All I actually need to write a novel is a stack of identical A4 notebooks (makes keeping the wordcount easier), a good biro (fat enough not to get RSI), and a plotting grid. Oh, and piles and piles of scrap paper for all the notes and ideas and snaglists. A word processor is essential next, but the many "novel-writing" programs on the market seemed to be little more than toys dreamed up by non-writing geeks, to sell or give away to beginners writers desperate for ways to make the weird business of creating something out of nothing more manageable.
But Scrivener is different, and though I'm neither a techno-phobe nor a geek, I'm now a complete convert. It was born apparently from the different but not unrelated challenges of writing a PhD and a novel, and inspired by Hilary Mantel's description of how she works, and that pedigree shows. It's the only such program which I know is used by slews of other professionals for writing fiction, creative non-fiction and the more factual and technical kind of non-fiction, and I see exactly why. But, like any powerful, flexible program, it gets a bit of getting used to. So I'm going explain how it works as a way of explaining why I think it's worth sticking at, and some ways of getting to know it. I haven't used everything it does, but this is how it's looking to me so far.
First, the essence of Scrivener is that the basic unit is a "document", which is just like any word-processing document. A document could be one word, one "beat", one scene, one chapter, or a whole novel. The big difference is that Scrivener will display your documents seamlessly, in "Scrivenings" mode, one after another so you can read them as a single document with the join between marked or not, as you choose. You can work on a whole chapter, say, while also being able to handle or move the individual scenes separately if you want to.
Second, each document has a set of associated "meta-data", which it always carries with it, but you don't have to see if you don't want to. The meta-data includes a name for the document and a synopsis of what it contains (the famous "index cards"), but it also holds your editorial comments like balloons in Word, footnotes, references, images, keywords, notes on the document, notes on the project, a list of any "snapshots" you've taken before you embarked on some revisions, and colour-coding and stamping as ways of marking the cards to track anything you like - setting, point-of-view, say, or whether a document is a rough-cut or a final draft or whatever.
Third, there are three main ways to see any "project":
- as a document or seamless run of documents, looking like any other word-processor, with as much or as little of the meta-data, and outliner detail as suits you. You can work on a "full screen", where you see nothing but this blank page, and just type.
- as the famous "cork-board" where you can brood over your index cards, each with its synopsis, stack them in hierarchies, rearrange them. You can colour-code them for different characters or points-of-view, settings or timelines. You can mark their status - drafted, finished and so on. I even have index cards for important things which are happening off-stage, just as I do on my old friend the Planning Grid
- as an "outline", not unlike the file tree you're used to in Windows, which displays what's written on your index cards in their hierarches, collapsed or expanded as you like. Each document's entry in the outliner has an icon for whether it has a synopsis, and whether there's any actual text in the document, and shows the colour-codings from the meta-data.
So, Scrivener works how you work. And, whatever view you're in, you can choose how much of all the other material you want to have alongside it. You can even make a "Collection" of any set of documents that's useful, (without them actually moving from their place in the draft); you can then display and read and work on a sequence of, say, all the chunks of a certain voice, or all the letters someone writes, or see all the documents that have a particular search term in them, one after another.
If you're a splurgy-free-writey pantser, you can work on a blank document, typing for as long as you want - think Howl - and only later "split" it, with a right-click of the mouse or a keyboard shortcut, into separate documents. You can then fill in the meta-data with whatever notes you want, to remind you of what each document is, and start moving things around. And of course you can go on splitting or joining things as you go, if things change.
If you're a pattern-thinker and planner and need to get the structure right first before your imagination can start to run, you can plan and think and brood, moving your index cards or the elements in the outline around until it all works. You can look for the balance of settings or story-threads or points of view, you can see where the gaps are and what you haven't decided yet, and get a feel for the pace and shape of it all.
If, like me, you're a planster, then you don't actually think in terms of either planning or pantsing, but regard everything as a form of imagining-on-paper. Scrivener's brilliant for us, because you can swap between different ways of working all the time. When I'm on a roll and a scene is pouring out of my fingers, I let rip. It goes where it will, and maybe not where I thought. And then I look at it, decide what it is, whether to split it into different documents, and give it the meta-data to suit. Then I can start fitting it into the novel, and fitting the novel to it. In the outliner I can easily find the places where I need to nip back and tweak something in the light of this new stuff.
If you write out-of-order, then you can do that, using separate documents, either planned or pantsed, using the meta-data to keep track of what each one is, and fitting it all together at the end. And Scrivener is good at tracking what you've done so far, and what you haven't.
If you plan a little ahead but not beyond that, then it's just the same: you can work out a clear idea of the next few chapters, and if you do have a idea for something much further ahead, drop an index card in there for now, and know that when you get closer, it'll still be there, and you can build the rest of that stage round it.
There's much more to Scrivener. You can work with a split screen - two windows, essentially - each showing whatever you want to look at. Then there's a full range of WP-type search and replace, target-setting and measuring, script formatting for different forms and industries, digital and print, ways to gather together searches, or documents which are scattered through the project, (if, say, you wanted to look at all the letters in one go), and much more. It constantly saves itself, so computer crashes will never lose more than a minute or two's work. But you can work all that out for yourself, with the free trial they offer. I should say that it does assume that you'll be exporting the whole thing at the end, for final tweaking and formatting in Word or suchlike, and it's not so easy to to-and-fro between them. But it's still so worth it, so I want to finish by suggesting a way of getting to grips with Scrivener.
First, I'd suggest not starting to learn Scrivener on a brand-new, full-length project. It's like trying to balance on two different gym-balls at once: asking for trouble.
Be patient. It's worth it. If you want to do something in Scrivener because that's how you work, it's worth bothering to try to find out how to do it rather than just sighing and giving up. Literature and Latte, the parent company of Scrivener, has good support and good forums where you can ask for help or for suggestions for a way to do something.
Yes, fiddling with it can also be a way of putting off the actual writing, if you let it. But, hey, we're grown-ups. Go into full-screen, and if you want to keep a picture or synopsis visible then have the little floating panel of this document's meta-data beside it; then get on with writing. With Scrivener you can always do the fiddling later, when you know what fiddling the project actually needs.
Get hold of Scrivener for Dummies. The Scrivener manual itself is a model of its kind - very clear, and also stylishly written. But more help - especially in an actual, paper book - is never a bad thing. Mind you, the Dummies book occasionally fails to highlight the minor differences between Mac and PC versions (I gather the Android/Linux version is on its way), and the minor deficiencies of the PC version. (Not that they're many- I use the PC version, and have found scarcely any lacks. ) But it's still very good.
Start with a small document; a synopsis, say, and use it to explore how Scrivener works best for you. If you think of each index card as a plot-point you want to put in, each document might only have a sentence, but you'll get used to handling things in Scrivener-y ways. Or splurge your synopsis and then split it into documents with their meta-data, and see how that's expressed in the Outliner or the corkboard. And if you do write a synopsis, you could use the structure you establish as the basis for the actual book-project, too.
Try planning something that you're thinking about vaguely, just to get an idea of how the outliner and the corkboard can work for you. I used it to think about a non-fiction project I'm brooding on, and learnt a lot, because the chain of thinking and connection was easier to think about, and set down. But I've also used it to plan a novel.
Try using it on an existing project. You could import the text of a novel and split it up, with a view to re-working it. Or you could do what I'm doing at the moment, and re-build a novel: I started a new project, and thrashed out a structure for it, with an index card for each thing I knew needed to be there. Now I'm working my way through, writing new stuff, bringing in bits of old stuff where I want them, and moving stuff around without ever getting lost, because any chunk of text has its own labels and identity, which never leaves it.
So that's how Scrivener seems to me. You can download a free trial, which lasts for 30 days, but they can be non-consecutive, so that's a decent chance to get to know it. Why not give it a go?