Scrivener Windows Beta, First Impressions Part 1

Well, we’re into the third day of NaNoWriMo now and I’ve been using Scrivener both in the lead up planning for my NaNo WIP and in the two days (so far) of writing as well, and whilst I’m by no means an expert I’ve found it to be a very useful tool – but how useful depends on how you write.

Previously I’ve see-sawed between being and organic writer and a particularly organised planning writing.  Years ago my earliest stories were purely organic rambling affairs, but by the time I was in high school and later writing non-fiction for the university paper, I had started scribbling basic outlines, generally in notebooks, notepads and once or twice on napkins.  Despite this though, my first attempts at novel writing were purely organic, with an idea of characters and a few plot points in my head and then just writing to see where it took me.

This didn’t work for me and never has.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun, and even if I spent weeks planning there is still a touch of the organic in me that will ensure that the plan, like all battle plans, does not survive contact with the enemy.  However I have found that without a road-map of sorts I end up writing myself into a hole somewhere in the middle of the book where I cannot see which direction to go or how to get the characters to the end planned – or indeed any dramatically satisfactory ending. 

If you’re an organic writer who has no interest in planning, I honestly doubt Scrivener has a great deal to offer you.  You would be far better off with a straight word processor, the simpler the better, and somewhere to hold your editing notes, whether it be a simple novel notebook by your computer or a technological solution such as a wiki – which I will cover in a future post.

If you’re a planner like me, or if you’re looking to give it a try, lean closer because there’s a chance that Scrivener could change your entire process.

Scrivener operates on the same basic principle as some other writing tools such as yWriter, and that is that you can (with the corollary, should) organise a piece of writing into component pieces.  This is something that we do quite automatically, organising our writing into scenes, chapters and sometimes further into parts, and in the case of say the Wheel of Time series (longest single continuous story –evar-), into volumes.  In the case of plays, we have scenes and acts.  Epic poems have canto’s (and if you want to get very close in, stanza’s).

The way Scrivener challenges you to be different is to encourage you to actually think about this structure.  You do this by using index cards, in a screen that is cutely textured like a cork-board.  Each index card is a unit of your story.  The unit can be as big as you like, scene, chapter, even an entire book or story on a single card.  The card has metadata as well, so you can give each card a separate title and a synopsis.

The obvious use for this card system is to have a card to represent each scene in your novel, and make use of the other card-index tool, folders, to represent chapters.  A folder is simply a collection of index cards that are stored together.  This is the method I am currently trying out on my NaNo-Novel and it is working quite well (of course, we’re only on the third day, so we’ll see how I feel on the thirtieth).

This means you can use these structural tools for planning, at any level of detail you wish.  In order to try this out, for the current novel I started by creating a folder, and giving the name “Chapter One”, and a Synopsis.  Folders have their own meta-data index cards just like the cards they contain.

Once that is done I opened the folder and started creating cards for scenes.  I wrote a name for the scene and then a brief synopsis of what I wished to accomplish with the scene.  Scrivener makes this even easier by allowing you to create coloured tags for index cards which represent “labels” with any text you wish (i’m using them to track sub-plot weaving) and a “status” label, which looks like a stamp across the front of the card.  These say things like “To Do”, “First Draft”, “Revised” etc, allowing you to know where you are at with each individual card in your project.

I plotted in this manner for about half the book, and then changed it up a bit for the second half.  Instead of plotting out a full chapter at a time I started just adding chapters with their high-level synopsis until I reached the end of my story.  Then I went back and added scenes afterwards, merging and splitting chapters as necessary during this period of refinement.  I think I actually prefer this method, probably because it appeals to my Computer Science training (get it working, make it better).

This process continues during the novel writing process itself as well, I’ve already added an extra scene to chapter one that I hadn’t planned because the preceding scene took a turn I didn’t expect during the writing.  It’s important to be flexible and go with the story leads you, but this way I hope I will never be standing lost thinking “what’s next?”, or at least not for long.

This planning process also leads directly into the writing.  Each index card also opens directly into the word processor portion of the software, so that every word of your novel is linked to one of your index cards.  At first I thought I would find this stifling, as I’d always worked in an open document rather than being confined to writing each scene in what equates to a completely separate document, however I’ve found the user interface makes it very easy to jump from card to card and we tend to write in blocks anyway, a scene and chapter at a time, so in the end it feels quite natural.  The added benefit of this is that you can treat your scenes as the individual blocks they are, by simply moving, rearranging or (gulp) deleting cards from the index, you are restructuring your story as you need to.  No more cutting and pasting – just like software development, it’s easier to see the forest when you’re at an abstract level, above the trees.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Scrivener in this post but I have covered off what I feel is the biggest conceptual difference between writing in it and writing in a standard word processor.  Later, I will cover off some of the other features that novelists will find useful, particularly those undertaking NaNoWriMo and why it’s replaced my wiki as well as my word processor for writing.

In the meantime, what is your favorite writing tool?  Microsoft Word? yWriter? Longhand in a leather-bound notebook?  Let us know in the comments!

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About frater

Author, Software Architect, Husband and Father.
This entry was posted in NaNoWriMo, Tools, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Scrivener Windows Beta, First Impressions Part 1

  1. Dr8k says:

    As mentioned on your last post, I’m using a combination of word and a wiki to build my story. It is working ok, but not perfect. I’m interested in some of the alternatives, and may need to give the Scrivener beta a go.

    Wikis are great for tracking structural facts etc – (e.g. character bios, physical locations, story arc summaries, whatever), but I find it fairly awkward when trying to manage story timelines or plan scenes (I like the sound of the corkboard). Am keen to see how you go with Scrivener over the rest of the month!

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