Planning My Novel Writing Process Using Scrivener

I’ve been planning to start writing my first novel, and looking at what process to follow and what software tools to use to support that process.

I’ve selected Scrivener to be my software tool to effectively serve as my portable writing studio; while I expect to continue to use other applications such as Bear for shorter pieces.

I hope this article will be of interest both to anyone interested in following a writer’s journey right from the beginning through to completion of their first novel – a journey I hope I can take you on with further posts on the blog – or to anyone with an interest in writing themselves, and in using tools such as Scrivener to support their work.

Experience of Writing Software

Over the last two years, I have made a lot of use of software on mobile and tablet devices for writing (on iPhone and iPad), as well as browser based applications; including ‘Ulysses’ for drafting poems, the WordPress app and website for blog publishing, ‘Buffer’ for preparing and scheduling posts to Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and my Facebook Page, and more recently, ‘Bear’.

On ‘Bear

I have found Bear great to use for drafting shorter blog posts, and I shall be using it for writing poetry as well in future.

I am also using Bear to save copies of already published blog posts from the web in a readable (and subsequently exportable from Bear) format – via the ability to send a webpage to Bear from Safari using the ‘Web Page Content’ option, which works brilliantly. In effect this gives me the main elements of a backup workflow for my blog posts. I use separate tags to differentiate drafts from copies of published posts, and make use of hierarchical tagging.

On ‘Scrivener

I looked at Scrivener a couple of years ago, loved the software, but found it less good for writing poems or short blog articles, because synching to Dropbox is sometimes a little slow, and can lead to conflicts when moving between devices. 

I find Ulysses or Bear good for short pieces as I don’t experience either of these issues.

However, I find Scrivener provides a more comprehensive writing studio type approach and I love the software and its flexibility. Also, conflicts can generally be avoided by synching before and after switching devices. Getting reacquainted with it has been a delight – it’s just great software in my view, and I’m looking forward to getting into writing novels using it. On reflection, I think I was too rash to decide to stop using it for very minor usability issues.

Moving to Scrivener

For this article, I started in Bear, then the article developed into a longer article with various subheadings, which I felt was suitable for exploring this subject. I moved across to Scrivener to complete the article as a) it has some good features for longer pieces of writing and b) Scrivener is the main focus of this article so it was nice to use that tool anyway.

I pasted the whole text into a Scrivener file, then used the split function to separate each section with a subheading into separate files. These could all be viewed on the corkboard, and I opened the inspector to the left of a file, and set its name, synopsis and notes. The notes were useful to add a little more detail to the overview, and for ideas on what I might add, change or review. Using the two finger tap to select each index card (representing each file – which, ok, is just another computing metaphor anyway) on the corkboard, I was able to fill in the same fields as relevant for the other cards. I tweaked the order of the sections using drag and drop, then was able to open each file to drill in and work on the actual text, zoom back out to the corkboard to return to an overview, and update notes etc. where needed. I later merged elements and organised some in a folder, reshaping the structure and organisation as I went along.

I kept the synopsis and notes quite short, because although this is a slightly longer piece, it is not anywhere near a novel length, and there was no point going overboard. I found the ability to work with the article in this way really useful, and good practice as a step toward longer works of writing.

On ‘Wordpress

For WordPress, I find the browser software better for building sites, but the apps fine for assembling posts (copying in text prepared in Bear, adding a picture, setting tags and other properties then posting).

I won’t elaborate further on WordPress here except to say I find it great for building websites with blogs now I have got the hang of most of the basics.

Phone / Tablet / Desktop?

I enjoy using software tools to support the writing process, but not tinkering with software for software’s sake.

For me, a mobile phone is primarily a pocket computer and I find the mobility, with cloud storage and cross-device synchronisation, empowering. This pocket computer provides convenient access to a world of computing tools, and I can shift to a tablet when needed at home, or indeed to a laptop, to access the same systems, just with more screen area and richer functionality when needed.

With the right software, and a little experimentation, it is amazing what you can achieve just on a pocket computer (sorry – phone!). I often find the interfaces on phones or tablets cleaner and simpler, and that it can be an advantage not to be swamped by functionality that is rarely needed.

You can always switch across to a laptop for those times you do need more advanced options – and of course, this is also a matter of personal preference. 

This now brings me to Scrivener as the software tool I’ve selected for longer form writing, in my case for novel writing, and in particular the choice between using its phone, tablet or desktop software options. 

My initial assumption was that due to a likely higher typing speed and the nature of the task, I may in fact be better using the desktop software on a laptop in this case. Some initial quick web research seemed to back this up, with some reports of people typing much more slowly on a tablet. However, I tried timing myself on a tablet and laptop keyboard, and in both cases was around seventy words a minute – although in both cases, I would need to type more slowly to have reasonable accuracy, even for drafting purposes. So no significant difference. Having experimented with the software on both, I find the iPad software excellent, and ideal for my needs. 

It may be that I will use the laptop software at some point, but I am now settled on writing primarily on my tablet and sometimes dipping in on my phone as well. Having said that, from a quick look, there are some aspects in the desktop software, such as the focused writing mode and ability to focus on current sentence, line or paragraph, that will no doubt tempt me back at some point.

Practice Novel – Herm

One hurdle for me in starting the process of writing my first novel is how to allow myself to press ahead and get into a flow without worrying if I’m on the wrong track with my writing or structuring things poorly in Scrivener.

The answer for me is to write a practice novel set in a fun location that I am familiar with, without worrying about if I will ever finish it. 

Herm is one of the Channel Islands – I live in neighbouring Guernsey – hence my project is initially named ‘Herm Novel First Draft’. I can always rename the project later if needed, but I’ve started with the location name to get going. I might stop part way through, creating a separate project for my ‘real’ novel, or it could even develop into the finished article.

The built in tutorial in Scrivener is very useful, especially as you can experiment with it then reset back to defaults, but I felt the next step on was to build a new project from the ground up. 

I had a quick look at the pre-canned template projects in the desktop software but I was happier to start with a blank canvas.

Scrivener Project Setup for the Herm Novel

Time to dive deeper into Scrivener, illustrated with some screenprints, showing how I’ve configured it to start with for the practice novel.

For the high level structure as seen in the binder, I have the standard ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and ‘Trash’ folders (and have not renamed any of them).

I configured location and character sheets and created a `Templates’ folder to contain them, as per the Scrivener tutorial.

Next, I created ‘Locations’ and ‘Characters’ folders at root level, and have given them suitable icons.

I added an ‘Exploratory’ folder (with suitable icon) to provide an area for very fluid or free writing, and where I can first experiment with text. When I have something that I want to incorporate into the draft, I can move it in from here as needed. Having this area for writing before affecting the first draft should give a lot of freedom to explore writing and get into a flow.

I expect I’ll still maintain a similar area when writing future drafts; while the focus will shift to progressing, cutting and sculpting the words from previous drafts, one thing I know is it is not going to be a linear process, and new text or ways of reworking existing text will include phases of ‘exploratory’ style working – as I like to think of it.

Finally, an ‘Other’ folder has been created for anything else that I don’t want in the exploratory or other folders:

The Binder – Top Level Structure

Outside of Scrivener, in ‘Photos’, I used the automatic ‘Places’ album to find photos I have taken in Herm (390 to choose from!) then created a new album for a selection of them to represent locations I might want to use.

Back in Scrivener, in the ‘Locations’ folder, I created a number of files based off the ‘Location Sheet’ template and, in the inspector, added an image for each by browsing to the album. In the inspector, I also set the name, description, notes, label and status for each file (more on the latter two soon).

The result when viewing the ‘Locations’ folder on the corkboard looks as follows:

Herm Locations in the Corkboard

Note some of these names are just ones I coined for the fictional locations, but I would research to check the actual location name before finally deciding whether to use the actual name in the book – for instance ‘White House Walk’ and ‘Harbour Hill House’.

I find photos can be quite evocative for locations, but it would not make sense to limit the locations written about to ones I happen to have a photo of. In the exploratory area, I have started a brain dump of notes about lots of areas of Herm from memory. This may lead to me selecting some to add as locations files – and I can always retrospectively see if I have photos I can use, or have a nice trip to Herm and take some more snaps as it is only 3 miles away – once I can get there again (this is 2020).

In the mean time, I enjoy looking at the photos I already have – and on this note, hope other people enjoy the daily photos I post to my nickrowepoetry Instagram and other social media accounts.

For now I have just used the example location template from Scrivener:

Location Sheet Template

However, I expect to review this. For example, this has a ‘Season’ heading. For me, one location is one location, but it has different aspects in different seasons, at different times of day, in different weather etc.

I may add different photos at the bottom to reflect the different aspects of the location, or portray it at different times of day, and associated descriptive notes, but avoid having multiple location cards for the same place.

For instance, for ‘East Coast Cliff Paths’:

Top of Location Sheet – East Coast Cliff Paths

… I’ve added extra snaps at the bottom of the location sheet:

Bottom of Location Sheet – East Coast Cliff Paths

However, when I am fleshing out the actual manuscript in the ‘Draft’ folder, I plan to also insert files just to display a scene title and location photo before the scene, to provide a visual marker before that section of text when viewed on the corkboard; and for these, the photo may be more specific to the scene rather than generic to the location. It might show the location early on a rainy day if that fits that scene, or in sunshine at noon with crowds of people. If I have a suitable photo that is.

The following is the example character sheet I will start off with, but may well modify the template later:

Character Sheet Template

In the next image, I have zoomed into the corkboard displayed on the right so one card takes up much of the page, and the inspector is shown alongside on the left with some overview information:

Inspector for ‘White House Walk’

One thing you can see in the inspector is the status is set to ‘White_House_Walk’.

I have customised the status field to represent locations rather than the default which is the draft status:

Status Field – Used for Locations

The underscores in place of spaces are just a way to avoid unexpected search results later.

The status can be displayed in the binder on the left, as well as on corkboard index cards; for instance both of these can be seen for ‘Harbour’ in the following view for the example files in the ‘Draft’ folder (which is where the actual writing being produced is assembled):

’Harbour’ Location Indicated in Binder (Left)
and on Corkboard Index Cards (Right)

Having a photo or other image in the inspector means you see that instead of, not as well as, the synopsis, when viewed as an index card on the corkboard. However, the above approach gets around that, as the synopsis can go against the first (or only) file containing the actual text for the scene.

I had the same issue for the`Locations’ folder, but in that case it was more important to see the images than the synopses in one view. The index cards in the corkboard are easy to double tap through to switch the inspector display anyway.

I will cover how I am handling drafts, instead of using the status field, later.

In the above image, you can also see the effect of the label field being set to different values with different colours, when the settings are configured to display this in the binder and in the corkboard.

I have chosen to use the label field to represent the point of view (as per some examples I saw when doing some research, possibly in the built in tutorial but I don’t recall):

Coloured Label Field – Used for Point of View

Finally for this ‘Project Setup’ section of this article, I was enjoying the photo of the ‘White House Walk’, not for its photographic merit, but because it is such a beautiful scene. I started to think of what might be an excuse to include a screen image with a slightly larger version of it in this article. Then I realised that was the wrong thing to do, and unnecessary. What is wrong with sharing a photo you enjoy just for the pleasure of it?

So here it is:

The ‘White House Walk’

Drafting Approach

I will need to refine this later, but I know the general principle I plan to follow.

When a draft reaches a point I consider it finished, as a draft, I shall make a specific end draft backup, then keep it as is. I will create a copy of that draft, and then will have the freedom to edit at will, because I know the previous draft always exists if I want to refer back to it.

My current thought is I will create the new draft by duplicating the project itself in Scrivener. However, another option would be to move the manuscript, and all other project material, into a draft 1 folder.

I am likely to do some further reading to gather ideas before that stage anyway, and see if the Scrivener desktop software manual throws in other ideas (I’m not ready to wade through the lengthy manual yet).

Final Words

I’m excited to embark on this journey and to be using Scrivener to support it, which I find to be excellent software and is helping me build enthusiasm and momentum toward this writing journey.

I think the initial setup should start the process in good stead, including the way I am using labels and statuses. 

Hopefully, for those of you who are interested in writing using Srivener, this article will have at least spurred some ideas.

And for those who are not, I hope that sharing my developing experience along the writing journey will be of interest, and that maybe, just maybe, you will see a copy of the end result in a bookshop or on kindle in the not too distant future.

I expect that at some point I will shift to explore the desktop software in more detail once I am firmy established with using the tablet software, and this will hopefully make a good route for progression while allowing me to focus more quickly on the writing rather than more advanced functionality that is less important in the early stages.

From what I have seen of Scrivener, it is clear it is very adaptable to different writing approaches, so I should be able to dive in, get writing, and restructure and refine my writing projects as I develop my writing approach.

A final note about what I have found out from my initial research and experimentation with Scrivener, is that its flexibility includes its ability to support a bottom up approach – where you write freely then start to evolve and assemble a structure when ready – or top down where you start with the hierarchical structure and synopses, rearranging and planning in detail before writing – or a hybrid of the two.

I plan to start with free writing first then move to a hybrid approach, but I will try to keep an open mind and might end up switching to focus more on structure earlier.

Well, that is it – next stop, I need to get going. I hope to also use this blog for general creative writing practice, and might for instance attempt quick character sketches, some of which might be candidates for the Herm novel or its successor!

Nicholas Rowe.

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