Six impossible things

Tools of the trade

I have a confession to make: I love playing with writing programs. They’re a window into other writers’ working processes, something I find utterly fascinating and always have.

Lately, I’ve had another reason for poking through what’s available: the latest and last version update to my favorite word-processor was over ten years ago, and I doubt it will survive the migration to a new OS the next time I upgrade my computer (I’m currently running Windows XP, which is already two operating systems behind). So I’ve been downloading demos of programs that other writers recommend and love. The first thing I noticed was that they all do a whole lot more than plain vanilla word-processing; now they also  keep track of your characters, locations, notes, plot threads, and electronic reference materials of all kinds. Many of them have analysis features that automatically track everything from reading level to daily word count.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that all of the programs I’ve looked at so far were pretty clearly designed for the sort of writer who piles up lots of bits and pieces, then assembles them into a first draft, or for the writer who does very heavy revision of the sort that involves moving chunks of text from scene to scene, rearranging chapters, etc. I’ve never worked that way, so those features are toys for me, rather than must-haves.

I started by checking out the  Writer’s Cafe demo. To buy, it’s $40 regular, $30 for the student edition. It’s heavy on planning tools – a journal, a notebook, a scrapbook, an automatic name-generator, a random prompt generator with a timer to encourage you to write for a full fifteen minutes. It has a nice storyline/storyboard display.

The problem was that I found the word-processing part really inadequate. It took me ten minutes just to find the darned thing – it’s the second tab of four in a smallish box on the storyline display, labeled merely “Content,” and while you can stretch the pane out so that you can actually see more than a two-inch square of your writing, doing so means that if you want to look at the storyboard, you have to keep expanding and shrinking the windowpane. I assume that there’s some way to change the format to whatever one is used to seeing, but by that time I was too annoyed to look for it. It also only seems to save files in its own format or in plain text, meaning that you’d lose all the italics and other formatting, which is pretty much a deal-breaker for me right there.

As you may gather, I wasn’t impressed. A lot of it, like the random prompt generator and the writing advice and inspirational quotes, just isn’t stuff that I need, or that most of the professional writers I know would see as useful. They might be just the thing for a beginner who’s still struggling to get going, or for someone who actually needs and wants a computer journal, scrapbook, inspiring quotes, prompts, and the rest. Still, I’d call it more of a planning tool than one that’s particularly useful for actually producing a novel. Overall, I’d give it a C-.

I’ve been hearing great things about Scrivener from my peers for ages, but it’s a Mac program and I’m a PC user, so I hadn’t looked into it.  Then I found out that they’ve been beta-testing a Windows version since November, and I went and downloaded it right away. (For Mac users, it’s another free-trial-then-pay program, weighing in at $45 if you decide to buy; I assume they’ll do the same with the Windows version when they finish testing.)

I was a little surprised after some of the other writing programs I’d looked at. Scrivener is a clean, versatile program that focuses on taking bits and pieces of text – generally scenes, but they can be as small as you like – and rolling them neatly up into chapters and novel-length manuscripts whenever you decide to do that. It has templates for tracking characters, places, and so on, a nice corkboard/storyboard, an outline view, places to keep your research, and so on, but from what I’ve seen it’s really all about the writing. It would be especially good for folks who tend to move scenes or bits of scenes around a lot during the writing process (that seems to be what it’s designed for, after all).

Scrivener is simple enough for a fairly quick start-up, but flexible enough accommodate a lot of different styles of working once you get used to playing around and being a little creative with some of its features. And it will export in multiple different useful file formats. The beta I played with seemed to be stable; if it’s at least that robust in its final version, I’d rate this as a real workhorse of a program. It doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as some of the others I looked at, but if you really want those, it’s flexible enough that you can figure out ways to do most of them. The only thing it’s light on that would be tough to duplicate is analysis tools, and those are nice-to-have, not necessary. So I’d rate it an A, and it’s currently one of my top three contenders for when mine finally becomes unusable.

I’ll talk about my other two top contenders next post. And if anyone wants to recommend something else… 🙂

  1. I’ve been considering Scrivener, so it’s nice to know how you rate it.

    I’m also back at Windows XP on my main system. I wonder how much longer I can get away with that.

  2. I’ve heard a little bit about Scrivener since getting my Mac, but I never looked into it for myself. Lately I’ve been thinking I need something more than scattered pages of notes and character outline all over my Documents, so I just might have to give this a try (especially since it’s a free trial!).

  3. I’ve been using Scrivener since I heard about the Windows version (since November I think…) and I love it. I’m a bit of a discovery writer – I plan only a few scenes ahead but like to have a structure in place (ie knowing that the book will have 21 chapters but who knows what will appear in them), so Scrivener is great for the writing, but I still use Excel or a mindmap to plot in between writing moments.

  4. I have also been using the Scrivener Windows beta since November. I love it and will definitely be buying the full version when it becomes available. The best part about Scrivener is that it does what you need, and isn’t packed with loads of stuff that can lead to procrastination, like fonts, layout options, etc. It is exactly what you need it to be, and no more. Also incredibly useful is the notecard system, which allows you to assign each scene a notecard with a summary on it. These lay out like cards on a pegboard, and if you move the card’s position around, voila, you’ve moved the scene as well, with no trouble! It allows you to plan ahead in outline fashion very neatly, and gives you a lot of simple yet powerful ways to play with scene or chapter order. Which can lead to a whole new brand of time-wasting…:) General review in summary: two thumbs up!

  5. Thanks! I’ve heard of Scrivener, but I did not realize they had a version for windows until I read your blog. I’m downloading it now.

  6. I’ve been using Scrivener (the first version) for a few months. I really like it.

  7. I’m currently using software similar to Scrivener (and might upgrade to it) – I do my plain writing in Word because it has a number of features I value, but the ability to keep track of notes and characters in one handy place is wonderful and has made my life a lot easier.

  8. Very informative. So glad you’re sharing your finds, Patricia. I’ll download Scrivener and take a look. Anything to make writing more efficient.

  9. Oh, and I look forward to the next reviews you have on software. Thank you!

  10. I’ve been using Scrivener (for Mac) for maybe half a year, and like it very much. That said, I will point out one of the things that I consider a flaw:

    It has a very nice label and status system. It’s flexible, so you can change status to location, if you want. However.
    There is not (in version 1.54; I haven’t upgraded yet) a way to sort by label or status. I can label a scene “Annie,” to show that Annie is narrating it, and “Needs more work” to show that I want to come back to it, and there are a couple of ways to make it more obvious which label and status I’ve assigned it — but I can’t sort by label or status, to look at all the Annie scenes, or all of the scenes that need to be rewritten.

    But I think that’s the only serious complaint I’ve come up with — no, that’s not true. The help document is in large chunks and not easily searchable, so I sometimes wind up pasting the help page I’m looking at into something searchable so I can find the search term that got me to that page in the first place.

    And, I guess, it doesn’t play nice with gmail attachments, so I have to compress my files whenever I want to email them. Most people probably don’t email their stories as frequently as I do, though.

    And it would be nice if the resizing options were a little more flexible (the right panel is either hidden or X pixels wide). Minor complaint.

    Other than that, though, I’m happy, which is impressive, considering how monumentally annoying I usually find Microsoft Word.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,