As you know, Bob, I decided to experiment with using the writing tool Scrivener for my latest round of revisions on my novel Quantum Coin. It has been a long time since my last post on this topic, mainly because I was trying to finish revisions before my manuscript turned into a pumpkin. I didn’t quite make it, but it turns out, the draft looks pretty good in orange, so it’s all good. We’ll see if my editor agrees, or if he’s just going to give me a good recipe for pumpkin pie, which I don’t mind, because I like pie. (Mmm… pie.) Happily, while I wasn’t writing about Scrivener, I was using Scrivener. To cut to the chase, I can say I’m definitely a proponent of Scrivener. I’m not yet in the cult, but I’m looking over the literature. The Kool-Aid has been served, and I’m considering taking a sip. To call Scrivener a writing tool isn’t doing it complete justice. It’s more like a writing toolbox, or Swiss Army Knife. I’ve said previously that one of the strengths of Scrivener is you can use as much of it as you want, and you’ll still be doing it “right.” I think Scrivener can be used for any writer’s workflow, which is key because every writer works differently. Unless I’m doing it wrong. Because of my pressing deadline, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to explore Scrivener at leisure, exploring and experimenting with all of its lovely features. I took a crash course before diving into it, and then it was on-the-job training all the way. I think I would have benefited from more tutorials, more research, but I knew enough to be able to recreate my usual workflow within the program.
More than that, the program improved and streamlined the way I work—without requiring me to change my ways. I would be stupid not to keep using something that actually makes the work of writing easier. It doesn’t necessarily make the writing itself easier, or better, but it allows me to concentrate on the words instead of the mechanics of process and organization. I started off trying to use Scrivener “properly,” as best as I knew how, with index cards and color-coding, and draft versions, and all that stuff. Those are supposed to be the real advantages of a program like Scrivener. Well, here’s how that all shook out.
Features I used a lot
- As you can read in Part 3, I used to save each chapter of a novel in its own folder. In Scrivener, each chapter gets its own folder too, containing all the scenes that comprise it. I stuck with that, and it worked very well. I named every folder “Chapter #” and gave the scenes descriptive names, like “88 MPH,” which may not mean much to you in this context, but was an easy way for me to remember what that scene was about. It took a little time for me to get used to creating a scene in a separate document, but it made a lot of sense and ended up being very useful when I moved or deleted scenes.
- Scrivener has a “Notes” box for each document, which I used a lot to jot down reminders for revision or later scenes. I typed in there often, but didn’t always refer to it. I partially kept my old system of a separate document with all my notes about things I want to work into the story later. If these document note fields can be compiled somehow into one document, that might replace that though. I’m not sure if they can.
- You can take “snapshots” of each document, in case you want to roll back to an older version. I used that constantly. I used to save a separate document of each day’s work, but I found it easier to just take a quick snapshot. And I referred to older drafts often, and copied from them, though I never reverted to a previous version entirely. It would be nice if the snapshots could be turned into separate documents on their own, or at least opened in a bigger window.
- When I started out, I merrily filled the Research area with all my links, PDF, documents, audio files, video, etc. but then I didn’t refer to it often. In one of the program updates, Scrivener lost the ability to look at PDFs, or look at them well, and that was that. Turns out I had a lot of research for this, and it was prohibitive to load in hour long videos and clips and too many documents—it just bloated the files size for the project. So it was a mix of using internal and external files. I also often referred to my final draft of Fair Coin, but it was easier to keep that outside of Scrivener, so I didn’t have to split the screen I was working in to look at it.
- I am the last person to trust any kind of auto save feature, but it really works. It was immensely comforting to know that when I close Scrivener, intentionally or accidentally, the program will keep all my changes and open to exactly where I left off in my last session. I still CTRL+S’ed an awful lot—I’m not that trusting—but I don’t think it was necessary. I also backed up the Scrivener project fairly often.
- The Scrivener project backups were also how I shared the project between computers, when I moved from my laptop at home to my netbook on-the-go (which only became part of my workflow pretty late in the process.) I used Dropbox to sync files, but I didn’t share the same project in my Dropbox folder, just backups for version control. Next time around I will probably bite the bullet and try to rely on Dropbox and Scrivener to keep everything synced. Probably.
So those were some of the things I ended up liking about Scrivener. But as I worked, I abandoned some of the features, or didn’t use them to the extent I could, and possibly should, have.
Features I used not so much
- When I imported my manuscript to Scrivener, I made a point of filling in all the index cards with descriptions, but the funny thing about revision is that the manuscript can change—a lot. And I just wasn’t interested in updating those index cards, or I didn’t really have the time to fill them in. I should have done my due diligence to enter all that metadata. I ended up relying on my document names for each scene to clue me in.
- Consequently, this made the famed Corkboard next-to-useless to me. I’m just not used to looking at my novel visually that way, so I don’t know if it will ever appeal to me, but I’m going to try it at some point when I know a little more about it.
- I also started out using color labels for everything, to mark setting and characters and all that. After entering all that information in, I never looked at them again, and similarly, I never updated that information as I revised. That part of the program feels too much like work to me. It may hurt me later when I do more revisions or need to find a certain character or change a setting or whatever. I’d like to use it, but I think I need to schedule a separate minute or two from my writing session to take care of that stuff.
- I though the split screen might be useful, but it was just too cramped for me. It might work better if I had a bigger monitor, but I also had trouble remembering which document was the active one, and it was all too much of a distraction from writing. I’d be happy if I could open a document into a separate floating window while I work in the editor, though.
- I also ended up not using fullscreen mode much. Part of it was a problem with the margins not lining up the way I expected them to. I think if I were drafting, I would find it much more useful, but the editor was more suited to revising.
Bugs or features?
As polished as Scrivener is, it isn’t always perfect—particularly with the ongoing beta testing of the Windows version. Over the course of several months, I went through many iterations of the program, which introduced various changes and fixes. It was a little disturbing when colors, functions, and organization would change, without me knowing exactly what was different. It was a bit like someone coming into your house and moving things around slightly. You know something is off, but you can’t quite place it. All the features I was relying on kept working though, so I didn’t spend much time fretting over it. I also had a lot of trouble with “sticky” underlines: I would underline a word, and when I came back to the document later, the entire sentence or paragraph was underlined, and I could never make it go away.
Two fixes that were very welcome: one update made it harder to accidentally delete a folder/document, which I did all the time, and another pretty early on made the installation of the update much simpler and seamless. It’s always somewhat nervous-making when I have to update the version, but my project always opened up right after it, exactly where I left off.
The one thing I really couldn’t figure out to my satisfaction was how to compile my novel into one document. I must be doing something wrong, because I had to do a lot of manual reformatting, especially with the chapter titles; I could either have the chapter titles appear twice, or have them appear with the scene titles (which were never meant to be part of the document) or have no chapter titles at all. I also couldn’t get the chapter breaks right. I think this needs more investigation, but I found it so frustrating I almost decided to work outside of Scrivener after printing out a manuscript for line edits, because I didn’t want to have to reformat it ever again.
I ended up going back to Scrivener though—which ended up being a good thing, because that line edit became a lot more comprehensive. But my final draft has some changes in the manuscript that aren’t in Scrivener, because once I had an RTF, I made minor tweaks to that onscreen instead of spending another half an hour spitting out a compiled version and reformatting from Scrivener. Otherwise, I would have used the “Scrivening” feature, which was often very helpful otherwise. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have altered the margins when I imported my original files, either. They looked weird to me in Scrivener, fully flush left without being “centered” in one-inch margins, but my tweaks to the default margin/indenting added an extra thing to reformat after compiling.
Finally, the one thing I really want from Scrivener for Windows while it’s in beta is a way to actually reset the trial, or a grace period to keep working after it expires. I was nearly caught without internet access when I needed to download a new version, and the program won’t open at all if you don’t update it. That is potentially inconvenient. I understand that there are licensing concerns, and this is still in beta, but it’s worrisome when you can’t liberate your manuscript from a program. I would happily pay for a beta license so I never have to worry about being caught offline. (Incidentally, this is one of my concerns about working in “the cloud,” but that’s a topic for a separate blog post.)
I also wish I didn’t have to lose the history of the manuscript. You can take screenshots of documents at different time, but if I change that index card, it’s changed forever. I like to look back at old outlines, notes, drafts, etc., and Scrivener isn’t really built for that. Short of compiling separate drafts of my manuscript—which believe me, I do—the emphasis is on moving forward. That’s a good thing for working on a novel. You don’t want to get bogged down in old work, but there’s some value to looking back at how far you’ve come while moving forward, isn’t there?
I will definitely use Scrivener to revise my next novel, any day now, but I think I won’t see its full potential until I write a novel from scratch, start to finish, and revise it all in Scrivener. Thanks for following these blog posts on my (successful) experiment with Scrivener. If you’ve been using the program and have any tips or suggestions for me (other than “buy a Mac”) I would love to hear them. I hope this has been useful to anyone debating whether to try the program. Feel free to post any comments or questions, if you have any!