I started writing a novel one night a week when my oldest child was a baby. I’ve just completed a major rewrite and finally feel ready to take the next steps to take my story out into the world.
But I didn’t come here by spending days in a peaceful writing retreat. More often, managing my time around work and three kids takes almost as much creativity as planning the next plot point.
Structuring chapters in a note-taking app
Writers often talk about falling into one of two camps when it comes to tackling a novel. “Plotters” prefer to sketch and write as much in advance as possible with a clear sense of where the story is going. “Armours” claim that an outline is suffocating, or that they can’t imagine the end until they reach it. Flying past the seat of their pants provides the spontaneity they need for a creative rush.
I am one of many writers who prefer a happy middle ground. I like a quote often attributed to EL Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see up to your headlights, but that’s how you make the whole journey.”
My writing “headlights” span about 30 pages of the book. This means that I have a strong feeling for two to three chapters at a time.
Whether I’m drafting a chapter from scratch or revising (and since I’ve rewritten nine of the 24 chapters in revisions, there’s a lot of overlap), I start by creating a bulleted list in Keep for the chapter. Elements that can go in are:
High level scene overview. For example “running team practice, social media fight, conversation with coach.” I also write down primary characters, so I don’t jump between perspectives too much in one chapter.
Thoughts on theme or tone. Is this chapter solving a mini-bow or setting up a new one? Do characters struggle with issues on a similar theme, such as responsibility or respect? What would a book club think to discuss in this chapter?
Character bow. My rule of thumb is that every chapter has to change the main characters in some way. How a character feels in the beginning determines how the latest plot development should affect them.
Dialogue grab bag. When I think of a good bedtime or parking lot rule, I jot it down for later. If a particularly powerful line pertains to the theme I noted as the chapter focus, I may have found the climax of a scene before even opening my main document.
I update the list of chapters during the writing process. It becomes an evolving overview that almost feels like I’m writing a book that I can’t put down to a friend. The more real a chapter feels like, the easier it is to avoid turning stomach and being my best creative self in the time I can set aside for writing sessions.
Note-taking apps are so useful because it’s easy to make the outline really flexible. You can indent bullets to group thoughts under the scene they belong to and swipe them around to rerun the sequence. It works with the “armor” half of my brain that feels suffocated when things go too hard and fast, but it provides enough structure to quickly refresh my memory when I only have 15 minutes to write.
Concept on a small screen
I work, I have three small children, I homeschool my oldest and I like to say more to my partner in the evenings than, “Have you filled the dishwasher?” To be blunt, I don’t have time to be intimidated by a blank page. I need hacks to cheating through writer’s block as much as possible and grab moments of inspiration when they strike.
In bird by bird, a classic for writing advice, author Anne Lamott advises tackling a big story with a small detail at a time, just enough to fit a 1 inch square picture frame. Keep in mind the keyboard and formatting, and my phone screen is not far from those measurements. It’s psychologically helpful to have the visual cue to focus on one line at a time, and it’s worth watching my little “page” fill in a sentence or two.
I usually don’t write most of a chapter in Keep. But I often pop in to jot down a thought during a commercial break, or that magically creative time when I’m walking around with a towel. The result is a lot like walking past a candy bowl several times a day — somehow that “just one” urge 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. That gives me a lot of starting points or ideas to connect point A to point B. And sometimes a flash of inspiration comes, and eventually I go over the character limit (999 characters per bullet) and switch to Docs.
I don’t believe in a muse, but I can’t stand it when even my techie says I’m doing a good job.
Use the archive for a high-level overview
I use my note-taking app for much more than just creative writing, so I sometimes have to clear lists to stay organized. In Keep, you can delete lists when you’re done or put them in a Archive section. I delete everyday lists like shopping notes, but anything related to novels goes to the archive as I move on to the next chapter.
One of the challenges of writing and revising is that it’s hard to keep an entire novel in your head at once. Seeing my handy chapter summaries in one place gives me a bird’s eye view 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 built. Revision is the time to become obsessed with elements you hope readers never think about. How many chapters did it take to solve a subplot arc? How often do specific side characters appear? Did my turn happen 70% of the way into the story or 80%?
You can also follow a “beat sheet” plot structure (the hero’s journey and save the cat are two story plans that many writers swear by). Chapter overviews help you see where each story milestone takes place in your beat sheet to control your pace. Reading chapter overviews at a glance is also a good way to quickly create a revision plan. Perhaps Chapter 10 has some thematic similarities that make it the perfect place to foreshadow your new spin in Chapter 18.
I’ve reached “The End” with a major overhaul, but I’m at the very beginning of a whole new process. The next step is to take steps to find an agent and publisher. Frankly, I’m a little scared. But now I use my note-taking app to keep things organized. Here are the lists that make me feel more ready to start a new quest:
comp. Similar titles, or compositions, are recent books that share a certain mood with what you write. Think “Crazy Rich Asians but on a Mars Colony”, or the suggested similar titles that pop up when you order a book.
agents. Traditional publishing almost always means finding an agent to represent you. Start keeping a list of names you come across now so you know who to contact first.
Self-publishing resources. If you’re self-publishing, it’s up to you to find an editor, pick a designer for album covers, create 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 small steps applies here too!).
Note-taking apps help you finish your book sentence by sentence
People who want to write may not be like me: working mothers taking care of three little ones. But most of us are short on time and stretched. Using a note-taking app is a convenient way to capture your ideas without feeling intimidated. And because we all carry our phones everywhere, you’ll always have your digital notepad close at hand when creativity strikes. That way, you can sneak in mini-writing sessions to work through your writing project sentence by sentence.