Get ready for National Novel Writing Month


National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is less than a month away, meaning that right now is one of my favorite times of the year. Preparing for November is half the fun of this annual writing challenge.

I’m sure most of you know about NaNoWriMo already, but for those of you who don’t, it is basically the best way for new and aspiring novelists to immerse themselves in writing discipline. Every year, thousands of people across the world commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days, or roughly 1,667 words each day for the month of November. If you have always wanted to write a novel but have never been able to get your words on the page, this challenge is exactly what you need.

It’s not about writing the best prose or spelling every word correctly. The point is just to get words on the page. 50,000 of them, to be exact — the length of a shorter novel.

However, as with all good things in life, preparation is key. Come November 1, you don’t want to be one of those people willy nilly deciding to write a novel but running out of steam and motivation two days into it.

Instead, you need to take some time this October to getting pumped up and mentally prepared for the road ahead.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for the last seven years. I’ve “won” some and dismally failed on others, so let me give you the rundown on the best way to prepare now for when November begins. First, I’ll share some simple, practical tips, then if you want to stick around I’ll share some highlights from my personal journey.

1. Plan to write

This might sound obvious, but don’t underestimate the need to plan how you’re actually going to get the work done. You will need to put some projects on hold, be prepared to say “no” to people asking you to do things, and plan out the hours per day you will realistically be able to sit down in a chair and write each of those 50,000 words.

One time I even quit my only job in order to succeed in NaNoWriMo. (Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home.) You don’t really need to go that far, but it is important to be serious, nonetheless.

Some good ways to calculate how much time you will be able to spend writing on a particular day of the week is take the number of minutes/hours you think you can reasonably commit and cut it by half. The reality is that we tell ourselves we’ll have more time than we actually end up having.

You will want to keep yourself accountable by announcing to friends and family on Facebook, in person, etc. that you will be writing a novel. Believe in yourself publicly, and the idea of you completing that novel will become more real in your mind.

2. Get an idea together

This is one of the fun parts. Brainstorming is less about plot or characters and more about the feeling or sentiment or aesthetic that your artistic spirit wants to unleash on the world.

Maybe you’re in a persistently adventurous mood and wish to share that feeling with others through the story of a mountain climber who visits Mongolia or a brave archeologist that uncovers Nazi secrets (OK, that idea is taken already, but you get the point). Or perhaps you’re feeling mysterious and have thought about developing a story centered around a haunted orphanage or secret passageway underneath London.

In short, write a novel you’re in the mood for, and avoid an aesthetic vibe you’re just not feeling right now.

3. Write a summary

Doesn’t have to be long, doesn’t have to be short, but some kind of summary never hurt anyone wishing to write a novel.

Also consider writing more than mere summaries. According to official NaNoWriMo rules, you can write as many notes as you want before November 1 as long as what you write is not you’re actual novel draft. Sometimes, as we’ve pointed out on this blog before, notes can help you think freely and have fun getting ready for the big day when it all begins.

If you want to go full-on thumb tacks and red string, feel free. Planning a story can be a lot of fun. Matt’s book, Start Noveling Like You Know What You’re Doing, goes into great detail on the subjects of character, structure, and plot.

4. Get new stuff

From that writing app you’ve been putting off buying to that beautiful panda bear-themed notebook that hits your compulsive shopping chord, NaNoWriMo is a great excuse to indulge in getting stuff.

Personally, this is my favorite part of the whole shebang. As a web developer and tech follower, I like to see what new tools are out there, like Scrivener updates, Ulysses, Storyist and Write or Die. There are also physical items you can purchase to get your creative juices flowing, most especially the Writer Emergency Pack.

5. Go to

This is the whole point anyway, right? Go sign up (it’s free, of course), have fun customizing your profile, exploring the forums and, the most fun part of all, planning for meet-ups in your local area.

You’ll want to get started early on networking with your group, be they virtual or in person. This way you get a voice in the planning process for get-togethers. These meetings could be anything from a Starbucks chitchat among other novel-writing enthusiasts to full blown writing sessions to increase your productivity and output.

Many local areas have what’s called a NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison (I’m a former one myself!) who is in charge of coordinating local events. Going to the NaNoWriMo website is the best way to hook into this group if one exists in your location.

Also, be sure to visit the NaNo Prep forum, which already has some interesting threads this year on preparing for next month. And my personal favorite, the Adoption Society forum, where other Wrimos offer characters, plots, and even dying lines (just to name a few) free for the taking!

6. Design the cover of your novel

OK, this is total procrastination, but also inspiration. Besides, like I said, October is the time to get pumped up, and better to design your cover before NaNoWriMo than during. And again, it makes the commitment that much more real in your mind’s eye.

My personal experience

Now that I have given you what I hope is a practical list, I’d like to share some thoughts based on my personal experience before I let you go. (Actually, nothing is forcing you to stay here, other than your deep desire for learning and personal development.)

  • I don’t do outlines. I’m a pantser, that is, I write by the seat of my pants, rarely knowing in advance what is going to happen. Some people work on at outline through all of October, but not me. I prefer focusing on getting my stuff together, what tools I’m going to use, what hours I’m going to write, what generally I want to write about. I tend to come up with ideas in the middle of the actual writing and am therefore a little frightened of committing to decisions in the preparation stage. Some people are opposite.  I love the idea of an outline, though. So I say to each their own.
  • The most painful part of prepping in my personal experience is both not having enough ideas and having too many. I suffer from indecisiveness during the early creative stages. It’s extremely difficult for me to know which idea “has legs.” That is, which idea has enough substance for the long haul. The fact is, every idea seems simple at first, but some prove to have more steam than others when the rubber hits the road. For example, J.K. Rowling’s idea for Harry Potter started as this thought of a boy wizard at a magic school. Her mind flooded with ideas about all the situations he could get into. As is proven by the myriad of copies sold and the length of the series, that idea had a tremendous amount of steam/staying power.
  • You need to find an idea you can realistically get behind. I’ve always wanted to write a Coen Brothers-esque magnum opus where crazy things happen to fairly decent people, but you know what? I’m just not as dark as the Coen Brothers. Or complex, or whatever term you want to use. I tend toward the comedic and/or the slightly fantastical, with some YA tendencies. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
  • Avoid hangups. It’s important to consider the mistakes you are most likely to commit and start getting ready not to commit them. We all have these hangups. I know to avoid if at all possible the theme of time travel. I mean, maybe one day I will be strong enough of a writer for this great burden, but so far when I’ve attempted to use it, my project gets tied up in a Grandfather Paradox of infinite regression. It’s just not pretty, folks, and I know that if I go there, the chances of me grinding out 1,667 words a day diminishes greatly. Another common hangup that I have personally experienced is making side characters more interesting than the main protagonist. This might work for “Seinfeld” but for many novels, it makes your hero non-heroic and two-dimensional. I could go on here, but the takeaway is that you need to consider themes/tendencies you would do better to avoid from the get-go.

NaNoWriMo is a source of great positive thinking when trying to commit to being a writer. Its focus on action and doing results in a month-long workout that comes with a great and well-earned reward at the end. I recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who is usually too busy to write, because this challenge, though difficult, is entirely doable. And right now is the calm before the awesome storm. Have fun NaNo prepping!

10 ways to conquer the blank page when writing a novel

Wiliam Faulkner photo
Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” ~ William Faulkner

How many times have you found yourself staring at a blank page on your word processor, the cursor idly blinking while you try in vain to think of something to write?

It happens to all of us who are trying to write a novel, but you don’t have to suffer. This blog is here to save you from ever having this terrible feeling again. In this post, we’ll take a look at the following tips:

  1. Remind yourself it’s only a feeling
  2. Write on another page
  3. Find some writing prompts
  4. Eat some food
  5. Use a voice recorder
  6. Let there be gaps
  7. Ask someone for help
  8. Do word sprints
  9. Change location
  10. Make a mind map for the next chapter

1. Remind yourself it’s only a feeling

First of all, remember that this feeling I described is just that — a feeling. Oftentimes, the blank page, for some psychological reason or another, makes us feel that our brains are blank too, that there is nothing there to write.

But that’s not true. Just put your fingers on the keyboard and type something, anything. Your feelings are telling you that it’s all terrible, that you’re a bad writer, that there is just nothing there. That is a trick your mind is playing on you, and the sooner you realize you just need to write anything no matter how bad it is, the closer you will be to completing your masterpiece.

We could go on philosophizing about this. Mortimer Adler, the late author of How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, said about writing, “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” In other words, there is no book “inside of us,” per se. It’s almost as if we form our thoughts at the very moment we are writing them. Consider any hard brain activity you’ve ever done, from writing a paper for school to sketching an invention or blueprints, and you’ll begin to realize that you have always had to work out your thoughts on paper. One doesn’t simply dream up a work of architecture like the Empire State Building and then immediately draw a perfect blueprint the first time. Neither can one do that with a work of fiction.

2. Write on another page

If the blank page is the problem, then simply going to another page to write, believe it or not, might be your solution. This is especially true if you are already in the depths of a complex document and just need a breath of fresh air.

This happened to me just a few weeks ago, in fact, as I was working on my dissertation. I needed to add a section to my paper but just stared for hours at the screen (flipping back to Facebook occasionally to procrastinate!), not knowing where to put it in my 35-page document, not knowing how in the world to make the necessary transitions, not knowing what to write.

So what did I do? I just threw that project to the side, opened another document and began typing whatever came to my mind.

I hit the same dilemma while trying to start on a new novel. I had some notes and outlines, but I felt trapped by them and felt like I didn’t have anything to add.

So I did the same thing. I just started typing in a new document, no titles or anything like that. And when I got tired and didn’t know how to continue, I just threw that page aside and changed directions on a new page.

This can work really well. It’s especially useful in minimalist word processor apps like Ulysses, where you can endlessly create new blank “sheets” by pressing Command+N (on a Mac) without having to choose templates, configure settings or wait for a new document to load like you have to do with Microsoft Word.

Another way you could apply this strategy is to leave your computer altogether and just write on a physical notepad. I love legal pads for this kind of thing, although I don’t physically write much these days due to a disability.

3. Find some writing prompts

If you just can’t decide what should happen next in your novel, seek out a writing prompt — a small idea (written by you or someone else) that you attempt to introduce into your novel. A good source for this is a deck of cards with prompts called the Writer Emergency Pack.

You can buy that pack, or write prompts yourself when they come to you wherever you may be, or go around asking your friends to come up with a weird event or character. However you decide to find/create writing prompts, they can often help you get unstuck from that soul-sucking blank page.

For instance, here’s a random writing prompt I thought of just now: “A starving-crazed coyote lurks close-by in the night, unseen by the main character(s).” Here’s another: “Figure out a way to use the phrase the primrose path in your next scene.”

This might sound ridiculous, but the strength of writing prompts is their ability to get you back on the road. You can always change it later to make it fit with your novel, if you want. For instance, one time my brother and I each wrote an individual short story with the rule that we had to include a prewritten dialogue between two characters that we had already written together. Later, I scrapped that ridiculous-sounding dialogue in the final version of my story, but it helped me get started and get the creative juices flowing.

4. Eat some food

There’s a scene in the movie “Men in Black 3” where the young alien-fighting Agent K (Josh Brolin) stops by a diner for a piece of pie in the midst of an action-packed and perilous intergalactic melee. His partner played by Will Smith is offended that he would stop the pressing mission just to enjoy a homemade confection. But of course, while Agent K is eating the pie and talking about other things besides aliens, the two happen to connect the dots they need to resolve their problem. As Agent K says:

My grandaddy always said: “If you got a problem you can’t solve, it helps to get out of your head.” Pie. It’s good.

For some of you, that might mean taking a walk or exercising, but I sometimes wonder if there really is a deep truth behind the word “brain food.” Stopping to grab a small snack helps me relax, reenergize and come up with new ideas.

You never know what you might bump in to by taking a small break. Recently, I was having trouble coming up with an idea for a novel, but instead of looking at my screen all day or distracting myself with other work, I decided to leave my desk and spend some quality time with some relatives. A conversation that transpired gave me a very actionable idea. You never know where inspiration will hit you, but it can be hard to find it in front of a computer screen. Take a walk. Eat some pie. Whatever it takes.

5. Use a voice recorder

Many great writers in history, including Mark Twain, used scribes or transcriptionists to write whatever they said. You might not be rich enough to have a personal secretary follow you around and record your dictation, but what you can do is buy a cheap voice recorder from Walmart.

Our minds think differently when we’re speaking than when we’re writing, so this can be a good exercise. It doesn’t mean you have to commit to dictating your entire novel, but if you are stuck with writer’s block, dictating a scene or a chapter might help you get unstuck.

You might be surprised by how much it helps your novel to read it aloud. It can help give a voice to your writing that is sometimes missing when you’re typing in silence. You’ll be more aware of what words and phrases have a good sound and which sound awkward. In fact, I’ve heard experts suggest that every writer should read their work aloud at some point, especially after completing a first draft, because it allows you to catch things you would not normally notice.

As far as the technical side to this goes, I suggest buying a real voice recorder and not relying on a smartphone or computer. This might seem old-fashioned in a society where smartphones have made many other devices obsolete, but a dedicated voice recorder is still more reliable than a smartphone app. With a voice recorder, you hit record, and a red light comes on. You hit it again, and it goes off. Easy. Simple. Reliable. You never know what a touchy-feely smartphone is going to pull on you. I learned this in my journalism days, so be warned!

One more thing about using a voice recorder: You can transcribe the dictation yourself using any number of computer apps made for this purpose. Some of the apps will even transcribe automatically, leaving you the task of simply fixing the computer’s mistakes. If you’re just too lazy or don’t have time for all that, there are a number of affordable paid services online that will do this for you.

6. Let there be gaps

It never fails that one day, you’ll open up your manuscript only to feel stuck in the middle of a confusing story, and you’re worried that whatever you write might contradict what you’ve already written. Maybe you’ve lost track of some minor subplot. Maybe you do remember everything that’s going on in your story but want to change directions, meaning much of what you’ve already written is now wrong or obsolete.

Faced with these daunting scenarios, many aspiring novelists will stare at their computer screen for ten minutes, sip some coffee, and then find something else to do besides write. The reason for this is that it is extremely difficult psychologically to start working on a project of which we can’t see the end. It’s going to take so long and be so hard, why even start right now? That’s the vicious cycle of procrastination.

Instead of quitting, just remember that a novel is written one word at a time. Right now, you probably should not attempt a reread of what you’ve written already. You shouldn’t try to change a bunch of stuff to accommodate the new direction you are trying to go. Just keep writing as if everything you’ve already written is fine and dandy. You can always go back and change it later. It’s OK to have storyline contradictions or gaps in the drafting phase. Learn to live with them and your life will be much better than if you’re always trying to get everything right the first time.

7. Ask someone for help

You know what they say: If you don’t know the answer, just ask. This might seem strange at first, because you think of yourself as the sole arbiter of what’s allowed to happen in your book. Historically, art doesn’t work that way; it’s not the product of an isolated, solitary genius.

Think about the many great writers who relied on other people for their timeless stories. Homer, who wrote the classic epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, got most of his information from a strong oral tradition of storytelling that the ancient Greeks enjoyed. The brothers Grimm, of course, were not the originators of the book they are most known for, but rather they copied from written sources and transcribed oral folk tales.

Furthermore, much of literary study in the last half-century has been concerned with the idea of intertextuality, that is, the ways in which books, even seemingly unconnected ones, borrow from and influence one another so that nothing is purely “original.” Every author is influenced from the world around him or her and the stories contained in that world. William Faulkner once said in a lecture:

I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.

So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to approach your friend and ask, “Hey, what should happen next in my novel?”

8. Do word sprints

A “word sprint” is a set period of time, usually 20 minutes, in which you do nothing but write as many words as you can. No talking to other people. No answering your phone or texting. No turning on the TV.

This method has become popular in a number of venues. National Novel Writing Month groups often organize a “write-in” wherein everyone gets together and (sometimes) stays up all night talking about their novels with one another, socializing and drinking coffee in between these word sprints.

Also, in productivity circles, the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo consists of setting a kitchen timer to 25 minutes during which you’re supposed to work without any distractions. Then you take a five-minute break, followed by another 25-minute work period.

The good thing about a word sprint or a pomodoro or whatever you want to call it is that by the end of the sprint, you at least have something to show for your time. It increases your focus and time management in an age of endless distractions that steal your time.

9. Change location

No, I’m not talking about your novel’s setting. I’m talking about you! Sometimes the thing that keeps you from writing is your environment. Go somewhere else and you might be surprised how much it impacts your productivity.

Psychologically, your habits are in part triggered by associations you have with the different places you do particular things. At work, you work. At home, you spend time with family. For praying there are churches, and for playing there are parks and playgrounds. Your location and what you do are tied up with one another.

Try going to the library. Your local library or your university’s library (if you’re a student) can be a quiet escape from a noisy world, and you will be less likely to procrastinate than you are when you’re home alone with the Netflix remote lurking just a few feet away. Libraries often have nice, big work desks and chairs made of earth-tone polished wood. Comfortable, but not so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.

Furthermore, your brain already associates the library with work and productivity. On the other hand, your brain generally doesn’t associate home or even a café with such things. When you go to the library, your mind is in writing mode.

Changing location — whether it’s the library, a park, an office or what have you — helps you clearly separate in your mind when you’re working and when you’re not. You could stare at a blank page all day at home, but the focus that being somewhere else provides will push you to start writing.

10. Make a mind map for the next chapter

If you are having trouble starting a scene or chapter, create a mind map for that chapter.

To do this, take a piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle, and write down the central action in this chapter. Don’t worry about small details or subplots. Ask yourself, “What is the main thing that I need to accomplish in this chapter?” Keep your answer short, something small enough to fit in the circle.

Then, you draw lines connecting the main circle to other circles, where you’ll put as many details as possible. However, it should build from the central action, the big circle in the middle. You can continue this web by mindmapping more circles from the secondary circles you’ve created.

The advantage to mindmapping is that it pushes you to go ahead and make decisions, because often it’s decision-making that we are scared of and that prevents us from starting to fill in the blank page.

There you have it! Ten actionable ways to get going on your novel once again, or to start if you haven’t already. I hope one or more of these strategies will be of use to you.

What about you? What do you do to conquer the blank page? We invite you to share in a comment below.

You don’t have to speed read: Tips for reading better


It is a well known fact that you have to read in order to write. Rarely can someone be a successful novelist without drawing inspiration from their own favorite novelists. Also, your writing tends to take on the style, in part, of those writers and texts that have most influenced you. Maybe you are not where you want to be in this regard. I know I’m not. I missed out on a lot of books that were required reading for my friends in their youth, and it’s easy to be intimidated by your literary friends who seem to have read every book there is.

But you don’t need to panic or sell yourself short. Most of us have read more literature than we give ourselves credit for. In our busy, hustle-bustle lives, we tend to forget what we have actually accomplished on the side.

Sit back for a second and try to think of the last few books you read and, most importantly, what you learned from them. Specifically try to think of any novels you have read that you can remember and write down your impressions, even if it’s just a few words on a notepad.

In your writing, consider to what degree you want to imitate the style of these great writers you have already read. This will get you on the right path toward being a better reader. Why? Because being a better reader is not about skimming hundreds of books in order to look smarter than your friends.

Rather, it’s about what you learn and what you gain along the way. As someone with an academic background in literature, I can’t stress this enough. It’s not about the quantity of your reading, but the degree to which you think actively about what you have read.

With reading, you don’t just set it and forget it. You need to chew the material and consider its different sides. This may be more true with some texts than others, but it’s almost always necessary to some degree.

It depends on your personal goals. Classic works particularly lend themselves to critical reading — that is, active reading in which you take notes or keep a journal of your own thoughts. Classic works have stood the test of time and often represent milestones in the course of history, philosophy, literature and many other areas of learning. Knowing what you think about them and what you, personally, have learned from them can be a tremendous resource for you as a novelist and as a person in general.

But even less highfaluting books may need to be read critically, especially when you are trying to become a novelist yourself. Take the novels you read for entertainment. If you plan to write such novels, there are many questions to consider in your personal response:

  • What can I learn from the style of this author?
  • How could this novel have been written better?
  • Even though this novel is mainly a thriller meant to sell to a general audience, are there any deeper elements? What values, literary and otherwise, shine through? Is there a moral to the story?

So just to recap, it is important to understand your response to a work, not just to have read it. I know that for me, personally, I have read many things that had very little lasting effect on me because the content went in one ear and out the other. For me, the best way to keep this from happening is to write “reading responses,” that is, my initial thoughts about a book. I keep these in notes on my computer, and I simply create a new note or add more to an old one whenever an important thought about a book enters my head. You may choose to do this on physical paper or a notebook, but there are many note-taking apps that you can use for this as well. I use standard plain text editors for the most part, but I have also used Evernote, Apple Notes, Notability, Scrivener and Ulysses.

Practical methods for streamlining your reading success

However, while quantity is not very important, consistency is important. If you stop reading for very long, you’ll be out of a good habit before you know it. If your reading habits have dried up lately, consider what reasons may have caused this.

  • Do other duties get in the way? If so, what can you do to carve out time for yourself and your personal growth, including reading time?
  • Do you lack the motivation? If so, what don’t you like about reading? If it’s the content, have you ever considered reading a different genre, author or subject area?
  • Are you having trouble knowing where to start? Then ask friends and relatives what they are reading. Use sites like Goodreads to see what people in your social circles and around the world are reading. Really, just start somewhere that seems interesting. There is no “wrong decision” for what to read first, as long as you are thoughtful and at least somewhat critical in your reading.

Some practical ways to read more include:

  • Read during breakfast and/or lunch.
  • Listen to audiobooks while driving, such as long commutes or business travel. One good resource for this is
  • Read on your smartphone or other mobile device. Since you already have it with you, it’s a good opportunity to squeeze in a little extra reading.
  • Make a small, manageable goal of at least 15 minutes of reading per day. This way, no matter what, your reading never completely comes to a halt. Just 15 minutes a day can lead to surprising results. It’s like filling a bucket with drops: It seems insignificant but adds up more quickly than you think.

The key to being and feeling like a better reader is to make these types of small tweaks to your routine. Just pick one or two changes to make. It’s always tempting to download libraries full of books and promise to read them later. Instead, set your sights to a realistic level so you will actually be able to carry through with action.

Don’t be fooled by the hype on speed reading that is currently making the rounds online. While certain, modest methods for increasing your reading speed can be helpful, the best things you can do to be a voracious reader are, first, actively reflect on what you read and, second, make one or two small changes to help streamline your daily/weekly reading routine.

Great writers keep a notebook and you should too

Do you take notes? I’m not just talking about grocery lists or napkins you’re going to throw away, although these are both great things.

No, I’m talking about a dedicated notebook. Notebooks are great. It doesn’t matter what yours looks like, whether it’s a quaint leather-bound gem or a cheap spiral pad or an iPhone app — the fact is, you need a place to scribble all your random thoughts as they come to you. Almost all successful writers keep a notebook handy and filled with miscellany. Some notebooks are highly organized and geared toward a specific writing project. Others are more personal, along the lines of a diary or a binding of various scrap paper.

With regards to noveling, we primarily have in mind notebooks dedicated to specific projects. This allows you to jot things down and have them available so that you don’t become defeated by the blank page. In the overview below of famous writers with notebooks, you’ll discover how writers like Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Laberynth and Hellboy) keep sketches and descriptions that become signatures across disparate films connected only by the vivid mind behind them, while other writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky kept notebooks for specific novels at specific times.

The point is that there is no wrong way to keep a notebook, other than not doing it. Let’s look at why excellent writers have thought this to be true, and along the way, I hope you’ll be inspired with ideas for your own notebook potential.

Guillermo del Toro

Back in 2013, perhaps the most famed director of the so-called Mexican New Wave,1 Guillermo del Toro, shared his notebooks with the world in what’s probably the best picture book you’ll ever read, Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions.

Del Toro keeps feverish notebooks that rival the amount of detail of another great notetaker, Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, the fantasy horror director even special orders his leather-bound notebooks from Italy.

Del Toro’s personal pages feature colorful sketches of characters and symbols that would go on to appear in many of his films. He talks here about how his drawings and notes give him inspiration across the body of his works, saying he always goes over old notebooks when starting new projects to see what insidious characters or quirky artifacts he can use or reuse. This happens, for instance with very similar-looking clock men appearing in Cronos and Hellboy. Read here for more examples.

What an awesome drop cap!
What an awesome drop cap!

But I don’t mention del Toro because he is a visual artist. You may not have realized it, but del Toro has dabbled in noveling with the vampire trilogy The Strain and the recent people-eater yarn Trollhunters. Doubtless his voluminous notebooks provided him with more than enough inspiration. And as visual as his notebooks may seem, he squeezes in quite a few words on those pages. Take a look at these cool examples.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This Russian novelist wrote five major novels and several smaller works, and he kept notebooks dedicated to whatever he was writing. Back in the ’70s, Prof. Edward Wasoliak made this rather large collection of notes available to English readers. Wasoliak says the notebooks contain “drawings, jottings about practical matters, doodlings of various sorts, calculations about pressing expenses, sketches, and random remarks.”

So you can keep notebooks dedicated to specific projects, but having a notebook affords you enough disorganization to let your thoughts and creativity flow. That’s the whole point of keeping a creative notebook — trap your inspirations before they leave you.

One interesting factoid is that Dostoevsky made quite a few visual sketches in his notebooks even if he was primarily a master of words.

Not as good a visual artist as del Toro, but not too shabby either.
Not as good a visual artist as del Toro, but not too shabby either.

Virginia Woolf

The famed early feminist writer Virginia Woolf kept a very personal diary in which we often catch glimpses of her battle with depression. Although her notebooks were filled primarily with private thoughts, she believed keeping notes “loosens the ligaments” when it comes to writing professionally.

This just goes to show that the particular way you use a notebook is completely up to you. Your mind might work better thinking in terms of a personal diary, or you might keep more formal notes. I’d recommend the latter if you ever become famous and want to publish your notebooks without embarrassment!

Woolf's notebook. Sadly, no pictures.
Woolf’s notebook. Sadly, no pictures.

Mark Twain

The Art of Manliness blog featured a nice list of famous authors and their notebooks back a few years ago. Mark Twain made the list, as he filled his notebooks “with observations of people he met, thoughts on religion and politics, drawings and sketches of what he saw on his travels, potential plots for books, and even ideas for inventions.”

He had his own leather notebooks custom-made with tabs at the top for easy page-turning. (You can do that when your novels get famous enough.)

Mark Twain perfecting a witty joke.
Mark Twain perfecting a witty joke.

You see? It takes work to be witty, all of which can be accomplished by a nice companion notebook.

Ernest Hemingway

Ever wanted to laze away the day at the cafes in France while working on your next creative writing? That’s what Ernest Hemingway decided to do with his life, and personally it sounds like a fine way to live.

Wrote Hemingway in A Moveable Feast:

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

The only image of one of Hemingway’s notebooks that I have been able to find is the one below that made it’s way around the web a while back. Written when he was a child in elementary school, it already displays his aspirations of traveling and writing. Good note-taking habits start young, but don’t get discouraged. It’s never too late!

Very adult handwriting for a child, no?
Very adult handwriting for a child, no?

I hope you enjoyed this brief rundown showing the importance of keeping a notebook. Personally, I keep my phone’s Notes app filled with random novel ideas mixed in with grocery and to-do lists. The medium is up to you, and whatever you choose will prove to be rewarding both to your art and to your workflow.

  1. Including Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, and Alejandro Iñárritu, director of Babel, 21 Grams and The Revenant. ↩︎

5 apps for a better noveling workflow

You probably know the feeling of sitting down to work on a half finished novel only to find yourself rummaging through a top heavy Word document or, worse, several top heavy Word documents. Also, when you have to scroll through a bunch of text you’ve already written, it can take away your focus. Being organized with your writing output is an important key to finishing your novel. So in this post, we’re going to take a look at five desktop apps for efficient noveling organization.

Consider your options below and – we can’t stress this enough – just pick one. If you find yourself endlessly window shopping for apps or going from one app to another, it’s going to take away from what matters most: the writing.


1. Scrivener

This is probably the best app for writing novels. It has become fairly standard for many novelists, from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) participants to New York Times Bestselling authors, such as Karen Traviss. I’ve used Scrivener for a lot of writing projects, and I definitely use it for my novel projects. It allows you to arrange files and folders in the sidebar, write in a writing pane, view outlines or notes in external windows, and automatically spit out a correctly formatted manuscript for print when you are done!

Scrivener costs 45 dollars as of the time I’m writing and works for both Mac OS X and Windows. If you run Windows and want an app much like Scrivener that is free, yWriter seems to be a useful choice. People who know me know I always choose free, but I still chose Scrivener and it has saved me many headaches not only in noveling but also blogging, content management, and to some degree, academic writing. However, in the last year, I have switched to…

2. Ulysses

Although I recommend Scrivener for working on novels, my recent personal favorite is Ulysses. There are not as many features on Ulysses as there are on Scrivener, but Ulysses’s strength is its simplicity. It is also the best app for writing in Markdown, which is a way of writing in plain text using asterisks, hashtags and other conventions to denote things like *italicized words*, **bold text** and #headings. I have grown to prefer this method of writing just about anything I need to write (including these blog posts), because it’s a lot easier than dealing with apps or programs that require you to click around everywhere just to do styling. Using Markdown plain text syntax is not for everyone though, so the decision is up to you.

3. Storyist

Storyist is probably Scrivener’s main competitor. What it has that Scrivener doesn’t is support for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad). It is also simpler, as it is meant solely for writing fiction like novels and screenplays. However, if you want to get a noveling app that will also be there for you when your working on other types of writing projects like research papers or blogs, then Scrivener or Ulysses is what you want. I haven’t used Storyist myself, but you can read some good reviews here and here.

4. iA Writer

iA Writer was one of the first apps to use Markdown in a similar way as Ulysses. I’ve never used iA Writer, but I know someone who has. It’s main feature is its distraction-free writing mode that goes into a minimalist full screen in order to prevent you from looking at anything else on your desktop besides your project. Furthermore, it has a focus mode that keeps your current sentence front and center while greying out all other content in the document. It is not as good as its counterpart Ulysses when it comes to organizing multiple files. It’s not for me, but my brother has met many a NaNoWriMo deadlines because of the laser focus iA Writer facilitates.

5. Sublime Text

This app is awesome, because it doesn’t cost anything. It is nothing more than a plain text editor, yet it is so much more. Geared toward web developers and programmers, Sublime Text features fast search-and-replace functions and color-coded syntax options, and on the whole, it simply manages texts large and small extremely well. It is the app that is less likely so freeze on you or go really slow, because it only uses plain text.

Since I use Markdown syntax in all my writing projects, no matter what they are, Sublime Text can come in handy. Unlike the apps above, Sublime Text is just a text editor that allows you to edit text files directly. Therefore, you are still reliant on your computer’s directory. This is no way to reorganize your files within Sublime Text. However, you can drag a folder from your computer over to the app and see it in the Sublime Text sidebar with all the child directories.

This is both a blessing and a curse. While there is a certain freedom to using a simple text editor like Sublime Text as opposed to an app that “traps” your project in the app, there is also something to be said for those same apps, because they give you so many organizational tools you simply don’t get in Sublime Text.

I hope you found these suggestions for apps for writing helpful. The main point here is not to be reliant on Microsoft Word for your working documents! However, Microsoft Word has its uses, which I will discuss in a separate post.


The aim of this blog is to help you get started on your novel and see it through to the end.

To this end we will be posting articles on concrete actions you can take to start noveling with the know-how and motivation to write whatever that book is that is inside of you. Everyone has a story to tell, and if writing is a passion for you, then our philosophy is that you should never give up on it.

We hope you will benefit from our periodic words of advice and encouragement, and messages from guests who are working on becoming better novelists, just like you.

I love creative writing, and I hope writing for this site will help me think about and improve my novel-writing practice. As a person who studies literature as a student, I would like to increase my own literary output instead of always analyzing what other people have written. My ebook Start Noveling Like You Know What You’re Doing summarizes my knowledge of good story-telling and sets out the basic elements needed to complete a modern novel, such as structure, plot and character development.

We hope you enjoy this blog and that our ebooks help you find what you need. Stay tuned for future books, products and special discounts.

Get to know us

The Start Noveling team is also comprised of my brother Blake Watson, who is an accomplished novelist, or at least he has finished three first drafts as a long-time NaNoWriMo participant! He contributes much to our research for writing tips, and he gives our ebooks beautiful designs. Expect to hear from him from time to time.

We would love to hear from you. Be sure to follow us on our Facebook page. You can also give us feedback in the comments or email me at

Encouragement for the road ahead

There are many forces in life that seem to pull us workaday folks away from creative endeavors, especially the daunting task of creative writing. And there’s something that just seems ominous about the word novel. It sounds big and grandiose and beyond the reach of anyone save those who have the time to commit eight or more hours a day to their novel.

But that is actually a misconception, because the truth of the matter is that many great novelists throughout history were not professional writers whose day job was to spend all day on the next great novel.

  • Lew Wallace, author, lawyer and Union general
    Lew Wallace, author, lawyer and Union general

    Lew Wallace, who wrote Ben Hur, was first primarily known as a Civil War veteran who spent his years in retirement riding horses. He only wrote a few hundred words a day, and then moved on to other activities on his private ranch that were arguably more enjoyable.

  • Stephen King wrote his first novel during a spare hour here and there while being a full-time teacher by day.
  • John Grisham wrote his first legal thriller on the side while working as a lawyer.
  • Tom Clancy, who everyone tends to assume was a military veteran or war history scholar, was actually just an insurance salesman who had a side hobby of writing military stories.

And before you say, “Well, these were just the lucky ones who had success,” consider a few facts. First of all, there are more published novelists out there than you can count. Sure, they are not all household names or New York Times Best Sellers, but they have enough readership to get a publishing house to distribute and market their works. Secondly, it is easier than ever these days to self-publish, and the verdict is in: Making it in the self-publishing industry is at least as likely as meeting success in traditional publishing, and it only expands your freedom, opportunities and choices. Furthermore, you don’t need to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling to be successful in the market. You can make five or even six figures with just a small slice of the market and without being “famous.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, before you look at stats and conclude that publishing successfully is about as likely as winning the lottery, consider the fact that many people give up on getting published, if they didn’t give up on finishing their manuscript in the first place. Many people don’t succeed because they don’t see their projects through to the end. Think of how many people just put their manuscript up in the attic, never to return to it.

So stats are relative. You don’t have to feel stuck in the mindset of giving up. The writers above did not become successful because they were better writers than other people or because they knew some trick to getting into the market. They became successful by working at their projects on a more-or-less daily basis, without stopping.

Just start, and don’t stop.

That is my advice to you. Whatever happens in the end will happen, but there is always something rewarding in seeing something through to the end. Apply this kind of positive thinking to your novel, and there is no way you’ll miss out on success in some way or another.