Archives for December 2011

First Impressions: Scrivener for Windows

I am just settling in to my first week of actual real work using Scrivener for Windows. I’ve written my last six books either wholly or partially in Scrivener for the Mac but over the past couple of years I have found myself drifting away from Apple’s machines and onto Windows and Linux. Scrivener was pretty much the only thing keeping me on OSX and I am wondering whether the Windows version will make it possible to cut the cord.

I am approaching all this with some trepidation since I am paranoid about things like losing work because of software bugs. Such things mean a very real loss of time and income. Nonetheless I have decided to bite the bullet and work solely in Windows for a month. It’s early days yet so all I can give you are my initial impressions.

First up, this is quite definitely and recognisably Scrivener. The keyboard shortcuts are not the same but the interface is. Most of the features are there too. Indeed there are more features on this version than there were on Scrivener v1 on which I wrote many of my books. It is not quite as lovely or as polished as the Mac version, and I suspect it is still a little bit less stable although that is just an impression I picked up looking at the bug fixes in the updates! I have not had any problem with the software itself, except for activating it on my second machine, of which more later.

For the those of you who have not read my previous ravings about Scrivener, it is, in my humble opinion, quite simply the best software ever for composing novels on. It has a superb interface that allows you to write in discrete chunks such as scenes. Every scene gets its own file. You can move around in any way you like. Each scene can have a synopsis attached and notes and a mass of meta data. Scrivener allows you to view the scene as part of an outline, as a file card or as itself. You can also clip together a number of scenes and view them altogether. This is known as Viewing Scrivenings. It sounds clumsy but it works beautifully.

A side-effect of this process is that gives you a word count of all the components. You can tag scenes in any way you like. The View Scrivenings feature also allows you to clip together the scenes via the meta-data, a process I am making sound a whole lot clunkier than it is. For example, let’s say you have tagged your scenes by point of view, by date and/or by location. This feature  allows you to view all of the scenes from that point of view or date or location in order. You could even view all of the scenes from the point of view of a certain character that take place in that location on that date. This is very useful if you write, as I do, books with multiple storylines told from multiple points of view.

Scrivener also allows you to track which draft of the story you are on. It allows you to take snapshots of any or all of your text so you can revert back to a previous version if your revisions turn out to be misguided.

The program tracks your word counts for the project and for the day and has a handy progress bar so you can see where you are. The Windows version is not quite so sophisticated as the current Mac version but it allows me to see how I am doing and that is the main thing.

It has a superb, clutter free, no distractions Full Screen View which cuts everything down to the basics and lets you get on with just writing.

One of the simplest yet cleverest features of all is the way it separates your writing from your formatting. You can set up the editor view so that it reflects the way you want to work at the level of zoom you want to use. In my case, Cambria 12 point at 1.2 line spacing at 200% zoom and that’s what you’ll see when you work. When your ready to send your manuscript in Scrivener will compile it into a different format, lets say 12 point Times New Roman double-spaced for your editor. It will even compile it into an eBook for you if you like which can be uploaded to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

You can import all manner of documents and pictures into your Scrivener file so you can keep your research in one place.

I could go on but you get the picture—pretty much anything I could ask of a program when I am writing Scrivener can do well—and not just well, elegantly, and with the minimum of fuss. Anyway, as tends to happen to me when I talk about Scrivener I have gotten carried away. I was giving you my first impressions.

So far everything I have tried has worked. As I’ve said it’s not quite as lovely or as polished as the Mac version but that’s to be expected. The Mac version has had more than half a decade of polishing and I find the Windows interface less visually appealing  in many ways than OSX.

And there’s the last bit, the problems. Literature and Latte, the developers have a superb and friendly support forum and they are both fast and responsive. I had a problem installing Scrivener for Windows on my Acer Travelmate. It was two o’clock in the morning. I shot them an email before I went to bed. They had a solution back to me when I got up the next morning. Now, that’s customer service.

Anyway, hopefully in a month or two I will have something useful to report.

Lion Thoughts

So I finally got round to installing Lion a couple of weeks back and now I am going to give you my belated review. Everybody else upgraded about six months ago but what the hell– I am not much of an early adopter. In case you want the edited highlights– I basically like it, I find most of it an improvement and some of it just a little weird. Of necessity this will be quite limited since I don’t use all of the new OS’s features and am in no way qualified to comment on them.

This is the first OS upgrade I have ever bought directly over the net. I bought it through the App Store and I have to say it all went impressively smoothly. There were no problems with the download and installation. For the price you get to upgrade on all of your machines too. This seems very fair and is a real price advantage over Windows if you own as many computers as I do and want to upgrade them all.

As with a lot of Apple upgrades there’s a bunch of eye candy for the punters, done I suspect because Apple needs something to show off at their keynote address and in their stores. For me, the real improvements and the reason I bought the upgrade at long last are under the hood, mostly security stuff like a robust implementation of Address Space Layout Randomisation. (There was a less than impressive version of this in Leopard but it failed to work on core parts of the OS) . Yes, that’s right after only five years Apple has achieved parity in some areas with the security on Windows Vista– well done, Cupertino! To be fair, this is apparently a very good implementation of these security features according to one expert (Charlie Miller) I trust. Sarcasm aside, I am glad that Apple has done this no matter how late. Security through obscurity was never a good model.

But back to the eye candy. There’s the usual changed screen appearance– sidebars that are invisible except when in use, that sort of thing. It’s fluff but it’s nice fluff and there’s lots of good and useful stuff too. Mission Control is a system for managing Spaces that really works. For those of you unfamiliar with this, Spaces is a system of virtual screens that lets you run different programs on different screens and switch between them when needed. If you’ve got a big monitor it’s not all that wonderful but it’s really handy when you are working on a laptop with limited screen space. Mission Control makes swapping between these and your Dashboard widgets as simply as swiping sideways with three fingers. If you don’t use Spaces this is probably a meaningless upgrade for you but for me it is very handy.

Full screen view is nice, particularly when used in conjunction with Spaces and Mission Control. This is one of those things that Apple does really well; a small change that makes a genuine difference to the way you work. If you work on a laptop and are obsessed with maximising the use of screen real estate, this is very beneficial.

There’s been a lot of hoopla about Autosave and how it keeps all the different versions of all your files on certain applications. David Hewson has some complaints about this over on his blog but I don’t actually use any programs where it is available– I use mostly Scrivener, Mail and Word 2011 on OSX– so I don’t have anything intelligent to say on the matter. I find the OS’s habit of reopening programs and windows to exactly where I left them a bit disturbing sometimes but it can be useful. In the absence of something like Windows 7’s jump lists, it speeds up access to files I am working on.

On the subject of Mail– this is my favourite dedicated email client and there are some improvements here– such as a Gmail-like threaded view that is actually pretty neat.

Problems? I have had nary a one, except with Dragon Dictate. This Mac speech recognition software continues its proud tradition of making me feel as if my pocket has been picked by creators Nuance. Dictate worked just fine with Snow Leopard but since the upgrade has crashed with absolute regularity after about twenty minutes of use. I don’t know if this is a Lion problem or something else but it did not happen before the upgrade.

So would I recommend Lion? Yes, particularly if you work on a laptop or have any concerns about security (and, in truth, you should. The days of OSX being malware free have sadly long gone). The upgrade is reasonably priced and seems quite stable on my 2009 model MacBook Pro.




The Age of Re-Reading

I am at an age now where I find myself more likely to re-read books I loved when I was young than to seek out new authors. I am not sure exactly why. I suspect that it is because when I was young I read everything much less critically which gave the love a chance to grow. These days I read with a more jaundiced eye particularly towards people working in my own genres. I am much more aware of the tricks used and am much more easily bounced out of my willing suspension of disbelief. I do not for a moment believe that writers working today are less skilled than the ones I used to read, I can actually see that in some cases they are much more so. It’s just that these days I set the bar much higher. That’s my theory anyway.

Of course, there are some writers I have come back to again and again all of my life anyway. I re-read The Lord of the Rings every couple of years. I go through the collected works of Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. There are a number of books by Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock I keep coming back to and all of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books. I endlessly recycle Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett and Dickens and Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky too.

Of late I find most of the books by writers I am unfamiliar with I read are non-fiction. This is a trend I have noticed among many of my friends as well. I am far less likely to try new fiction than I once was. It shames me to admit it but it is so. Perhaps I have become more risk adverse as I am older. Over the years I have spent a lot of money on books I could not get through the first twenty pages of. Re-reading books I know I enjoyed but which I read long enough to have forgotten the details seems to be my new risk adverse strategy. This has some surprising results sometimes.

Some writers you grow with, you come back to them as you get older and you get more out of them and see more in them. Some are a sort of comfort food of the mind. Some are as unsettling as when you visit the street your childhood home was on and find everything changed. They are not at all what you remember them as being. You find the book you recall bear absolutely no resemblance to the book you are reading.You find writers you admired when you were a teenager seem like total nobs when you read them in middle age (Jack Kerouac I am looking at you.)

Right now, I am re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series from start to the current novel. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn a while back and was sufficiently impressed to want to try his completion of the series after Jordan’s tragic early death. Currently I am at Book Seven, Crown of Swords.

It’s been an odd experience reading these books back to back so close together. One friend asks me why I am subjecting myself to such a cruel and unusual punishment. It is not. It’s a pleasure. A lot of baggage surrounds Jordan. Everyone talks about the info dumps, the braid tugging, the endless soap opera. There’s some truth to this, obviously, but it fails to address the obvious strength of the man’s work; that he can tell a story. He can also create memorable characters. The thing that struck me most strongly re-reading the first few books was the sheer scale of the man’s ambition. So much is promised, so much delivered. Events are foreshadowed that do not occur until a couple of thousand-page books later.

It sounds like damning with faint praise to say you are impressed by an author’s skill at logistics but I do not mean it that way in the least. As someone who has written a couple of longish, multi-book series I know the difficulties involved better than many, and I am gobsmacked by the way Jordan keeps all the balls in the air. If you think what he does is easy, I would respectfully suggest you try it sometime. Someone sufficiently skilled makes even the most difficult things look easy. It is the mark of being skilled.

Scale is the major mark of Jordan’s work, of course; the thing everyone remembers. It is also the thing that leads to the accusations of endless info-dumps. Having gone through a number of the books, I can’t say as I noticed these. Given how much he needs to tell the reader once the backstory has grown, I thought Jordan handled these well. There are very few really noticeable ones and the information is usually skilfully woven into the ongoing story.

I find the characterisation for the most part sympathetic and Jordan handles his themes of power and responsibility well.  Jordan actually fought in a war (was decorated in it too) and had clearly thought about what it means to kill and to lead. He handles the guilt well. The scenes where his young heroes return home to by idolised by those who stayed behind and don’t understand are haunting.

Of course there are flaws, the first few books in the series have tremendous narrative drive but the plotting feels chaotic. Characters appear out of nowhere, climaxes just happen. As the series progresses the narrative pace slackens but the writing becomes more skilled. On balance I am enjoying this exercise hugely. I’ll report back when I get to the end!