writing technique

The Heath Robinson Writing Machine


Doubling Gloucester Cheeses by the Gruyère Method (Heath Robinson)

In two days, I have a decision to make. Not necessarily the day after tomorrow, because these days can be non-consecutive. So far, in the past eight months, I’ve used up 28 and I’m still undecided. Transfer everything there? Or stick with my own method?

Yes, I’m talking about Scrivener. You know Scrivener – ‘the biggest advance for writers since the typewriter’, according to sci-fi writer Michael Marshall-Smith. Maybe he skipped the cut-and-paste capacity of the word processor, but you get the idea – without Scrivener, you’re one of the also rans. (Naturally, there’s a good chance you’ll be one with it too, but at least you’ll be equipped. A scrivernerless writer, it seems, is like an armourless knight).

The problem is that Scrivener is what the French call ‘une usine à gaz’ – a huge, labyrinthine contraption that huffs and puffs and in the end produces a blast of hot air. Whoever designed Scrivener is a worthy successor to Heath Robinson.


Furthermore – and please excuse me for making an obvious point – if I buy the same shirts as George Clooney, I’m not going to look like George Clooney. Faulkner, Salinger and Hemingway managed just fine without Scrivener. Closer to the present, so did the authors of such complex works as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Scrivener may be smart, systematic and seductive, but it won’t turn you into an author any more than a pair of top-end trainers will turn you into Mo Farah. Obvious, yes, but as all advertisers know, our gullibility is boundless – so much do we want our dream to become true that we’re ready to believe we just need the right accessory, whether Nike, Rolex or Scrivener.

You assume now, obviously, that I’m not going to buy it. Well, actually, I think I will. Because after a month of testing, I’ve finally stopped screaming in frustration at the sheer number of buttons and knobs and levers that serve no other purpose than to drive me mad. There’s even a certain pleasure now to opening it. And having reached the conclusion that it can offer a slight improvement on my current practice, I reckon I’ll give it a go.

I still write longhand in messy, chaotic notebooks strewn with asterisks and arrows. Scrivener won’t change that. It’s when the mess is transferred to screen that changes start to occur. Because once you’ve figured out how to organise files and folders – and that in itself is no easy matter – the navigation within your text becomes easier. Everything being on a single screen, you get a global view, the visual realisation of the way the text is shaped at a given moment in your mind. Potentially, this makes for more efficiency. On the whole, my brain works OK – though I might forget where I parked the car, I have all the scenes of my novel sorted in the left isosceles giblet of my endo-coniferous lobe. But sometimes my brain messes up, and bits and pieces of inspiration get lost.


Seriously, though, it would be interesting to study the neurocognitive effects of using Scrivener. I’m sure cut-and-paste, thanks to the ease of shifting passages around, made a difference to the way novels were written. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scrivener did likewise.

After a month, I’m using only the most basic functions. It does a million other things that I’ll never want or need. Gradually, I dare say I’ll learn a few other tricks, as I do with Photoshop or Excel. I’m not in any hurry, though – I’d rather write than fiddle with fancy software. That’s one reason why I won’t be signing up to Joseph Michael’s Learn Scrivener Fast – the other being the $197 it costs. Nothing against Mr. Michael here – if the software’s so Heath Robinson that he can sell tutorials at five times the price of what they purport to explain, kudos to him. Personally, I found some decent hints for free here and here. One thing’s for sure – if you’re starting out with Scrivener, you’ll need some sort of help. Unless you already peel your potatoes with the Heath Robinson machine.



17 thoughts on “The Heath Robinson Writing Machine

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Thanks, Curtis. That is a very timely blog, at least for me, because I’ve been toying with the idea myself and now I know Scrivener & I are not a match. I want my story in my mind where association freely plays, not scattered into bits & linked according to some programmer’s idea of how creativity connects all the dots.

    Here’s a quote from J. G. Ballard.
    “I do a lot of book reviewing, and although I’ve never used a PC, I’m absolutely certain that I can tell the difference between books that are written on PCs and those that are not. Books written on the PC have high definition in the sense of line-by-line editing, grammar, sentence construction and the like. But the overall narrative construction is haywire.”

    As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.

    Or, as we learned in the last U.S. election, the media is the message. -Now, that’s an association I wager Scrivener would miss.

    Liked by 4 people

    • @Curtis: I know nothing of this Scrivener contraption of which you speak. I would find it fascinating, though, to find out what advantages (above and beyond those of a decent word processor) YOU found this device/writing system gave you after a year or so of use.

      Whatever works, I say!

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’ll give you an update when I’ve been using it a while. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s for planners, not pantsers. I’ve got WIPs of both sorts on the go, so if I’m patient enough, I hope to get a decent idea of what it can do in both cases.

        Liked by 2 people

    • @GD: J. G. Ballard said that, huh? Well . . . I interpret his words to mean, “Too many ‘writers’ are merely word processing; i.e., vomiting out torrents of grammatically correct, properly spelled text that is banal, insipid and utterly forgettable when what they should be aspiring to is the mastery of story craft. I mean to say that one must arrange the words that everyone else is using in as new and startling and aesthetically arresting a fashion as possible.” If THAT’s the sentiment Mr. Ballard is trying to express; I agree. Otherwise–what nonsense! How many old-timey writers [sic] said similar negative things about the typewriter when it was first introduced?!

      Personally, I believe the bane of readers everywhere is sloppy, first- and second-draft writing that simply hasn’t gone through enough revision(s). All good writing is rewriting, I argue, howsoever you accomplish it.

      Liked by 4 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        LOL, Carl! You are exactly right. That same J. G. Ballard quote continues, “There’s a tendency to go on and on and on, in a sort of logorrhea, and to lose one’s grasp of the overall contents.”

        Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    I am very disorganized with my files and folders. I often combine research but neglect to copy, rename and delete non-pertinent material. But I like my haphazard structure. I rediscover stuff, there’s a joy in that. Well, tell us more, just in case I should change my pig-head mind.

    My vocabulary files alone are a disaster. Old ones are organized by subject. More recent are organized by source, for easy attribution. What can Scrivener do about that? That alone might get me on board.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    Carl, I have heard that many times in my life from many people.

    My father expected much of us. I never felt we had value for him except in terms of what we accomplished. He was like an anorexic, who can never be thin enough. We could never be perfect enough. My brother and sister and I all live with that, even after all these years. I put a lot of that pain into Sly. I’ve finally found a use for it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I once worked with a woman at Loyola Press whose father deafened her in one ear when she was a little girl by repeatedly cuffing her on the side of the head while shouting, “You’re stupid! I can’t believe you’re mine.”

      There is so much pain in the world one doesn’t know what to say anymore. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “So it goes . . .”

      I’m glad you’ve found a way to transmute your pain into art.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Perry Palin says:

    I had heard of Scrivener, didn’t know anything about it, and then looked at it after reading Curtis’ blog. It’s not for me, at least right now. I’ve tried a number of ways to outline and organize electronically or on paper, and failed at all of them. Like GD, I keep what I need in my head.

    Research? I don’t do much research. This is fiction. I make stuff up. If I need a fact, the elevation of Eagle Mountain, the color of maple leaves in Mears Park in October, I’ll open a window to look it up, close the window and move on. No complications no special software.

    But if Curtis decides to get deep into Scrivener, like Carl I would be interested in another report.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well, I’ve bought it anyway – $40. I’ll see where I am with it in six months. Navigation within the text is certainly easier, and that on its own is a boon. Whether all the other things it does are useful, I don’t yet know.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    We expect a full report, Curtis.

    Start with, how is navigation within text easier? When I want to land on a certain patch, I think of a particular (unique) word that I recall using, and do a ‘find’. That works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mimispeike says:

    Here’s what I can use help with: I am a member of academia.edu. (Is that nutty or what?) I joined it when I was searching for data on the presence of a certain kind of monkey in sixteenth century Europe.

    I followed a headline on an article to that site, a place where academics post papers for peer review. In order to access the article, I had to join. I answered the application honestly. I’m not a professor, not a grad student, not working on a degree, I’m writing a piece of fiction. And they let me in. I get emails now, announcing things that (I guess) they think I might be interested in. Like how the shape of fox craniums correlates with the mating prowess. (This arrived only this morning.) I get a lot of stuff dealing with animals. Did I tell them I was writing a book about a cat? I do not remember.

    The emails contain links to a glorious variety of obscure topics, some of which I may eventually find a use for. So I save it all, you never know. Does this software enable you to keep track of odd files on your desktop?

    As part of the application process they asked me, do you have a paper you’d like to submit for peer review? Yeah, I’d like to submit Sly, but I don’t think that would go over.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: How do you do it? | writers co-op

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