Live in the Future: J. M. McDermott on Pre-Writing

Novelist J. M. McDermott lives in the future.  He writes on his smart-phone, archives his work across multiple e-mail addresses, and he use electronic spreadsheets to pre-write in various ways.  Yet, there is nothing mechanical or digital-feeling or… cold about his recently reprinted novel, Last Dragon.  If anything, McDermott’s prose is as tactile as silk and spider-webs, cured bamboo and tempered steel, flesh and bone.  You can hear the brush moving ink across the page:

Esumi, my love, come to me.  I will take care of you…  I will hold you close.  I touch this vellum parchment and remember your rough skin.  My stylus scratches into the page, and I remember my fingernails across your back.

Last Dragon is the intricate story of revenge and justice–character-rich fantasy that is both hard to categorize and harder-still to put down.  Originally printed in Wizards of the Coast’s now-defunct hardback Discoveries line in 2008, the novel has been rescued from the limbo of Wizards’ dead line by Apex Book Company and Jason Sizemore.

In addition to Last Dragon, McDermott is the author of the recent novel Never Knew Another (Night Shade) and the forthcoming Maze (Apex).  Below, we talk about spreadsheets, whiteboards, and other tricks of the pre-writing trade.

Back in 2007 at, you explained how you use spreadsheets for outlining novels.  Can you give us the highlights here with an eye toward any ways in which the project has evolved since then?  And would you mind giving specific examples of how you used this method in writing Maze?

J. M. McDermott:  There are many awesome things about spreadsheets. Compiling and organizing lots of information into a narrow space is very handy. As well, it is so easy to just hit “enter” or “tab” to fill in cells to create outline after outline. For instance, I’m working on a project right now that uses the classic “hero’s journey” narrative arc. I laid out the beats of the hero’s journey, and right next to it laid out the beats of my variation on that journey. 

With Maze, what I was able to do in Excel was get the mixed-up, twisting timelines laid out in a way that it all works out. Maze has multiple timelines operating right on top of each other, and there isn’t really one way of approaching the landscape and characters without getting it all twisted around. Time is as much an aspect of the labyrinth as any wall or cave. By using Excel, I could list out the moments in time for individual main characters, in a couple different columns, and manipulate their relationship to each other, so that any change in one can easily be applied to the others. When creating a complex timeline, a spreadsheet is very helpful. Really, most complex narrative elements can be helped with the application of a spreadsheet. When there’s multiple complex elements interacting with each other, especially, the spreadsheet can keep everything lined up and on-track.

This doesn’t even begin to describe the ways one could create catalogs of characters and kingdoms and things in an endless ream of pages, if one needed such things…

A general theme to your here seems to be simplicity and compression…  does that mean that writing is about complicating and expanding?

J. M. McDermott:  I don’t see it as compressing and simplifying and then complicating and expanding.  I think of it as trying to make it possible for the book feeling in my brain to maintain its shape in my brain over time, as life and time naturally nibbles away at it. That’s where the book is, until it is written. Simple, compressed tools give me reminders of what I am trying to create without acting as a steam valve for the idea. The simpler and more compressed things are in pre-writing, the less likely it is to steal my head’s head of steam. I want just enough pre-writing to remind myself of what I was doing, without diminishing the need for the actual book to my psyche. 

If anything, even the book that results, complex and thousands of words long, is a pale shadow of the feeling of the story inside my brain. Nothing is ever as good as it is imagined to be.

What other pre-writing tricks do you have up your sleeve?

J. M. McDermott:  I’ve started using a big whiteboard. I’m mostly freelancing right now, and keeping my days arranged and organized into productivity requires things like “to-do” lists and task planning and calendar tracking. Having these all on my phone is fine, but it’s harder to catch such things at a glance. I have to fiddle with buttons to do it. So, I went and got one, just to see if it would work. It did. I’m on track. I have a list of things that need doing located in a central place in my apartment, so when I have a moment, I see that the dishes need doing or the short story is almost finished or that I have slowed down my progress on the latest novel or that I need to swing by the bank to deposit some money into savings for my upcoming wedding.

I’ve got my whole day up there, my months and weeks laid out in white board. I snap a picture when I make big changes so I can create a backup of things. The thing about it is it lets me start my day looking at all my tasks laid out in front of me. I can physically erase the ones I’ve accomplished, and physically write-in new ones that arrive on my desk (like this interview!) I can also use it for simple project tracking. Making it tangible makes it feel more like an accomplishment, because I have stand up next to it and touch it. As I reach a milestone, I can mark that milestone by erasing it.

If I had people living with me, I imagine they would also have a handy way of knowing what needs doing around the house, as well as how busy I happen to be so as to know whether I should be bothered or not. I can see how a large, active whiteboard is probably a useful tool in the management of a home and home-based business.

Graduate school really brought this system to the front of my life. I could write onto the board all the books I needed to read, and assignments I needed to deliver. Then, as I finished them, I erased them. Simple, right? But very effective. I put the entire semester on the board along with my other daily and monthly tasks. I mix and mingle wedding planning, graduate school, task planning, and daily household chores in a fluid space where everything is sort of connected. Because, really, everything sort of is connected. I only have two hands and so much day. By mixing up my tasks on the board, I never walk away feeling like I didn’t get anything done, as long as things got done.

Now, the only issue I have with this method is how easy it is for something to get erased and lost, even with my picture database. I look forward to the day I can just use a touchscreen with a stylus and scribble all over that, with automatic daily backups and multi-media integration. I want an iPad the size of a wall. 

I’ve heard a nasty rumor that–gulp!–you never use notepads!  Ever.  Um, are you nuts?

J. M. McDermott:  When I’m lying in bed, barely awake, holding my iPhone up, and checking my e-mail first thing in the morning, I can hop over to WriteRoom and quickly peck out something and e-mail it to myself. When I am in line at the grocery store, I can pull out my iPhone as if I am just texting someone, and quickly plug my idea into the aether of my phone. 

When I hit “send”, I immediately create copies across the networks of the world, and directly into my computer at home. The advantage, to me, of notepads is that they slow you down to the pace of a pen and keep you in a physical act and moment. This forces thoughtful consideration of each word. Texting does that, too, because going backwards is a real hassle with my fat, stupid fingers. In public places, texting is far less conspicuous than scribbling. People don’t pay any attention to a serious-faced man wiggling his thumbs around a hunk of plastic in the grocery store. They do tend to notice someone with a notepad scribbling down things like some kind of reporter or secret shopper or something. It’s just not a common thing, anymore. I like to be inconspicuous.

Though I have used notepads, many years ago, I found them to be novelties, and not as useful as serious work. Also, my handwriting is miserable. I can barely read it. Most pens give me cramps if I hold them too long. The whole process of scribbling upon a notepad reminds me of the sort of miserable undergraduate classes that required all sorts of frantic scribbling without meaningful comprehension. Technology has happened. I have a phone. I can tap away at it, and immediately create four backups on the phone, two different web-based e-mail services, and a home computer. Boom! Work saved.

I wrote large sections of Never Knew Another sending e-mails back and forth between two different web-based accounts on alien computers. We live in the future that science fiction writers have been imagining for a century and more. I say, embrace the future. The same technology that makes companies smarter and faster can help writers, as well, as long as we never, ever presume that technology is a sort of “magic bullet” that will make things better by itself. It has the potential to help you, but it will not improve you. Nothing improves craft except taking time to improve craft. Nothing makes a book better except taking the time to make the book better.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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