How Scrivener helped Natasha Lester write ‘The French Photographer’

I talk often about how much I love Scrivener so I won’t waste time effusing here. Instead, I’ll dive straight into how Scrivener helped me to write The French Photographer. There were three particular features of Scrivener that I found most useful.

The Coloured Binder

Image: Colour Coding in Binder

This is probably my favourite thing about Scrivener. Using colour coding in the Binder allows me to see, at a glance, the structure of my book (see image). This was especially important for The French Photographer as it covers three different time periods and has four different point of view characters.

When you’re writing a story like that, you need to spend enough time with each character or time period so that the reader doesn’t become confused by too much shifting too quickly from one to another. But you also want to make sure that the switching between each doesn’t take too long; if it does, it’s likely the reader will have entirely forgotten the other character or time period when they reach it again.

So I use a different colour for each part of the book, plus different colours for different subplots. Just by scrolling through my Binder, I can quickly see if I have let a subplot lapse for too long if a time period is too short if I’ve taken too long with one point of view character and need to work out a way to reduce or move a section of the book. I can see how many chapters are in each part, how many scenes are in each chapter and I can overview the entire structure of the book. Structure is absolutely critical to the success or failure of a parallel narrative like The French Photographer and the colour coded Binder was hugely helpful in allowing me to avoid the usual pitfalls of this type of structure.

The Quick and Easy Word Count

Image: Quick and easy word count

Linked to what I’ve said above, I need to be able to find out very quickly how long each part of the book is. I have a tendency to let the first part of the book go on for too long when I’m writing the first couple of drafts. This is because there is so much to set up in the first part. But the thing with a parallel narrative is that you have to get to the other narrative at some point. If the first (historical) part of the book goes on for, say, 30,000 words, then it feels like a very abrupt shift to suddenly switch to another time frame and set of characters because, by 30,000 words, the reader has become completely comfortable with the first set.

In Scrivener, all I have to do is select the Part Folder in the Binder and then I can see, with a quick glance at the bottom of the editor, how many words are in that part. In the image, you can see that Part One of The French Photographer is 26,000 words now but it was up over 32,000  words at one point, which told me I needed to do some cutting, stat!

The Ability to Experiment

When you're writing a parallel narrative, the big question is: when do I cut from the contemporary narrative to the historical, and vice versa. Segueing in the right place or the wrong place can make all the difference to the success of this kind of narrative. To get it right, you need to be able to experiment. And Scrivener is made for experimentation.

I spent a LOT of time moving chapters from one part of the book to the next, scenes from one part to the next and breaking parts into two or even three separate parts. I was able to do this quickly and easily, once again in Scrivener’s fabulous Binder, by simply dragging and dropping the folders or scenes into different places. Every time I drag or drop a folder, all the words and scenes and information associated with that folder come too. Then, because I have a short summary of each scene in my Binder, I could see very quickly what the new structure of the book looked like and whether it would work. If it didn’t, I just moved the folder or scene back to where it came from, or to a different place again.

Doing this was so much easier than cutting and pasting large blocks of text in Word. Scrivener made it easy to experiment, which allowed me to try every possible narrative permutation and thus gave me a better book at the end.

I hope that’s made you want to rush out and give Scrivener a try!

I’ve used it for every book I’ve written since A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and I won’t be stopping any time soon!

By Natasha Lester

Natasha is also an AWC presenter of the courses How to Write a BestsellerPitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers and of course,  2 Hours to Scrivener Power.

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