Thursday, July 14, 2011

That Damn Cork Board

By Jay Stringer

This week was going to continue my Summer Reading List series with an ebook. But a slight snafu ("slight" is such a relative term) means I'll continue that next week.

Something that every blogger writes about at some point is their habits. Usually we'll do it at the start of a project, when we're procrastinating, and pretend to be assessing our approach to find some new deep insight. It's amazing how deep we'll burrow into pointless things when we have something to be getting on with.

I have a pretty big project that I'm limbering up for. A fourth novel, and one that would be pushing myself in a new way. Rather than sit around staring at the wall, or trying to find further distractions to avoid the issue, I decided to warm up by writing a novella.

Now, I have previous in this. Folks may remember at the start of the year I talked about writing something different to let off steam. That quickly turned into another novel (a very short one) and a first draft is sat on my imaginary shelf waiting for it's revenge. So I have a previous history of productive procrastination. I'm good at trusting my brain, and following it where it wants to go.

One thing I've been itching to do is to try out some different software. And that's where the fun and the swearing started.

Writers are creatures of habit. We each have our own foibles and methods. What I realised was that my main method was a lack of method. I don't need to sit in a certain place. I'm not fussed whether it's loud or quiet. I don't have a writing desk, or a preferred time of day. My only set habit is to sit with a blank page and move the cursor around until the page is less blank.

As much as we have fun slagging of microsoft for burning the coffee and stealing the milk, it did okay with Word. It's a pretty basic piece of kit. It's a blank page with a toolbar at the top, and can be customised to make it very details or very sparse. You sit and type, and nothing else matters.

My first full length novel, Old Gold, started as a short story that kept going. It's chapters existing in many forms, in notebooks, on beer mats, as text messages saved on a phone, or as notes on the back of my hand. Ultimately it took form in Word. The second book I attempted, Runaway Town, was a more controlled affair. It started and finished with a cursor blinking on that blank page on my laptop. A few drafts, a few reboots, a few printed hard copies with doodled notes in the margins, but it started and ended on that screen.

All the while, folks on the twittertubes are talking about this app called Scrivener. It did all this amazing stuff. Like, it had a cork board, or something. My kitchen has a cork board, but I don't feel the need to tell the twittertubes about it. But folks raved, and I decided to give it a go.

So ready to write a novella, I opened Scrivener and flexed my fingers ready to move that cursor around and stop a page being blank. The following conversation may not have happened, but it also kinda might have;

Scrivener-What kind of template would you like?

Me-Eh? What? I want a blank page. See i have this thing I like to say about a blank page and-

-Sure, very funny, but what kind of project is it?

-What do you mean? It's like a writer type project. I say 'like' because I never can be sure...

-But what is it? Is it a book with parts, or with chapters? How many scenes are there in each chapter? What is your expected word count? Do you have character maps?

-But the fun of writing is getting to find out all of these things over the next few days

-Nuh uh. Fun? What do you think this is?

-Okay, you wait right there. I'll go and start this project on that blank page I have over there, the Word document. Once I got a few answers for you, we'll talk again.

-Have I shown you my cork board?

And I did just that, I went and typed into a blank page somewhere else for awhile. I didn't want to have to sit and set up the whole system before getting to write. Dammit Jim, I'm a crime writer, not a computer programmer. I also don't need to make sure that I have the right amount of pens on my desk, or that my coffee cup is sat in the right place, or that the lamp is angled just so.

In The Dark Knight the Joker states that he's a man of simple tastes. He likes dynamite, knives and gasoline. I realise now that I'm a man of simple tastes too. My pallet might not lean toward agents of fiery destruction, but I just want a blank page and as few rules as possible. Give me a word document and a blinking cursor, or a notebook and a pen.

It seemed to me in that early exchange that Scrivener and me were just not meant to be.

I mean, I guess I could see the attraction. I could see why people would want to sit down at the start of a project and set up the system, just as I can see why people like to set their desk up the right way, or have their research on index cards. But it's not the way I work.

All of the things that Scrivener was asking me were distractions from what I'd loaded up the software to achieve. If I wanted to lay out ideas on a cork board then you know what I'd do? I'd lay my ideas out on an actual cork board. Computers can do many wonderful things, but I don't see the need for that. All it's doing is taking jobs away from actual cork boards. Who thinks of them, eh?

And other things that the software does, that gets it rave reviews, is the ability to move chapters around, and to customise the running order of your story. But you know what else does that? Just about everything else. Shuffling blocks of text around, copying, pasting and flat out rewriting -these are a vital part of how I work. I don't want that made any easier. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, and I don't really think we need to reinvent the art of filling up a blank page.

So I went and wrote the first couple thousand words in Word and then copied it into Scrivener, and then all was well with the world. I'm halfway through the novella now. Halfway through my first real attempt at using Scrivener. Have my impressions changed?

I've settled into a groove with it, True. And I'm sure if I were to use it for a second project I would get through the setting up phase much quicker. I'd have less distractions from writing, and a much firmer grasp of the software.

But still, at the halfway point, I'm not sure there'll be a second time.

The project started life in Word. Once my draft in Scrivener is finished, I'll be converting it to a Word document to send it to my agent. When I get notes back, and write a second draft, guess which software that will be done with? It seems I spent half my time trying to make Scrivener act more like Word, and then the other half worrying how it will look when I transfer it from one format to the other.

There's time yet. Maybe I'll get to the end of the first draft and be converted. Maybe it'll all fall into place.

But for right now I can't escape a simple idea. I'm too busy writing to worry about apps that are meant to aid writing.


Chad said...

I'm just going to recommend giving it another shot. I'll freely admit I spent weeks plotting out my novel by hand, with index cards and legal pads, and then I typed everything into the corkboard on Scrivener, but since then, it's made writing so much easier to have that road map (I'm a far less instinctual writer for longer pieces, and I need to know where I'm going). This said, as I've written I've found that sometimes I'm going down a new path, and it does let me adapt to it relatively easily. I really can't imagine NOT using to write another novel (no, this is not a paid endorsement, BTW LOL!).

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Ha! Jay - I think the two of us are somehow related. I hear great things about Scrivener. My husband is dying to get me to use it - not because he uses it, but because he researched stuff that he could get me -the writer - and found everyone saying great stuff about it. But I like word. I just want to tell the story. Maybe next time around I'll give it a whack, but I have the same problem you do at the beginning of a book - especially if I'm writing in a new genre. In my mysteries I can probably answer the set-up questions with no problem. The book will about about 80-85,000 words. But in my other stuff - My current WIP I think will come in around 90K...maybe. Maybe less. Maybe more. When I started I thought it would be quite a bit less. Guess I was wrong. But if you take another shot at it, let me know.

Dana King said...

I've thought about Scrivener a few times, and have managed to lie down until the urge passed. I have many of the concerns you have expressed here, and Joelle mentions above: I'm comfortable with Word, and don;t want my writing momentum derailed while I learn new software.

Unless Microsoft does something to mess with Word, I'll stick with it. That doesn't mean they won't, though.

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