scrivener and letting go

scrivener-logo-300x300Scrivener is software developed specifically for writers. I started using it in 2007 (that is, when it first launched), and I’ve upgraded as the software evolved. I’ve stuck with it so long because it does some important things really beautifully.

There’s no better way to gather and organize the kind of complex research material that I use writing historical fiction. If you’ve read any of my Sara Donati novels, you may have a sense of how much I get into, from Jamaica sugar trains to 18th century refining furnaces to battlefields outside New Orleans and commercial greenhouses in 1880s New Jersey. So this I have always loved about Scrivener, the fact that I can keep a lot of diverse material close at hand and look through it without leaving the manuscript aside.

However. I’ve written five+ novels starting out with Scrivener and about a quarter of the way through, I’ve had to give up and transfer over to Word. And here’s the reason.

Scrivener prides itself on being flexible enough to meet the idiosyncratic needs of every writer. To achieve this end, there is a  ‘compile’ process. I say to Scrivener, Hey, I need to print out chapters 1 through 20 in draft form to pass on to a reader. Could you pull that together, simple page numbers, chapter numbers, etc?

In theory this is simple. In fact, it is probably simple in most cases. But in my case it’s not, and despite  more than five years of trying to get an upper hand on the compile process, I now declare myself defeated.

On the surface it seems straight forward. I have

(1) front material including title page, character lists, timelines, map legends (not the map itself), author’s note, dedication, epigraph

(2) a prologue

(3) 50+ chapters divided into Part I, Part II, Part III

The page numbering needs to start after the title page, and stop before the Prologue. Then start up again with ‘1’ at  the prologue, and continue, not showing up on the “Part I” “Part II” pages. The chapters need to be numbered, but not the prologue.

There is a lot of documentation to help the writer set up the compile process to get what s/he needs, and I have read it all. I have also bought a ‘dummies’ type guide and read that, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading on the user forum. But no matter what I do, I can never get the manuscript to print out in plain draft form (that is, no fancy formatting) with the numbering handled correctly.

I tell myself, eh so what. So you’ll have to do a little extra work when you export the draft. But what happens is, I get completely distracted by the process of numbering pages and chapters, and I get derailed for at least one day. Sometimes more. That is, Scrivener is supposed to make the writing process more streamlined, but in my case, it’s disruptive.

No doubt a lot of people will tell me that I’m being computer illiterate or phobic, but anybody who knows me knows that I am very comfortable with all kinds of software and web machinations. I’m not dumb. I can handle Photoshop and InDesign and a lot of other not-simple software programs with a decent level of proficiency. I did in fact post on the user forum about this larger issue. I did so very carefully and politely, but I got no constructive responses. At this point I should point out that Scrivener is not free. The mac version costs $45, and while there is a huge and active forum, it’s staffed by volunteers who have lives beyond helping hapless writers number pages.

If you search you’ll see that Scrivener has a great reputation. I have come across only one review that mentions the issues that frustrate me:

So Scrivener stops supporting publisher workflow once you have submitted the manuscript. And arguably it stops an hour before then, because figuring out how to modify the output format generated by the Scrivener “Compile” menu option is a black art … I found it easier to slurp the resulting Word document into LibreOffice for final tidying up and reformatting before I submitted it. Scrivener doesn’t support Word’s paragraph style mechanism as far as I can tell; it simply emits styled text. So it’s output isn’t a direct product you can feed into an unattended turnkey pre-press package: you’ll still have to pay someone to drive InDesign for you. [emphasis added]

So I have to leave Scrivener behind. I’m not happy about it, but I just cannot spend anymore time fiddling with the complexities of the compile process.  It seems to me that the software developer has lost sight of a writer’s larger goals and is too enamored of  technology for technology’s sake, but I can’t follow that lead.

If you have software you use that you like that allows you to write and keep track of your research at the same time AND you work on a mac, please tell me about it. I’ll have to do some serious window shopping and trying-out before I decide how to proceed and how much time I’m willing to put into the learning curve. Thoughts? And be nice.




information heaven

When I started writing historical fiction seriously (approximately 1995) I was still on the faculty at the University of Michigan. This meant that I had a fantastic library as my disposal. Faculty could (and probably still can) send an email or call and say, here’s a list of books and articles I need. Later that day, the books would arrive at your office door. The article would be copied and delivered, too, even if it had to come from another library.

liam-stackYou could keep the book as long as you needed it, unless it was recalled because somebody else wanted to look at it. I held onto some books for the full ten-plus years I was there. If  it turned out to be no use to me, I’d make a pile and leave the pile for the library to pick up.

Spoiled? You betcha. And blissfully happy.

Then I left academia andfor a good long while I was really stuck. In the early 2000s, there was not much available online. I ended up buying a couple hundred books — some of them which turned out to be no use to me — and paying for the copying of hundreds of articles.  Some books were simply out of my budget range. Sometimes I was able to get a banged up reading copy. Thacher’s New American Dispensatory (1802) was something I really needed, but the copies I found were all between $500 and $3,000. I eventually got hold of a so-called reading copy, which means the book is in such bad shape that it’s not really collectible. I paid $60 for it, and it was well worth the expense.

In general though, this process of tracking down references  was frustrating to the extreme, not to mention expensive. If I wanted to collect books, I would not be complaining. In fact, many of the books I need I would like to have in hard cover, but this is for research and I don’t need the beautiful tooled leather and gilded edges.

I keep thinking I could put at least fifty books up for sale at Amazon or Ebay or one of the bigger used-book conglomerates. Eventually I’ll do that. But even if I regained a good portion of what I spent, that wouldn’t address the bigger problem. Public libraries are generally really good about inter-library loans, but the things I need are often so unusual and rare that the ILL system soon sways under the burden..

And then Google Books came along. Google decided to scan books — all books, every book they could get) and make them available and searchable online. This caused huge (and well founded) consternation among authors like me, who pay the mortgage with royalty checks. If you could read The Pajama Girls for Lambert Square for free, would you buy a copy? Most people would not. So the Authors Guild stepped in and the lawyers got busy and in the end there was an agreement and a settlement. The Electric Frontier Foundation summarizes the situation (read the whole article here):

First, this agreement is likely to change forever the way that we find and browse for books, particularly out-of-print books. Google has already scanned more than 7 million books, and plans to scan millions more. This agreement will allow Google to get close to its original goal of including all of those books into Google’s search results (publishers got some concessions, however, for in-print books). In addition to search, scanned public domain books will be available for free PDF download (as they are today). But the agreement goes beyond Google’s Book Search by permitting access, as well. Unless authors specifically opt out, books that are out-of-print but still copyrighted will be available for “preview” (a few pages) for free, and for full access for a fee. In-print books will be available for access only if rightsholders affirmatively opt in. The upshot: Google users will have an unprecedented ability to search (for free) and access (for a fee) books that formerly lived only in university libraries.

This is the best thing to happen to historical novelists, ever.  And here’s how it works. Say you are writing a novel set in 19th century Boston, and the central character is a woman with three children and a philandering husband.  She’s expecting her fourth, and worried. You call up Google Book’s advanced search screen and enter some keywords in different combinations including Boston, housekeeping, childrearing, birth, midwifery, budgeting, manners, etiquette, marriage

You get back a list of books that will fall into one of three categories:

(1) snippet view means that the book is still in print and that the author and/or publisher is not allowing anything of any length to be shown on Google Books. However, you might just find something you really want to look at. In that case you can use the resources on the book’s information page to find it in a library or at a bookstore.

(2) limited preview means that there will be some whole pages and passages available for you to read.  You might be able to rule out the book at that point, or again, look for a copy to buy.

(3) full means just that: the book is out of copyright, and so Google Books is making it available to you. The whole scanned book. You can download it as a pdf, or read it on line.

Of course this is fantastic for the historical novelist in and of itself, but there’s more.  Here’s a book that might be of interest, available in full:

civilizedamerica1859Civilized America by Thomas Colley Grattan
Edition: 2
Published by Bradbury and Evans, 1859

You could download it straight away, but first you havea closer look. Use the search function, read the “about” and “favorites passages” sections. In the end the book isn’t something you really need, but you do run across a couple passages you’d like to put into your notes.   Just a few years ago you’d have no choice but to type those passages into a word processing screen. Now you can either look at the page images, or ask for plain text. Plain text gives you just that. The whole book has been run through OCR (optical character recognition) and so you can highlight and copy passages to put into your notes. In this case:

As to the yearling aristocracy, that branch includes a number of individuals who have neither manners nor character to boast of; nothing, in fact, but their money. Vulgar, violent, robust, and hardhearted. Many of these persons, notwithstanding the worship paid to the great god Mammon, and the glory reflected upon all those who seem to be his favorite, have yet so begrimed themselves in their struggle after wealth, and are naturally so unamiable, and their manners so gross, that though each one has his circle, larger or smaller, of dependants and ‘toadies,’ they find no admission for themselves into the two-year-old circle above alluded to. There are others, lucky fellows, and honest enough, as the world goes, but too rough and rude for fashionable drawing-rooms; and others yet, persevering old fellows, who have grown rich by long assiduous industry, who retain all the simple and economical habits of their childhood, snap their fingers at show and display, and who look upon fashion and its attendant extravagance with indifference, disgust, or contempt.

You might decide you do want a pdf of the full book on your hard drive, but when you need to find something particular in that book, you’ll have to go back to the Google Books page to use the search function. Given the fact that thousands of otherwise invisible books are available to you, this seems like a small problem. You’ll have to spend some time searching before you really understand the depths of material that are now available to you. Experiment with advanced searches. Ask for books published before 1800, for example, or restrict your search to only those books that are available in full (though this means you will miss a lot of great references to more recently published work).

Here’s a selection of what I came up with in a few minutes. This is a great resource, but be warned: it’s the ultimate time-sink, too.

The young trigonometer’s compleat guide: being the mystery and rationale of plane trigonometry made clear and easy 1736

Letters between Emilia and Harriet 1762

Delights of wisdom concerning conjugial love: after which follow the pleasures of insanity concerning scortatory love 1794

The Universal Cook 1792

Practical husbandry, or, The art of farming with a certainty of gain: as practised by judicious farmers in this country : the result of experience and long observation 1799

The student’s guide to diseases of children 1885

The assassination of President Lincoln: and the trial of the conspirators 1865

Plantation Life Before Emancipation 1892 (revisionist history, not easy to read)

Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents 1880

an open letter to Steve Jobs, part deux

Dear Steve,

After so many years together, you still can surprise me. Usually your surprises are good. For example today your email about the new iPhone.

You know that I have been waiting for an edition of the iPhone that felt right to m

e. And

English: Apple director Steve Jobs shows iPhone

Steve Jobs

now there it is,

and at a reasonable price. Just when my current cell phone has been bugging me to the point of distraction, you save the day. I can pay $99 for the 3G iPhone, or $199 for the newer version, with 16 gb of memory. This means only one electronic instrument to drag around and more important still, it means GPS.


I’m always getting lost, as you well know. I hate driving new places, because I need to keep consulting the map and directions, which means pulling over or putting everybody’s wellbeing in peril. My old anxiety disorder, 98% under control these days, comes blazing to the forefront and I arrive whereever I’m going drenched in… well, you get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.

But you have handed me a solution. Or so I thought.

I realize I am not your only long-term relationship. I know you went through a commitment ceremony with AT&T some time ago, and that she takes a lot of your time and attention. That’s fine, really. I’m not the jealous type.  Alpha-male that you are, you need to spread yourself around; biology — nay, the entire universe demands it of you.  But when you let AT&T come between us, something has gone very wrong.

According to her, I have to pay $399 if I want the iPhone you wrote to say I could have for $199.

You said $99 or $199, but it turns out, once I’ve dug my way through the reservation form, that AT&T has put down her foot and won’t let you give me what you’ve promised. Because, you see, I already have an AT&T phone. Not an iPhone, just a crappy old phone that needs replacing. AT&T doesn’t care about that. She’s all about the control and power and money. According to her, I have to pay $399 if I want the iPhone you wrote to say I could have for $199.

Imagine the crushing disappointment. Imagine the sense of betrayal. When I went back to your original email, I saw that you had in fact mentioned this not-so-little fact, but at the very, very bottom in very,very small print of such a light color that it was impossible to read until I copied it to a text document. Only then did the truth come out.

You knew what AT&T was up to, and you allowed it. You enabled it.

I am so very disappointed in you. After so many years, to resort to such chicanery, just to please that demanding bitch, AT&T.

Shame on you.


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Galileo v Darwin

a new day
The Mathematician handed me an article from the Scientific American, and then stood back and watched me guffaw. The article in question was a discussion of the relative impact that Galileo and Darwin had on society. Which one was bigger?

First, it’s a dopey question, but on top of that, this little bit of silliness: one of the panelists claimed that Galileo was the most influential, because (and I’m paraphrasing) only fifty percent of Americans believe in evolution, whereas eighty percent believe the earth orbits around the sun.

Think about that for a minute.

Now, the Darwin thing I’m willing to let go, though I don’t believe it. A much smaller proportion of the population identifes as creationists, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The claim is that 20% of the American population does not believe that the earth orbits the sun.

I don’t believe this. I just don’t. I’m taken by this urge to stop people on the street and ask them a T/F question: does the earth orbit around the sun? I can predict that some small percentage will just look puzzled and have to think about it. These are the same people who can’t put France on a map (much less Iraq), and who don’t realize that the fact that there was a World War II, there must have been a Word War I. Or this person, quoted on Overheard:

Like, New York’s Technically a State Of Mind, Right?

College student with Boston accent: Yeah, I was reading this article in like Newsweek or something, that ranked the states from smartest to dumbest. Massachusetts was in the top ten.
College student with Miami accent: What about Florida?
College student with Boston accent: Florida was like, 47.
College student with Miami accent: Out of how many?


Overheard by: Still Laughing

Some people just aren’t interested in the wider world. Maybe the student with the Miami accent knows everything there is to know about sailboat rigging, but slept through every geography and social studies class. The temptation is to laugh (okay, I did laugh), but I think it’s a mistake to assume this person is intellectually a zero. Narrow, yes. But more than that, who knows?

The earth orbiting around the sun is to me so absolutely undebatable that I put it on a par with things like, the sun rises in the east or the earth is round. Further, some people may deny they believe in evolution for religious reasons, but no such baggage has been attached to Galileo. I hope.

Does that 80% sound weird to you?


Creative Commons License photo credit: cdemo