Using Google Docs For Novel Writing

I recently got a request to do a post about how I’m using Google Docs to write my novels. Looking back over some old posts, I already covered this a year ago, and you can read that article here. I’ve now written two novels and I’m currently working on a third using the Google word processing software. I’m pretty much doing the same thing I started out doing except I’m no longer stitching together chapters to make a whole manuscript. I’m just writing linearly, the same way I used to write in Word. I can hear all the Scrivener users gasping. People still write this way folks, it isn’t so crazy. It’s also how you read a novel.

I still outline pretty extensively before starting a first drive. By using Google’s spreadsheet program I can have them both open in tabs and easily see them with one click. I can also keep all my images and notes in a folder and access them from any tab of my browser. The biggest reason I’m using Google Docs instead of LibreOffice is because during the first draft, I don’t want a dead laptop to kill my draft. If my lappy dies, I can grab a nearby Chromebook and carry on cranking out the word pies.

You may recall that I use Linux as my operating system. I normally run Ubuntu with the Unity desktop but this week I’ve switched to a more minimal look with the Gnome Desktop. Still running Ubuntu 16.10 under the covers. Anyway, in the above screenshot you can see my browser and a PDF of a screenplay that is my first draft outline for Betweos, my WIP.

I have found a add-on for GDocs that offers a TOC or Table Of Contents on the right. I like this because it lets me easily jump to whichever chapter I like. I set the size of the editor to Fit and it leaves me a gutter in which to jot notes.

I also use Jamie Todd Rubin’s word count and tracker program that you can read about on his blog. I have it set to record my word count at two in the afternoon which is well past my normal lunch hour writing sprints. It lets you know all the days you didn’t write by filling them with zeroes. But it’s nice to have a record without actually recording it into a spreadsheet after each session.

Above is part of the word count tracker spreadsheet for Betweos.

Because of the way Jamie’s software works, I have to keep my active WIP in a folder called SANDBOX. I have that located in my Fiction folder along with all my other stories. You can see the tracker spreadsheet lives there too, along with programs provided by Jamie.

My Betweos novel folder holds all my notes, outlines and misc stuff. You can look at images in the folders using this screen shown below.

Because I’m using a screenplay as my outline for Betweos, I have the screenplay up as a PDF and I Alt+Tab between them as needed. Below you see the same scene in both formats. I wrote the screenplay when I was in my early twenties. That was a loooooonnng time ago.

My novel outlines are exactly the same as they have always been, I just didn’t use one for this novel. My next novel is going to be a Mystery under my other writing handle – Johnny Batch. I’ll be back to a regular spreadsheet style outline for that novel.

I started writing Betweos in mid October of last year and as of now, late February of 2017, I’m only halfway through it. I need to buckle down and get this draft completed before summer. That’s when I’m supposed to start writing the next novel. I hope this short update post was informative for you. Ask away in the comments if you have questions.

Writing Update August, 2016

It’s been a while since I posted around here. Sorry about that. Summer is when I tend to stay inside and write and not venture into the furnace of my garage. So not much modelling gets done. Right now we have 90+ degree days and lots of smoke from nearby fires. So breathing is a challenge some days too.

I have, however, been working on my current novel, Corvette. I’ve left the Atom editor and migrated just the manuscript to Google Docs. I still use Atom for all my notes and outline, but all my writing is now linear in one GDoc. I’ve set up the writing scripts of Jamie Todd Rubin to help with word counts. I refer back to my outline open on another desktop, as I write. Currently I’m about a hundred pages into the draft and I’ve already added a few chapters to the outline. Actually, I don’t change the outline, I just add things to the manuscript. The outline is just a blueprint for the author and no reader ever sees it, so I don’t make it match the manuscript. That’s just wasting time and effort.


In the above screenshot of my outline, chapter 11 does not match up with where I’m at in the story or the actual draft. Pictured above in the manuscript is the last paragraph of chapter 12. Looking at the Google Doc above, you’ll notice I am using a chapter outline. This makes jumping from chapter to chapter easier. Each scene in the chapter is separated by three stars. One oddity is chapter 9 witch is one long scene.

I’m well into the second act of the story and I’ve realized that there might not be enough story to make a three hundred word novel. So I’m drifting a bit and adding character related materiel that might normally only be added in a second draft. I’m also considering whether this might be more of a novella. Normally you shouldn’t worry about all that on a first draft. Just write the story and then analyze it after you’re done. In many ways though, until you write about 20K words of a novel, you’re just not sure if you really know the characters as well as you need to. So sometimes a good examination of characters is needed to keep the reader engaged and story moving forward. And that’s where I’m at right now.

I’d like to be done with this novel before October, so I need to keep churning word counts on a daily basis to make that goal.


Writing A Novel In Google Docs

(WARNING: This is a detailed look at the nuts and bolts of writing this novella. If you don’t want any plot spoilers, please avoid reading until you finish the book. Also – writing neepery ahead!)

My latest novella, Devon’s Blade is now available on Kindle. It was the first book I wrote on Google Docs. I usually do all my first drafts in Plume Creator on Ubuntu Linux, but for this short novella, I wanted to try using Google. Primarily I wanted to see if I could write on a Chromebook. Not all of this novella was written on a Chromebook, most of it on my laptop, but I still used Google Docs which is a web based writing tool.

I didn’t just write the book in Google Docs, I also organized all the files I’d need into one folder. The idea being that if I needed that piece of research or that photo for reference, it would always be with my writing files. When writing I usually had lots of tabs open for notes, the chapter I was writing and images I was using for inspiration.


This shows my top level folder structure for the novel. The Short Stories folder was for the reference short I wrote called Ambush! which was written from the enemy’s point of view and set on the same planet as my novella. Handy for reference.


In the Images folder I broke things down as shown. One of the big influences for the Swift starfighter that my heroes flew was the Bell X-1 cockpit under Aircraft.


Under Characters I had some images of female fighter pilots and under individual character folders I had an image of a pilot that matched what I imagined they looked like.



Above was Skip, one of the pilots. Below is Chief Spanner, who was inspired by the look of an actual AF Chief.


Here’s some inspirational pics of islands and huts and such, since it takes place on an island.


I even did a rough Gimp version of my cover idea using an older model I had made from cardboard. For the finished cover I actually built my own model and photographed it. My brother, a graphics artist and Photoshop artist combined it with a background and some fonts to make a real cover. But when you’re writing, it’s fun to have an idea of what the final thing might look like.


In order to keep tabs on my cast members, I created a tally sheet and marked it up whenever one of them died. (Spoilers!)


Below is a listing of all the notes I used. Lots of fighter pilot lore and vocabulary was used in the book. Some of it I gathered from research on the internet, lots of it I absorbed by reading many non-fiction books about fighter pilots.


I listened to a ton of fighter pilot songs while writing this book. Everything from the Korean War to Desert Storm. One day I’ll do a post on the music that inspired this book. Needless to say, there is a lot of music about pilots out there and most of it is NSFW. While actually writing though, I mostly listened to instrumental music from war movies and the new Battlestar Galactica TV series. Speaking of which, my main character – Devon Ardel was created long before Kara (Starbuck) Thrace and when that rebooted TV series first aired I was like, “Hey, they renamed Devon!”.  At the time this story takes place, Devon is in her late thirties and higher in rank than when I first started writing about her in Space Western short stories. If you read Starforgers though, I believe she’s smoking a cigar in one scene. Again, been there done that before it was cool.

It all starts with a synopsis and below is what I wrote before I started.


After I have a rough outline of the plot, I start making an outline. Below is the actual outline complete with word count tallies and scene structure. Sometimes things change in the outline, but I never start writing without something outlined.


Writing the chapters was pretty much like using a word processor. Pretty straight forward. I wrote them in separate files so that I could open them in tabs and refer to them easily.


I actually let a few folks read along as I wrote each chapter, but I don’t think anyone actually took advantage of that. But it is one advantage of writing on the cloud – letting people shoulder surf while you write.

As I completed a new chapter, I added it to this merging script which created a single document. This was critical for me being able to write in Google Docs. Because I was not going to merge 17 chapter by myself. Forget that! Going to the merge. (Pilot speak for entering a dogfight. See? I’m all into this story. LOL)


Here’s an example of comments in Google Docs. My editor always reads my first draft and leaves me little messages like this one about the song at the beginning.


That song, by the way, is an actual song. Give it a listen: As sung by Oscar Brand, the original song was about WWII fighters. So if you know what they are, each verse describes them perfectly. Oscar was a national treasure. Great tunes.

Anyway, back to novel writing. Once imported into LibreOffice, I proceeded with Second Draft edits from my editor. Here’s where it gets real.


Second draft edits are all about getting the grammar and the details correct. Bill is excellent at ensuring I do both.

After the edits are made and a second read through for clarity, I export into epub from the plugin (Writer2Epub) for LibreOffice. Then I can open I can open it in Sigil and start building my actual ebook. I’m a programmer nerd so I love tweaking things myself and making sure things work under the covers.


The final steps were to make a .mobi file of the epub so that I could send it to my Kindle. I use Calibre for that. My only beef with Calibre’s conversion is that it leaves spaces after some quotes. But that can be ignored while I copy proof it on my actual Kindle. I use the Notes feature to leave corrections.


I believe it’s important to read your finished work on the device you intend it to be seen. That’s why my final proofing is always done on the Kindle, for ebooks and on a printed book for paper.

That about does it for this long post on the making of my latest novella, Devon’s Blade. If you haven’t read the story yet you can always get it on your Kindle now. As for other ebook platforms, you’ll have to wait a few months. I plan on leaving the novella’s exclusive to Kindle for the time being.

But you can always read all the other Star Saga books on Nook, Kobo and this blog.

Devon’s Blade



Workflow Update



Recently I posted about my writing workflow. In that post I exported my first draft from Plume Creator to OpenOffice for editing. The problem with using Write or Word to edit is that you wind up with multiple version files and comments or changes can be lost or not backed up. So for my current WIP (Counterattack), I’m going to use Google Docs. I’ll export from Plume Creator as usual and then upload it to GDocs and label it Draft Two. Do all my editing in GDocs and then when done, let my Beta Readers read directly from the document and add their comments to it all at once. Then I’ll stop sharing it and either take or reject their comments and clean up the document again. Rename it Draft 3 and then invite my editor to edit the document. When he’s done, I’ll make his changes and then clean it up again. This will continue until the Copy Editor is finished. When the document is all done, I’ll use Jutoh to create the ebook and break out the chapters to RTF to send to my Graphics Designer for the paperback layout.

At this point in time I only have a few chapters left to write on Counterattack. Then I need to self-edit Draft Two so that it’s readable by the Betas. I’d like to be to the Beta Reader stage by December. Somewhere in there I’ll be starting to write Devon’s Blade with an eye to getting that one out next year too. We’ll see if this new change to GDocs speeds up the post production flow for a novel and if it works for Counterattack, I’ll probably make it my default workflow.