Writing Advice

Drafting with Scrivener

The previous blog post generated the following comment:

Quick question if you’re busy putting off book two … Do you use any particular software for your first draft?


Since I am still putting off book two (though I hit my word count goal every day last week! 🎉), I thought I’d get into a little more detail than a comment would support. The short answer is that I use Scrivener for all of my drafting, including edits, but if you’d like a peek behind the curtain, read on!

I’m going to use my actual Scrivener file for Polaris Rising, so if you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to do that first. There shouldn’t be too many spoilers, but why wouldn’t you want to read about a badass space princess and an outlaw soldier? ;)

Scrivener has a default project type for novels, which is what my custom template is based on. My template evolves a little bit over time as I find ways to tweak it just so for my writing style, but the basics remain the same as the default template. All of my new projects start out looking like this:

A freshly created empty Scrivener project based on my custom template.
Click to enlarge

One of the things I really like about Scrivener is that text is broken down into scenes. A scene is technically just an arbitrary piece of text—it could be anything—but thinking about them as actual scenes of a book is useful for me, especially for pacing. And scenes can be moved around, split, reordered, and dragged from one chapter to another with ease, which helps when the pacing isn’t quite there and things need to be adjusted.

This is what the first nine-ish chapters of PR look like in Scrivener:

The Scrivener project file for Polaris Rising.
Click to enlarge

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down. On the left (called the binder) is a list of the chapters and their various scenes. I give mine short descriptions so I remember what’s in them without having to open each one.

In the middle is the main editor. This is where I spend most of my time, because it’s where the words actually happen. You can see that I’m one of the ancients who still uses two spaces after a period while drafting (but weirdly, only while drafting). Scrivener handily strips them out for me when I export, another perk.

On the right is the inspector which has all of the meta info about the selected scene. Here it’s showing snapshots of the scene’s history. This is another big benefit of Scrivener: version history. Just like git for code, Scrivener can keep a history of your documents, so if you make a big change and decide you hate it, you have the original. You have to set it up (mine snapshots changes on every manual save), but it’s a nice feature. Before I do any edits, I make a titled snapshot of the whole manuscript so I can roll back if I need to.

Scrivener can also hold all of the information about a project, not just the manuscript itself. So all of my notes and research can go right in the file, keeping everything together. Here is part of the research and notes section for PR:

The character and notes section of Polaris Rising's Scrivener file, with Marcus Loch's character sheet open.
Click to enlarge

Here you can see I keep character sheets for my main characters, as well as place descriptions and tons and tons of notes. Mostly my character sheets are just places I dump description as I write it, so I don’t accidentally change their hair or eye color, but it also keeps some personality info and other things important to keeping their progression consistent throughout the book.

The research section is where everything else goes. I keep a list of minor characters so everyone doesn’t share the same name, or the same starting letter. Apparently I love some letters more than others, so I have to watch it.

When I start the second book in a series, I’ll copy over all of my character sheets, location details, and research from the first book, then keep adding to it. This helps with continuity and means I don’t have to keep pulling up the first book to check minor details.

The last thing Scrivener really shines at is exporting your text into various formats. Publishing runs on Microsoft Word, so I export to Word in the standard manuscript format (Times New Roman 12, double-spaced) before sending the draft off to my editor. As I said before, Scrivener strips out all of my extra spaces as part of the export, saving me a find and replace step.

When edits arrive, I keep Word open with my editor’s feedback and make the changes directly in Scrivener, then do a clean export of the edited draft. Copyedits are a little trickier, because all of the changes have to be made directly in the Word file, but I duplicate the changes in Scrivener, so my saved draft matches the copyedited text. Same for changes made to the galley pages. When I’m done, my Scrivener project exactly matches the final text in the book.

Scrivener can also export directly to the various ebook formats, which is great for getting the book into the hands of my early readers, as well as output in a HTML format that is compatible with the blog, so I don’t lose italics when I post snippets. And you can set up custom formats that are shared across projects, so the output is always formatted exactly how you want.

All of this flexibility is one of the reasons Scrivener tends to have a very high learning curve. I didn’t even get into a fraction of the features, but I don’t use a lot of them because I usually draft from start to finish, so I don’t need to see my outline or corkboard or any of the other million little things Scrivener supports. Finding the way that works for you is one of the biggest challenges of using Scrivener.

I’ve been using it since 2008, have written seven published (or to-be-published) books, one trunked novel, and countless partials with it, and I still find things I didn’t know about. But if you have any questions, drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer. :)

Happy writing!

The Shitty First Draft

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

I’m procrastinating on writing book two, which got me thinking about how I draft books, so I thought I’d talk about it a little bit. As with all writing advice, use what works for you and ignore the rest. :)

There are as many schools of thought on writing as there are writers, but first drafts generally fall into two broad categories: just get it done (aka the “shitty first draft,” as expressed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird) and …not that.

Many, many, many advice articles advocate for the shitty first draft, and they aren’t wrong, exactly, because once you get the words down, you can fix them later. Editing (for me) is far easier than initial drafting, so I can see the appeal.

And much to my eternal regret, I am completely unable to do it.

I can occasionally write fast, if I’m up against a deadline and force myself to—especially toward the end of a book when I have a better grasp of the characters and plot—but generally my writing moves at the speed tectonic plates shift.

The shitty first draft is supposed to fix this glacial dribble of words, but my writing has a rhythm to it, an ebb and flow that I just can’t get right when I try to draft fast, without editing or stopping, and it completely derails me. Instead of a shitty first draft, I end up writing no first draft and that isn’t an improvement.

I am completely, unbelievably envious of the writers who can crank out a first draft in a week or two or four. That’s basically magic as far as I’m concerned.

But everything always looks greener on the other side of the fence, and my way of drafting has its own benefits, because while I write at the speed mountains grow, I do tend to turn out solid first drafts.

My first drafts aren’t perfect by any means, no writing is, but they generally only need a single editing pass before I feel comfortable sending them off to my editor. Shitty first drafts often go through two or three editing passes before the editor sees the work, and those edits tend to be a lot more intense.

So which is better?

Neither. Both. It depends on the writer, and sometimes, the project. For me, slow and steady drafts get me to the end. For someone else, my style of drafting would kill them dead and they just want to get words on the page and fix them later. Figuring out which style works for you is part of the process of learning how you write.

Now go make some words happen—fast or slow, it doesn’t matter, just write. Because one thing always remains true: words won’t write themselves.

Unfortunately. :)

The Weird World of Traditional Royalties

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

Last week, I got my very first (post-advance) payment of royalties for Polaris Rising! 🎉🎉🎉 Thank you all so much for your support because this means the book “earned out,” a publishing term that means I’ve earned enough royalties to cover the advance the publisher paid me.

Traditional publishing accounting is interesting, so let’s talk about it!

First, having an agent who will explain your contract and answer questions is an enormous help, if not a requirement. I usually don’t lay down laws because everyone’s situation is different, but personally, I would not sign a publishing contract without an agent (hi, Ms. Sarah, I love you!). But that’s a whole other post, and today we’re talking about getting paid.

If your eyes glaze over at numbers and you’re not an aspiring author, you may want to skip this one. :)

When an author signs a contract with a traditional publisher, the publisher generally pays an advance. They calculate the advance based on how well they think the book will do, and where it fits in their lineup, and what phase the moon is in (okay, maybe not that last one, but there’s a lot of things involved I don’t know about). This advance is an advance payment on future royalties—hence the term advance.

Advances range from almost nothing to millions, depending on the author, their audience, the number of books contracted, and the author’s previous publishing history. Publishers Marketplace even has a coy little key for deal news so everyone can tell where the deal fell in the range without actually coming out and saying it:

“nice deal”:$1 – $49,000
“very nice deal”:$50,000 – $99,000
“good deal”:$100,000 – $250,000
“significant deal”:$251,000 – $499,000
“major deal”:$500,000 and up

So someone who got a “good deal” made an advance between $100k – $250k, which is a pretty big range.

Once the number is nailed down by your agent and the publisher, then you get paid—yay! But you don’t get the whole thing at once.

Writing Advice No One Asked For

Now that I’ve sold a book, literally no one is knocking down my door, asking me to impart my writing wisdom to the world, but I will anyway. Prepare yourselves, it’s incredibly profound:

If you want to be a writer, write.

See, I thought I was being very clever there, but a quick search proves that Epictetus is credited with basically the same quote and that dude was born in 55 AD. So, for nearly 2,000 years, the advice to writers hasn’t really changed.

I know you may be looking for the shocking #7 on the list of “13 Things Every Successful Writer Does,” but I promise you, the best thing you can do is write. (The second best thing you can do is read. Read in your genre and outside of it. Read everything.) …

Killing My Darlings

As far as writing advice goes, “kill your darlings” is a phrase that gets slung around more often than pints in a pub. However, unlike some other advice (I’m looking at you, “write every day”), killing your darlings is something every writer has to do sooner or later.

Right now, I’m getting a double-dose of darling killing because I’m revising both Polaris Rising and my XPRIZE short story. And it hurts. The phrases and characters that I have to cut were my darlings for a reason.

For Polaris Rising, it’s starting with some actual darling killing because, based on editorial feedback, I’m simplifying Ada’s family. Some of her sisters and brothers will be axed into the ether. I liked those characters. I had stories planned for them. And now they are unmade. Ouch. …