Tuesday, February 28, 2017

100 WRITERS _____ See you at the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017, here's a post about my favourite software for writing novels

Note: This post is part of my 100 WRITERS project. 

I did a story workshop at the All In! Young Writers Festival last year. And then some of the participants interviewed me about it. I'm looking forward to hanging out at this year's event, coming up next weekend. Speakers include my friends Melanie Lee, Kamil Haque, Joyce Chng, Kamil Haque, Simon Chesterman and S Mickey Lin, all previously featured on this blog (click on their names to read their interviews). The event runs from 10 to 12 March at *SCAPE. You can find out more at the official website here. Also, I'm writing this post as a genuine fan of the Scrivener desktop app. I'm not connected to the company that makes it in any way. I use the OS X version. Scrivener is an official supporter of this year's All In! Young Writers Festival.

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Here I am hugging my laptop with Scrivener running.
Some people, when they hear about all the titles that Super Cool Books has produced, they squint at me in disbelief. Do I have a secret software that churns out all those manuscripts for me, so rapidly? That's what they want to know. Well, not exactly. I have to produce all the text from scratch. No AI generated writing shenanigans there. But there is indeed a piece of software that I'm now most reliant on for any sort of long form writing. And particularly the story books that we produce.

I just checked my old emails, and it turns out I've been using Scrivener since June 2011. That was when I downloaded the trial version, tested it for a while, then made payment online. The license key was emailed to me, along with the instructions. I jumped right in and never looked back.

A lot was happening back then. A significant shift in my writing life. I used to write mostly magazine pieces and television scripts. Microsoft Word was quite good for all that. But I was moving towards writing middle grade and young adult novels. And it was quite a challenge trying to handle those loooooong chunks of text. Plus the folders of research notes that came with each story project. And the multiple drafts.

I actually abandoned a lot of books because it just got too overwhelming. There's a digital graveyard of those uncompleted works on a backup drive somewhere. It was always a big project management challenge once the word count went past 15,000. It was overwhelming, messy and time consuming just keeping track of the files and how they were supposed to be connected.

With Scrivener, though, I don't even waste time thinking about all this. And that's something I sincerely appreciate.

Written with Scrivener: all these books of mine, and more.
There are many ways to describe or approach Scrivener. For me, it is a software for managing manuscript development.

It's not the best software for taking notes, free writing, basic outlining, journalling, creating proposals, short essays, brainstorming, blog posts, or anything like that. For those types of work, I might use TextEdit (a lot, it comes installed on all Macs), Bean, Bear (the iPad version, no relation to Bean), Simplenote (a free app by the folks who created Wordpress), Celtx, Daedalus, Google Docs and Pages (the best MS Word substitute, only available on Mac). And other similar apps.

But when I need to shape a huge chunk of text into a manuscript, and work with multiple collaborators or editors to revise this repeatedly, there is no better software than Scrivener to help me keep up and stay sane.

I guess you'd find it more helpful if I could give more specific examples.

For me, Scrivener works like a video editing software, but for text-based projects. You can bring in all your research work, whether it's text notes or PDFs or images, and have this collection available in the sidebar as you make outlines or early drafts for your project. You can also write in chunks, sort of like in Evernote, and keep assembling these in different ways until you find something that really works. It's similar to how you might make individual clips in a movie editor and then assemble your clips so you can work on how the sections flowed together, to get your finished project.

Because everything is in one consolidated environment, this is also great for packing projects into long term storage. Recently one of my earlier book concepts, My Blade Quest, was acquired by Armour Publishing for a multi-book deal. When I pulled out the old Scrivener file from my backup drive and opened it, I saw all the prep work I had done five years ago assembled neatly, waiting for me to get back to it: the character profiles, the series arcs, the worldbuilding notes, and the different drafts that it took to get the first book ready back then. Even though it had been five long years since I last worked on it, I was able to hit the ground running and get working on the new books right away. That's important for my peace of mind. I have a lot more book projects packed away in Scrivener files, waiting for their turn to be revived.

Watch the video for a quick demo.

There are also lots of small extras that add up. You can export your manuscript to epub, which is basically the most common ebook format. You get a sort of site license for your home, which lets you install Scrivener on both your laptop and desktop. There's a research bin, so you can keep your notes separate from your manuscript drafts. There's a built in names generator, which can spit out endless variations. And now there's also an iPad version, so you can carry your files around and work on the go.

Is there anything I'd like to see changed or improved? I tried to think up something negative about Scrivener, but it's hard. Whenever I encounter a problem, most of the time if I bother to dig around enough, I can probably find a feature hidden somewhere in the toolbar that can fix this.

But if there's one thing, as a person who uses Scrivener a lot, I feel that the interface could be more hip. The features work beautifully, but the panels, colours, layout and especially the icons, they all seem somehow rustic. Nineties vibe. At least compared to a lot of the other apps I am using today. Right now I love Scrivener, I am hooked, but I'm not in love with it. Yet. And I think a less scholarly, more fun interface could change that. What a geeky thing, I know.

To summarise: if you think that you want to get serious with long form writing, and you have experienced some of the document control frustration that comes with this, Scrivener will make your life a lot easier.

We dream about working on our own story ideas, and some of these could have the potential to make an interesting difference in the world around us. It'll be a shame if the lack of appropriate software is an obstacle that holds us back. With this in mind, you can download the trial version of Scrivener and test drive it for yourself.

See you at the All In! Young Writers Festival, we can chat more about your writing rituals and tools there.

If you're curious, this blog post was written entirely on my iPad Mini. I started working on it in Bear, taking down ideas and making outlines, and when I was ready I developed the draft in Daedalus. I have a Bluetooth keyboard designed for iOS, but I haven't touched that lately. To my surprise, I am actually very comfortable using the virtual keyboard and tapping away on the screen.

. . . . . . . . . .

by Don Bosco
Published by Marshall Cavendish
Written with Scrivener

My YA thriller co-authored with 
Ning Cai the celebrity magician and author.
Published by Marshall Cavendish
Also written with Scrivener, of course