05/06/2011 ecmyers

My friend Kris, a happy user of Scrivener, once told me that the way I organized my novel was like “a low-tech version” of the software. Now that I’ve played with some of its features, I know she was absolutely right.

So this is how I normally write my novels, which may sound quite bizarre to some of you:

  • Every chapter gets its own folder, eg. Ch01_QuantumCoin_drafts
  • Every time I work on a file, I give it a different file name, such as chapter_one_050411.doc. I’ll usually only work on a document once a day, but if I revisit it multiple times, I start adding letters to the end, a la the naming conventions for Federation starships. (chapter_one_050411A = NCC-1701-A). I usually end up with one to four files per chapter, which might be excessive, but gives me peace of mind. In the event of a corrupt file, I can rollback to the previous document, and I can always revert to a previous draft if I need to.
  • While writing, I note details about each chapter in a table (in another Word doc) that looks basically like this:
Ch/Word Count Characters Events/Scenes Notes
1/1542 Ephraim
Crazy stuff happens Make this chapter better

  • When I’m done with the “zero draft” of the novel, I manually combine the latest version of each chapter into one big Word document and format it for printing and review. The table I built serves as an outline of the whole novel that I can refer back to while writing, and I use it during revision when I start moving, deleting, and adding scenes. (I generally don’t outline the book beforehand.) The chart for the first draft of Fair Coin is covered in lots of arrows, lines, and scribbles, which somehow turned into the next draft. (Perhaps I’ll discuss my revision process in a later post, since that will be the focus of my life for the next few months.)
  • I also have a separate document where I drop plot ideas, revision notes, lines I want to use or reuse, character details, and a whole lot of miscellaneous.

This structure might not be the most intuitive or wieldy, but it’s worked for me, at least twice. So how does this translate to Scrivener?

Scrivener lets you organize your documents however you like, but it suggests making a folder for each chapter (as above) and a separate document for every scene. I was skeptical, but I think this is a good idea–especially if I plan on reorganizing those scenes later. And it turns out most of my chapters are usually only one or two scenes long anyway. Scrivener will obviously make it easier for me to open each of these scenes, even while working on a different one (in a split pane), as well as search them for keywords. I can’t argue with that–it’s just more efficient.

I’m less enthused about the fact that all my revisions will be in just the one document. I could name them all separately if I want to, of course, and just exclude older drafts from the final “compile” of the manuscript, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I will probably just rely on snapshots after each writing session to see what happens. Incidentally, if you’re worried about mistakenly deleting a chapter or file, like I was, there’s a trash folder that has to be emptied manually. (While importing my chapters, I accidentally deleted chapters several times because the focus wasn’t where I expected, but it was easily remedied.)

One of the features of Scrivener that I’m excited about is the ability to virtually composite multiple documents into one, called a scrivening, just by highlighting a bunch of them and clicking a button. So I can read through the novel, or a few chapters, or a collection of scenes as though they had already been merged, without affecting the original files. Nifty. And any changes I type in will be saved in the appropriate place.

I can also access all my research documents–PDFs, docs, HTML pages, videos, and audio clips–all within Scrivener, instead of navigating to a separate folder and launching multiple windows.

Quantum Coin currently looks like this in Scrivener:

You didn’t really think I’d let you read my zero draft, did you? Ha ha, no. Plus, spoilers.

But look, everything’s right there. My chapters are accessible in the left pane, which can also be hidden. The currently selected file(s) appear in the center, and can be split vertically or horizontally to compare multiple documents or sections of the same document. The notecard on the top left has my synopsis, from the second column of my table. You can label the document (in this case, its a “scene”) and mark the status (“first draft”). I can put Notes in the bottom right, and it even tracks the word and character count at the bottom. That panel can also be toggled over to display keywords, which I’m using to track the characters in the scene as well as the setting so I can query them easily later. I was pretty stunned by what the program can do, and how well it can support my current writing habits while clearly improving on the workflow. And there are a bunch of other neat things you can do which I won’t even get to, and some I probably haven’t discovered yet.

Now, most people will say that for all Scrivener’s good points, it doesn’t make for a good word processor. I haven’t yet spent much time with it, but so far I’m impressed by how much you can customize it. You can write in “typewriter” mode, where the text you’re editing always stays in the middle of the page–which I find a bit disconcerting actually, so I’ve turned it off. And you can switch it into a fullscreen mode with its own set of options.

Most of all, I was thrilled that I can change the background color easily, something that’s very tricky in recent iterations of Microsoft Word. At Clarion West, my friend Amy showed me how to switch Word into the old Wordperfect view, white text on a blue background, and I’ve worked that way ever since because it seems easier on my eyes. Well, you can do that in Scrivener too, and it’s far simpler than figuring out how to configure Open Office in the same way. If I’m ever forced to upgrade from Word 2003, I think I could be fine with the word processor in Scrivener, at least for basic drafting.

And that’s really the heart of Scrivener: everything is in service to you and your project. You can use as much or as little of it as you want. Though I went into it thinking I wouldn’t want to get too bogged down with the bells and whistles, once I got a taste I was curious about what else it could do, and planning ways to make use of all the software can offer. And this is just the beta version! I’m starting to get an idea of why so many people swear by the program. (I haven’t even gotten to the Corkboard yet, but I’ll cover that later on when I figure out what to do with it…)

As I start to use Scrivener on a daily basis, I’ll note what’s working and isn’t working for me. I’m particularly interested in how I’m going to backup projects and share them across my main laptop and the new netbook I plan to get, and of course I’ll be praying that nothing bad happens to my novel. This is not a fun thing to see everytime I open the program:

I’m just trying it out, but I would pay a license fee right now if I could make that go away. I’m nervous about the whole beta thing, but I haven’t heard any horror stories yet, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

So if you’ve been using Scrivener, what are your favorite things about it? If you didn’t like it, why not? What are you curious about as you consider trying it out for yourself? I always like hearing about how other writers draft, plan, and organize, so feel free to chime in with your work habits and why you are or aren’t interested in software like Scrivener.

Previous post in this series: “the scrivening, part 2

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I'm a YA author who spends too much time on the internet.

Comments (10)

  1. Alex Piper

    As a long-time Scrivener user (mostly on the original Mac version), I can guarantee that the trial thing won’t screw you over. (Though as someone who also has the Windows version, I admit I’d love to get rid of the beta/trial popup as well.)

    But to set your mind at ease… if for some reason you can ever not open the file, just go into the .scriv bundle (or directory under Windows) and you’ll find all your scenes neatly stored as individual .RTF files, and all your associated notes as .TXT files. :)

  2. Angel DZ

    I have no experiences with Scrivener but may try it for my next project based on your experiences… and after the software is out of beta.

    I write everything in one file and give each chapter a descriptive chapter heading. At the beginning of each week I print out the table of contents and scrutinize it, occasionally taking a pair of scissors to the thing and manually re-arranging the order. All of my character notes and research is in my head. Not ideal, but it seems to be working.

    • ecmyers

      Sounds like it’s ideal for you at least. I have tended to want to stick with what works too, but I’m willing to incorporate some new things to see if it might improve the process. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the words on the page, however they get there.

  3. Janni

    Based on your recommendation, I’m giving this a go. It seems like just the thing to help arrange my massive nonfiction baby. I back it up religiously every time I work on it, in a few different places, but after I nearly gave myself a couple of heart attacks in an ugly fight with Google Docs, I definitely could stand to find something a bit better…especially since the length is more than a little unwieldy. XD;;; So far, so good! I’ll have more useful things to say, I’m sure, after I’ve gotten into using it a bit more.

    As for the Corkboard, have you watched the Scrivener Introductory Video that’s up on the Windows Beta page? It goes into detail about the Corkboard and what it’s for, and it makes an awful lot of sense to me — in fact, I’m definitely looking forward to using it as soon as I import my current WIP.

    I’m really glad there’s a Windows and Linux beta version coming…although I do have a G4 running OSX around, I’m afraid it’d probably be ridiculously slow if I tried to run Scrivener on it. Plus, it’s not portable, which is another big minus.

    Thanks for posting about this. :)

    • ecmyers

      I did watch the video and the corkboard does look useful. I’m just not sure how compatible it is with the way I tend to visualize and organize my work. I’m definitely going to give it a try though.

      I’m glad my posts were helpful! Let me know what you think of Scrivener as you work with it on your current project.

  4. Mary Mascari

    I’ve used Scrivener to write two novels and several short stories and I LURVE it.

    I love that I can break up scenes, copy them, move them. I like taking notes on individual scenes or on the project as a whole.

    Those are the big selling points. I have some little nitpicks that I’d like to see fixed (search results are kind of hard to go through easily) but otherwise, I’m delighted with it.

    • ecmyers

      I’m starting to feel more comfortable with the program–and starting to trust it not to lose my work. :) I haven’t done any significant rearranging of scenes in this novel yet, so I don’t feel I’m really putting Scrivener through its paces yet. But I’m rather pleased with it so far!

      I’ll have to try writing my next short story in Scrivener to see how useful it is for that length. I suppose if there are a lot of scenes, or an experimental structure, it could be quite helpful. Just the note-taking would be great so I don’t have to keep multiple documents open at once.

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