Friday 17 June 2011


Before 2009 I'd tried to write books, or at least longer pieces of work, and failed because the complexity of the research and character/story building I was trying to do exceeded the power of the computer software I was using. Primarily I wrote everything in Word, which is fine if you're stringing together a long document, if you're writing the story itself, but for the research it's terrible.

Story development, for me at least, needs a separate page for each character, one for each scene, and many more pages just to set down random ideas and structure them in some way. You can't do that without a database. And yet a database is too rigid if you want the power of a word processor for each entry.

I also work very visually. I constantly look for pictures (and I'll say it again, this is where DeviantArt is in a class of its own) for my characters. Sometimes I have a general feel for a character and a picture will solidify that idea in my mind. Sometimes the picture will add to my original concept and suggest new areas to explore. It might be something as insignificant as eye colour or the shape of the nose, or perhaps the whole face stirs up some memory or half-thought of someone I once met, whose character can be introduced into the story.

Picture libraries are a vast resource of ideas, but a hard drive full of pictures is no use to anyone. They need structure. So again, I need software to give me that structure, and to allow me to put the pictures into my database so that when I'm writing I have the image in front of me. I can imagine what is going on inside that character's head and make notes, then later create the narrative, using the notes and the images as cues.

All that is a tall order, and believe me when I say I tried every possible solution designed to assist in the writing process, all to no avail. I can tell within 10 minutes that software isn't going to be of any use to me - if it doesn't immediately feel right I don't go beyond the trial version, and scrap it altogether. Some software manages to capture my attention beyond those ten minutes. I am, after all, looking to do fairly complex things, so if the basics are in place I might spend a few more days putting the thing through its paces. Such software is rare, and after a few days each title invariably failed and was discarded.

It was then that I heard of Scrivener, and when I read the product details I immediately knew that this what what I was looking for. I didn't even need to use it. In fact, I couldn't use it. Scrivener is for Mac computers only and I'd only ever owned PCs. Up until then I'd never even used a Mac, let alone owned one. What to do?

Compared to PCs, Macs are expensive. Yet the system requirements for Scrivener were quite low. I decided to do something crazy - buy a computer just so that I could use the software with it. It was actually quite cheap. I bought an old eMac from eBay for £40 which was a bargain. It's one of those all-in-one things with the computer and the screen in one big, heavy box. One problem: the seller said it had the version of Mac OSX (the operating system) needed to run Scrivener, but when I got it home it actually didn't. I had to download a later version and install the whole operating system again. Remember I'd never used a Mac before this point! But I got it working, I got Scrivener working and Scrivener is just an incredible piece of software.

It does all I ever wanted it to do and probably some things which I haven't thought of yet. A Scrivener project contains every single document and piece of information - text, images, links, all bundled together into one. Everything can be organised in a tree-style hierarchy, so you might have 500 documents/image/etc and they can all be arranged logically to suit your own personal needs. What's more, if you need to find a particular document you can just search for a phrase and all matching documents are brought up, ready to be selected and edited. With large projects I simply cannot work without that feature - I'd be lost in a mass of information.

While the eMac worked, of course it was an old computer (not to mention noisy!) and before long it started to creak under the weight of information I was adding to my projects. I needed something faster, so I ended up buying a Mac Mini which is a tiny, tiny, tiny computer (I currently can't see it because it's behind a book - an ordinary paperback!) with an up-to-date spec. Oh, and it runs almost completely silently which takes a lot of getting used to compared with the super-turbo fan noises of my older PCs. It was expensive, I'll not deny that, at least when compared with a comparable spec PC, but it runs Scrivener and that was my only requirement.

Of course Macs don't run PC software so I lost the use of some useful tools. Or did I? Well, no, because I also run Windows at the same time in a 'virtual machine' which lets Windows software run too. The best of everything.

If you're a writer you must - you must - try out Scrivener. Get a Mac, or get access to one, and just install the trial version and give it a go. You will love it.

Did I mention the mad, mad price of Scrivener? It's so low that I'm amazed they can get away with selling it at that price. Cost is not even a consideration. You won't find cheaper, and you certainly will never find a better piece of software designed specifically for writers, tuned exactly to how writers work.

And that, I'm happy to say, is my totally unbiased opinion. Did I mention that I like Scrivener? I did didn't I?!