June 23, 2023

From the Community: How to Write a Book with Mem

From the Community: How to Write a Book with Mem

Nearly a year ago, I wrote my first blog post for the Memo, discussing the massive potential of Mem X's AI features for creative writers. After noticing several people mentioning on Twitter that they were using Mem to write novels or non-fiction books, I decided that it was time to revisit the topic -- this time, featuring voices from the Mem community.

Recently I spoke to Adam Bloom, who previously served as an attorney and now works in marketing for a cryptocurrency exchange. On the side, Adam does some writing: he used to run a small production company with a friend, for which he wrote film scripts and TV pilots. Now, he's working on a novel about the crypto space, a new genre for him. "My big concern in approaching the project", he told me, "was that it was going to be a lot to get my arms around - that it was going to be very hard to keep track of all [my] ideas and keep them organized". As AI, and AI-assisted writing tools have been picking up steam over the course of the last year, he's been reading about how different pieces of software incorporating AI functionality are being used by writers, and this is how he came across Mem.

I also spoke to Mike Martin, a long-time user of Mem who "spent most of [his] career as an IT and management business consultant". Recently, he decided to switch focus and move into business and executive coaching, and decided to take all his learnings from the industry and write a book to "help other business owners and leaders [so that they won't have to] learn lessons the hard way".

Both of them are working on very different material in very different ways, but here I'm going to break down the most important components of their creative processes, and how they use Mem to supplement and amplify their writing work.

Getting your notes in

For Mem to be an effective tool for long-form writing, it's important to be able to get all of your notes in as easily as possible. Mike says that "even today, I find it to be the most frictionless tool for managing knowledge". For Adam, he needs to know that all the information he needs is stored within -- and accessible from -- his account. "That's the thing I'm depending on", he told me. "I am pouring ideas into this thing. I am dumping ideas into [Mem] as fast as I can think of them. And I need to know that when the time comes, I will be able to find them. To me, that's the value prop of Mem; having as many of my ideas at my fingertips as possible".

With our newly overhauled Imports process, getting information into Mem is easier and more reliable than ever. You can check out the update on the Memo here for more.

Organization within Mem

"What I really look to Mem for primarily is organization", Adam told me. He describes his Mem account as "really just the universe of the novel. It's not connected to my email, it's not connected to my calendar. It's a bubble. And all of the individuals who are tagged as people in Mem are characters from the book."

To keep track of his work, Adam makes sure to tag every character, every act, and every piece of research in the notes he takes. "I always tag any character that's mentioned so that if I look for all the notes about the character, it will come up. I use five acts [to structure my novel], so when I have a note and I'm thinking, this will be good for Act One, I'll just tag it as "Act One" and add it to that collection. And then I have some research documents, background for the novel, that I'll keep in my research collection. And then sometimes I'll just think of a line of dialogue or a little back-and-forth between characters. I'll just jot it down, tag the characters and put in a collection called "Dialogue" because that's kind of the best you can do. I think the problem is that when you try to over-organize stuff, you lose it [by making it too hard to find again]. And so the challenge is always that I want it to be organized, but I want it not to be too organized."

He continued: "I think the thing that people don't appreciate about doing this kind of [creative] writing -- and it's something that I had to learn as a writer, too -- is that the ideas are not going to come to you in order. It's sort of like watching a Polaroid develop. You're going to have an idea for the ending, and then you're going to have an idea for the beginning, and then you're going to have something that you might or might not use that happens somewhere around three-quarters of the way through. So, random pieces come to you at different times. And once you think you have enough, then you have to start figuring out how to stitch them together. And so it is a task of, like: I need to be able to see as much of it as I can at once. So if you over-organize it, you're hiding stuff from yourself. But if it's not organized at all, then you don't know where to look for anything. So the search is really important. The categories are really important. Character tagging, I find, is really important because if worst comes to worst, I know I mentioned this character in this note. [If Mem can] just show me all the notes about this character then I will find it. But the thing that I use to backstop all of it is the AI. If all else fails, I'm hoping that the AI will help me bring the right thing to my attention at the right time."

Mike relies less on the AI, and more on inline tagging to keep track of his work. "I've organized my work with references so much, I'm relying on that." He has one mem that contains links to all of the chapters of his book, which he writes within Mem, and their status - 'finished', 'needs revising', 'needs expanding'. "That's my primary way of organizing my workspace - I have this table of contents that I can jump around from and see the status of each chapter from... like a wiki-style page with hyperlinks".

He also finds that he's getting value out of the AI suggestions for which mems to add to Collections - for instance, a suggestion to add a mem with notes from a meeting he had recently, related to business coaching, to a Collection related to the book he's working on.

Mem tip :

Finding a way to keep track of how each of your characters develops across the course of a novel is another useful means of organizing the material for your narrative. This can be especially useful in a story with many different characters and subplots. What events are they experiencing, and what are they learning from them? How are you going to get them from Point A to Point B? (How did George Eliot write Middlemarch without the help of AI? We may never know!)

One way to chart this in Mem is with the use of our People feature. When you sync your email account with Mem, People will populate with all of your contacts from the last six months. But you can also create "People" in this view at will, by selecting the person icon in the top right, giving them a name, and then selecting the Create button. Say you have five characters whose development you want to chart: Alice, Bob, Chris, David, and Emma. Create People pages for each of them, and any mems you've tagged them in will appear in streamlined, chronological order in their People view.

Similar mems

The guiding principle of 20th-century surrealist art was a line from the French poet Lautréamont: "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table". That is to say, it's often when familiar but unexpected-in-combination objects are juxtaposed against each other that artistic inspiration strikes. As I discussed in my previous post on creative writing with Mem X on this blog, Similar mems can often bring about this kind of stimulating synergy between different notes, allowing you to look at the same material with fresh eyes, or reviving old notes with a new relevance.

The most exciting moment Adam had with Mem X's AI recently involved Similar mems. "You know, in the very early stages of the creative process, you're just having random ideas. What if this guy and this girl went to this place? What then?" He'd jotted a very short note down about a potential scenario that could emerge, then forgotten about it. Recently, while working on a more developed version of the story, he saw the note surfaced in his Similar mems. "I read it and I thought, huh, I have no recollection of thinking this. I have no recollection of writing this. And from this scenario, this could happen, and then this, and then this, and then this. Because by the time the note 'came back', my development of the novel was further along, so I knew more of where the story was going. So I was able to take that idea and tie it into three or four other ideas that I had already come up with, and what had been just a tossed-off, one-line note turned into an important piece of connective tissue for the entire story."

Smart Write and Edit

Adam told me, "Obviously, I want to write the book, so I'm not going to be like, hey, Mem, write chapter one. But what I have done is prompted it to write me a research report on the history of railroads in southeastern Iowa. Or a report about drug gangs in the Midwestern United States. And then the thing that I've learned to do, which works pretty well, is [prompt it to] write me the report and cite its sources, including links. So that means I can make sure it's accurate, and also that, if there's anything I want to follow up on, I can go to the sources and find more material to expand my understanding there if I need to".

I asked Adam why he felt using Mem was preferable to using Google for these kinds of questions. He told me it was largely a matter of being able to ask multiple questions at once, and then having all the information synthesized on his behalf by the AI. "Sometimes I'll have an idea, and I just need to find out if it's true or not. Do people even do these kinds of things? I'll just go to Mem and say, can you just look this up for me? Tell me, are there Mexican drug gangs in the Midwest? Where do they operate? How do they function, where do they get the drugs from? Are they coming from Mexico? Are they getting them from elsewhere? So for that sort of thing I use the AI as a research assistant. What I want is not to get stuck for half an hour when I could be writing. I just want an overview that I can double-check or dig into more later".

But he does also use Smart Write & Edit for some stylistic and tonal suggestions. "One thing I did once that was interesting was, I had written a speech one of the characters gives, and I was reading it over and I thought, this is good, but this guy sounds like he's from the East Coast, not the Midwest. So I put the text into Mem and [with Smart Edit] told it, make this sound more like this character's from the Midwest. It made a couple of small tweaks, and I didn't use all of them, but I did use some. I think it changed the word "mill" to "factory", or vice versa. And I thought, oh, that's a good point, I'll make that change."

When he's further along in the draft, Adam plans to "pass [the novel] through the AI just to edit it. Not to say you'll take all the edits, but it's interesting to get the perspective. What does it notice? And sometimes it might take notice of or change something where you think, that's a good point: maybe I should move this, or cut this, or whatever."

Mike says that while he doesn't use some of the other Mem X features so much, his experience with Smart Write & Edit has been "great". He told me that while ideating for his book title, he wrote several examples, and then asked Smart Write to add more. "I think this is where [one of the titles I'm considering] came from. These [suggestions] are really good, actually".

Mike also uses Smart Write within chapters to "keep writing for [him]", which he uses as a "jumping-off point" for rewriting, and for giving him ideas of where to go next when he's stuck. "I don't want it just to be an AI-filled book, but where I've found [some of the] most use is if I'm writing and I hit friction, and I'm not sure where to take it - then I would go to the AI and ask it to give me ideas". As a long-standing Mem user with many, many notes in his account, he's impressed, too, with how well Smart Write can mimic his voice and style. "That, to me, is the difference over something like ChatGPT -- I've got so much content in here that I did feel like it was continuing my voice [in the] AI text inside of [Mem]".


Two things particularly interested me when it comes to Adam and Mike's usage of Mem for their writing. First - as I said at the beginning of this post - is how different their methods of organization are: while Adam relies primarily on Mem X's AI features and search to arrange his material, Mike prefers to impose more structure through inline tagging and Collections. Each finds these two different means of organization possible within Mem works for them. Second is the ways in which they use Smart Write and Edit. Neither tend to ask the AI to simply write for them, but instead use it to spark inspiration, or aggregate information and verify hunches. Which makes sense - writers tend to do what they do because they enjoy the process of writing, rather than wanting to hand it off to someone, or something, else. To me - and hopefully to those of you reading this! - this demonstrated the very different creative processes accommodated by Mem, and how Smart Write & Edit can still be a hugely valuable asset to those writers who want to use generative AI to assist their work, but not be used by it.

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