Scrivener Tips, Redux

I am in the midst of production work for my next book, and this is the time I always learn new things about Scrivener.  Here are some random bits of info.  If this makes no sense to you, don’t worry; I’m mostly documenting this so that a year from now, I’ll google it again and find it here.  BTW all of this is in the latest version on the Mac.

Using a Code character style in Kindle output

Need to have a monospace font code style that shows up in your final Kindle output?

  1. Surround your text with the HTML <code> tag.  Like this
  2. Select the text, and select Format > Formatting > Preserve Formatting.  Your text gets surrounded by a little blue dotted outline.
  3. When you compile your book, under Compilation Options, select HTML Settings,  and under HTML, select Treat “Preserve Formatting” blocks as raw HTML.

Making first paragraphs in a chapter or section not indented

  1. When compiling, under Compilation Options, select Formatting.
  2. This gets a little squirrely, because it depends on how you break up your documents/scrivs/folders.  For this project, I had a scriv per chapter, and within them, I had blank lines for sections (where you’d normally have * * * or something in a print book.)  In that situation, select the Section Type of Level 1+ with just one document (the bottom item).
  3. Click Options.
  4. Select Remove first paragraph indents and the relevant option.  I used After empty lines and centered text, but yours might be something else.
  5. You might have to do this for different Section Type levels, depending on your structure.

My About the Author chapter is showing up as Chapter 32 in the Kindle TOC

  1. Make sure your scriv for the chapter has a properly-cased and human-readable title, like “About the Author” and not “WTF FFUUUCKCK FIX ME”.
  2. Under Compilation Options, go to Title Adjustments.
  3. There is a thing labeled Do not add title prefix or suffix to documents:.  It has a little gear next to it.  It’s not very OSX-ish and super easy to miss. Click the gear.
  4. Select the documents you want to not name “Chapter x”
  5. Click outside of this pop-up to close it, like on the dialog underneath it.  (It has no close button. I told you it was a junky piece of UI.)

I imported a Scrivener-generated Word doc into Pages and when I try to have different head/foot/page numbers in a section, it freaks out and I think my computer is possessed by Satan

Scrivener probably put a page break instead of a section break between a couple of chapters, and now the Pages “use previous section” heading/footing setting behaves wrong. Change the page breaks to section breaks.

Also, if you don’t use section breaks between chapters and your chapters start on even pages of your book, stop doing that.

The spell check isn’t catching things

That’s because it sucks.  You might want to check your spelling and grammar in another program.

Hope these help someone, or at least help me in six months when I do this again.


My Writing Process, 2014 Edition

Okay, so there’s this thing going around, a #MyWritingProcessTour thing, and you know how these memes work – someone nominates you to answer a bunch of questions, you nominate a few other people to do the same, and so on.  I’ve written a lot about process here, and I talked about it in an interview last year, but the tools always slightly change, and so does the writing structure, so maybe it’s a good time to visit the topic again.

I was nominated by Sam Snoek-Brown – go check out his answers there, and also take a look at his latest chapbook, Box Cutters, over on Amazon.  Okay, on to the questions.

What Am I Working On?

I just published Atmospheres in the beginning of March, and I should be publicizing that, but that didn’t work out and I fell into a deep post-partum depression, like I always do.  I stumbled with writing something similar, which started to catch, but it’s hard to plod forward on a book that’s essentially the same as one you just wrote that didn’t sell.  (And I know this isn’t about how many books I sell, but it wouldn’t be bad if a few people actually read them.)

Anyway, I sat around the house watching old movies and taking notes.  Even though I’ve burned a lot of cycles writing about how books don’t need plot and we’re all fucked because plot is a crutch for dumb readers and eventually all novelists will be doing nothing more than writing the book equivalent of stupid half-hour sitcoms, I still have this sick desire to write a well-crafted, heavily-plotted novel.  About once a year, I get this bug stuck in my ass and come up with a half-baked idea and start writing it and then flame out after 50,000 words, a solid Act 1, a broken Act 2, and 17 words of an outline of an Act 3.

(I don’t know what the desire is on doing this.  I think part of it is that I get so much shit for writing “plotless” books, as if that’s a pejorative term, and I think it isn’t.  But every time I get that, I feel like writing a heavily plotted book as a big fuck-you to show that I can do it, and then I’d write another ten books that didn’t do this.  Because I can; it’s just I feel like I’m not pushing the envelope when I do.)

Well, right now I have an 80%-baked idea, and just started work on it, and have a much more solid outline and the first 10,000 on it.  That’s about all I can say about it right now, but if it still has momentum in a month, it could be good.

How Does My Work Differ From Others of its Genre?

I don’t really fit into any particular genre, so I don’t know how to answer this.  I can probably answer by saying why my work doesn’t fit into specific genres or communities, and that would define the differences in my writing.  So:

  • I don’t write genre fiction, so I don’t write high-concept stuff that can easily be pitched.
  • I feel like most experimental writing is an academic study in form, and not necessarily written to be entertaining. While I think that kind of writing is important, I’m not an academic, and I write to entertain, so I think the readability level is much higher in my work.
  • I’m often called an absurdist, but there’s a fine line between satirists and absurdism (i.e. Vonnegut, Heller, Tom Robbins, etc.) and I think when people think of absurdism, they’re really thinking satire. I think more of the Dada and surrealism movements in art, but the word surrealism has been overloaded and destroyed in modern culture to the point of meaningless, and I think any time someone sees something weird or freaky or psychedelic, they call it surreal, (i.e. locking a bunch of has-been celebrities in a house and making a reality TV show is “surreal” now.)
  • I’m often lumped into the Bizarro fiction world, but I haven’t published anything with Eraserhead or their imprints, which is the difference between bizarro and Bizarro.  I also feel like at this point, half of bizarro is horror fiction with a certain Troma-esque sense of humor, or it’s a very set form of “let’s take Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and make Tom Sawyer a talking anthropomorphic penis, and it’s set in Nazi Germany” and that’s that.  There are exceptions to the rule, but I’ve never fell into the groove with that, and I don’t write horror.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

I wrote a big post called Why I Write, which partially answers this.  If I were to riff on this for a minute, I’d give the stock answer of “I write what I would want to read” which is a bit of a cop-out, but is true. I mean, when I read or re-read a classic book like Naked Lunch or a more contemporary one like any of Mark Leyner’s stuff, I always think “I really like this — who is writing more stuff like this?” and the answer is nobody.  So, that’s what I need to write.

How Does My Writing Process Work?

Okay, here is the rundown, 2014 edition.

First, I write here and write on Facebook and twitter, and those don’t really feed into my actual writing; they are just distractions.  I also keep a personal journal, handwritten in little moleskine books, and I try to write in that every single day, but it’s mostly just about day-to-day happenings and not about writing, except maybe how much I did or did not do.

I use a MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad, and I use the Notes app to keep track of ideas or write down things as they happen in the wild, like little phrases or title ideas or things to research later.  These sync across all of the devices, and I currently sync them through Gmail, which means in theory I can access them even if I’m somehow away from all three things but still at a computer.  (I might research how to change this to iCloud, because every time I rely on a Google service for something, they decide to cancel it.)

I use Scrivener for everything.  So I have a big Scrivener catch-all project that contains nothing but bits and pieces, leftovers from published books and ideas for characters and lists of random objects and places and little phrases I want somebody to say at some point and title ideas.  It’s basically a hoarder’s house of words.  Every month or so, I scoop out the running Notes file of ideas and drop it in there.  When I have time, I sometimes move the pieces into the proper places, and if I was smart, I’d do that religiously.  But I’m not.  I am about 17% confident that the best ideas float back out of the scratch project when I skim it looking for things to rip off in a current project.  And I’m learning that not every idea that comes out of my head is golden and 90% of them should probably die.  But that’s always a struggle.

For writing plotted stuff: I will probably go into this in greater detail after the book is done.  But I’m using a program called Scapple, which is by the same company as Scrivener, and it’s a sort of mind mapping thing.  You draw little circles on a big blank canvas and put text in them and connect them together and shuffle them around.  Once you get the order correct, you can either export it into OPML, or just drag and drop it into Scrivener.

Scrivener uses this concept of scrivenings, which are little chunks of text.  You can view all of the scrivs sequentially, like a big, flat file.  You can then create folders and a hierarchy and move them all around and give each one a cute title and have them be your chapters or parts of chapters or scenes or whatever.  You can also switch to an outline mode, or to an index card mode, that uses a different piece of text per scriv (a short description) so you can plot your story and move things around.  It’s confusing until you get the hang of it, and then you never want to go back.

For plotted stuff, I moved the Scapple map I plotted out and dropped it into Scrivener, where each little scene bubble became a scriv.  Then I organized things by Act and got the order all correct, and started writing from page one, sequentially.  When I get done, I can shoot the whole thing out in .DOC format or whatever.  I use Apple Pages instead of Word for layout, because I hate word.  And Scrivener is able to output eBooks pretty much perfectly, so that’s what I do.

When I do the more non-linear writing, I typically have a project and I free-write every day, 500 or 1000 words.  When I wrote Atmospheres, I would listen to the Sleep album Dopesmoker all the way through every day, and write, with my only rule being that I couldn’t write about not writing. I mix in pieces that are in that scratch project, and I later cut out bits and pieces and split things up.  Sometimes, I’ll write for a given day, and I’ll split out a single paragraph or even sentence from that entry, and create a new scriv from it, maybe gluing in pieces from another one, and eventually fill it out until it’s a longer piece.  It’s like songwriting, collecting riffs and eventually gluing them together and smoothing them out until something larger appears.  This takes forever, but it would take longer if I was doing it in another program.

I usually have a hair-brained scheme involving color tags on the project outline that determines what’s part-done and what’s almost-done and what needs a total redo.  I also set up a NO folder outside the project and start chucking things into it that I can’t look at anymore.  Eventually it comes down to PDFs that are printed and red-penned and mailed to readers for comments.

Okay, I’m supposed to tag a bunch of people here to answer the same questions.  I have not asked any of them to do it, so they probably won’t but here you go:


The Death of Paper Notes

One of the changes in OSX Mountain Lion is that it has a dedicated Notes application.  It’s just a basic text editor, except it syncs with other Apple devices.  This isn’t entirely new; iOS devices have had a notes app for a while, and it would sync with an IMAP server and show the notes in the Mail application.  This meant I could create a set of notes that lived in my gmail account, and then edit them on my phone, my computer, or my iPad.  That was pretty much the end of trying to remember to carry around a little notepad or Moleskin or whatever, and now I just jot down any stray thoughts or ideas there, and they get synced in all three places.  And I guess in some extreme emergency where I didn’t have any Apple devices with me, I could always point a web browser at gmail and get at the notes there.

This new workflow saves me a ton of time, and avoids the issue that my handwriting is all but unreadable, even to me.  But one problem with it is that I don’t have a hardcopy of any of my notes about a book.  I was digging around for something else in my storage recently, and found a vinyl three-ring binder containing all (or most all) of the notes from Summer Rain and Rumored to Exist.  One of the first things I realized about this binder is that it’s actually from when I was a computer consultant for the school.  UCS had these beginning-of-year training sessions where they gave you a binder full of stuff you’d never read, and this happens to be one of those binders.  It was probably given to me in 1991 when I started working there, and after I chucked all of the lists of phone numbers and rules, I used it as a school folder.  It’s still got a couple of papers I wrote in it, including the two papers I wrote in the summer of 1992 that I mention in Summer Rain.  I can’t even try to read them though; I’m sure they’re horrible.  I distinctly remember losing the 3.5″ floppy disk I used that summer for my WordPerfect files – I left it in a Mac in one of the labs.  Part of me wishes I still had those files for some sick reason, but I guess if I have the hardcopies, that’s just as bad.

A big chunk of the material in this binder is research material and notes on Summer Rain.  That book is fiction, but it’s based on fact, and I burned a lot of cycles trying to keep track of dates and times.  I’ve got an insane amount of post-it notes and scraps of paper reminding me of stuff like that Ray visited Bloomington on July 11, 1992 and I broke my arm on September 30th and I ate lunch at Burger King on August 7th.  There’s a bunch of report cards, a complete recapitulation of every bursar charge I had during my time at IU, and a small stack of snapshots of the campus in the early 90s.  And there are pages and pages of outlines.  I tend not to outline before I write; I usually write until I get stuck, and then I used to go back and write outlines of what existed, so I could navigate through all of the files without getting lost.  I have dozens of pages of these outlines, inventory sheets of what happens in what file.  There are punchlists from 1998 of what parts are missing from what chapter, and long essays to myself on 1996 on what direction characters are heading.  The 1998 notes even contain a combination of all of these, a list of chapters and what date they would have happened in real life.

The notes from Rumored to Exist are also pretty interesting.  When I worked in Seattle, I would sit with a PC in front of me, a Mac Centris 660AV on my right, and a legal pad on my left.  I would write this online help on the PC, and then compile it on the Mac.  The Apple machine also served as my CD player.  But while I worked, I would write down any random nonsensical thought on the legal pad.  And by the end of the day, I’d have a page or two of these scribblings, random quotes and names of designer drugs and medieval weaponry and genetic disorders and long-forgotten TV shows, and all of these became raw material for what eventually became that book.  And I’ve still got a bunch of these, along with a post card from Larry from the Astrodome, which is something that appeared in the book, but that he later really sent me.  There’s a shot of all of this on the back of the now-out-of-print annotated version of the book, but I’ve also got all of it here.

There’s also a printout of a 1998 draft of Rumored here, one that I must have given Marie, that she marked up and sent back to me.  It’s so different than the finished book that it amazes me.  I still have a lot of these drafts in electronic form, because I’ll usually zip up a copy at a big logical stopping point, but it’s amazing to me to see it captured forever on paper.  When I moved to New York, I was almost to the point of quitting this book, and decided to start a new draft, a completely blank document.  I sifted through the old version, and only carried over the things I absolutely loved.  Everything else stayed behind, and I think I probably rescued maybe 80 pages.  But those old bits — I started writing this thing in 1995, so there were pieces that stayed in the draft for three years before being clipped.  It’s fun to see those bits again.

Now, I do all of this stuff online, and it’s much more efficient.  I can tear around in Scrivener and keep a digital outline and easily checkpoint documents to save old drafts.  I have no idea why I kept any of this old paper stuff — I think there was some assumption that I’d sell millions of copies of the book and some university library would want to purchase all of my letters and notes.  I mean, not really, but that’s a hoarder’s rationale.  Now, I wonder if any of the bits I threw out are worth publishing, but I’ve already done so many editions of Rumored, I’m in no hurry to rush out another one.


Dumping Word

I hate Microsoft Word.  I don’t know how much of my life I’ve wasted on Word, although I’m certain I will be on my deathbed and wish I had all of the years back I spent cursing at Clippy and the Ribbon and every idiot who ever handed me a book or story entirely formatted by hand, every single paragraph still sporting the Normal style.  Whenever I’m working on a project and the phrase “let’s just use Word”, it must be like when people working at a gym hear a person say “fuck it, let’s just order Pizza Hut and eat a gallon of ice cream, because it’s easier than a treadmill.”

I’ve never written fiction in Word; until I switched to Scrivener, I did all of my work in emacs.  But because most print-on-demand houses and lit magazines work with .doc and RTF files, I’m usually forced to go through a final production step where I drag my completed work to Word and style and format it there, sometimes while doing battle with someone else’s templates.  Some places will take a PDF, and for many of my books, I’ve used FrameMaker for the layout.  It’s what I use at my day job, and I know it well.  But it requires me to use Windows, which happens to be written by the same company that makes Word, and that’s a zero-sum game for me.  I might be able to producecompiled Scrivener PDFs that meet all of my requirements, but right now, it’s not there yet.  I’m sure if I took a weekend or two to screw around with it, I could get it to work, but as the book production part of the book cycle happens last, it’s usually at the point where I have no patience for this and just want to get it over with.

I’m in the middle of finishing a book, and was going to use Word to lay it out for CreateSpace, like I did the last few times.  Three things stopped me.  First, my copy of Word 2008 for the Mac is slightly flaky, and it’s just “off”.  Second, I wanted to go buy a copy of Word 2011, and of course, there’s a huge maze of torment involved with this.  I am not even sure if Microsoft officially sells Word 2011 alone; I found one price on the web that costs more than buying all of Office 2011.  Also, they don’t have a 64-bit version, and the current Amazon listing is hovering at a star and a half out of five, with a ton of reviews saying “don’t buy this version!”  So I’m not willing to throw down a few hundred dollars on something that will cripple my machine.  Lastly, I started up Word the other day, and it got into this update death spiral, where it would download half a gig of updates, sit for an hour installing them, and then restart and say more updates are available.  That’s about the time I said fuck this, I’m ditching Word for good.

I have a copy of Apple’s Pages on my machine, but I’ve never really used it for anything.  I bought it for $20, thinking I’d eventually make a zine with it or something, but never got around to it.  On a whim, I had Scrivener export an RTF and then opened it in Pages, expecting the formatting to take a day or two.  I finished the whole thing in a couple of hours.

So here’s a list of why I like Pages more than Word:

  1. It’s much faster on my machine.  I have a 2.66 GHz i7 with 8 GB of RAM, and Word just clunks along.  It’s not swamping the CPU or flooding the memory; it’s just clunky.  Sometimes you click on something and there’s a delay.  It’s not a major delay, maybe a few dozen milliseconds, but it adds up.  It often feels like I’m working across a shared screen on VNC to another computer across a slow wireless connection.  It’s not unusable, but it’s maddening.  I know the MS apologists will say this is something screwy with my machine, but this is the top-of-the-line in mid-2010 MacBook, and right out of the box, with nothing else running, it was like this.  Pages runs fine, and performance is snappy.  No problems.
  2. Page sizing in Word for the Mac is fundamentally broken.  When you go to File > Page Setup and select a paper size, there’s a chance it might work, a chance you’ll only change the size in one section, and a chance it will do nothing.  You can sometimes get it to stick by doing a File > Page Setup > Word Options, then selecting Layout, then clicking Page Setup.  Sometimes that doesn’t work.  Sometimes you have to try it an even number of times, and then an odd number of times. In Pages, I just go to File > Page Setup and select a size.  You can also see the page size in the inspector in Pages.  I don’t know how you can see the document size in Word, other than turning on rulers and counting.  (You can go to File > Page Setup, but if that doesn’t work, it could tell you the wrong size.)
  3. The headers and footers in Pages are fairly intuitive.  You see the boxes for the headers/footers, and you enter your stuff in them.  Word has that weird “they’re greyed out, but if you click on them, but not too fast and not too slow, I’ll open some bizarro editing field for you” that has always been clunky for me.  Sometimes I can do it in two clicks, but sometimes it takes seven.  And when every click is just a few milliseconds off, it adds up.
  4. In Word, working on a document with different even and odd pages is a crapshoot.  Like when you put in a section break to start the document on an odd page and there’s going to be a blank even page, Word won’t show the blank page in Print Layout.  It will be printed (or not printed, depending on how you look at things) but it won’t show that in Print Layout, which is cute.  Pages, just works.
  5. Also, that blank even page in Word will still have your header/footer on it, which is wrong in a printed book.  In Pages, not there.  And as per my last point, you can see that it’s not there, which is nice.
  6. In Pages, all of your paragraph, character, and list styles are in a slide-out drawer that’s easy to find, easy to open, and easy to keep open next to your document.  In Word, there’s a Toolbox window, which can appear anywhere and is easily lost. Also, all three types of styles are just “styles”, and you have to know that a style with a paragraph mark is for a paragraph.  Plus all three are lumped together in a single list which is sorted by odd criteria such as when you last used the style, or if it’s in the document or in a template, meaning you almost always have to move to a different window and lose focus in your document, then scroll with some clunky non-Apple scroll mechanism to find your style.  Repeat that times 9000 and you will go mad.  Also, that toolbox window will vanish if focus goes to another application, so good luck trying to do some tech support involving looking at your browser and the toolbox window.  (To be fair, Pages has an inspector dialog box with similar behavior.  The difference is, they don’t put vital controls like the style chooser in that window.)
  7. When you import a document into Word that has manual formatting, it first appears that the entire document is in the Normal paragraph style.  It isn’t until you pull up the Toolbox that you can see each paragraph is styled with “Normal + Comic Sans 20 + First Line: 0.5″ + Space After: 8pt” or whatever.  This is one of the 19 reasons why people completely fuck up formatting in Word.  In Pages, you can see in the Style drawer that each paragraph is marked as “Free Form”, meaning you need to either define some styles or assign existing ones to your paragraphs if you want to avoid chaos.
  8. When you have a paragraph that’s been assigned a style and you make a change by hand to that paragraph (like, say, change the font), in Pages, a little red triangle appears next to the style in the Style drawer, telling you that you need to either redefine the style or otherwise get your shit straight.  In Word, good luck.  It doesn’t show up in the Toolbar’s style chooser; maybe if you see that the font is changed there, you’ll spot it.  If you open the Toolbox, you’ll see “Style + whatever”, but because the box is only about 20 characters wide, you probably won’t see entirely what changes have happened.
  9. If you’re inserting photos or whatever into documents, Pages lets you simply open a little browser of your iPhoto library, where you can easily preview pictures.  Word has this abortion of a “scrapbook” feature that you have to populate with your stuff manually.  Oh, and it’s in that ever-vanishing bastard of a Toolbox, and you’ll need to click back and forth between that and your list of styles.
  10. There is a version of Pages for both the iPhone and iPad.  I can bring this book to the iPad, and it works well.  I could even write an entire book on the iPad using my bluetooth keyboard, if I really wanted to.

I’m sure there are things Word can do that Pages cannot.  I don’t know what any of them are off the top of my head, though.  An often-desired, often-missing feature is track changes/commenting, which is supported in Pages.  It does not support VB scripting, but neither does Word on the Mac.  (Both support AppleScript, though.)  I think the big difference is that Pages was essentially born in 2005, and slowly added crucial features, meaning it’s much leaner.  Word has a twisted history, always trying to capture feature parity with Windows versions, always failing, and always trying to support backward compatibility.

The biggest difference, other than the efficiency of the codebase, is that Pages is a hybrid word processing/DTP program.  It’s like a simplified version of Pagemaker, where instead of a flowing document like Word, you can choose from templates and select which page layouts you want to use, and then flow in your text.  If you’re doing something like a brochure or flyer or catalog, this is infinitely easier than trying to fake this in Word.  Microsoft has half-assed some DTP features in Word, but it’s all duct tape, and you’d never want to do something like a magazine in it.  Pages is nowhere near as powerful as InDesign, but it’s got enough templates and it’s easy enough that doing that zine or homeowner association newsletter is going to be pretty simple.

One word of warning – if you use Pages (or any other Mac software) and you export to PDF and your document had graphics, it’s going to create a 72dpi PDF that won’t work for press.  There’s a way to add a free add-on so it will save in PDF/X-3 format.  I don’t have the link in front of me, but if anyone’s running into that problem, drop a line or leave a comment and I’ll dig it up.

So, that’s done.  Now maybe I will screw around with that zine project I originally thought about.


Fieldstones and Moleskines

I know I said I don’t do new year resolutions, and I don’t.  But one of the things I’ve been trying to do – it’s more of a course-correction for my post-40 memory loss – is writing down every damn thing that pops in my head, with hopes of later mining this stuff for story ideas.  I know it’s something I should have started doing decades ago, but it’s something I’ve been trying to be militant about.

I just read this book,Weinberg on Writing, which talks about his “fieldstone” method.  The analogy has to do with those fieldstone walls you see on old farms.  (Watch the last five minutes of Shawshank next time it’s on TBS; they run it pretty much daily.  There’s a nice fieldstone wall in that.)  When a farmer builds one of those walls, they don’t go to Wally World and say “gimme a thousand yards of stones.”  They plow the fields, and when they hit a big stone, they pull it aside and save it.  After years of doing this, you have enough stones to build some fencing, or a nice fireplace hearth or wellhouse.  It takes time to find the right stones to fit the odd cracks and holes, but if you’re always looking, you never know when you’ll find it.

Most of the art of writing has to do with dragging your subconscious mind into your conscious mind and then dumping it onto pages in a way that can transfer into someone else’s conscious mind and creep into their subconsciousness.  Anyone that tells you it’s about marketing or the three-act structure or hitting plot points or what your cover looks like is full of bullshit.  That’s about selling books.  Salvador Dali wasn’t a genius because he painted the crying clowns and prairie field landscapes that he knew would sell; he was a genius because he would have fucked up dreams and then immediately paint them with no censorship or conscious thought, and those paintings haunt you and are hard to shake because they drill into the bottom of your mind.

The problem is, you can’t sit at a blank page and consciously think, “okay, let’s dump my unconscious mind into this buffer.”  You just see fits and spurts of what you need: while you’re in the shower, when you’re cleaning up cat shit, when you’re stuck in an endless meeting.  Something pops into your head, and it would be awesome in a story.  And then, if you’re above 40 and have spent your lifetime drinking from aluminum cans, it’s gone in ten seconds.

This requires some way to always capture this shit.  The current strategy is a three-pronged approach:

1) The iPhone notes program.  It’s pretty easy to use; it syncs up with IMAP in my gmail account, so I can also get at it from my Mac or my iPad, making cut/paste pretty easy.  The downside is typing with my thumbs, and it’s not always easy to whip out a phone and tap away.

2) A google docs document that does the same as above.  I use this less and less, but there are times where I’m not at any of the above three iOS machines, or where I need to cut/paste in something sizable, like a big chunk of an article.

3) A moleskine notebook.  The classic, hardcover, lined.  I’ve got a little folding pen that bungees right into the elastic cord, and it stays in my jacket pocket or bag at all times.

There’s a certain tactile satisfaction to keeping notes in a moleskine; that’s a huge plus.  And there’s an overwhelming joy in filling up one of these leather-bound pocketbooks, like you’ve accomplished something more than just dumping ASCII into a buffer.  I just finished one of the books, and it took me almost two years, just because I write in fits and spurts, and this “capture everything” movement just got into gear.

Now here’s the real problem with the moleskine: how to move these fieldstones into the production line.  The iPhone notes thing is easy: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V.  The notebooks – well, first my handwriting is horrible.  And I barely hit the lines to get all of this stuff parallel to each other so OCR can handle it.  And I can’t ship it off to someone and have them transcribe it, since I can barely read it.

The current workflow is to scan the entire thing in as a single PDF using Preview and my printer/scanner.  This take some work, only because you end up with a 50-meg file, and there’s no way you’ll do a hundred scans without Preview crashing at least five or six times.  (I know, Windoze people are like “ha, it doesn’t just work”.  But I was able to use a piece of software that came on my system for free, without spending 19 days researching what third-party program works with my brand of scanner, brand of USB chipset, version of Windows, brand of USB cord, IRQ settings, motherboard configuration, and then find out the software I paid fifty bucks for is a “lite” version and the “pro” version costs $999.)

Then, I split the PDF into a hundred or so PNG images.  I have a Scrivener project that’s just a dumping ground for all of my fieldstones, failed stories and books that still have some reusable bits, and whatever else.  So I create a folder for the book, and dump the PNGs onto a file in the binder, then split that up into a bunch of files, and either type in the bits of each page, or ignore them.  (Sometimes a page will just be a partial grocery or todo list, or something I’ve already used, so not everything is gold.)

The process of turning these fieldstones into working stories and books – that’s another project, and a workflow I haven’t mastered yet.  But a lot of The Earworm Inception  came from fieldstones that were grouped and fleshed out, and this next book is using a lot of stuff collected like this.  Some of them will be duds; some just become a single line in someone’s dialogue, or a little aside.  And some will be the nucleus of an entire work.

So I’m having fun, transcribing this stuff, finding little gems.  And I’ve got the next Moleskine up and running, ready to capture whatever happens in the back of my head during my TPS report filing during the day.


More Scrivener Tips

I switched to using Scrivener as my full-time writing tool last year, and still love it.  I always had a lot of trouble coming up with a good way to seamlessly manage a bunch of little chunks of writing, and now I have a perfect way to do that.  And it’s not trapped in a weird proprietary format; I can easily export it into different forms. Since last April, I’ve used it to put out two books (Fistful of Pizza and The Earworm Inception) and re-release Rumored to Exist as a Kindle book. I’ve also been using it for other ongoing projects, and have been pulling in all of my old books and writing, with eventual hope of either rereleasing them or cannibalizing them for parts.

One thing about Scrivener is that a program this feature-rich is going to either have a huge learning curve, or a lot of features you’ll  never figure out, or both.  And while Scrivener comes with a huge 446-page manual, I’m often googling away to find the solution to some issue.

So here are a few things that I’ve found that were not amazingly clear in the docs.  Part of my reason for posting these is to help out other Scriveners, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I just posted this crap here so I’ll remember it six months from now after I’ve forgotten it, because apparently now that I’m on the north side of the 40 year mark (and I’ve spent a lifetime drinking out of aluminum cans), that happens.

OK, here goes:

  1. Every word processor has its own little shorthand to enter stuff like returns and tabs and other invisible characters into the find and replace dialog boxes.  And Scrivener doesn’t use the typical ^t or \t.  Instead, when you’re doing a find or replace, hold down the Option key and type your special character.  (Your Option key is also known as the Alt, depending on your hardware and key setup.  No idea what it should be on a PC.)  The characters are not shown in the dialog box, but you’ll know you entered them because the little X to clear a field will be visible, showing you’ve got some text in the blank.
  2. If you’ve imported or pasted a bunch of text that was originally a text file, it may have a hard return at the end of every line, like around the 70 to 80 character mark. The way to drive yourself insane fixing that is to move to the end of each line, hit the delete key, enter a space if needed, move down a line, repeat 9374 times.  Don’t do that.  Open a find/replace, and put an Option-Enter in the find box, and a space in the replace box.  You might first have to search for each double enter and replace them with qqqqqqqq, then replace the single enters with spaces and the qqqqqqqqs with enters.  Same for enters followed by tabs.
  3. You can drag and drop text files into the Scrivener binder (that collection of file pieces on the left side.)  But you can’t drag and drop HTML into your Manuscript.  Why?  I don’t know; the docs say you can.  What you can do is drag and drop into any folder other than the Manuscript.  For example, you can drag and drop a web page into the Research folder.  (This is actually a good way to keep a bunch of research material handy.  If you’re offline and you need to get at that wikipedia page about some historical figure or space program or whatever, you can keep it handy within your project.)
  4. If you do the above, you’re left with an uneditable page that can’t be put in your manuscript.  To edit it and move it to the manuscript, do a Documents > Convert > Web Page to Text.  It can’t be undone, and you’ll lose some formatting, but it will become a fully editable text document.
  5. Composition mode.  You know that wave of full-screen, no-distraction writing programs?  No need to buy anything else; just do a Command-Shift-F.  I bump up the width and font, and have a nice picture of Venice Beach in the background, but do whatever brings you to your happy place where you can write.
  6. Typewriter Scrolling lets you change scrolling so your current line is in the middle of the screen, which works great in Composition mode.  Unfortunately, if you set this by using the menu option of Format > Options > Typewriter Scrolling and you’re not in Composition mode, it doesn’t work.  And if you’re in Composition mode… you can’t see the menus.  Solution?  Do a Command-Shift-T when you’re in Composition mode, and it’ll toggle this on.
  7. Labels are neat, but I find the default settings useless.  (They’re stuff like “chapter” and “scene”, but those are things I group with folders and documents, so who cares.)  Status is also neat, but there’s not an easy way to see status in the project binder.  So I edit the labels and change them to stuff like “Needs work”, “eh”, “golden”, “garbage”, and so on.  Then I go to View > Use Label Color In and pick Binder.  Then all of these status colors are shown in the binder, and I can easily find what needs work.
  8. This isn’t a Scrivener tip, but it is an iPad tip that helps when you’re releasing on Kindle.  If you need to see what your mobi file looks like in the iPad Kindle app, go to iTunes, click on your iPad, go to Apps, and scroll down to the File Sharing heading.  Click on the Kindle app, and click Add, and you can copy your mobi file to the Kindle app and proof away on the device without sending anything to the KDP store.
  9. If you don’t have it, get Growl and configure it to your liking.  It’s a universal notification system that a lot of different apps can use to send status updates in little popup alerts on your screen, sort of like how Outlook tells you about new mail messages.  You can turn on Growl support in Scrivener and it will open a popup when you’re saving or when you hit your target count.  Also, Growl may prevent you from going to your mail program every damn time you get a new email, if you get a popup and can see it’s only junk mail and you don’t need to stop writing.  And a Growl hint: if you get a ton of popups, Option-click one and they will all vanish.
  10. I use a Scrivener project called “plotomatic” as a catch-all for all of my notes, unexplored ideas, and leftovers.  It’s much easier than having a scattering of notes in ten different places, and it’s easily searchable.  Think about an easy way to do something similar, to limit the amount of searching you have to do for old stuff.

Hope this helps. Happy Scrivening, and please get in touch with any of your favorite tips!


On writing tools

In my last post, I talked about my old standby writing tool, emacs, and how I’ve made a gradual break from it.  So here’s what I’ve been doing.

First, there was a recent stream of different full-screen writing tools dumped on the market.  It’s the latest fad: some program that closes off everything but a single window to write.  To me, that seemed largely stupid; you just expand your editor window full-screen and shut off your IM program, right?  Well, there’s more to it than that.

First, I have horrible ADD or ADHD or something.  Not diagnosed, no pills or doctors, but I – what was I talking about?  Seriously, I have a hell of a time focusing on writing these days, especially with all of the distractions out there in the internet world.  And writing involves a certain amount of self-hypnosis, that ability to suspend disbelief and not even think about writing, but still type it on the page and channel your subconscious and capture it into your work.  And it’s damn hard to do that when you can click on the other window to check your twitter feed and derail the whole thing.

For a while, I would either turn off my wifi, or I would use this program called Freedom, which completely locks your internet connection unless you reboot.  (And those of us who don’t use Windows aren’t in the habit of rebooting hourly, so this is a Big Deal.)  I know, I should just be able to shut off wifi, or just not click on that god damned browser window.  But I can’t.  It’s nice to be able to completely childproof the process.

I also experimented with trying to fake a full-screen writing program with emacs, adding some margins and pumping up the font size, so I could go full-screen and only have a nice blank page to stare at.  But one day, in a fit of writer’s block fury, I went to the app store and picked up a copy of OmmWriter.

OmmWriter is pretty damn amazing. Basically, you start it, and it opens a text editor over your entire screen, plain and simple.  But the little details are what make it so slick.  First, it shuts off all notifications.  If you’re using Growl to sling popups when you get new mails and whatnot, those all get halted.  Next, it draws this background picture of a winter landscape that looks like some lost Tori Amos album back cover.  And as you start typing, the borders and minimalist menu buttons fade away.  The fonts are very readable and high-design typography too; no more Courier New or whatever the hell emacs uses by default.  There’s also a word count tally at the bottom of the resizable text area that will vanish as you get to work.  And there’s a choice of several mellow, new-agey ambient soundtracks that play in the background.  And all of this sounds hokey, like I’m about to talk to you about an opportunity to resell some healing crystals to your family and friends, but it seriously works.  I don’t know why, but it made it much easier to fade into the work.  It was awesome for journal entries and articles and brief bursts of automatic writing.  But it was not a full-fledged content management system; there’s no way I could write a book in this thing.

Side note: this thing uses OSX’s text editing widget or engine or whatever you call it.  And something I did not realize: most of emacs’s key shortcuts work in any program that uses this.  So if you reflexively use Ctrl-A and Ctrl-E to jump to the start and end of a line, that totally works, either in the Mac’s TextEdit, or a program like Ommwriter.

So I’ll cut to the chase: after a few other trials, I finally got into using Scrivener.  And it has completely changed the way I write, because it finally does what I need to keep organized.

One of the biggest things is I need a system that can deal with me writing in “chunks”.  There are other virtual index card systems, but they typically don’t let you meld the cards into one huge work.  And outline programs are great (I’m a long-time user of OmniOutliner) but I always hated trying to reconcile changes in the actual writing with changes in the outline and vice-versa.  I wanted a way to have the outline be the document.

Scrivener is a lot like modern IDEs you’d use to write code: there’s a binder that’s a project-level collection of folders, with one folder being the actual manuscript, and the other folders being whatever the hell you want.  In a folder, you can create other folders, or you can create documents.  So let’s say my manuscript has a dozen chapters, I can make each of those a folder.  Then in each folder, I can have a bunch of text documents, one for each scene or paragraph or whatever the hell I want.  I can drag those around in any order, chop them into smaller pieces, merge them, add more, delete them, whatever.  Then when I click on my chapter folder in the left navigation pane, I’m presented with every piece in that folder, all glued together into one document.  Click at the root level, in the manuscript folder, and you’ve got your entire book.  It makes it very easy to write in fragments, and move things around easily.  This is pure magic for me.  I really wish I had a program like this when I wrote Rumored to Exist – it would have saved me at least a year of time.

Here’s the real beauty.  You like to work with index cards?  Each of these fragments has an associated title and page of metadata that you can see in the right pane inspector.  You can type in a little blurb of what happens in your fragment, or what needs to happen, or what you want to fix.  Then you click a button in the toolbar, and instead of seeing the text editor, you see a corkboard with a bunch of index cards, each one being that metadata for each text document.  If you don’t like the order, drag them around and make it work.  When you go back to the text editor, all of your pieces will be reordered.  You want an outline?  Click another button in the toolbar, and you see all of your documents and folders and stuff in an expanding/collapsing outline.

I take a lot of notes when I’m writing, and have all sorts of loose text documents and other crap associated with a project: loose wikipedia articles, jpeg images, maps, whatever.  Instead of throwing all of that in a directory on my hard drive, I can keep it all in a folder that resides outside of my manuscript.  And you can totally hyperlink this crap, too.  So you can have a page per character, with facts and stats about the person, a character sketch or notes or whatever else, and you can drop links in there to scenes where they appear.

There’s a full screen mode, too.  It’s not as pretty as the OmmWriter one, and it does not have any Brian Emo ripoff music playing, but it works.  It’s pretty easy to jump back and forth between the full screen and the three-pane mode, which is good for me; I can focus on inputting long passages of text, then jump back into org mode and move things around.  I’ve still got those emacs shortcuts too, because it uses that Mac text engine.

One of the big issues I had too was import and export.  I really can’t have my stuff locked into a proprietary format where I can’t get it to a publisher or to someone for review.  Scrivener has very good import and export functions; you can work in this weird nonlinear format, and when you’re ready to lock it down, you press a compile button and jet out a copy in RTF for your Microsoft Word-impaired buddies.  Need it in plain text, or Final Draft, or HTML, or PDF?  No problemo.  It gives you a fully submittable, standard format document that’s ready to go to the world.  And here’s something awesome: you can press a button, and it will spit out a perfectly formatted .mobi file, ready to submit to the Kindle store.  (It does .epub too, if you’re not down with Amazon.)  All of the exports are very configurable, too.  So if you need different headers or footers or page breaks or fonts or whatever, you can screw around with that stuff to your heart’s content.  You can also do weird stuff like import or export parts of your document automatically.  So you can do stuff like use a standard text editor to take notes on another computer or your phone, then dump that stuff into Dropbox or a shared directory, and Scrivener will pull those files into your binder, or vice-versa.

Another big thing for me is statistics.  I need to know at any given second how many words are in a project.  Whatever you have open in the text editing pane (chapter, fragment, manuscript, whatever) has a word count in the bottom bar.  But you can also do a quick Ctrl-Shift-T and get a word count for the project.  You can also set a goal date and count, and it will calculate how many words you have to write that day, and pop up a nice little reminder in Growl when you hit your target.

There are tons of other features I will never figure out.  It has comments, and little flags you can set to indicate if something is a draft or a revision, and snapshots, and citations, and tons of search and replace things I have not figured out.  But the ability to write in a completely nonlinear fashion is a big thing for me, and this works way better than any other system out there.

Anyway, if you’re in a similar predicament, check out their site and download the free trial.  The learning curve is steep, and I initially had a big freakout trying to figure out how to carve my next book project into the right type of pieces.  But I’ve got the next book underway and it’s motoring along fine.  And I’ve imported both Summer Rain and Rumored, and I’m vaguely thinking about dumping those to the kindle.

Enough babbling about tools.  Time to get back to work.