So, when I started my series on spreadsheets, I stated my biases up front:  I only use spreadsheets to handle mathematical data.  While some people love entering text on the “function” line of a spreadsheet (::shudder::), I’m more of a word-processor, text-formatter girl.  I suspect that’s a reflection of the fact that the first programs I ever used (and wrote!) were for manipulating text, rather than for handling data. 

So, how do I keep track of textual details of my stories?  The bits of my outline that I’m incorporating in *this* particular chapter.  The physical descriptions of each character.  The names of the gods and goddesses, along with their arcane attributes.  The timeline.  (Oh, gods above, the timeline…  Every novel I’ve ever written does tricky things with time, requiring me to know the precise day that every single event transpires.)

My answer:  Scrivener.

Scrivener is a program published by Literature and Latte.  It was originally only available for Apple computers; I understand that there’s now a Windows “translation” available in beta. (ETA:  The Windows version is now final.  The Linux version is in beta.)

Now, I realize that many of you are inclined to stop reading at this point.  You don’t work on Apple computers.  Or you don’t have $45 in your budget for new-to-you software.  Or you don’t have time to learn new software. 

I get that.  And believe me, I’m not going to try to evangelize you.  Rather, I’m going to tell you how I use Scrivener.  You can probably translate a lot of what I tell you into your program-of-choice.  (And I’ll tell you, right up front, that I probably only use about 20% of what Scrivener offers.)

Scrivener is a “content generation tool”.  It’s intended to help authors who create works in a variety of formats — from novels to poetry to screenplays to whatever — structure their ideas and their substantive writing.  The program provides a Corkboard (to organize ideas, as if on old-fashioned index cards), folders and files (to hold substantial bits of text, like scenes and/or chapters), and an Inspector (to collect and manage meta-data).

I spend most of my time on Scrivener working in Document view, which looks like this:
Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 11.51.18 AMYou’ll note that the left column lists all the folders and files (chapters and scenes) in my novel, along with folders for Research and for Trash.  Under Research, I create files for all those pesky lists that other people track in spreadsheets.  These are all text files.  I keep one for the “Acknowledgments” that will eventually appear in the published book, another for Characters (names, physical descriptions, details like birthdays, favorite foods, etc.), another for the Plot Summary of the entire novel (usually written before I actually get to the outlining stage), and another for possible final Titles for the novel.  As I write more of this Jane Madison novel, I’ll create additional research files where I’ll record details on the magical properties of crystals and herbs, and I might add a research file to list all of my spells.  You get the idea.
The middle column is where I do most of my work — actually writing the scene.
The right column is the Inspector.  You’ll note a bunch of little symbols in the bottom right corner; those let me change the view of the Inspector.  Almost all of the time, I keep it in the summary view that I’ve shown you above, with the index card for the scene reminding me of the bit of the outline  I’m working on, along with some technical meta-data, and Notes.  In Notes, I keep track of my timeline, writing in the specific date or dates on which the scene takes place.  Inspector can also show me keywords, tags, snapshots (earlier versions), etc.  But as I said, I only use a limited part of Scrivener’s voluminous offerings, so I’m not going to waste your time explaining features I don’t use often.So.  That’s it.  Between “Research” and “Notes”, I keep track of my supporting documentation, without relying on spreadsheets.I’m sure I’ve managed to confuse just about everyone.  Fire away with questions!


25 comments to Not-a-Spreadsheet

  • Vyton

    Mindy, this is a helpful post. I am using Scrivener running in Windows. But I have used it only for revisions so far. I was going to say that my screen looks different, but I went back in and saw where I could bring up the Supervisor column, so it looks just like your screenshot. The functions at the bottom of the Supervisor column will be helpful. I have used the “rename” function for the left column to go with chapter titles and scene titles which sort of functions like a skeleton outline. Your post has been more helpful to me than Scrivener’s documentation. Thank you.

  • I’ve recently switched from using Word to Scrivener. Having moved a non-plotted (I’m a pantser) story over I found it a good way to improve my story navigation as well as mark ideas that haven’t been fully fleshed out but that I moved beyond on a good idea. (my ADHD is alive and well in this project).

    Recently i was attacked by another story idea that is attempting to take all my attention so I’d like to figure out how to a) plot this out some since I can actually see the whole broad strokes of the story and b)use scrivener to do it 🙂 I guess the 2nd would be to use the pegboard to hold my plot points (which then translates to the chapter headings), once I figure those all out?

  • sagablessed

    I adore Scrivner. I especially love the part where you can build characters and reference them without having to open a new file.
    Timeline? There’s a worry. 🙁

  • […] is why I am sharing today’s post from Magical Words. Mindy Klasky, the post’s author, offers up a screenshot of her Scrivener […]

  • I love Scrivener, though like Mindy, I don’t use nearly all its features. I use it mostly to keep track of characters and as a research tool. Scrivener makes it very easy to import web sites, so as I find helpful info online, I just file it in Scrivener where I always have access to it. Very handy. The character files I’m able to make in the program are incredibly valuable, and at some point I plan to look into all the other things I might be able to do with it.

  • Gypsyharper

    Scrivener is pretty awesome. I keep my “extra” information (character sketches, plot notes, research, etc) in word-type documents also, so I really love being able to have all those documents collected in one place. I’m using the Windows version, which is still lacking a few features that the Apple version has (though it sounds like they’re working really hard to catch it up), but so far I mostly only use the features Mindy has mentioned here anyway.

  • I think the actual version’s out now for Windows, last I looked. Been thinking of saving up the 40 bucks to pick it up, but extenuating circumstances keep pushing that back (along with a half dozen other things I’ve been kind of needing for other projects).

  • Cindy

    Scrivener offers a free thirty day trial so you can try out the program before you buy. That’s what i did.

  • I may take advantage of the 30-day free trial now that Scrivener is available for Windows. I’ve heard lots of good things about it, and it’s getting such rave reviews here that I think I’ll give it a shot. This sounds much more organized and productive than the assorted computer files and paper piles I curently use.

  • I tried the sample version last year when it was available. It was a nice program and maybe if I would have given more time to get used to it, I would’ve liked it. I’m just too used to my pen and paper. I’m glad it works for you.

  • […] I could go on about Scrivener all day at the moment, actually, but it’s probably easier just to link to this Magical Words post (made today, coincidentally) by Mindy Klasky: Not-a-Spreadsheet […]

  • *mutters* Why must you Scrivener Evangelists persist? 😉

    Actually, I’ve had a chance to try the Windows version and got fed up over it not working how I wanted right off the bat. I had a hard time getting started, but I think that’s because I was too busy to sit and learn a new program. Word has been hardwired into me for twenty years. I use Word on a daily basis, at work and at home and on my laptop, so it’s hard to break out of that.

    But. I really like Scrivener’s shiny features. I wish I had the chance to sit down with it for a long period of time. I wish I knew how to translate back and forth between Scrivener and Word, because all of my beta-feedback comes in Word-compatible format. I like how you’ve discussed this, Mindy. What would you recommend (aside from just “switch to Scrivener”)?

  • Gee, I spend a day at the movies, and I come home to find so many busy people!

    Vyton – I’m glad you found my post helpful! When I’m snagged on documentation for Scrivener, I often Google the topic I’m fighting (along with the word Scrivener). There are lots of places on the web where people have posted guidance, fixes, and workarounds…

    Axisor – I know a lot of pantsers who *swear* by Scrivener — much more so than those of us who are pretty tied to our outlines. I’d recommend that you create a new project for your new idea, start “scribbling” on index cards and pin away on the corkboard! You can use those cards to launch individual chapters when you’re ready to start writing…

    sagablessed – Timelines are more important to some narratives than to others. In the Jane Madison series, every volume concludes on Samhain, so I pretty much *have* to track the days!

    David – I, too, have imported some websites (most recently, baby-naming sites for a work that draws on Celtic names, so that I can easily grab tertiary character names…) I keep vowing that I’m going to spend a week or two working through all the capabilities, but that hasn’t happened yet. (And won’t for a while…)

    Gypsyharper – I used to have support documents in Word; the transition to Scrivener was easy (because they’re both text-based programs), and I sure love having such easy access to them. I’m glad that the Windows version is working for you!

    Daniel – Thanks for the clarification; I’ll edit my main post! (And yeah, sometimes it’s hard to keep the saved money for the “right” project ::sigh::

    Cindy – You’re absolutely right! I didn’t mention the 30-day trial because I didn’t want to evangelize, but I’m glad someone got the word out there!

    SiSi – I used the trial, when I first got started. (It used to be 30 days, not 30 consecutive days — a nice little feature; I assume it’s still set up that way!) It’s worth trying, to see if your mind works that way…

    WaitforHim – There’s a *huge* gap between tracking things electronically and on paper. For people working with paper files, it can be a steeeeeeeep learning curve — mastering both the *notion* of software and the specifics of Scrivener. I’m glad your system works for you!

    Laura – Scrivener is *definitely* a stumbling block for people who are looking for a word-processor-replacement; I try to tell people to stay a million miles away from it for that! And there is *nothing* that says that it’s a useful tool for all writers! As for handling beta-feedback in Word, if you decide to use Scrivener… (that’s what you meant, right? when you asked for a rec?) I compose in Scrivener, keeping my novel there the full time it’s in draft. I send files to my beta readers, my agent, and my editor (either individual chapters or the whole ms) in Word (using the “Compile” feature to export in Word format). After I send the “final” draft to my editor, I change the title of the Scrivener file, to remind myself that it’s not the active file anymore, and I complete edits in Word. Does that make sense?

  • Literature and Latte also does promotions through NaNoWriMo. It’s a bit far away right now but that is how they got me hooked on Scrivener. They do a special trial version for NaNoWriMo. Then at the end they offered a discount for participants and an even bigger discount for those that made the goal.

  • Vyton

    Mindy, you mentioned that you send files to your beta-readers in Word. Do they mark up the ms with track changes? Some of my beta-readers like e-format, so I have used Scrivener to format for Nook and Kindle. And PDF.

  • Razziecat

    This is one of those things I keep meaning to try. I had the free trial through NaNo in 2011, and never got around to doing much with it, but the more I look at it, the more it seems like a good idea. I probably have a couple dozen files right now for my WIP, and it would be so nice to have them all in one place!

  • deborahblake

    I’ll confess–I tried to learn this program twice. I got 3/4’s of the way through the tutorial, and got pulled away to work on the actual WIP at the time, which I wasn’t ready to work on in Scrivener. And then I tried to take an online class (and bought the “For Dummies” book by the teacher, the lovely Gwen Hernandez). Got completely lost on day two and finally gave up.

    Still, it seems like it would be so useful, especially for all the character and research aspects, I am trying Gwen’s class again at the end of the month. Hopefully life won’t pound me with so many distractions this time.

  • I keep thinking and dithering over getting this program. The features sound great, but I wonder if thelearning curve would kill me. Of course, it sounds like a number of people here could be hit up for help . . .

  • There’s a name generator built into scrivener (at least the windows one) go TOOLS -> WRITING TOOLS -> NAME GENERATOR. you can limit it by gender, origin and even ending or starting letters.

    Another thing I should have found useful is the tutorials that come with it and the guides for the templates… but that would require me to sit and read them through instead of diving in and trying to figure it out for me.

    will try using the corkboard for getting main points out. Guess I don’t need to block out every scene right away, huh?

  • 300Pages – Thanks for the heads-up on NaNoWriMo! I think Scrivener does a good job of letting people try the program — it’s great that they make it especially easy for all those folks fighting the NaNo wars!

    Vyton – My betas (and some of my editors!) use Track Changes and Word. (I also use Scrivener to generate the .mobi (Kindle) files for my electronically published novels.

    Razziecat – Yep, the “all in one place” aspect of Scrivener has helped me. (I was good about keeping my files in a single folder, but it’s easier for me to see what files I’ve created…)

    Deb – I know you’ve had challenges with Scrivener — and it might just be that the software isn’t for you! I subscribed to Gwen’s class and almost immediately ran out of time to follow online. I’ve heard good things about her Dummies book, but I haven’t bought it.

    Di – There are certainly lots of people to ask for help (and lots and lots of forums on the Lit and Latte site.) That said, if it isn’t right for you, there’s no reason to push it!

    Axisor – I was so excited about the name generator when I first heard about it, but I ultimately found it to be too incomplete for my purposes. (It might work quite well for authors who use different naming schemes, though!) I’m more of a “just dig in” girl myself. As for not needing to block every scene right away, maybe that’s your modus operandi! 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Umm…to be silly, perhaps I might mention briefly how I use *spreadsheets*! for outlining and tracking my book. First is that my WIP has multiple POV characters and multiple story-lines, so I use side-by-side columns to order the scenes in each story-line and place them relative to the other story-lines’ scenes. If I want to insert a new scene somewhere, I can insert a row to shift all of the columns relative to the new event. The second speadsheet I use lays out my chapters in order, with a column for word-count, chapter number, date-in-story, POV character, and a chapter descriptor. I can sum up the chapter word-counts to keep track of my total progress, and I can use the *colors* assigned to each cell to help me get a sense of how the story’s been laid out in time and character. I color the chapter numbers in blocks relative to the passage of time, and I color the POV character cells for each primary character so I can see at a glance how I’ve distributed the different story-lines. While in revisions, I’ve also added a column to track to-do items, e.g., mark which chapters need extensive re-writing, which need specific touch-ups, etc. I get to un-color those cells as I work through, so I get a happy, visual indication of my progress.

    I’ve always been interested hearing about Scrivner’s cork-board feature. I’m curious what sorts of tools it offers for keeping track of time-line and multiple story threads?

  • ajp88

    Scrivener is absolutely wonderful. It’s good to see so many other people that use it. I’m always championing it in my writing group. The other members wonder how I can keep so many details in an epic series straight. Scrivener’s the answer.

  • Mindy, actually that makes a lot more sense. No one ever tried to explain that to me. So I was making the mistaken assumptions you mention.

    And fun fact: NaNoWriMo 2012 winners get a code for 50% off!

    Guess which program I’m going to try again? 😀

  • Hepseba – Not silly at all! I actually think that your description of adding columns makes a decent argument for using a spreadsheet program (while they *can* be added to a text-based table, it’s more difficult to see everything on one screen.) As for Scrivener — it offers different colored index cards (for your corkboard). I cludge my time-line, as I mention above.

    ajp88 – Scrivener’s the answer for a lot of us, but not for all! (I’m allergic to people saying any one software is the Uber-Solution, mostly because I often find that my mind just doesn’t work in some supposedly intuitive way!)

    Laura – Yay – glad that I got to clarify! And yes, with 50% off, along with a 30-day free-trial, there are lots of ways to experiment!