The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book

make a book

I write while riding the subway, waiting in lines, or after rocking my baby to sleep. In the cracks between events, my ideas simmer, and I record them while they’re warm.

I’m writing a novel, even though I never intended for that to happen.

My writing began, late last year, as equal parts fun and catharsis. Whenever I found myself with an offbeat idea – or when I was feeling stressed or frustrated – I would channel my creative energies into a narrative flow. There was no game plan, no story arc, no overarching ambition. But I kept writing and noticed that certain pieces began to fit together into a larger concept.

All of my writing happens on my iPhone, via the factory-standard Notes app. My thumbs know the geography of Apple’s clumsy-but-functional virtual keyboard and, even though auto-correct sometimes causes incomprehensible mischief with my sentences (“raccoon muffin is Durango”?), for the most part, I get my thoughts down easily.

I live in New York City and write while riding the subway, waiting in lines, or immediately after rocking my baby son to sleep. In the cracks between events, my ideas tend to simmer, and I try to record them while they’re warm.

This process seems to be working. I have roughly 20,000 words and have no intention of slowing down. Will I ever try to publish the resulting story – or even show it to another human being? I really don’t know right now. For the time being, I’m just enjoying the process.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from my efforts thus far that might help you in your own accidental, or intentional, book writing.

Don’t feel the need to write linearly

On one subway ride, I was inspired to flesh out a character’s backstory, even though I had no idea where in the overall narrative that backstory would end up. On another ride, I decided to write the story’s big final reveal; it might happen at the end of this book, or perhaps at the end of the third book, depending on how far this project goes. It doesn’t matter – for now, I focus on writing what I want to write, in the seconds or minutes I have to write it, with the plan of hashing out the exact timeline later on.

Get the key elements down

If I have thirty free seconds while waiting in line at the bank, I write what I can, and don’t worry about making my sentence structure Shakespearean or my adjectives transcendent. If the key nugget of inspiration I’m trying to record is an interesting plot twist, I write just enough to make sure I’ll remember it so I can flesh it out later. If the inspiration is an interesting turn of phrase, an odd bit of dialogue, or a compelling image, I digitally scribble that down, too, in bare-bones form. I can always take the time to weave this material into the tapestry of the larger narrative after the bank teller has handed me my receipt.

Write everything

I rarely edit or censor myself when I’m writing on the fly. That’s part of the fun. I write down outlandish ideas and unrealistic plot developments, anything that inspires or interests me. More often than not, when I reread my notes, these ideas make more sense than they had at the moment of writing. In fact, many key developments in my story came about from random ideas that seemed ridiculous when first written.

Revise, revise, revise

If I’m not feeling particularly creative, I’ll reread previous chunks of text and check if they need tweaking (or if there are awkward auto-corrects that need to be un-mutated). Often, I’ll come up with more colorful or expressive language for a word or phrase, or smooth over a hiccup in storytelling that I may have missed during the initial writing. Even if I don’t change a word, it’s useful to remember what I’ve already written. Doing so helps generate a new scene, image, or plot point to explore.

Get a fresh perspective

Every now and then, I open up my work-in-progress on my laptop, or print it out, and scan through the entire thing. Seeing the writing in a different format, with a different typeface, helps me think in fresh ways and identify weak points, narrative holes, and unwieldy dialogue. Then, the next time I have two minutes on the bus and want to jot something down, my efforts will be focused on surgical strikes that can help move my story forward.

Back it up

Phones get stolen, dropped on subway tracks, busted on concrete. Rather than risk losing my novel-in-progress, I sync my phone regularly with my laptop and email myself the latest draft several times a week, just to be safe.

Don’t push

I never want my novel writing to feel like a burden or obligation, or to take up too much time. I am my most creative and productive, and I have the most fun, when I can use this process as an enjoyable creative outlet and an opportunity to build a unique world that is entirely my own. I create what I want to create, and feel good doing so. Other concerns are secondary.

Do you have your own tips for writing a novel on the go, or fitting writing into an already busy life? Tell us in the comments below.


  1. Hi,
    I do this too. Something comes to me and I write it in an email. My problem is, I now find myself with a whole file of additions from the e-mails and I have to fit them into what I have already written. I am doing this with find a word to find the same section and I am also using a split-screen but both these methods are time-consuming.

  2. Nice post! I’ve written on my phone as well, and one poem I wrote this way got published in the Nonbinary Review. ;) It sounds like you’re really focused, and I hope you’ll keep going till publication.

  3. Thanks for this! Your posts are always informative. Always write whenever I can, even if it’s only a few words. After using notebooks, I used to use the notes app on my phone, but I’ve more recently taken to using Google Docs, as they automatically sync with my home computer, and I can access them from any device, (Including the PC at work during the quieter moments where I scribble down whatever I can) which has helped me avoid losing it.

    Nothing quite like forgetting your notebook on a coach that’s travelling to the other end of the country to ensure you remember to back up whatever you write, I can say.

  4. Great stuff Michael. Looking forward to seeing the end result once the novel is published! And I’ll get myself to one of your shows some time soon. I’ve started on a writing project and in the process of learning more about the industry through bookbaby I somehow ended up here. Great advice. Keep on keeping on and hope to talk to you soon.

  5. […] Posts The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book A good walk may be the best writing exercise there is Finding creative momentum A Writer’s […]

  6. Great article! Over the years, I have written many snippets, thoughts, ideas, possible titles, approaches, anecdotes, etc. (all non-fiction), on paper, as digital notes, in Word documents, in diaries, emails to friends, … Basically, it is a lot. The fact that I am always on one or another adventure, makes it harder to focus on previous adventures that I want to turn into articles, blogs and books. Overwhelming to say the least, and I’m sure it is a sensation familiar to many writers. To me, the biggest “problem” (other than sometimes not being in a situation where I can record these “brilliant” moments) is how to organize them into folders. And then, how to find what I thought of so long ago. It is all time-consuming, and often, I can’t be bothered to search for funny phrases and amazing spins that could find a place in my current memoir… I prefer to start fresh. Have you had this experience?

  7. It is easy to see the connection in traveling and writing. Kills time and out of nothing comes a story. I don’t travel and being in my seventies I always thought of writing was a fun thing to do. It is like a kid pushing a cars out in the yard. We use our imagination. Personally I believe you could write great short stories while traveling. A page to 10 over the events you see as you travel, nonfiction or make it fiction and a punch line at the end. I do wish you Grace, Mercy and Peace and let the joy of writing on the road be always fun………..

  8. Great post. Even though I am a professional certified ghostwriter, I am determined to write my novel. I find myself doing the same thing—making notes as they come to mind. I also find the microphone function on the smart phone as an easy way to record my thoughts and observations. I especially like your idea of emailing yourself often. Thanks for the suggestion! Good luck with your book!

    • My greatest inspirations come in the middle of the night or very early morning. There are times when I rise, even before birdsong and jot down the thoughts but, needless to say, this has an adverse effect on my wife’s sleeping patterns. Often the wonderful prose will be gone on finally wakening. I wish there was a way to capture this with some form of “mind printout”.

      But at least novel number one has passed the 50,000 word barrier.

  9. I read a lot of books, varied genre, and often, while reading, an idea for a completely different story or take on a subject will pop into my head—I stop reading and jot down this idea to be used later in my writing. I have written and published two short stories by using this technique! Also, what I call “free writing”, as you seem to be doing—random thoughts, dialogue, and such is a wonderful ‘diary” for writing. Good luck to all who enjoy writing and reading!

  10. Hey, this is what I’m doing too ! I keep jotting down my ideas on my phones notes app whenever they come to me, and I upload to a cloud. app because my phone won’t sync directly to my netbook. I agree with your random brainstorming approach – get those ideas down before you forget them ! You can always edit later. Great inspirational article.

    • Great – I had a feeling that I would be far from the only one approaching writing this way, and cloud backup is a great idea. Thanks for the very kind words and best of luck with your writing!

  11. Hi Michael – keep pushing, you will make it. I did the same – only on my business trips and long plane hauls. Writing scenes, short chapters, paragraphs that would link different ideas or sections… At the end, I had an unplanned book in my hands!

    And yes, a couple of pages a day over a year can make a big book – it is up to you to make it great, too.

  12. Eventually, if you want to produce a cogent, cohesive story, you will have to coerce all of your thousands of threads into a consistent story line.

    But the genesis of the story? Who is anyone to say where or how or when that should occur? Certainly not me.

    • Exactly – I’m actually hitting that point myself in a number of cases. I’m going to have to find some time, reasonably soon, to sit down, with everything I’ve written thus far in front of me, and start stitching parts together. I think that will have to happen on something other than a smart phone…..

    • Thank you so much! If/when this is ready for anyone (other than me) to read, I’ll definitely post on Twitter – @Michael_Gallant. Thanks for the kind words.

  13. Awesome! Since I’ve done something similar and carried it all the way to publishing, let me offer some of the things I learned along the way. 1) your spartan method absolutely IS all you need to write a novel; however, at some point the notepad “documents” probably should be transferred into a more serious format such as word or even scrivener. In my case it was spiral notebooks. doesn’t matter. Why? Well, because….2) if you care — even a little teeny tiny smidgen — about quality you will need a professional editing team. I wrote the way you are writing for eight solid years, then took my manuscript to a DE (developmental editor). A year later and pretty much a complete overhaul (thank god) later and the ms was, so i thought, 100% complete. Come to find out it was 60%; she said i needed a copy/line editor. Another 6 months and an absolute ton of very careful precise rewriting and it was 98% there. The last 2% was fixed by the proofreader and input from beta readers like my sister who caught something that should have been so embarrassingly chagrin-city obvious but had snuck through for almost 10 years! 3) during the DE it was an absolute nightmare to paste all my initial data entries from my notebooks (for you would be Notepad) together and ensure I was using the right latest/greatest version. It’s well worth it to take a little time and stay organized and not let your creative self have 100% of the spotlight — give anal nerd a chance, maybe 5%! You’ll thank him later. 4) killing darlings is easy, but not if your writing sux! I tossed entire passages i knew were pretty damn solid, and was expecting myself to get all weird on my DE. Nope, it was emotionally easy, but only because the rest of the story happened to be solid writing. Editors are there to tear your stuff apart, but they will not tell you explicitly when it is great. You only know when it is NOT great because your editor will keep picking at it. And I did have parts that were weak and they just kept getting eroded away until I fixed the crappy writing — all of it — and the entire whole became solid.

  14. I do the same thing. I can see a common thread running through most of it, except the part about why people ride in horse shows, that is.
    Maybe some day I will be able to grab the thread at both ends and pull it all together.
    Anyway, I love use Evernote on my I-Phone. My fingers know the phone’s keyboard, and my brain melds with the green scheme on my Evernote.


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