speed of transition from “desperately seeking validation” to “fledgling pro author”. Only two weeks ago I was anxiously awaiting news; now I’m talking contracts and cover art and handing over my bank details so I can get paid. Wow.

I feel like I’m eighteen years old again. You know how it is: you labour away for years, doing your school homework and studying for exams, biting your fingernails and hoping you haven’t just thrown away your life’s dreams. Then finally you get your A-level results and yay! You got into university. Next thing you know you’re standing in front of a hall of residence with a suitcase in one hand and a pot plant* under your arm, wondering how the hell you got here and how you’re going to fit in. It’s exciting and scary and wonderful, all at once.

At the same time I feel like the anxious parent, watching my baby take her first steps into the wider world, knowing that soon I’ll have to let go. Already there are new people in her life, adding their own influence, dressing her in clothes I didn’t pick out… But of course I’m thrilled, too. Life moves on.

So, only a few more loose ends to tie up, then I can really focus on my next project!


* No, not that kind of pot plant *rolls eyes* Mine was a specimen of the wonderfully named Monstera deliciosa, or Swiss cheese plant.

Being a Writer – the fun bits

Today I got an email from my publisher asking if I could provide a description of my hero, Mal, as they were already thinking about cover art. Obviously I can’t go into details, but I’m hoping for something dark and moody, a bit like the cover of The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, something that says “seamy underbelly of Elizabethan London”.

I can also confirm the titles of the first two books:

  • The Alchemist of Souls
  • The Merchant of Dreams

Talk about exciting!