Many people work with long, complicated documents: students, professionals, authors of all flavors. I found myself among them as I began working on the document that would eventually become My Name Is Tom Dorin.
Using this novel as an example, I have two protagonists who are in different centuries, living out their fates in interlocking but separate story lines, plus a cast of secondary and supporting characters in both centuries. In my first novel, mind you. Yeah, I never do things the easy way, do I? I started off riding a bicycle by heading down a steep hill too, towards a tree.
The novel’s impetuous undertaking ended with a glowing sense of success. That first bicycle ride? Let’s just say parts of me glowed for quite a while afterward. . . .
Anyway, retracing that rabbit-trail: After struggling with legal pad pages covered in scrawls and swooping arrows, stacks of index cards bordered with bilious highlighter marker colors, and a Word document that scrolled on longer than the credits for the original Superman,* I began to get a sharp pain behind my eye every time I tried to figure out which scene should go where.
I can’t remember where I first found Scrivener mentioned, but it sounded exactly what I needed. In fact, it sounded too good to be true, and $40 is a tad steep for me to take a chance on something I’m not certain about.
I decided to give the free trial a whirl. I used it about a week before deciding that I would purchase it the instant the trial period ended. The software looks complicated at first glance, but it quickly becomes intuitive. Still, I strongly recommend going through the tutorials before you dive in and start merrily deleting templates and resaving stuff.
I honestly do not think I could have finished Dorin without the organizing structure and ease of revision that Scrivener provides. The Literature & Latte site describes its glories better than I can, but I will say that it set me free to write and allowed me to revise with ease. The corkboard replaces all those stacks of index cards, and requires zero floor space to see them all laid out.
I could deal only with Jon’s scenes, or Tom’s, the 19th century or the 21st, just by clicking a folder. Scenes can be swapped around with the ease of moving a physical index card, and you never have to worry about a weak rubber band snapping, scattering them into chaos and under the couch. You can switch from the corkboard view to a compiled text view, to a single card view with equal ease.
Scrivener also reveals itself to be a well-appointed basic word processor, and has a very nice ‘distraction-less’ view for working, by fading the menus away into the background while you’re wooing your muse. It’s just as easy to get a high-altitude view of your entire project, or to compile it all back into one document for reading, printing or for final editing in a dedicated word processor. If you prefer to work in Word or OpenOffice or whatever, copy/pasting from those programs to Scrivener (and vice versa) takes nothing more than good ol’ control-c or control-v. Sometimes there’s some formatting changes, but nothing that’s a huge aggravation.
I also recently discovered that Scrivener will compile your project for publication as ePub or mobi, for eBook distribution. I haven’t tried that option yet, but it sounds straightforward. I’m not sure about the more precise, fiddly formatting requirements necessary for something destined for paper printing, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Scrivener does that well, too.
Scrivener isn’t only for fiction writers, nor, I suspect, was it originally designed for fiction. If you write non-fiction, or create documents for business or scholarly use, then Scrivener is really going to shine. I didn’t fully utilize its research and media files organization and integration features for Dorin, because I was too deep in my own method by then to switch everything over. That said, I am using its Research and media organization for the next book, as the in-progress novel is the first in a projected three book series, and requires a lot of world-building. I can set up the first book, and the overarching plan for the whole series, in Scrivener and have everything neatly in one place, easy to get to on the fly.
Scrivener was created as Mac software first, then adapted for Windows, so Mac users will likely find it even more of a seamless experience than I have. I have no idea about Linux, sorry. You’ll have to check their site.
Are there any negatives? Well, sure, nothing’s perfect. Scrivener opens slowly, and closes even slower. It does an automatic backup each time it’s closed, and that takes a fair amount of time when a project has grown to spider-whacker novel proportions. To be fair, that feature could probably be disabled, but I consider it good protection and leave it alone.
Another related caveat is that Scrivener saves your project files in its own proprietary format, which is not usable by other programs. I STRONGLY urge you to compile and then save your work frequently in another format and different location. Preferably also on removable media and then back that all up somewhere completely out of your house, like some form of Cloud storage or a safety deposit box or your Grandma’s hall closet. Y’never know, y’know, and if disaster strikes it’d be a real shame to lose all your work as well as your belongings. I have not had one single problem with Scrivener misbehaving, but it’s a computer program. Programs and computers can flop over onto their backs and die without much warning sometimes.
Scrivener is also not very portable. Even if you license it for more than one computer, it scolds you roundly for transferring files from one system to another. If you need to bounce from one machine to another as you work, it might be better to do your actual writing in something like Word, and only plan and compile finished chapters and research on Scrivener.
Even though Scrivener is fairly intuitive, and has excellent tutorials, it is not a Microsoft product, so things are set up a bit differently as far as commands and features. It took me a little while to figure out where the Paragraph formatting commands resided, for instance. Not a major issue, and once you know where everything is, it’s all easy to use—but there is that bit of a learning curve and unfamiliarity to traverse. It’s also not designed to be your primary word processor, so if you need to do fancy text manipulation and elaborate formatting, you’ll need to do that outside of Scrivener.
For what it’s designed to do, however, I can recommend it without reservation. It has proven itself to me and has definitely earned my accolade of Worth Every Penny!
[I don't receive any kind of compensation for any recommendation I make. The folks at Literature & Latte don't know me from Adam's off-ox, but I believe in giving credit where it's due and spreading the word about excellent goods and services. I hope it'll aid someone else in their quest to get their creative effort out into the world.]
* A quick Googling informs me that Clerks 2 now holds the record for longest ending credits. I haven’t seen that one, and it sounds as though the credits padding was done as a publicity stunt, so Superman holds the record still as far as I’m concerned.