Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Fie on you, Scrivener, fie on you!


A little while back I did a post here about a deal on Scrivener, the popular writing software. I snagged myself a copy for twenty bucks, and recently I’ve been working on a project with it to see if I might be able to enter the 21st century as a novelist and let technology help me make magic.

So far, I’m flopping.

There’s something counterintuitive (to me) about the way Scrivener forces you to fragment your book into little slivers. It works if you think of your project as a series of index cards, as the cork board feature lets you visualize, but it’s completely discombobulating for a writer like me, who sees the project not as itty bitty bits but as, let’s say, a series of flowing waves. A chapter, to me, isn’t just a bunch of of bricks that need to be laid in orderly fashion. It’s more of a complex, layered thing, like a nice baklava, because, folks, I hate to say it, but a novel is not just plot.

Scrivener pros would probably say, “You’re doing it wrong.” Or probably more accurate, “You’re not using everything that Scrivener has to offer that would make it easier to keep track of your layers and use them effectively.” Yes, I’ve seen all the color-coding and the folders for character sketches and images and even sound files and video, but I also see so much complexity that it’s more than likely that I’d lose track of the natural flow of things in a dizzying effort to keep all of that shit straight.

Here’s the way I’ve been writing novels. It works for me:

A book starts as something small — an idea, a phrase, an image, a found thing. (For instance, for the past x months, there’s been a personal ad in the back of The New York Review of Books. It says “Thomas So-And-So seeks Audrey Huss-And Fuss” [names changed to protect the real Tom and Audrey]. And that’s all it says. Damn, how I want to write a novel about it!) I start writing notes. I develop notions. It’s all very vague. When I have a few coherent thoughts going, I might take a stab at page 1, the feel of the voice, a sense of who is telling the story. Sometimes it even sticks. All through the process, I go back and forth between notes and text, plotting a little, working out character stuff a little, developing sheets of meaning that can be laid down like sub-flooring in a house. Layers. Much of it emerges through the actual writing, so no matter how many index cards I fill out on Scrivener to save time, working out the layers is a separate, more intimate thing. Mapping them out would be impossible because it’s like mapping an aroma in the air.

At the risk of going on a little too long, especially for friends of Scrivener, I’ll just add that the project I’m trying seemed perfect for the app. I’m converting a screenplay I wrote a long time ago into a novel, so it’s already pretty much in index card form: scene by scene by scene. The trick is, it’s not yielding itself to those baklava layers, the feeling that it’s an organic thing that unfolds naturally. Instead it feels like what it looks like on Scrivener: a stack of index cards.

That said, I can see using Scrivener as my note box, because one thing it does very effectively is keep loose bits organized and easily retrievable. I’m restarting the book with my usual habits now. I’ll let you know how things go the old-fashioned way.

21 comments on “Fie on you, Scrivener, fie on you!

  1. islandeditions
    November 16, 2015

    I don’t think you’re flopping at all, but Scivener certainly is …

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 16, 2015

      Ha! I don’t want to say it’s not right for a certain kind of writer. If you need a lot of structure to get anything done, maybe it works for you. But for me? It’s like writing with handcuffs on.

  2. francisguenette
    November 16, 2015

    I tried Scrivener – the introductory offer and then paid and used it to work up most of the notes for Chasing Down the Night but I couldn’t stick with it once I got to the actual writing phase. I even had to recopy all the notes etc. into word documents. I experienced the fragmentation and just knew it wasn’t going to work for my process. Great to try new things but also great to know when to move on!

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 16, 2015

      Yep, the trick is in the actual writing. It feels restrictive and doesn’t let you go with the flow very easily.

  3. kingmidget
    November 16, 2015

    Yea!!!!! I finally heard a writer say something negative about Scrivener. I don’t have it, haven’t tried it, and don’t know if I ever will, but every writer I know who has spoke of it acts as though life couldn’t go on without it. I view it as something like project management — a vastly complex process by which projects, both large and small, are organized and structured and beaten to death by the responsible persons. It is stunning how much time is put into “managing a project.” rather than just getting the project done. Same too with those people who leave their offices every day with nothing on their desk, with the office space looking immaculate, as though nobody actually works there. Seems to me they spend far more time keeping things neat and orderly than actually doing their work.

    That’s what I feel Scrivener must be like and it simply isn’t how I do things, including writing. When I come up with an idea, I just start writing. Sometimes I know the full arc of the story before I write more than a few words. Sometimes I don’t. But it will all reveal itself as I write and no amount of color-coding and index cards is going to change that or make it any easier.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 16, 2015

      Great point about project management, and I get the feeling the makers of Scrivener would say, Exactly! They seem to think of a book as a large, unwieldy project that needs to be broken down and organized.

      One great thing about writing is that everyone does it differently. It’s a personal thing, intimate, psychologically challenging, and varied. Scrivener makes you do it their way.

      • kingmidget
        November 16, 2015

        We have a whole bunch of people in our organization who believe in project management. My response to them is that I do too — and it’s all in my head. It’s the same thing with writing. As long as I’m immersed in the writing of a story, I can keep it all straight in my head — the characters, the story lines, the arc of the story. I don’t want to do character sketches and plot lines and index cards and all of that other stuff. Just like I can plan a work project in my head, I can keep all the balls of a story in the air and get to the end. I get it. Not everybody is like that and things like Scrivener can help other people. Just don’t tell me I need it to and there are Scrivener true believers who insist that I must try it.

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 16, 2015

        Same here. I find it’s actually easier to keep things in my head than keep precise track of them like a stamp collection. A lot of fiction depends on association, so freeing your mind to make associations as it goes along is good for the process.

      • kingmidget
        November 17, 2015

        At work, I’m a stack person. Stacks of paper everywhere. I generally know what is in each of those stacks. My secretary regularly asks me if I want her to file things and occasionally we sit down together and go through things and file them. Here’s the thing though … as soon as those papers go in a file, I forget about them. I know what’s in my stacks. I have no idea what’s in my files. I think using Scrivener would be a bit like that for me.

  4. John W. Howell
    November 16, 2015

    I’m with you on the method. I haven’t used Scrivner yet but think I’ll wait.

  5. Karen
    November 16, 2015

    I think there’s a real learning curve with Scrivener, but I love the product: I’ve found that it’s invaluable in creating and organizing long work, such as a novel. I don’t know of anything else out there that’s better (and would love to hear about software that other folks are using, if anyone cares to share).

    There are a bunch of Scrivener tutorials on YouTube that I found really helpful, if you’re interested in sticking with it.

    There’s a lot of complexity to it, though,and lots of bells and whistles that I’ve never found useful: the color coding you mentioned, for example, and I’ve never utilized the cork board. There’s a bunch more that I’ll probably never use, and sometimes I think the product absolutely overwhelms you with choices, but different writers work differently, and that’s part of the appeal of Scrivener. I really like the Binder, that visual reminder of how the story is laid out, that sits there over on the left side of the screen, and I loved being able to set project targets. There are many other ways to do all this stuff, I realize, but Scrivener brings it all together.

    I have to really disagree with you that the system works against the “organic” nature of the creative process. As you write, the story you thoughtyou were writing often morphs into something completely different, and Scrivener makes it easy to locate and then rewrite that scene in Chapter Three when you realize it’s all wrong as you’re writing Chapter Twelve, or to flip Chapter Four with Chapter Five, or move entire scenes from the beginning of the story to the end.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 16, 2015

      I’m really glad to hear you’re getting a lot out of Scrivener, Karen. And thanks for your testimonial. It does seem like the people who love it really love it, for all the reasons you nail down. I just find, for now anyway, that my old habits are efficient and effective and the idea of sitting through a bunch of tutorials to get a negligible benefit over them gives me hives.

      I guess “organic” is in the eye of the beholder, though, so if you’re getting the results you want, then all is right with the world.

  6. 1WriteWay
    November 16, 2015

    Thank you for giving me permission to not yet try the copy of Scrivener I purchased a few years ago … (it was discounted through NaNoWriMo). I keep meaning to try it, but as King Midget says, it seems too much like project management. I imagine it could work wonders for a nonfiction book. I remember reading an essay by John McPhee and he described part of his writing process was to write his notes on index cards, laid them all out, and then move them around until he got the “feel” he needed (my memory of what he actually wrote is pretty rough so don’t quote me). Anyway, that made perfect sense, especially since some of his essays almost “read” like the very thing he was writing about (I’m thinking here of an essay he wrote on debris flows above the LA area). But I’m not deleting my copy of Scrivener, yet. With my fiction writing, I have a tendency to go the other extreme from my workplace: I’m very disorganized, forgetting characters’ ages, names, etc. I lose the details and maybe Scrivener could help me keep track of those so I don’t feel like I’m going crazy.

  7. sknicholls
    November 16, 2015

    I have a love:hate relationship with Scrivener. Karen pointed out many things I love about it. The binder and being able to quickly access any point in the novel by chapter and move scenes or complete chapters around by drag and drop is invaluable. The target feature is also handy. But I get the whole something about flow missing.

    I found it most useful when I reached a point in my current works, which are much different than my original work, where I had to have notes handy to keep up with all the details and Scrivener’s index cards helped with that.

    But, there is a feeling of creative expression that the system stifles. In the end, during editing, I have to compile into a word.doc to continue. I tried editing in Scrivener using the dual screen feature and found it cumbersome.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 16, 2015

      I agree about the dual screen thing. I had my screenplay on the bottom and my new text on the top, and I kept hitting the wrong key so one of them would be replaced by something else. Ugh! I know there’s a learning curve, as Karen points out, but there’s a certain cumbersome quality to the features too.

      That said, I do see some possibilities for Scrivener in the planning stages. Easy to just dump a bunch of materials in and fiddle around with them till you get ready to write.

      • sknicholls
        November 16, 2015

        I have Naked Alliances pulled out of Scrivener for editing. The Conduit is still in there for writing, but I’m thinking of pulling it out. It’s a different kind of story with the paranormal element and little blocks of writing don’t seem to be bringing the cohesiveness I expected from the story. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say each that each chapter seems isolated rather than part of a seamless whole. Did that make any sense?

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 16, 2015

        Oh, totally! I have a sneaky feeling that it’s hard to avoid the old railroad car effect with Scrivener, scenes just passing by regularly like a freight train. Some writers are probably able to revise that effectively, I don’t know…

  8. Britt Skrabanek
    November 26, 2015

    I’m a hyper-organized person by nature, so I’ve never considered a tool like Scrivener. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews from my writer buddies, most who had negative experiences—especially one who (dun, dun, dun) lost everything.

    I feel safer with my wonky system of post-its, journal, emails, computer notes, and my brain. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 26, 2015

      Same here. Somehow, so far, I’ve been able to write a bunch of novels without help from an app, though I’ll admit that the good ol’ word processor is necessary.

      Sometimes I think software developers tackle problems that didn’t really need solving. It’s that old saying, To a dude with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

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