How to Write a Full Novel on Your Phone
Do your best work using the device you always have in your pocket
Warning: If the title of this story makes your stomach churn, I challenge you to look at this method with an open mind. Writers tend to be late to adopt technology. We balked when we switched from dirt drawings to cave paintings, paintings to animal skins, skins to paper, paper to typewriters, typewriters to computers — and now we’ve got the phone as our next hurdle… just wait until we start mind-writing.
I’ll admit, phone writing is not for everyone. It may not be for you. This took me a long time to accept with my own work, so I don’t expect you to shoot-off your flare guns with joy right away. But I’d like you to give it a fair try.
A bit ago I wrote a piece about what happened when I wrote my first full novel on my phone. I got a very positive response, so I figured I’d add this follow-up with all the details in case you want to try mobile writing. (You can read the piece below)
The year was 2017. It was cold and dark outside. I was thumbs-deep in my latest novel and minutes away from typing the…medium.com
Phone writing fits my lifestyle. It may not fit yours. I’ll get into some of the BIG advantages here:
- Your work is saved to the cloud as you type (in some applications) or within minutes of typing. You no longer have to scramble for hard drive space or random flash drives.
- Your work is synced across all your devices. You can pick up later on your laptop or tablet and you won’t miss a line.
- You’re writing during the optimal creative environment for your brain. We are built to be creative in motion, not stagnant. This is why you have ‘epiphanies’ while walking, exercising, or showering (and also why you get blocked while your stuck at your desk).
I spoke at length about pluses and minuses in the other story, so I won’t repeat myself here. This is all about the technical process. But we have to set the table before we can eat.
Start with the Right Mindset
Writing a novel on your phone is a wholly-different experience than being in the zone of a long writing session. I don’t want you to be under any assumptions this will feel the same as desk writing — it doesn’t.
You have to train your mind to keep deep focus in spurts. I will show you the shortcuts I use to make this easier, but you’ll be writing in fits and starts, not long, deep sessions. The long stuff we save for laptops.
This method is accessible to both plotters and pantsers, although pantsers will have an easier go at it, because there’s less (or none) of an outline to flip back and forth.
Think of mobile writing as the place to note your best work, but it may not be your most-accurate work. Phones are terrible with grammar checking, the spell check will force incorrect words. But you’ll write the core of your story and edit the manuscript at your desk.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Mobile writing only works if you give yourself the right framework before you start. I’ll show you both a free and paid method in the ‘tools’ section below, but without the infrastructure, your phone-novel experience will be a disaster.
I’ll also share the method I use to build my mobile framework inside the app. When you write mobile you don’t want to guess about your task. You’ll use small, stolen moments to compile your best ideas, then move on to the next one.
Understand you’ll jump around your story a little. If you have three minutes in line at the grocery store, you might use that time for editing, or couple lines of dialogue. If you’re in a waiting room you might knock out an entire chapter.
The time allotted will dictate your writing task for the moment.
Unless you’re a seasoned writer and you’ve got a firm grasp on the full breadth of story composition (the hero’s journey, your genre’s tropes etc.), then start with a smaller project to test the waters.
Short stories are great for these mobile exercises. I wrote a piece about mobile shorts here:
I started the mobile writing process with short stories. I used Google Docs for a long time and still use it for certain applications. Docs has the advantage that it saves every word as you type. It’s almost impossible to lose your writing and this method is auto-synced across all platforms. It’s fast. You can use it on your phone and your desktop, all for free.
Docs lets you dictate as well. If you want to walk and write, you can use your headphones to dictate your story while you’re walking your dog. You’ll have a lot more edits in the end, but dictation is a hands-free choice.
I use an app/software called Scrivenir (I have no commercial gain for this recommendation. This is what I use. There are many other options available). This is an inexpensive tool made by writers for writers. Scrivenir is quickly becoming the gold-standard for novelists, outside of using Word.
You have a to purchase both a mobile and desktop version of Scrivenir if you want to use it cross-platform. I highly encourage you to do this, but you can use the phone-only method and compile your manuscript to a Word doc when you’re done.
You must manually sync Srivenir. The program uses Dropbox to save your work in the cloud. The free Dropbox account is plenty for many novels-worth of mobile writing. The files are small.
Your framework is either a full outline or a series of single sentences. You can pants your way through mobile writing without ANY framework, but I fell that will be far less-efficient than what I’ll propose here.
I’m a hybrid plotter-pantser (a plantser). I use a templated framework to write my novels. I start with 40 chapters and number them 1–40. For each chapter I divide up the points along the Hero’s Journey to ensure they hit the story at the appropriate time. You don’t want your final battle in the middle of the book. I also include all the tropes for my genre (thrillers). Your tropes will be specific to your genre.
If you miss the tropes you’ll disappoint the reader, so make sure you know what they are before you build your framework.
I find that 40 chapters works well for three-act structure. 10 for act one. 20 for act two. 10 for act three. I’ll end up adding a few chapters as the novel grows, but this is the framework.
Here are the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey (now you’ve got your first 12 bullet points — some of these can be split into multiple chapters):
The Hero’s Journey:
- Ordinary world (Act I)
- Call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting the mentor
- Crossing the threshold
- Tests, enemies, allies — multiple chapters (Act II)
- Approach the inmost cave
- The road back (Act III)
- Return with the elixir
The Hero’s Journey is the core for the human condition, not just the latest Pixar movie, or prime-time detective show. This is the model that has worked since the dawn of storytelling, don’t mess with it. You’re more than welcome to fight it, but your readers will notice.
If you want a page-turning story that engages your readers, keep the Hero’s Journey in the framework.
Now, the exact contents of those 40 sentences is the secret sauce, so I won’t list mine here. Plus, you need to create yours in your voice. You may want 20 chapters or 100.
I use one sentence per chapter and I copy the blank framework from novel to novel. This way I’m free to flesh out the story as I see fit. My only constraint is that I know we need to meet the antagonist in this chapter, or in this chapter someone must die.
This framework is a single document inside my Scrivenir project. Each project is a full novel. Scrivenir has a folder for ‘research’ and I put my frameworks in there.
Once I have my framework, I create a separate document for each chapter/scene. I title the doc to match the framework template. This way I don’t have to flip back and forth when I’m writing on the go.
If you use an outline you can copy/paste the section of your outline into the top of your chapter, or write straight into your outline. Scrivenir is very flexible this way and there are multiple routes you can can attack your project.
The advantage of one chapter per document is the software will do a word count for you. It’s easy to ensure you chapter is long enough, or too long and may need to be divided.
This method is for commercial writing.
If you want to write literary fiction, there’s much less of a structure to contend with. But if you plan to sell your work to a larger audience, versus winning creative awards, you’ll need a strong framework to keep you on track.
My Writing Process
I use the leapfrog method, because I hate editing. I want to ensure I have a clean first draft instead of re-working my manuscript hundreds of times later. With this method, your first draft is not really a first daft, because you edit as you do. Once your done, you type ‘the end’ and you know your draft is done too.
Here’s a piece I wrote about clean first drafts:
How to Finish Your Manuscript the First Time You Write Itmedium.com
The mobile writing method works by stealing small moments you wouldn’t normally use for writing. There are more stolen moments than you think and once you start it’s fun to uncover them.
- I find my moment and judge the time limit — If I have two minutes I’ll use that for editing. If I have five minutes I’ll pick a quick scene, run the projector in my mind, and record what I see.
- I check the framework — The framework puts me in the right scene and mindset. I imagine the two characters speaking to each other. I picture the environment, and I write as much character development as possible, with as little exposition (scene and clothing description) as possible.
- I write FAST — The mobile method forces you to write quickly. You don’t have time for mind-wandering. You pick your lane and you stay in it until the scene is done.
- I used to bounce around. Now I don’t. I write the opening first, then the END. The middle is written, in order, during the rest of the writing time. Once I’m done with my project, my first chapter will have been re-written and tweaked a hundred times (more on that in a minute).
I got the ‘write the end first’ method from John Irving. I thought it sounded really stupid until I tried it. I mean, who wants to know how their story ends before they write it? I was wrong.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there.
There are too many authors who write terrible endings, because they’re mentally exhausted by the time they finish their manuscript. If you write the most-important parts of your story when you’re most-energized about the project, you’ll have a stronger book.
Your reader may forgive a weak middle. She’ll drop the book if it doesn’t open well. The ending is the mood you leave with the reader. Your entire book may be awesome, but if you make her hate the ending, your book is a failure. Write the end first — try it.
My Editing Process
Before I start a fresh writing session for the day I re-read the chapter (or chapters) I wrote the day before. I also re-read the opening chapter. Every word (every single word) of the opening chapter is run-through with a critical eye. You’ve got a page or two to hold her attention, then you’re finished.
I have no attention span. If my story won’t hold my attention (and I know what happens) I re-write it until the story does.
Scrivenir has a multiple Icons you can use to tag your folders within a project. Once I’m satisfied a document is edited, I change the icon so I know I’m ready to move on to the next one.
Once editing is done, I write, in stolen moments, until the day is done. These can be 50–100 moments a day. Sometimes you get ten words. Sometimes you get 1,000. I try to write at least a full chapter per day, plus the edits.
This method will give you a full novel in ~40 days.
There’s Plenty of Time Left for Family
Using this mobile-novel method, I take little time away from my family. Writing at a desk forces you to hide for long periods of time. Mobile-writing fills moments that would otherwise steal time away from you. This method is less-efficient than writing at a desk, but if you’re pressed to find long writing sessions this method might be your solution.
If you’re having trouble getting started and you want to develop the daily habit of writing, here’s another piece I wrote about habit-building 2.0