Writing Tools: Scrivener

My handwriting is illegible. And I'm slow -- so slow -- when I write by hand.  Agonizingly slow.  My head will be four paragraphs away while my poor, well-meaning hand is chugging away on something I'm not even thinking about anymore.

So when I write, I do it on a computer.

And I use Scrivener.

Let's get this out of the way now: if I had to delete everything from my computer -- programs, desktop backgrounds, browsers, music, etc. -- Scrivener is the one thing I'd fight to keep.

Yes.  It is the one absolutely invaluable tool I've got for writing.

Yes.  It really is that good.

What Is Scrivener?

Simply put, it's a program for writing.  It's available for Mac and Windows, so this isn't some arthouse Mac-user thing you Windows folks need to scorn.  Mac seems to be the main platform, but the Windows version works great, too.

If you're a writer -- any kind of writer -- you owe it to yourself to give Scrivener a try.  Luckily enough, you can do just that: there's a free trial download which will let you get a feel for the program.  And when you're ready to buy it, Scrivener doesn't cost hundreds of dollars.  It's $45.00. You can buy it from the publisher or from the Mac App Store (I'm not sure if it's available from the Windows 8 App Store, but I *think* it is).

Yes.  The one program I'd fight off a mob of insane carny folk to keep only costs $45.00.

What's So Great About Scrivener?

If you're like me, you came up writing in Microsoft Word or some similar word-processing program.  And you figured that was all there was to it. A thousand features you didn't want, sometimes it went crazy in ways no sane person could understand, but you had a blank screen, a blinking cursor, and at the end of the day you were writing.

Scrivener throws all that out the window.

Firstly, here's what the maximized writing window looks like.  This is from the second chapter of The King's Glamour, so it's a taste but not (much of) a spoiler:

A sample of the Scrivener writing window.

A sample of the Scrivener writing window.

Nothing but white space for writing and black space for not distracting.  In short, the perfect writing environment.  Maybe it's possible to do this with other word-processors, but Scrivener's implementation is just spot-on.  Perfect.  You can control how dark the side-bars are (in case you want to see what's behind the writing window), how wide the white space is, and how large or small your font will display, regardless of its actual size.

All this is great, but it's not what makes Scrivener amazing.  Ready for that?

An example of Scrivener's main display.

An example of Scrivener's main display.

See that there on the left?  That's the current book I'm working on.  Now, this is how I'm choosing to organize this particular book: I've got a main Manuscript folder holding the, well, manuscript.  Beneath that are folders for every chapter (I should be finishing Chapter Three today), and a level below that you've got the individual scenes.  This is great for writing a long work of fiction (like, say, a novel) for a whole host of reasons: organization, swapping things around, keeping from having to scroll through 80,000 words of text when you need to find a particular scene.

You can also tag and label individual scenes.  You can associate characters or settings or whatever you like with a scene, making it a snap to go back and find all instances of XXXXX in what you're working on.

A Side Note: Scrivener is not just for writing long works of fiction.  I know there are short story writers, screenwriters, non-fiction writers, students, journalists, and just about every other kind of writer you can think of using Scrivener.  I believe there are even some bloggers who use it as a way of preparing posts ahead of time.

You'll notice, as well, that I've got folders for characters and places.  This is great for holding onto a short (or long ) character sketch, or if I want to note, for example, which areas of the Market are home to which stores or services.

Front Matter is your cover art, if you've got it.  Copyright page, dedication, that sort of thing.

Notes is for notes.  Story outlines, plot notes, whatever you write to get through the What Should I Do Next portion of your day.

And then, my custom folder, Discards.  This is where I put stuff I wrote I'm not keeping.  I'm probably not keeping.  I might return to.  Stuff I want to hold onto because it's good, just not right.  By the time I finish writing this book, that Discards folder will likely be as long, if not longer than, the book itself.

So it goes.

All of these details are great and useful, but there's one feature I want to focus on.  Importing.  This is something I love that Scrivener does and a real life-saver to boot.

Okay.  My editor likes to work in Microsoft Word.  She uses the Revision Tracking system to make suggestions or outright corrections and I'll implement those changes through Word.  Scrivener will do this, but she's the editor so what she says goes.

Once I'm all done, then, I'll Compile a book into Word to send to her.

Another Side Note: Scrivener's Compile function is freaking amazing.  Check this out:

Compile: This is where the magic happens.

Compile: This is where the magic happens.

This is where you go when you're done with the writing and need to turn all those scenes and chapters into an actual manuscript.  You can customize just about anything here, and export into any file format you'd want to, including PDF, .epub or .mobi, the file format Amazon uses to generate a Kindle book.  It might not be as good as coding your own html, but as the chances of me hand-coding a 94,000 word book are somewhere between Never and Happening, it's pure gold.

At any rate, I send my amazing editor a Word document.  And we go back and forth for a month or longer working in that Word document.  One magical day, however, all the little screwy things are fixed, all the rewriting's done, all the "did I really think that was how grammar works" bits are set to rights, and we're finally done with our Word document.

I want to generate a .mobi file so I can put the book up on Amazon.

So I want to bring the book back into Scrivener.

The first time I did this, with The Seven Markets, I dreaded it.  I figured, ho boy, I was going to have to cut and paste each and every scene by hand.  I was going to have to pour through and make sure nothing was lost in the formatting -- I'm talking about italics, bolding, any special formatting I'd done.  I poured myself a beer, figuring I'd need it, and I started the Import, using the Import and Split command.

It was easy as pie.

Scrivener let me identify the text characters I'd used to differentiate one scene or chapter from the next.  And it put the book together flawlessly.

If Scrivener did nothing else well, Import and Split would be worth your price of admission.  As Scrivener does everything well, it's less a question of why should you use this program and more why have you read this far without pausing to download a trial version to see for yourself?

Oh, and that trial version (link here), it shows up at your door with an amazing tutorial project to run through.  I'm not a manual guy, I don't like tutorials, but trust me when I tell you: this one is worth your time.

Let Me Bring It All Together For You

Scrivener is an excellent product.  It's an invaluable tool for a writer -- for any kind of writer, but especially for you novelists out there.  I've barely skimmed the surface of the myriad ways this program can help you wrangle control of your books, eliminating so much of the clutter and where did I put that? which so often goes hand-in-hand with working through a long piece of writing.  Partially this is because I simply don't use all these features.  And partially this is because this post is so long already.

The only real complaint I can level against Scrivener is that they've been talking about releasing an iOS version of the program seemingly forever.  As I've now taken to writing on my iPad when I'm out and about, this would, basically, make me the happiest man on earth.

Wellll . . . maybe I'm exaggerating a tiny little bit there.  But an iOS version would be amazing.

Scrivener is a great program and one you, as a writer, should be looking at.  You owe it to yourself to download the trial, run through the tutorial, and give it a try.