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How Scrivener Saved My Novel

Spoiler Warning: This post contains screenshots of my novel in the program Scrivener. While I tried to keep any text on the screen vague, and much will change before publishing, it is possible you could learn more about my book than you want to before reading it. Read this post at your own risk 

I’m not an organized person. I do try, and once in a while I’ll get everything in its proper place… but then I can’t find one thing I want, I get frustrated, give up on being organized because it’s obviously not working, and soon everything’s a mess again. It hasn’t been too much of a problem until I tried to write a book. I had written several short fan-fic stories but their complexity was nothing compared to a full length novel. With my novel came: keeping track of plot points, structuring character arcs, timeline management, etc, etc. All things that my poor memory could not keep track of no matter what organization system I tried to use. I began feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Then along came Scrivener.

I had tried Scrivener a few years ago and failed miserably, not through any fault of the program, but because I tried to just dive in and use it. Scrivener is great because it has tons of features… it’s also dangerous because it has tons of features. I say dangerous because if you don’t know what you’re doing you can get quite lost and frustrated trying to use them. That’s why I love the Tutorial.

Some of you may say, “But I hate tutorials. I can figure it out by myself.” I used to feel the same way, and still do about a lot of things. There’s something satisfying about learning how to do something without any outside help. I would argue, however, that there are times some instruction can save you.

I decided to give Scrivener another try for my debut novel Dust on the Altar and this time I resigned myself to reading the tutorial. My thought was, since I’m approaching being an author as a serious profession, it makes sense to follow instructions, as I would for any new piece of equipment or procedure at a “real job”. I’m so glad I did.

I won’t try to tell you how to use it because that’s what the tutorial is for. I will try to give you some insight into why I use it now, and hopefully this will give you some idea if it may be a good fit for you as well.

For one thing the tutorial isn’t boring. There’s a sense of humor and conversational quality to it, as if someone is actually sitting there walking you through the steps. Take this as example:

“When you’re ready then—after a stretch of the legs, a glass of wine, a good curse at the prolixity of this tutorial’s author, whichever helps—let’s move on to Step 10 and look at the outliner in more depth.”

No matter how important the information is that’s being presented, it does you no good if you fall asleep. I doubt you’d fall asleep during this tutorial. It is integrated within the program so you’re actually using the program while you go through the tutorial.

I also appreciate the fact that they have put all the most important features into a “Quick Start” section. If you don’t have a lot of time, or are impatient like me, you can follow the shorter version and be off. I started that way, but soon found I was so interested in what else the program could do that I quickly went over the sections I skipped.

So here are just some of the features that have saved my novel, and possibly my sanity:

Folder organization is something much more easily done in digital form than physical, at least with something as complicated as a manuscript. I had tried creating separate documents for different chapters or scenes, along with more separate documents with notes and research… It was a mess. I could never remember where which document was in what folder, even though I thought I named them to make it clear. I spent more time finding the documents I needed than working on them.

With Scrivener it’s possible to have separate documents and folders, but they’re all kept in order, in one place, on one screen. Not only that but you can change the icons to anything you want. I’m serious…anything. They have several premade ones but you can easily add ones you create, or find online, or whatever.

For example: I was having some trouble with the middle section of my story, otherwise known as “The Road of Trials”. It’s an important part of any hero’s journey. A part of the story where the main character goes through increasingly difficult obstacles in order to reach a goal. The tutorial suggests using folders as chapters and documents as scenes. Instead I made a folder for each “trial” and the documents within were separate beats within the trial. I then color coded the icons to represent the elements each trial represented; blue for water, green for earth, etc.

Because I had imported my entire draft I had some sections which I realized didn’t fit the Hero’s Journey anymore. I split those parts into separate documents and changed their icons to a brown notebook, because in my mind that’s where you keep extra bits of text you aren’t sure about but don’t want to delete yet.

I also changed the icon for the entire trial section (“Road of Trials”) to a bar graph to remind me that this section needed to increase in tension as it went. Here’s what it looked like:

Color coding is something I’ve always wanted to use but for some reason, when I try it just confuses me more. Perhaps it’s because I’ve tried using other people’s colors, with other people’s correlations. In Scrivener I am able to choose whatever color I want and use it in any way I want.

One part where this helped me immensely is in keeping track of the hero’s journey. Yes, that again. When I first began writing my book a couple years ago, I learned about the Hero’s Journey (or Arch Plot structure) from Ingrid Sundberg. She had a helpful and very detailed explanation to the concept along with a great graph representation of it. Check it out here:

First, I took a screenshot of the diagram and saved it into OneNote. You could print it out if you don’t use a digital notebook like that. I drew along the arch in different colors, each corresponding to the changing tension. Just this simple thing clarified in my mind how the intensity changed. I will post a screenshot, if and when I get permission from the author. You should definitely check out her website as she offers a wealth of writing tips and advice.

Second, I opened my novel in corkboard mode and color coded each index card (chapter) to the corresponding part of the Hero’s Journey on the diagram. Note the little rectangles of color in the upper right corner of each card. Well, almost each card, two of them don’t have it and I’ve no idea why. I never said it was a perfect system 

This allows me to easily see where I should be in the plot when working on a section.

Continuity is an extremely important part of any novel. You could have a great plot, believable characters, everything could be awesome, but if you don’t keep continuity it will shove the reader out of your story. Not good.

Scrivener has a split window feature just like MS Word. The difference is that in Scrivener, those separate documents are still in order, kept in the larger document. You can open two completely different scenes on opposite ends of the story and check timing, how tall someone is, what you named somebody, anything you need to make sure is consistent. When you close the windows they’re still there and you can find them easily.

Here’s what it looks like when I’m trying to figure out time between her nightmares. (I warned you there’d be spoilers)

You can see the chapter folders and scene documents on the left. The document I opened in the top window, “Morning”, is at the end of the chapter folder “Waking in Sun City”. The document in the bottom window, “The next two days”, is in the beginning of the chapter folder “The Call”. If I had opened these two documents in Word, I would have no easy way of seeing where they fall into the bigger story’s timeline.

There’s tons of other features I haven’t tried yet but I hope this gives you some small idea of what’s possible with Scrivener. While it’s not for everyone, anyone can use it. I just suggest you read the tutorial first.

Was any of the information I presented helpful in your making a decision to try it, or not?
Have you used Scrivener before? What are your favorite features?
I love feedback, so feel free to comment below.

Happy reading/writing.

Let's chat! :) Let me know what you think.