The Scrivener Podcast — A Follow-Up

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Scrivener’s new podcast, Write Now with Scrivener. I think it’s hard to judge most media based on the first episode, but I gave it a bit of a mixed review. The first half, focused on the author interview and writing process was interesting. The second half, focused on how the author used Scrivener, was a little too infomercial for my tastes.

The next episode of the podcast dropped, so I decided to briefly revisit it here. The guest author for episode two is Dan Moren, science fiction author. I have to say, this one hooked me more than episode one, so I’m glad I kept an open mind.

I’ll be clear up-front that this episode is just better tailored to my personal tastes. I’m a reader and writer of sci-fi, and I’m honestly more interested in the perspective of a relative up-and-comer. Dan Moren has a couple of books out in his science fiction series, and seems to be doing well, but he’s open about the fact that his fiction writing income isn’t paying the rent, let alone buying Lamborghinis or a 40-acre ranch. Peter Robinson, the episode one guest, was nice enough, but he was working in police procedural style mysteries, has dozens of books, and seems to be much more at the “rich guy” end of the spectrum.

Regardless of my tastes, I thought this episode had much better conversation too. Some of that may be the host getting a little more practice. Some may be that these two have a bit of a history together. I’m guessing most of it is down to the fact that Dan Moren hosts half a dozen podcasts, and is pretty comfortable in this environment. The “how do you use Scrivener” section of the podcast felt much more natural this time around, although there was still one moment I noticed where the host was a little too energetic giving Scrivener tips and I could feel the sponsorship miasma creeping in.

After this second episode, I’m on board. A once-per-month, half-hour podcast is easy to commit to, and the content is pretty good. I’ll keep listening.

I’ll put the second episode below, and if you’re interested in sci-fi authors who are open about finances, agent/editor interaction, and the nitty-gritty of publishing, you should check out Dan Moren’s blog.

Episode 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author Write Now with Scrivener

Having worked as a police intelligence analyst in the UK, Elizabeth Haynes knows a lot about crime. She has written a half dozen novels, all of which she started during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Show notes: Elizabeth Haynes (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com) You, Me & the Sea (https://myriadeditions.com/books/you-me-and-the-sea/) Lost Lives, Lisa Cutts (https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Lost-Lives/Lisa-Cutts/9781471168291) NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org) The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward (https://serpentstail.com/work/the-last-house-on-needless-street/) The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/emma-stonex/the-lamplighters/9781529047318) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author
  2. Christian Cantrell, Sci-Fi Thriller Author
  3. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  4. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  5. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster

Reference Desk #10 — The Story Engine

The Story Engine is a card-based tool to generate endless, semi-random writing prompts. It’s is billed as a tool or multiplayer game to aid in writing fiction, playing tabletop RPGs, or just to be played on its own. It started out in 2019 as one of those Kickstarter projects that caught fire and got fifteen times as much money as they were asking for. Now, the full product is launched, along with myriad add-ons enabled by Kickstarter stretch goals.

As a writer, a TTRPG player, and general lover of boxes of cards with nice art, I decided to try it out.

What’s in the Box

The main box comes with 180 cards. There are also three 60-card “expansions” that can be purchased separately: sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; and six 18-card sub-genre “boosters” for cyberpunk, steampunk, eldritch horror, post-apocalyptic, mythological and dystopian. I went for broke and got the whole collection. The core set is genre-agnostic, but the add-ons are clearly focused on speculative fiction.

The build quality is solid, which I appreciate as someone who has accumulated quite a few board and card games of varying quality. The box is a sturdy, fold-open affair that latches with magnets and has a sleeve. The cards are glossy, nicely weighty paper, and the illustrations are evocative. The cards aren’t plastic-coated, so expect the edges to get roughed up as they’re repeatedly shuffled.

How Does it Work?

The cards are divided into five different types: Agents, Engines, Anchors, Conflicts and Aspects.

  • Agents represent characters
  • Engines represent a goal or desire
  • Anchors represent places, things, and ideas
  • Conflicts are challenges or difficulties
  • Aspects are adjectives

In its simplest form, I can play one card of the first four types, in sequence, to generate a random prompt, such as

A daredevil (agent) wants to enact a secret plan revolving around (engine) an election (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

I can then customize that prompt in two ways. First, each card has 2 or 4 prompt phrases depending on type, so it can be turned 90 or 180 degrees to change the “active” phrase facing me to something more inspiring. Secondly, I can add an Aspect. Since aspects are adjectives, they can be applied to the noun cards: agents (characters) and anchors (places, things, ideas).

With those changes, I might transform the first prompt into

A tormented fraud (agent + aspect) wants to unmask the conspiracy of (engine) a rebellion (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

The guidebook that comes in the main box also suggests ways to use the cards to generate character concepts, items and settings, as well as several more complex prompts that utilize more cards. These include things like conflicted characters with multiple goals, or two characters in conflict over related goals.

Finally, it includes rules for multi-player storytelling games and some helpful hints toward RPG players as to how the various prompts might be used in building campaigns, settings and scenarios.

Despite all these prescriptive rules for building prompts, The Story Engine is also happy to tell you that this doesn’t have to be rigid, with hard and fast rules. You can use the cards however you’d like.

1. A robot wants to map an obsidian prison, but they will have to try something frightening and new. 2. An archivist wants to pay an old debt with a corrupted tool, but they will have to resist a great temptation.

My Experience

The Story Engine does a good job riding the line between too specific and too vague. I often find writing prompts irritating when they’re little more than a vague topic, but too much detail obviously takes any agency away from the writer.

I filled a few notebook pages using the “simple” writing prompts. Not all of the results were instantly inspiring, but I was able to glean a few ideas that feel promising, and a few more that seem like they could lead somewhere with a bit more time and thought.

The complex prompts include more cards and more structure, and as a result they are less open-ended and more inflexible. These are sometimes too detailed for me, feeling like there’s not enough room for filling in the blanks. However, you can always swap cards or break the rules to get something more to your liking.

The individual cards are also just fine as prompts by themselves. Sometimes a one-word character or setting description is all you need, especially when trying to flesh out an idea in progress. The pictures on the cards also do work as extra inspirational elements that don’t insert more words into the mix.

What about RPGs?

I’m not currently running a campaign, so I haven’t tried incorporating The Story Engine into one. However, I have used the similar dice-and-table-based prompts in The Perilous Wilds to run totally improvised one-shots of Dungeon World. I could definitely see using The Story Engine to do something similar.

If you have a home brew campaign, these prompts are probably going to be more useful than if you’re trying to add to a pre-written one. They might also be fun for generating NPCs on-the-fly when your adventuring party takes an unexpected turn.

Conclusions

So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve gotten out of The Story Engine, and I’ll continue to use it. My only concern is that the prompts might start to feel samey after a while. Even if there are technically billions of combinations, the cards will eventually become familiar. Still, with the core and add-ons, I have quite a few cards to work with. I think I’ll be using these cards as a story brainstorming tool for a long time.

If you’re unsure, the core set is a good starting point, and it’s genre-agnostic. If you’re not writing speculative fiction, the add-ons don’t offer much. If you are writing spec-fic and The Story Engine sounds exciting to you, buying one of the bundles gets you a pretty steep discount vs. buying piecemeal.

Check it out at https://storyenginedeck.myshopify.com/

Reference Desk #9 — Write Now with Scrivener

I’ve made no secret that Scrivener is my tool of choice for writing novels. Now — like everyone else in the pandemic — they’ve announced a podcast. It’s called “Write Now with Scrivener,” and it’s scheduled to come out monthly. Thus far, there’s only one episode.

Like any series, I don’t think the inaugural episode is enough to judge a podcast, but I decided to check it out and see what it has to offer.

The Interview

The host is Kirk McElhern, author of “Take Control of Scrivener,” which is certainly on brand. He’s not somebody I’m familiar with, so I had no expectations. McElhern seems to have prepped well for the interview, and had solid knowledge of his subject, but I didn’t feel like he asked any particularly surprising questions or drew out any great insights.

Part of it, perhaps, is that the interviewee for this episode is Peter Robinson. He’s the author of the Alan Banks series. With more than thirty published novels, he’s clearly a successful author, but I don’t read a lot of detective mysteries, and I’m not familiar with his work. So again I came in with no expectations.

We learn that Robinson eschews outlines (can we please stop using the word “pantser” for this?) when starting a new book, but builds an outline as he goes to keep himself organized. As someone who outlines, I always find this a little bit amazing. Even more amazing to me is that he doesn’t know the ending. I’ve only ever dabbled in mystery, but it seems difficult to know where you’re going in the genre without an idea of the ending. It goes to show that writers can have very different processes to achieve similar results.

The Obligatory Bit About Scrivener

The final few minutes of the podcast was reserved to discuss how Robinson uses Scrivener. This was the bit I had concerns about. On the one hand, perhaps I would get a couple of useful tips. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just very thinly veiled advertising by the patrons of the podcast.

Robinson dutifully explained that he writes scene by scene, in fairly small chunks, and that Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange those scenes with drag-and-drop, or pull things out and save them for later. He also uses snapshots before changing a scene to compare the different versions afterward.

Having used Scrivener for a few years, I didn’t really get anything new out of this, and unfortunately it felt a little bit like advertising. However, if you’re new to Scrivener, these are the kinds of simple, straightforward features that make the product good for writing novels, and they’re useful to know about.

The Verdict?

As I said before, I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve heard a couple episodes. Overall, I found the chat with Peter Robinson interesting, even if I’m not a reader of his books. I hope that they’re able to get authors from various genres for future episodes.

I’m honestly a bit worried about the “how do you use Scrivener” bit. As much as I like the product, it feels a little too advertisey. I suspect that most writers are going to  talk about the same handful of main features: the ones at the core of what makes Scrivener good. What might be able to make this segment shine is an author who really utilizes some of the more hidden features.

Episode 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author Write Now with Scrivener

Having worked as a police intelligence analyst in the UK, Elizabeth Haynes knows a lot about crime. She has written a half dozen novels, all of which she started during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Show notes: Elizabeth Haynes (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com) You, Me & the Sea (https://myriadeditions.com/books/you-me-and-the-sea/) Lost Lives, Lisa Cutts (https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Lost-Lives/Lisa-Cutts/9781471168291) NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org) The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward (https://serpentstail.com/work/the-last-house-on-needless-street/) The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/emma-stonex/the-lamplighters/9781529047318) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author
  2. Christian Cantrell, Sci-Fi Thriller Author
  3. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  4. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  5. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster

Reference Desk #7 – Trello

As a part of this Reference Desk series, where I look at useful tools for authors, I’ve now shared most of the software that I use for writing. I covered Scrivener, where I do most of my novel writing. I talked OneNote, where I keep my notes, from story brainstorms to blog posts. Finally, I discussed Dropbox, which I use to back up all my writing work.

However, there’s one more application that I use, for a different aspect of writing – organization and planning. That software is Trello.

I remember seeing Trello when it was first released, and thinking, “Is this really all it does?” Even the Trello website is a bit cagey when describing it, using all sorts of business buzzwords, like “collaborate,” “manage,” “productive,” and “organize.”

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of my weekly to-do list around the house. I use it to plan meals (at least when I’m feeling like a competent adult). I use it to track short stories I’m working on, and what stage of development they’re in. Sometimes I use it to track revision notes or prioritize my projects.

Boards, Lists, Cards

Trello doesn’t dictate a rigid form or structure. It just lets you make lists of things. Shuffle them around, color-code them, or check them off as you get them done.

An accurate (if not thrilling) description of Trello is “an app that makes very flexible lists.” Lists are one of the simplest and most effective ways to take complicated things, big things, and break them down into small and manageable things. That’s what I use Trello for, and that’s what it’s good at.

Trello lists are built from a few simple components. At the top level, there are “boards.” On each board, there are multiple ordered “lists.” On a list, you have “cards.”

Cards have a title and can have a description. They can have little color-coded labels, or comments, start dates and due dates, checklists, pictures, or other attachments. Cards are where the action is.

Simple and Flexible

You can think of Trello as a big cork board. Lists are just columns of index cards, pinned onto the board. You can move them between columns, or up and down a column. But cards are also like file folders, and they can have all sorts of interesting things inside them. From that basic structure, you can organize in whatever way seems natural to you.

The most obvious example is a to-do list. Make a board with three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Fill the first column with tasks. When you’re ready to do a task, move it to the middle column. When you’ve finished it, move it to the last column. When everything is done, close the board.

Of course, you can embellish the bare-bones process. You can shuffle tasks in To Do so they’re in the order you plan to do them in. You can color-code them by importance, or amount of effort, or both. You can add a picture to each one. You can add addresses or phone numbers or web links.

You could expand the basic To Do list into a writing board. Perhaps you want more columns: Ideas, Incomplete Drafts, Complete Drafts, Published, and Shelved. Then add a card for each of your stories. Some small story seed might end up as a card in the Ideas column with just a vague title and a few words. As it moves, it could accumulate more ideas, inspiring photos, character bios, and so on.

You could attach the story document directly to the card, or add a link to your cloud backup. You could maintain a list of the magazines you’ve submitted that flash fiction to. Heck, you could attach copies of rejection and acceptance letters.

Hopefully, you can see that these very simple tools can be put together in a lot of ways. Part of what I like about Trello is that I get to figure out how I like to do things over time, and I can adapt my process accordingly.

Collaboration and Synchronization

Trello is an online tool, so your updates are automatically saved and available across devices – computer or mobile – as long as you’ve got internet connectivity. They have the usual iOS and Android apps. I use Trello on my phone about 95% of the time, and it works well.

I use Trello almost exclusively for my own boards that nobody else needs to see, but I have shared boards with my wife in the past, and the changes and sync between the two of us were seamless. Trello is obviously trying to sell to the “enterprise” team crowd, so if you want to coordinate with a few writing or business partners, it shouldn’t break a sweat.

I’ve found the free plan to be more than adequate for individual use. The main limitation that you’re likely to run into is a maximum of 10 open boards. So long as you aren’t updating more than 10 boards on a regular basis, you can always close old ones and stay under the limit.

If you do need more boards, need to upload big files, or want to use some of the serious team collaboration options, the next tier up is about $120 per year.

One Small Caveat

It’s worth noting that Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, a huge enterprise company that specializes in tools for software development. Thanks to my day job, I’m familiar with most of the Atlassian tools. They’re about as powerful, expensive, rigid and occasionally clunky as you’d expect from software that has big-business plans with prices listed as “Contact Sales.”

Trello has been slowly but steadily adding features over time, and that’s continuing under the new regime. So far, I haven’t seen any unsavory pushing of paid options or favoring big business over individual users. But there’s always that possibility when smaller start-ups are eaten by their older, larger competitors. Time will tell whether Trello influences Atlassian, or vice-versa.

Try It Out

If my description of Trello sounds interesting, I encourage you to try it out with a free account. The only advice I’d offer is to try to come up with more than one way to do things. Play around with it. One of the big advantages is freedom and flexibility that so many apps like this lack. You may find that the flow that ends up working best for you isn’t quite what you expected.

Reference Desk #6 – Back Up Your Work!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the power going out while you’re in the middle of writing. It’s second only to the feeling you get when you boot up your computer and get an error message telling you your hard drive has failed.

As writers, it’s easy to get caught up in characters, settings and plots. That’s the fun stuff. Making sure your work is backed up isn’t fun, but it sure beats the alternative: losing anywhere from hours to years of work.

Take a little time to figure out a back-up plan for your writing. Think of it like an insurance policy. Nobody hopes they’ll need to use their insurance, but it’s a safety net.

What Makes a Good Backup Plan?

  • A backup plan should be easy. Ideally, once it’s set up there will be no extra work at all. The more effort you have to put into it, the more annoying it will be. You don’t want to be tempted to skip it. Murphy’s law tells us conclusively that the one time you skip your plan will be the one time you’ll need it.
  • A backup plan should protect against as many types of failure as possible. Copying your work to a USB thumb drive will protect against a hard drive failure, but won’t save your stories from a house-fire. You want a backup that protects your work from everything short of Armageddon, and maybe even beyond that if you plan on being your post-apocalyptic tribe’s resident shaman/storyteller.
  • A backup plan should provably work. The word “provably” is critical here. As a software developer, I’ve seen important systems with supposedly good backup plans go down, only to find that the backups are outdated, broken, or completely missing. This invariably comes down to the same class of problem: the backups were put in place, but were never tested, or tested so rarely that nobody noticed when they stopped working.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at some of the available backup options.

Hard Drives and Hard Copies

In the good ‘ol days, the way to back up your work was to make a copy and put it somewhere safe. Expensive and inconvenient.

While computers steadily get faster and better in almost every way every year, text files remain incredibly small and easy to store. Even proprietary formats like Scrivener or Word – which include both text and formatting – make tiny files compared to audio, video or images. The most prolific writer will have a difficult time filling a cheap external hard drive, USB flash drive, or memory card.

Consider this the bare minimum for backups. If you’re like me, you probably already have a couple old memory cards or USB sticks in a drawer somewhere. It’s not particularly convenient to copy your files from computer to external storage on a regular basis. If you do this, you’ll tend to leave them plugged into your writing computer, or nearby, and that can make it more likely that an accident damaging the computer will damage the backup as well.

This is beginner mode. You can do better.

Cloud Backups

No matter what operating system you use, there is probably an easy cloud backup option available to you. “Cloud” is the buzziest of buzzwords, but in this case, it just means that your files are backed up to servers somewhere out on the internet.

If you use a Chromebook, Google Docs has you covered. In fact, if you want, Google Docs can have you covered on any operating system with a web browser. If you’ve only ever used a word processor like Word, think of it like this: Google Docs is a word processor that lives on the internet. It saves to Google Drive (their cloud file storage) by default. You can access the files from anywhere with an internet connection, and you can even edit in your browser.

If you’re on Mac, iCloud is the backup option that Apple is going to push you toward. On Windows, Microsoft wants you to use their proprietary cloud storage, OneDrive, which integrates with Word and the rest of Office.

Of course, you aren’t obligated to pay any attention to these huge multinational corporations and where they think you should store your backups. There are other options.

One of the oldest and most mature products out there is Dropbox. Dropbox is made for synchronization, so it’s designed to be installed on multiple computers and copy the contents of the Dropbox directory between them. A change on one computer gets automatically pushed to the others. Dropbox also keeps cloud backups and lets you access files from a browser. It even stores a history of changes, which can allow you to grab an old version of a file if you accidentally pushed changes you didn’t want to.

There are other tools. Lots of other tools. Box.com. Sync.com. I haven’t tried them all, and frankly, there are new ones all the time. The fact is, it doesn’t really matter. All of them can save your work to the cloud. Pretty much all of them have completely free plans, typically with at least 5GB of storage. That may seem small in the age of inexpensive TB-sized hard drives, but you can fit an awful lot of text in 5GB, especially if it’s zipped.

Besides, there’s no rule saying you couldn’t use more than one of these services, if you really need more free storage. You could also shell out a little money to protect those precious stories.

Version Control

Alright. Let’s get really nerdy. Cloud backups are easy and safe, but what if that’s not enough for you? You’re not afraid of a little complexity, and you want to be able to track every single change you’ve ever saved for your manuscript. You want the ability to separately track the changes to the first- and third-person versions of a story. You want to control exactly where your backups live, instead of letting some company like Microsoft or Google decide.

If the thumb drive is easy mode, then version control is hard mode. Version control software is designed to keep track of changes in files. As a software developer, I use it every single day. When tracking down difficult bugs, it’s often vital to be able to go back and see what changed and when.

There are several popular version control systems, such as CVS, Subversion (SVN) and Git. They come in two basic flavors: centralized and distributed.

Centralized version control has been around for ages. It has a central server or repository that keeps track of all your versions and branches. A client can then be used on different machines to download one or more versions from the repository, make changes, and upload new versions.

Distributed version control is a newer idea, though still more than a decade old. In DVCS, there doesn’t have to be a central repository. Each client keeps a complete copy of the repository, with all the versions and branches. This adds more complexity, but it can also remove that central point of possible failure. In practice, DVCS can still be used like a central repository with clients, and often is.

There are thousands of websites and blog posts comparing the various features of version control systems. I can barely scratch the surface here. If you’re interested in going down this road, be aware that even the simplest version control systems are more than adequate for most writers’ needs. If you’re not the most technical person, this is a challenging rabbit hole to go down. Look for services that make it easier to set up, like TortoiseGit and GitHub.

Don’t Write Another Word Without Backups

If you haven’t been backing up your work, I hope this post inspires you to change your ways. There are so many free and easy ways to protect your work. If your writing is important to you, don’t run the risk of losing it. Back it up.

Reference Desk #5 – OneNote

There’s a small company called Microsoft that makes a little-known suite of productivity software called Office. Oh, you’ve heard of them?

Okay, yes, I really am going to shill for Microsoft a little bit here. Why? Because I like OneNote.

How Did This Happen?

I first encountered OneNote at my day job, where I automatically get a Microsoft Office subscription. I was mildly confused and irritated. Microsoft already had Word, the bloated, menu-bursting word processor so many of us know and tolerate. Now they were going to throw yet another application at me, and it’s also just for writing text? With fewer features?

It seemed like a product in search of a purpose.

However, I started noticing others using it. I tentatively tried it. I started to realize that the simplicity was a feature. Pretty soon I was using it for meeting notes, for project notes, for miscellaneous thoughts and to-do lists. I even started using it at home, for my writing notes.

In short, they had managed to hook me.

But Why?

OneNote isn’t exactly a word processor. It doesn’t try to do fancy layouts. It doesn’t have a ton of options.I do approximately two things with it: simple organization, and simple text.

Organization in OneNote breaks down into notebooks, tabs, and pages. These are convenient virtual metaphors that map to the real world.

I can imagine having a work notebook and a home notebook. I can imagine my work notebook with little colored tabs, separated into sections for the projects I’m working on. Likewise, my home notebook would have tabs for each of my writing projects: novels, stories, and blog. And within each tab are pages with specific notes: a page for a blog post, a page for chapter outlines of a novel, a page for that short story.

OneNote provides an additional organization feature: a hierarchy of pages, up to three levels deep. I mostly use this feature to organize several pages under a title or heading in the side-bar. For example, my Blog tab has headings for Razor Mountain, general blog posts, and reference desk posts, among others.

It’s easy to imagine unlimited levels of hierarchy, but I find that the limitation is good for me. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of endless, complicated hierarchies, which is what inevitably happens to my computer desktop. The limitation forces me to stick to a simpler, more straightforward organizational system that actually serves me better.

Notes and Only Notes

When I write out notes the old-fashioned way, in a notebook, I generally don’t do anything fancy. I just jot down text. I might occasionally underline or circle something important, or create a bulleted or numbered list. I might write notes for different things on different parts of the page, all willy-nilly.

OneNote doesn’t provide fancy layout or crazy text options. It makes it easy to do the handful of things I tend to want to do when I’m writing notes. I have quick hot-keys for bulleted and numbered lists. I can throw a freeform chunk of text anywhere on a page. I can do the standard text decorations: bold, italics, underline and highlight. And I can easily grab notes from one spot in the page and move them to another spot, or to an entirely different page, tab or notebook.

At this point, I suppose I have to admit that OneNote does have a few other features. You can insert pictures and videos, which I can certainly see some value in, even if I don’t often do it. You can insert spreadsheets as well, which might be justifiable, since they do make notebooks with graph paper. You can draw or write directly, if you’re using a touchscreen or are braver with a mouse than I am.

The other feature that really sells OneNote for me is the synchronization. I have my Office account and notebook for work, and my personal Office account and notebooks for home. I can sync them both on my home computer, my work computer, and my phone. All of my work saves as soon as I write it. It seamlessly updates across my devices, as long as I have internet. Very little complexity or effort.

That said, when I get deep into writing stories and novels, I move over to Scrivener, because it’s good at organizing and laying out fiction. But before I get to that point, when I just want to generate tons of notes, I do it in OneNote, because that’s what it’s good at.

That’s It

I understand that not everyone wants to sign up with Microsoft. Not everyone wants to pay a subscription for a product (myself included). Despite my best efforts, OneNote has won me over. It works for me because it does one thing and it does it well. It almost always picks simplicity over extra features.

If you’re looking for an application to organize your notes that can sync across a variety of devices, I recommend you give it a try.

You can try the 2016 version for free on all sorts of devices, but the latest and greatest requires purchasing Office.

Reference Desk – #3 – Scrivener

What’s the Good Word (Processor)?

Scrivener is a word processor and organizational tool for writers. I’ve been using it for years, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This might seem odd, when we have good general-purpose word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and good general-purpose organizational tools like Trello. However, what I like best about Scrivener is the combination of organizational and writing features, and that it caters specifically to writers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Weaving a Story

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of an outliner and planner than an exploratory writer, but the truth is that my process always varies from project to project, and it’s never perfectly linear. Some of my plans change in the process of writing, and ideas that started out vague necessarily become more detailed as more words land on the page. Planning, organization and writing are interleaved.

When an idea starts to develop in my head enough to resemble a story, I often start by putting down a few paragraphs in a plain text or Word file. Inevitably, I quickly reach a point where I stop and evaluate: I have som ewords – maybve the start of the story, or a scene that interests me – and some ideas. This is the point where the text file suddenly feels useless. I need to organize my thoughts, extrapolate from them, and figure out how they might fit together.

Usually, that’s the point when I open up a project in scrivener. Within a project, I can have many files: chapters, character descriptions, research notes, and anything else I want to track.

Scrivener's "Binder" - a simple file tree

This might seem like a small thing – a collection of files in a simple hierarchy – but I find it much more effective to have everything for the story one click away (as opposed to files in a collection of folders). Even when I’m in the middle of editing or writing, I can quickly find my notes. Scrivener includes some templates for characters and settings that you can use or ignore, as you prefer. Parts, chapters and scenes can also be broken down in as much detail as you would like. I personally prefer to have each chapter in its own document, but you can choose more or less granularity.

Outlining

When I write the outline to a novel, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I tend to write out chapter summaries in sequence, in a single file. When I start writing a chapter, I take that summary and paste it into the chapter document’s “synopsis” field.

In addition to the file tree, Scrivener has a cork-board view. In this view, you can see notecards with the synopsis of each chapter (or even each scene, if you like). Reordering is as simple as dragging notecards on the board, or documents in the tree.

Writing

When it comes to writing, Scrivener doesn’t compete for the most comprehensive formatting options. It can’t do the fancy layouts of something like InDesign or Publisher, or even Word. It gives you the standard tools you’d expect: text fonts, colors, sizes, emphasis, alignment; a handful of preset options like quote, heading or title; and some basic layout elements like lists and tables.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. I’m not designing a magazine, I’m writing fiction. That said, you may find the options a bit limited if you’re trying to put together something like a travel guide, where you have lots of pictures, maps, or charts among and alongside your words.

If you like to split up your long works into individual chapter or scene documents, you can easily see them combined together by selecting multiple documents in the tree and selecting the “composite” view. Scrivener will instantly stitch all the documents together in the order you specify (with or without page breaks).

Project Tracking

Scrivener allows you to set word count goals for an entire project, or a single session – useful if you’re tracking progress for a deadline, or participating in something like National Novel Writing Month. You can also pull up stats like word counts or printed/paperback page counts for the entire project, or an arbitrary selection. Tools like Word Frequency can even occasionally help you spot your writerly tics.

There are also color-coded labels and keywords that can be applied to documents and searched. This is honestly not a feature I have ever used, and it seems a bit clunky, but if you’re incredibly organized and want to put in the extra effort to be able to cross-reference certain things across many documents, it may be useful. For me, the full-text search has generally been adequate.

Other Features

Scrivener includes a few other features I haven’t used, mostly because they’re for other styles of writing. It supports scriptwriting in a number of different formats. It also handles bibliographies, citations, and footnotes. It includes some simple tools for translating or looking up terms via various websites (e.g. thesaurus and dictionary.com).

Backup and Sync

Unlike many products today, Scrivener is a desktop application. There is no web-only option. It’s available on Windows, Mac, and iOS, and the different versions must be purchased separately (although they’re still relatively cheap, and there are slightly discounted bundle deals).

Scrivener also doesn’t handle its own backups or syncing between devices. It does offer some support for integrating with Dropbox for backup and sync, and I’ve found that this works pretty well between my Windows PC, somewhat outdated MacBook Air, and my phone.

Scrivener is not a cloud application by any stretch of the imagination, and this is one of the few places where I personally feel there is some room for improvement. I don’t particularly want an online Google-Docs-style editor, but seamless syncing with less setup would be nice.

Publishing

Scrivener provides some import and export options, which are mostly useful if you want to pull in plain text files or get them out of Scrivener as plain ol’ text. It also offers “compilation” options, which combine the text of the chapters or scenes into a single file, with many formats available. This can be used for e-publishing (epub, mobi, PDF), or to import into other tools (Word, Open Office, HTML, Post Script, Final Draft, LaTex). You can even print, if you prefer words on paper.

Try it Out

Scrivener is one of my most-utilized writing tools. It’s not perfect, but it contains a blend of features that really work well for me. In a world where everything seems to be subscription-based, I also appreciate their customer-friendly business model. They offer a 30-day free trial (that’s days-used, not calendar days), and if you do buy, it’s a one-time purchase to own the current version forever.

It’s also worth noting that they have modest student discounts, and they typically offer discounts for participants of NaNoWriMo in November, if that’s something you’re into.

Check it out at Literature and Latte.