As an aspiring writer, I confess there’s a certain degree of desire created in me when I see these flashy programs that are designed to help the new writer. Just as books about writing are great ways to procrastinate from actually writing, so too are these great tools ways to pretend you’re writing without actually writing.
Lawrence Block’s take on early writing mirrors some of my own experience. When you’re starting out, and finding the idea of a novel a bit daunting, it isn’t uncommon to turn to tips and tricks, and there is no more common myth in writing than that of the “correct way” to get organized. Whether it is a novel or a screenplay, there is a lot of advice out there that revolves around index cards.
Generally speaking, what this means is that you are going to do an outline of some sort for your novel or screenplay, prepare lots of little index cards around various scenes or perhaps character profiles, and as you go, you’ll likely want to put them on a bulletin board with pushpins so you can move them around at will until you’re gotten to a point where you say, “Eureka! That’s my story!”. Then you sit down and start writing.
Tools like Scrivener and others are designed with these “plotters” and “outlines” in mind, particularly as they frequently include extra tools that allow you to create similar outline cards or even a whole separate outline, move scenes around, adjust entire orders to novels by chapter, if you want or need to do so. Sure, you can do it in Word manually, but how efficient is THAT? Right?
Enter the software solution. Basically, the various tools out there including Scrivener are essentially wordprocessing programs tweaked out the wazoo to be of use to the writer. All of it seamlessly pulled together into a single program. As noted, you can write your manuscript in Word, but lots of people like a single tool where you can store your research, tab around to various tools, etc. Others prefer separate collections of tools, like Word for writing, maybe OneNote to keep their research, maybe something like PowerPoint for outling, etc. Scrivener’s approach promises that in addition to the “single” file for your work-in-progress (WIP), you can also “group” a bunch of files together like a project manager / file manager. If you open the project, you open the files all together. You can keep separate docs for all the chapters, or a single doc for the whole doc but separate ones for research. Up to you. It’s a bit more like a database interface in front of your wordprocessing interface. Word doesn’t do that — while you can group files together in a single folder, Word treats them as generally single unrelated files.
I don’t think I particularly NEED Scrivener, but there are some tools I want to play with in a physical form and I’d rather have it all available electronically in the short term. It looks a bit like the classic index card / bulletin board / pushpin model, and I found a discount code for the software, so here we are.
Starting the tutorial
I know, I know, I’m losing all credibility here. I’m actually going to do the formal tutorial. Almost as bad as reading an instruction manual instead of just winging it. Sheesh.
I also confess that I really like the approach of the tutorial which is that instead of a series of videos or separate documents, the tutorial has you make the changes directly to the tutorial materials. The same doc you are reading is the same doc you are editing. If you want to undo, you easily can; if you want to start over, you can do that too with a fresh document.
The three areas of Scrivener seem pretty straightforward, similar in many ways to working in Microsoft PowerPoint. The left side is the navigation for the table of contents with folders and docs that can next; the main screen is for editing; and there is a collapsible third screen that lets you write a simple synopsis or notes for each doc you have in the navigation window…more or less, it gives you two windows to add fairly basic meta information for that file/section. There are other sub-pages to the meta sidebar, but not sure how much of it that I will use.
Overall, going through the binder features, there are some nomenclature issues that I bet a lot of new writers end up agonizing over, such as the ability to convert between folders and files i.e., convert a file into a folder or a folder into a file. Neither sound particularly useful in the tutorial, so I probably won’t use any of them. And perhaps that’s part of my advantage. I already know what my writing process generally looks like and what looks useful or not.
One limitation I see, the inability of the “draft” folder to have anything other than text files, seems a bit annoying. I can see a situation or two where it might be nice to include a research file or two, such as a PDF or image, and just have it dump out when working. Sure, I can embed it in a text file, but if you can add them to other sections, why not here too? Perhaps it’s a safety net to prevent people from having multiple pieces that mess up a final manuscript. Personally, I’d prefer a warning if/when the final manuscript is done that those files can’t work in the final version rather than banning them as you go. Minor, but a bit annoying.
Some other random thoughts in the tutorial
I tried the rest of the sections, some were interesting, but most weren’t.
- Inspector options to get to the various meta data was of limited use in the sample. It does have status elements and labels that might be useful at some point, allowing you to “tag” your docs or create your own “to do” list basically, but otherwise, seems more like a single use function.
- Bookmarks seems like a useful option though simply because it also gives you a preview of the other doc…so, for example, I could bookmark the three character profiles I have for Able, Baker and Charlie and be able to quickly reference them on screen without having to go back to the other section of the doc to do it.
- Snapshots seems good for being able to manage editing versions, but the power also reflects a high degree of complexity. Instead of “auto snapshots” or autobackups, it is doing it when you manually think to do it. In other words, you obviously have to remember to do a snapshot before making lots of changes. Not sure there’s a better way, but it’s also not as convenient as some other tools out there.
- I like the composition mode, i.e., the distraction-free mode. I changed the colours to a simpler background, I find black way too harsh to type against.
- I’m a bit surprised the corkboard doesn’t seem more intuitive. I’m not sure if I’m not seeing the tools I was expecting, or the workflow is simply different since I’m reviewing an existing document as opposed to starting with a blank doc and doing outline, but I expected simpler colour coding and a bit more ability to do things like add arc indicators, thematic scenes, or well, “beats”. But there is a screenwriter mode I haven’t seen addressed yet, so maybe I’ll get more in that.
- While compiling seems relatively straight-forward, I’m WAY far away from that need yet. I’m a little worried that, as with Word, you’re better off getting your formatting structure right from the start so that you don’t mess it up later and have to try and OVERRIDE settings, likely leaving a lot of crud behind. Word is notorious for that. But I don’t see an alternative for now. It seems like the compiling allows settings to handle everything, I’ll likely figure out more incremental usage as I go (early formatting, mid-process formatting, and final formatting).
- I’m fascinated by the targets, but not for the reason you might think. I work in performance measurement in my day job, and as such, I’m often curious about how writers measure their “success” or just performance. Lots of writers talk about wordcounts as their target, and that is certainly the case with the annual NaNoWriMo desire to complete a novel in a month. But that’s not the way I’m wired for writing. As others have suggested, often they go by scenes or pages, not words. And never characters. It’s nice to “have”, but I don’t know that I’ll “use” it. Not even for session targets, I don’t think. Hard to say.
- Ah-hah! I figured out script-writing mode. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, although it should have been obvious. I was looking for the corkboard layouts similar to the Beats approach from Save the Cat and Syd Field. Of course, it was more about actual writing than the outline method. Doh!
- I like the name generator tool, although it may take some time to get used to it! I gave it a test run with the parameters I already have for one of my characters, just to see if it came up with the name I’m using, and it did. So I guess it works. 🙂
And that’s it. I still have lots of work to do to get it set up for my various works-in-progress, but it’s a start. Oh, and I have to test it to see what it gives me for backups to the cloud.
But it seems decent so far. I might want other themes though…