Tools: Scrivener

by sbh on Wednesday - 11 June 2008

in Reviews

scrivener __noun historical__ a clerk, scribe, or notary. ORIGIN Middle English : shortening of Old French escrivein, from Latin scriba (see scribe).

ScrivenerThank you, __New Oxford American Dictionary__ that came bundled with my Mac. Scrivener isn’t just some __noun historical__, it’s also a smashing piece of writing software from the folks at Literature and Latte (for good measure, here’s a link to the Literature and Latte Blog, if you like to read the latest).

First, some personal back story.

Several years ago, when I was a college lad, I waffled back and forth over word processors. I began with Word, using it for everything. I was so naive in those days! “Is there anything out there other than Word?” I thought. Turns out there was.

As I got more and more into my study of Classics, I discovered some deficiencies in the Mac version of Word. Specifically, Word on the Mac has terrific trouble with some unicode stuff that was important to me (e.g., unicode Hebrew is an impossibility). After writing my undergrad honors thesis completely in Word, struggling through its poor implementation of unicode (my thesis was full of Greek, and a little Hebrew), I ventured out into the world of alternative word processing.

Eventually, I settled on Mellel. Designed by folks who really understood the needs of those who worked in multiple languages, Mellel was an awesome companion throughout my graduate work. Designed for people who love unicode and work in multiple languages, Mellel allowed me to choose specific settings for how I wanted the text to look when I switched over into Greek or Hebrew.

As nice as Mellel was, I really wanted something more when it came to creating fiction. For me, the act of writing often involves the creation of new worlds. Characters have complex relationships with their setting, both __where__ they exist and __when__ they exist, and, of course, other characters. In the case of a current crop of short stories that I’m working on, the characters even have relationships with characters who have long since died. With so many balls in the air, I need something that helps me to organize my thoughts a little better. I needed something more than just a word processor — I needed a thought processor.

Enter Scrivener.

Scrivener has about a million features. In my 3 or 4 months of intense usage, I have barely scratched the service. So, this is by no means a review of all of those features, I’m just writing as an impassioned fellow in the middle of a love affair.

Scrivener provides all of the note-keeping and outlining features that I need, and integrates them into a single window. Conceptually, Scrivener splits my writing into “Draft” and “Research.” In the Draft section I outline (complete with note cards on cork board!) and write my work. Research is where I keep all sorts of notes, PDFs, etc. Let’s look at an example.

For a long time, I have been working on stories set in a fictional Texas town. These stories span many generations (literally from Native American villagers to 21st century townsfolk). Consequently, I’ve got a lot of facts to keep straight:

* Family relationships and family trees.
* What the town looked like during various eras.
* The changing economic climate of the town.
* Etc.

To keep all of this stuff straight, I have a series of notes in the Research section divided into three major folders: Characters, Town Notes, Musings.

Each character that is introduced in a story has his/her own profile where I keep important information: birth date, family relationships, interesting details, etc. No matter what story I’m working on, I have immediate access to that characters information. Very handy.

Town Notes gathers all of the information about the town. I have drawn up a street map for various periods — those JPEGs go in this Town Notes folder. Each year that I’ve written about so far has a file with information about what happened that year: deaths, births, economic disasters or triumphs, and so on.

Musings is a repository for ideas I have about future stories. For example, at one point, I thought it would be cool to write a story about the current townspeople’s Native American predecessors. So, I sketched out a quick outline of that story and threw it into the Musings folder. I also keep ideas about major themes (some themes I like to drag throughout a bunch of stories), and what I call the “mythology” (yeah, I’m an X-Files fan…deal with it!) — an overarching storyline that ties things together.

So, all of these sections are floating around within one window. Sounds difficult to navigate, huh? Not really. While it has definitely taken some getting used to, Scrivener’s split pane functionality allows me to be working on a draft in the top portion of the window, while browsing through notes in the bottom portion. Quite nice.

Other features that really float my boat:

* Full screen mode.
* A sidebar where I can scrawl quick notes about whatever file I’m working on.
* Keyword/Metadata coolness with Spotlight goodness.
* The ability to use Scrivener files with Subversion or CVS.
* Templating feature that allows me to quickly get up and running whether I’m writing a short story, novel, screenplay, treatise, or whatever.
* A variety of output and export options.

Scrivener really is a full-featured writing suite that makes a great deal of sense, especially for those who tend to take a lot of notes about what they’re writing. At only $39.95, it gets the job done admirably. Download the trial!

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