Katja Kaine is the founder of The Novel Factory, a piece of software that makes it easier to write compelling stories.
Katja developed the software and now uses real-world feedback from readers to improve the product.
Katja talks about how she balances creative work and writing with running a business. She told me she writes for between two and three hours in the morning before she starts work on her business.
The remainder of her day involves working in her Novel Factory business. She handles all of the support messages from customers, plans the latest features, and manages her team of developers.
It's great to hear from a creative who balances working on their craft and telling compelling stories with working on their business and doing something to help other writers and other authors get their published works out into the world.
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In this episode, we discuss.
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Katja: So having a character questionnaire is useful but, sometimes, 130 questions is too much and it’s not a good way to start a character. So, the characterization questions are the ones that I’ve isolated as really being the key things to answer if you want to get a grip on what really is at the heart of your character. So, they’re things like external motivation and internal motivation, their flaw and their quirks and mannerisms, things like that. So, that’s really useful to just immediately get a character together.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: The Novel Factory, can it help you write your novel? Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
I love testing the latest writing apps and software. Now, I write a lot of non-fiction so I use writing apps that are specifically geared towards non-fiction writers, but I’m also conscious that a good chunk of the listenership for this podcast and readers of Become a Writer Today write fiction.
They write novels and they write romance and thriller books and other types of genre fiction stories. So, what type of writing apps should you use if you’re writing genre fiction and how can it help you outline a story for your book that much easier?
This week, I had the chance to catch up with Katja Kaine. It was a great interview. She’s the founder of The Novel Factory, and I was fascinated to hear all about her story about why she set up The Novel Factory in the first place.
She basically explains that she set up or created this piece of software because she wanted to make it easier for herself to write compelling stories. She also talks about how she uses real-world feedback from readers to improve the product.
Another key takeaway from this week’s interview with Katja is how she balances creative work and writing with running a busy business. She told me she writes for between two and three hours in the morning before she starts work on her business. I was pretty impressed by that. When I was working as a copywriter for Sage, I think I managed maybe two hours on a good day before I’d start work.
And then she says that her full day or a full working day involves The Novel Factory. She handles all of the support messages from customers, she plans the latest features, and manages her team of developers. And it was great to hear from a creative who was balancing working on their craft and telling compelling stories with also working on their business and doing something that will help other writers and other authors get their published works out into the world.
Now, if you enjoyed this week’s episode, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. More reviews and more ratings would help more people find the podcast. I’m also on Twitter. I’m tweeting out different articles and pieces of writing advice that I’ve come across on the internet. I’d love to hear if you’ve got feedback about the show. It’s @bryanjcollins.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Katja Kaine.
Bryan: Could you tell me a bit about your background, Katja, and how you came up with The Novel Factory?
Katja: Yeah, sure. Well, I’ve been writing sort of seriously for about 10 years and when I first started, I just felt like I was trying to reinvent the wheel each time and I thought there must be, you know, there must be some structures that are involved in writing a novel.
And so I, after — by the time I’d written my first novel, I’d learned so much about the process that I thought it would be useful to write down step by step what I’d done, and that’s what turned into the Novel Writing Road Map. And at the same time, I was quite fortunate to have a very small software company, web design company, that I was running, and I thought it would be very useful to have some decent software to keep track of all the notes because I was always losing my character profiles or overwriting them and I looked around and everything out there was either too complicated or too simple.
So I thought, “Well, let’s try and do that.” So we put that together, we put the road map in the software and that’s how we came up with the initial Novel Factory. So, there’s kind of two major sides to it, which are the, you know, keeping track of all the data and then also the teaching you how to write a novel step by step. And so, since then, I’ve just — I use the software for my own writing and every time I learn new things, I integrate that as well as, you know, we integrate from our users as well, like the feedback that they send us.
Bryan: The Novel Factory is in its third release at the time of recording this interview. When did you come up with the first version of it?
Katja: I think it was about 10 years ago when I started writing. The two things were very integrated. And the first version was just a very simple desktop app that you download to your computer and that’s it. And since then, we’ve kind of moved into online things where we’re backing things up and where you’ve got both options, online and desktop, as well.
Bryan: When you were coming up with the app, did you have a lot of software development experience or did you hire people to help?
Katja: Well, I have a very small team but they are very experienced in software development. They’ve learned a lot over time as well and you can see that when you compare, you know, the different versions. Personally, I don’t do the development, I do the user interface side, so I design it, I know what I want, and so — but I’ll be there saying, “I want to be able to drag and drop that,” or, “I want to be able to, you know, link those two items,” and I think it’s quite useful for me to not be on the development side of things because I don’t know what’s possible or what’s not, I just know what I want it to do.
Bryan: Did you get much feedback from writers during the early stages of building the app?
Katja: Not in the very early stages. We did start to get feedback as we started to get traction. But the last two iterations that we’ve done, we’ve had quite full-on beta testing where people have had an early version of the software, they’re giving us feedback, and we’re integrating all of that feedback before even the release.
And we, you know, we have very prominent feedback buttons because we want people to tell us, you know, what they want it to do and especially if they find bugs and things like that.
Bryan: It’s different to other writing software in that it walks you through the steps of writing a novel. Was that a feature that you decided on at the outset or was that something that evolved with the latest release?
Katja: That was there from the outset and that’s something that was very, very central in the beginning and we’ve tried to be more flexible now so that you have that and, if you want to follow the road map that we’ve put together, which takes you from premise, it explains how to write a premise, a synopsis, how to do your plot outline, develop your characters, all of that, you can follow those steps and all of those steps, all the tools you need are in the software. But this time, we’ve tried to make it more so that if that’s not your bag, if you’ve already got your, you know, you know how you write a novel or maybe you want to do it in a bit more freeform way, then that’s a lot more possible as well. But, yeah, that’s always been like a core part of the software.
Bryan: Yeah, writing a novel can be tough. Who’s your ideal customer or writer for The Novel Factory?
Katja: Well, it’s definitely one of our key users are new writers, so people who, they know they want to write a novel and they’ve got lots of ideas but they’re just not really sure how to get all of those ideas ordered and finished onto the page. I
t’s really overwhelming. That’s one of the reasons I like the road map because it breaks it down into like manageable chunks. So, we get quite a lot of emails from those kind of people who say, “Wow, I’ve just written 50,000 words. I’ve never written that much before and it’s all thanks to The Novel Factory,” like that kind of thing.
But we do also have published authors who use the software and they use it more, I believe, for the plotting features because if you have a complicated plot with lots of subplots and different characters and you’re revealing different information at different times, I mean, you can keep track of that on a Word document or an Excel document but this is there with specific tools to, you know, color code things, keep track of your plot threads and drag and drop and that kind of thing. So it’s more sophisticated, dedicated for complex plotting.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned spreadsheets. So, I’ve taken a few writing courses over the years that have described how you need to organize your novel in a spreadsheet. First time I heard the concept, I was horrified but actually found it quite helpful for a non-fiction memoir I wrote recently in that it enabled me to zoom out and see the entire structure of my book and move things around. So, the fact that you built this kind of feature into the app, would you be able to describe how it works?
Katja: Yeah, so you’re talking about the — well, we’ve got two plot management things. So, the — let me just get in front of this, the main plot manager, the first level is for just the overview of your core plot. And so that has an index cards-type visual, you know, feature, although we are going to add it so that you can customize the background and styles and things like that. So, in the plot manager, you can add index cards, shuffle them around. You can add from a plot template, so we provide a bunch of plot templates such as romance, horror, short story, screenplay, that sort of thing, the hero’s journey.
And if you use a plot template, then it automatically populates a bunch of the index cards for you and it explains what sort of thing you might want to put in that scene, if you’re assuming an index card represents the scene, although it doesn’t have to. So then you can shuffle them about. And that links into our subplot manager, which is more like the Excel spreadsheet where you have your scenes all the way down the side on the left and you have your plots and subplots along the top and then they cross section, you know, they intersect so you can have a plot event which is for a particular subplot that appears in a particular scene.
And all of those plot events can be dragged and dropped so you can shuffle them into different places. They can be color coded, and, obviously, you can name the subplots as well. And what we’ve got in the new version, which I’m really excited about, is there’s a lot more interactivity between the parts. So, once you’ve got your subplots, if you go back to your plot manager, then there are colored dots on the index cards so that you can see which subplots appear in which index cards and on the related info on the side, if you click on an index card, then the plot events which happen in that scene will appear on the side so you can see all the plot events that you need to get to happen in that particular scene.
Bryan: Yes, interesting. I’m looking at it as you’re talking and I created a mystery and detective novel plot template, and it seems to me that it’s almost like a kind of a writing prompt for each of your scenes.
Katja: Yes, exactly. And it’s just the major beats, you know? Because, as I was saying, when I first started, I thought, you know, I can’t just write with once upon a time and then have no structure ’til the end. And, of course, there are structures like the hero’s journey, which some of your listeners are probably familiar with, where it goes through the status quo and then some kind of complication and there’s a midpoint and, you know, finale and lots of other stages.
And I did a lot of studying of other formats to see what sort of beats, what sort of tropes just turn up over and over again in those different genres and that’s what those templates are based on.
Bryan: Did you road test the plot templates with any users or were you going with proven plot templates that already exists, like the hero’s journey?
Katja: Some of them are based on proven ones that are common, some of them I’ve tweaked, and some of them based on my own study of successful books and movies that are in those genres
Bryan: Oh, interesting, interesting. And it also has a template for characters as well, or a way of managing your characters.
Bryan: Would you be able to describe how that works? Because I used to write short stories years ago, I mostly write nonfiction these days, I spent a lot of time working out the background for different characters and I found that quite difficult to do.
Katja: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about characters and reading different books on how to develop characters. And from those, I’ve kind of found my favorite techniques which I’ve put into the software and the road map. So, in the character section, you can basically add a card for each character and on that card, you can have a picture and the name and a brief description.
But then you can open up the card to go into the details and there are all kinds of different panels with prompts that you can answer. So, there’s the basic details, you know, that’s gonna be stuff like eye color, hair color, you know, job, that sort of thing. But then, further panels are things like characterization so this is a set of questions that — so, I don’t know if you know but one of our most popular resources is the Character Questionnaire which has over 130 questions. And, I mean, thousands of people have downloaded it from our site. So, having a character questionnaire is useful but sometimes 130 questions is too much and it’s not a good way to start a character.
So, the characterization questions are the ones that I’ve isolated as really being the key things to answer if you want to get a grip on what really is at the heart of your character. So they’re things like external motivation and internal motivation, their flaw and their quirks and mannerisms, things like that. So that’s really useful to just immediately get a character together. But on top of that, there’s other panels for things like backstory, physical appearance, voice, friends and family. I mean, there’s so much.
And one of the things that we’ve tried to do with the software is keep it simple because that is one of the things that people have always said is a real benefit for ours that you can use it the minute you open it. So we’ve designed it so that you shouldn’t get overwhelmed by all the questions, you can hide the panels you’re not using, and when you start to answer questions, only the ones that you’ve answered will display and the ones that you haven’t answered will then be hidden until you go and fill them in again.
Bryan: What would you say is the advantage of going through a questionnaire like this rather than just firing up a traditional writing app like Word and just starting from page 1?
Katja: Well, it’s the prompts, really. I mean, you know, otherwise, if you’re trying to come up with everything yourself, you’re using a lot of energy just trying to think of what to think of, whereas when you’ve got all these prompts, you know, it kind of sparks your imagination and makes it go off in different directions.
And I find with things like this, you know, if I’m thinking of the flaw, I don’t end up just writing a flaw. I end up writing a flaw and then thinking about how they got that and why they got that and how it manifests and how, you know, and I kind of will go off, you know, down a rabbit hole of this particular flaw, so you’re never kind of stopping and thinking about what to do, it’s always there, you just need to let your imagination flow from the prompts.
Bryan: So I’ve written my first draft of my book, now I’m ready to edit it. How can I use The Novel Factory for editing?
Katja: Yeah, so we’ve got a manuscript area so that you can actually write your novel in the software itself just so you don’t need to transfer to Word if you don’t want to. And if you are using that, then, as you’re writing, on the side, you can see all the related info so you can keep checking to make sure all of your plot events are in the right places, that all of your location descriptions are rich and you can refer to your — so we have a section for location similar to characters where you can list all of your locations. So if you’re like me, you might write a first draft which is really just the thrust of the story, the absolute core of it, and leave some of the description to later.
So in the second draft, you might be going through and you can easily access the information that you’ve noted down about your location to add this rich description. And we also have, there’s also highlighting features and we’re looking at adding commenting and more advanced note taking as well.
Bryan: Interesting you mentioned commenting. When I was working with an editor recently, we used Google Docs and she left comments on the Google doc but I had exported it from a different writing app so how could I get my second or third draft into a format that an editor can work on?
Katja: Oh, well, there’s two things that we’re working on with that. I mean, at the moment, because it’s online, you can share your login and both work on the same novel, that’s perfectly fine. And we are — it should be out within the next week or so, there’s going to be an export function so you can export into a different program if your editor wants to work in a particular one. And, yes, we also do want to just add commenting ourselves so that you can add comments and work to those.
Bryan: What about the final stages of self-publishing where you’re getting a format ready for preparing for Amazon or for another bookstore?
Katja: Yeah, that’s another thing on the list. Our previous version did export to EPUB as well as various Word and Rich Text Format so that’s on our to-do list to export to EPUB and Kindle formats. And, ideally, we want to make it a one-click thing so that you have an area to enter your information like, you know, author name and any other kind of data that needs to go in the front or the back and then it will kind of generate a ready-made document for you that you can just upload straightaway but that’s a little bit further down the line getting all of that exactly right. But you can already upload an image to use for the cover just for your own amusement when you look at the novels in your novel list.
Bryan: Oh, interesting. And it’s worth pointing out that this is all done via your browser rather than a desktop app. Is that right?
Katja: Well, there is a browser version but if you’re on Windows, you can also download a desktop version —
Katja: — and that’s included in the price, that’s the same licensing model. So you can download the desktop version, install it on your computer, and once you’re logged in, then you don’t have to have an internet connection to run it.
And the information is stored on your local machine as well, you know, some people prefer that. But the two versions sync so as long as you are connected to the internet, you can work on the desktop version and then log into the online version somewhere else and all of your latest information should be there.
Bryan: And that starts at $75 for the year.
Katja: That’s right.
Bryan: Okay. Okay. So when I talk to other writers about writing apps, some perhaps who haven’t used many writing apps worry that if they upload their writing to, you know, to an internet app, that they’ll somehow lose the copyright or it could be plagiarized. Is that something that they should be concerned about?
Katja: No. I mean, so we use all the, you know, the most robust encryption technology so we can’t even see your novel unless you give us permission to go, you know, and log in. And it’s all very, very well backed up as well. So, in most cases, I would say that your information is probably safer, less likely to be lost, less likely to be hacked, on the cloud system, this centralized system, than it would be on your personal machine which is probably more vulnerable to being hacked or exploding.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah, I’ve lost a few Word documents over the years. And also the fact that you can work on it remotely, if you’re not at home or if you’re on the go —
Bryan: — or traveling, that’s quite good too.
Bryan: What about your own writing? Do you write much at the moment? Because I’m sure you’re quite busy building out The Novel Factory.
Katja: Yes, I do. Yes. I just about managed to squeeze it all in by getting up very early in the morning. Yes, and that’s been going pretty well, actually. In the last year, I’ve come second in two international novel competitions and been long-listed for another one —
Bryan: Congratulations, wow.
Katja: Thank you. So, yes, so I’m talking to a couple of agents now so, hopefully, you’ll see the books on the shelves pretty soon, but these things move slowly. Yeah, so I’ve completed a middle grade novel, a fantasy adventure, which is moving forward and I’m also writing a young adult feminist fantasy as well. That’s still a work in progress. But, yes, I try to write for two to three hours every morning before I start work —
Bryan: Wow, that’s a lot. And does The Novel Factory take up much of your working day?
Katja: Yeah, The Novel Factory is my main work so that’s my full-time job apart from writing and the kids.
Bryan: Wow, that’s a lot. And do you find it’s sometimes difficult to switch from creative work to running a business?
Katja: Well, they’re so intrinsically linked so, as part of The Novel Factory, we do a lot of research and writing so that obviously feeds into my own writing and then research I do specifically for my novels feeds into The Novel Factory. So, it’s all very intertwined. And, yeah, because I’m always using The Novel Factory myself, I’ll be using it, I’ll see something new that I want added or I might see a little bug so then, you know, that moves over into the kind of business work side of things as well.
Bryan: Do you have a big team that helps you with The Novel Factory?
Katja: We’re a very small team. There’s just me and two developers and we work in partnership with a marketing company now as well. But when anyone emails us for support, it is almost always me personally who responds. So, we get very good feedback about the customer service because it’s not just someone, you know, in a center somewhere, it’s my baby, I care about it, and I care about it working for people. So, yeah, that’s why the customer support is so good.
Bryan: That’s impressive. And when you’re coming up with the ideas for your novel or your stories, do you like to outline in advance or plan or, like what does your writing process look like before you start working within The Novel Factory?
Katja: Well, it’s really funny, it does vary from novel to novel. The road map is basically a very extreme level of planning, which I think is really useful for early writers, but some people get frustrated with doing that much planning. For some people, it sucks the, you know, joy out of it. And that’s fine, you know?
Then those people don’t want to do that much planning. But for me, I’ve written novels where I’ve planned every scene in great detail before I’ve written the prose and I’ve done novels where I’ve just written a long, extended synopsis and just use that as the guide for the entire thing. So it really varies and I think that’s right. I think it’s good that it develops and you’ll use different methods as you develop. And I always dip back into the road map, especially if I find that I’m getting stuck, I’ll go back to the road map and I’ll think, “All right, which of these steps have I not done? Will one of these be useful?” even if I’m not doing them in order necessarily.
Bryan: And do you have a preference for traditional publishing or self-publishing?
Katja: No, I think they’re both really valid. I think they both have their pros and their cons. At the moment, I’m still pursuing traditional publishing. I think there is, you know, with traditional publishing, you don’t have to spend so much time on the marketing. That’s the main thing.
Whereas with the self-publishing, you do get that control, you get directly to your readers, and there are, you know, there’s a huge number of success stories in self-publishing that have proven that it works. So, no, I think that they’re both really valid.
Bryan: I’m always interested in how writers plan their projects for the next few months or even the year. Do you have a road map for your writing? Because I know you have one for The Novel Factory.
Katja: Yes. It changes, though. So, at the moment, I’m doing final edits on the finished novel and I will probably be submitting that soon and then the plan is to finish the work-in-progress by the end of the year and then regroup and see what’s next.
Bryan: So would you have more than one creative project on the go at any one time?
Katja: I don’t prefer it. But in the past, I think I have — if a novel hasn’t found success with an agent, then I kind of put that aside and started working on the next one because I’ve been so excited about working on the next novel. And I think I’ve done that too soon sometimes. So, I think it’s kind of necessary to be pushing out the one you finished but you need to be always working on a new project. So, well, maybe not everybody but for me. So I need to like, you know, keep working on the one that’s pretty close but also be working on the new one that’s really exciting me.
Bryan: And do you take much time off? Because three hours a day is quite a lot to write and then you’re running a busy business as well.
Katja: I don’t take a lot of time off, but when I do take time off, I really take it off. So, before lockdown, anyway, I would go away for at least one week per year alone. No children, just me. Yoga retreat, meditation retreat, no computers, no phones. And I find that extremely good for my mental health.
Bryan: Sounds like a business that you run from home. Is that right?
Katja: Yeah, that’s right.
Bryan: Yeah, like myself. So, if somebody’s listening to this and they’re thinking, “Wow, Katja is doing a lot, I’m struggling to, you know, get my first book done,” what would you say to me?
Katja: Well, I would say it depends what stage they were at. So struggling to write a novel in the first place, yeah, I mean, I would recommend the road map. I would recommend looking at that, seeing if that was helpful. We do have a lot of like free resources on our site as well. I would normally point people there first. And we have a Facebook community group as well where I really encourage people to join and ask questions and I give personal advice there as well, if people are looking for it.
Bryan: And would you have any tips for somebody who’s finished their novel and I suppose they’re trying to sell it or trying to pitch it to traditional publishers?
Katja: Yes, I think I would say the opening and the pitch are absolutely critical. And the problem with, I think a lot of people have a problem in that the novel could be amazing but if the first few chapters aren’t absolutely perfect, nobody will ever read it in the first place. So I would work on that and work on that and work on that.
And a good way to know if you’re actually getting somewhere with that is to enter it into competitions and when you start getting somewhere in competitions, they do often — they will tell you, even if you haven’t placed, so I didn’t realize this, I entered the Bridport Prize a few times in the past and never got anywhere and I thought, “Well, it’s so frustrating. I don’t know. Was I, you know, in the bottom 10 percent? Was I halfway there? Was I close? I don’t know. Why don’t they tell you?” But this year, I did get through the first round but I didn’t get into the long list but they did email me to tell me that I got into the top 10 percent so when you start getting closer, you do start getting that kind of feedback and then you know that it’s maybe ready to go out to agents.
Bryan: How do you find competitions to enter? Is it a case of Googling what’s open right now in your local area?
Katja: Well, funnily enough, I actually put together a list of all of the best novel writing competitions I could find. And if you look up novel writing competitions, you know, if you put that into Google, our thing comes up top, I think. So I went through and there are — I did find some that I didn’t put on because I didn’t feel that they looked completely legitimate, I couldn’t really be sure that they could be trusted, so that list is all of the novel writing competitions internationally that I could find. And so I use my own list. And we have a newsletter, a monthly newsletter, and part of that newsletter is we send out the three upcoming competitions so that is often a bit less overwhelming than a list of all of the, you know, competitions for the entire year.
Bryan: It sounds like you’d find a problem and then create content or create software that solves it for writers —
Katja: That is pretty much it. I love solving problems. Finding more efficient ways to do things, that is what I’m all about.
Bryan: Yeah, fantastic. So where can people learn more about The Novel Factory or what’s the first step they should take if they’re ready to try it out?
Katja: Yeah, so the website is novel-software.com and there’s information on there about the software. There’s also all of the free resources and you can get a free trial. So it’s 30 days, completely free, we don’t ask for credit card details to get the trial so if you decide you don’t want it, you can just walk away, there’s no worries that, you know, you’re gonna forget about it and get charged anyway or anything like that.
And, yeah, I always say, you know, if you think it might help, you try it, you know? See if you think it’s gonna do everything that I say it will.
Bryan: I’ll put the links in the show notes but thanks very much for your time.
Katja: Thank you very much.
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