Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Project Structure for a Novel

writing 3 min read

Each writer approaches a project differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to handle the huge task of managing tens of thousands of words, research material, background, and everything else that goes into the finished book.

Regardless of what writing app you use, you probably have access to folders or groups within the project for a novel. Ulysses and Scrivener certainly both offer that functionality. I’m a previous user of Scrivener (still extremely fond of it), and a current user of Ulysses — but this brief article applies to either of them.

Here’s the system I used when writing CHANGER, and my other novels in progress. Perhaps it’ll be useful as a starting point for you, too.

Within each project, I have the following top-level groups:

  • Requires Attention. This is a special group, which is actually a kind of live search. It’d be a Saved Search Collection in Scrivener, or a Filter in Ulysses. It matches documents which satisfy any of the following criteria:
    • Has the todo keyword in the document’s metadata.
    • Contains the text “XXX”, which I use as a fill-me-in-later placeholder for things like dates that I need to look up later, or names I’ve yet to decide upon.
    • Contains any kind of annotation or comment within the text.

    This makes the editing process much easier, since I can see what’s still to be done, all in one place. I keep the matching documents sorted chronologically, which tends to match their order in the manuscript.

  • Journal. I keep diary entries about significant thoughts or realisations regarding the project. This isn’t my master list of ideas or plans, but rather an actual journal that accompanies the work, and gives behind-the-scenes insight into the creative process. It’s useful to me, and it’s also a future perk for members of my site.

  • Front Matter. The book’s front matter goes here, unsurprisingly. Author bio, dedication, title page, copyright, half-title, and the jacket blurb which I insert at the front of ebook versions, since it’s easier to access there for the reader. Since both Ulysses (any platform) and Scrivener (on desktop) can directly produce both ebooks and print-ready PDFs, I find it handy to have this stuff right there with the content.

  • Manuscript. This is where the action happens, and is the only group which will have a word target to track in Ulysses. It’ll be further subdivided into Chapter folders, but only once the first draft is complete. I write in scenes — one per document/sheet — and assemble chapters later, based on rhythm and feel. For my thriller novels, I’m fond of using Parts too, so that’ll sometimes be the top-level organisational structure within the Manuscript folder. In either case, there’ll potentially also be a Prologue and Epilogue there too.

  • Back Matter. The book’s back matter; usually an Afterword, and an Acknowledgements section.

  • Notes. Any and all work-in-progress notes I might need. A common type of note is a timeline of some kind, and I also keep my own question-and-answer documents about plot points, to refer back to. Another frequent entry is a list of time-zones, and travel times between them, so that I can keep track of plausible times of day and night as my characters travel all over the world.

  • Characters. I religiously keep my character sheets up to date. They include physical descriptions, backgrounds, mannerisms, and important points of relevant context for series books like the KESTREL novels.

  • Locations. A sheet for each significant location, if it requires detailed explanation of its own. These often include photos. I try to visit as many of my locations as possible before using them, or at least to visit places which inspired them.

  • Research. This covers anything that’s not in Locations. For thrillers, it’ll often be technical overviews for things like vehicles, weapons, and technologies — real or invented.

  • Cover Design. I keep my communications with my cover designers with the novel itself. I write the initial brief, and then add follow-up notes on changes I’d like made. It’s easier to do it where I can refer to the rest of the work for specifics on settings, moods, and so on.

  • Unused Scenes. This is a habit from my years of using the excellent Scrivener. Whenever I decide that a scene doesn’t make the cut, or needs to be rewritten entirely, I put the old one here instead of deleting it. It’s occasionally useful for resurrection later, but mostly it just makes for a fascinating archeological look at the differences between the initial draft or plan and the finished story.

You’ll want to make tweaks to this setup to suit your own working style, but I’ve found that it’s a good balance between project management, organising documents the way they’ll go into the final book, and keeping ancillary materials like research and reference resources close at hand.

If you’ve got your own long-form writing project structure to share, I’d love to hear about it via Twitter. Thanks for reading.