Writing Liar with Scrivener

I’ve been promising a post about writing Liar using Scrivener for two years now. It wasn’t a fake promise. I’ve been working on the post. But given my hassles with RSI and othe injuries it’s been slow going.

A friend asked about it recently and I realised that I haven’t touched the post in a year. The odds of my finishing it are low. When I spend my scant few hours at the keyboard I focus on my novels, not blog posts. So here is my unfinished and pretty rough account of writing Liar using Scrivener:

In the acknowledgements of Liar I wrote the following: “Without Scrivener this book would most likely not exist.” Ever since people have been asking me to please explain. Here, at long last, is my explanation.

For those who don’t know Scrivener is novel-writing software. A while back I wrote an overview. If you’re unfamiliar with Scrivener I suggest reading that first.

Scrivener Streamlines

The first words I wrote of the novel were “I’m a liar.” What came after the words “I’m a liar” in my first draft of the opening bears no resemblance to the final novel:

    I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all. Well, okay, there’s also writing, isn’t there? I do that with my mouth closed and there’s just as much bullshit on my blog as there is coming out of my mouth. Like I’m not 30, I’m not blonde and I don’t live in New York City. I am a girl though, and Australian.

That was written in October 2006. By the time the novel was published in 2009 the opening looked like this:

    Promise

    I was born with a light covering of fur.

    After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.

    My father is a liar and so am I.

    But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.

    I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

    That’s my promise.

    This time I truly mean it.

I began writing Liar in Word way back in 2006. I spewed out a bit over 500 words which were mostly notes like this:

    After preamble. First chapter starts with her at a new school in NYC. Preamble can mention that she’s determined not to lie anymore that the new school’s going to give her a new start. And as it’s in a foreign country she’ll be the cool one. So she tells all these outrageous stories such as dropbears and they all buy it and she’s the cool one and there’s this really cute guy.

    Beginning of second chapter she’s all like okay so the last chapter was the total truth except that there was another oz student in the class. So then she tells the story going back a little ways and having the other oz blow her first outrageous story about Australia. And also the other oz likes the boy too (who is now different in this chapter).

As you can see, originally I thought it would be more of a comedy than Liar turned out to be.

I didn’t work on Liar again until 2008. This time I was using Scrivener, not Word. I’d already used Scrivener to write “Thinner than Water” so I was comfortable with the program and very excited about writing my first novel on it.

I plugged in the existing words, quoted above. They looked wrong in Scrivener. It may just be me, but there’s something about Scrivener that makes me want to streamline my words.1 It’s a very clean, uncluttered program. So my extremely cluttered, messy first words of Liar had to go. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have wound up chucking them anyway. See this extremely crappy first draft of the first chapter of Magic or Madness to see that I have never been averse to throwing everything out, even pre-Scrivener.

However, when I resumed writing Liar with Scrivener what came out was more pared down than anything I had ever written before. There are parts of the published version of Liar that are pretty much unmodified from the first version I wrote. That’s untrue of any of my other novels.

Though the majority of Liar was rewritten more times than anything else I’ve written.2

Many Little Pieces

Liar is a novel made up of 138 short pieces. Part I has 60, Part II has 29, and Part III has 59. Some of those pieces are as short as the opening piece, “Promise,” quoted above, which is only 90 words. Some are even shorter. The shortest piece in the book is 41 words. The longest is 1,897. The average length is probably in the 300-500 word range. None of the chapters are longer than 2,000 words which is usually considered to be a shortish chapter.3 That’s part of why I call them “pieces” rather than “chapters.”

As I wrote, those pieces kept having to be moved. I did not begin with a clear three-part structure. That didn’t emerge until I’d written about a third of the novel. But once it did emerge I realised that many of the pieces I’d already written belonged in the third part of the book. So I moved them there, which left gaps in the first part where they’d been. New pieces had to be written.

That kept happening a lot. A piece that I’d written early on turned out to belong much later in the book, which meant that it had to be rewritten to fit into its new location. The pieces around it also had to be rewritten. Every time I moved a piece the same rewriting process would happen, which is why so much of the novel has been rewritten more times than I’ve rewritten anything else.

To be clear: rewriting is not a novelty for me. I’m very big on rewriting in all my books. As someone once said, “There is no writing, only rewriting.”

The Glory of the Corkboard

Scrivener made working with 138 different little pieces of text a cinch because it has a wonderful corkboard function. The corkboard allows you to see your novel as if it were a series of cards pinned to a corkboard. Like so:

Pretty, huh?

At a glance those cards tell me three kinds of info.

First, there’s a brief description of each piece on every card. This saves having to scroll endlessly through the larger document trying to find a particular scene.4

Second, there’s the different coloured pins holding the cards to their virtual corkboard. You can also see the different colours in the left sidebar (the binder). Liar is made up of three different kinds of pieces. There’s Before (purple), After (green) and then what I thought of as Backstory (white). The After pieces go forward in straight chronological order. I determined early on that they would be the most common pieces. Part I has 31 After sections out of 60. Part III has 31 out of 59.

I also determined that I would never have more than one in a row of the Before or Backstory pieces. The colour coding means that I could see at a glance whether I’d violated that.

Um, I did.

Part II turned out to run on its own rules. It’s mostly Backstory with a sprinkling of Before pieces. There are also two places in Part III where there are two Backstory pieces in a row.

What? Rules were made to be broken. Even your own rules that you make up for your own novel. But, trust me, I only broke the rules when it was essential. Like grammar, really.

Third, there’s the diagonal stamp across each index card. Every time I started a new piece I would label it according to what state I thought the writing was in: Incomplete, Rough, Semi-Polished and Polished. (I was going to call them Sketchy, Crappy, Less Crappy and As-Uncrappy-as-I-can-Manage-Right-Now but while accurate that seemed unduly negative.)

Most of the cards in the picture above say Polished. That’s because it’s the final draft. A snapshot of the novel I’m working on now would show a predominance of Incomplete and Rough.5

This is a huge departure from my previous system of writing novels. I used to write the first draft in a mad hurry and then go back and rewrite the whole thing. Thus the whole first (or zero) draft would be labelled as Rough and it would stay pretty rough through several drafts. Usually the first few drafts were all about making the plot and overall structure work. Only once that was working could I do any serious polishing.

With Liar I rewrote as I went along. As a result many of the pieces were what I considered to be polished long before I had a complete draft. It was a very strange way of writing but it was the only thing that worked for Liar.

This labelling system was also really helpful whenever I was stuck on writing new pieces. I’d go into corkboard view and find a piece labelled Incomplete and work on it until I could upgrade it to Rough. If there were no Incompletes, I’d work on a Rough and so on.

Usually in the course of working on one of the rougher pieces I’d realise some other pieces that needed to be written before or after it. I’d write those next. And so it went.

I know it sounds really painstaking but it was a lot of fun. I was never stuck writing Liar, there was always something for me to work on.

The most important glory of the corkboard for Liar was the ease with which it allowed me to move the pieces around. That’s right, every single one of those index cards can be dragged to a new location. Brilliant! I don’t even want to think about what a major pain in the arse it would have been to write it with any other writing software. Like the dreaded Word. I may have had to print it out. Multiple times. *shudder*

Some of my days writing Liar consisted of me doing nothing but shifting index cards around until I was satisfied with the order. Then rewriting to make sure it all flowed right.

Often I’d start the next day’s work by doing the same thing. Fun!6

Notes on Each Piece/Overall Notes

One of the other glories of Scrivener is the Inspector. That’s the thing taking up the right sidebar. It’s where you write your index card description, colour code it and label the state of the draft. It’s also where you can write notes on each piece. Notes such as “This makes no sense at all. Where did the rabbit come from?” Or “Too many knives. Cut them down!”

I got into the habit of striking through each note after I addressed it:

Dunno about you but there’s nothing I find more satisfying than crossing things out. It’s almost as satisfying as deleting whole scenes.

Document notes can toggle over to Project notes. This allows you to write notes on a particular piece/scene/chapter as well as notes on the overall book. Being able to see my micro and macro notes that easily made a huge difference. Simple! Clean!

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked about Liar is how on Earth did I manage to outline it. I think everything above makes my answer clear.

I didn’t.

But Scrivener made outlining unnecessary.7 It allowed me to see the structure as it emerged from the various pieces I was writing. I have no idea how I would have kept track of everything without software that’s designed to allow you to manage such a big and complicated text as a novel.

It has both changed how I write as well as what I’m able to write. Scrivener has been a revelation.

  1. You can tell that I didn’t write this post in Scrivener, can’t you? []
  2. I swear there are some sections that were rewritten more than a kajillion times. Honestly. []
  3. To give you a sense of length, this post is more than 2,000 words and is thus longer than any piece of Liar. []
  4. Something that always drove me nuts with Word. []
  5. Also Adequate. While working on novels after Liar I decided the leap from Rough to Semi-Polished was too daunting. Adequate is my intermediate phase. []
  6. I’m not being sarcastic. It really was fun. []
  7. Though there is an outlining function for those who crave such a thing. I’ve never used it. []

20 comments

  1. Terri on #

    Thank you so much for posting this, Justine. I already write with Scrivener but haven’t yet gotten around to using all the features, so it’s really helpful to see how you used it to structure your novel.

  2. Ronni on #

    I don’t have anything published, but I do have Scrivener. Writing with it is a joy. I love all the organizational tools. Now, I just need to learn how to do all the neat things you have with the push pins and the stamps! :)

  3. Lizabelle on #

    Thanks so much, Justine. As someone who’s been playing around with Scrivener for Windows for my novel draft, it’s really helpful to see some of the features laid out like this. I have so much more to explore!

    Also, I miss your online presence, but I’m glad you’re able to focus on your fiction, which is the most important thing. :)

  4. Brenda on #

    I’m not published. Heck, I’m not even finished with the first draft of my first novel. But I do love scrivener! It makes me want to “corkboard” my whole life!

  5. Nancy Kelley on #

    I’m getting a Mac soon, and I keep eyeing Scrivener. I’m of two minds thought–Scrivener has always struck me as a program best suited for the writer who doesn’t outline. The ability to drag and drop scenes doesn’t excite me overly much, as the basic structure of my novel stays pretty much the same from the rough draft to the final product. Word’s document navigation pane has made it far simpler to jump from one part of a document to another–the one thing about the corkboard that really appeals to me.

    I’m curious to know if anyone has played with the outlining features of Scrivener, or if anyone knows a plotter who uses it.

  6. Lisa Yee on #

    I love Scrivener.

  7. Eve Kotyk on #

    Thank you Justine. I’ve just imported two novels into Scrivener for revision. I look forward to implementing some of your suggestions.

  8. Valia on #

    I adore Scrivener! I’m working on a project now and I cant get enough of this program. Its so much more efficient than Word! Great post! :-)

  9. allreb on #

    For Nancy above, I generally plot and outline, and write entirely in chronological order, too, but I still find Scrivener very useful. I don’t use the corkboard for plotting at all, but I use the cards for summarizing what happens in each section, which makes it easier to find what I’m looking for as I revise. I also like being able to assign keywords to each section, so I can find everything with one character/one setting/whatever keyword I’ve added and only see those bits. Plus I find the interface a lot cleaner than Word’s and it’s definitely quicker to switch between applications (Scrivener to FF, or whatever, as opposed to Word and FF, which always takes my computer a few seconds).

  10. Nancy Kelley on #

    Thank you, Allreb, for the answer. I need to find a Scrivener forum where I can get some of my questions answered… or maybe I’ll just wait until later this fall when the NaNoWriMo forums are active again.

  11. simmone on #

    woahr thanks for posting – this is fascinating and makes all sorts of sense. I have tried Scrivener but I flub around too much – it’s like a lot of things: I’m sure if I took the time to work out how to use it, it would be perfect for me. At the moment I am lucky enough to have one big wall I can sticky-note to death and that’s definitely helping. This week, anyway.

  12. Jill on #

    I really like Scrivener also. I’ve been working on a literary novel and find it is easier to create the story. Largely, because I don’t write as linear as some people. I can write scenes when I think of them and easily move content around. It has made the whole process of writing less sterile and of course I love that it doesn’t feel at all like Word or remind me of my day job and all its associated corporate ickiness.

  13. Yvonne Carts-Powell on #

    I wish I’d had Scrivener when I wrote my book! As it is, I’ve nabbed Scrivener for Windows to use on articles and newsletters (and blog posts and novel drafts and… ), and I’m not looking back at Word!

  14. Sarah on #

    I need to run out and get Scrivener right now. You would not believe the number of things I do manually that it would take care of. I’m talking scissors and sticky notes and millions of trees sacrificed to the writing gods.

  15. Yeti on #

    I absolutely loved the book Liar, and seeing a glimpse at the writing process has deepened my appreciation of the book. Thank you for sharing this :)

  16. Salsa on #

    2012 is my year of Scrivener, now that I have finally ditched the PC and gone Mac. Thanks for such detailed info.

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