Work Flow and Scrivening by Mark Chisnell

An admission: I wrote my first novel in WordPerfect 5.1. Fortunately, I’ve now got it out of that format (before the converters cease to exist) and it currently resides on my hard drive as an MS Word file, along with everything else. I can’t remember exactly when I switched but, judging by the file dates, I’ve been using Word, or the cut-down version in Works, for almost two decades. 

For a writer, the word processor is much the same as a chisel and saw for a carpenter, or the canvas and paint for a painter. It's our interface to the creative output. It’s the most important tool in my life, and the  Word interface feels like an old friend - even if I get annoyed every time I have to upgrade and Microsoft move everything around.

There are many things MS Word won’t do for me though – I can’t outline effectively, instead I have to use a spreadsheet for that job, using a row of cells to hold all the necessary information for a scene; weather, location, character motivations and so on. If I write the whole book in one document/file it quickly becomes too big to be manageable, while if I split it up, I then have to put it all back together every time I want to print or output a full draft. If you create a new file for each chapter this rapidly turns into a massive pain in the butt, and even with my preferred five-chapters-to-a-file rule, it’s still a chore. And then there are all the other files I need for character biographies, location research, and the rest of the gubbins that goes on in the background in my efforts to make the finished product polished and smooth. It’s easy to end up with the pc desktop a confusing mess of open files and scarily unsaved edits. Disaster is only a click away.

So when I heard about Scrivener I thought it was worth a look. The software was originally developed by a guy who wanted to be a writer but - in the interests of procrastination - decided to write the tools of creativity before he wrote the novel. He still hasn’t written the novel, but Scrivener is a huge success as that rare thing - a computer programme written specifically for the authors of long-form narrative. I downloaded it a couple of weeks ago, and (surprisingly) did exactly what the company suggested - went through the tutorial. 

I’m no expert but it seems to be built on a database principle, and so it can do things that just aren’t possible in a word processor. Everything I need is there – a single interface to the manuscript, outlines, bios and research. It breaks the text down to make it easy to work on individual scenes, but allows you to ‘compile’ it back into a complete manuscript at the click of a few buttons.  It’s simple to use, seems quick to learn, and although I have yet to write my first story on it, I’m already a fan.

Best of all, the software company that makes it, Literature and Latte, are based in my favourite part of the world, Truro in Cornwall. There’s even a Scrivener for Dummies – which shows they’ve really arrived. So for me it's good-bye to the old familiar face of MS Word - at least for the novels and short stories, although I'm sure I'll be using it for blogs and journalism for a while to come. And hello to Scrivener... 

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Bill Kirton said…
I'll be interested to hear how you like it after using it for a while, Mark. I downloaded the trial and it certainly looks useful. So far, I've used Word for the actual writing but a combination of Write It Now and StoryLines for the moving around, structuring, character profiles, notes, etc. The trouble is, once I move away from Word, it becomes like a game - these things are great displacement activities. Good luck with it.
Chris Longmuir said…
I've been using Scrivener for my new book. I started it off in Word, then imported what I had done into
Scrivener. I quite like the programme. I particularly like the ability to move scenes around without cutting and pasting. I'll think about doing a post on it, although I still regard myself as a novice.
I had a look at it too, and know people who swear by it, but I won't be using it. But you have certainly made me think about how I work! Confession time. I never write the work in individual scenes. Not even when I'm writing a play. I do my research and then I begin at the beginning, go on till I get to the end and then stop. I will loosely divide into chapters or scenes as I'm working, but these change all the time and it's an instinctive process. I hardly plan at all or only in the most sketchy way - a big 'mind map' to start with and then a couple of pages of outline so that I can work out some kind of timeline, but that's all. I generally have pretty much the whole thing in my head as I'm writing, even if it's a big project.I don't always know the whole story, although I often know the end. I can remember that I used to break it up into lots of sections, and Word was cumbersome for doing it, but at some point I started writing the whole novel as a single long document and it felt liberating. But I think it might be quite different if I were writing in a different genre. I don't even write character profiles. (I know that's what you're supposed to do but I cannot tell a lie. I don't!)Or scene plans or anything like that, really. I have a single folder of miscellaneous background notes, which all feed into the novel. I do a lot of rewrites, for sure, but not many structural rewrites. At some point, I will print out, because I have to 'see' the text. At that stage I might do some literal cutting and pasting, (especially if an editor has pointed out some structural problems with which I agree) but it's easy enough then to replicate that on my Word document. I can do it in a couple of hours maximum. When I wrote the Curiosity Cabinet, which consists of two different but intertwined stories I wrote them separately - two long Word documents - and then printed them out and physically put the two together. Again, a literal cut and paste job. Maybe Scrivener would have worked for that, but I had no problem doing it in Word. And until I printed it out, I hadn't the foggiest idea where the 'joins' would be. It was an instinctive shuffling about of bits of paper.I can imagine, however, that it would be very useful for non-fiction projects such as I struggled with when I was working on God's Islanders.
julia jones said…
But this is radical! terrifying! My laptop just bust so I've spent this morning resurrecting a thundering old PC from the Windows 98 era. With no hint of reproach it warmed its mighty valves and burst back into life. I sat back with a sigh of relief. It was like getting my C reg Volvo home again. With almost 300,000 miles on the clock. None of your new fangled programmes for me!
Ruth Harris said…
Mark—Welcome to the world of Scriv. I've been using it for years & Keith (the developer) keeps making it better (unlike some other apps I could name).

I still haven't gotten my head around Collections & wonder if you've tried their formatting function?

PS: Their forum is terrific. They answer questions & do it promptly. All in all, excellence!
Ellen Grogan said…
I used the trial for two days and went on to purchase. Been at it for a month and am not going back. There is SO much usefulness in it. Even imported the character charts yesterday so all is right there at my fingertips now. JUST DO IT!
Susan Price said…
I've been hearing good things about Scrivener, and now Mark commends it. I'll certainly have a look but I can't say I find Word difficult.

I assume you are all familiar with Word's Document Map (aka Navigation Pane)? I ask, because I would have taken it for granted that you were, but when I was working as an RLF in a University recently, I met so many people - tutors and students - who had never heard of it.
It makes it possible to jump to any spot in a large file - basically, it's a quick, easy way of inserting a hyperlink. So you can jump backwards and forwards to chapter headings and subheadings at the start of scenes. I use it all the time.
glitter noir said…
This makes me feel so antiquated, still using index cards for outlining. Then again, whatever works, eh? Makes me wonder if P.G. Wodehouse would have persisted in covering the walls with his cards if Scrivener had been around.
Thanks Mark!
I was already interested in Scrivener, potentially, as I'd heard it can create ebooks, mobi or epub, and with good formatting if the rules are learned...haven't embarked on experiment with it yet though!
It seems from the sound of it, like Catherine's work method, doing whole book in one go, in one piece like a traditional boat hull, is same as mine.
Your favourite book, though, Mark, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE comes in here again: Robert Pirsig took 20 years over writing its sequel LILA, set on the boat instead of the bike, and he describes his writing method there...index cards, hundreds of them, written on for years until the book's structure emerged from the parts.
Sounds like Pirsig would have been a good early candidate for Scrivener himself!
Glad there's somebody else who works like me. Was beginning to feel like a freak!
Mark Chisnell said…
I guess the usefulness (or not) of Scrivener does depend on how you work!! All the systems I've used derive from the index cards method which underpins Scrivener, and I can't imagine writing a novel in one file - but maybe I'm thinking filmically (if that's a word) rather than novelistically (not sure that's a word either)...

Lee said…
I'm like Mark and can't write a novel using a single file, and though I generally work directly in Word, I still like shuffling and laying out index cards once I've got a rough idea of my nonplot (usually very late in the game!); also drawing large, colourful diagrams. And I love notebooks. Weirdly, though, I tend not to look back at what I've written in them.

Still, maybe I should have a look at this Scrivener tool.

Susan, thanks for the document map tip! I'm one of those who didn't know about it, since I generally just use the search function.
Dennis Hamley said…
No, Susan, I'm not familiar with Word's Document Map. It sounds interesting. Please explain. I've used Word ever since I pensioned off Macwrite on my ancient Mac in 2001 and regressed to a PC because my son gave me his old one. I've always found it fine. I tend to write separate chapters on a document and then, when I'm reasonably happy with the stage I've reached, copy and paste it into a full version. I've never had the slightest trouble in subsequent redrafting on a single Word document. However, I must be strange because I've never used index cards and things like that even when I was using a typewriter and several gallons of Tipp-ex. My only trouble now is that the latest Word which was preloaded on my new computer is too clever for its own good. Why has numbering pages suddenly become so difficult? I'm not sure whether to try Scrivener. I'm beginning to think my writing methods are just simple-minded. Do I need complications?
Susan Price said…
For anyone who's not familiar with Document Map or Navigation Pane, try going to 'View' on your Word toolbar.

Everybody's Word looks different, so I can't tell you exactly where to find it, but study the toolbar carefully, and you'll see something called 'Navigation Pane' or 'Document Map'. The name varies in different versions of Word.

Click on it (or tick the box) and a panel opens down the left-hand side of the screen.

Now, say you want to find the start of each chapter. Highlight the chapter heading, and click 'Header 1' in styles. You may have to fiddle about a bit, pressing enter and so on - but the words you've turned into a heading on your page should appear in the panel to the left.
Do this with every chapter, and you will have a string of chapter headings down the left-hand panel. Click on any one of them, and it will jump straight to that heading in your file. So you can jump to the start of any chapter in your book - I'm up to 41 in my present book.
You can create sub-headings too. I find the scene I'm currently working on by putting HERE into the main text and turning it into a heading.
But if I want to find a particular scene, I give it a sub-heading, and make it a 'heading 2'. This insets it from the main chapter headings, so you can see a distinction between the chapter divisions and scenes within the chapters. I think you can add headings 3 and 4 too, if you want sub-sub headings.

Extremely useful! I have long files of recipes and poems, and research items for the current book, and I can find any part I want by using Navigation Pane. I kept my appointment file at university like this too. If a student wanted to know if I had a appointment free in March, I could jump straight to March and find out.
Lee said…
Susan, I'm glad for the info and will probably try it out, but putting 'Chapter x' into the search function seems to work just as fast. Perhaps it's most effective with subheadings, something I haven't considered using for a novel but may in fact be worth trying. For nonfiction works, undoubtedly useful, and it ought to make my next lengthier translation job less arduous.
Susan Price said…
Hi Lee - I used to use the 'Find' tool, but Navigation Pane is much less clumsy. You set it up as you work - so in later days, weeks, months, you just move your cursor to the side panel and click - and there you are, at the spot you wanted.

And it's easier to get back to the spot where you were working too, before you hopped off to make a change that had just occurred to you. Just click on the side panel and you're back.
Lee said…
OK, I'll definitely give it a go! And this illustrates just how much I could use a thorough grounding in Word. I bumble along doing things the way I've always done, vaguely aware that there must be shortcuts and procedures I've never bothered to learn, macros being another good example.
Ann Turnbull said…
No, Catherine, you are not alone! I read your comment in amazement, thinking "this is me!" about everything - especially those character notes that I too feel vaguely guilty about never doing. I do plan, but almost entirely on paper. The more messy and scribbled-on the paper gets, the happier I feel. I started on a manual typewriter, which was a whole lot easier to use and understand than anything on a computer.
John said…
I have been using Scrivener about a year now to revise a crime novel written in MS Word, short stories written in Word, and a screenplay from concept to completed script. I am also using it to revise an existing screenplay. It has a learning curve, but the user forum is extremely helpful, as is the documentation. I outline and I research and doing it all with one tool is great.

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