by Stephen Leigh
WILD CARDS was instrumental in allowing me to discover the writing software I’d always desired. Honest. Here’s the story, if you’ll forgive a bit of necessary background first.
When I was first starting out (when dinosaurs still prowled the Earth), I wrote my drafts in longhand, always using nothing, nothing but black ink pens and fountain pens. Somehow, writing in any other color didn’t say “Hey, this is writing!” to me. I had typewriters for creating the final draft—initially an Adler Satellite 2001 electric (as a writer of science fiction I couldn’t resist the model name), and later an IBM Selectric with which I could *gasp* change fonts by putting in a different type ball.
But I couldn’t compose on a typewriter. That felt wrong, akin to using a shoe to hammer in a nail; it might work but not very well. Drafting on a typewriter was a messy process. Even though I could type much faster than writing by hand, fast isn’t necessarily good when it comes to writing fiction.
So for my first three novels and all my early short fiction, I wrote drafts longhand (in black ink only) before typing up the final submission manuscript. At need, I’d retype the manuscript again so I had a good clean copy. It was laborious and unsatisfactory, but at the time there really wasn’t a better way.
In 1985, after hearing writer friends (our esteemed editor GRRM among them) rave about how much easier their writing life was with a personal computer, I decided to take the plunge myself and started looking at the various choices.
I settled on the Macintosh/Apple platform. Committing to a computer platform is nearly a religious choice: in 1985, Macintosh was the only choice if I wanted to have black type on a white background on my screen, a “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) word processing file, and the ability to do bitmap graphics as well as word processing. Those were all attributes on my ‘must have’ list, so my choice was clear. I also picked up Microsoft Word—which first emerged on the Mac platform, by the way. Compatibility wasn’t an issue, since at the time the publishing industry only cared about paper output; no one was accepting electronic submissions back then.
I thought I’d found writing nirvana. To hell with handwriting first drafts. Here was a tool I could use to take a story or novel from start to finish. At least that was the case for a few more years.
You see, a really excellent tool also gets out of my way and isn’t obtrusive. It does everything I need it to do… but it won’t be cluttered with abilities I don’t want or need. I don’t want a hammer that’s also a bottle opener, tape measure, level, musical instrument, and drink mixer—because those other attributes are distractions. My hammer doesn’t jump up and down and question me or make stupid suggestions. After several updates, MS Word became bloated with (to me) useless features and distractions.
So began my long search for the perfect writing software for me.
I tried every word processor compatible with Macintosh and finally settled on Nisus Writer, which reminded me a lot of the ‘young’ MS Word: not trying to be all things to all people, just an efficient, easy-to-use word processor. But… Since this is a post for Wild Cards, let’s move on to 2008, which is when I finally ended my search.
I had been hearing about another program for a time. Whispered conversations about something…. different: a software program called Scrivener (a perfect name: my favorite story by Herman Melville is “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”) Originally a Mac-only program, Scrivener was created by Keith Blount, a software programmer who had the same issue as me—he wanted to write novels, but found that all the word processors available lacked important qualities A few friends were already using Scrivener (not George, though). I listened to them raving about the program, and I wondered. I even downloaded Scrivener once and played with it for a brief time. I found Scrivener intriguing, but there was a distinct learning curve; after a week or so, I deleted it. But even those first forays had been tantalizing.
I downloaded Scrivener again as I began working on my Jerusha Carter (ace name, Gardener) story for the Wild Cards mosaic novel SUICIDE KINGS. I knew it would be novella, if not short novel, length. I decided I’d use the experience to make a final decision on Scrivener as well, since I was also writing a new novel for DAW Books at the time.
Here’s the Big Issues (in my opinion) with doing long-form fiction in a standard word processor. You have two choices: 1) you can put the whole thing in one gigantic file, but going back and finding things you want to check on is difficult and time-consuming; 2) you can put every chapter in a separate file, but then you have dozens of files in a folder to wrangle, which is also difficult and time consuming. Also, if you’re like me, there are also websites you visit for research or books you read or notes you made, so while you’re writing you also have a browser open with all the websites and other files with your notes, etc.
It can be terrifically messy. Just like using a typewriter.
With Jerusha’s story, I was working very closely with Ian Tregillis, also writing for the book using his character Rusty. Jerusha and Rusty were destined to become attached to each other in this book. So I had notes about Rusty and background on Rusty. I also had all my notes on Jerusha and her background, and all of Jerusha’s appearances in AMERICAN HERO and other stories that had to remain consistent with SUICIDE KINGS. Jerusha’s tale in SUICIDE KINGS started out in New Orleans and the wetlands south of the city—more notes, more research. However, the great bulk of the story took place in Tanzania and the Congo in Africa, neither of which I’ve ever been too, so I had research, maps and notes on those places. Baobab trees played a symbolic role in Jerusha’s story, so I had research and notes on baobabs. There were all the ‘child aces of the PPA’ to keep track of as well, many of them created by other writers, so notes on those, too.
Here’s where Scrivener would showcase its abilities. I could have all of that material in one place: In the SUICIDE KINGS project file.
One place. Everything.
When I visited a website for research on baobabs, I didn’t have to bookmark it in my browser; all I had to do was click on the URL and drag it into the “Research, Note, and Sundry” section of my Scrivener project—and I could kick it up that site again within Scrivener without having to open my browser. With notes in Nisus or in text, I didn’t need to put those in their own folder—I could just click on those files and drag them into the same place, and they’d open within Scrivener. I had .jpg maps of the Wild Cards version of Africa that we’d produced for the book— same thing: click and drag the maps into the research section, and I could refer to them with a click. As always, George had written the “master outline” of SUICIDE KINGS with the major beats of everyone’s story in it laid out in a timeline: click and drag, and that was always just a click away.
Everything I needed was in that Scrivener file and easily accessible. And so, of course, was the actual manuscript.
The word processing portion of Scrivener was excellent, too: WSISYG in appearance, with all the normal formatting functions. There was an option for full-screen writing, where everything disappeared but whatever you’re currently writing; the ability to open two documents side-by-side (handy if you want to see what you wrote before about this character or that incident).
I wrote each scene of the story in a separate file in the Manuscript section of Scrivener. Need to move a chapter or a scene? No problem; just click and drag it to where I want it. Best, when I was finished drafting, I could compile the project into proper manuscript form with a few clicks and send it off. And much more…
The reasons above give you a good idea of why I still use Scrivener today, but here’s another example from the writing of SUICIDE KINGS…
One the first tasks Ian and I had was to bring Rusty and Jerusha together, and for Rusty to convince Jerusha to go with him to Africa in order to help him rescue Lucien, a young boy from the Congo with whom Rusty had been corresponding and who has gone suddenly missing. Rusty was afraid Lucien had been snatched up by the People Paradise of Africa (the PPA), who was using children as soldiers. Initially, both Ian and I had written separate drafts covering that critical early scene, though Ian’s scene took place via phone and mine had Rusty coming to NOLA to meet with Jerusha. George told us “we don’t want two versions of the same scene in the book, and we certainly don’t want two different and contradictory versions… That’s something you guys should sort out yourselves… You can trade off, or intercut the scenes between the two viewpoints, whatever suits you best.”
So we did that. Ian still had Rusty calling Jerusha (and awkwardly admitting that he was thinking of her because she black) before traveling to NOLA; I wrote a scene in Cafe du Monde after Rusty arrived. I opened both Ian’s original draft and my own in Scrivener, then took portions of the dialogue from both for my scene, as Rusty showed Jerusha pictures of Lucien and the letters he’d written to Rusty—and in the end, Jerusha reluctantly agrees to go with Rusty to Tanzania to begin searching for Lucien.
Here’s part of my scene…
Jerusha sipped at her coffee. The cup rattled on the table as she set it down. “I’ve been looking at maps, and I called Babel and talked to her a bit after your phone call.” Jerusha saw the hope rising in Wally’s eyes with her statement, and she frowned in an effort to quash it. You’re not doing this. You’re not. “Wally, she’s really not happy with the idea of you going to Africa, and she’s doubly not happy with you taking another Committee member with you…” Jerusha paused, wondering if she really wanted to say the next words. “If I did this,” she said, with heavy emphasis on the first word and a long pause after the phrase, “or no matter who ends up going with you, Wally, I agree with Babel that you don’t want to go directly into the PPA. What looks best to me would be flying into Tanzania and crossing over Lake Tanganyika, especially since you say that Lucien’s in Kalemie, right on the lake.”
The hope in Wally’s face was now transcendent and obvious. “So… you’re going with me?”
Sure. I’m black, aren’t I? she wanted to retort angrily, but she only shook her head. At that, Wally looked down at the table, dusted with the remnants of beignets. “I still have work here,” she told him. “All the marshlands that need to be reclaimed before the next big storm hits here…” Alone. Out in the swamp. Alone. She shrugged the thought away.
“I know,” Wally said. “I guess you make the plants grow a lot faster…” She saw him start to rise, his shoulders lifting. “Well, thanks for looking at those maps. That will help.” His face scrunched up stiffly, the skin over his eyes furrowing. “So where’s this Tanzania place?”
Jerusha sighed. “Tanzania is…” she began. Stopped. She realized that somewhere in the midst of this, she’d made the decision. He won’t last five minutes out there on his own. What’s here for you? You’ve nothing. No friends, just Committee work. And when Michelle dies, now you’ll get the blame for that, not the Committee. You have a chance to save a life…
“Oh hell,” she said. “I’ll show you on a map on the way over.”
As you can see, one critical thing that’s required in all WILD CARDS novels, and especially in the ‘mosaic novels’ where there aren’t distinct and separate stories but a continuous narrative with each scene from the POV of one of the writers’ characters, is that we must pass our drafts past the other writers if we’re using their characters, so they can give their imprimatur on how we used those characters. Rusty and I did this continually in the writing of SUICIDE KINGS. We had to, because our characters were so intertwined, especially through the first third of the book.
It was through writing for SUICIDE KINGS that I discovered Scrivener works in the same way I prefer to work. Once I got past the initial learning curve, using Scrivener was like slipping into a comfortable and familiar pair of shoes. I won’t walk through every scene in SUICIDE KINGS where I used something in Scrivener that impressed—if only because I don’t want to spoil the plot for those who’ve not read the book (and if you haven’t, why not?). But I will tell you that since 2008, I’ve written every novel, every Wild Cards story, and any fiction that seemed at all complex in Scrivener.
Here’s the bottom line: a writer will choose to work with what’s comfortable and feels right for them. If that’s MS Word, that’s what they’ll use. If that’s an old computer running WordStar, they’ll use that. If it’s a typewriter, they’ll clatter away on the keys. If it means doing all their drafts in longhand with a fountain pen, they’ll make sure there’s ink in the pen (preferably black). If scrawling on paper with a crayon suits them best, they’ll open that Crayola box of 64 colors.
The method doesn’t matter as long as the process allows the writer to successfully get the story out of their head and onto paper.
Could I have written Jerusha’s story in a straight word processor or written the initial drafts with a black pen? Yep, I could have. But as Bartelby might say: “I would prefer not to.” For long-form fiction, for complicated work, Scrivener works best for me. I don’t believe Jerusha’s story would have turned out as well as it did if I’d used any other method. That story’s still one of my favorite WILD CARDS contributions.
I write short stories (and posts like this) in Nisus Writer Pro on my Mac, but for anything longer than a short story, I kick up Scrivener, because—for me—it’s the right tool for the job.
So what are your right tool(s)?