Adventures in Scrivener
I’ve tried many different ways of getting my stories out of my head and into a format that others can read. My earliest attempts were in notebooks, first with pencil and then with pen. I typed my first story on Microsoft Works, the first word processor I ever used (is that even still around, anymore?) But during my late high school and college years, my favorite was still pen and paper. I typed my words up later, printing them out to give to friends and turn in to professors (I majored in Creative Writing). And even after college I stuck to this method, writing by hand and typing later. It took longer, but I felt that, because it took so long, I spent more time in the world and with the characters. (I’m writing this post by hand right now, and will type it later). When typing, I used Word (if I was on a school computer) or Open Office (if I was on my laptop).
The shift came almost three years ago when I went to my first writers’ retreat. I was beyond excited about going, but also a little nervous. I had never spent day after day with nothing on my agenda but writing (if you haven’t done this, I recommend trying it at least once). I arrived around dinnertime that night, and spent the evening settling in, reading, and writing. My daily goal had been 1,000 words since college, but I was hopeful I’d get more per day while at the retreat. That first full day there I wrote 5,000 words. By hand. That is something I do not recommend you try. Not surprisingly, my wrist hurt the next day. So I tried typing without first writing by hand, something I had tried and struggled with in college. And somehow, I managed it. Another 5,000 words written. I repeated it the next day, and the next, writing over 30,000 words in 6 days.
(Still my favorite writing room. To find out more about the retreat, click here.)
At that point I realized, I can write on a computer if I need to. I don’t have to write by hand first, as I’d thought. The only things stopping me were my own mental hangups. After the retreat, when I went back to writing 1,000 words a day in the few hours I had in the evening after my day job, I continued typing. Often I went back and forth depending on my mood, but it was nice to know I could. I was no longer confined to writing one specific way. During my first year of working a day job I bought a used Mac for $300. It had some cosmetic damage, but otherwise worked perfectly. It came with a built-in word processor similar to Word (not Pages), and I used that for a few years until I accidentally let my computer die during an update (oops). To fix it, my computer had to be reset to factory settings. When I got it back, Word for Mac had been installed on it, and I used that up until I got my iMac. At that point I was introduced to Pages. I have nothing bad to say about Pages. It works fine for what I need, but there was one difference — I had to “export” my work to a .doc or .docx file to share it with others, or even just to be able to open the file on my laptop. It was a minor annoyance, but I soon got used to it. Fast forward to August 2016. I had changed jobs, towns, relationships, and my laptop, which had never run the same since I’d accidentally messed it up, had begun dying more quickly, requiring it to be plugged in at all times to be of use. I saw the writing on the wall. I bought a new laptop. (For those thinking I still have a desktop, so why bother? — I often write at coffee shops, or at conventions, or while on vacation). I would’ve loved to buy another MacBook, but money dictated I get something cheaper. Plus, I needed a PC to play certain computer games. So I got an Acer. My boyfriend gave me his log in information so I could use the Microsoft Office Suite on my laptop, and I was good to go. Only I still used Pages when on my iMac, meaning I had to switch back and forth. Tired of this, I tried Libre Office for a while. It did all the basic things I needed it to do, but there were a few minor annoyances (formatting resetting to default on every new page, no matter how many times I changed it). Eventually I gave up and switched back to Pages and Word. This is all well and good for writing. I got used to the exporting and switching programs per machine, but there was still an issue. My notes. Like with writing, I began by scribbling in notebooks. Even today, I carry around a small notebook so I can take notes as ideas come to me, no matter where I am. I have a note app on my phone with several entries for novel and story ideas, and another on the tablet my boyfriend bought me this summer. Sometimes, I type these notes in a word file and save them in the same folder as the novel they go with. At one point I tried using OneNote to store my various novel ideas, and last year I started using Airtable, which is actually pretty useful, but still lacking something. The result of all of this is several different note programs, each with their own story notes that aren’t saved anywhere else, meaning I have to remember where I put that elusive note for the novel I’m currently working on. Fun times. Now, on to the title of this post: Scrivener. A couple years ago I did a free trial of Scrivener. The cool
thing about it is the free trial lasts for 30 days, but they aren’t 30 consecutive days. Just 30 days total. So you can try it for a day, leave it alone for a year, and come back and still have 29 free days to use. Neat, huh? (That’s per machine, by the way. If you buy a new laptop in that year, your free trial starts completely over). When I did the free trial the first time, it was on my MacBook. I can’t remember now if my computer crashed before or after I started it, but it doesn’t really matter. I only used it once or twice, and I just jumped right in, trying to figure everything out on my own. Probably not the best idea. I didn’t end up liking it very much. But recently I decided to look into it again, and this time I read the entire User Guide, which shows you everything you need to know and more while using the program. I’m already over 25,000 words into my novel, and it was extremely easy to import all my work so far into Scrivener. It even split it up into chapters for me. When I’m done writing for the day, I have to export again to save my work as a .doc file, which I can then use on my laptop when I’m out and about (I haven’t gotten Scrivener on my laptop yet). So far I’m loving how powerful it is. I can export a single chapter, or the entire book, or I can choose which chapters to include. I can make extra folders where all my notes are stored, which I can pull up within the same program just by clicking on them. I can split my screen to see notes and chapter at the same time, or two chapters at once for comparison. I can pull up a small box called a “quick reference,” which will contain whatever I want it to, that will stay in its own window while I click around in the main program. Some of this may sound like gibberish if you’ve never tried it for yourself, but trust me, it’s pretty cool. This means I can have notes or whole chapters pulled up for reference while I’m working on the current chapter.
Okay, you may be saying. Word can do that too, or Pages, etc. But the difference is, if I make a change or addition to the files in the quick reference box, or split screen, it autosaves it. I can minimize or ‘x’ out of that screen, go back to the main screen, and continue working, and when I’m done all I have to do is save the project as a whole. If I tried that in Word or Pages, I would have to re-save every single file individually. So it’s a time saver.
Another thing I like is Composition Mode. I tried another writing program several months ago (can’t remember now what it’s called), and basically it was a simple text program that hid your desktop, letting you focus entirely on your book or story. That was it. And like Word or Pages, you had to save each file individually.
I’ve seen a lot of programs like this, actually, and I’ve never been a huge fan. I like the idea of hiding everything, but when I’m done with it and ready to format, etc., it’s too limited. Scrivener’s Composition Mode is exactly like this: your desktop is hidden, leaving a background and a translucent white column in the middle where you type. If you hover your mouse at the top or bottom of the screen, hidden menus appear with a few extra options. But when you’re done, you can exit Composition Mode and view what you’ve written on the main screen.
(You can change the background picture to whatever you want).
Basically, you get the hidden desktop and all the bells and whistles of formatting, changing fonts, splitting your screen, quick reference, saving your project as a whole, etc. Where before I disliked the hidden desktop other programs offered because it was a little too simple, now I loved it because I could use it while actually writing, then revert back to the more advanced look and options that Scrivener provides. To say the least, I’m pretty impressed by the whole thing. One thing Scrivener mentions in their User Guide, though, is that it was mainly created for first drafts. There are still plenty of options when it comes to editing and formatting, but the creators suggest exporting your work to another word processor when you’re actually ready to format and send it to agents, publishers, etc. So it doesn’t completely replace Word or Pages, but for the act of actually writing a novel and having all your notes in a convenient location, it’s pretty awesome.
Based on my own writing journey, I know it’s silly to claim that only one method works for you, and it’s the one you’ll use the rest of your life. People change, and technology changes. I’ve gone from writing exclusively by hand to alternating between notebooks and word processors, and will now likely upgrade from word processors to Scrivener (I’m still in the free trial). Am I saying you should go out and get Scrivener right now? No. Everyone’s different, and what I love about Scrivener you may hate, and vice versa. But I do think we should be open to trying new things, to find out what works and what doesn’t. And if nothing else, Scrivener has the 30 day free trial, so you can decide for yourself what you think about it. After all, you’ve got nothing to lose.