The Joys of Scrivener

In last week’s musings, I mentioned how university work is often rather abstract. Most of it’s very interesting, but it can be hard to see its relevance for everyday life. However, it isn’t always like that. One of my modules this term has been a more practical, writing-based course, and in a recent class my seminar leader gave a piece of advice which has already proven incredibly useful – not only for my study, but also for my own writing pursuits. It was quite simple: download Scrivener.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Scrivener is a computer program marketed as ‘a powerful content-generation tool for writers’. It’s immensely popular, too, and I’m somewhat relieved to be able to say that I had heard the name before. A while back, when I was in the very early stages of this novel, I looked into downloading some sort of writing software, but at the time I’d decided against it. There are so many ‘tools’ out there – books, computer programs, online courses – all promising to be helpful for writers, and I have to admit, I’m rather sceptical about a lot of them. Of course, there are exceptions*, but I suspect a rather large proportion only make money because people want to find a ‘quick fix’ – some sort of magic solution that will suddenly make the task of writing a novel nice and easy. A little bit like the old revision guides, bought in the hope that their mere presence would make you understand everything (when the disappointing reality was that you still had to read the darn things).

No, I decided that I’d be fine with just a bog-standard word processor, and for a long time, I was. But recently, things have definitely been getting trickier. 30,000 words is a lot, and trying to organise everything, navigate between different sections and just keep track of all of it has been becoming more and more of a challenge. So when Scrivener came up in my seminar, I thought maybe it was a sign. I downloaded a free 30-day trial that same afternoon, and already, less than halfway through, I know I’m going to be buying my own license.

At this point, I should probably make it clear that I’m writing this entirely off my own back. I have no connection to Scrivener; I’m just someone who’s found the program helpful. Above all, it’s allowed me to organise my work in a much more practical way. It gives you all manner of different options for dividing up a project, and it gives you the chance to use levels in a way that traditional word processors don’t offer. For something as long and complex as a novel, it’s amazing the difference those things can make. Yes, there are still sections of my work that are a complete mess, but now it’s an organised mess – and trust me, that’s an important distinction. Everything is so much more accessible now and it’s a lot easier not only for me to move around, but also for me to move parts of my work around.

win-3screens

There are some nice smaller features, too. You can set daily word count targets, or even a total for your entire project so that you can see how you’re making progress. Another useful one is the ‘distraction free’ writing mode, which blocks out the rest of your screen to help you to focus. You can even edit the style of the background, choosing between block colour options or a ‘paper’ effect to get the experience you want. All the little things seem to have been thought of and it’s wonderfully obvious when you use the program that it’s been designed not only for writers, but by writers.

Perhaps what I like most though, is that the whole thing comes across as very honest. It’s upfront about what it’s intended to be (a ‘kind of “writers’ shed”’) as well as what it isn’t (a replacement for a dedicated word processor) and it doesn’t make any ridiculous claims or guarantees about what it’ll do for you. I really appreciate that. If there’s one I’ve come to realise doing this blog, it’s that writing is an incredibly personal thing; just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it’ll work for somebody else. I’ve certainly been finding Scrivener useful though, and if you’re a writer who’s struggling to organise a complicated project, it may be worth giving it a go. It won’t do all of your work for you, but it might make things a little easier to manage, and then you can get back to what’s really important: enjoying the writing itself.

For more info about Scrivener, visit http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php 

*Roz Morris’s wonderful series of ‘Nail Your Novel’ books, being one.

Advertisements

The End is in Sight

Okay, so the end of my novel may still be a fair way off, but in just three weeks’ time, my final (working) term as an undergraduate student will be over. Three years of lectures, seminars, assignments and deadlines are coming to an end. It’s bizarre; it feels like only yesterday it all began.

Letting myself think about life after university is playing havoc with my emotions. One moment I’m incredibly excited; the next, I’m absolutely terrified. For my writing, I’m rather glad it’s nearly finished. I’ve learnt so much over the last three years, I’ve met so many wonderful people and I feel like I’ve come a long way as a person myself, but I am finding it difficult now to stay focused on my studies when I’m so desperate to work on my novel. I know I’ll always have other commitments, there will always be distractions and other things demanding my time, but academic work can be so mentally draining. I didn’t think this week had been too bad for my writing and yet when I look back at what I’ve actually achieved, I suspect I would have made just as much progress had I been working a regular 9-5 job each day.

University can be a bit like living in a bubble, too. You can be studying things that are so complex, so seemingly obscure, that it can be easy to lose touch with the real world. And for writing, that can be a real problem. I’ve said it before, imagination is a wonderful thing. But it seems to me there’s only so much you can do with imagination without having real life experience too. Yes, there is definitely a part of me that can’t wait to be free of university, that feels more than ready to enter the ‘real’ world. At the same time though, another part of me looks ahead and simply sees a huge, gaping void. The idea of being able to do anything can be exhilarating, but I’ve always taken comfort in having control and security, and beyond graduation I have nothing definite mapped out. I’ve thought about it, I have ideas and a rough sort-of plan, but I have nothing fixed, there’s nothing guaranteed, and there’s no sugar-coating it: that uncertainty can be bloody scary.

I know I’ll write – that’s pretty simple. But I don’t have my head in the clouds. I know the statistics for writers’ earnings really aren’t very encouraging, and as much as I’d love to make it as a best-selling novelist, realistically I know that I need to be thinking about jobs. I accept that. Actually, after an event with Hachette last year, I’m rather excited by the thought of working in the publishing industry – particularly in editorial. I’ve always been fascinated by language, and the thought of coming together with other people who are genuinely passionate about books is amazing. It’s such a competitive industry though, and there are still so many things to think about. What jobs/placements/schemes do I apply for? When do I apply for them? What would happen to my own writing if I were to land a demanding role? I can’t imagine a life without writing – it’s a part of me – but how far I’ll end up getting with my own work is far more of a question mark. I’m determined to finish this book, and I hope there’ll be many more (I have so many ideas written down that are just begging to be taken further), but when – or even if – they’ll see the light, I don’t know.

Exciting but scary really does sum it up. Sometimes I wish someone could tell me whether I’m doing the right things, whether I’m making the right choices, but I’m starting to accept that we never really know. We can work hard and try to make things happen but we never really know where we’ll end up. And sometimes, we just have to take a step back and see what life brings. I may not have a set plan but I know what’s important to me, and if I aim for a life with family, friends, writing and reading, hopefully I won’t go too far wrong.

4114167117_461065fe2a_z CC Image courtesy of Kevin Dooley on Flickr

What’s in a Name?

It’s been a rather frustrating week for my novel. I’ve had a reasonable amount of free time, and yet I’ve actually managed to do very little writing. Instead, I’ve spent an awful lot of the last seven days on baby-themed websites, trawling through pastel-hued pages adorned with cutesy, cartoon animals and scrolling through strangely addictive forum threads for parents-to-be. Before anyone starts jumping to conclusions, I don’t have a big announcement to make. No, I’ve just been trying to sort out some of my characters’ names.

Choosing names for characters can be great fun, but it’s certainly not always easy. There are so many possibilities and so many things to consider. On the one hand, I want my characters to have relatively common names – names that are likely to be familiar to readers. Obscure names can work brilliantly, but they can also be alienating, making characters difficult to relate to and difficult to penetrate. If pronunciation isn’t clear, they can even be quite distracting (I read a lot of books by Irish authors and I do occasionally run into problems). But then, it’s only when I start trying to think of nice, common names for my characters (or I start looking through lists of them online) that I realise just how many people I know, and how many names are immediately problematic as a result.

It may sound odd at first, but if I can link a name to several people, there’s not usually too much of an issue. It doesn’t make me any more inclined to feature it in my novel (I don’t particularly want people coming up to me claiming to have recognised themselves) but I’m usually able to consider it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve already accepted that the name can fit multiple characters, so I don’t have a problem with throwing one more into the mix. However, when there’s just the one person, it tends to be a lot harder to keep an open mind. Their traits can become so closely entwined with the name that the two end up impossible to separate, and I can’t imagine it ever suiting anybody different.

Of course, there are thousands of names out there. Even considering only the more common choices, I don’t think any of us can claim to know somebody for every single one. Unfortunately, simply discarding those names with which we’re particularly familiar doesn’t always make things much easier.

The problem is, we come into contact with names everywhere – they’re a part of life – and our experience inevitably shapes the way we look at them. We build certain ideas around them, and start to associate certain names with certain attributes. For writers, it’s perhaps not so hard deciding on a name for a brand new character; there’s more flexibility and to some extent, the character can be moulded around it. But when you’re working the other way around and trying to find a name for a character who’s already very much established, it can be immensely difficult. I think the best analogy is one of trying on clothes. On the hanger, things might seem to tick all the necessary boxes, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll fit properly, that they’ll suit the person, or that they’ll feel right – and it’s exactly the same with names. I could quite easily come up with a female, young-ish sounding name, but finding one that works with the character I’ve got in mind is a whole other matter.

These problems aren’t restricted to forenames, either. You might not feel as though you have such strong preferences when it comes to surnames (partly, I suppose, because we don’t normally have much control over them) but as a writer you’ll often need to find something that works with multiple characters. Earlier this week I thought I’d found the perfect surname for one of my lead females. It had been irritating me for a long time and I started to get really quite excited when I made the discovery, but a few minutes later I was back to square one. Why? Because when I went to add it to my character notes, I realised that it would make her brother ‘Charlie Harley’ – and he just didn’t deserve that.

Most of my characters have had their names for a long time now, but I still have a few gaps and it’s getting to the stage where I feel those gaps really need to be filled. It’s not the same, writing with blanks instead of names, and until my characters have their full titles they just don’t feel complete. So I will keep looking, and when I do find the right ones I know it will be wonderfully satisfying. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t take too much longer, (a) because I’d really like to make some progress with the rest of my writing, and (b) because I’m tired of baby-related adverts popping up on the side of my internet browser. 74 nappies for £10.75?! Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

giggles-crawler-bulk-01

CC Image courtesy of SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget on Flickr

On the Move

Have you ever been travelling on a train, speeding nicely towards your destination, only to have it grind to a halt in the middle of nowhere?

If you have (which is certainly pretty likely if you’re in the UK) then you’ll know just how frustrating it can be. Then again, you’ll also know how wonderful it feels when you start moving again. It may not be very quickly – in fact, it’s usually at a fraction of the speed you were going before – but even so, you experience an amazing mix of relief, gratitude and contentment, because you know you’re at least on the move. Once again, your destination’s getting closer.

That’s how I’ve been feeling this week with my writing. Okay, so they may not have been the most  remarkable seven days, but after juddering to a complete stop not so long ago, it’s just felt nice to be moving again. To be making progress.

I’ve ended up taking a very different approach this week, though not exactly through choice. Due to impending deadlines university work has had to be my top priority and it hasn’t been leaving me with a huge amount of time – or a huge amount of brain power. I’ve been finding myself too mentally drained to write last thing in the evening, but too stressed to give up huge chunks of my days elsewhere. As a result, my writing’s ended up being squashed into tiny snippets of time. Whenever I’ve had an odd few minutes to spare – five minutes before a lecture, ten minutes before dinner – I’ve been resisting the urge to go to Facebook or ASOS or Youtube and turning to my novel instead. Most of the time I haven’t been going with any real plan, I’ve simply been opening the document hoping that I can make some sort of progress and thus avoid having to declare another failed week. But actually, it’s amazing how worthwhile those tiny sessions have been.

I’ve often heard it said that you shouldn’t write ‘aimlessly’; you shouldn’t approach your work without a direction, without having a clear idea in your head of what you’re trying to achieve. I can certainly see the logic in that advice. Once you’ve got a reasonably substantial piece of writing, it’s far too easy to spend all your time simply tweaking things, making tiny changes that don’t really make much of a difference and never making any significant progress. Deciding on a specific target – maybe a scene you want to complete, or a chapter you want to finish – can definitely help you to make the most of your time. On the other hand, it seems a more carefree approach can sometimes prove rather beneficial.

Dipping in and out of my novel this week with no set focus has been wonderfully refreshing. I’ve been noticing things that I hadn’t appreciated before – repetition of certain phrases, bits of dialogue that don’t sound natural – and because I’ve only been spending short periods of time with my writing, I haven’t had long enough to overthink things. I’ve been following my instincts, seeing how my mind reacts to the text rather than trying to force things, and it’s led to far more than just editing. Skimming through sections, I’ve found scenes expanding and gaps miraculously filling themselves, the words just popping into my head. Okay, so I’ve only been adding odd sentences here and there, I haven’t been getting down huge chunks of sparkling new content, but it’s all felt so natural – and I feel like it’s made a real difference.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that such a random, bitty approach would be a good long-term strategy. I’m a huge believer in setting goals and targets, and I think it would take a hell of a long time for me to finish this book if I never worked in a more disciplined fashion. But these little sessions certainly haven’t been a waste of time, and given the stress of this last week, I’m proud that I’ve managed to get my writing going again. Now I’ve just got to keep it going and try to build up a little more momentum. Yep, then I’ll be well on my way.

(Final destination: Publication)

CC Image courtesy of Ingy The Wingy on Flickr

Fail.

In terms of writing, this last week has been a complete and utter fail. I’m not even going to give a word count – it’s just too depressing. But hiccups happen. Nobody’s perfect (that’s what people keep telling me, anyway) so I figure the best thing I can do is just accept that it’s done and try to make a real effort to turn things around.

In my last post, I talked a bit about the difficulties of finding time to write. Time certainly hasn’t been on my side this week. University work is now demanding a huge amount of attention and these last few days I’ve had the added joy of a cold draining my energy reserves and making every task take twice as long as it should. But whilst I certainly wouldn’t say no to a few more hours in the day, running out of time isn’t always the issue. No, some days, the problem is that by the time I’ve finished doing all the other things I need to do, I physically can’t spend another minute staring at a computer screen.

You’re probably thinking that I’m being ridiculous. I mean, you don’t have to use a computer to write, do you? What about using (*gasp*) a pen and paper? It’s not such a crazy idea. Even in this digital age, lots of writers still prefer pen and paper and only move onto a computer when they absolutely have to. And that’s fine. I’m just not one of them.

It’s not that I’m a technology addict. I’ve only recently acquired a smartphone, I’m certainly not glued to it and, unlike many students I don’t find that the absence of an internet connection brings on a panic attack. But even so, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t rely on technology for a lot of things and whether I like it or not, writing is one of them.

It’s a shame, really – not least because I adore stationery. I already have some gorgeous pens and notebooks* and I would love to have an excuse to go out and buy some more. It would be so much easier, too, being able to carry around a little notebook rather a laptop that I have to be careful not to drop, or sit on, or advertise to thieves. But whilst I can make the odd note here and there on paper, I find it immensely difficult to write anything substantial without the aid of a computer.

One of the main reasons is that that I write in a decidedly disjointed fashion. It doesn’t matter how long I spend trying to plan something out, I inevitably end up changing my mind once I get going, thinking of more things and wanting to make alterations. When I’m using a computer, that’s not a problem. In fact, using a computer lets me embrace my bitty style of writing. I can jump around as ideas come to me, I can leave gaps where I know I want to include other things and I can cut and paste and drag to my heart’s content. Realistically, pen and paper just doesn’t give me that freedom.

The other problem (and it can be a big problem) is that I’m a perfectionist. Deep down, I know that books don’t just pop out of authors perfectly formed (yes, I am picturing book-babies), but I still find it hard to write freely on paper. It feels so much more real than writing in a Word document and things seem so much more exposed. I feel like I have to get everything right first time and because I’m so scared of making ‘mistakes’, of writing something that might sound ‘silly’, I can end up not getting anywhere at all. On a computer I don’t have that problem. On a computer I can write and write without worrying that it might be a load of rubbish, because I know that all I need to do is press a couple of buttons and I can make everything vanish. And no one would ever know.

I’d like to think that one day I’ll be able to do more of my writing on paper. I love having a pen in my hand and I really don’t like how reliant we’re all becoming on technology. But at the same time, I feel like computers allow me to do so much more with my writing. I feel like they’re helping me to reach my full potential, and that’s got to be a good thing. I just wish there weren’t quite so many other tasks that had to be done in front of a screen, too.

*Those are the paper ones as opposed to the electronic ones. Daft English language.

Writing Tools

CC Image courtesy of Pete O’Shea on Flickr