Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Scrivener: A Novelist’s Experience

cbdtta_tiny[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
Part the Ninth –
Scrivener: A Novelist’s Experience

First off, let me apologise for last week’s lack of posting. Between finishing my collab comic book, attending Fearless Vampire Killers’ Halloween rock ball in London, giving said comic book to my muse Gerard Way, and preparing for the Thought Bubble comic con in Leeds this weekend, I was, well, too emotionally exhausted to make any posts that wouldn’t question contemplate the meaning of life, and heavens know this blog has seen enough of those recently.

Plus, it’s been a while since I posted something vaguely useful here. So I thought about talking about my process, and then realised that a large part of it can be summarised with one word.


scrivenerDisclaimer: No part of this post is in any way endorsed by Literature and Latte, the developers of Scrivener, or anyone else associated with the program, or, in fact, anyone at all. I just think it is a useful piece of software that a lot of writers could benefit from.

What Is Scrivener and Why Do I Need It?
Scrivener is a software developed for writers of all or nearly all persuasions (novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, comic book writers), meant to help them organise the writing process. I heard about it accidentally, myself, and once I tried it, I never looked back. Recently, it came to my attention that some beginning novelists (you know who you are *thunderclap*) find it a struggle to get started with Scrivener. This post isn’t, by far, a manual, nor do I claim to have a grasp of the entire multitude of the program’s features. I do, however, know enough to organise my work in a way that helped me a lot.

Scrivener uses two principles to organise a writing workspace. One, breaking the body of your written work into manageable, organisable chunks. Two, keeping everything related to your writing project within easy reach. Therefore, it can be useful for anyone working on a long writing project, or a project involving a lot of research. The only kind of writing work I can think of, where Scrivener would be less useful, would be unconnected short stories. I’m not saying you can’t use it when writing one-shots, because your thousand-word story might have twenty-eight internet resources and a hundred pictures of research and inspirations – but since your body of text is likely to be small, you can probably get away with a combination of your word processor of choice, and the folder explorer of your OS.

But unless one-shots is something you plan to write for the rest of your life, I strongly recommend you give Scrivener a shot.

Me, I can never resist a company featuring a coffee in its name.

Me, I can never resist a company featuring a coffee in its name.

Getting Started
Early beginning is fairly straightforward. You download a 30-day trial, follow the instructions to install it, and run the program for the first time. This is when you get a screen looking something like this.

new_projectThis is where you get to pick what type of project you’ll be working on. Personally, I only ever explored the ‘Fiction’ section of options. If you’re writing a script or a comic book, feel free to explore and tell me your findings.

But if novel’s your poison, pick Fiction, and then the type of novel. The current ( version of Scrivener boasts several different types here – plain novel, Camp NaNo, ‘novel with parts’, and a short story. I personally always (she said, referring to the two times she did so) go for the vanilla novel option, and the customise the heck out of it as I see fit. (For the rest of this post, I’m going to assume you’re working with a novel.)

Then you give it a title in the little Save As field underneath, and also specify where the project is going to be saved, in the Where field. By default, it may be pointing to the same directory where you installed Scrivener (likely C:/program files/whatevs). Seeing as modern operating systems like swearing at the user for even looking in the direction of Program Files, I recommend you change this field to something you can access and backup with minimal effort. (If you zoom into the picture, you’ll see that I keep mine on the D: drive.)

Now, it’s time to address the questions I had when I created my first Scrivener project…

What Is This? Where The Heck Is Everything? What Do I Do Now?
The first thing that’ll jump in your face will be a long-ass explanation titled Novel Format, which, I imagine, includes the answers to the above questions, among many. But who’s got time to read that, right?

binderIt’s the little file tree to the left that you should be interested in. Scrivener calls it BINDER.

This is where your novel, and everything related to it is going to live. As your new project got created, some stuff got put there by default. There’ll be a section titled Manuscript, containing a folder called Chapter, with a single document inside it called Scene. Then there’ll be sections for Characters and Places, containing nothing at this point. Front Matter is something that got added in a recent update. Prior to that, there was only the title page, located before the Manuscript. Right now, Front Matter allows to customise your title page, dedications, copyrights, and ebook cover. It’s all fairly intuitive as you click around it.

Then there’s Research, by default coming bundled with a folder of Standard Outputs (books in the Standard Manuscript format, a paperback, and an ebook), and template sheets for character and setting descriptions. Personally, I find questionnaires like that constraining, but if they’re your cup of tea, more power to you.

Now, if you clicked around on any items in the binder, you would’ve seen the view in the middle of the screen changing. That area, depending on what you’re doing, can be the CORKBOARD or the EDITOR. Corkboard is a way to see all items in a certain folder laid out in front of you, with whatever extra notes you’ve got on top of them. Editor is the mode in which you view and edit files.

Same window, two views.

Same window, two views.

Unless the settings of Scrivener changed between my and your versions, there is something on the above screenshot of my workspace that’s missing from yours (and I don’t just mean 100k+ words of novel and associated mess). The rightmost part of the window is called INSPECTOR, and is not visible by default. It’s a highly useful feature, so I suggest you activate it right away, either by hitting Ctrl+Shift+I, or by going to View -> Layout -> Inspector.

The inspector tab has several modes, and there’s an icon for each at the bottom of the tab. I mainly use the Notes mode when writing (the notepad icon), and the Snapshot mode when editing (the camera icon). Inspector in the Notes mode is a perfect place to keep any short notes you might have about the document you’re currently working on. You can also assign different labels (entirely customisable) to your documents and set their statuses (like First Draft, Final Draft, etc. – you can create your own). Snapshot mode is basically a time machine, allowing you to save your document in different states and flick between them. This is where keeping your work in separate bits comes in handy – you can play with several versions of one chapter without worrying about the rest.

And well, as far as getting started goes, this is mainly it. Like I said, this isn’t a manual. A lot of things are figured out as you click around. For some, a quick Google search solves your problem.

Where Do I Go From Here?
Anywhere you want! The beauty of Scrivener is that, while sticking to a few basic principles, it allows you great freedom of organisation. I’d say that a good place to start is:
– create some documents in the Manuscript folder;
– start writing;
– as you find reference materials, dump them into the Research folder.

This is what the file depository looks like.

This is what the file depository looks like.

That last point deserves a special note, in fact. When I said that one of the purposes of Scrivener is allowing you to keep everything you need for your writing close at hand, I really did mean EVERYTHING. There’s no limit to the type, number, or size of files that you can drop into the project. As long as it’s digital, you can attach it. A lot of the attached files can be opened right in Scrivener’s own window. That includes common image formats, music files, some video files (can’t vouch for all formats, though), text files (which are converted to Scrivener documents when you drop them into the project), and document files (which are also converted, but rather clumsily). If Scrivener’s editor/file viewer cannot open the file, it will show a hyperlink, which, when clicked, opens the file in the program traditionally used to view it (for example, MS Excel for spreadsheets). But even in that case, as soon as you dropped the file into the project, a copy of it is created in the project folder, which means that whatever happens to the original file, the bundle you’ve put together for your writing won’t be affected. The files themselves are stored in the folder you specified when creating your project (under Files/Docs/), and are easily findable if necessary, as their formats remain unchanged (they are, however, renamed).

Let Me Show You How It’s Done
To give you an idea of what a (mostly) finished, two-year-long project looks like in Scrivener, here are some screenshots of my novel’s workspace.

TL/DR: The Good, The Bad, and the Binder
So as not to go on about feature after feature, even in my limited use of the program, I’d like to wrap up with a quick run-down of Scrivener’s pros, cons, and things to consider.
Pros of Scrivener:
– easy navigation between parts of story;
– keep all research at hand;
– backup your work and move between different systems easily;
– very customisable workspace;
– affordable (USD 40 for a lifetime license and updates in perpetuity, usable on several computers);

Cons of Scrivener:
With all my love of Scrivener, if there’s one thing I can’t come to terms with, it’s the fact that it doesn’t have a ‘track changes’ mode like MS Word does. I work around it by using Inline Annotations mode, but activating it for eveyr edit is rather buggersome.
– bumpy learning curve (but answers to most questions are found after one Google search).

Scrivener takes some effort to figure out at first, but pays for itself in efficiency, especially for large-scale projects. It has my approval.

Got questions to ask/stories to tell about Scrivener? Comment below, share the love!


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