I’m not the most organized writer in the world. That’s probably surprising for a writer of historical fiction, but I’m one of those writers who, after doing some research and letting the story and characters form in my head, I have to plunge into writing and see what happens.
That usually works for me, sometimes aided by a historical timeline (because I can’t always keep events and places straight without a little assistance!). But this latest work-in-progress is different. It’s an adult thriller with modern-day, flashback, and 800-year-old events and mysteries to interweave. I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone in writing this book, and found that after I’d plowed directly into writing it just as I write my other books, I was getting my knickers in a twist, as the British so colorfully say.
I can’t remember where I read about Scrivener, so I apologize to whoever it was who tweeted or posted or whatever that I can’t acknowledge you here. But I went to the site, nicely titled Literature and Latte, and discovered that they had a free download. Even better, I discovered that if I fell in love, the program was only going to cost me $39.99 to buy. For us starving writers, that’s a good deal.
I’m not going to go into detail about how the program works, what the interface is like etc., because you can easily explore it for yourself. What I am going to talk about briefly is its effect on this particular WIP.
To import what I’d written so far into the program, I had to do some work. I had to reaffirm where I wanted the breaks to occur. Then, an optional step but the one that I found very revealing, was entering information about each section into the inspector. I created keywords for certain things: places, characters (modern and medieval), key items, major events. These I attached to each of the chapters.
I thought that was all pretty great, but even without keywords, you can search a term, a character—whatever—and the program will show you where it occurs, even to identifying which chapters in the sidebar. That makes it much more valuable than the search in a word processing program, where it just scrolls through the document and you have to figure out where you are in the story.
So far, so good.
This is where the power of the program really started to show itself. Not only could I add keywords, but another option is to choose a label for each section. There are a few preloaded, but these are also very easy to customize. I decided to create labels like “exposition,” “action,” “romance,” etc., then I was able to color-code them however I wanted to.
This had two effects: firstly it made me identify what was the main event occurring in each chapter, and where there wasn’t anything particularly major occurring and I could cut. Secondly, it forced me to think structurally about where certain events occurred in the novel.
All of this is great, and makes me step back from the emotional connection to the words and look at my novel as an edifice. But I still hadn’t taken that final—and most important—step.
I’m very used to typing page to page, to just cruising ahead and figuring I’ll go back and fix later. And that’s a perfectly valid way to get a novel onto your hard drive. It’s worked for me for five published and about as many more unpublished.
But the Scrivener interface makes you work in sections. Which means thinking in scenes. And it has a feature that blacks out your entire computer screen so it’s just you and the words while you’re writing. I find that very useful, and once I start, just as flowing and magical as typing into a word-processing document.
When I’ve finished a scene, I label it, assign keywords etc. and I see what I’ve actually done.
OK, so this is arguably the biggest strength of Scrivener for a writer like me. I can take a chapter or scene from the sidebar and drag it up and down, move it around, without having to copy and paste. Plus, there’s a Notecard View that puts all your color-coded sections on a bulletin board surface. I forgot to tell you about the synopsis part: you type a brief description of each chapter or scene in the notecard, and you can see at a glance what’s happening.
I know some writers have always used physical tools like notecards and outlines, but that’s just not me. Maybe I’m lazy. But having a program that does that for you naturally kind of rocks.
I recently found that I could write scenes in chunks, constructing the flashbacks so that they made sense in themselves when lifted out of the narrative of the main action. That made me feel pretty powerful.
So, for what it’s worth, Scrivener has been helping me with this project. Not sure I’d use it for every one I do, but who knows?