Monday, September 5, 2011

The one writing tool every writer needs

I recently gave a copy of my book to my aunt, a sweet and very kind lady who’s getting on in years. She expressed astonishment that I actually sat down and took the time to write a whole book. It’s true that writing can be quite a chore. Writing requires discipline and dedication, and you have to be able to force yourself to sit down and just write, even when you don’t feel like it. But we have it so easy today compared to our literary predecessors.

Imagine the dedication, the drudgery, the sheer effort that once upon a time went into writing a book. Imagine a time when there were no computers or even typewriters. Does it not boggle your mind to think that some, possibly most, of the greatest works of literature--the books that we regard as classics--were written by hand? Let’s pick at random a well-known work, David Copperfield. According to Wikipedia it was first published in 1850. My copy, the Modern Library paperback edition printed in 2000, is 821 pages long. I can’t even begin to fathom the time and effort that went into writing this book, and it was but one of many! Dickens didn’t have a Mac, typewriters hadn’t been invented yet. Even the lowly ballpoint pen didn’t come along for almost another century. He probably didn’t even have a fountain pen--at that time, most pens were the kind that you had to dip into ink. The sheer amount of work that went into just about any writing effort is staggering. How did they handle corrections and additions? And not only did you have to write your draft by hand, but you had to write the whole thing out again, neatly and without corrections, for the fair copy that you submitted for publication.

Now think about all the fabulous tools we have at our disposal. One phenomenal application that no serious writer should be without is Scrivener, from a company called Literature and Latte. Once for Mac only, it’s been recently released for Windows. If I had to pick just one piece of software to keep, it would be Scrivener without a question.

It’s hard to summarize what Scrivener is exactly. I guess you would call it a productivity tool for writing. I use Scrivener to jot down my ideas for a story without text or dialog. Everything that happens gets its own synopsis on a separate virtual index card. Then I look at the story in Scrivener’s nifty corkboard mode and arrange everything into chapters, reworking or adding to the plot as necessary. Once I have the details down, then it’s just a matter of fleshing out each idea with plot and dialog. Because everything is compartmentalized, revisions, even major re-writes are manageable. I can’t imagine trying to write a full-length novel without it, but it works just as well for anything where you need help organizing your ideas. It comes with project templates for short stories, novels, essays, proposals, even poetry and lyrics. Scrivener also has script-writing features, if you’re so inclined.

There is a special folder for research, into which you can import all kinds of bits and bobs-- web pages, drawings, notes, basically anything that you might refer to later. I keep my list of story ideas, cast of characters and location notes in this folder so that everything’s right there in one spot.There’s a bit of a learning curve, mainly because there’s nothing else out there quite like it. But they have an excellent tutorial and plenty of resources on their website.

Scrivener is not intended to be a full-fledged desktop publishing or even word processing tool. Having said that, it does have some rather robust formatting capabilities. When your draft is finished, Scrivener can compile it into several different formats. And it will even compile directly to ePub, probably your best option if you’re going the Kindle-only route.

You can’t beat the price. The full version is only $45. Scrivener has way too many other cool features for me to talk about, so here’s a link to their website: