My writing process is a continually evolving thing. Not only does every new story require a slightly different approach–and not only am I constantly learning and refining–but sometimes a new tool comes along and completely revolutizes the whole system. That’s what the writing software Scrivener has done for my writing process this past year.
For years, I’ve been extremely happy with the free organization program yWriter. One of my mottos has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Besides, I kept hearing about Scrivener’s steep learning curve. As much as I love new techie stuff, I kept thinking, I don’t have the time for that! But so many of you Wordplayers kept asking me about it that I finally broke down and bought it.
Three words: Blew. My. Mind.
Seriously, it was as if the designers looked into my brain and took notes while I was outlining my novels–and then designed my dream word processor. Kinda like Extreme Home Makeover–but for writers.
However, it is true there’s a bit of a learning curve. The program is tremendously detailed and thorough. It offers you just about any organizational tool your little heart could imagine–and if you’re like me (and Han), you can imagine quite a bit! So in the interest of helping you take full advantage of this tremendous resource, today and next week I’d like to offer a sneak peek under the hood of how my writing process works when using Scrivener.
Even better, this is all a warm-up to the free webinar “Learn Scrivener Fast” with Joseph Michael, which I’ll be hosting in a couple weeks. I hosted Joseph last summer, and you guys turned out in such numbers that your enthusiasm blew both Joseph’s and my minds (again!). I use Joseph’s awesome Learn Scrivener Fast course, so I highly recommend you join us for the webinar on April 23rd. More info on that next week!
For today, here’s how I use Scrivener to outline my novels, using the approach I talk about in my book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. This post isn’t going to teach you how to use Scrivener (I’ll leave that to Joe), so it does presuppose you have some understanding of how the basic features work (e.g., the Binder and Inspector). My goal here is to show you how I actually use the features when outlining. I’ll be using my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer in the example photos. Click on any photo for a larger view.
My Writing Process, Step 1: General Sketches
My first step in outlining is to simply get my ideas for the plot and the character arcs onto paper and start working my way through the plot holes and questions until I have a viable story. This is where I will start figuring out all the major plot points in my story structure. I like to do all my brainstorming longhand in a notebook, and I use a color-coded highlighting system to help me know what I want to transcribe into Scrivener later–and what folder to put it in.
I start with a summary of the story. Usually, this is something I wrote long ago, when the story idea first solidified for me. I stick this in a document at the top of the Binder, so I can refer to it to keep me on track throughout the outlining process. Plus, it’s just fun to get to put some words in the file right from the start!
And then it’s time to start figuring out the story in earnest. Once I’ve worked out the basic shape of the plot, I start figuring out how to fit into the three-act structure (which, of course, I talk about in my other book Structuring Your Novel). In Scrivener, I create a folder called “Structure” and sub-folders for each of the primary structural turning points. This isn’t my actual outline per se, as much as it is just rough notes to guide me when I start fleshing out the outline in detail. I keep this file and all outline-specific files in the Research folder.
I use short summaries of each section, so I can view them at a glance in the corkboard section. (I’ve blurred out most of the cards, because, you know, spoilers!).
Theme is something I start working out early in the process, since it’s so inherently linked to the character arcs. I create a separate file for that as well, so I can have easy access to any pertinent thematic notes that don’t fit elsewhere.
“Orange Notes” are how I refer to any pertinent information that doesn’t have an obvious home somewhere else in my outline notes. I call them this because they are highlighted in orange in my notebook. They get their own folder in the Research section as well.
My Writing Process, Step 2: Character Sketches
Once I have a basic sense of the entire plot, I move on to Character Sketches. This is where I will interview my characters, using the list of 100+ questions (which you can find in Outlining Your Novel or the Outlining Your Novel Workbook). I create a folder for Characters, then a sub-file for each major character. Scrivener offers the opportunity to include photos, so I always add the actor I’ve cast as the character.
I also add a file indicating the major archetypes I want to include and which character fulfills which role.
I like to keep my minor characters in a separate folder in order to streamline the appearance of the Binder and keep my major characters easily accessible. I also include a folder for “Unused Characters,” whom I may have dreamed up early in the outline but never found a home for in the actual story.
My Writing Process, Step 3: Settings and Other Considerations
I also create folders for Settings, Costumes, Animals, and Vehicles (and Weapons, if appropriate). I collect images of each of these as needed while outlining, so that I have a visual library to draw from when writing.
My Writing Process, Step 4: Extended Outline
Finally, I’m ready to start my Extended Outline–the nitty-gritty of the outline itself. This is where I work out the story, chapter by chapter–paying attention to the structure of each scene (goal, conflict, disaster) and sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision). Once I’ve completed the Extended Outline in my notebook, I’ll transcribe the pertinent notes (which I highlight in blue) to Scrivener. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking for this step, to save the wear on my wrists from all that typing.
This is where I move up into the actual Manuscript section of the Binder and start creating the folders that will become my chapters. I start by creating master folders for the major structural sections, then subfolders for each chapter and files within those folders for each scene. I generally break the scenes into multiple files–one for the scene and one for the sequel.
The Synopsis section of the Inspector is where I record the actual structure of the scene, as well as the date and time in which the scene is taking place.
Below that, in the General Meta-Data section, I use the color-coded labels to indicate whether the file holds a scene, a sequel, or both.
Finally, the Document Notes section at the bottom of the Inspector is where I type in the entirety of my outline notes for each scene.
My Writing Process, Step 5: Research
While not actually a part of what I consider the “outlining” phase, I’ll also mention research in this post, since it has to take place before the first draft begins. I create a master folder for my research, then subfolders for each category to allow for easy reference. I also add a master file at the top that records my bibliography.
My Writing Process, Step 6: “Read This” Document
Finally, I add a Read This document at the very top of my manuscript–titled all in caps. This will contain any pertinent notes I want to make sure I’m keeping in mind as I write.
Once I’ve completed all that, I’m locked and loaded and ready to start writing! Click here to learn how I then use Scrivener when I’m actually writing my first draft. I hope this will benefit you in finding the right process to organize your own outline notes in Scrivener and use this powerful program to up your writing game!
Tell me your opinion: What is your writing process for organizing your story notes?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).