How “Novello” Helped Me Write the Book

I thought I would write a post about my book writing method because it is perhaps a little unusual.

The idea for my book comes from a bedtime story that my father, John, told to my younger sister and I when I was about 10 years old. I really enjoyed the story and never forgot it. What I really liked about the story was that somehow it was believable. It was a story about an Australian boy (named David in his version) growing up on a remote farm who meets an alien and they become friends. I don’t really know why it was so believable, but perhaps it was because the alien did not do what I expected it to do.

Many years later in 2003, I went travelling with my now wife. We spent quite a while in Australia and that was where I started to scribble the first draft of the book. Nothing unusual there but worth noting that this was probably the only possible circumstance in which I could have written a book. Spewing out a book length story requires complete relaxation.

After moving to Sweden, later the same year, I typed up the book into a Word document and it became a manuscript. I sent it off to my mum to read and correct all my grammatical errors. She sent it back with many corrections and great rephrasing suggestions. For example this is one of hers:

He stood up suddenly as though an invisible person had pinched one of his ample buttocks

However, whilst in Word format I found it almost impossible to perform the work required to turn the childishly written collection of chapters into a coherent manuscript  that I could be proud of. My close family had read the book and reading between the lines (because your family is never going to give you a completely objective review) they didn’t exactly love it. However, I got some good criticism: my older sister basically told me the ending sucked. My dad told me he liked it but wasn’t sure about the whale bit (the only part of the story I’d made up myself).

So what I did was (and here is the unusual part) use my software developer skills to create my own word processor more tailored to my needs that Microsoft Word. My word processor is called “Novello” and is written in Java. If there is any interest in it I will try and productify it and make it available for free on this website.

My main problem with working in Word was that I could not get a good overview of my book. It was just one (very) long string of text. I could never keep track of where I was and what I was working on.

Another problem I had was not being able to break the work left to do into small manageable pieces.

Another issue was that I kept losing track of which version of Oom was the latest. It would quite often be several weeks between edits and in the end I didn’t know which Word document I should change.

So enter Novello. With Novello the manuscript document is stored in Subversion, which is a free version handling application, which is usually used for computer  code. This means that my master copy of the manuscript was stored in a known location and it was version controlled – which means that every change I make is recorded and I can always go back and compare with a previous version. It’s a bit like having an infinite “undo” feature if you can imagine such a thing!

Another key feature of Novello is that it makes it really easy to split a document into chunks. For example I wanted to split it into chunks smaller than whole chapters. That way I could work through the manuscript chunk by chunk, in any order I liked. If I got stuck on one chunk I could go and work on another chunk in a completely different chapter. In Novello you get two different “views” of the book. On the left you see the chunk view, which is a bit like the tree view in Windows File Explorer where you can expand and collapse different parts of the tree. This view gives a really good overview of the book’s structure. On the right hand side you get the more traditional wordprocessor like view, like it would appear on the paper.

Here is a screen-shot:

novello ss

A third feature of note is that Novello allows full rewrites of chunks to exist alongside the original. That way you can completely rewrite chunks that you are not happy with. With a couple of clicks you can switch which version of the chunk ends up in the final document. This was really useful because in Word you always hesitate before doing major rewriting because you always think “what if I regret it?”. In Novello you feel more confident to make sweeping changes because it so convenient to reverse them.


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