Tag: scrivener

Writing in the Digital Age: An Introduction

Writers of old had it easy. Take sportswriters, for instance. When it came to actually sitting down and writing, their biggest decision was which brand of typewriter to use. Some of those manual typewriters could be tiring, but the stories were rarely that long. They filed their stories by wire, and then went out for steaks with the players, or each other.

Writers today have a lot more overhead. At least, this writer does. Few of us write on typewriters anymore. The Royal QuietComfort that sits here in my office has a broken A key, which would make writing difficult. Instead, I have to make a series of interrelated decisions that impact my ability to produce copy:

  • What platform should I write on (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS)?
  • What tool should I use for my writing (Word, Scrivener, Notepad, Vim, Google Docs, etc., etc.)?
  • Where do I store my files (locally on the hard disk, in the cloud, and if so, which ecosystem to I align myself with: iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive)?
  • How do I manage revisions to my writing?

For those turn-of-the-Twentieth-century sportswriters, these decisions were relatively easy: A Royal typewriter, paper and ribbon, a filing cabinet, and some carbon paper could handle all of this. Why have things become so much more complex?

This question has fascinated me for a while now, perhaps because I can never seem to settle on the right combination of options. I suspect this is because there is no “right” combination, and that makes things more difficult. I thought that technology made things easier, but the longer I’ve been writing, and dealing with technology, the less certain I am of this. 

In some areas technology does make things easier. It is amazing what I can do with the Alexa that sits here near my desk. But there are other areas where the choice of technology can lock you into ecosystems that may not fully align with your workstyle.

In this series of posts, I plan to explore the question of technological complexity from my own perspective as a writer. I’ll start by talking about tools specific to writing, but over time, I plan on running the gamut of tools I use on a regular basis. I want to explore not only the complexity of these tools, but look for ways to simplify. As a writer, I naturally want to spend my time writing. More and more I see tools getting in the way of writing. If that wasn’t the case, why do so many tools now add a “focus” or “distraction-free” mode? What choices can I make to simplify my writing ecosystem?

Writing is not the only area which tools add complexity. I see it in how I manage communications (email), and media (photos, books, videos, etc.). Even something as simple as contact management has grown inordinately complex.

I’ve been reading Jerome Holtzman’s classic book No Cheering in the Pressbox, and when I think about these sportswriters and the tools they used to get their jobs done, and compare them with my own, the complexity of my systems seem out of all proportion.

I’m attempting a top-down approach here starting with the choice of ecosystem, then the tools. And since I come to this through the perspective of a writer, that is the lens through which I will examine this question.

Tracking my writing goals with Scrivener, Evernote and Google Spreadsheets

I’ve found that the best way to meet goals that I set for myself is to track them. That means that the goal must be measurable, and this years writing goals certainly meet that criteria: write 500 words of new fiction every day. I thought it might be of interest how I go about tracking this goal in case anyone else out there is looking to do the same.

There are generally three tools that combine to help me meet my writing goals each day:

1. Scrivener

Scrivener is my workhorse, and where I do 95% of my fiction-writing1. I’ve recently revised my short story project template2 to automatically have a 500 word/session target. I also have it configured to use Growl to notify me when I’ve met the goal. So I sit down and write and write and then Growl pops up and says that I’ve passed my 500 word target. Sometimes I’ll stop there, and sometimes I’ll keep going. I write in full-screen mode, by the way, so I don’t have other distractions, and so the Growl notification is particularly convenient because it means I don’t have to keep checking how far along I am. If the notification hasn’t popped up, I haven’t met the goal yet.

2. Evernote

I find it interesting to be able to go back and see what I wrote on any given day. I have a Notebook in Evernote called “Daily Fiction Writing.” There is one note for each day I write. That note contains a copy of the fiction I wrote in that day. Usually, when I finish up a Scrivener session, I copy the text that I wrote and paste it into a note in my Evernote notebook. This is not for backup purposes. I have sufficient local and cloud-based backups for my fiction. This is so that I can go back and see what it was I was writing on Thursday, January 12, 2012. Because I’m interesting in that kind of thing. Also, I only do this for first draft material. Here is what that notebook looks like:

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  1. The other 5% is done on my iPad using Elements.
  2. I’ll be posting a new version of this template for download in the near future.

Five tips for a successful NaNoWriMo (and how Scrivener can help)

Having successfully completed NaNoWriMo on a couple of occasions, I thought I’d provide a few tips that I found helpful during my efforts. Each time I completely NaNoWriMo, it was with the intention of writing at least 50,000 words of what would ultimately become a full novel. So these tips may not apply to folks who are just out to write 50,000 words for no reason other than to complete the contest.  Here you go:

1. Plan ahead

To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words each day. For me, this required some planning. I spent a good deal of my writing time in October planning what I would write in November. This included a fairly detailed outline of my novel. My approach was to aim for chapters that were roughly 2,000 words1 long. I outlined about 45 such chapters, and I expected to get through about 30 of them during November. Planning ahead had the added benefit of letting me know what I would be working on each day. I never woke up and said, gee, I don’t know what to write today. It was always there in the outline, and I could often think about it the night before. That often allowed me to start faster.

Once I had the outline completely, I used Scrivener to a NaNoWriMo novel project and I created 45 chapters. On each chapter, I included my summary of the chapter from my outline. I didn’t worry much about naming the chapters at this point. I just wanted to make sure I had them all set up before I got started. Scrivener allows you to create a goal for each document, so for each document (and I had one document per chapter) I created a goal of 2,00o words. This comes in hand later when you are writing because you can see the progress bar turn from red to yellow to green as you get closer to your goal each day.

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  1. See tip #3.

10 reasons Scrivener is a great tool for new writers

I was once a new writer. I’m not so new anymore, but I can still remember those early days when I decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I had all kinds of ideas but when it came to sit down and write the story, I could always manage to find ways to distract myself. Some of the distraction came from the tools I was using to write (when I first started, that tool was Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS). Some of the distraction came from not being able to clearly organize my thoughts. And then, of course, there were my endless efforts to get the stories into proper manuscript format. Messing with the tools, trying to organize my thoughts, and producing a clean manuscript ate up large amounts of time that could have been used for writing stories. Looking back, the most important thing for a new writer is practice: that is to write as much as possible and not worry about the other distractions. This is what makes Scrivener1, in my opinion, an ideal tool for new writers. Here are ten example of how Scrivener can allow a new writer to focus on what is important: writing.

1. Focus on content

The most important thing for a new writer is to focus on writing, not on formatting. Scrivener is all about content. The (highly-customizable) interface is designed to let you write your story (or your novel, article, research paper, screenplay, etc.). When you have finished writing, Scrivener allows you to “compile” your manuscript at the click of a button, which in turn produces a clean manuscript in any of a variety of industry standard formats. If I had to guess, I’d say that in my early days, as much as 30% of my “writing” time was spent on formatting issues and making sure everything looked the way I wanted it to look. Today, I spend almost no time on formatting. The vast majority of my writing time is spent on writing.

2. Full screen writing

Too much stuff on the screen is a distraction for me. When I am working on the first draft of a story, I put Scrivener into its full-screen mode. My font size is set to 150% so that I can read what’s is on the screen clearly. I made the “page” appear wide. Then, I write, and it is just me and the screen. I like watching the blank screen fill up with words. I like the fact that I am not distracted by menus and tool bars and sidebars. Indeed, while sitting in my office writing, I can clear my head almost completely by putting Scrivener into full-screen mode, putting on my noise-cancelling headset, and just writing.

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  1. My experience is with Scrivener for the Macintosh. Features might vary on Scrivener for Windows.

Building and managing story timelines using Scrivener

My current story project is a complex one. It is the first of what I will hope to be a series of interconnected stories. The story is told from multiple viewpoints and in some cases the some of the character have no idea what the others are doing. It spans a period of about 60 days and there are flashbacks included, but the sequence of events is also told slightly out of order. Finally, as this is the first of several stories to take place in this universe, some of the timing of the background events are key to the later stories.

With this in mind, I found myself needing to build a timeline to keep track of the actual order of things. I know that there are probably software packages out there I could find that would help me with this, but it occurred to me that Scrivener might be able to help me with this task. And why not? It works well for just about all other aspects of my fiction-writing. With a little thought, I might be able to make it work for this, too. In fact, I did make it work for this. It is not the most sophisticated timeline manager in the world, but it suits my needs. Here is how I went about doing it.

First step: using custom meta-data

Scrivener 2.0 introduced custom meta-data fields for a project. These are arbitrary fields that can be added to a project for unspecified purposes. I decided to make use of this feature in my timeline solution.

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My collected posts on Scrivener

My posts on using Scrivener seem to be pretty popular and I’ve written enough of them to warrant collecting them all on a single page for easy access. To that end, I’ve created a Using Scrivener page. This page includes all of the posts that I’ve written on Scrivener, as well as a link to download my custom short fiction template for Scrivener. The link to the page shows up in the sidebar under Miscellaneous. As I write new posts about Scrivener, I’ll add those links to the page as well.

Scrivener 2.1: designed to make the process of writing even easier

I’ve spent the last week working on an novelette, the first significant fiction-writing I’ve done using the Scrivener 2.1 update. I’ve gushed before about how much I love Scrivener as a writing tool, and the improvements in version 2.1 are well worth the upgrade. By night I write science fiction and by day I am a software developer, and when I look at Scrivener from both of these perspectives, it impresses me all the more. What makes Scrivener successful is how well the folks developing the software listen to writers; how well they understand what writers a looking for in a tool; and how good they are at implementing those things without overloading the user with too much stuff.

Scrivener’s main success, in my opinion, is that it allows writers to write using whatever process they are comfortable with. And then it gets out of the way. It exposes only those things that make writing easier. It doesn’t try to be anything more than that. It doesn’t suggest plot ideas or prompt you when you’ve entered your fourth act. It allows writers to be creative without worrying about the technology. Let me illustrate using my own process as a short fiction writers.

For me, there are four things that I spend doing in constructing a story:

  1. Plan the story
  2. Write the story
  3. Revise the story
  4. Produce a manuscript

It is not exactly a linear process as you can see from my crude diagram below:

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My custom short fiction template for Scrivener is available for download

Earlier in the week, I posted about how I created a custom short fiction template for Scrivener. A number of people asked me if I could make that template available for download and I have now done this. You can download the template here:

ETA (11/15/2022): I did indeed once have a custom short fiction template for Scrivener that was downloadable. I created it more than 10 years ago, and in various updated, plug-in changes, migrations, etc., I eventually lost the template and it no longer exists. I figured I should update this post, since I get an occasional inquiry about the template now and then.

A few things to keep in mind about this template:

  1. It was created in Scrivener 2.1
  2. It has only been tested on the Mac. I have no idea if it will work in Scrivener for Windows
  3. Download it as-is. I’m happy to share it but I have no time to support or enhance it.

Here is how you install the template:

  1. Download the file
  2. Unzip the file on your desktop
  3. Move the file into the ~/Library/Application Support/Scrivener/ProjectTemplates folder

Once you’ve done those steps, when you create a new project in Scrivener and choose “Fiction” you should see the template appear in the list of available templates. Enjoy!

ETA: You can customize the template to include your own contact info on the First Page Header document. Once you’ve made the changes, go to File… Save As Template to save your customizations with the template.

Creating custom short story project templates in Scrivener

Anyone who uses Scrivener for fiction-writing will soon come to discover that all of its wonderful features are geared toward one primary goal: allow you, as the writer, to focus on writing without having to worry about formatting, layout or any of those other troublesome tasks. This simple idea is what sets Scrivener far apart (and in my opinion, above) all other word processing tools.

Over the years that I have used Scrivener in my own fiction-writing, I have found that customizing a template for my short fiction has made the process of writing the story, collecting feedback on the story, revising the story, and producing a manuscript so much easier–because I can focus on the content.

I use a custom short fiction template and I thought I would describe the template and my process for creating it in case anyone else out is interested in how useful this can be. This template evolved over time,  and I imagine it will continue to evolve going forward, but it works well for me and from a process standpoint, makes writing all about writing  and creating as opposed to formatting and preparing.  Here is how I created my template:

1. Create a new document based on the Short Story template.

You can find the short story template by clicking File->New Project. In the Project Templates window, select the Fiction tab. Click the Short Story template and then click the Choose… button.

When prompted to save the project, give it a name and save it in a convenient location that you will remember later. (I have a Templates folder in which I save these projects.)

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Using Scrivener with writing critique groups

I belong to a few writing critique groups and find them to be incredibly valuable. In fact, I’d wish I’d joined some of these groups before I sold a story. It might have taken me less than 14 years to make that first sale. On the chance that you’ve never been involved in a critique group, they go something like this: you submit a story to the group, the group reads the story ahead of time, then you all meet up and discuss the story in detail. Often times you’ll get written comments back on the story and even line edits.

Since I use Scrivener for all of my fiction writing, I’ve found ways that it makes it very easy to manage the critiques I receive from my various groups. The techniques I use vary slightly depending on the group. In the Arlington Writers Group, which is a larger group, I make use of some custom folders to manage the comments that I get. The group is too large to manage them all as comments in the document. However, for my smaller group (four people including myself) I make heavy use of Scrivener’s snapshot and commenting features.

Let me explain how I do each of these.

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Going iPad, Part 2 of 5: Writing on the iPad with Scrivener and SimpleNote

In part 1 of this series, I talked about my experience so far reading on the iPad. Today I want to discuss my experience writing on the device. Once again, my goal is to see how much of the work I do on a laptop can be transferred to the iPad. There is one exception in all of this, and that is writing. With my writing, I still plan on making use of my laptop as my primary tool for writing and there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. I do most of my writing in my home office. The laptop is right there on my desk and so there is no reason to use to the iPad.
  2. I use Scrivener, which is an outstanding writing tool, by far the best that I have come across. While this is available on the Mac and Windows computers there is no iPad version.

However, there are times when I do write outside my office. When I am on a business trip or vacation I usually bring my laptop along with me. I sometimes write during my lunch hour at work. In these instances, if I have my laptop, I just go ahead and use it, and if I don’t I write in Google Docs and then transfer what I’ve written back into Scrivener when I am back in front of my laptop. But I now want to avoid having to take my laptop with me on these trips. And when I don’t have my laptop, I’d like a more seamless way of working with Scrivener. This is where the iPad fits in. It is small enough to make it easy to take with me. It has a far better battery life than my laptop. And while it doesn’t run Scrivener, it integrates with it far more seamlessly than Google Docs.

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The paperless writing-cycle using Scrivener and Kindle

Combining my quest for a paperless office at home with my writing goals this year has required some changes to old habits. It used to be that I would write the first draft of a story, print that story out, mark up the printout, and then begin working on the second draft. But I’m trying to avoid that middle printing step and now that I’ve been through the cycle once this year, I thought I’d share how I did it in 7 steps:

  1. Write an aborted novel using Scrivener 2.0
  2. Decide the story you are telling doesn’t really work (and in fact, you’re not yet cut out to be a novelist)
  3. Cannibalize the first part of the novel and use it for a novelette
  4. Use Scrivener to export the novel to the Kindle
  5. Read what you wrote on the Kindle and make lots and lots (165) annotations
  6. Copy annotations into Scrivener
  7. Use multiple monitors to write the new story using your annotions.

I’ve covered the first 5 steps in other posts, and if you are so inclined, you can click on the links to learn more about what I did. It’s the last two steps that I wanted to discuss today.

As I finished the read through on the Kindle, it occurred to me: how am I going to transfer 165 notes into Scrivener so that they will be useful for me–and do so without printing anything out? It didn’t take long for a simple, if not slightly cumbersome solution presented itself. Kindle uses “Whispernet” to sync your library with other devices and apps that you have. So I opened up the Kindle App for Mac on my MacBook and indeed, right there in my library was my NaNoWriMo novel. I opened up the novel in the Kindle App and there were my annotations right there on the screen:


From here, I could copy the note and paste into my Scrivener document as a comment in the appropriate place. Like, I said, a little cumbersome but I avoided paper and I avoided having to retype (which I what I would have had to do if I read it off the Kindle directly). I could have copied the entire “Clippings” file from the Kindle and pasted the relevant portion into my Scrivener document notes, but that wouldn’t have helped much because Kindle clippings list Kindle location and that wouldn’t have helped me locate where the note was supposed to go. The result was something like this:

Scrivener Comments.png

Now, I realize that I can split the screen and use multiple windows to look at the old document and the new, but when I am writing new stuff, I like having the window full with what I am writing. So I make use of two monitors when I am doing the actual writing:


The top monitor contains the original Scrivener document that I wrote for NaNoWriMo, along with the annotations I made on my Kindle and transferred into Scrivener. The bottom screen contains the new novelette version of the story (show in the picture in cork board mode). I can read what I originally wrote in the top window, along with my notes and annotations, and write the new version of the story in the bottom window. So far, this has been working very well.

It makes me think that an interesting future feature for Scrivener might be the ability to import annotations from the Kindle Clippings file directly into an existing Scrivener document, parsing them and creating the notes as comments in the document. Of course, this would require the ability of translating a Kindle location number into a position in the Scrivener document and would only work if there had been no changes since the export to the Kindle (otherwise the location numbers might not line up). Still I think it would be interesting.

Regardless, I think this is another good example of using Scrivener and Kindle together. Not only are they useful applications for writers, they are green applications and can be good for the environment.