An introduction to Scrivener


scrivener-outline (Photo credit: ChrisL_AK)

From time to time, the tools we use as writers evolve.  While William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrought their works on the classic Underwood typewriter, in this day and age there are a plethora of options in the digital space.  One such tool that I am embarking on making my goto is Scrivener[1], a $45 Mac OS application (a $40 Windows version is now available as well) that aims to fulfill the tagline of “Outline. Edit. Storyboard. Write”.[2]

The application has a 30-day trial that is fully featured and truly for 30 days of use (which means that if, for some reason, you only use it once a week it would last for 30 weeks).  There is an excellent interactive tutorial that is itself a Scrivener document which makes it very convenient to be up and running quickly.  It took me about an hour to go through the tutorial and immediately afterward I created a new project which eventually became this blog post.

Scrivener is designed around the concept of the Draft which is all of the textual elements of your work, with each granular section being an individual file.  This allows the author to visualize the work in progress as an outline, as index cards on a cork-board, or as individual chapters.  The work can be fully annotated, footnoted, and categorized so that locating a particular passage or finding all of the items that you wished to revisit for cleanup is easily accomplished.

Power, close at hand

While going through the tutorial, it became quite apparent that Scrivener is a tool with a lot of powerful features that are close at hand when you need them but not in your face when you don’t.  One powerful feature is the full-screen composition mode.  When you engage this mode, it’s just you and your page: no desktop, no other application windows, in short no distractions.  Great for cranking out the words.

Several features are aimed at providing the writer with the ability to customize the experience to their individual taste.  Once you’ve got it to your liking, it will feel like a comfortable pair of shoes, the ones you can walk miles in without chafing.

Another powerful feature is the ability to save snapshots of your work and then compare revisions in a visual manner.  Rework a paragraph to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you can return to a previous version if things just don’t work out.

From working draft to publishable manuscript

Once your draft is ready to move to the next level, Scrivener offers the compile phase of the lifecycle.  This is where your draft is transformed into a completed manuscript.  Working on a screenplay that you want to send out in Final Draft format? No problem.  Ready to e-publish your latest novel? No problem. Pretty much any final format you desire, Scrivener’s got you covered.
For this blog post, I compiled to plain text and then posted from that resultant document.  The initial draft is four sections (this is the third) which I could have re-arranged per my whim.

It’s a wrap

So far, my experience with Scrivener has been great.  I am looking forward to using it for longer works where flow and layout come into play, but I appreciate its simplicity when that is all that is called for.  About the only knock that I can give it so far is that they don’t have an iOS version.  I sometimes like to just take my iPad to a coffee shop and write.  It would be great to have the same seamless experience on the mobile device, and I know that it is something the makers of Scrivener are working on.

[1] One of my absolute favorite short stories of all time is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.

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Using Story Forge for a jolt of creativity

Story Forge

Story Forge Idea Cards

Sometimes your brain gets stuck. Might be on a character, a plot point, or maybe your whole darned story. We all have our tools and techniques to get us past our sticking points or writer’s block, but let me introduce you to a new one: Story Forge.

Story Forge is a deck of custom cards. Each card has an idea on it like an occupation, a view, an action, or a role. The positive version of each idea is facing one way, and the negative faces the opposite way, so depending which way is “up” when you draw a card it will have a different meaning. It’s quite a bit like Tarot cards, if you’re familiar with them.

The instruction book comes with different layouts. You pick a layout (or make your own), deal the cards, and then ponder how they apply to your story. That pondering is the best part.

The cards are a creative tool, but the value comes from breaking you out of your patterns. If you deal a layout and then toss it away because it wasn’t what you wanted, you’re missing the point. Let the cards push you in a whole new direction, and really explore it. You may not use it in your final material, but at least you followed the path to see where it lead.

Writing a Film Noir short

We recently used Story Forge in our writing group. We dealt out a hand to the Film Noir layout, and several of us wrote a story piece around it. I included a key with the image (click the image to zoom in).

Story Forge - Film Noir

Story Forge – Film Noir layout (click to zoom)

It starts with a Betrayal, but there is a Manipulator at work. He wants a Disguise, and eventually a double cross comes to light by way of a Compulsion. And what Film Noir would be complete without a Tragic Outcome?

Definitely not my normal genre, but our whole writing group took the layout and each wrote our own story. The results were all wildly different. Just looking at the cards above, where do you think this takes place? Who is the protagonist? What is their occupation? One of the great things about this exercise is everyone will flesh it out their own way.

Get your own Story Forge

You can purchase your own Story Forge deck for $20. It comes with a wide range of cards, and a few blank ones so you can add in your own favorite items. Whether you want to just break out of a rut, need a source of new story ideas, or want help with writer’s block, Story Forge is a great tool to have around.

Next up on the blog – our stories from the above layout!

Character vs Plot

Plot is not Story.  Plot is a tool that can help you with your story.  It might help quite a bit.  But it might not.  It might even hurt.  Who remembers learning all the ‘versus’ categories in school?  The Most Dangerous Game…Man vs Man.  The Old Man and the Sea…Man vs Nature.  The Lady or the Tiger…Man vs Doors?  Whatever.  I’m still not sure what those categories were supposed to teach us about literature. What about The Call of the Wild? I might ask the main character’s a freakin dog.  Ummm…my teacher might reply…It’s still Man vs Nature, the dog really stands for man.  Yeah, I might have said back, but every step the dog makes takes him closer and closer to nature, not versus nature.  Then my teacher might ignore me because she might have to admit that the versus categories, even broader than plot categories, are pretty much meaningless and have no effect whatsoever in how good the story is.

Plot is neither good nor bad it’s just a tool.  Learn it quickly and move on to something better, more fun, and more interesting.  Your characters.  If you can write a good character, plot will become meaningless.  People remember the characters, not the plot.  Ask someone what Raiders of the Lost Ark is about.  They might say it’s an Adventure Plot.  They might say it’s an Underdog Plot, or a Quest plot, or even Man vs. Man.  But more likely it will be some version of this–“This dude, Indiana Jones, is a professor of archaeology.  He wears a fedora and leather jacket and carries a whip and he looks for lost artifacts and he’s trying to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s do.  Oh yeah it takes place in the ’30’s.  So, you know, there’s Nazis.”  It’s about this guy, it’s about these two young girls, it’s about a freakin sled dog.  Always the character first and what happens to them or what they do second.  Something to think about.