"Good writers can churn work out – they then pick at it to find the gems in what they've written. You then craft it and craft it and craft it and keep going and craft it some more."
Since starting as a writer’s procrastination project in 2013 – the “ultimate procrastination” co-founder, Thomas Muirhead calls it – Novlr has gained a huge and loyal user base. Their Twitter feed is streamed with compliments of committed users, ranging from thanks for recovering lost words to the excitement of seemingly miniscule features added to the online writing program. Novlr, with its distraction-free writing screen coupled with quick and genuine customer service, has now put its name up with there with the most popular of novel writing software like Scrivener, Storyist, and Ulysses.
I’ve been a Novlr user since November 2015. But rather than this being a pitchy review (or a “Novlr vs. Scrivener” post – you can find lots of those online), I wanted to explore the roots of Novlr, how starting a business compares to writing (hint: both need persistence and creativity!), as well as the impact of technology has on the art of writing.
I don’t expect Thomas to have the definitive answers to these questions, but with Novlr quickly becoming one of the hottest writing tools in the tech market, we sat down with him to see what he thinks about it all, what’s in store for Novlr’s future, and the things their writers believe they need – in all of their wonderful, unique eccentricities – in order for a good story to be written.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Thomas. The first thing we always ask our bookish friends is how their love of reading/writing started – and how it continued into adulthood (so much that it blossomed into Novlr).
Hi Sophia. Thanks for inviting me to answer some questions.
That’s a tough question with probably a boringly similar answer to everyone else: reading has just always been there, from as early as my (admittedly faulty and foggy) memory lets me go. Torchlight beneath the duvet, hurriedly finishing off the last book in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five collection; feeling smug when an English Teacher applauded my reading of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; or the sheer awe at Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men all come to mind.
In terms of writing, it’s mostly been something I do because I enjoy trying to do it. I certainly don’t have the drive and passion that I see day in and day out with Novlr users who put in the hours and produce huge amounts of work.
What were you working on that you decided to put aside for Novlr?
I was trying to write my children’s/young adult epic that would of course stand tall alongside Harry Potter, Hunger Games etc. I’d thrown out a first draft that was barely readable – but that’s what they’re supposed to be like – and was ready to start rewriting. However, the fact that I was writing it on Google Docs, having tried Scrivener and a couple of others, niggled at me. I’d just spent hundreds of hours doing something and I was using a tool that hadn’t been designed for that task. That seemed strange. So – along with Kim – we set about trying to create it.
Will you ever return to it?
When I’m being hopeful, I think I probably will carve out some time. Realism tells me that that doesn’t mean I’ll ever finish it.
How many users does Novlr have to date?
It varies a bit over the year. Over NaNoWriMo we get tens of thousands of users as it’s free for the month and then we have around 500-1000 at any one time actively subscribed.
Novlr, like a lot of tech startups, started on Kickstarter. Tell us a little bit more about that experience and how that shaped you for better (or for worse).
It was an interesting process and one we learned a lot from – particularly about how to do it differently. We got a really warm reaction and support from lots of people which was fantastic. However, we made some big mistakes. We set the target too high. Even though we knew we really needed £20,000 to have any chance of getting Novlr going, we should have set it at much lower than that, because what we know now is that people like to support kickstarters that surpass their target. The other thing I’d say is that Kickstarter-ing is a full time job. To have any chance of doing it successfully you need to dedicate huge amounts of time to it and be promoting it loudly and clearly everywhere. Also, Kickstarter won’t drive you traffic and funders itself – it’s just a platform. You need to drive people to your kickstarter from other places. The number of people who browse kickstarter and then fund things isn’t very high.
It was a fascinating thing to do, we enjoyed it even though it wasn’t successful. We’ve considered doing it again, but Novlr is one of those things that people find a bit difficult to understand sometimes until they use it. People believe they don’t need a special tool to write in – but there are lots of things we don’t ‘need’ but that make our life easier or better.
Starting a company, I would say, is similar to writing. You have to make something out of nothing. Wouldn't you say?
I do think there's some correlation between creative writing and starting a company. In that they are both an enormous amount of work. They involve trying things and working hard at them, then maybe going back and doing it over again. I think some people think of writing as a constant splurge of creative inspiration, but I think it's more of a craft. Good writers can churn work out – they then pick at it to find the gems in what they've written. You then craft it and craft it and craft it and keep going and craft it some more. Starting a company is similar.
The other bit that's similar is the emotional rollercoaster. Both things require enormous energy and with that comes highs and lows as you go along. Also, with both the main satisfaction comes from having done it. From having achieved it.
And lastly, neither of them will make you rich (at least not if you start a company like Novlr).
The biggest difference I would say is that creative writing is mostly a solitary sport. There are some areas – like TV writing – that have big teams, and sometimes you'll find writing duos, but the vast majority of writers do it alone. Starting a company is almost impossible alone, and definitely a lot less fun alone. You need someone to keep you sane, to lift you up when you're down, and to put you back in your box when need be. I think it would be really interesting if more writing were done collaboratively – at the very least with continual editing and suggestion. This is just a speculative thought of mine, but I definitely believe most writing would be better if it was edited early and if writers could be a little more accepting of the input and suggestions of others.
Do you do anything special during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)?
We make Novlr available for free for the whole month of November because NaNoWriMo is such a special thing. We also have goal trackers so you can measure your progress as you go along. That’s what we’ve done so far, but we’ll start looking at what new exciting additions we can make this year.
What’s it like at Novlr during NaNoWriMo?
It’s an exciting time. Kim and I struggle to juggle our day jobs (yep, Novlr doesn’t pay either of us any sort of income – we work full time elsewhere) during that month because the number of people writing on Novlr is in the thousands. It’s a wonderful time though – because it reminds us why we do this – thousands of people writing and writing and writing.
Where does the Novlr team work from?
We work from wherever we can. The team is made up of Kim and I – who work full time and do as much Novlr as we can fit in on evenings and weekends. We also have Clare who works remotely from London in the UK working part time to manage support concerns and help people get the most from Novlr. And we have our developers who are based in the Canary Islands and New York respectively. We are a disparate bunch, but we are in touch constantly and work really well together.
What’s a few of the most requested things writers want in Novlr that’s not there yet?
Character profiles get a lot of requests. Also making Novlr work on mobile phones (cellphones).
Any plans to make it happen?
Definitely. We make Novlr better every month. At the moment we’re doing some boring behind the scenes things, but character profiles will come along in the next few months. Mobile (cellphone) writing is one we’re struggling with. There isn’t an easy way to make the experience really good. One of the things we’re really proud of at Novlr, is the time and effort we put into the design and user experience – which is the stuff that if it is good you don’t notice it is there. We think that if people are spending thousands of hours using a tool, designing that experience to be as effortless, smooth and pleasant as possible is really important. Phones make it difficult for us to maintain that experience. But we’ll solve it eventually because people need it. And we’re here to build what people need.
Are you allowed to tell us of any peculiar requests that Novlr has been asked to develop?
Ha. We haven’t had anything too strange that I can think of. Sorry that answer is a bit boring – but our users seem to be a switched on bunch. Actually, there was one person who wanted to change their font into Comic Sans. We weren’t sure whether that was serious or not though.
Who do you think are some of the greatest writers of all time?
Wow. Big question. I can only tell you my favourites. And these change all the time. Writers who caught me off guard, who write in a style or form that I’m not expecting are those that I like. I remember first reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy for example. I basically read it in one sitting in the bath because I’d not read anything like it before. It only has about two adjectives in the whole book (that’s possibly an exaggeration). Others that I love are Murakami for the same reason – I stumbled across The Wind Up Bird Chronicle when I was youngish and impressionable-ish having not known of him and again relished the surprise. I like being surprised by a writer. When a writer can carry you through a form you're not used to, it feels all the more exciting.
How do you think writing by keyboard differs from writing by hand?
It’s much, much faster. It allows you to test and try things, because you can immediately discard or edit them. I think it’s a much freer form of writing, which is a good thing. Writers often believe that every word that comes from their pen/keys/mouth needs to be a polished, finished gem of ultimate wisdom. It won’t be; it shouldn’t be. Keyboard writing lets you try, invent, experiment – which I think leads to more interesting writing journeys. You might be able to tell, but while I understand and can enjoy the nostalgic romance that writing by hand holds – I do think that’s an arbitrary delight – I’m sure the hieroglyphic carvers felt the same way about the quill as some do about keyboards.
Do you think technology restructures thought (like writing on a mobile phone vs. computer vs. tablet)?
Definitely – I think it is less technology than context. If you are writing in your study at home alone, then I don’t think it makes much difference if you do that on paper, computer or mobile phone. I think it’s more that a mobile phone means you can write while mobile, while on transport or when you catch five minutes waiting for a bus. That context, the environment in which you write restructures thought. I think being mobile, around people, capturing short snippets of thought between bus stops adds a whole new area of writing. We used to have to try and remember or imagine what people said/did/thought in those environments. Now we can capture it directly.
Novlr can be used online or offline. Online, people can get pretty distracted – even with distraction-free writing! Are there any social media distraction tools you would recommend to the wandering writer?
Not really. It depends on the person. Yoga is a good tool! We have a focus mode, and we have offline – so you can reduce your distractions. People should try to think of writing as they do of their work or other commitments. It’s a slog – but just do it.
You must read a lot of writing (e.g. when people email you to recover lost words). Have you seen some pretty amazing writing?
We really don’t read any of it. Even when recovering words etc. we actively do our very best not to read any of it. It’s a sort of principle of ours. It would also end up distracting us too much because we have no doubt there are some great writers using Novlr.