This is the third in a series of posts about tools I find useful for writing fiction. And a lot of reminiscences!

Structural Software

By “structural software” I mean those applications which are designed specifically to help writers. They are more specific in their aims than general purpose tools like word processors.

Typically, this kind of software makes it easy for you to assemble a book, re-arrange chapters or sections, make notes on characters and locations, and include various kinds of template.

I didn’t start using this kind of software until I was convinced by a particular book I was reading (Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) that I needed to start thinking about writing a novel in terms of scenes, and that I needed to plan out an overall structure, however roughly.

Now, you certainly can do all of this in Microsoft Word, and no doubt many authors do. But it’s not really set up for this kind of “engineering”, particularly with something of novel length.

So that’s when I started using:

Scrivener

Scrivener from Literature and Latte is a venerable and highly-regarded tool for writing fiction (or any kind of book, really). It suffers a little, in my view, from ‘featuritis’, with a lot of bells and whistles which many writers won’t use. This makes it a little bit daunting to use when you first encounter it.

One thing I dislike about Scrivener is that, like Word, it seems to think that you should be able to format and layout text as you write it. Whereas, as I said last post, these are matters which get in the way of the creative process and are best left until the time when you need to output a manuscript or a PDF for print—and there are better tools for this purpose than Scrivener. Scrivener, in other words, tries to do too much.

These negative comments aside, Scrivener is a great writing tool if you concentrate on what it is good for. I just ignore all of the formatting stuff and use a very plain-text version of each scene. My styles are set up to be as simple as possible, using a fixed-width font like Courier or Hack. Scrivener will both import and export Markdown formatted text, and that’s my preferred approach. Write the first draft of scenes in Byword on the iPad, import the files into Scrivener, and then compile the whole book to Markdown again.

Here’s a snapshot of an early draft of my novel, showing the hierarchical structure which Scrivener made it easy to create:

I love the ability to get a word count of each section as well as the whole book, and to be able to label scenes in various ways. Here, I’ve labelled each scene with which character’s point of view it is written in. Moving scenes around is very easy, just a matter of drag and drop.

Another great feature is that Scrivener lets you keep snapshots of previous drafts of each scene, and you can compare the differences between snapshots. This has saved my bacon more than once. It’s the equivalent of a version control system as used in software development.

Scrivener also now has a full-featured iPad version, which synchronises over the Internet with your desktop files. You have to be a little careful with this to avoid conflicts (the bane of all synchronisation), by making sure to synchronise before you close the application either on iPad or desktop, and to avoid like the plague having both versions open at once.

There’s a similar program called Ulysses, which is more recent than Scrivener. It has both desktop and iPad versions, too. I haven’t used it, but it seems to be a rather simpler, cleaner application, with the focus on distraction-free writing. Looks good, but by the time I discovered it, I had already bought Scrivener and my budget doesn’t stretch to paying for two very similar applications.

Aeon Timeline

Aeon Timeline is something of a niche tool, but I have found it very useful when planning out a long story, particularly if there are several interleaved storylines going at once. You can keep a careful track of how long events should realistically take, create story arcs for various ‘entities’ (think ‘characters’), create events, set up overarching periods such as the duration of a war, determine character ages at particular times, and so on. I find it very useful.

It’s very flexible and allows a great deal of customisation. For example, in The Fallen Sun I have custom time durations called ‘millends’, ‘centends’ and ‘decants’ instead of years, months and weeks. Aeon Timeline allows you to set up such custom periods for your timeline.

One great feature is that it will act as a companion to Scrivener, and can transfer data in and out of that application. Like Scrivener and Ulysses, it has both desktop and iPad versions, which can synchronise data.

Here’s a screenshot of Aeon Timeline set up for a historical novel I am going to write one day:

Next post, I’ll talk about which books I’ve found most useful in learning how to write better.