Reviving an Old Manuscript with Scrivener

I said I would never be here with you again, not like this. I promised myself you and I are done. And yet I find myself here again. Sigh.

One Strange Utopia was the first novel I wrote all the way to completion. Before that I had dabbled, writing a few pages here and there. After that I was obsessed. That first novel is like your first love, for better or worse it is unique. There will never be a novel writing experience like it again.

Like your first love, your first novel is often rocky. You don’t know what you are doing or what to expect.

And often we look back at our first novel we often cringe. We made so many beginners mistakes. We can’t hardly believe we once thought this was the greatest novel ever.

The moment we realize our first novel isn’t perfect is the day we learn the value of rewrites. Rewrites are the real beautiful part of writing. Rewriting makes our story better. I rewrote One Strange Utopia a full ten times. Not just editing, full rewrites with scenes scrapped, new subplots, major facts altered. It was exhausting work.

I should also say at this point that I consider myself more of a storyteller than a writer. That is part of the problem with One Strange Utopia. Writing is a skill. It is not uncommon for writers to look back on their first novel and realize that its just plain crap. I almost envy those writers. Everytime I look at One Strange Utopia I see how much I have grown as a writer, how much is rough. But the underlying story keeps drawing me back. Beta-readers, critique groups and others who have read it, keep pestering me about it. It’s good enough, they tell me, to keep working on.

I swore I wouldn’t do it. Ten rewrites is enough. I might do some surface editing but no deep rewrites. And yet as I look at this novel again, it needs more work.

Luckily I haven’t just grown as a writer, I’ve gotten smarter. I’ve learned Scrivener.

Did you know that Scrivener can be used to rewrite old manuscripts?


A scrivener using Scrivener

Scrivener is an amazing program. It’s so flexible. There are just so many different ways to use Scrivener that just about anyone can use it, on just about any writing project.

Before we begin we need to prep the manuscript for import. You can do this after the fact as well, but I find it easier to do it before. I went through the entire manuscript and added hashtags (#) at each scene break.


Add hashtags

Once we have added our hashtags we can open Scrivener and start a new novel project for our manuscript. Once the project is open we go to import –> import and split. This will not only import the document into scrivener, it will divide the document at each hashtag into a separate scrivening.

Import and split

If you didn’t add hashtags, you can still split the document. Read through the document in Scrivener and at each scene break right click and select “split at selection” to divide the manuscript into scrivenings.

Why divide into scrivenings at all?

Scrivener is a great tool for rewrites. First we need to break the story into component bits. There are some strong advantages already. Got some scenes you aren’t sure about. With scrivener you can easily click and drag them outside the manuscript file. They won’t appear in your book. If you decide you do want those scenes later just drag them back in place. Makes it easy to play around with various subplots.

You can also rearrange scenes to improve the story flow, but let’s not do that just yet. There is something else I want to do first.

The Inspector Pane

The real power user features on Scrivener are mostly found on the right side of the screen, in the inspector pane. Beginners and writers writing original work can be content with the binder and task panes, but rewriting is another matter.

The first step in a major rewrite is to go through your old manuscript and do some planning. Project notes apply to the entire document and that is a great place to record general notes about what you hope to achieve in your rewrite.

The top of the inspector pane is the scene title and synopsis. It is possible to auto-generate a synopsis by clicking the button in the upper right corner. That will import the first few lines. That isn’t helpful to me. So I create a title and synopsis. These will show on the index cards in corkboard mode, making rearranging scenes later a snap.

The general tab just under the synopsis has some basic information about the document. I don’t use it a lot. The status field allows you to designate the document “to do” “first draft” or “revised” and can be helpful.

The bottom of the screen has the real cool stuff for re-writing. It can be toggled through a multitude of choices, many of which were designed with these sorts of heavy re-writes in mind.

Document notes apply only to that scrivening and can be used to record notes about what you want to change to re-write in that scene. References allow you to enter the URL for any research sites related to that piece. Keywords allows you to search by keyword. Custom Meta-data is a tool I use a lot. I set up custom fields for point of view character, major subplots, story elements and timeline markers. For example I can set up a custom field for “timeline” and record which events are a flashback and which are after the triggering event.


Planning the Re-write

Once you’ve set all that up I start through the document. As I read each scrivening I do several things at once. I use notes, in the inspector pane, and toggle between project notes and document notes to write down things I want to change.

If a new character or place is described I copy and paste those descriptions into a new character sheet or research folder. In this way I compile the same kinds of notes about characters and research I would for an original novel, without any re-writing of these notes.


Did you know the task pane can be split into two?

You can set the top pane to have the scrivening you are working in displayed and the bottom to have a character sheet, another quick way of recreating your notes in Scrivening. It can also be used to compare information between two scenes to make sure it’s all consistent.

Another thing I do while re-reading is to fill in the custom meta data I decided to use. I record whose point of view, where I am at in the timeline and any other story elements I want to use in my re-write.

When I am done with this initial re-read I have a compiled a wealth of information. I have recreated most of my character notes and research. I can inspect the custom meta data at a glance. I can see whose point of view predominants, which subplots are heavy and which are weakly covered.

The biggest challenge with re-writes is consistency. If you decide to change a key point in one place, it must change everywhere. That is where Scrivener comes in. Let’s say you decide that a character just doesn’t work. You have to do some major changes to that character. He has to be meaner, taller, more motivated, or perhaps he would work better as a she. Making the change means changing every single reference. The first step is to set up a custom meta data field for characters and then when you reread the project note every scene where that character occurs.

Timeline meta data works the same way. If you intend to move a lot of scenes around, you need to know where each scene fits in the storyline. Once a scene is moved, you need to be able to make sure that scene is not referred to before it happens. Believe me, readers will notice. Just like they notice when a character’s eyes change color or they go from being a huge man to a cute woman.


Then the Work Begins

Rewriting is a big chore make no mistake. Even with Scrivener there is a lot of work to do. What Scrivener does is to give you confidence. You can rewrite fearlessly and once. With your custom meta data and notes in hand you don’t have to worry about consistency, you know which scenes need rewritten and how.

The final Scrivener trick before you get started is snapshots. Snapshots create a copy of your current document for history. Select Document–>Snapshots–>take a snapshot to take a snapshot. You can see the snapshot in the inspector pane under the camera icon.


Take snapshot

Snapshots let you experiment with your scene, knowing you can revert back to the old manuscript at any time. So if you think the big black male character would work better as a spunky Latina woman, go for it. Use custom meta data to identify the scenes you need to change and snapshots to record them.

Scrivener is an incredible versatile program. Have you used Scrivener to plan rewrites? What tricks did you use? Let me know in the comments.

Update: The novel One Strange Utopia has now been released as Children of a New Earth

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One Response to Reviving an Old Manuscript with Scrivener

  1. Pingback: Bringing New Life to an Old Story | elements of emaginette

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