Scrivener the Dream Maker

The first time I saw the Binder in Scrivener I knew, without a doubt that it would allow me to organize my thoughts so I could convey my message.

I admit I had an advantage over the average first timer, having a background in Geographic Information Systems, I had a lot experience with Layered File Management of a single output product. Sounds complicated, don’t it? It’s not really.

In a map, I’d build a database for the road centerline, another database for the right of way, another for the paved portion, still another for the markings, and another for the signage.

Then I’d stack up the layers for the presentation, and symbolize each layer for representations that didn’t mask the other layers. When I printed the map there would be an image that showed aspects of all the layer.

In a way that’s what Scrivener does. The main difference is in a text document you can’t put one item on top of another with out visual conflict. So Scrivener builds the output sequentially.

I use the Binder like an outlining tool. I started using the cork board and the outline tool, but it was just too distracting for me. I do believe that this is more of an issue with how I work and think than with Scrivener. Most users love these tools and cite them as majors reasons they use Scrivener.

Now I build an outline of the book with all of the plot and story arc laid out, one line per text layer. I write my sorry first draft, then I rewrite, building in what makes a story out of all the info dumps. As the story builds I split the document up into more text layers as necessary and as I write the outline that was all the text layer contained at the beginning becomes part of the actual text or is deleted.

When I finished my first draft, I printed it out, and red lined the first three chapters. Then I sat down to input the changes into Scrivener. The first and second changes went fine, but when I looked up from the text after the third change I was in chapter five, without referring to the paper again.

I went back and checked my red lined document against the changes I made in the second draft and found my red lining wasn't as good as my on the fly changes in the editor. So redlining isn't for me.

At the end of my first draft I had a real mess, run on info dumps, very little dialog and almost no action. My first draft was sixty five thousand words long, and it wasn't a story. Still my most worrisome unknown was ordinary grammar. Just as I finished my first draft a friend who is a PhD in English offered to look it over. I knew it wasn't ready for any kind of review, but sent it to her anyway. I also wrote her a letter listing what I knew to be wrong with in and asking her to pay attention to the grammar, and tell me what I was doing wrong there.

It had been decades since I’d been in a class where grammar was something that would be discussed and I could remember anything. I must have looked up adverbs, twenty times before I started to feel comfortable that I was recognizing them. Participles, they could be dangling from my eyebrows and I couldn't see them.

The friend pointed out everything I’d listed and said that my grammar was fine, with a dismissive wave of the hand. So I still don’t know if my grammar was even close to what it should be, now I’m just doing what sounds right in my head.

Scrivener made the re-writing and editing possible. Most of the chapters in my first draft were little more than expanded outlines, poorly written. As I read the draft, I used the split feature to create a new chapter, or three or four, what ever was needed. Then I would turn the telling of my info dump into action or dialog or both.

I write and tell the story in a linear fashion. Time flows in my story in a straight line, and this presented it’s own set of challenges. Getting the time line right almost defeated me. I built a complex flow chart, to track events characters, and scenes as they occurred on the time line. It was a logistic nightmare.

When I realized that the template Novel with Parts could be used to solve this problem I had spent at least six months trying to unravel the mess. Now my part folder is a date/time reference with the second level folder becoming a scene designator, and the header of the text file listing the point of view character for the chapter.


This also allows me to do a quick assessment of consistency in point of view, which also created new chapters, since I hadn't been to careful about maintaining point of view in my first twenty or so revisions.

Revisions turned out to be the greatest challenge I faced. I’d never needed to revise a long document before. Letters or reports yes, but they were only a few pages of text. After the second draft, it was a hundred and twenty thousand words. By the time I turned the great big bunches of info dumps into the basic form of a story, you know, with action and dialog, characters and plot. All that kind of stuff. Scrivener offers the tools to divide text, move it around, remove it while preserving it, that gave me a chance to turn a mess into something I could let strangers read with my name on the by line.

I had a couple of issues with Scrivener though. The first one was the British English naming conventions for the sections of the software or interface. First of all I would have called the “Binder” a “Layer Index” because that was what I was used too. Not a big difference I admit, until I needed to look up something in the help, and realized I couldn't remember the term “Binder” so my search wasn't finding the information I needed. Since help didn't, help that is. I went to Scrivener for Dummies by Gwen Hernandez and encountered the same issue, since she followed the same naming convention. By the time I found the answer I needed, I’d lost a half hour and my train of thought.

The spell check dictionary is sometimes frustrating, I simply can’t ignore that squiggly red line under a word. Even when set to American English, it is still very British centric. Many common usage words for a native Texan, simply do not exist in the Scrivener lexicon, and the various tenses of words, compound the problem. I’d also swear that I've added many of the same words to the custom dictionary several times each.

What I’d like to see developed:

The typewriter mode is great, but there needs to be a background element that brings the eye to center page. Especially when you’re live editing and you place your cursor on a word and begin to type the line jumps to center page and you've lost your position and have to re-acquire the cursor.

Line numbering, and automatic file hierarchy numbering. I’m assuming that the software is built on a basic database platform. If so it’s already assigning some kind of identifiers to each file and text page, make those designators useful to the user, in addition to the heading for the folder or text file.

If this type of nomenclature was enabled and would change automatically as the text or folder was moved the user wouldn't have to manually change their chapter numbers if they’re imputing them to help track their work. I numbered my chapters to track story elements, then removed the chapter numbers when I formatted the book for publication. The numbers were a working tool only, but essential for managing the logistics of my time line. It took a lot of time and had to be maintained repeatedly as changes were made. The notes or comments would have to remain linked to their folder or text file and the designators there would have to change also. Then the ability to export the notes or comments sequentially to a text file would become amazing.

Added to this a tool that would copy the text of a line or highlighted section with the folder designation and line number and pastes it into the notes or comments. A tool that could do that would be a great way to build a story bible.

While trying to write this last recommendation I found the tool. “Capture selection from Screen” and used it to create the example above. Even as I type this line I’m newly amazed by Scrivener, one more time.

Scrivener is a great piece of software, and is hands down the best word processor I've ever seen. It gives me the organizational tools necessary to map out my story and fill in the details they way my mind works. Mine is different from every example I've ever seen, by a couple of magnitudes of complexity. I changed the organization of my project several times while writing the books, and am now comfortable with what I using.

I’m always changing, looking for ways to improve and simplify, I feel that Scrivener gives me what I need to keep my story straight.