Scrivener and multi-strand plots

It’s well known that Scrivener is one of the most versatile and useful programs around for creative writing, although it does take a little getting used to, and there are some annoying differences between the Mac version and the Windows version. Also the lack of an Android version is a distinct disadvantage if, like me, you use Windows and an Android tablet, so working ‘on-the-go’ can be fiddly and frustrating at times. It can be done, and given all the other advantages of Scrivener, perhaps one shouldn’t complain.

I’ve recently completed the first draft of my third novel, which has four story-lines over a hundred years, interspersed. So, I needed to check each story-line for consistency of language, voice, etc and ensure they followed naturally from one scene to the next (in the same story-line). This is where I began to discover the joys of ‘collections’ in Scrivener. One of these joys is that the collection is a virtual state – that is, the scene stays in the binder, even if you decide to remove it from the collection, but changes made to the scene in the collection, will be reflected in the ‘main’ scene in the binder. So no need to worry about which is the latest version.

I had, of course, every scene listed in my binder, so I created a collection for each story-line and popped all of the relevant scenes into each. This can be done in a couple of ways:

  1. Highlight each scene in the binder (using ctrl + left-click), then right-click for the context menu. Choose ‘Add to collection’, then ‘New collection’, naming it as you see fit. Or,
  2. Click on the ‘+’ sign next to ‘Collections’ at the top of the binder window, naming each collection as you see fit. Then right-click on each scene, choosing ‘Add to collection’ from the context menu, having chosen the collection you want to add it to. Again, this can be done in multiples.

Both of these are really the same, just in one the collection is created first, whilst in the other, the scenes are highlighted first.

My collections are shown below.

Collections

From here you can compile each collection for on-screen use, print it out, or export to something like Word. I compiled to Word, saved in Dropbox, and then have been able to read each story-line independently on my tablet. If I’d had an iPad, I’d have stayed in Scrivener and edited directly – putting comments in the document notes, so this is a bit of a compromise, but it works, even if I do have to then flip between Word and Scrivener later when I’m redrafting.

I’m looking forward to starting a new novel in a couple of months and using this feature from the start to plot the story-lines. I’d be interested to hear if other people are using this feature.

Advertisements

It wasn’t that bad after all

A month ago I was mired in writer’s block, or to put it another way, feeling so despondent about my current novel that my mind went blank every time I opened Scrivener. I’d been like that for months. At first I thought it was the usual ‘half-way-through blues’, my demons telling me it wasn’t good enough so why bother. But after a while I felt there was something more and the block became self-fulfilling,

Then the magic happened. I found myself with an hour to waste in a town I didn’t know, so settled in a coffee shop (with a cake, naturally) and returned to pen and paper. The words flowed – no, gushed – and I was sorry to stop to meet my appointment. Since then I’ve managed to write most days, even on the laptop.

And last night I finished the first draft. No champagne nor balloons – this is where the work really starts.

I think the problem, and perhaps the solution, was that I’d changed my routine. My pattern over recent years was to go into town with my wife every Friday, then sit scribbling in my notebook while she did what she had to do. This was augmented a couple of years ago by a similar activity earlier in the week. Producing this material, typing up the longhand, and developing it in the ensuing days, meant I was in a discipline of writing regularly. Then a couple of things changed and my trips to the café stopped for a while. Even when I had the chance to go my mindset had shifted – an ‘I’m not writing so why go to the café’ kind of thing.

Until today I hadn’t realised what the problem had been, I only knew I’d got over it. Just goes to show how difficult and fragile this writing process is. So, if you’re facing the same, try changing your routine, or look at what you were doing when you were writing, and try going back to it for a while.

Another time, another place

Last weekend I took a trip to County Wicklow, partly to carry out some family history research, and partly to check locations for my current novel. I’ve already written around two-thirds of the first draft, imagining the street scenes and roadways, backed up by miles and miles travelled on Google StreetView.

On the ground, however, I discovered that so much needs rewriting because my understanding of the history of the places was distinctly under par. The period of the novel I was investigating covered 1847 to 1921, and, of course, much has changed in the intervening years. Houses that I thought of as old, were actually new or didn’t even exist in that time. The landscape must have been different because the trees lining the fields, or forming huge woodlands, though large, were nowhere near 150 years old. Even the rural roads would have been different, with little or no tarmac, and the town layouts have changed beyond recognition.

I’m not dismayed by this, it’s important to get it right, and the experience of getting the feel of the places; seeing the way the light fell, hearing the sound the river made over the gravel and feeling the wind blasting down the mountain, made it all worthwhile. Even if I hadn’t been researching, it would have been pleasurable.

The hard task now is to translate it all on to the page.

Adverbage

Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.

I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?

Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.

Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.

Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:

  • Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
  • Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
  • Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.

Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.

So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.

 

Why do they do it?

Afraid this is just a rant – no insights into my writing habits in this one. A couple of hours ago I received a Whatsapp message from a friend warning me that the service is going to start charging from this weekend. I had a pretty good inkling that it was probably just a scam circulated by some fool who likes to clog up the internet or gets gratification from seeing how many people have been duped into circulating his/her nonsense.

It took me less time to check it out than it would have taken to send messages to all my contacts. And yes, it was a pathetic chain letter type message which has been circulating for at least three years and Whatsapp are not beginning to charge.

So why do people still circulate this stuff rather than checking to see if it’s real first? Is it due to fear or lack of knowledge on how to look it up? ( I use Hoax Slayer or Snopes, or even just a Google query).

Why does it bother me? Because every little bit of stuff circulating clogs up the internet and makes it slower. If someone sends a message to 50 contacts, and 10% of those then send to 50 contacts, and the same again, it works out, if my maths is correct, at over 3 million pointless and incorrect messages whizzing through hundreds of servers. One day it will all break down.

What’s the secret?

As a writer I struggle, like many others, with maintaining momentum. In fact, for weeks, I’ve written very little except when I’ve been in coffee shops, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, of course, the usual distractions – Facebook, emails, cutting the lawn, etc – but there’s also something which, for me, always seems to put up a barrier to moving forward.

Stephen King, and a great many other writers, say that to write well you must read a lot. But how does that help when the books you read end up being poor – either poor prose, poor plot or poorly edited, sometimes all three? I’ve recently read three novels, which I won’t name because I think writing is hard enough without getting bad reviews, that had one or more of these attributes. One of them was in the top 20 sales on Amazon Kindle, yet I struggled to finish it because the writing was so bad. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of opinion. Last month I led a discussion on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of my all-time favourites, and other readers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, though none of them said it was badly written, and I can live with that, we all enjoy different things in novels. Similarly, a friend recommended a book which I read and didn’t like stylistically, it just wasn’t for me, but I admired the way it had been written.

With bad writing it’s possible to pull out a couple of positives. Firstly to identify the things we should avoid, like inaccuracy, bad punctuation, ‘he said, she said’ sloppiness, and so on. It’s much easier to see these on the page than in some theoretical class. Secondly, I expect there is some comfort to be taken when you notice that the writing is poor – at least some of the lessons have stuck.

writers tears

However, the barrier for my writing in these badly written novels is that they’ve been published, so the punctuation, lack of historical/technical accuracy and plot holes should have been picked up long before they hit the bookshelves. Even so, they still seem to sell well. So what am I doing wrong? My first novel found a publisher after a number of rejections but my second has been turned down by lots (and I mean lots) yet I know, and I hope it’s not just arrogance on my part, that the writing is better than my first and better than some of the offerings I’ve read lately. Do I expect the world to be fair? To be just? No, I don’t. It’s only that I sometimes become discouraged and it makes me want to give up. Is it any wonder I feel like turning to the bottle – especially this one?