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.

NaNo Tips for Writing with Scrivener

The intention here is to share some tips that I have found useful when working with Scrivener during my excursions into the realm of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” for short, or even shorter, just “NaNo”. If you have any ideas for this series, please feel free to drop me a line.

When writing your book this month, it is widely considered acceptable to write as much as you can, even if the quality of what you write may not be what you would consider “up to snuff” for the story you are writing. Since the daily word count is the main goal of the project for most people, this is okay. However, if you are also working toward the goal of producing something worthy of publishing—or at the very least, something you can be proud of—you might wish to somehow mark passages of text that you do not feel happy with, without completely deleting them or excluding them from the total counted work. There are a few ways of doing this in Scrivener.

Inline Annotations: The first and most direct method is through the use of inline annotations. Annotations can be used to mark blocks of text as a “comment”, and it works a bit like a toggle, much like a bold or italic range of text might—but this is merely the default way in which Scrivener treats them when you compile. In the “Footnotes/Comments” compile option pane, you can elect to leave annotations in the text, right where they are in your editor. You can even remove the enclosing brackets that Scrivener would normally insert around them, causing them to appear as normal text. For NaNo, all you need to do is submit raw words. You don’t need a formatted document, and so compiling as a .TXT file is perfect as it will strip out markings such as annotation colour. The advantage of this method is that it is as easy to “delete” a poorly phrased sentence as it is to italicise it, and it even looks a bit like you took a red pen to a printout, which is always satisfying.

A “Dust Bin” File: Another way of approaching this is to indeed fully remove the offending text from the section you are working on, but in such a way that it remains counted. An easy way of doing this is to select the text and then right-click on it, choosing to “Append Selection to Document”. What I like to do is create a single “Dust Bin” document at the bottom of my draft for the collection of all these bits of text. On the Mac, you can set that as a favourite document by right-clicking on the “Dust Bin” item in the Binder and selecting “Add to Favorites”. This will bump the item up to the top of the append sub-menu for easy access in the future. While this method takes a bit more work, the advantage is that it leaves inline annotations free to use for their intended purpose, as comments to yourself while writing, as well as keeping your text clean and easy to read. So long as the “Dust Bin” text item is located somewhere in the draft, they will be counted by the various statistics tools available to you, and included in the draft when you compile. Once November has expired, you can simply move this file elsewhere or delete it entirely.

Inspector Comments: Similar to the above, this technique moves the text to the Inspector sidebar instead of a secondary document. Inspector comments, like inline, can be included in the final output, with the advantage of being pinned to the precise location where they came from. That may come in handy if you change your mind later on. One downside to using these is that text moved to comments will not be counted in the program’s statistics while you work. (If you are a Windows user and cannot find this feature, try downloading the NaNoWriMo demo version. It has a sneak preview of the feature, which will be included in the next stable release.)

Overstrike: A natural way of marking text to be deleted is to draw a line through it. It’s easy to mark text with an overstrike in Scrivener, and on the Mac you can even set the compiler to automatically delete any text that has been overstruck. For NaNoWriMo, that won’t matter much, because as we’ve already noted, you want all of this to be in your word count anyway. For Windows users, while there isn’t a way to strip out overstruck text automatically, you can however search for overstruck text with the Edit/Find/Find by Formatting tool. An alternative to overstrike, if you find it causes too much visual clutter, are highlighters. A number of preset highlighter colours are available. Like overstrike they can be searched for with “Find by Formatting”, even by colour.

There are many other ways to sequester text to the loony bin without fully getting rid of it. Stashing them into the Document Notes sidebar is a good choice, as this pane is readily accessible even from Composition Mode (called Full Screen on Windows). You can turn on Notes export in the compile Formatting option pane to include them in the overall count (though do note that Scrivener’s internal statistics features will no longer pick up on them if you do this).

I have found the ability to set aside text I don’t much care for to be liberating in an endeavour like this. It is all too easy to just throw up your hands and tell yourself that quality shouldn’t matter. And to a degree, when you have 50,000 words to write in 30 days, that is not an unfair assessment. But being able to physically shove text aside that you know you’re not happy with, and forging on without it toward a better core of text that you are happy with can help keep your spirits up throughout the month.

As always, remember that we have a coupon available for 20% off to all participants of NaNoWriMo, and those that qualify as winners by November 30 will receive a 50% off coupon toward Scrivener on the platform of your choosing (Windows or Mac OS X). Good luck, and keep writing!