Literature & Latte

Case Studies

Planning and Researching

Interview with Michael Marshall Smith

Whether you are looking for an entirely new working environment, or simply something to supplement your existing creative process, Scrivener can be of assistance. Some writers have spent years using a particular word processing program and find that for writing they prefer sticking to what they know. But even here, Scrivener can be an invaluable tool at the planning and organisation and editing stages, with work moving in and out of Scrivener as necessary.

Michael Marshall Smith, also known variously as Michael Marshall and MM Smith, is an author and screenwriter with numerous novels, short stories, screenplays and other works to his name. With stories spanning the genres of SF, horror and thriller writing, he has won the Best Short Story Award at the British Fantasy Awards more times than any other author. His novels include Bad Things, Spares and The Servants. Marshall Smith is currently working on projects including The Rank, a television pilot for Carnival Productions and NBC, is assisting the BBC in the series adaptation of his novel of the same name, and is co-writing MonsterMania, an animated horror movie for children with Hugo Award winner Stephen Jones, for Uli Meyer Animation.

While admitting that he prefers to use a traditional word processor for his actual writing, Marshall Smith finds Scrivener invaluable as a planning, outlining and editing tool. Below, he explains how the program’s flexibility and Import / Export capabilities allow him to collect research and outline and structure work in Scrivener, and how he then uses this plan as a reference while writing in MS Word, eventually importing the results into Scrivener for editing.

L&L: When and how did you first hear about Scrivener?

MMS: I believe I just randomly happened upon it on MacUpdate or somewhere - back when it was called Scrivener Gold, I think (note: Scrivener Gold was a very early beta version of Scrivener - ed) - a couple of weeks before it entered its new incarnation. I was amazed that I'd never heard of it before. It was evidently already well-developed, with a dedicated community of users. This was a genuinely exciting moment: I'd never seen anything like it before - software developed for writers by someone who clearly had a genuine understanding of the writing process.

L&L: Why did you decide to try it?

MMS: A quick look through the interface and features showed it truly was geared to creative writing, be it fiction or non-fiction. Most other writing software seems to have been written with nothing more than short corporate reports in mind: it scrambles my brain that Word's word counter in the bottom bar can't go beyond about 100,000 words, for example. Other writing software also often seems to focus on tangental 'features' in order to set itself apart - like preparing submission letters, or entering screenplay competitions, or keeping contact lists. That's not about writing, that's about aspiration and the 'business' – which is important, but not a real part of the job of writing.

L&L: What have you written in Scrivener?

MMS: I've done just about everything in Scrivener, to be honest. I tend not to write too much actual prose in it, for personal reasons I'll come back to, but there have been exceptions: The Servants, for example, a short novel I wrote under the name M. M. Smith. That was exhaustively planned in Scrivener - I wrote the backbone structure of the whole novel on a flight to New York, and on the back of that wrote the fifty thousand word book in ten days. I used Scrivener to plan out an adaptation of Stephen King's short story Mrs Todd’s Shortcut, and am currently using it extensively to plan and marshall information for a TV pilot for Carnival and NBC, called The Rank. There’s also a complicated TV series called Cityscape, which has a vast collection of background notes and research which I'd simply not be able to keep track of otherwise. I draft out my (intermittent) blogs in it, before uploading to Wordpress via Blogo. I'm trying to upgrade my French at the moment, and have a large Scriv in which I store vocab, class notes and jottings on grammar... Plus I have one in which I store useful quotes that I come upon. I even kept recipes in it for a while - and an exercise diary - pretty much anything that can be typed goes into Scrivener!

L&L: What software were you using before discovering Scrivener and how does using Scrivener compare?

MMS: Basically, I was writing in Word and Final Draft, and still do when it comes to the bulk of a book. For me the key advantages Scrivener brings are the ability to organise and access information; to organise rigorously, but then to access in different ways - via the corkboard, outline, hyperlinking, and especially the Scrivenings function (Scrivener’s ability to view and edit multiple texts as one- ed). I love being able to focus on individual notes or scenes, and then see them magically repositioned as part of a greater structure - before dropping back out to see them as individual moments again. It's that ability to keep the material fresh, while also keeping it corralled, that I value most.

L&L: Can you tell us about your creative process?

MMS: My creative process is a mystery, even to me. When I start gearing up a book, I basically go into flypaper mode. I have a key idea or two, and open myself to anything in the outside world that feels like it might also be relevant to it. All of these go into files in Scrivener. Initially I keep the structure very loose, but then I'll start to break it into folders, and set up hyperlinks between key files.

L&L: Do you have custom templates for this?

MMS: My only template is a very basic one - a single over-arching folder, into which I create others. I limit myself when it comes to structuring prose. It's different with screenwriting, where structure is absolutely key. With novels, I deliberately fight shy of introducing too much hierarchy too early, as I find it kills the creative flow. I ban myself from having more than one layer of folders, for example. Even with the ability to Edit Scrivenings I find nesting folders traps the ideas into too rigid a format. That's just a personal obsession — and one of the things I like about Scrivener is that you can choose how much or how little to use certain features or capabilities. It doesn't tie you into one set way of doing things, or - like many of the GTD (Getting Things Done - ed) applications out there - force you to spend so much time kowtowing to the system that you lose the will to write.

L&L: Could you tell us a little about what your binder might look like in an average project?

MMS: It depends. I'll tend to have a folder for random little notes; a folder for major plot ideas; a folder for jotting stuff about characters; a folder for structural noodlings; and then there will be stuff that goes into the research folder. How it breaks down after that depends on what kind of writing it is. If it's for screen, then I'll have folders for acts, and ordered notes for scenes and sequences, with hyperlinks cross-referencing all over the place. With novels, it tends to be much simpler. Scrivener tends to function as a kind of pre-production sandpit in that case, my way of corralling stuff before I roll up my sleeves and get down to the serious typing.

L&L: How do you break down your draft folder?

MMS: I still do the heavy lifting in Word. There may come a point where I write 100,000 words directly into Scrivener, but it's not yet. But close, maybe... I'm experimenting more with hiding the binder and writing direct into Scrivener, and am halfway through a short story.

L&L: How much research information do you import into Scrivener?

MMS: For novels, generally I only do a small amount of research - they tend to be set in locales, and around subjects, that I already know something about. For screen work, there will be a lot more. I'm writing a TV pilot set in New York at the moment, and have a lot of web pages, PDFs and images stored in the research folder. It's great to be able to have all that stuff right there, in the same document that holds the structural and character notes, and hyperlinked directly to where's relevant.

L&L: At what stage of the writing process do you start using Scrivener, and what point do you export your work?

MMS: I start using Scrivener right at the beginning. As soon as the ideas for a screenplay or novel would benefit from being jotted in more than one file - for structural reasons - then I make a new Scriv and that becomes its home. I leave Scrivener when it's time to do the actual writing - though I'll usually have the relevant Scriv open in the background, for reference, or making additional notes. I've yet to make the break from being in Word when I get down to the word after word after word stage of writing a novel. It's partly just what I'm most used to - I've written over a million published words in that way, and it's my home for that stage of the process. It's also that - and this is just a weird personal tic of mine - I don't like knowing that there's other stuff in the file, or a hidden structure. I just want a blank Word doc and an open road. In this respect, I dramatically under-use Scrivener - but it's what works for me.

L&L: Do you use any other software for note taking or final formatting?

MMS: I tend to go straight into Scrivener, unless I'm out and about and take a quick note. Then when I'm back home I pull the notes across into the relevant Scriv. I don't really export for final formatting, as such, as I do the bulk of the actual writing in either Word or Final Draft. It's part of my ritual, I suppose. I think; I do a bit of planning; then I switch to another piece of software to open the door to the novel itself.

L&L: Can you tell us a little about how you adapt work from page to screen, and if and how Scrivener helps this process?

MMS: The adaptation I've used Scrivener for most was the Stephen King TV script, currently lost somewhere deep in development hell. Scrivener really came into its own there as a place to write and hold synopses, character and location breakdowns, revised plots, and even little snippets of dialogue written in Cole & Haag format. It really wouldn't be such a big step for me to write screenplays directly in Scrivener, as I am much more comfortable with structure and other notes being right there.

L&L: Has Scrivener simplified some parts of the writing process such as editing?

MMS: For me, the essence of novel-planning is a slightly contradictory pair of needs: to be able to maintain notes with structure, while simultaneously being able to escape from that structure so as not to be trapped by it too early. The various ways of viewing notes in Scrivener - the cork board, the outline, Scrivenings mode, hyperlinking - enable me to do this. It's unique in the ways it does this, and the closest I've found to being able to keep notes in the same way I think.

L&L: Are there any tips you would give to other writers embarking on creating a novel in Scrivener?

MMS: My advice would be simply to start using it. The basic functions are extremely transparent. As you get used to it, explore the menus - and ask questions in the forum - and you'll be amazed at the wealth of things it can already do. I've lost count of the times I've emailed Keith suggesting a particular feature, thinking I'm cool as all hell for having thought of it... and he's patiently told me that it already does it. I've never been a great reader of manuals...

L&L: Finally - any other general tips or non-software related bits of advice for writers?

MMS: Keep dry and away from children.

Michael Marshall Smith’s new novel Killer Move is due for publication in 2011.

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