Monday, February 20, 2017

Idea Management for Writers—a new use for Scrivener

One of the most frequently asked questions of all writers is: “Where do you get your ideas?” And the answer, for most of us, is usually both simple and complex at the same time. The simple answer is everywhere, because we’re alive in the world and paying attention. The complicated answer is that we get them from devouring books and movies and plays and television and music, and we listen to conversations on the subway, and read the newspaper, and browse the Internet, and walk in the woods, and have our hearts broken, or see some inspiring act of kindness, and we daydream, and reminisce.

Non-writers don’t understand that 1) ideas aren’t that hard to come by, and 2) we don’t really need that many. I write one or two full-length works a year. That means I only need a handful of major story ideas kicking around my brain at any given time.

The question that might be more useful for aspiring writers to ask is: how do you manage your ideas once you have them?

When you’re just starting out, it seems like you’re going to use up all your ideas as soon as you find them. But from my experience, ideas start to pile up over time. I’ve been writing for a long time (more than 25 years), and some ideas get turned into projects right away. But for every one that I snatch up, a handful of others linger, maybe waiting for the right time in my life or more research or some shift in the world or myself before they’re ready to develop.

Some writers have notebooks they carry with them everywhere. I used to always have a pen and 3x5 card handy, not just for a to-do list, but also jot down a random idea. And a notebook to haul around. I also had a big thick file in my file cabinet, where I would drop newspaper and magazine clippings, and another where I might drop those 3x5 cards, or write up pages or sketches of ideas. And then what if I saw something online? I tried setting up e-mail folders for ideas, too.

What happened was that I had lots of little clips, and scribbles in notebooks, but no way to easily search for them. If I had some vague notion to revisit an idea from 20 years ago, it might take quite a search to find it. Who knows what notebook it might be in. And I never did find a good way to capture and connect links to web sites and on-line research and stories to all the paper files.  Even if I made Word files, it was hard to keep them all straight, and very hard to search or browse.

But I think I’ve found a better way:  Scrivener.

I’ve been a fan of Scrivener for quite a few years (I use the PC version and am still jealous of Mac users for the supercharged version they get to use).  It’s a great piece of software for drafting novels, plays, and screenplays, and especially for research-heavy projects. I write a lot of historical projects, and Scrivener makes it very easy to manage web-based research, images, and a thousand different notes. For adaptations, Scrivener makes it easy to keep track of the exact source material that underlies adapted scenes. I know some people find Scrivener complicated, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential, but I find it worth the learning curve.  (Note: remember that it’s a drafting program, not an output program, so Scrivener is software you’re going to combine with Word or Final Draft for final output.)

Last year, I figured out that I could also set up a Scrivener "Project" solely to help me manage my various idea files. Its ability to separate material into hierarchical cascades of folders, files, and images, let me group types of ideas and then use folders to contain research materials of various types (text, images, web sites, links, etc.).

The great thing is that I can now easily browse or search ideas and not worry about losing track of them over time. I can safely back them up. Using DropBox for file storage gives me an additional layer of security.

In addition, now that there is an IOS version of Scrivener, I can easily add to my Scrivener Notebook through my iPad when I’m on the road, and not have to worry about losing a scrap of paper with an idea when I get home.

Right now, my basic Binder has these folders:  Scenes and Sketches, Blog Post Ideas and Text, Characters, Research, and Notes.  I keep general ideas in the Research folder—I have almost 40 ideas for full-length work in there plus a folder of short play ideas. Material in the Research Binder can’t be easily compiled for output, so when I start to actually play with scenes for an idea, I’ll write it in my Scenes and  Sketches folder.  (A lot drafts of my new short plays get written there.)

Scrivener offers multiple way to view the list of file ideas. So I can color code them (I do it by medium—so I can classify it as a play, screenplay, book, or multiple possibilities), or view them on a corkboard. I can easily jump into any of their folders to read the research that I’ve gathered.

Color coded ideas, by media type
There is plenty of room in my Project Ideas Scrivener Project to both gather many ideas and to do lots of preliminary research. Once I decide to commit to more fully-developing an idea, then I create a new stand-alone Scrivener Project for that piece. The nice thing about having my initial research already in Scrivener is that I can easily copy and paste it from my Ideas Project into the new Project.

Sometimes I still like to noodle and sketch out ideas using a pen and paper. And I still often have a notebook in my bag. But eventually, I make sure to capture those sketches and paper daydreams, either by scanning, taking a photo, or typing up a summary.

Keep in mind that Scrivener plays well with many other programs (including Scapple, but more about that in another post). As an example: I’d made a list of possible blog posts for 2017 in a Word file, but I quickly saw that using a Word file to serve as a reference file/list was going to get awkward. Instead, I started a new folder in my Scrivener Ideas Project just for blog post ideas. And I was able to Import the list directly into Scrivener and automatically generate a new text file for each listed item. If you choose to start using Scrivener for your own idea management, it’s not that hard to input material from your old systems.

Once I decided to use Scrivener for my own idea management, it did take some start up time to go through my email folders and old manila folders full of scraps of paper and printouts. But that time has already paid off by refreshing my memory about ideas that I liked but had faded from view over time. I’m new to this system, but I am convinced it will help me become both more efficient and creative.

I’d love to hear how you manage your writing ideas. If you end up trying to use Scrivener for this purpose, let me know how it goes.


Janna Ruth said...

Nice article. I've started using Scrivener for idea management 3 months ago, but haven't really figured out a good format yet, which makes me think about compiling a database instead. Maybe I try switching to folders first instead of individual documents, since I really like your colour coding.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Glad to know others are trying this, too! Using folders allows me to keep all the relevant research tightly grouped to the particular idea. (And makes color coding more useful.)

MulberryWriter said...

You can colour code anything, not only folders :)

Patrick Gabridge said...

Good point! I actually color code text files all the time when I'm writing scripts--I sometimes do it by character--so I can easily see what kind of balance there is between tracks of different characters.

MulberryWriter said...

I like your Ideas project idea and started a Project for that after reading your piece. Thanks for that. I seem to have given up on paper years ago and keep a Notes and Ideas folder within each work but regular general Scrivener 'ideas notebook' put paid to the pencil :)

I use Scrivener for novel drafting and poetry and, for the latter I colour code poems I have submitted/read/hd published so each poem has its history right there. Snapshots in the Inspector (and its other means) also help keep track of how a poem changes etc. Other people's comments can be stored in the Notes...and, with Scrivener on O/S one always has a poem ready to read anywhere :)

Patrick Gabridge said...

That seems like a great idea for how to manage poetry. I still need to make better use of the Inspector function--I tend to do a lot of compiling of drafts. I dearly wish that Scrivener had an ability to track changes in the document, rather than taking snapshots, but I think that's just not possible, because of how it operates. Can't have everything. (I do sometimes keep entire folders for a specific draft, which I find more useful than an Inspector Snapshot.)

Olwen said...

Thanks, that's an interesting idea. I currently stash ideas in lots of notebook, a special section in my diary, a word document.... it will be good to have a tool to collate and manage them all.

Anonymous said...

Scrivener is great for drafting but I prefer DevonThink for research and organization. It's more powerful and flexible for database creation and searching. And it's compatible with scrivener which makes for a great combo.

Patrick Gabridge said...

I've never heard of DevonThink--I'll definitely have to check that out. Thanks for mentioning it.

David Allen Wizardgold said...

No need to use Word at all with all the compile options in Scrivener.

Patrick Gabridge said...

I do find that I need other programs less and less. Though for scripts, I always end up needing to go to Final Draft once we're in rehearsal (for change tracking and page locking). I need to keep exploring Scrivener for large book projects, to see if I can get away from Word. Though, again, Track Changes ends up being pretty important during editing, especially if multiple readers/editors are involved. I LOVE that Scrivener can output in so many different formats, including Epub!

Bruce Triggs said...

DEVONthink saved me when i had so much research in my Scrivener project it was taking forever to load. Wish it had an integrated bibliography/reference system.

I've got several ideas projects, and even used Scrivener to document an extended HR complaint from work. Folders within folders can contain anything.

For each draft of my project I'm making a copy of the whole thing, renaming it "final draft!" or whatever and working from there. That way I can compare old versions if I need to. I did a snapshot of the whole thing too before starting to edit the new draft, so I have a baseline.

Lisa said...

I use Airtable, and it's amazing. It's a super interactive database, and I sort my lists of ideas by genre, marketability and degree-of-doneness (because in another database I'm tracking the progress on each project.) So if I wake up and say "Today I want to finish something" I can work toward finishing the most-progressed project. If I'm waiting for editors, reviewers, ARC readers, cover designers, blurb writers and other people to finish their help, I can start outlining a new project, or hash out scene notes or nonfiction subheadings in a different project. I love it because there's always work that needs to be done and Airtable makes it easy to see where I can be most effective. Incidentally, I'm publishing a book called Write for Income; A Project Management Approach to INdie Publishing. So check that out if the extremely-organized approach is attractive. Since I nailed my system down I've been way more efficient.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Lisa. I'll definitely have to check out Airtable. (And your book.)

Erik said...

When it comes to saving web pages for more than a couple of years I recommend printing them to PDF.

URL:s easily break over years and I've even seen whole sites disappear on a 5-10 year scale.

Saved as a PDF the web page remains after the site is gone without being a paper clutter collecting dust. And you can just drag and drop PDF:s into Scrivener as well.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Good point, Erik. I know I fall into the trap of thinking that links will be unchanged forever.