Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

What I Use: Writing a Novel

(or, more accurately, Writing This Novel)

Well, seems like a good a week as any to talk about the tools I used to write my first novel, The Caledonian Gambit (available from fine bookstores now!). Someone asked whether the tech story behind the years long development of the book was basically “Scrivener + stuff?”

It’s certainly not far off. I’ve been through a bunch of different tools over the years, but Scrivener has been largely a constant. That’s because it lets me break down the story, creating separate documents for each chapter. (I know other writers who break down to scenes—that’s not the way I process, but in the end, it’s about whatever works for you.) My book follows two major protagonists, so in later revisions of the novel, I color-coded the various chapters to reflect which character was narrating—green for Eli, blue for Kovalic, and orange in the few cases where the chapter contained narration from both of them. This proved to be a handy tool in realizing when a chapter was written from the wrong perspective, as well as when I accidentally fell back to a more omniscient viewpoint.

I also appreciate that Scrivener’s organizational functions make it easy for me to pull material that isn’t working without deleting it entirely. I can relocate it to a separate folder of material, just in case I ever need to retrieve it (and I’m just paranoid enough to think I might need everything).

My favorite feature about Scrivener, however, is its compile features. It can export my entire book into a variety of formats: PDF and Word, which are handy when I’m sending stuff to my agent and editor, as well as both ePub and (with a little extra help) Amazon’s MOBI format, which are handy when I’m sending things out to my trusty beta readers. That way they can read on their iPad or their Kindle—whichever is most convenient for them.

Of course, the actual act of writing is only one part of creating a book. While you’re in the process of writing and revisions and so on, you need to a place to jot things down for future notice. Scrivener can work for this, but since I tend to have ideas all over the place, I prefer a lightweight tool that goes with me on all of my devices. I’ve played with a few different tools—Simplenote, Evernote—but in recent years, I’ve found the simplest solution to be Apple’s Notes app. I have a folder for each of my projects (one for The Caledonian Gambit series, one for an urban fantasy book I’m working on, another for a separate fantasy story I’ve been thinking about) as well as a general catch-all “Ideas” folder for those little thoughts that pop into my head but aren’t anchored to any particular story. As those ideas gather mass, they get consolidated into a single note, and then potentially promoted to their own folder.

When I’m in editing mode, as I am now in my next book, I can split screen Scrivener and Notes together—even on my tiny 11-inch MacBook Air—and refer to the one while I make changes in the other.

There are a couple of other tools I’ve used for various purposes: one is Flying Meat’s Acorn, which I use to mock-up title pages for my books; the other is Scapple, from Literature & Latte—the same folks that make Scrivener—in which I’ve created a simple map of the universe for The Caledonian Gambit.

One tool I used to use and was sorry to give up was Flying Meat’s personal wiki software VoodooPad. (It’s still around and sold by Plausible Labs, though seems somewhat moribund—the last update was in December 2015.) What I liked about VoodooPad was how easy it made it to keep track of certain details about the book’s universe: character appearances (you have no idea how easy it is to forget, say, a character’s eye color), information about planets, how certain organizations are set up, and so on. I suppose what I really need is an actual wiki, but maybe I’ll just wait for a fan to create one. 😉

The usual disclaimers to all of this apply: writing is about finding the tools that work for you. What I use doesn’t work for everyone, and what others use doesn’t necessarily work for me. Sometimes what works for one particular book doesn’t work for another. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at or reach him by email at His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]

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