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I’m working on the finishing stages of a novel. I’m “text complete” and would like to be able to finish up the revision process within 2 months.

I’m on iOS. I’ll use MS Word if I absolutely have no other options, but I prefer not to.

Google Docs worked OK while I was working on chapters individually, but now I’ve collated them and want to be able to make whole-manuscript changes (i.e. rename characters and places if need be).

At 319 pages / 120k words, Google Docs just dies. I’m talking about 500-3000 millisecond lag times. It was starting to annoy me with the 20-25 page chapters, but when you put 300+ pages into one Google Doc, it’s unusable.

Assume that I have limited patience for fighting crappy software but that I’m a programmer (most of you know who I am). What’s the best option? Is Scrivener worth learning and using? Is it worth the $45?


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    Have you considered LaTeX? If the only reason is that you don’t know it, you should un-not-know yourself immediately.

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      troff is where its at.

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        I had a brief period of trying out troff, but went back to LaTeX mostly because the community is much larger (it’s used by a lot of conferences and journals), and therefore the packages and maintenance are better.

        For simple stuff using the built-in styles, I find them mostly a wash in terms of the actual formatting language. Both have their quirks, but I could use either. Troff gets the edge because it’s smaller, and often included in default Unix installs, though not on all Unixes.

        But if you’re not doing something very simple, there is a high chance LaTeX will have a package to do what you want, while there is much less chance troff will. That could possibly be overcome if DIYing it in troff were much better than in TeX, but at least for me, it wasn’t. Writing anything custom in LaTeX involves a terrible 70s stack language combined with C-preprocessor-style text-substitution macros, so obviously sucks. But writing anything custom in troff is also really byzantine. My conclusion was that I should treat them both as languages only writeable by wizards, and therefore I prefer TeX mostly because its wizarding community is more active.

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          What resources would you recommend to get started with troff? I have experience writing pages in mdoc format already, so roff syntax isn’t alien to me.

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          I have. Long before I was a programmer, I was a math researcher. None of my papers made it to the outside world but I have an Erdos number of 4. I’ve also used math markup for sites like Quora.

          I’ve actually never written a document from scratch in LaTeX, because mathematicians are lazy (that’s a good thing, it’s connected to why many of them are so fucking brilliant) and reuse old document templates, so that’s what everyone told me to do and that’s what I did and it worked. I suppose there’s no good reason not to know, though, especially since I’m going back into research as soon as a few details (well, one detail that takes a very long time) click into place. That’s a big part of why I’ve been living the 8-to-2 life (not a six-hour day, but that other 2 that’s mostly for drunks, poets, and cats) on this novel.

          The truth is, and I’ll readily admit this, that I’m also pretty lazy (although perhaps not brilliant, because I’ve gotten into my share of dumb shit). That is, I don’t want to fiddle with details other than the story and prose. That’s why I used Google Docs instead of learning a new platform from scratch. Soon enough, oops, 120k words. How much fiddling I do depends, I imagine, on whether I e-publish or go with a mainstream publisher. This is far and away the best thing that I’ve written, so the support/distribution of a publisher might be the way to go. I have no problem with giving my work away for free (you don’t write fiction to make money; they odds are almost as bad as in tech startups) but you actually reach more of an audience if you’re selling a $25 rectangular prism with art done by someone much more skilled in the visual arts.

          When I talk about fiddling and how much I want to avoid it, I’m not talking about grammar or sentence structure or even comma placement because all of that is my job. I’m talking about stuff like “this chapter is 19.1 pages, but 0.1 of a page is bad form so let’s take two lines off each other page”. It’s a hassle and while it does really matter (turning a page is 250-500 msec and can be flow-breaking) it’s not what I’m good at. If it becomes my job because I decide to e-publish, then I need the most powerful tools out there.

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            Well, if you’ve done anything with LaTeX before, I think it would be very easy for you to grab a LaTeX novel template and get going. That’s especially since a novel doesn’t really need any complicated structured content or funky layout.

            One of the things I like the most when writing LaTeX is how your brain doesn’t waste cycles on “oh, now this line is on the next page”, or “damn you <WYSWIG_Editor>, I didn’t intend that to be a bullet list”. I think it’s a feature that what you see isn’t what you get, so, while writing a paragraph, you have no excuse to think about anything but the content.

            I’ve never published any book, so I don’t know, maybe there are extremely domain-specific tools out there that somehow do very domain specific things that would be very hard to do with LaTeX, but if the alternatives are google docs, MS word, etc., I wouldn’t consider them over LaTeX.

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              Of course LaTeX can be an endless yak-shave, it was written by computer scientists after all.

              I know people who swear by the “memoir” package, and that’ll do 90% of the layout stuff that you need, has a few options (and is completely customizable if you want to go down that rabbit hole). It’s aimed at this sort of thing.

              If it was a technical book, the MIT press also has released their LaTeX template/class, but that seems less useful in this instance.

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            My wife uses Scrivener, and has just published her second novel (obligatory shilling: Blood’s Force and Harbingers, two books in an ongoing series).

            Scrivener is pretty useful as an author’s tool, not so much for typesetting and layout (although it allows you to have various pieces of your document as separate files, and then can do a compilation step where it does the typesetting into a final document format for you). More than that- it’s a great organizational tool, allowing you to manage and retrieve notes, character docs, and so on- that’s more useful during the outlining, planning and writing phases than it is in your editorial process, but if you’re planning to continue writing, you might see some benefits there.

            Now, as someone who is “annoyance averse” I have bad news for you, if you’re self-publishing: eBook readers are roughly in the position that web browsers were circa 2003- that is to say, they all understand HTML, but they all implement it differently and with no adherence to standards. There is no help for you here. You want to have centered section markers? Get ready to do it differently for each eBook platform you target. Oh, sure, there are services that will take a Word doc and convert it into a variety of eBook formats- and they’re all crap and do a shitty job. I’m no expert on the pain points, but I’ve watched my wife (who knows her way around code) suffer and struggle with it.

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              As someone who has used Scrivener to write a couple of novels, I concur with most everything you said. However, I’ve found Scrivener’s built in compile to $ebookFormat feature to work just fine as long as you only want to use basic formatting.

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                I wish your wife the best. My god, this job is hard. It was quite exciting, because I haven’t worked this hard on anything, for this long, for almost a decade.

                If e-publishing is that bad, I might agree to take a zero advance (I should have a stable research job by summer; I actually expected things to come together by March) and ask the publisher to put that money into cover art, e-pub (contract out anything that looks like IE6) and promotion instead. I actually think that this project is worth a $250k advance easily (although I have no idea what the literary market looks like, and I’m sure there are many people more brilliant than I who never see anything close to that, because anything artistic gets stochastic in terms of evaluation and we’re talking about a large number) but I would rather take $0.00 and go all-out on making this thing succeed. Once I start my next job and actually have money, I might buy $1000 worth of copies myself and get my friend who works at HBO to leave them in random-ass places around the office. Okay, I probably sound like a manic, quixotic cunt with that statement, but I’ve had to be one for the past 3 weeks, so bear with me…

                I’d love to trade reads with your wife, once (a) I have time to read things longer than a cup of coffee that I didn’t write, and (b) I’m further along in the revision process, which seems front-loaded. So, if I don’t reach out in a month or two, please PM me.

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                  Consider that a real advance commits a publisher to actually working to publicise a novel, otherwise they have thrown that advance down the proverbial drain. Conversely if they advance nothing, there’s no commitment there either. Yes, obviously in some perfect world publishers would commit as much PR effort as a given project justifies, but here in the real world people don’t work like that.

                  Also, only first time authors who have won the lottery get advances of that kind of size.

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                    Consider that a real advance commits a publisher to actually working to publicise a novel, otherwise they have thrown that advance down the proverbial drain.

                    That’s why I would not say, “I will forgo the advance” but “I’d rather you put that $X into PR”. It shows that I’m committed. I don’t need the money, but I won’t be stiffed either.

                    Also, only first time authors who have won the lottery get advances of that kind of size.

                    Right. Saying “I need $250k to write a novel” is ridiculous, because most novels don’t take 2500+ hours and because plenty of talented people will do it for free. Hell, I’ve already done much of the work for free. Saying, “I can only commit to work with you if you’ll commit a minimum of $250k to PR” is not as ridiculous because I believe they’ll get $X for every $1 they spend on PR. If they don’t agree, then they don’t think my work is good (and they may be right) so they shouldn’t work with me.

                    I could be wrong but I assume that this is also like startups in that your odds are better if you have a finished product. Obviously, they’re not going to offer a 6-figure (or even 5-figure) advance to a first-timer if the book doesn’t exist yet in at least rough draft form. Or, at least, I wouldn’t.

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                      I think you might get quite a lot out of reading Charlie Stross’ series of essays on the structure of the publishing industry: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/common-misconceptions-about-pu-1.html

                      Good luck with the novel!

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                    I’d love to trade reads with your wife

                    I’ll definitely let her know. And uh… if your friend at HBO hears anybody looking for something in a sci-fi/fantasy realm, let them know that the Sword and Starship series can be sold as “Game of Thrones in Space”. Best of luck- you’re right, it’s a lot of work.

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                    Regarding the epublishing issue, one possible solution might be vellum: https://vellum.pub

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                    For every key stroke, a word processor reformat the whole document to let you see how it looks like, because they are real time typesetting systems.

                    If you do not need real time rendering, you can work on the content and the formatting separately: work on the text in a text editor, format the document once in a while to see how it looks.

                    Text editor to write markdown is a lightweight solution, and you can convert from and to this format using pandoc (written in haskell).

                    If you want more powerful typesetting and formatting system, you can convert tbe document to LaTeX or troff, and tweak the source or use a LaTeX editor, or you can directly produce a pdf from pandoc.

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                      When I get into the 2nd or 3rd revision pass (fiction can take many more) I like having WYSIWYG for a number of reasons. One is that I’ve learned that a great way to catch typos is to change the font (even if you’re going to change it back). I have no idea why that works in any rigorous sort of way, but it seems to.

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                        Changing font is easily done in the text editor settings, but if you prefer WYSIWYG, go with it! :)

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                      The limitation of Google Docs you mention is very interesting for me. I suspect all WYSIWYG editors will be similarly limited at that size of document. I heartily support LaTeX for the typesetting

                      1. Basic LaTeX is actually quite simple - you’ll learn it while making your changes.
                      2. LaTeX was designed for this job.
                      3. LaTeX will run on anything.
                      4. You can use variables for names and characters, so as to be able to set them globally
                      5. Do you have a bibliography? LaTeX does beautiful bibliographies.
                      6. You just stop worrying about formatting, just get your text right and at the end you can globally set styles etc
                      7. You edit with vi, or anything you want (plain text source) and you keep your chapters separate, so your editor is not challenged
                      8. If you are self publishing, LaTeX makes gorgeous pdfs
                      9. LaTeX has classes and styles that are meant for creating layouts meant for publishers
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                        I’ve heard many very good things about Scrivener from writers who’ve used it much more than I have. I liked it for doing technical documentation in, but that’s not really the intended use-case.

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                          I’ve used AsciiDoc for a book that I’ve been writing. I found that it lies somewhere between LaTeX and Markdown in terms of verbosity and features. It’s more or less syntax sugar on top of DocBook XML.

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                            I had a conversation a month or so ago with someone who said she had tried Ulysses and Scrivener and one other iOS app to write her book and found all of them wanting. Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly what she said about each, and your mileage with those apps may vary. I got the impression that the iOS versions of the apps sometimes differed significantly from the desktop versions.

                            I’m not sure I would recommend Word for writing books. In fact, I’m sure I would recommend not using Word for books.

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                              EDIT i didn’t really register the iOS part of your post. Are you doing everything iOS only?

                              I’ve had good experiences with Pages, though that’s MacOS. Easy to change styling and usually makes things that look good. Though Word is of course very good at large documents and is overall good software.

                              You could try using libre office, but I’ve had mainly frustrating experiences with it (more for interop reasons). Never hurts to just throw it in and see though

                              If you want to geek out, you can always opt for something like Markdown -> HTML + CSS print styles. That would let you get a decent amount of the way there. There’s also a Racket layout language that looks good….

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                                I don’t know about professional typesetting, but Markdown has always served my simple text needs. Perhaps one .md file per chapter? With a simple text format, you can use standard tools for find/replace.

                                Your novel doesn’t need to typeset math equations, does it?

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                                  For many years, CP/M Wordstar was the editor of choice for writers. See http://www.sfwriter.com/wordstar.htm etc. These days there any many descendants of Wordstar such as the free jupp editor, or the non-free Write&Set at http://www.writeandset.com/

                                  There are also cult followings and active user communities for other venerable tools such as XyWrite and WordPerfect.

                                  The majority of these tools share two glaring traits, IMO. 1- Separation of content and formatting with some sort of code system and 2- an integrated editor/environment that makes working with the formatting languages less painful.

                                  I’ve always steered away from LaTeX or groff/troff/nroff for non technical or mathematical documents due to their complexities, but with the availability of WYSIWYM and WYSIWYG editors these days, I might be wise to rexamine that choice.

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                                    Matt Gemmell, a reasonably well known Mac/iOS developer, made the transition to full-time writer a few years ago. His blog has a few posts about his iPad-based toolset, eg Using the iPad for: Writing Novels and My iPad Setup.

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                                      Abiword is known as an efficient and lightweight alternative to LibreOffice. Maybe there is an iOS port somewhere?