Monday, 21 April 2008

Scrivener and me

Ever since I read an article about a programme for writers called Scrivener, I have wanted to get it. It sounded so elegant and beautiful and just what every writer to uses a computer needs. But it’s only available for Macs and, though a lot of my formative writing years were spent on Macs, I currently use a Windows machine – mainly because, working in schools, I needed my stuff to be compatible with theirs.

So, do I rush out and – at vast expense – buy a Mac?
I wish.
No, I formulate a do-it-yourself version of Scrivener using Word and Powerpoint.

I’ve always made the vast majority of my notes on paper in a kind of spider diagram / mind map amalgam but, since I prefer to use A4 notebooks as my ideas tend to sprawl, I end up with pages of notes which it’s not always easy to read at a glance. Since I don’t then tear them out of the book and file them neatly in a folder divided into sections like ‘plot’ ‘characters’ ‘themes’ ‘odd scenes which might go somewhere’ ‘sudden inspirations’ etc, I have to flick through the whole book if I’m trying to find a brilliant thought I had the week before last.

As people have been telling me pretty much all my adult life, I need to file things better. As I’ve been responding pretty much all my adult life, I don’t DO filing.

The problem is, because I was so viscerally averse to the huge amount of filing I had to do when I was an NHS drone, I have always let myself off doing any at all in my writing life. This, I have decided, has been unhelpfully self-indulgent. As I find it difficult to hold lots of ideas in my head at once, I need to have them where I can see them; I need to be able to physically move them about and change them. I need to externalise my working memory because the one that came built into my system is rubbish.

So, Draft two of the work in progress (which I am forced to call a pretty comprehensive re-write since I allowed myself to be telling the story through too many narrative voices which hasn’t worked) is being planned out more thoroughly, using powerpoint slides as index cards. I haven’t used index cards since I did the research for Testament x number of years ago and I’m not about to start using the physical sort again. I need things you can alter easily and play with constantly. Since I’m not into rubbing out pencilled-in ideas, working in a computer programme is much easier. Also there’s the whole business of me typing far faster than I can write, and not losing my small desk beneath a tidal wave of colour coded index cards.

So, in the interests of getting a grip on my story and retaining it, I now have PP files called ‘key events’ (this is to build each chapter around); ‘key people’ (in an attempt to crystallise my throughs on each of the people I’ve allowed to remain in the narrative after my Draft 2 purge); ‘key events from L’s childhood’ (as I weave the main character’s past into her present; ‘historical episodes’ (basically my nineteenth century chapters tidied up) and ‘themes’ just so that I can keep track of what it is that I’m highlighting and bringing out in this tale of everyday rioting-type country folk.

AND each set of slides (which I shall print off as index cards) is colour-coded, so that I can move each of them around and make sure I’ve got a good balance of things happening.

Scrivener would do it all much better and you can do clever things like link notes to chapters and all that kind of stuff. But this is a good start for me. Already I’m feeling much more in control of the rewrite than I ever did of Draft 1 which was a bit of a seat-of-the-pants ride, if I’m honest, and not altogether comfortable.

So, let’s all watch this nicely-filed space…


KAREN said...

I can already tell this is something I'd lose a grip on fairly quickly! I couldn't even work YWriter, which is pretty basic, so I guess I'll be sticking to the old index cards for now. At least my years of office work mean I'm pretty damn hot at filing!

David Isaak said...

I've never had enough research materials to justify this sort of thing, but some people who have documents and notes and drawings and maps but don't own a Mac use a beast called Liquid Story Binder (

It's cheap and very impressive. I just can't justify learning a new software package when I ought to be spending that time writing. But if I did historicals or large fantasy novels, I'd probably try it out.