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.




10 Replies to “scrivener and letting go”

  1. YES! I feel exactly the same way! I love all the features (which I’m constantly teaching myself) but the compile feature makes me CRAZY! I always end up copying chapter by chapter, grumbling constantly. In the end I’m never sure if it’s worth it, but I just bought it recently, so I have to give it a go.

  2. I’ve read many reviews on writer’s software because, like you, I would like to be able to refer easily to copious research notes easily, but none of the reviews are positive enough to satisfy me that I should venture forth. I did read comments about Scrivener and was somewhat tempted, but I’m glad now that I didn’t. I will continue to rely on organizing under topics in word documents. Not the best, I suppose, but there’s nothing more frustrating than losing a day or more to formatting, printing out things. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Properly organized, a note-taking solution like Evernote, or Microsoft’s OneNote on PC, should be able to fulfill your research needs. You’ll have to switch between this solution and your document editor, of course, but it might be worth looking into.

  4. Okay, I’ve been trying to get compile my work on my 100K novel for hours and just found your post. Thank you for giving me the yes-you-can-leave-scrivener-behind go-ahead I needed!!! Gah!!! I have a thousand things to do to get this novel edited and fixed and I’ve spent hours trying to master Scrivener’s compile notion. Worse; I’m on Scrivener for Windows which isn’t as good as the Mac version. Now, I’m going to dump everything into Word and fix it formatting-wise like I want. : )

    Thank you!

  5. Thank you for this article. I am so new to writing that I feel like a fraud even using that title! I have copious notes and a first draft that is slowly but surely coming together. I purchased Scrivner, and am using it, but it isn’t as intuitive as I would like.
    I have been waking up in a cold sweat wondering what I would do if my computer died and took Scrivner with it.
    Maybe this is too basic a question, but how do you back up your Scrivner document?
    Thanks. I hope to someday join the exalted “writer” fraternity. (And who knows? Perhaps “author”?)

    1. You always need to back up your work. There are dozens of ways to do that, some simple and some less so. It’s really too complicated to go into here — I don’t know anything about your computer setup or resources. You need to do some research on this. And good luck with it.

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