Wednesday 15 June 2022

On Scrivener and muppetry - by Rowena House

A problem that afflicted my debut novel, The Goose Road, is rearing its head again with the C17th witch trial work-in-progress: how to remember good ideas when the research notebooks are toppling over on the bedside table, and the folder marked ‘synopses’ bytes deep into your memory store?

For example, I’ve just discovered that I’d written about this spring’s great plotting epiphany – that the A-plot is actually Historical Crime fiction. Yay! At last! I know its genre! – back in July 2020 here on ABBA.


To try to stop this happening again, I’ve decided to take the plunge and learn Scrivener.

The theory is that having everything together in one package should – should – make things harder to lose. Which just got more urgent. Because...

As part of a creative writing PhD, I have for two years been writing about the slow, stuttering creative act of developing an historical novel as it happens in real-time. These ABBA posts are part of this process: monthly snapshots of an aspect of the story’s emergence.

One discovery I’ve made is that each issue only becomes explicit and understandable once I’ve written about it, i.e. the act of writing turns information into knowledge, to borrow a phrase.

Initially, these analyses were intended largely to help the story along and provide evidence of my creative practice for the reflective part of the PhD. Lately, though, that has seemed a limited ambition.

Rather than bury this knowledge in an academic thesis, why not craft it into something practical? Like a book.

Now, therefore, there are three mutually-dependent projects going on: a novel in development; research for an academic thesis; and writing a craft memoir. AKA three opportunities to forget important stuff.

Time to get organised.

Years ago a SCBWI friend, Amelia Mansfield, gave me an excellent tutorial on Scrivener, for which I’m still very grateful. [Our Scooby SW meet-ups in Exeter were great!] Amelia’s enthusiasm for this software was enough to persuade me it would be worthwhile taking the time to learn it – one day.

But one day always felt like procrastination – until I started forgetting stuff like genre: a failing too dumb to ignore. Not only does forgetting waste precious time, which is unforgivable, it also risks making the story less than it could have been (see below for a confession).

Taking time now to get the organisational side right will, I’m sure, pay off in the end, just as it was worthwhile not writing for five months this year in order to plan the story properly.

Fortunately, Scrivener’s online video tutorials are good, better than the non-in-house versions I’d tried on YouTube, and more intuitive than text-based instructions (and that’s from a written word addict).

Each video is tightly focussed, well-structured and short enough to watch repeatedly, which is handy since the narrator speaks too quickly for me to take notes, even in short-hand, which is a hassle when you rely on note-taking to cement understanding and improve memorisation.

Here’s a link to the core concepts tutorial in case you, too, are considering taking the plunge.

While the introduction tutorial claims to be enough to get started, I felt more comfortable about the system’s basic functions after watching four or five different tutorials a couple of times, especially the one about importing files.

There will, no doubt, be technical hiccups aplenty. 

Transferring a scene-by-scene synopsis from MS Word onto Scrivener’s e-cards looks likely to be labour intensive, and I’m not clear how these cards will link to the manuscript panel before any text is written, but hopefully it will make sense in the doing.

Colour-coding and sorting these cards on a digital corkboard certainly looks fun.

Accessing multiple files also looks simpler on Scrivener than in MS Word, with a split-screen mode allowing a research file – external pages, character biographies, photos, maps, etc. – to open alongside the manuscript, plus scene synopses and notes.

Many/most of you can probably do this already, but my dated version of MS Office overlays or minimizes files if I have more than two open.

Another plus for Scrivener is the types of file it should allow into research folders, including documents, photos, videos and Wikipedia entries. It will be interesting to see if services like British History Online open in Scrivener, too, and whether academic publishers let you link to their sites as well. [Any hints in this regard most welcome.]

So there we go. It's goodbye to the old, hello to a new digital home for the WIP. Having struggled for a year to get new words onto the page, I’m hoping that by this time next year – the creative gods willing – a full first draft of the story will be sitting in one of three bulging Scrivener folders.

Fingers crossed!

And happy writing.


Rowena House Author on Facebook for more about the work-in-progress for lots about The Good Road

@HouseRowena on Twitter for anything that catches my eye

PS, that confession. For The Goose Road, I developed several detailed synopses for the Walker edit, one of which I lost it until after the book was printed. When I stumbled across it, it read better – and got Angelique onto her quest quicker – than the published version. Muppet.

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