Creative writing The Good Reader

How much does it cost to write a novel? Part 1: The writer’s workspace

How much does it cost to write a novel? Surely, writing costs nothing more than time and something to write with, whether that’s pen and paper, a computer, or a secretary to take your dictations (if you’re Barbara Cartland). Right? Wrong!

Most successful novelists employ editors and readers at different stages. That’s particularly important for self-publishing, where there’s no agent or publishing house to provide these services. Winning an agent or publisher is now so competitive that writers often employ editors before submitting their work.

So how much does it cost to write a novel? In the first part of this guide, we’ll look at your writing setup: a place to write, software and hardware. Next time, we’ll dig into the education, editing and reader critiques you need to write the best novel possible.

A place to write

Most writers need a quiet place to focus, and a home office or bedroom desk is pretty cheap. From personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend the sofa unless you enjoy an aching neck and back. If you can’t find a quiet space at home, most libraries have work areas where you can write and get online for research. Usually, it’s free.

For the price of a coffee, some writers get a buzz from being around people in a coffee shop or a quiet pub corner. Be warned: even this can add up over the time it takes to write a novel. Nanowrimo introduced me to the phenomenon of group writing sprints, where you work alongside other writers in a café. Say hello, stack up your refreshments and then get your head down for 45 minutes. Break for 15 minutes and repeat. Many towns have writing groups who get together in libraries or cafés. Groups like Write Together in London arrange free sessions across the week through the Meetup app.

As a newspaper journalist, I used to find that the newsroom had a powerful creative energy, although the deadlines helped. Co-working spaces like Regus or WeWork might provide the same lift to your creativity if your budget will stretch.

Writing without distraction

Some writers like to get away from all distractions to write, whether that’s work, family or domestic duties. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, drinking and writing at The Ritz Paris; Maya Angelou used to rent a simple hotel room where she wouldn’t be bothered by anyone else. Midweek or off-season hotel prices are very reasonable if you can clear your schedule for a few days. Airbnb is another cost-effective getaway, although you won’t have room service when the muse drops in.

If you have money to spend, then there’s a whole industry dedicated to writers’ retreats, if you think that workshops and one-to-ones with a VIP author will help to shift your writer’s block. I always look at the schedules and wonder how I’d feel if inspiration strikes and I have to choose between a glorious 5,000-word session or a personal appearance from my favourite author. Then again, most of my favourite authors are dead.

If you fancy the hotel route and don’t have the budget, why not make the hotel pay you to write on their time? Brandon Sanderson worked as a hotel night clerk and wrote his way through those (mostly) quiet, boring night shifts.

My cost: €1,030

Home office, occasional library or coffee shop. Writing get-togethers. I’m tempted to become an AirBnB hermit.

What to write in

Quill and ink? Biro and a pad? Typewriter? Laptop? Your writing hardware and software don’t have to bump up the cost to write a novel.

Ink-based and typewriter scribes should be aware that someone will need to type it up in a digital format. Post-Covid, very few publishers accept typed or printed documents, let alone handwritten manuscripts.

Most of us have access to a laptop or tablet, and if you don’t have access to Microsoft Word, you can use the free LibreOffice suite instead. Word is a resource-hog designed for office productivity, not for writing books. On the other hand, it comes with 5GB free cloud storage. Google Docs is free and comes with 15GB of free cloud storage, but gets slow with novel-length projects. I’m increasingly wary of Google’s tendency to hook people with free products and then either charge them or dump the product because it’s not making money.

In my opinion, Scrivener is the best way to write, organise and manage revisions for long-form projects like a novel. The price is remarkably good: at €70, it’s cheaper than Word (unless you’re a student). I recommend pairing it with a free 2GB Dropbox account for cloud backups. Scrivener is optimised for Dropbox and may not work reliably with other cloud storage providers.

The past few years have seen an explosion in writing software, both offline and cloud-based, from free tools like Reedsy Bookeditor to apps like iA Writer, Hemingway Editor and Ulysses. I’m not going to list them all, I haven’t tried them all, and they have loyal fans.

However, I would make these observations. First, make sure you can export into DOC, RTF and PDF formats. Second, ensure they do not store your backups in a proprietary format, or on a cloud service you cannot control. Word DOC is the de facto universal format of the publishing industry and cloud-based services have a habit of evaporating. Scrivener can export to Word, and its own files are simply well-organised packages of RTF files.

Plotting and world building

Many writers use additional software to help with plotting and world building.

Mind-mapping tools can help to outline stories, build networks of characters and flesh out your world. I use Scapple (€25) and the more powerful Xmind (free for the standalone Xmind 8). They can both export them into the OPML format, which Scrivener opens as a story outline. Aeon Timeline (€58) is a feature-rich timeline manager which integrates effectively with Scrivener. I found the steep learning curve of Aeon Timeline distracted from being creative, but I can see it being essential to some kinds of story. Plottr (from €25/year) is an outlining tool that I’ll test for my sequel to Blood River. It looks a lot less complex than Aeon Timeline but it also integrates with Scrivener, and the default storage is offline, with a cloud option.

World Anvil and Campfire Write are world-building tools which have evolved into complete, cloud-based writing suites, aimed particularly at sci-fi and fantasy writers. Both are fascinating and offer a free tier, but tiered subscription models can easily stack up as you add more features. World Anvil starts at €61/year and Campfire Write at €18/year. While they export to common formats, you’re ultimately committing your entire world to their cloud service. Disentangling from it could add time, money and tears onto the cost to write a novel.

My cost: €350

Scrivener, Scapple, XMind, Word for editing (free student account). Tempted by Plottr.

What to write on

As for the hardware — Mac or PC? I don’t care.

I use a Mac but I’ve used Windows too, and Windows PCs are a lot cheaper. Chrome OS and Linux are cheaper still, but you will find a more limited range of software. There’s no Scrivener for Android, Chrome or Linux for a start.

Backups are essential. You should have a cloud and local backups, even if it’s just a USB flash drive (c.€60 for 512GB). Stick with reputable brands like SanDisk, Kingston, Buffalo, Seagate, Western Digital or Samsung and be sure it ships locally, not from a Chinese warehouse selling fakes. You can replace a computer, but those 100,000 perfect words will never rewrite themselves. I use WD MyCloud 2TB network disc (€150) alongside a 2TB Dropbox Plus account (€109/year).

Whatever writing platform you choose, I recommend a second monitor to research as you write. You should also have a good chair and a decent keyboard. I use an inflatable ball chair (€50), which takes some getting used to but promotes great posture. Get a Bluetooth keyboard if you’re using a tablet or phone (less than €20). I use a cheap folding laptop stand (€20) to boost my screen to a good height for less neck strain. If I’m writing in a public place, this is the thing strangers will ask about first.

Wealthy writers have luxury options: hire a secretary, lay back in your chaise longue, and dictate your masterpiece. The more affordable version of this is a dictation app or using a transcription agency. Just don’t blame me if names and other specialist language come back mis-spelled.

My cost: €260

7-year-old MacBook (paid for before I started), second-hand 24in second screen (gifted), Ikea desk & monitor stand, inflatable ball chair, mechanical keyboard, Bluetooth keyboard, laptop stand, Dropbox Plus, networked backup disc.

The bill so far

I’ll round the cost to write a novel up to €1,700 (about £1,500 or $1,800). I’m reasonably thrifty by my standards of luxury, but I’ve budgeted for a small writing retreat and a few coffees with transport costs. Blood River took about five years from first draft to publishing, but that included an MA focused on another book, then two years of pitching rounds to agents before I decided to self-publish. It would compress to about two years of actual writing time, so let’s say €70 per month.

The heavy spending will come in part two, when I look at the cost of editors, writing courses and reader critiques. How much did you spend on your writing set-up, and what does it look like?

Now read How much does it cost to write a novel? Part 2: Education, editors and readers.

Cover image: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

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