About ten years ago I read some book or other that collected together a number of essays on writing by female writers. One of the essays was by Hilary Mantel, and it was called “Growing a Tale” – I liked it so much that I photocopied it. This is how Hilary Mantel describes her process of putting together a story:
“When you begin the work on a book – mentally, before anything goes down on paper – you have a lot of ideas, I find, that you know are something to do with the book, which don’t seem to relate to each other. You may find a location that seems of interest – or a name may pop into your head – or a phrase. It is important to capture these insights. I carry small notebooks, which I can easily tear pages from; or I carry 3 x 5 inch index cards. I try to put down every insight, every glimpse of what this book will be, even if it’s only a word.
“When I have a few of these cards I pin them up on a cork notice-board in the room where I work. You do not know at this stage what is important – that will emerge. You do not know the order of events – but you don’t need to know. Ideas build around these glimpses, these key phrases. Perhaps I write something else on one of my cards, just a few words; or perhaps the original idea begins to develop, and I am moved to write a paragraph or two. I pin that paragraph behind the card to which it relates.
“The little words breed – sometimes several hundred offspring. I keep them on the board, in any order, until one day I see a sequence, a logic, begin to emerge. Then I repin them, very approximately, very roughly, in the order in which I think the narrative will shape. A few weeks on, all these bits of paper – the original cards, and anything that has accumulated behind them – go into a ring-binder. With a ring-binder you can easily swap the papers around – you’re still not committing yourself to an order of events. You can add pages, transpose pages. But now you can begin to see how much of your book you have written. Some incidents, behind their original card, will be fully described, and some characters will be complete with their biographies, snatches of dialogue, their appearance and their way of talking. Other parts of the book will not have ‘written themselves’ at all – they await focused attention. But you know – indeed, you can see – how much work you have to do.
“This method is soothing. Its virtue is that you never write yourself into a cul-de-sac; you have flexibility. Until you sit down to write your first draft sequentially, you have not committed yourself to linear narrative. I am amazed at how easily ideas fall into place, how they multiply, if you give them a chance, and if you don’t close off their possibilities too early. This is really a method of growing a book, rather than writing one.”
(Isn’t that wonderful? If you can get hold of the book – I’ve just looked it up and it’s called The Agony and the Ego – go buy it; it’s full of other great stuff like that.)
That is what Scrivener does: it is the notebook, the index cards, the cork notice-board and the ring-binder. When you have your first draft, you export it to Word or Mellel or Nisus Writer or whatever and you hammer out the details, fine-tune and re-format. But until then, you’re not committed. You can shuffle, outline, storyboard, annotate and rewrite all you want. If you are one of those writers who sit down at your word processor, type “Chapter One” and keep going in a linear fashion until the end, then you will have no use for Scrivener or any of the other writing packages out there – and I envy you. But me, I have to grow my writing. Very slowly. And my fingers aren’t that green. It wilts occasionally. I’m not sure where else I can take this metaphor.