I started writing a novel one night a week when my oldest was a baby. I just finished a big rewrite and I finally feel ready to take the next steps in getting my story out to the world.
But I didn’t get there by spending days in a peaceful writing retreat. More often than not, managing my time around work and three kids takes almost as much creativity as planning the next plot point.
My lifeline: Google Keepa simple note taking app. For anyone who writes a book in the few minutes scattered throughout your day, here’s how I did it — and how you can too.
Structure chapters in a note-taking app
Writers often talk about falling into one of two camps when it comes to approaching a novel. “Plotters” prefer to outline as much as possible in advance and write with a clear idea of where the story is headed. The “pants” argue that an outline is suffocating, or that they cannot imagine the end until they have reached it. Flying by the seat of their pants gives them the spontaneity they need for a creative rush.
I’m one of many writers who prefers a happy medium. I like a quote often attributed to EL Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in a fog. You can only see up to your headlights, but you can do the whole trip that way. »
My writing “headlights” span about 30 pages of the book. That means I have a keen eye for about two to three chapters at a time.
Whether I’m writing a chapter from scratch or revising (and since I rewrote nine out of 24 chapters in revisions, there’s a lot of overlap), I start by creating a bulleted list in Keep for the chapter. Items that could go in are:
Overview of the high level scene. For example, “team training, social media fight, conversation with the coach”. I also note the main characters, so I don’t jump too much between perspectives in a chapter.
Thoughts on theme or tone. Does this chapter resolve a mini-arc or create a new one? Are the characters grappling with similarly themed issues, such as responsibility or respect? What would a book club find to discuss in this chapter?
Character bow. My rule of thumb is that any chapter should change the main characters in some way. How a character feels at the start indicates how the latest plot development should affect them.
Dialog handbag. When I think of a good queue before bed or in the parking lot, I write it down for later. If a particularly powerful line relates to the theme I noted as the central theme of the chapter, I might have found the climax of a scene before I even opened my main document.
I update the list of chapters throughout the writing process. It becomes an evolving plan that almost feels like describing a book I can’t put down to a friend. The more real a chapter feels, the easier it is to avoid that “blank slate” stomach flip and be my creative best self in the time I can devote to writing sessions.
Note-taking apps are very useful because it’s easy to make the plan really flexible. You can indent bullets to group thoughts under the scene they belong to and drag them to reorder. It works with the “pants” half of my brain that feels suffocated if everything is too hard and too fast, but it provides enough structure to refresh my memory quickly when I only have 15 minutes to write.
Draft on a small screen
I work, have three young kids, homeschool my eldest, and like to say to my partner in the evenings more than “Did you load the dishwasher?” To be frank, I don’t have time to be intimidated by a blank page. I need hacks for cheat through writer’s block as much as possible and seize the moments of inspiration when they strike.
In bird by bird, A classic of writing advice, author Anne Lamott advises tackling a great story one small detail at a time, writing just enough to fit in a one-inch square picture frame. Factor in the keyboard and formatting, and my phone’s screen isn’t far off those measurements. It’s psychologically helpful to have the visual cue to focus on one line at a time, and gratifying to see my tiny “page” fill up in a sentence or two.
I don’t usually write most of a chapter in Keep. But I often come by to jot down a thought during a commercial break, or in that magical creative moment when I’m walking around in a towel. The result is a bit like walking past a bowl of candy several times a day – somehow that “just” craving adds up to more than I thought.
I end up with lots of snippets to paste into the document when I’m ready to write. It gives me a lot of starting points or ideas to connect point A to point B. And sometimes a flash of inspiration sets in, and I end up going over the character limit (999 characters per bullet) and switch to Docs.
I don’t believe in a muse, but I can’t argue when my tech says I’m on a roll.
Use the archives for a high-level overview
I use my note-taking app for more than just creative writing, so sometimes I need to delete lists to stay organized. In Keep, you can delete lists when you no longer need them or place them in a Archive section. I delete everyday lists like grocery notes, but everything about the novel goes into the archives when I move on to the next chapter.
One of the challenges of writing and editing is that it’s hard to keep an entire novel in mind at once. Seeing my handy chapter summaries in one place forms an overview of the overall structure.
When you read a good book, the story flows so naturally that you don’t have to think about how it’s constructed. Revision is the time to obsess over things you hope readers will never think of. How many chapters did it take to resolve a subplot arc? How often do specific secondary characters appear? Did my twist happen 70% of the way through the story or 80%?
You can also follow a “beat sheet” tracing structure (the hero’s journey and save the cat are two story plans that many writers swear by). Chapter outlines help you spot where each story step occurs in your “beat sheet” to check your pacing. Reading chapter outlines at a glance is also a good way to make a quick review plan. Perhaps Chapter 10 has thematic similarities that make it the perfect place to add some foreshadowing to your new twist in Chapter 18.
Preserve Related Lists
I’ve reached “The End” on a big overhaul, but I’m at the very beginning of an entirely new process. The next step is to take steps to find an agent and publisher. To be honest, I’m a little terrified. But now I use my note-taking app to keep things organized. Here are the lists that make me feel more ready to embark on a new journey of interrogation:
Comp. Comparable titles, or compositions, are recent books that share a mood with what you’re writing. Think “Crazy Rich Asians but on a Mars colony” or similar suggested titles that appear when you order a book.
Officers. Traditional publishing almost always means finding an agent to represent you. Start making a list of the names you come across now, so you know who to contact first.
Self-publishing resources. If you’re a self-publisher, it’s up to you to find a publisher, choose a cover designer, do proofs/layout, and decide which platforms to sell on. It’s worth keeping separate lists of options for each step (Anne Lamott’s advice to break things down into smaller steps applies here too!).
Note apps help you finish your book one sentence at a time
People who want to write may not be like me, working mothers caring for three little ones. But most of us are short on time and exhausted. Using a note-taking app is a convenient way to capture your ideas without feeling intimidated. And because we carry all of our phones with us everywhere, you have your digital notebook at the ready whenever creativity strikes. This way, you can sneak in mini writing sessions to whittle down your writing project one sentence at a time.
This article originally appeared on Zapier’s blog and is reprinted with permission.