Author’s tool-chain

Publishing fontfacesWe talk a lot about how to write books, about author’s craft and writers’ tips. This post is instead focused on the act of writing — on the recording of words. There are probably as many methods of writing a novel as there are authors — writing longhand with a Montblanc fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook, typing with one finger at an ancient PC à la GRRM, or using the latest gadgets for on-the-fly note-taking. Regardless, there are certain steps and tools that make the steps of recording a manuscript, editing it, and whipping it into book shape easier. This post is about the tools I found are best for each task, and about my process in transforming a manuscript into a novel.

The First Draft

In the beginning there was the idea. And the author said “Let there be about one hundred thousand words”, and lo! there was the book. Well, the first draft of the novel, anyway.

This section is about getting those 100K words digitised (after you’ve done plotting, scheming, playing with scene flash cards and character action figures, writing longhand, etc.)

The tool I like best to get my writing done is Scrivener. The main difference between a dedicated novel-writing program to a general word processor, is that the former is based on scenes, rather than a single long document. The scene is the basic building block, stored in its own file (and auto-saved obsessively). You can the group scenes into chapters, chapters into sections, etc. In addition, you can add front matter and manage end-notes, keep your character and research notes in a dedicated section, manage project metadata, etc. Scrivener’s main window has a navigator on the left to see the chapters and scenes, a main editor section for the text, and a notes & metadata column on the right to keep track on tasks and things. Scenes can be marked according to their completeness level (from to-write, to draft, to edited, to finalised – useful if you’re a non-serial writer), assigned tags and labels to track characters, etc.

In addition to the main editing window, you can also view the scenes as an outline or as a collection of index cards, which makes tracking multiple view-points and moving bits from place to place very easy. You can even manage images, from maps to character sketches. The program comes with various templates (from novels, through plays, to academic writing) and a tutorial, all of which are very informative. The compile (export) function has a bit of a learning curve, but once you master it you can produce the output to your desired readers (from industry standard manuscript submissions, to almost print-ready files and ebooks).

If you’re looking for a free alternative, take a look at yWriter. I’ve actually completed the first draft of Murder In Absentia on an older version of yWriter, before moving to Scrivener. I note that a new major version was recently released, so some of what bugged me originally might have been fixed.

Generally speaking, it has the same focus on writing in scenes, which are then grouped into chapters and sections. It has some nice features I miss (like automatic highlighting of character names, so you can hunt down where they appear), though overall it was not as sophisticated as Scrivener. The editor and export functions I found (back on the old version) to be a tad wonky, but if those have been improved and you’re not looking for flash it’s still an excellent program. (Note that, on the flip-side, Scrivener for Windows lags somewhat in features behind the Mac version, and while the company has been promising Scrivener 3 as a free-upgrade to all Windows users it’s been years in development).

Side note: since my background is in software development, I also use scripts to help me edit the novel. I built up a small library that helps me hunt down over-used words, repeated words in close proximity, my own list of bugbear words, etc. While this helps, it only makes sense to go this route if you’ve got a hacker strain. Otherwise, a good writing program will have a powerful search feature that you can use to manually hunt down some of these things – and, of course, nothing replaces a human editor.

In summary, I used a dedicated novel-writing program to get the words down. I love Scrivener, though I admittedly use a fraction of its considerable power. If you’re on a budget, yWriter is certainly a worthy alternative.

Editing & Collaboration

Microsoft Word is the de facto standard of desktop document processing. The actual file format is by these days based on open standards (and, please, always use .docx, never the older .doc), so even in the unlikely event that someone uses another basic word process, it’s still your best bet when you need to get feedback.

The main drawback of using a dedicated novel writing program as above, is that none has track changes or an easy interchangeable format. You would have to export from that program, and once feedback is received you would need to implement it back in your master copy (which is fine – you probably want to go over changes critically anyway).

Most of you would know about Track Changes, and how to use them effectively (if you don’t, find a tutorial online). This is likely to be the format you would use to hand to alpha & beta readers, to exchange with your editor, and to submit to agents and publishers. (Note: this is not the format to use for actual publication).

However, here’s a feature you probably didn’t know about. Word can compare documents, and produce a version that looks like tracked changes. This can be useful to authors in various scenarios:

  • You keep backups of old versions in Word, and want to see what you’ve changes between them
  • One of your beta readers accidentally turned Track Changes off, and you want to see the rest of their suggestions
  • You’ve implemented all your editor’s suggestions, expanding descriptions and cutting fluff, and you want to see just the resultant changes

The way to do this comparison, is to open Word, go to the Review tab on the ribbon, and find the Compare button (close to the right end), then select the original document and the changed document. Word will then show a rather busy-looking window with the two versions, the comparison result, and a summary pane – but you can easily save it as a new document which will just show the changes. You can then navigate between them to review and decide upon.

For example, in the last scenario above: I have the file I sent to my editor, and the file with her comments back. I made my own changes in Scrivener, and exported again. I accepted all her changes in Word, then compared that with my latest export. Voilá – I now have just my changes over her comments (i.e. where I’ve chosen to deviate with her suggestions, where I’ve expanded sections, etc).

(For reference, my company makes a document comparison product that blows Word comparison feature out of the water in terms of accuracy and speed, but for simple things like novels Word is perfectly adequate).

In Summary, Microsoft Word is prevalent and has great collaborative functions. You can achieve some functions via alternatives (like Google Docs), but you might find it complicates your process. Learn to harness the power of document versioning, and keep proper back-ups for future reference.

Book Production

This is where you turn the edited and finalised manuscript into a file fit for print or ebook distribution. If you’re going the traditional publishing route, this will be done by your publisher. If you’re an indie, you can DIY or get someone to produce the book for you. Even if you’re not doing it yourself, it helps to know what’s involved.

The best tool for this I’ve used is Adobe InDesign. This is professional-grade layout software with features and a price-tag to match. If you can afford it, it can do a lot for you, and if not keep reading for some alternatives.

Once you’re done with the all developmental and copy edits (though nominally before the final proofing), it’s time to move the master copy from your writing software to the production software. The reason is that you don’t want to use InDesign (or others) for extensive editing, and neither would you want to keep making changes in two places. So fixing the occasional typo is fine, but make sure you’re happy with the manuscript before embarking on this. After you import, you’d want to keep working only in InDesign as the master copy of the book.

The process is notionally simple: you create a new document, set the trim size to your final print size, lay out the front matter, import the main text of the the novel, ensure formatting is correct, and then export to print-ready PDF or ePub ebook. Of course, there are a lot of little devils in the details. It usually takes me a few days and iterations to get it all correct and ready, and I work with complex document formats for a living.

I am not going to cover all the aspects needed to properly work with InDesign (that is a longer post, coming in two weeks). If you do splurge on InDesign, I strongly suggest you get an online introductory course (e.g. on Lynda) to cover the basics. That will get you about 80% of what you need for the book, and you can Google the rest.

I also use InDesign to create marketing material (nifty images based on the cover and a text message — a quote, or announcement of a special). It’s an amazing and powerful layout engine, but you can do a lot of it with image processing software that is more readily available, such as Gimp. (I also do more sophisticated material like book videos, but that is with video software).

As for alternatives, I can offer two options. The first is Scribus, an open-source layout program similar to InDesign. I haven’t worked much with it, so can’t comment on how well it handles editing and exporting, and I imagine that the level of available support and documentation isn’t as extensive as InDesign – but it’s free so might be worth checking out.

The second option is Scrivener itself. From experience, its export to ePub is excellent, and can be used almost directly to upload to Amazon / Smashwords. It can export to PDF as well, but I haven’t used that much. I suspect that with a bit of fussing around, you might be able to get a print-ready PDF out of it. (Another article on eBooks from Scrivener is coming in 4 weeks.)

Lastly, I’ll mention Calibre. It does a lot of functions around ebook management: tracking your whole library, converting formats, editing ebooks directly, etc. Once I have exported an ePub file, I usually do some light editing in Calibre (checking TOC, pagebreaks, and fonts, for example) before uploading to Amazon (and you should be using ePub even with Amazon, and let them do the translation to AZW/MOBI). An alternative to Calibre is Sigil – it’s focused only on editing ePubs, but it does a great job at it.

In Summary, Word is excellent for collaboration, but don’t use it for formatting of print and ebooks. With a good export from your authoring software and some layout basics, you can produce publication-ready files with a minimum of fuss. It’s worth the effort to learn. (You can start with a free-trial of Adobe InDesign and some YouTube lectures, before committing to buy).


I hope this rather lengthy post was of value to you. It’s actually the first of a 4-part series. Join me in two weeks for a list of 14 tips for producing gorgeous print and ebooks.

I would also love to hear what other tools you use in writing and producing your books!

6 Comments

  1. There’s also LaTeX for typesetting – free and produces amazing results if you take the time to learn it. It can be an ideal way of writing, too, requiring relatively simple find and replaces to then format into html for ebooks.

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    1. I haven’t seen LaTeX used outside of academia. I’d say it has an even bigger learning curve than InDesign (it’s aimed at life-long mathematicians, after all ;-). You can use the semantic editing in LaTeX to do complex layout (which is essential for scientific papers), but it’s not going to be as easy to control the display and make it as pretty as quickly as you can with InDesign. So unless you’re an academic and already familiar with it, if you’re starting from scratch and know only the basics of Word, InDesign will get you there quicker than TeX.

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