Collaborative Novel Prep for the NaNoWriMo Rebel

We’ve just entered autumn here in the northern hemisphere. To celebrate the changing seasons, the fiery landscape, the woodsmoke scenting the crisp air, I thought I would make this month’s post a simple (yet subtly complex and insightful) haiku.

Then I remembered I can’t write poetry worth fairy gold. Also, my autumn kicked off with unceasing rain, fog, and general unpoetical greyness. So instead I will regale you with the mostly-true tale of another autumnal event: writing a novel in a month!

My three best NaNoWriMo novels have three things in common: They were all meticulously outlined, collaborative, and written in Scrivener. Coincidence?

Yeah, possibly, but I’m going to blog about it anyway.

Although NaNoWriMo officially frowns on collaboration, NaNo Rebels have a special home in the forums, and I have no shame. My partner in crime and I churned out over 50K words apiece all three Novembers, and if alone we each only had half a book–well, 50K is only half a book anyway. Together, we had a complete beginning-to-end novel that included a middle thick with subplots. I won’t say the writing or plotting was staggering genius (I try to be humble) but it made a beautiful first draft ready to be ripped to pieces and redone. A definite NaNo win.

To make it work, we needed to be able to write at any time. We both had crammed schedules, and as we all know you can’t turn on creativity like a faucet. Sharing a single Scrivener project thus wasn’t a viable option, since we’d be too likely to run into conflicts. We also needed to have the novel planned enough that we could write without waiting on the other person’s instalment. But though we didn’t want to wait for each other’s scenes, we did want to see them. Purely from a desire to encourage, inspire, and applaud, you understand. Neither of us harbours a competitive bone in our body.

Not having had the foresight to write our collaborative NaNos while still housemates, my partner in crime and I turned to good old-fashioned email and instant messaging to plot the novel. The plan was to break down the novel scene by scene and split the total between us. We’d been tossing ideas around for a while, so we had a pretty good idea of the general shape of the story. Building it into a concrete, coherent outline was something else altogether, but November’s loom lightened the process. It’s difficult to be too perfectionist about a novel you’re going to bang out in a month.

Our handful of point-of-view characters divided the scenes among themselves without much bickering. We each took a few characters, and the count came out surprisingly even. I won’t speak to how well-balanced the scenes were, but it hardly mattered for NaNo. I can stretch the word count of anything, and my partner in crime writes fast. In the event, I foisted three scenes off on her and we ended happy.

Because I’d been the one insisting we use Scrivener (I wasn’t working for L&L at the time, so I was allowed to badger people like that), I took charge of creating the project. Into this went our research, emails, notes, and painstakingly crafted MorphThing character mugshots. (Procrastination: Never start NaNo without it!) Our outline became synopses of 781 Draft documents, labelled by point of view and assigned “author” custom meta-data.

I used the author data to build a collection of all my scenes and another of all my co-author’s. Once we forked the project so we could each work in our own copy, we set our collection as the compile group. That let us track our month’s word count independently in Project Targets and compile for the validation servers without cheating.

We shared our work during the month using Scrivener for Mac’s “Sync with External Folder” feature.2

External Folder Sync settings

This lets you keep text documents in your project in sync with an external copy saved in a designated folder. The external files can be edited in any word processor supporting the RTF format (most do) and changes will be synced back into the Scrivener project. Combined with a file sharing service like Dropbox, this is a great way to work with a colleague who isn’t using Scrivener.

Of course, we both were using Scrivener, so we had to get creative.

Let me take a step back at this juncture and clarify a point. Scrivener’s sync feature is not intended to share documents between projects, even copies of the same project. Attempting to do so is singularly inadvisable and will almost certainly result in corrupting both the projects you’re trying to sync, which in turn will result in tears, gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair, and great consumption of chocolate and/or alcohol.

Most of that is not conducive to writing.

Instead, we created two shared Dropbox folders, one for each of our projects, and limited the projects to syncing only a specific collection of documents. My project synced my scenes to Folder A but not my co-author’s. Her project synced her scenes, but not mine, to Folder B.

Both projects synced the research documents. Since these weren’t set apart for only one of us to edit, there was the potential we’d both update our own copies during the month and end with vastly different versions. Syncing the documents for both projects wouldn’t cause conflicts, because the Dropbox copies were entirely separate, but would alert us to any changes our co-author made. Then we could update our own project to keep the documents uniform.

To control whether a document was in the dynamic sync collection, we used Scrivener’s “status” meta-data. We replaced the default revision-state settings (“to do”, “first draft”, etc.) with two options: “private” or “shared”. All documents marked “shared” were automatically collected into the saved search and thus automatically syncing. In the meta-data settings we also made “private” the default status for new documents, so we could easily create personal notes that wouldn’t sync. If we did want to share the new document, just toggling its status added it to the sync collection.

Status meta-data settings

Any time my co-author synced her copy of the Scrivener project, all her updated scenes appeared magically in my Dropbox and a notification popped up. I immediately dropped whatever I was doing and ran to read all the updated documents. It’s possible my partner in crime displayed more discipline using the updates from my syncs as motivation to meet her word count before reading.

When so moved, we copied and pasted the scenes into their slots in the Scrivener project. (Since our projects weren’t syncing our co-author’s scenes, this didn’t create chaos with extra copies.) Because I am highly skilled in putting off writing, I usually found an excuse to do this with every sync. Dumping the other person’s text into our own copies of the project filled the gaps between our assigned scenes. We could see the novel growing as a whole. In Scrivenings mode, we could see how astoundingly well we’d transitioned blindly from one scene to the next, or how well I’d managed to drag out one person’s dialogue to the length of one of my co-author’s entire scenes.

Collaborating brought another benefit: instant positive feedback. Positive as a rule. No one wants immediate critiques on a draft written sometime past midnight in a caffeine and sugar haze. Under normal circumstances, I doubt anyone wants to read that draft. But a trusty collaborator in the NaNoWriMo trenches is uniquely positioned to provide encouraging words, humorous asides, and unexceptional notes to research those magical FTL particles later but carry on with them for now.

Before commenting on a scene, we checked via chat to make sure it wasn’t currently being edited. If my partner in crime synced at the beginning of her writing session and I started annotating the same scene in Dropbox, we’d end up overwriting one or the other in the next sync. Scrivener takes snapshots of updated documents as part of the process, but merging the changes takes time. NaNo’s gruelling pace leaves no room for such slipshoddery. So we’d wait for the all-clear, then comment to our heart’s content. The next sync pulled the marked-up copy into the original author’s project and she could fortify herself with crackpot comments before launching into the day’s word count.

We won NaNoWriMo this way with every book of our trilogy, clocking in around 70K words apiece each November. Starting in January we’d spend eight months tearing apart and reassembling the completed draft (usually with wholly new pieces). In October we outlined the next book and started the cycle over. My partner in crime zipped her project and dumped it in Dropbox. I made sure all her files were up to date in the master, trashed old snapshots, and handled the other housekeeping. A new copy went back out and we were set for another month of wild writing.

Project example

Now we’re out of first drafts for NaNo, but our project is still going strong. The expanded custom meta-data has transformed the outliner into a multi-coloured spreadsheet of subplots. Our comments are occasionally more pertinent (or impertinent). We attack each other’s scenes with red text. We write, sync, repeat.

When our book hits the shelves, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, November’s just around the corner. You’ve got a novel to write.

 


1 Hush, it was NaNoWriMo. The count dropped in revision.

2 Although Windows doesn’t have this specific feature, you can mimic it using File > Export > Files… and saving to a shared Dropbox. The only difference is that changes made externally won’t be automatically pulled back into the project, but as you’ll see, our method uses copy and paste regularly anyway. A side benefit is that both projects can export files into the same Dropbox folder, whereas syncing requires a unique folder for each project. You just need to be careful to use unique names when exporting research documents–perhaps append your initial to the title directly in the project, to avoid accidentally overwriting the other person’s version.