Tag Archives: Scrivener

Writing Software for Writers

This is especially for writers of big things. If you write small things, like blog posts or short articles, your best tool is probably a text editor you like and a way to handle markdown language. Chances are you use a word processor like MS Word or LibreOffice, and that is both overkill and problematic for other reasons, but if it floats your boat, happy sailing. But really, the simpler the better for basic writing and composition and file management. If you have an editor or publisher that requires that you only exchange documents in Word format, you can shoot your text file with markdown into a Word document format easily, or just copy and paste into your word processor and fiddle.

(And yes, a “text editor” and a “word processor” are not the same thing.)

But if you have larger documents, such as a book, to work on, then you may have additional problems that require somewhat heroic solutions. For example, you will need to manage sections of text in a large setting, moving things around, and leaving large undone sections, and finally settling on a format for headings, chapters, parts, sections, etc. after trying out various alternative structures.

You will want to do this effectively, without the necessary fiddling taking too much time, or ruining your project if something goes wrong. Try moving a dozen different sections around in an 80,000 word document file. Not easy. Or, if you divide your document into many small files, how do you keep them in order? There are ways, but most of the ways are clunky and some may be unreliable.

If you use Windows (I don’t) or a Mac (I do sometimes) then you should check out Scrivener. You may have heard about it before, and we have discussed it here. But you may not know that there is a new version and it has some cool features added to all the other cool features it already had.

The most important feature of Scrivener is that it has a tree that holds, as its branches, what amount to individual text files (with formatting and all, don’t worry about that) which you can freely move around. The tree can have multiple hierarchical levels, in case you want a large scale structure that is complex, like multiple books each with several parts containing multiple chapters each with one or more than one scene. No problem.

Imagine the best outlining program you’ve ever used. Now, improve it so it is better than that. Then blend it with an excellent word processing system so you can do all your writing in it.

Then, add features. There are all sorts of features that allow you to track things, like how far along the various chapters or sections are, or which chapters hold which subplots, etc. Color coding. Tags. Places to take notes. Metadata, metadata, metadata. A recent addition is a “linguistic focus” which allows you to chose a particular construct such as “nouns” or “verbs” or dialog (stuff in quotation marks) and make it all highlighted in a particular subdocument.

People will tell you that the index card and cork board feature is the coolest. It is cool, but I like the other stuff better, and rarely use the index cards on the cork board feature myself. But it is cool.

The only thing negative about all these features is that there are so many of them that there will be a period of distraction as you figure out which way to have fun using them.

Unfortunately for me, I like to work in Linux, and my main computer is, these days, a home built Linux box that blows the nearby iMac out of the water on speed and such. I still use the iMac to write, and I’ve stripped most of the other functionality away from that computer, to make that work better. So, when I’m using Scrivener, I’m not getting notices from twitter or Facebook or other distractions. But I’d love to have Scrivener on Linux.

If you are a Linux user and like Scrivener let them know that you’d buy Scrivener for Linux if if was avaialable! There was a beta version of Scrivener for Linux for a while, but it stopped being developed, then stopped being maintained, and now it is dead.

In an effort to have something like Scrivener on my Linux machine, I searched around for alternatives. I did not find THE answer, but I found some things of interest.

I looked at Kit Scenarist, but it was freemium which I will not go near. I like OpenSource projects the best, but if they don’t exist and there is a reasonable paid alternative, I’ll pay (like Scrivener, it has a modest price tag, and is worth it) . Bibisco is an entirely web based thing. I don’t want my writing on somebody’s web cloud.

yWriter looks interesting and you should look into it (here). It isn’t really available for Linux, but is said to work on Mono, which I take to be like Wine. So, I didn’t bother, but I’m noting it here in case you want to.

oStorybook is java based and violated a key rule I maintain. When software is installed on my computer, there has to be a way to start it up, like telling me the name of the software, or putting it on the menu or something. I think Java based software is often like this. Anyway, I didn’t like its old fashioned menus and I’m not sure how well maintained it is.

Writers Cafe is fun to look at and could be perfect for some writers. It is like yWrite in that it is a set of solutions someone thought would be good. I tried several of the tools and found that some did not work so well. It cost money (but to try is free) and isn’t quite up to it, in my opinion, but it is worth a look just to see for yourself.

Plume Creator is apparently loved by many, and is actually in many Linux distros. I played around with it for a while. I didn’t like the menu system (disappearing menus are not my thing at all) and the interface is a bit quirky and not intuitive. But I think it does have some good features and I recommend looking at it closely.

The best of the lot seems to be Manuskript. It is in Beta form but seems to work well. It is essentially a Scrivener clone, more or less, and works in a similar way with many features. In terms of overall slickness and oomph, Manuskript is maybe one tenth or one fifth of Scrivener (in my subjective opinion) but is heading in that direction. And, if your main goal is simply to have a hierarchy of scenes and chapters and such that you can move around in a word processor, then you are there. I don’t like the way the in line spell checker works but it does exist and it does work. This software is good enough that I will use it for a project (already started) and I do have hope for it.

Using Scrivener on Linux the Other Way.

There is of course a way to use Scrivener on Linux, if you have a Mac laying around, and I do this for some projects. Scrivener has a mode that allows for storing the sub documents in your projects as text files that you can access directly and edit with a text editor. If you keep these in Dropbox, you can use emacs (or whatever) on Linux to do your writing and such, and Scrivener on the Mac to organize the larger document. Sounds clunky, is dangerous, but it actually works pretty well for certain projects.

Scrivener can look like this.

Scrivener on Linux: Oh Well…

UPDATE (January 2, 2016): The makers of Scrivener have decided to abandon their Linux project. Kudos for them for giving it a try. The Scrivener on Linux users were not many, and almost nobody donated to the project, and as far as I can tell, the project was not OpenSource and thus could not have attracted much of an interest among a community of mostly OpenSourceHeads.

So, I’m no longer recommending that you mess around with Scrivener on Linux, as it is no longer maintained. Back to emacs, everybody!

Scrivener is a program used by authors to write and manage complex documents, with numerous parts, chapters, and scenes. It allows the text to be easily reorganized, and it has numerous ways in which the smallest portion of the text, the “scene,” and larger collections of text can be associated with notes and various kinds of meta-data. It is mainly a Mac program but a somewhat stripped down beta version is available for Linux.

In some ways, Scrivener is the very embodiment of anti-Linux, philosophically. In Linux, one strings together well developed and intensely tested tools on data streams to produce a result. So, to author a complex project, create files and edit them in a simple text editor, using some markdown. Keep the files organized in the file system and use file names carefully chosen to keep them in order in their respective directories. when it comes time to make project-wide modifications, use grep and sed to process all of the files at once or selected files. Eventually, run the files through LaTeX to produce beautiful output. Then, put the final product in a directory where people can find it on Gopher.

Gopher? Anyway …

On the other hand, emacs is the ultimate linux program. Emacs is a text editor that is so powerful and has so many community-contributed “modes” (like add-ins) that it can be used as a word processor, an email client, a calendar, a PIM, a web browser, an operating system, to make coffee, or to stop that table with the short leg from rocking back and forth. So, in this sense, a piece of software that does everything is also linux, philosophically.

And so, Scrivener, despite what I said above, is in a way the very embodiment of Linux, philosophically.

I’ve been using Scrivener on a Mac for some time now, and a while back I tried it on Linux. Scrivener for the Mac is a commercial product you must pay money for, though it is not expensive, but the Linux version, being highly experimental and probably unsafe, is free. But then again, this is Linux. We eat unsafe experimental free software for breakfast. So much that we usually skip lunch. Because we’re still fixing breakfast. As it were.

When you create a Scrivener project, you can chose among a number of templates.  The Scrivener community has created a modest number of alternatives, and you can create your own. The templates produce binders with specific helpful layouts.
When you create a Scrivener project, you can chose among a number of templates. The Scrivener community has created a modest number of alternatives, and you can create your own. The templates produce binders with specific helpful layouts.

Anyway, here’s what Scrivener does. It does everything. The full blown Mac version has more features than the Linux version, but both are feature rich. To me, the most important things are:

A document is organised in “scenes” which can be willy nilly moved around in relation to each other in a linear or hierarchical system. The documents are recursive, so a document can hold other documents, and the default is to have only the text in the lower level document as part of the final product (though this is entirely optional). A document can be defined as a “folder” which is really just a document that has a file folder icon representing it to make you feel like it is a folder.

The main scrivener work area with text editor (center), binder and inspector.
The main scrivener work area with text editor (center), binder and inspector.
Associated with the project, and with each separate document, is a note taking area. So, you can jot notes project-wide as you work, like “Don’t forget to write the chapter where everyone dies at the end,” or you can write notes on a given document like “Is this where I should use the joke about the slushy in the bathroom at Target?”

Each scene also has a number of attributes such as a “label” and a “status” and keywords. I think keywords may not be implemented in the Linux version yet.

Typically a project has one major folder that has all the actual writing distributed among scenes in it, and one or more additional folders in which you put stuff that is not in the product you are working on, but could be, or was but you pulled it out, or that includes research material.

You can work on one scene at a time.  Scenes have meta-data and document notes.
You can work on one scene at a time. Scenes have meta-data and document notes.
The scenes, folders, and everything are all held together with a binder typically displayed on the left side of the Scrivener application window, showing the hierarchy. A number of templates come with the program to create pre-organized binder paradigms, or you can just create one from scratch. You can change the icons on the folders/scenes to remind you of what they are. When a scene is active in the central editing window, you can display an “inspector” on the right side, showing the card (I’ll get to that later) on top the meta data, and the document or project notes. In the Mac version you can create additional meta-data categories.

Scrivenings Mode
Scrivenings Mode
An individual scene can be displayed in the editing window. Or, scenes can be shown as a collection of scenes in what is known as “Scrivenings mode.” Scrivenings mode is more or less standard word processing mode where all the text is simply there to scroll through, though scene titles may or may not be shown (optional).

A lot of people love the corkboard option. I remember when PZ Myers discovered Scrivener he raved about it. The corkboard is a corkboard (as you may have guessed) with 3 x 5 inch virtual index cards, one per scene, that you can move around and organize as though that was going to help you get your thoughts together. The corkboard has the scene title and some notes on what the scene is, which is yet another form of meta-data. I like the corkboard mode, but really, I don’t think it is the most useful features. Come for the corkboard, stay for the binder and the document and project notes!

Corkboard Mode
Corkboard Mode
When you are ready to do something outside of scrivener with your project, you compile it. You can compile it into an ebook, a file compatible with most word processors, a PDF file, a number of different predefined manuscript or script formats, etc. Scrivener does all sorts of magic for writing scripts, though I know nothing about that. There is also an outline mode which, in the Mac version, is very complex and powerful. In the Linux Version it is not. So I won’t mention it.

The compile process is cumbersome, esoteric, complicated, and requires training, so it is PERFECT for the average Linux user! But seriously, yes, you can compile your document into a pre-defined format in one or two clicks, but why would you ever do something so simple? Instead, change every possible option affecting formatting and layout to get it just the way you want it, then save that particular layout for later use as “My layout in February” or “This one worked mostly.”

The Powerful Compile Dialog Box.
The Powerful Compile Dialog Box.
One might say that one writes in Scrivener but then eventually uses a word processor for putting the final touches on a document. But it is also possible that you can compile directly to a final format with adequate or even excellent results and, while you may end up with a .docx file or a .pdf file, you are keeping all the work flow in Scrivener.

This fantastic and amazing book was compiled in Scrivener directly into ebook format.

You have to go HERE to find the unsupported and dangerous Linux version of Scrivener. Then, after you’ve installed it, install libaspell-dev so the in-line spell checking works.

A scrivener project file is a folder with a lot of files inside it. On the mac, this is a special kind of folder that is treated as a file, so that is what you see there, but in Linux you see a folder, inside of which is a file with the .scriv extension; that’s the file you run to open the software directly from a directory.

Do not mess with the contents of this folder. But if you want to mess with it you can find that inside a folder inside the folder are files that are the scenes you were working on. If you mess with these when Scrivener is using the project folder you may ruin the project, but if Scrivener is not looking you can probably mess around with the contents of the scene files. In fact, the Mac version gives you the option of “syncing” projects in such a way that you work on these scenes with an external editor of some kind while you are away from your Scrivener base station, i.e., on your hand held device.

Since this data storage system is complicated and delicate, it is potentially vulnerable to alteration while being used by the software, with potentially bad results. This puts your data at risk with cloud syncing services. Dropbox apparently place nice with Scrivener. I’ve been trying to figure out if Copy does, and I’ve been in touch with both Scrivener developers and Copy developers but I’m not sure yet. I use Copy for the masses of data on my computer because it is cheaper, and I use a free version of Dropbox for Scrivener files, just in case.

I would love to see more people who use Linux try out Scrivener, and maybe some day there will be a full Linux version of it. As I understand it, the Linux version is a compiled subset of the Windows version code base (yes, there is a Windows version) and the Windows version is a derivative of the Mac version.

I should also add that there are numerous books and web sites on how to use Scrivener, and Literature and Latte, the company that produces it, has developed an excellent and useful manual and a number of useful tutorials. Literature and Latte also has an excellent user community forum which is remarkably helpful and respectful. So be nice if you go over there.