Tools of the Trade: Scrivener

I talked about things I did to change my habits of writing in a previous post. One of the biggest problems I had as a new writer was that I wanted to constantly edit what I had written before, essentially trapping myself in a constant loop of write / edit / write over and over and over again. I learned the hard way that editing while writing is hard to do. One of the things that helped me move past that habit was a program called Scrivener. Scrivener is a lot of things. It's an outlining tool. It's a word processor. Describing it in these ways doesn't really do it justice. What it is is hands down the best writing tool I've ever used.

Scrivener allows you to break up your chapters, scenes, or however else you delineate your work into separate files. Now, before you tell me that you can do that with any word processor, yes yes, you can. What Scrivener does that these others don't do is allow you to then compile all of your separate items back into a single document again with a click of a button. Bet yours can't do that!

As you create the outline for your novel, you can add in descriptions. You can add in tags. You can organize before you even start writing (and you can compile out the outline too, by the way). Then, as you begin writing, you can track the status of each individual section. For me, it's chapters. I can assign a word goal for each chapter, so I have an idea of how close I am to my target for that specific chapter s I write.

I can flag each chapter based on its individual status, to be done, draft, revised draft, etc.

I can even check the overall target for the novel based on the individual target goals of each chapter.

If you know me, you know I love new, cool toys. So yes, Scrivener is a new cool toy for me. I'm sorry. However, I've been using it for over a year now and I really do believe it's the best way to go. The thing is, I have seen a marked improvement in my writing since I started using Scrivener. I think a lot of that improvement is the sort of organic improvement one would expect from someone who is writing more frequently. I do attribute at least two very specific things to the application however:

1. I'm actually outlining: I used to hate to outline. The fact that I had to keep yet ANOTHER document in sync with my actual book was a real pain and a major deterrent for me. Now the outline actually makes the writing easier, since it goes into the Scrivener project.

2. I'm not 'accidentally' reading other stuff anymore. I can't read anything else. When I click on a chapter, I can only see that chapter. This isn't one giant word doc with a hundred thousand words in it. It's a single chapter with a few thousand. I find that I'm much more focused (at least, within the context of my writing... the Internet is still a problem).

There are certainly things I don't much care for.

Transitioning into Scrivener was... not easy. I blame this more on Word than I do Scrivener, but still. I had to do a LOT of reformatting. They DO have a free trial of Scrivener, but if you have an existing novel, by the time you transition everything in... well... it's not something you necessarily want to abandon.

Scrivener doesn't have a grammar check at all, and its spellcheck is certainly inferior to Word's. That's just fine. The other improvements are WELL worth these areas where it lacks.

There is a bit steeper of a learning curve here than there is with Word. It's a much more complicated application. The benefits are worth the time, but you will have to put in some time to learn about it.

All in all, I highly recommend it. The application is only $40, and like I said earlier, there is a free trial so you can tinker.  What have you go to lose?

Changing the Habit

I talked a little bit in my Destiny post about how I had to change my habits before I really started making progress as a writer. I changed a lot of things, after years of trying, and failing, to write a novel. Obviously, I think there are more factors that contributed, but here are 5 things that I know made a significant impact on my writing.

1. Pick a Writing Place that isn't your Work Place My wife and I have a wonderful home, and I enjoy being at home. However, we don't have a spare room to use as a study or a den. The office that we have is a fine room, but I often work or play computer games in that room. One of the hardest things for me about trying to get into the right frame of mind for writing is flushing all of the other things that are cluttering up my brain. I spend almost all day on  computers, I play games on computers, and I also write on computers. This makes for a potentially distracting combination.

My solution early on was to go to a coffee shop, or to the library. Both of these places are just around the corner from my home and they have some very important things. First, they have free wifi (this can be a detriment certainly, but generally is quite useful). Second, I know I have things waiting for me to do other places, so going out creates a sense of urgency. I don't rush, but I also have real motivation to not waste time. And third, I don't usually sit at either of these places unless I'm writing.

By using these places as my 'writing place' and not anything else, I am one step closer to being in the right frame of mind, since I'm not cluttering up my brain with other things in the same area.

2. Get in the Right Frame of Mind to Write Before you Try to Write While I'm writing, I listen  to music. However, I also listen to music while I work, exercise, and just about everything else. So, the music itself isn't a vehicle to get me in the right frame of mind to write.

Eventually, I discovered writing podcasts. These had a surprising impact on me and my ability to focus in on writing. Not only did they get me thinking about the craft of writing, they really got me thinking about my own writing in a way that listening to audio books doesn't. I initially found Writing Excuses, which I still listen to weekly. In this podcast, authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Harold Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal talk about their own work, craft, and interview other authors. It's most excellent, and offers a great breakdown of slightly different genres, as each of the pod casters writes different types of books.

I expanded out from Writing Excuses to also include I should be Writing which is a slightly different format, but a similar concept. Mur Lafferty offers a wonderful, if slightly different perspective than Brandon Sanderson and co. She has a couple of books published and more self published, and I think offers a very valuable perspective as someone who has recently finished a MFA and is just starting to publish with an agent and publisher, vs. a group of well established authors who have been publishing professionally for years.

Most recently, I've started listening to Grammar Girl. While not explicitly a fiction writing podcast, Grammar Girl does offer a lot of great tips and ideas for writing. Mignon Fogarty approaches each concept in an approachable way, and the short format shows are easy to digest and listen to. While not a podcast I keep up with religiously, it's still an excellent addition to the list.

The thing I really find about podcasts is that they truly do get me thinking about my writing. If I listen to fiction, I focus on that fiction instead of my own.

3. Find someone Who is Enthusiastic about your Writing Of course, I should caveat this, with you need to be enthusiastic about your own writing. However, I found having some people around me who are interested in talking about what I'm working on, what I'm writing, etc. is invaluable. I haven't actively looked for a workshop, but having my cousin, Ashely Warren, who is also working on a novel has proven to be invaluable. Having good friends and other family, like my wife, my sister, and my friend Keith, who are all interested in reading what I write also really helps!

Some people are able to shut themselves and write in a vacuum. That's really difficult for me. So, having someone to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, and to help drive deadlines (workshop is next week, better get that next chapter done!) makes all the difference in the world.

4. Schedule Writing Time It's very easy to not write. Things come up. I work full time. I run. I have dogs. I play video games, and watch tv, and surf the internet. It's easy to think I don't have time to write.

So, to help combat this, I scheduled (to begin with) two nights a week that were my writing nights. After work and dinner was out of the way, I would pack up my computer and go to one of my writing locations and I would spend 2-3 hours (until they closed) working on my book.

This helped to make sure that I knew when I was writing, and it also set clear expectations that Tuesday and Thursday were writing nights, and not cleaning nights, or gaming nights, or go out with friend nights.

5. Stop Editing I got really good at writing the prologue and first 2-3 chapters of a book.  I probably wrote, and rewrote, and cleaned up, and rewrote the same material three dozen times over several years before I realized what I was doing. I never made progress in my book, because I was so worried about fixing my problems. So worried about making the next chapter perfectly line up with what I'd already written, that I'd be constantly shifting through what I had already written so it lined up.

I thought the problem was the subject matter. So, I decided to write my second book first, and change the plot to be more interesting. I focused on the plot, and not how I was writing it. I eventually got to the point where I scrapped my book and started a new concept, which I have made phenomenal progress on. I hope to return to that first book someday, but that day is not in the near future.

I did very little editing as I started writing my new series. I have since done editing passes on the book, but I didn't do them while I was writing.  I even proactively avoided changing things that came out of workshops, until I had mostly finished sections or drafts.

It made a huge difference. I finished the book.

I don't know that these things will help you, but they absolutely helped me. Regardless, just make sure you are writing!