The technology problem

Technology has been such a boon for writers. In a single lifetime we’ve seen multiple hurdles between the writer and success either completely destroyed or considerably lowered.

When I first thought of writing as a career the typewriter was still king, though it was increasingly an electric typewriter, and there were already dedicated word processors, and even a few early adopters writing on computers. Being a writer meant going through a lot of paper. Querying meant paying to send a precious physical copy of your novel through the post. Backing up your work required carbon paper or access to a photocopier.

That era lasted longer than you think. Even once it became common for writers to own computers or high end word processors we had to be aware that dot matrix printer outs were not acceptable for the finished manuscript. We had to shell out for other printers which were invariably noisier, less flexible or more expensive. We had to know that because it wasn’t acceptable to submit a floppy disk and even if you could work out how to email a whole novel no agent or publisher would look at it.

Now we live at a time when you can, if you really need to, write a novel on a mobile phone and send it to an agent or publisher using a coffee shop’s free wifi. The only upfront cost is the phone and a maybe a couple of quid for the writing app.

And yet I’m still looking for the perfect solution to some of my writing problems. I write most of my novels using a program called Scrivener. It’s very useful for structuring and outlining and for writing the earlier drafts. It can back up to Dropbox automatically and I can work on the same file using my PC and my iPad (though not at the same time). It’s very reasonably priced and it’s even cheaper if you win NaNoWriMo. The one place where it falls down is when it comes to collaboration. You can’t have the same Scrivener project open on two different devices simultaneously. That means it’s harder to work on something as a team and it’s less useful for sharing with beta readers and editors.

When I get to the beta stage I compile the Scrivener project as an RTF or a word document and then open it in Google Docs. Google Docs is great for collaboration. You can have multiple people typing on the same document at the same time. Where it falls down is in organising the parts of a project. With a really big project like a long novel or a Tabletop RPG book you only have two options. Keep the whole thing in a single, unwieldy file, or break it up into parts and then risk getting confused about the order of things.

What I need is something that allows me to build a project file full of discrete scenes, notes, timelines, research and also to have two or more people working on it simultaneously. If I can easily turn the separate scenes into a single narrative document for beta readers to look at that would be great. If it can export to a Microsoft word doc for sending to agents that would be excellent.

Maybe you’re wondering why I need that? Well, I have two projects in mind that are going to require a certain level of collaboration. In both cases I’m going to be doing most of the actual typing but I’m going to need input from other people.

One is a very complicated heist narrative that requires a lot of world building. I’ve already mentioned that in This is Not a Project File. The nature of the narrative will require some non-linear storytelling. A lot of things will be happening simultaneously and these things will be linked to events in the past that will need to be fit into the narrative somewhere. Therefore I need to be able to write in a lot of little scenes that I can move around easily. That’s the sort of writing that Scrivener works well with. But I also need a detailed timeline and Scrivener doesn’t have one of those built in. I can always produce one using different software and then import it into Scrivener as an image. But what I can’t do is allow my collaborator into the Scrivener project file to work on the world building and background stuff unless I first close Scrivener on my computer and then go and do something else instead.

The other thing that I’m thinking about is at the extremely early stages and I hesitate to even mention it. Partly because it’s such a cliche. But I am exploring the idea of doing a podcast. A fiction podcast. It will tell a bunch of linked stories but doing the idea justice is beyond what I can do alone. I have friends that I can call upon to get involved. But first I have to solve the problem of workflow. How can we work together?

There’s a part of me that thinks that it’s ridiculous that I’m having any trouble with this. In previous generations people collaborated by letter. They sent each other handwritten maps and timelines. They typed stuff up on flimsy carbon copy sheets so they could pass their work around. If they were suddenly struck by a brilliant plot idea they might even send it via telegram. I have the luxury of text and email to keep in touch with my creative friends.

As things stand I have no solution in mind. I’m open to suggestions but I suspect that I’m going to end up cobbling something together out of multiple programs and web apps.

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Older than you think. Swears a lot. Writer. Owner of the Walking-Stick-of-Doom. Has a personal backstory so tragic it could win Britain's got talent on its own.

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