Writing a novel? There’s an app for that

Today, for a change of pace, I’m putting on two of my favorite hats, the ones marked ‘novice novelist’ and ‘geek’.  I’m about a month away from finishing my second novel – which is called Comrades, and centres around a bunch of student politicians who are vying for a high distinction in Backstabbing 1001. If all goes well, it’ll be published in the second half of the year.

But this isn’t a plug for the book (expect those to start in a few months!) – it’s a plug for the programme I used to write it, a specialist novel-writing application called Scrivener, and it made the process so pleasant that I thought I’d write a brief, nerdily evangelistic piece about why if you’re serious about writing novels, you should be using it.

It works on a Mac. I can accept that some people prefer PCs, much as I can accept that some people get aroused by dripping hot wax on themselves. It’s just that I wouldn’t go there myself if you paid me. The reasons why are too many to go into, but here’s the thing – Word for Mac kinda sucks, presumably deliberately. I’ve just had to shift my draft manuscript into it so my editor can track my changes, and it’s been a rude awakening. Not only has it been crashing frequently – a very rare experience on a Mac – but it’s hideously sluggish. Silly me – I thought it was supposed to be a professional word processing programme costing hundreds of dollars, but evidently I was wrong. I’ve been using the Apple product, Pages, as well, and it’s better, but still nowhere near as good as Scrivener. Following are reasons why.

Structure by chapters. Word only lets you handle one huge document. But in Scrivener, your document is broken into manageable chapters. That means you can shift them around easily, and you always know where everything is – no more scrolling up and down in the hope of finding the right bit. Then, when it’s time to compile a draft, it combines everything into one file, in the right order.

Index cards. You can view your chapters as cards, which you can annotate and reshuffle. This really suits me because I like to plan in advance what my chapters are going to involve, so I know where I’m going. So in Scrivener I create a new index card for each chapter and write a few notes “on the card” about what it’s going to have in it. Then when it’s time to begin each chapter, I double click on the card, and I’m inside a new document, and can get cracking.

Outline view. This lets you see a list of each chapter, what’s in it, how many words it is and, crucially, where you’re up to. You can flag each chapter as “First draft”, “Needs editing”, “Ready” – whatever you like. It makes it easy to organise your writing process.

Full screen view. I have a short attention span, so I need Twitter, the Internet and everything kept well away from where I’m working. That’s why I like to edit in full screen mode, with nothing but big text to concentrate on. Better still, I can set the text to display as white letters on dark grey, which is far easier on the eye than black on white. (Or in fact any colour scheme you like.) This may sound silly, but try it and I reckon you’ll see I’m right – a white page background for long periods equals eye strain.

Formatting flexibility. Manuscripts generally have to be submitted in double-spaced Courier, but I hate working in that – I prefer a large serif font with no spacing. Well, in Scrivener that’s easy, because it’s gloriously non-WYSIWYG, if you want it to be – you write in whatever font you like, and it spits it out in the correct, Courierified manuscript format as a Word document, RTF, PDF or whatever.

Constant saving. Scrivener uses a tricky system where it only saves the tiny bit of the file you’ve changed, not the whole document like Word. So it saves your changes all the time, and you don’t have to wait while it’s doing so, like Word which takes a solid 30 seconds every single time once your document gets a bit long. Scrivener has never crashed on me yet, but even if it did, I wouldn’t lose a thing.

Snapshots. Before you edit a chapter, you can take a copy of it using a “snapshot”. Then you go ahead and edit it, but if you want to go back to how it was before, you just revert to the previous snapshot. I find this much more useful than Track Changes, at least in the early drafting stages.

Screenplay mode. I don’t entirely understand why, but as an added bonus, they also decided to throw in a really excellent scriptwriting mode. It’s extremely similar to the industry standard Final Draft – and crashes less, thankfully. If you haven’t done any screenwriting, the issue is that there are rigid formatting rules in the industry, and it’s a massive pain to comply with them in Word, as opposed to a customised programme that figures out what you’re trying to do and formats everything for you.) It can even export to Final Draft format so that you can send your work to bigshot Hollywood producers.

The company that makes it is called Literature & Latte. Which means they have a sense of humour. At least, I really, really hope they do.

Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than a regular wordprocessor that you won’t believe you ever struggled with Word like I did for my first novel. And if you want to give it a go, it’s got a free 30-day trial, and unlike most such trials, that means 30 days of actually using it.

So, why have a I spent 800 words raving on about this programme? Well, I’ve just finished a creative writing Masters, and I can’t believe nobody ever told me to use a novel writing application. It would have saved me hours of Microsoft agony. Now, go out and win the Booker, and when you do, you can thank me for recommending Scrivener.

Update: Even though it’s only $39.95, there’s a 20% discount until 15 May – details here – looks like the coupon code is SCRIPTFRENZY.

6 Responses to Writing a novel? There’s an app for that

  1. Kat 18 March 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    The first time I heard of Scrivener it made me want to go buy a Mac. Looking forward to the second book!

  2. Melissa 18 March 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    Sheer genius! Thanks so much for the tip. This English teacher/wannabe novelist will definitely purchase my Mac this new friend. My Mac neighbourhood loves useable and friendly software faces.

  3. Pina Leyland 19 March 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Thanks for the tip Dom. I don’t have a mac but am now tempted to go out and buy one!

  4. brittany 16 May 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    thanks for the tip dom, i just started the 30 day trial. it sounds great and i am planning on using it a lot. because im in the middle of my first book and have ideas for another 4, im hoping it will help me.

    thanks 😀


  5. ina 24 September 2010 at 2:44 am #

    my question is how to view documents generated by scrivener on my iphone. do you have any experience how to transfer the *.scriv on the iphone just viewing the documents. do you any solution for that problem?

  6. Dom 27 September 2010 at 1:44 am #

    Yes – if you get the iBooks app, the new version of Scrivener will be able to export in the ePub format, which it supports.

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