How to Write a Novel With Ulysses, Part  I: Organization and the Writing Process

Cover of Matt Gemmel’s novel TOLL

A Guest Post by Matt Gemmell

Matt Gemmell is a thriller writer from the city of Edinburgh in Scotland. He wrote his recent book, TOLL — which is out this week — using Ulysses. We invited him to share a few details of his writing process and how he uses several of the app’s features to help him. In this post, he covers his project structure, the manuscript’s organization, and the writing process; plus he explains how he is making use of keywords and word count goals. In a second post, Matt will talk about how he is going about reference and research related to his novel, and treat the subjects of editing and export.

TOLL is the result of two years of work, and is the second book in my KESTREL series. It’s around 100,000 words long, and required a great deal of planning, research, and organisation. I used various tools for the planning stages, but ultimately I moved almost everything into Ulysses, to keep all my book-related material in one place and easy to access.

Here’s how I went about it.

Project Structure

I’ve refined my project structure for a novel during the past several years, and I’ve found a system that works well for me. I create a group in Ulysses for each book, and then create various subgroups to keep things organised.

The most important section is of course the manuscript. I tend to keep it inside a parent group called Contents, which gathers together the front matter, the novel itself, and the back matter. This makes it easy to export the full book later without having to multi-select groups: I just export the Contents group.

Besides the manuscript, I have two other places where I keep scenes, outside of the novel itself: Bonus Scenes, and Unused Scenes. Bonus scenes are a great way to reward your readers for visiting your blog or signing up to your mailing list, and would typically be set after the end of the story, and be entirely optional. If I think of a part of the story that could take place after the main narrative and just provide some extra flavour, I make it into a bonus scene. I also have a group called Unused Scenes where I put any scene that I decide to remove completely, or to reattempt from a different perspective. Never throw anything away! Those unwanted scenes might come in handy later, or serve as an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at your novel’s creation. They can sometimes even be useful in future books, particularly if you’re writing a series.

A big chunk of each project is research and reference; thrillers need believable snippets of detail on technology, weapons, vehicles, and so on. I do my planning and research using the web and various other apps, then I distill the relevant information into a summary that I keep in Ulysses, with one sheet per topic in a group called Research. I also have two categories of research that are more important than anything else: Characters, and Locations.

You’re often going to refer to your characters’ appearance, history, occupation, habits and so on, and it’ll quickly become very tiresome to search back through your manuscript for the details. Keep a character sheet for each person in your book, no matter how minor (if you invent a new character while you write, immediately make a character sheet for them too). Whenever you mention something about a character, add it to their sheet, and then you have exactly one place to look things up later. Similarly, keep a location sheet for each setting, and make sure it’s always up to date. I call these sheets faces and places.

Additionally, you can repurpose that information online as character biographies, or via the X-Ray feature on the Kindle store, where readers can tap the names of people and locations to see extra details. It’s also incredibly useful in a book series, because it lets you build up a master reference for your universe. A final tip: if you start each character sheet with the character’s full name, you can use Ulysses’ Quick Open feature to jump to a character’s sheet instantly just by typing that character’s name into the Quick Open window.

One other thing I like to do is keep a project-specific journal in Ulysses, with my thoughts on how the book is going, or with epiphanies I have about the plot or characters. It helps me move forward, and makes for interesting reading later on. It can also be great material for an afterword, or when you’re promoting your book.

Organising Your Manuscript

Because a book in Ulysses is just a long Markdown document assembled from any number of sheets, there’s a lot of flexibility in how you lay out your manuscript. My preference is to use one sheet per scene, which lets me very easily reorder scenes, assemble them into chapters later, and also use keywords to help me track the narrative flow (I’ll talk about that later). I end each scene with a horizontal rule or divider, which turns into a proper scene break when I export the book using my own export style.

I also like to keep my chapter titles — and also my part titles, because I write novels with a prologue, three parts, and an epilogue — as separate sheets containing just the title itself. This makes it very, very easy to move scenes between chapters without ever having to cut and paste: you just move the sheet that has the chapter title in it.

For the same reason, I don’t use groups for chapters; I just keep all the chapter titles and scenes for a given Part all in the same group, sorted manually. This lets me very easily read through an entire act at once.

The Writing Process

Every writer has their own approach, and that’s a good thing. I won’t try to tell you how to work, but you might be interested in my own process.

I write each book in order from beginning to end, almost never jumping around — though I do let myself make notes for later scenes as they occur to me. I also write purely in scenes, instead of chapters; I don’t even plan in terms of chapters. I just write all the scenes, then gather them into chapters later, based on where I feel the right beats and boundaries are. I find that this gives me the most flexibility to restructure the narrative later, and it encourages me to keep scenes sharp and punchy, because any one of them might become the end of a chapter.

I write new scenes in the afternoon, and I don’t stop to do any additional research; instead, I insert a placeholder as an annotation in Ulysses, so I can easily go back to it later. I just push ahead as much as I can. My usual word count is 1,000 to 2,000 words per day, but sometimes (rarely) I can write up to 5,000 words or more.

The next morning, I read over whatever I wrote the day before, and I allow myself to lightly edit it; just for typos, spelling and grammar, punctuation, and awkward phrasing. I don’t spend any more than five minutes or so per thousand words. My next task is to fill in any parts that require new research — I do this in the late morning, before lunch. I find it easier to motivate myself to read existing scenes and learn new things, than to sit down and write new material. By the time the afternoon arrives, I’m up to date and hopefully ready to move forward again.

One old tip that works well is to stop writing for the day when you already know exactly what’s going to happen next. Make some brief notes about it, but don’t actually write the prose. Then you have an easy start the next day.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for a clean, readable Ulysses theme that’s great for novel writing in both light and dark modes, you might like my Gemmell Two theme on the Style Exchange.)

Using Keywords to Track the Story

I use keywords in Ulysses to monitor two main things: points of view, and conflict.

I have a Protagonist keyword (which I colour green), and I apply it to every sheet that uses the protagonist’s point of view. Since I write one scene per sheet, that’s very easy. I also have a red Antagonist keyword, and a yellow Mixed keyword when both types of character are present. Sometimes, if a book has a third type of character that’s significant to the story but not on one side or the other, I’ll add a purple Other keyword too.

This allows me to do two extremely useful things. First, I can see at a glance how the story flows between the protagonist’s and antagonist’s point of view, and whether I’m spending too much time with one side of the story and should perhaps cut away to the opposing side. The fact that keywords show up in the sheets list, and can each have their own colour, makes it very easy to get an immediate sense of which characters you’re spending most time with, and where you need to shuffle things around a bit to maintain the reader’s interest.

Second, I can create a filter group in Ulysses that collects together all scenes from a single point of view at once, which lets me see each side of the story in isolation from the other. This is great for managing plot lines, tracking character progression, and more. You could also do this for each individual character (or group of characters).

I also use a keyword for Conflict, coloured orange, which I add to every scene that includes some kind of conflict — whether it’s a direct physical confrontation, psychological difficulty, or something else. This gives a valuable insight into the emotional inflection points of the story for the reader, and can be a great indication of which parts of the book might feel either too slow or too hectic. Thrillers in particular tend to be fast-paced, and will feel like they’re lagging if there isn’t regular conflict and frequent appearances from antagonistic characters.

Occasionally, I also use keywords to indicate that a major change of setting has taken place. This is helpful when I’m putting together a timeline to ensure that times of day, time zones, travel times and so on are all correct.

Word Count Goals

I use word count goals on each subgroup of my manuscript as well as the overall story, following the classic three-act structure of 25%, 50%, and 25%. I subtract a little from the first and third acts to account for the prologue and epilogue, and set appropriate goals for those too.

It’s not an exact science, and you shouldn’t feel enslaved by a target word count, but being able to see a visual representation of how each part of the novel is progressing is helpful to me as I work my way through a set of scenes. If I find that the first act is running short, for example, it’ll probably feel a little abrupt to the reader; and if the second act is running long, it’ll feel slow.

Word count targets help me get a sense of the overall pacing of the story. I use them as a guide rather than a strict limit.

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. I’ll be back in a couple of days with details on my handling of references and research material, as well as editing and export.

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I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter, which is the best place to get in touch, and you can also email me. If you’re interested in my work, you might want to sign up for my occasional readers’ newsletter, which has bonus scenes from my books, articles about writing, previews of future projects, and more.

The book you’ve been seeing in the various screenshots within this piece is my own latest novel, TOLL, which is out now. If you’re interested in fast-paced technothrillers with a European focus and a hint of conspiracy and fringe science, here’s where you can find it:

Rebekka Honeit

Blog-curating writing maniac and public relations person. Loves coffee, chocolate cookies and literature. Finds peace in tweaking press copy.