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Saturday, December 08, 2012

In praise of Scrivener

I don't exactly feel like blogging about Scrivener. I feel more like testifying, in the religious sense, with people hollering "Amen!" and "tell, it sister!" from the pews. But this will do.

Scrivener, a shareware program from Literature & Latte, is software for writers. Its purpose is to make writing anything from a novel to a screenplay to an article easier than it would be otherwise. It succeeds magnificently.

I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener for Windows for the first time at least a year ago, and found myself intimidated by all its features and options. This fall, I decided my preparation for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) would include getting comfortable with Scrivener. I went through the interactive tutorial at a manageable pace, not trying to absorb too much information at any one sitting. I kept the PDF of the manual open at the same time, and bounced back and forth frequently. By the time I'd gone through the tutorial, I felt that I understood the simpler aspects of the program -- and decided to leave the more exotic aspects for later on. In fact, I didn't use the "corkboard" view, "index cards" or "labels" until after I'd passed the 50,000 words required to "win" NaNo, and had the leisure to experiment.

Here's what I found most valuable in Scrivener:

1. It's easy to see the structure of your piece, and to change that structure with minimal difficulty or confusion.

You set up folders, titled however you like, and then put as many sub-folders or documents as you wish in each folder, again with your choice of title. The "binder," on the left of the usual screen (if you choose to display it), shows the folders in order, with or without their contents. I had one master folder containing my rough draft, and multiple sub-folders for chapters, with each scene a document in its chapter folder. The names of folders and documents are displayed in the binder.

Any time you decide that a scene should have been in a different place in your draft, you simply drag that document to its new location in the binder. If you've been numbering scenes, it's easy to rename the relocated scene and subsequent scenes to fix the numbering. You use the same procedure to insert a new scene -- add it wherever you like, and then drag it to where it belongs.

2.  Notes for use in later editing are easy to make and easy to see.

On the right of your screen, when you choose to display it, is a pane called the Inspector. It shows the name of the current folder or document, plus any label or status (I'll describe these later) associated with that folder or document. (This grows cumbersome -- I'll just say "document," generally meaning either.) If you've taken any "snapshots" of any version of the document, you have the option to display a list of those screenshots -- which will have either an automatically generated name, or a name you assigned at the time. There's a large area in the Inspector where you can add any notes that you want to see whenever you're working on that document in the future. You can also change this area to show Project notes that apply to your entire draft.

3.  You can pull all your research materials into one program and consult them with no hassle.

You can import images, documents, files, charts, or web pages into Scrivener, store them in a folder (mine was unimaginatively called "Research"), and display them as easily as you display any of the documents that make up your draft.

A related and extremely handy feature: you can view two documents-or-whatever at once, either side by side or one above the other. So, for example, if you're writing a description of a place, you can have the image in front of you while you write, without opening some imaging program. When  you're done, click and it's gone; if you reconsider and want to look at it again, click and it's back. I used this feature mainly to display my current scene next to my list of likely scenes.

You can also display a selection of documents pasted together: for example, all the scenes involving a particular minor character. This makes it easier to avoid contradictions and keep track of what you have and haven't shown or told the reader. Any change you make in the text of a scene, even when it's displayed as part of such a collection of scenes, is made in the scene itself.

Any time you feel your view is too cluttered, you can hide the binder and/or Inspector and switch back to the single-document view.

4.  It's easy (again that lovely word!) to export your work in any number of formats, for backup, submission  or publication purposes.

Scrivener auto-saves very frequently, unless you set it to do so less often (which can make sense if your program files are in "the cloud" and you're somewhere with a slow Internet connection). It also saves a backup of your project whenever you close the project or the program. (The default setting saves a zipped file to conserve space.) If you're planning to leave the program and project open for an extended period, you may want to do a manual backup now and then. Once you close the program, you can reopen it and the project from the backup file. (Scrivener has a setting for reopening recent projects where you left off, but at least in the initial trial version, this was buggy. I got a bit of a scare when I reopened the program and saw a much earlier version of my project, lacking several days' work. Fortunately, I had done manual backups, and restored my project from one of them.)

You can export the current document in any of a long list of formats, to any location on your computer, and under any name. You can also use the Compile function to export a selection of documents or your entire set of documents, again in any of a large number of formats, with a bewildering array of options. For example, you can compile your project in manuscript or screenplay format, with or without various headings; or you can turn it into a PDF, .epub or .mobi file, ebook-ready.

5. You can use labels to help you see various structural aspects of your draft.

Once I decided I was more or less finished with my rough draft, I reread the User Manual's sections on index cards and labels. Each document can be represented by an index card, and on that card one can place a small colored label -- which can be any color you choose and mean whatever you want it to mean. I chose to label my scenes according to the POV (point of view) or POV's employed in the scene. I could then use the "Corkboard" view to look at all the scenes in a chapter at once, and see immediately whether one or another of my multiple POV's dominated the chapter. The label for the scene also appears, along with the meaning of the label, in the Inspector panel.

Another similar tool is "Status." If you assign a document a "status," that status appears in the Inspector, and in the Corkboard view, the status is written in translucent text diagonally across the document's index card. Initially, the choices for "Status" had to do with the document's stage of completion: rough draft, etc. In my most recent Scrivener project, I've reset the options to show the physical setting of each scene and chapter. Going into Corkboard lets me see at a glance whether my several story threads are evenly balanced. (They weren't, but I'm getting there.)

Scrivener was a joy to use at the rough-draft phase, and I'm finding it even more useful in editing. As a NaNo 2012 "winner," I got a 50% discount on the $40.00 price, but I would have paid the full amount without hesitation.

In short, I love this program. Praise be! ("Testify!")


Lissa Bryan said...

Would you mind answering a question for me?

I currently write in Word and I use Dropbox for my manuscripts so I can work on them anywhere. I primarily use my iPad for work while traveling. Using the program CloudOn, I can open my Dropbox manuscripts and work on them in Word.

How would this work with Scrivner?

Dr Rotwang said...

Hmmm...okay, Karen, I'll bite. I feel like dusting off a really wrecked fantasy story from my teen years and trying to make something out of it. Let's see what Scrivener's got!

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