Stripped-down Scrivener

NaNoWriMo 2013 is upon us, and at the time of writing (28th October), over 157,000 writers have signed up for the challenge. One of the hottest topics (as ever) is the subject of computer software – specifically, what do you use to write your novel?

For me, it’s always been about simplicity and light weight. Microsoft Word has become bloated and heavy (from a software point of view). It takes ages to load up (more than 2 seconds is ages in my book), and slows my computer down because it hogs so much memory.

Before now, I’ve used a simple word processor called “Bean” (I’m on Mac). The crucial things are that it’s free, it doesn’t take up memory and is quick to load, it has a live word count, and does first line indents on paragraphs. What more do you need of a word processor? I’m sure there are others, probably just as good.

I had been reading about Scrivener for years, had downloaded a trial version, and last year used my NaNoWriMo winner’s token to take advantage of a very generous offer, and bought it for half price.

Then April happened. Here’s the story:

So now, I use Scrivener a lot for longer writing.

But Scrivener is a beast of a programme. It is hugely clever, and has a mass of features. It can be overwhelming for a new user. It was for me, before I simplified things. I now have a stripped-down template which allows me to concentrate on my planning and writing.

This is what it looks like:

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 20.56.53

There is no data in this Scrivener sheet yet. But you can see that I have 5 folders in my binder, each of which is completely empty.

1. Manuscript. This is where my actual writing will go. I tend to write in scenes – I’ll organise these into chapters later on, but for the moment, it’s easier for me to construct my story as a series of scenes, as in a film.

2. Characters. Here, I list each of my main characters, some short physical description, and character traits. Also, any relationships to other characters are listed here.

3. Places. Locations where my action takes place, with fictitious town and village names, and I list some of the buildings in these places, such as pub and shop names, with some brief descriptions.

4. Research. Any websites I have come across in my research, and reference material goes here.

5. Notes. This is where I put my initial story notes, and also any notes for future changes in the story. Often, I’ll have an idea for a change in the plot, or a new character, and instead of stopping my writing and changing it all around, I’ll just make a note and move on.

6. Trash. This is a Scrivener folder. When you delete any of your scenes, characters, or places, they are not absolutely deleted, but are sent instead to the trash folder within Scrivener. Just In Case!

Conclusions: I like starting a novel with Scrivener looking like this. It’s got the folders I need, and nothing more to get in the way.


Data is fragile – secure it!

Yet again, I’ve just seen an impassioned plea from an online friend for advice about rescuing precious files from a dead computer.

I’ve designed, modified and fixed computers for the whole of my working life – some 30-odd years. My first programs were written and stored on paper tape, which then had to be run through a high-speed reader to load them into the DEC minicomputer we were using then. After that, we got another DEC minicomputer, this time with FLOPPY DISKS! These were 8″ (yes, eight inch) devices, and were in a paper / fabric sleeve, making them very floppy indeed. In a normal working environment, being used every day, it wasn’t unusual for these disks to become unreadable, at which point we would turn to one of our structured backup disks, create a new working disk, and off we went.

8" vs. 3.5" floppies

8″ vs. 3.5″ floppies

Then we moved to 5¼” disks, which were still floppy, but tended not to bend if you slightly misaligned them when inserting them into a drive. Then we went to 3½” disks which, wonder of wonders, had a hard, plastic shell, and a sliding cover over the disk access slot, which were damned near impossible to destroy.

The point of this fascinating (?) history lesson – I backup my work. Obsessively. I have learned the hard way that you can lose a week’s worth of new data by not looking after your storage devices. The thought of having a single device, which stores precious digital photographs as well as hundreds of hours-worth of written work, is just the stuff of my nightmares.

Storage is cheap. Really, really cheap. Why spend hundreds on pounds on a computer, and then not spend a few dozen pounds on a removable storage system (to whit, a USB hard disk). This is what I use. I have three of them. I have one which is in a different room to where I work, and that has weekly backups. Like, everything new added to my computer’s hard disk since the last backup, which was a week ago. I have another one, which was last used a few months ago, and it has the whole of my hard disk data on it, including digital photos, downloaded music, and other junk. AND my writing. And then, the third, is stored at a friend’s house. And has several backups of my hard disk data, going back a decade or more.

Why three? Well, if your computer can go wrong, so can a USB hard disk. It’s impractical to keep backing up to multiple devices all the time, but this way, I restrict my losses whilst not spending all my time doing backups.

The thing being, if I wanted that precious photo I took several years ago, it’s there, somewhere. If I need it badly enough, I can find it. But the more crucial thing is that my writing, in which I invest hundreds of hours every year, is secure. Even at a impoverished writer’s working rates, that’s a lot of money tied up in 1’s and 0’s on a piece of magnetic stuff.

What hardware options are there?

* Little pen / thumb / USB solid state drives are cheap, and come in reasonable capacities these days. Good for storing projects.

WD USB disk

* My own choice, USB hard disks, are coming in with 1TB (terrabyte, or 1000 gigabytes) capacity, or more. I prefer Western Digital or Seagate, but there are other makes that are probably as reliable.

* Most of us have wireless routers now, and there are things such as NAS drives, which plug into the network ports on the router, and have data constantly available.

* Online storage – a simple, old skool method of storing small amounts of data is to email it to yourself. There are restrictions on most mail systems to 5MB or 10Mb attachments, but it’s quick and easy to do send documents to yourself.

* Dropbox (other systems are available) is a system for creating an online (“cloud”) storage which is updated automatically across all of your devices, crucially working with iPads, and probably other tablets. A simple, and transparent, method of storing data.

* Time machine (Mac) is a system which automatically backs up your data while you work. The problem is that you need to have the device attached all the time, which is a little impractical for me.


But, I’m afraid I’m an old computer person, and I prefer having the data physically in my hand. I’m not reliant on internet connections to be able to get to the data in a hurry.

So you need to choose a method, and backup your data – NOW!


Scrivener – *now* I’m a believer

Let me say, first off, that I always liked the idea of Scrivener. A piece of software which helped writers to write, not get in the way or prescribe how you should write. I downloaded a trial, back in the Dark Ages, and I was instantly confused. There was too much going on.

David Hewson, a writer I admire, and whose books I’ve enjoyed, talks about Scrivener a lot. He’s even written a book, called “Writing a novel with … Scrivener”. Which I’ve bought and read. I must admit, I’m with him up to a certain point, and then … I get lost.

Other writers on forums and on Facebook talk about Scrivener in reverential terms. Literature and Latte, who market Scrivener, sponsor National Novel Writing Month, and offer special half-price deals for NaNoWriMo winners. I know, because I bought it in 2011.

And I tried it. And I got confused. I downloaded other people’s templates, and tried it again. And got confused. It was my fault, I admit. There was some sort of disconnect between me and the joys of Scrivening (if there is such a verb).

At the start of 100kwords100days, a couple of people asked what software other writers used. Again, Scrivenophiles (if there is such a noun) were vocal in their support of the product, and again I tried it out. And again, I didn’t get it.

Until now.

This is my Damascene moment. I get it. I now totally get it.

I was happily writing away, using my chosen word processor (Bean, for Mac – a brilliant, simple, easy-to-use word processor with all the stuff you need and none of the stuff you don’t need). I write each chapter separately, starting each file with Chapter 4 (or whatever), saving each chapter separately, and merging all the files together at the end. Safety first, that’s what I say. And then I had a problem. I decided that my wonderful story needed a chapter inserted in the middle of what I’ve already written. Which meant my chapter headings would be all out of sync, and the filenames would be wrong, too. (My chapters had file names like chapter-04-001.doc). And I’d also noticed that some of my chapters were around 800 words long. And some of them were around 3,500 words long. That can’t be right?

So, reluctantly, I opened up Scrivener. Under “Manuscript”, I created a folder called “First Draft”. In there, I added “New Text” called “a-DM enters office. Grief”. My main character, Danni McGregor, entered her office at the police station, and got some grief straight away. I then created another one, called “b-DM/PS go to cafe” and “c-At arcade – murder scene”, “d-Interview at scene with Michael Fraser” and “e-discussion with Hamden over body”. So now, I’m splitting my story into scenes. I don’t care about chapters, whatever they are. I’ll sort those out later.

So I wrote my scenes. I wrote the first one. Then I wrote the second one. Then I wrote the fourth one, because that made more sense to me as the writer. When I’d written half a dozen scenes, I decided that they should go to the murder scene, do all that they needed to there, and then go to the cafe. So I dragged the text title thing “b-DM/PS go to cafe” to below “e-discussion with Hamden over body”. All my lovely text moved with it. No renaming. No renumbering. It was SO EASY.


I then put text things under Characters and Places. Under Characters, I’ve got two folders – Police Characters and Local Characters. I’ve just put them in as place markers, more for me to remember their names. Each time I introduce a character, I stick their name in there. It takes 10 seconds. Or less. And I don’t have to fill in character questionnaires or profiles.

Scrivener can create names for you. So I created some. And I copied and pasted the names into a ‘thing’ for names. They were male names, so I renamed the thing. I created some female names, too, and put them in a separate ‘thing’.

Now, under my First Draft manuscript, I change the icon for the ‘things’ so I can see which parts I’ve written. Because I can now write things out of sequence. It doesn’t matter any more. Scrivener works how I want to work.

If I get stuck on a scene, I write a different one. I don’t have to worry which chapter it fits into, because it doesn’t yet. I’ve deleted a load of stuff from the left hand column (apparently called the binder, but I hate that name. It means nothing to me). Where I’ve created my scenes, I’ve added some description into the right hand column (apparently called the Inspector, but it’s different to the Mac Inspector, so that confuses me too).

But, nomenclature apart, I’ve now discovered how it can be used to write the way I want (and need) to write.

In the three days I’ve been using it, I’ve averaged over 5,000 words per day. 

Scrivener is wonderful!

P.S. This blog post was written in Bean. Sorry, Scrivener – horses for courses.