Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.