The Power & Limits of Scrivener (for me)

As I try to polish and publish my third historical novel over the next couple of months, I thought it would be worthwhile to step back and take a look at the tools I’ve used in writing this draft, particularly Scrivener. I’m surprised that I haven’t written about Scrivener in almost a year.

For nonwriters and nonusers of Scrivener, this post will sound like Greek. My apologies.

And for Scrivener users, let me be clear that I’m using the Windows 1.9 version. I’m told the current Mac version has better features than the Windows version. (More on Scrivener updates at the end of this post.)

My history with Scrivener:

This current work-in-progress, Forever Mine, was the first novel I drafted in Scrivener. In the past, I drafted my novels in Word. I started using Scrivener in the summer of 2014 to write and organize my blog posts (I’m in Scrivener as I draft this post). Writing short documents (mostly 500-1000 word posts) turned out to be a really good way to get comfortable in Scrivener.

When I completed Lead Me Home in 2105 and Now I’m Found in 2016, I dumped the Word documents I’d used to create the print-on-demand (POD) versions for CreateSpace into Scrivener. I broke up the documents into chapters in Scrivener, and then compiled the resulting Scrivener files into ebook formats for Amazon (MOBI format) and Barnes & Noble (EPUB format). I learned a lot about the compile function in Scrivener doing the ebooks.

Drafting my current book:

When I started my current work-in-progress, I had two goals: First, I wanted to outline the book in more detail than I’d managed when writing my earlier novels. Scrivener, I knew, had better outlining tools than Word. Second, I wanted to see how far I could get drafting in Scrivener—would it prove an acceptable substitute for Word?

I found several advantages to outlining and drafting in Scrivener:

  • I could in fact outline, starting with a list of key scenes and turning points in the book, then building more scenes around these crucial points
  • I could move not only chapters around, but also scenes
  • I could label each scene by which character had the point of view
  • I could check the word count of each scene (and, if I worked at it, by chapter and total manuscript also)
  • I could import an 1847 calendar and other research tools, including character sketches, into Scrivener’s “Research” folder, for immediate reference
  • I could outline the novel using a three-act structure and various plot points, as described in a variety of novel-writing resources (this would be the first novel I tried to plot in advance, rather than shaping after a draft was done)
  • I could add a date field, so I could keep a running timeline going
  • I even imported the entire text of Lead Me Home into my Forever Mine Research folder, because the plots of the two novels are so intricately woven (same people on the same journey, but focused on different points of view)

But there were some disadvantages to using Scrivener:

Each week I had to spit out about ten pages to send to my critique partners, most of whom do not use Scrivener. At first, those pages were pretty ugly (Courier font), but over time, I learned to “compile” the chapters I wanted from Scrivener into a decent-looking Word document using settings that I saved to use week after week.

I don’t like Scrivener’s formatting features, which aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Word’s. However, the formatting was adequate for a rough draft, and I developed some “preset” formats that worked for me. I couldn’t divide the scenes with an image as I do in the published books, so that was another ugly aspect of what my critique partners had to see each week. But they’re patient.

As I worked, however, I decided that at some point I would have to dump the whole manuscript into Word and reformat it into the CreateSpace template for the POD. The compile feature in Scrivener simply wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go with the formatting.

I periodically did dump the manuscript into a PDF, so I could read through it on my Android tablet, but then I took the comments I’d made on the PDF and had to enter them into the Scrivener file. (Scrivener has an iOS version for Mac tablets, but not for Android.) I learned how to take the manuscript from Scrivener into the CreateSpace template with minimal fuss—as long as I complied using Header 1 and Normal styles, Word could interpret those and give me something I could work with.

Screenshot of my novel in Scrivener

Revising the novel:

I wrote the whole first draft if this novel in Scrivener, then started revising. I went through all the comments from my two critique groups and edited the manuscript, based on what they told me. I also did a lot of my own rewriting and correcting, and filled in what I’d left blank or sketchy on the first draft. All this, I did in Scrivener.

I also looked at the novel through each character’s scenes separately. This was a real advantage of Scrivener. Forever Mine uses six points of view, so I got to see how each character developed through the book. Scrivener lets the user create “collections” of scenes, which I did for each point-of-view character. I could have done more with this tool, and I might use it more on future books.

Converting to Word to polish:

Each run-through in Scrivener got easier, but I still thought Scrivener’s usefulness would end at some point. Many expert users of Scrivener stay in the program all the way through creating the POD and ebook versions. But I’m not that good at compiling, and I prefer the precision I can get in Word.

So about a month ago I “compiled” the entire manuscript as a Word document and switched from editing in Scrivener to editing in Word.

From this point forward, I’ll follow the process I used with my earlier novels—polishing and formatting in Word, then I’ll take it back into a new Scrivener file to convert to ebook format.

As a final note, Scrivener is about to launch a big update for its Mac version any day now. And users are told that the new Windows version will launch in a few months. I will likely update my Scrivener software when the new Windows version is available, but not until after the ebook versions of Forever Mine are published! Managing a software update and publication of a novel at the same time is probably more stress than I need.

For my earlier posts on Scrivener, see here and here and here.

Writers, what has your experience been with Scrivener?

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