Lessons from drafting a novel: coffee-proof laptops and quinoa salad

Sculpt Fiction - technology for first-time novelists

In June, I sat down in front of a blank text document with an idea and a sense of panic. Almost six months later, thanks to tech, coffee and sheer stubbornness, I’m on course to finish my first draft this week. I know, I’m surprised too.

I wouldn’t say it’s been painless – strangely, the hardest parts to write were those I’d spent longest planning – but by putting in a bit of work every day and sticking (more or less) to my rough outline, it’s almost there.

That’s not to say it’s nearly finished – far from it. If I was building a house, I’d have fired some bricks and stacked them into something box-like with windows in the floor, a door in the chimney and a basement full of rats.

I’m planning to let things settle over Christmas, then use an angle grinder and a sledgehammer to give it a ruthless re-modelling in the new year. Hopefully the rats will take the hint.

It’s been an interesting experience, and as the year draws to a close I thought I’d share some of the most important lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

Go easy on your laptop

The bottom row of keys on my poor little Lenovo Ideapad 100S are starting to fail – probably due to excessive hammering of the space bar. Be kind to your keys, and beware wobbly tables in cafes. Coffee only works if ingested by you, not your computer.

Spilt coffee

Zoe should consider investing in a wipeable laptop and finding a less aggressive barista

Shuffling paragraphs around, skipping up and down a document is much easier on a larger screen, so I'm hoping to do much of the editing at my desktop PC. I've asked Santa for a mechanical keyboard to make this process more pleasantly clicky, which will be a huge relief after battling the board on my little laptop for six months.

The noise will also let my other half know that I'm doing serious work, and should only be interrupted for tea and biscuits.

The cloud is your friend

Early in the writing process, Windows 'helpfully' restarted my Ideapad to install an update with FocusWriter still running. I only lost a few hundred words, which were still swilling around in my brain and easily re-typed, but the unplanned shutdown was a wake-up call.

Since then I’ve had the software's auto-save function active at all times, syncing to Dropbox. It’s something simple and obvious, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me at the beginning. 

I'm thinking about upgrading to a paid Dropbox subscription so I can recover a previous versions of the document if I do something utterly foolish like delete half a dozen chapters. 

Twitter, less so

Abandoning Twitter was one of the best decisions I’ve made over the last six months. The world seems a less angry place, and I'm less desperate need to share every half-baked thought that crosses my mind. If it's not worth taking the time to compose a Facebook post for something, is it worth sharing at all? Probably not.

I even deleted my account at one point, then chickened out and resurrected it (you have 30 days to do this if you change your mind). Maybe one day I'll go back to sharing photos of amusing food wrappers.

There's more to Pinterest than cupcakes

Evernote is brilliant, letting you clip interesting bits and pieces from the web for reference later, but Pinterest is surprisingly handy too. I’ve used it for wedding planning and working out how to decorate a room around a bright green sofa, but searching for something non-visual often leads to interesting articles from various sources.

The ‘More like this’ feature then leads you on a merry journey through similar features. This being Pinterest, your trip will eventually reach a dead-end of quinoa salad recipes and complicated hairstyles, but it’s well worth trying.

Leave the editing for later

Here's the problem: editing is fun. Wading into a chunk of text, hacking away anything that doesn't work and transforming the lean leftovers into something that sings. Hopefully.

It's so rewarding, in fact, I've found it terribly tempting to double back and start editing chapters the moment I've written them. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, the first draft of anything is, er, not good. It's important to accept that and move on, knowing that there's plenty of time to improve things once you've got the whole story down.

Man working with angle grinder

Editing with extreme prejudice

Thankfully, that time is nearly here, and I've got my angle grinder ready to lay into 90,000 words of near-future sci-fi. Hold my mulled wine...

  • Cat Ellis has turned to technology to help write her first novel. Follow her progress in her Sculpt Fiction column. 
Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)