How do you write a very long hypertext novel? Word by word.

Heavy Lifting

Writer and musician Bill Bly has been writing hypertext fiction for over a decade. His work has been published by Eastgate Systems and has been the focus of several scholarly texts.

We Descend is a labyrinth of linked nodes that examines the nature of artifact, archiving, and knowledge through page-turning prose. We Descend was originally written in Storyspace , so Bly knew he would be looking for a similar tool when he endeavored to write volume two. With such a rich, deeply developed world as a starting point, Tinderbox was the obvious choice.


In working on We Descend over the last decade, Bly perfected a system for writing and keeping notes on his work. He works in multiple windows, which serve as visual reminders of important notes or topics related to his current task.

When I use Tinderbox, I like to keep a lot of windows open.

“When I use Tinderbox, I like to keep a lot of windows open. But when I'm composing or editing text, or just want to read something closely, I don't want a lot of distractions, so I created an empty Note called ‘blankWall’ at the top of the hierarchy, opened it in Map View so all it shows is empty space, then expanded the window until it almost fills the screen -- I still want to be able to get at a handful of other Notes, which I arrange so that they peek out around the edges. Finally I locate the Note I want to focus on, bring it to the front, and get down to work.”

Bill Bly uses window positioning to help manage the progress of his writing from day to day.

Bly’s work file has grown to over 10,000 links

Bly outlines the work he has accomplished for a given day and creates an agenda for the next day. He uses the placement of the windows to remind him which items belong to which day. Yesterday’s work, remains in the upper-right corner of the screen, with a running list of today’s accomplishments in a note on the upper-left. At the end of each day, Bly makes comments on the tasks he has achieved and creates tomorrow’s agenda.

“I don’t go back and read these notes in any kind of systematic way,” he explains. “But if I feel I’ve written on a topic before, I’ll do a find to see if anything comes up. The main thing that I do is to look over the comments trying to deal not only with the history of what I’ve done, but also why I’ve done it.”

And there certainly is plenty of history; Bly’s work file has grown to over 10,000 links. With such a massive file, agents help him sort out characters and locations and the story-nodes that mention them. He also uses them to gather comments by topic. “This agent picks up every note that mentions Storyspace. I like to have a record of all of the old stuff—the way we used to have to do things.”

Bill Bly is a writer and musician who lives in New York City and Bethlehem, PA. His first hypertext novel was We Descend (Eastgate, 1997).

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