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Software for Writers?

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that for some time I’ve been working on writing a novel. It’s a big project, at least for me, and it’s one I work on when I can, a bit at a time. I’ve reached a point in which I’m making a significant change in my approach.

I started the novel by making a series of “mind maps” in which I attempted to outline, at least in early stages, all the characters and storyline. Then, at a certain point, I just jumped right in and started at the beginning, typing out chapter after chapter. As it progressed and I adjusted my thinking about it, I started going back in for re-writes.

At the beginning, I rejected using any software designed to help writers organize and compile; I was worried that using some kind of software for writers, beyond basic word processing, might cause me to take a more formulaic approach than I might otherwise adopt. Maybe this was the right starting approach for me; I’m not sure. I’ve never tried to write anything this complicated before. I simply figured that novelists coped with the challenges of their craft just fine before fancy software, before computers and before typewriters. I simply can’t imagine attempting to write a hand-written novel though.

Now I’ve reached a natural break in the book. A series of events involving my main characters have taken place and a new series of events is about to begin. I went in for yet another rewrite, this time significantly altering some of the setting.

The manuscript gets more complex to write as I go along because I have to consider sequencing and timelines and continuity, and if I change direction along the way, I have to go back and find every area affected by the change. I have some ideas for chapters or sequences that I want to include but I haven’t figured out just how to work them in, so I have to figure out a place to park them for now. I know that as I continue, I’m also going to want to  reorder parts I’ve already written.

I think it’s time to find a tool that will allow me more flexibility. I want to be able to chunk out the work into sequences that I can easily move around. I want to track the timeline closely and I want to be able to examine my character development better. As well, I want to be able to write bits and pieces along the way, lines, paragraphs, bits of dialogue and so on, and keep them handy to use later.

I decided to try a software called Scriveners. It’s got a bit of a learning curve, but it is well-conceived and very flexible and it will let me do everything I want to do. It meant a little work up front. I imported my draft and then cut it into chunks that I guess we can call chapters and scenes and I’ve associated scenes to particular chapters. I’ve also created labels and very brief descriptors of each chapter and each sequence of scene. The software enables me to group chunks of the work on a corkboard and then drag them around to mess with the order.

The software also allows me to assign a status to every chunk I create and name the status levels anything I want. This means that I can sort by status, and that enables me to zero in on areas that need the most work. A section can be an idea, or a first draft or a big mess or almost there or whatever. I can use it to judge where I need to work, and it’s easy to move around in the manuscript and work in different parts of it.

Right now I think I have the bones of the first half of the book. I want to go back later and fill in some gaps and add a lot more detail, but that can wait for a while, as I’m going to focus on getting an first draft of the whole piece, then consider where the whole business is at and make some decisions on next steps at that time.

I’ve had seeds of this book floating around my little brain for years before I ever tried to have a go at it. The characters are starting to come to life for me, and I’m beginning to think that I’ll be able to one day finish this thing. One of the curious things that has come out of this project so far is that I now have the seeds of another one floating about.

Of course if I do ever complete the thing, I’m going to have to figure out what to do with it, but that’s a problem for another day.


  1. My good friend Andy “Blame it on Belmas” Belmas is a really good editor-a few years back – no matter what the question or situation he would say…”I’ve got an App 4 that”…-a few local talk radio stations R adverteazin’ with speak into the mike “software compuwizardz stuffs-many others have told me 2 start use’n that sortah stuffs…? …I dunno maybe someday-I can kinda relate 2 a cartoon I saw of Moses on the mount holdin’ up the 10 Commandoze n’ a homey in tha croud yellz out-letz C dat Cat video again !!…- e’ nuff ’bout me…maybe some of the characters can have internal dialouges like shopping lists or rerunz of their fave TV shows described in their heads or a realistic description of nothingness n’ boredom-very few thingz I’ve seen have these true elements-jus’sayin-anyhoo SOUNDZ GREAT KEEP GOIN” !!!!!!


    • Hi Anthony….When I started on this project, I struggled with the voice. Should it be in the first or third person, and when I decided on first person, I wanted Duane to be telling his story to the reader, who becomes the listener. That makes internal dialogue difficult. We only get to know what Duane tells us, no more, no less. And Duane is a biased voice. We can’t be sure that he’s telling the truth about things, although he can be pretty damned convincing. Initially I was going to divide the book in half, with half of it in Duane’s voice and half of it in the voice of another character, Sabina, so the reader can hear different perspectives on the story. I’m going to leave stories about boredom and nothingness to others for now. In my story, my main character emerges from all that and re-engages with the world.

  2. I had no idea that such a software even existed, but I guess it only makes sense. Because I stick to writing short articles, I’ve never had an issue with tracking. Isn’t it odd, though, how we have to undertake a whole new skill set when we try to simplify our lives? Such is the complexity of the modern age.

    I’m very excited that your novel continues to live and grow, even more so that it has spawned more ideas. Keep at it!

    • Thanks Barbara. Of course I alternate between thinking it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread to being convinced it’s junk, but I guess that’s to be expected. In terms of software, I really didn’t know what was out there until I consulted with my friend Mr. Google, but I knew there was software. After all, there’s software for everything else. I think today, all you have to say is, “is there an app for that” and one appears. I’d be curious to know how many writers use anything beyond Word or Open Office as a tool.

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