On writing programs and processes


As has been stated on Magical Words many times before, there’s no one and only way to write a book. You might be a plotter or a pantzer. You might tell your story based on the three act structure, the heroes journey, carefully plotted arcs, or just wing it. You might write everything long hand, dictate the story, type the manuscript using a word processing program, or use any number of writing oriented software. The trick is to find the process that works for you and a means of recording that story that is most compatible with that process.

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about my process when writing a book and how the software I use (Scrivener) helps me streamline that process.

First, a little background is probably called for. From previous posts,  many of you already know that I’m a hardcore plotter. While I might change the story as I work through the manuscript, I need a full road map before I begin writing. Years ago that meant my process went something like this:

  • I started by jotting ideas on colored post-it notes. I didn’t worry about order or continuity, just any idea that hit me for the book. I kept different colors of notes around to visually differentiate parts of the plot. Sometimes I’d know in the brainstorming stage that this or that idea would be part of a subplot or part of the major plot, but often these colors had to be adjusted once I had more of an idea what I was actually going to write.
  • I then arranged these post-it notes into a logical story form, each one representing a scene. I’d add in post-it notes where needed to link ideas and move them around until I had something that told a full story in colored paper on my wall. (which tended to my horrify my poor husband as we lived in a small appartment so this story in  post-its  was stuck to the living room wall the entire time I  worked on the first draft.)
  • From these post-it notes I  wrote an outline, which I printed out so I’d have it beside me while I wrote a first draft. This outline often ended up with lots of scribbles, scratches, and arrows on it as I changed my mind while working.
  • I had excel sheets of character lists and folders filled with individual word documents about world building, notes, ect. I also tended to have either a paper notebook or another document file where I jotted down notes to myself as I worked.
  • And, of course, I had one long word document with my manuscript. Double checking earlier scenes included a lot of scrolling. Moving scenes was a nightmare of scrolling and copy/paste. Oh, and if I added/removed chapters–uhg. I can’t remember how many times I used the ‘Find’ feature in Word searching for “Chapter” and renumbering them one by one.
  • After much butt in chair, picking up fallen post-it notes, scribbles on the outline, endless scrolling through thousands of words, and stressing my computer with a dozen or more documents open at once, I’d have a finished first draft.

Now there is nothing wrong with that process–I used it for years. But when I started using scrivener three or four years ago, I found that the program allowed me to work in a similar fashion that was far more efficient, wasted less paper, and saved me a lot of  time and headache.

This is my process now:
Before I  start writing, I jot every idea I have for scenes down in the program’s note card view (one scene per notecard). Just like on my wall, I create these note cards in any order they happen to enter my head–this is brainstorming time. As the mess of ideas congeals into a plot, I rearrange these digital cards and color code them.

Okay, so that’s exactly what I was doing before, only now I’m doing it digitally instead of with post-it notes on a wall, right? Well, that’s where scrivener changes the game. If I click “outline view” these note cards (with color, header, and description) turn into a scene by scene outline. No more sitting and transcribing from post-it notes to a document–scrivener did it for me!  Each note card has also created a corresponding ‘document’ in the right hand binder. Depending on the book, I might go ahead and break the scenes up in chapters at that point, or just add in the chapter folders as I work and ‘feel’ the chapter breaks.

If I realize the plot is taking an unexpected turn, changing the outline is as simple as adding a scene to the binder or a point in the outline or a notecard–all accomplish the same thing and the change is reflected across all three views.  While I can switch back and forth between these views at any time, often I don’t need to unless I’m trying to get a visual overview because all the scenes are listed in the binder so when I finish one, I just click the one below it and any notes I made on the outline or notecard show up on the side of the page, letting me know what I planned to write.

This works well for me in another way as well because, I like being able to see my book as a series of easily navigated scenes instead of one long document.  Not only is it great to quickly access any part of the story simply by clicking on the scene,  but my writing practice changed when I started looking at my daily accomplishments as how many scenes I made it through instead of focusing so much on how many words I’d written. (Which with a word processor tends to be the easiest way to track progress when looking at a single long document.)  Also, because of the scene by scene break down, I can very easily drag and drop a scene to a new location if I decide it’s in the wrong place–or I can drag the entire scene to a scrap file if it no longer suits the story. Extra bonus? Because scrivener compiles the document for export, I never have to worry about renumbering chapters if I make major changes–it does that for me.

Another feature that saves me a lot time that I once spent scouring notes (or searching for a particular comment in an enormous word document) is the fact Scrivener allows me to jot notes to myself in the sidebar. These are not attached to one particular part of the file like a comment–though there is an annotation feature if that’s your style–but notes that are attached to the scene as a whole. I can leave myself notes and I don’t have to worry about accidentally sending them to my cps/agent/editor (yes, I’ve done that.) It’s also nice if I’m really struggling with a scene because I can jot down in the side bar the key parts of the scene which have to happen. I can then check off those points as I work. I can also change the sidebar to be notes for the entire manuscript, not just that single scene. So if I realize something important that effects several scenes or the MS as a whole, I can add it to the project notes and it is  accessible from all documents at anytime.

And all those different documents I used to maintain (and keep open in the background) to keep characters and facts straight? Well, scrivener also helps me with that. There is a section in the binder not attached to the manuscript where whatever documents  you might need can be kept for quick and easy access. (This is also where I keep my scrap file). But even better is the Keyword feature which allows me to tag scenes or documents with keywords.

I use keywords to keep track of everything from characters and places to what day a particular scene occurs. Anytime someone or something new shows up in the book, I create a keyword for it and tag that keyword to the scene. With a click of a button I can find every scene/character profile/research/ or any other document I tagged with that keyword.  As I write series (and move the previous manuscript down to a separate part of the binder when I start the next book) the ability to search the keywords is amazing, but even better, I have every place/character/abbreviation/etc I used in previous books in a handy list. Invaluable!

Of course, writing still comes down to BIC and putting one word down after the next, but scrivener certainly streamlined a lot of my writing process. The program fit into what I was already doing and offered me easy solutions to problems in my process I struggled to juggle (like keeping up with minor characters and place names). Scrivener wasn’t the first program I tried out–I passed on many that just didn’t add anything to my process–but I’m glad I found it. Of course every program has its downsides, but for me and my process, this particular program works well. For people with different needs, it might be more headache than help (I certainly tried out programs I found to be such.)

Have you ever tried out writing software? Do you already use a writing software? Which one and how does it work with your process (or how did it change it)? Have you tried writing software and decided it just wasn’t for you? (After all, to write you just need an idea and a way to record it.) I’d love to hear your experiences!

Also, if you are interested, here are some links to popular writing software that range in features from simple organizational tools to more specialized features aimed at novelists. **note, I haven’t personally tried  many of these programs, but they have been recommended by different writers on  loops I belong to. Please feel free to recommend others in the comments :


Have a great Thursday everyone.


14 comments to On writing programs and processes

  • Rhonda

    I love Scrivener, and have been using it since the very first beta in November … um … 2005? The first beta was released for Nanowrimo, on the nano forums.

    I’m a long-time pantser and for me the features really come into play most when I’m editing. They’re definitely useful for drafting, however – if I have an idea for a scene that takes place way off in the future, I make a synopsis card for it and toss it into the “possible future scenes” folder so the idea doesn’t get lost, and being able to look back at what you said earlier is valuable, especially when “what you said” was something completely random that was made up on the spot as a throwaway comment and only later comes in handy.

    When I was editing most recently, I ended up putting “chapters” as timeline weeks for the duration of editing, and working the backstory subplot in a separate folder, then once I was happy that all the plot holes were filled I moved the backstory scenes into place (and discovered that a few were missing), then split it into chapters instead of weeks as the very last step before compiling the draft.

    Notes and split screen and reference pages and synopsis cards came in VERY handy while editing. I ended up making a notes file and reading but not changing any scenes, just making notes of what I had to change. Because, sometimes what I had to change involved alterations to another scene… and I’d mark in new scenes that needed to be written and what they had to cover, and scenes that had to be cut and what information needed to be retained, and so on. I actually found this useful to do in a file rather than on the synopsis cards. Then once all my notes were complete (x needs to be foreshadowed, pick a scene, make a note…) I turned around and started changing scenes with reference to my notes list. Taking a snapshot of the entire draft first so I’m not shy about deleting stuff, and using revision pens because I like to see how much I’ve changed at a glance.

  • Ken

    I’ve got Scrivener for Windows. I tried it out in beta just before it launched and it almost immediately took the place of my previous writing software (Y-Writer. It’s free, so you really can’t complain about the price). For me, Scrivener worked better in terms of organization and it “Felt” (odd descriptive term for computer software, but, as Whinnie the Pooh would say, there you are…) more comfortable to use. I got it for just shy of $50 and it was money well spent IMHO.

    Interestingly enough, despite that, I am still called at times to put pen to paper and write longhand. Not for very long of course (I have terrible wrists from burger-flipping my way through college) but it’s there.

  • Ooh, what a great post (and the comments too!). I’ve been on the fence about Scrivner (I was waiting for it to release on Windows, but hadn’t heard from anyone about whether they liked it). I’d been using whiteboards, postits, tables, templates, you name it. Every time I got stuck, I’d redo the whole durn thing over to eke out a few more scenes. I agree with Ken that there are times that pen and paper in hand beat all, but I can’t wait to try Scrivner! Thanks for the handy link!

  • I have been using Scrivener for a couple of years now, and I love it. The thing is, though, I use it in a completely different way, and I think it speaks to the strength and flexibility of the program that it works for me and makes me as happy as it has made you, Kalayna. I like to write in a traditional word processing program. I don’t know why exactly — that’s just the interface that feels and looks right to me. But I use Scrivener as tool for keeping track of my background info. I have all my character files in Scrivener, and I also have a research section that holds website pages, images I’ve downloaded, articles I’ve found online or gotten from interlibrary loan. All of that stuff is imported into the program and is sitting right there at my immediate disposal as I write. At some point, probably as I begin to plot the next Thieftaker books, I’ll use it more in the way you describe here, but even using it as I do, it has become indispensable. As for which word processing software I use, it’s called Nisus Writer Pro, and it is made for mac users. I like it because it’s NOT MS Word — it actually feels more like Word Perfect, which is what I used back in grad school. It’s intuitive, it has a great thesaurus, it’s utterly reliable — it’s never crashed. And it cost me $79.99.

  • sagablessed

    I may have to look this scrivner program up. I also use post-it notes, but when the puppy gets a hold of them, I have to go back to the drawing board. Thanks for the info, y’all.

  • Dedicated Scrivener user here … so glad they finally got it out for PC’s!

  • su

    Timely post. I just bought the Word version of Scrivener a few days ago. Good to read about the different uses.

  • Vyton

    Kalayna, great post. Thanks for all the information. The post-its on the wall sound great. Did you take pictures? I write with Word and use cobbled-together spreadsheets to keep track of who’s where on what day and in what chapter. Scrivener sounds intiguing. Similar to David, I liked WordPerfect.

  • Razziecat

    Kalayna, this is so weird in a timely sort of way! I just downloaded the free trial of Scrivener from the NaNo site and went about halfway through the tutorial last night. My brain is boggled, and I haven’t actually used the program yet – I’m very hands-on with stuff like this, so I’ll have to give it a try before I decide if I want to buy it – but this could be very, very useful. The story I worked on for NaNo has 26 separate files, and I often have five or six open at a time. Putting this all in one place would be a godsend.

  • Wow, lots of Magical Worders are using scrivener already–I had no idea! Thanks everyone who shared their process.

    Rhonda, I love scrivener for editing too–until I get to line edits. I can do all my personal revisions and agent and editor revisions in scrivener, but by the time line edits come around, it’s just not feasible (which means my final files on scrivener are not the final product as it ends up in print).

    Ken, what I listed was a very general version of my process. When I run into issues, I often have to step away from the computer and change things up by using pen and paper–you are definitely not alone in that one.

    Pandora, it sounds like the program might be compatible with what you’re doing. I’m pretty sure there is a free trial period of the program, so it can’t hurt to give it a try (or give several a try to see what works best for you.)

    David, isn’t it funny how every writer is different? At the end of the day we have a book, but how we get there–so many variations.

  • Sagablessed, I never had trouble with my dogs getting my post-its, but when one of my cats was a kitten she thought batting them off the wall was the best thing ever. I so didn’t agree. ^_^

    Widdershins, I have a confession. When I started using scrivener I was using it only on my iMac because my netbook ran on windows. Within just a couple months I sold the netbook and bought a Macbook Pro specifically so I could use scrivener while I wasn’t at home.

    Su, definitely go through the tutorials! I hope you find it as useful as I do. (and there are many features I don’t use–I only pinpointed a couple in this post)

    Vyton, I actually do have a picture of my post-it notes from years ago. I think this one was still in progress, I don’t remember, but here is a picture.

    Razzicat, I hope you enjoy it!

  • I’m actually at a place right now where I could try Scrivener. We got a Mac secondhand from a sale at the college where I work. But I mostly work from my laptop, so I might just be thinking of switching to a Mac. Doing so could solve a problem I’ve been dealing with that author Mary Robinette Kowal suggested a solution for at SiWC: for those of us who have a job that deals with many words (lots of e-mail and document creation), we need to find a way to separate that mental space. And I work with PCs. So maybe having a Mac for my writing computer could be useful. But this would require some saving. I, uh, kinda have a plane ticket for Charlotte to buy so I can make ConCarolinas in June. 😉

    I did try Liquid Storybinder, but it didn’t entirely impress me. There wasn’t enough functionality.

    But for now, maybe I can just try the PC version of Scrivener, since it’s my laptop that I use for most of my writing. The different software alone could help. *thinks*

  • Hmmm…. Interesting. I’m a borderline Luddite when it comes to writing programs, but that’s more a matter of habit than a coherent position. My current method, like my office, is messy, but it has never seemed problematically so and I’m wary of embracing something to fix something that might not be broken. I’m also leery of the idea that such programs becomes toys whose value is is in their newness, the fun of using them. See? Luddite. Curmudgeon. Whatever. But… my co-author on the Macbeth book, David Hewson, has been lobbying for me to switch to Scivener. We wrote the last book my e-mail using WORD and he’s convinced we’d do better on Scrivener if/when we collaborate again. Maybe I should take the plunge. Is there a way to sample it for free, because as well as being a curmudgeonly Luddite, I’m also cheap.

  • I’ve been a yWriter guy since yWriter3 back in 2007. The auto-save, set at 5 minutes, has saved magical words from destruction several times. The daily word count target has helped with productivity. Recently, I discovered the tension/relevance/humor ratings that can be given to each scene so you can see the ebb and flow of each category.

    That said, I like the cork board feature on Scrivner, at least in the Windows beta version. In the past, I’ve saved all my world-building in multiple word docs and chasing information down has become disastrous. It would be nice to have it all in one place. I’ve started compiling characters, religions, gods, settings, and everything in a single DOC file, using headings and hyperlinks to keep things organized. Still, I think I could easily import this into Scrivner in the future. In the meantime, I’ll push on with yWriter5.