A geek’s guide to writing

March 2, 2012 | 2 comments

NOT one of THOSEI’ve had this idea for a story for years. We live in a world where truth is curated for us, everything we do can be tracked and used to infer things about what we’re going to do next, and identity is defined by what we broadcast. What happens when we no longer fit into the narrative?

This year, I’m writing it. It’s called Profiled, and I’ll be releasing it in installments later this year, alongside a blog about taking a lean startup approach to writing a novel. You can sign up for free here. (And yes, these posts and the signup form are my minimum viable product.)

I can’t tell you too much about my actual writing thought process, because I don’t know what to say. I’m getting into the story, which is probably a good sign, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I’ve never done this before. I need professional advice and editing. More on that another time.

Nor can I talk authoritatively about how to write in terms of the structure of language or narrative. Instead, I thought I’d tell you a little about my setup:

Sitting down to write

Years of Internet work (and obsessive Twitter checking) have left me with a very short attention span. I’m shockingly easy to distract.

For a while I was using Dr Evil’s Write Or Die, a little Adobe Air app that forces you to write a certain number of words in a pre-defined timeframe. Plug in 500 words and 25 minutes, and you’re off, racing against the timer. The app punishes you if you pause significantly. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, it’ll even start to delete your work, word by word.

I wrote my first published short story this way, but this is a very stressful way to write a longer piece. Also, Adobe Air is unholy. So for Profiled, I’ve been experimenting with the same methodology I use in my day job: the Pomodoro Technique.

I give my Pomodoro session a brief title based on what I intend to write about (although I don’t hold myself to it), hit “OK”, and write until the timer goes off. Pomodoro gives me five minutes’ break, and then I start again. It’s a great way to write regularly and sustainably.

Keeping track of my writing

I’ve got both LibreOffice and Microsoft Office on my computer, as well as TextWrangler, OmmWriter and a number of other editors. But what really works for me is Scrivener.

I’ve got to admit that I was skeptical about all the hype around Scrivener, but it just works. It’s got a distraction-free text editor, it allows me to rearrange portions of my story as I see fit, and is unrepentantly geeky in the way that it stores my writing. It’s like dealing with a well-designed Git client for creative writing. If you’ve been hesitating over the “buy” button, I can confirm that it’s worth every penny.

(Side note: I did once start a poetry anthology as an open source Github repository. It turns out, though, that I’m not a poet. I’d be very interested in collaborating with poets on something similar though.)

The whole thing – like virtually all of my documents – is backed up on Dropbox (I’m a paying user), which allows me to keep track of versions and sync across any of my devices. Cloud services have changed the way I use my computers, and that’s no different here.


Inevitably, almost all my research has been on the web. I’ve never been someone who keeps bookmarks, or leaves a bunch of tabs open overnight. My browser windows never stay open for more than a few hours. So when I do want to keep something, I need another approach.

Obviously, I use Evernote. It’s magic: notes, bookmarks, images and audio notes are all synced across my devices, available to me offline and easily searchable. The Chrome plugin is seamless. I wouldn’t use anything else.


This has been my biggest struggle. I’m used to the instant gratification of social media, and there’s nothing instantly gratifying about writing long-form pieces. I previously shared a taster, but this was from my first draft – it’s likely to change significantly before I’m done. Should I have shared it at all? Probably not. In fact, I’m not convinced that my extended social media use is good for me at all – but that’s a subject for another post.

For now, my plan is to hold back and write, while gauging interest in the project. I’d love your input, both on the software I’m using above, and the themes that I’m incorporating into the story. But it won’t be ready til it’s ready.

In the meantime, you should definitely subscribe to updates here.

Profile: a serialized novel for email, web, Kindle and ePub

February 3, 2012 | Leave a comment

This is an excerpt from a new kind of project for me. Profile is a serial thriller about identity, the Internet and what happens when we trust companies to tell us what is and isn’t true. I’m going to treat the whole process – from writing through promotion – like a lean startup; more on that later.

Interested? Subscribe to receive news updates via email. It should go without saying that your email address is safe and won’t be shared with any third parties.


I huddled in the dark, under the wooden stairs leading out to the backyard, the metal of my unsheathed flash drive digging into my thigh. I could hear them in the house, opening drawers and moving furniture. They spoke to each other in a low murmur, an indistinguishable bassline while my Spotify playlists ran their course in the background, silently pushing unknown songs to my Facebook profile.

Through the clouds, an aircraft’s engines announced its descent.

I knew I would have to run. My backyard was surrounded by tall fencing on three sides, the result of neighbors jealously guarding their privacy. If I was going to make a break for it, I would need to climb over on one side, and I wasn’t sure if I could make it without drawing attention to myself.

Creaking floorboards. Inside, the men were moving from room to room. I wasn’t sure how many of them were, but it sounded like five at least: enough to keep guard while the others looked around.

From the glimpse I’d had of them when I looked through my bedroom window and seen them marching towards my house, they were police of some kind. They weren’t uniformed, as such, but each wore an identical suit, and each of them had been reaching for something as they approached my front door. It could have been phones, or documents, or anything, but I didn’t want to risk it. Particularly now as they’d forced their way into my home.

My breath caught the reflected light from the house in front of me, hot clouds of condensation reaching out into the cold of the night. I realized I was panicking.

“He’s still here,” one of them said, his voice urgent and raised enough for me to hear. “His phone’s on the network.”

The wifi! I whipped my handset out of my pocket and pushed down the power button to turn it off. Its screen lit up the yard, turning the grass and my weeds unnatural shades of blue and orange as the men ran through the house in an avalanche of heavy footsteps, down to the back door to find me.

Quickly, I set my phone on a ten second timer, and threw it over the fence to my left as hard as I could. Panting, my heart in my throat, I scrambled past the trashcans and garden debris to the alley beside my house, flung my back against the wall, and waited.


Coming soon.