Scrivener Superpowers

How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice

What’s in a Filmmaker’s Writing Toolkit? Interview with Garrett Robinson

Garrrett Robinson is a novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker. He recently joined the team at Sterling & Stone full-time to become Legendary—the name of the new imprint Garrett leads.

This depth of experience gives Garrett a unique perspective on Scrivener. As a screenwriter and filmmaker, Scrivener plays a key role in his process, but he uses many other tools to complement the organizational power of Scrivener.

In this interview, we also talk about the importance of the physical world in his work and his favorite book/series: Lord of the Rings.


Matt Herron:                        Hi Garrett, welcome. How’s it going?

Garrett Robinson:            Hey! Pretty good. Thanks, good to be here.

M.H.                                           Absolutely. Thanks for taking the time to chat. So just as a brief introduction before we get into the interview, Garrett is an independent film maker and the author of Rebel Yell a novel about rock ’n’ roll as well as Nightblade an epic fantasy series. And I also just found out that you host two podcasts: The Story Telling Podcast and The Film Geeks Podcast. Awesome.

So today we’re going to talk a little bit about the creative writing process with Scrivener. But let’s start at the beginning. You have a background as a film writer and director, right?

G.R.                                             Yeah. That’s how I kinda got started. It was a weird journey from filmmaking to writing. I worked as a freelance filmmaker for a while, wanted to get into writing and directing, so I was writing scripts and so on, and had never really heard of Scrivener.

And so it’s very, very hard to get into the film industry, especially as a director. You can work on crews, but nobody wants you to direct a film unless you’ve already directed a film – it’s that weird catch 22.

And so after trying that for a long time, one of my best friends, another author named Zach Bolger who writes under the name Z.C. Bolger, he said “Why don’t you turn your scripts into books and self-publish them, and gain an audience that way? And then that could lead to turning them back into movies down the line.” And so then I began writing, and he turned me onto The Self-Publishing Podcast and that’s where I first heard about Scrivener. And I got it and just started learning everything I could about the program—because it’s incredibly powerful.

M.H.                                           I think that’s where I first heard about it too, a couple of years ago. So did you use a different piece of software to write scripts for films?

G.R.                                             Yeah, there’s a free piece of software out there called Celtx which has an advantage in that you can write scripts, but it’s also designed for the production. So when you write a script it’s broken into your scenes and you have named characters and everything, and when you write the script in there, it automatically catalogues all of your characters and catalogues your scenes. So that then when you go into production planning and you’re like, “We’re going to shoot on these locations on these days,” all of that stuff is very easy to organize. And you can set up your casting, your shooting—everything. It’s actually pretty amazing for filmmakers.

M.H.                                           Yeah, totally. So now when you write film scripts, you don’t use Scrivener, right? You use Scrivener just for novels?

G.R.                                             Yeah, exactly. When I do a film project now I will generally have my Celtx project in which the script writing happens, but I actually do still use a Scrivener file because I use my research folder with links to websites and everything like that. Because that’s a functionality that Celtx doesn’t have. In fact I’ve never really seen a word processor, except for Scrivener, that does that.

M.H.                                           Fascinating. So how long have you been writing professionally? At what point did you transition from the film writing over to writing novels?

G.R.                                             Well, I published my first novel in December of 2012. So I was still working a 9-5 job at that point, but I published my first actual novel in early January. I wrote a trilogy of novellas, starting in December, published it as a complete, single novel in January 2013. And then I published another book in March, and then another one in May. And at that point I was actually let go from my 9-5 job and of course I was kind of panicking and freaking out. And my wife said, “Yeah but you’re making money writing now, why don’t you just do that?” Because my wife is incredible and amazing. So that was when I became a full-time author. And since then I’ve been a writer for a living. Which is pretty great.

M.H.                                           That’s nice. It sounds like you were just thrown into the fire.

G.R.                                             Exactly, exactly.

M.H.                                           I guess it worked out for you though.

G.R.                                             Yeah, for sure.

M.H.                                           So, did you write your first novel in Scrivener? The first three—the series of novellas?

G.R.                                             Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I listened to the podcast for a while and then got myself a copy of Scrivener. So by the time I was ready to take my first script and turn it into a book it was just Scrivener from the get go.

M.H.                                           That’s amazing. So these were scripts that you had already written—you just novelized them?

G.R.                                             Yeah.

M.H.                                           Wow, that’s pretty cool. So the story was already there, it was just, you had to add more words, right?

G.R.                                             Exactly.

M.H.                                           Less dialogue, more words.

G.R.                                             Description and so on and so forth.

M.H.                                           So can you describe for me the experience of discovering Scrivener for the first time? I mean as somebody who uses script writing software it probably wasn’t that far-fetched. Whereas some people who come from Microsoft Word or just from plain text files or RTF files seeing Scrivener can be kind of overwhelming. What was it like for you?

G.R.                                             Well it was—and I sometimes forget that. I sometimes forget how it was when I first got the program and opened it up. Because just initially—I got over it pretty quickly—but just initially you open it up and it looks very complex. And I often forget how that was, because I’ll tell people… Somebody’s like “What do you write in?” and I’m like, “Scrivener,” and they get it and they’ll message me or write me and be like, “What is this thing? I don’t understand!”

And now I’m just like, “What are you talking about? It’s so simple.” But there is that initial thing where you have to learn what the binder is, how the different folders work, how formatting… Compiling to me, is second nature now. And anybody I know who tries to compile a book for the first time—myself included the first time many years ago—is just, what is this?

It can be a little bit overwhelming but it is one of those things that once you get the hang of it, it’s so simple once you figure it out.

M.H.                                           Yeah. I felt the same way about the compile screen at first—there was a lot of options there. So how did you get over that? Are you the kind of person that finds a new piece of software and just plays around with it until they get it? Or are you the kind of person that goes and watches tutorials, and reads the help manual and that sort of thing?

G.R.                                             I sort of do a mix of both. I decide, okay I want to do this—and I basically throw myself into it. And my first result is usually not what I want at all. So then I figure out what is wrong. Not what I did wrong, because I don’t know what I did wrong, but what didn’t achieve the result I wanted. And then I go and I google how to do this specific thing. And then I go back, I do it and that thing is correct. And maybe now something else needs to adjust…

So, I’ve always been pretty good at learning software. I learned video editing software self-taught, audio mixing software self-taught. So it took me a few tries, probably a few weeks of really getting it down and learning all the different things. And I’m still learning. There’s still things that I am just getting into. Where, my goals for each book that I format and design and write always expand. Because I always know how to do a book the way I did it last time, so I’m always looking for—what can I do newly this time? What’s going to make it better, faster, more organized.

M.H.                                           Can you give us some examples of the ways that you’ve improved?

G.R.                                             Yeah, so my first book was very simple. It was sort of a bit of a psychological thriller. And I formatted it all in Scrivener and published it all online and it was very simplistic. There’s no fancy titles on the chapters or anything like that. I had a very simple table of contents.

By the time I got to one of my other series—in addition to the Nightblade series that I’m writing now, I have two books published in the Realm Keepers series—and that series I really went all out. And actually in terms of formatting, that’s probably the best example of my work, just in how the book looks.

I had six different characters in that book series and they all have different elemental powers as wizards. So at the top of each chapter I figured out how to insert in the e-book a symbol for their elemental power and those symbols are also represented on the cover of the book and they are very central to the plot. So I didn’t have to label each chapter with the character’s name, because just putting the element name the reader goes, “Oh it’s from this person’s perspective.” And they’re right into it.

And I figured out how to get actual font choices, so that my chapter headings were in a certain font that I wanted, rather than just the default font. Whenever somebody opens something up on their Kindle, you just have a default font, whatever that person sets. Well I figured out how to make a chapter heading look exactly how I wanted to and made it feel more like an actual book that you’d get professionally. That kind of thing.

M.H.                                           I think the series of articles that you wrote on your website, about formatting for Scrivener, was about that subject, right?

G.R.                                             Correct.

M.H.                                           So if anybody wants to learn about it they can go to and check that out.

G.R.                                             Yeah, Somebody else has garrettrobinson – I’ll get it, I’ll get it one of these days!

M.H.                                           Just keep at it. Eventually he’ll let it lapse, and then you can just jump on it. Well that’s really cool. So before we get into more about the compiling and the post-production process—and I think that’s very interesting—but I want to hear a little more about your writing process now with Scrivener. As somebody who has written scripts and been a writer for a long time, do you think that switching to Scrivener changed your productivity as a writer?

G.R.                                             Tremendously. Because whenever you sit down to write, at least if you’re like me… If you are a “pantser,” you write by the seat of your pants, you don’t outline first in anything, I guess to some degree one word processor is much like the other. But if you do any amount of preparation, then you have notes. You write down things about your characters. You keep track of details so that the details are consistent throughout your book and you don’t have huge jumps in continuity where a characters eyes are blue in one chapter and then in the next chapter they’re green. You write these things down so that you don’t mess that up. And Scrivener is the best for that.

If you do work in something like Word, you are going to have to keep those notes anyway, but you’re going to have to keep them in a separate document or write them down in a notepad and you’re going to be flipping through pages—it’s just super irritating. So the way I go about it now is based on the process that Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant use, from The Self-Publishing Podcast. And they have actually published a course on, outlining how they do it. And they are friends of mine, full disclosure, but it’s a great course. People should check it out.

And how it starts is a very, very simple concept for the book. Just what’s called the logline—in one or two sentences, what is the book? And then I expand that out into a paragraph, and then multiple paragraphs. And then I break it down by what’s happening in each chapter. And so it’s all happening in the research folder; it’s all happening in outlining and what I call “story beats.”

And then basically it’s just taking the simple, core concept that is at the center of the book and expanding it and expanding it and expanding it, until I have an outline that is detailed enough that I can then sit down and write the first draft. And then I take all of those beats, I put them in the binder and I start actually writing the first draft of the book.

M.H.                                           So what kind of granularity are you aiming for when you plan a book? Do you want it to be planned down to the scene obviously? Or do you plan it down to different parts within the scene?

G.R.                                             I plan it really, really detailed. I’ll also include lots of notes in my scene. When writing the outline for what happens in a scene one thing that I always consider is—there are things that happen in every scene that relate to other parts of the book and I will include those notes in my scene descriptions. It’s like, in this scene Character A needs to have a lot of conflict with Character C because near the end of the book those two are going to have a reconciliation. So I don’t necessarily know what that conflict is going to be, but I know that the two of them need to have some disagreement—just as a really broad general example.

The thing about that is that it makes your outlining process take a little bit longer. And when you write the first draft, when I get in there and I’m actually writing the first draft things always change. Always, always, always—you can’t help it. So I might write a lot of details, especially near the end of the book, I might go into all this detail and then the last third of the book ends up being completely different from what I wrote. So that’s a little bit of extra work. But with that plan laid down at the beginning that is what allows me to write a first draft so fast. I do write my books very, very quickly and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I wasn’t so detailed in my outlining.

M.H.                                           So how long do you spend outlining versus the drafting process?

G.R.                                             Outlining is usually the process of… well it depends on the book. Because I publish books that are 40,000 words long, and I publish books that are a quarter of a million words long. But it’s probably about a third of my time is spent outlining versus a third of my time spent writing the first draft and then the final third is editing and post-production.

M.H.                                           Okay, that seems pretty good. I mean pretty efficient, right?

G.R.                                             Yeah. A lot of people will write an outline that’s a lot more general and if that’s the case I think it can take only up to a tenth of your time. But I do think that it makes your first draft—and especially your editing—is going to take longer because without that level of detail and really getting to know your characters before you start, you can make mistakes. And I still do that; even getting as detailed as I do.


M.H.                                           Right, because then you are finding the story within the drafting process, as opposed to finding the story in the planning process and then executing in the drafting process.

G.R.                                             Exactly.

M.H.                                           So how long does it take you from start to finish for a normal, let’s say a 60,000 word novel—which 60,000 words for those who don’t know would be the minimum for a full-length novel.

G.R.                                             Right. Nightblade is 80,000 so it’s pretty comparable. And Nightblade was actually all told, Nightblade was about 50 hours of work, but I spaced that out over the course of four weeks, or something like that. Like I said; I do get this done pretty quick.

Certain people don’t like to talk about how much they produce. Sean and Johnny from The Self-Publishing Podcast, they’ve adopted this policy of, “We don’t want to talk about how fast we write, how much we produce, because it invites comparison.” I agree and disagree. I know that people can get discouraged from seeing that people are really fast at what they do. I just don’t think people should be discouraged. I think they should be like, “Oh, that’s awesome, that’s my benchmark.”

And you can also just gauge your own production—I don’t produce as fast as Sean and Johnny do. So you can gauge your own production on, “Okay they produce at that speed and they’re able to put out a new book every single month. Well I produce slightly slower, so I can produce a new book every six weeks.” It’s good to know that about yourself.

M.H.                                           Absolutely. Do you think the experience, creating stories for script writing carried over?

G.R.                                             Yeah, for sure. One of my favorite books on storytelling in general is Save the Cat and I read that book a lot when I was putting my scripts together and I would always use it and go back through it and through it and through it. And so much of that same skill and that same… you know you have to be concise and you have to keep interest and you have to keep your pace going and everything. So much of that translates over into writing books. So that was, I think, a really valuable experience for me.

M.H.                                           And to tie this back into that Udemy course that you mentioned, about using beats in Scrivener to write a story—I’ve watched the course and it’s very informative. I found it very useful. Especially for how you can use Scrivener for these classic story structuring methods. And it’s interesting to me because the beats video—beats is a script writing term—but what they’re doing there, starting at one sentence and expanding it out and then expanding that out, some people call that the snowflake method. And so what they’re doing is not a new method and it’s not even very ground-breaking in terms of storytelling. But the fact that they do it in Scrivener and show you puts it into perspective. You’re like, “I read this book on the snowflake method, but here it is enacted, in front of me.”

G.R.                                             There’s always, in any field of study and in any technique, whether it’s art or science or whatever—there is your basic theory of how a thing works or how it should work and then there are: how do you use the tools to enact the theory? And Scrivener is simply a really amazing tool. But in order to get a good book, it’s not enough to have a great tool. You need the basic theory, you need to know how to actually go about it. You can have the best hammers and nails and saws in the world, but if you are not a good carpenter you still can’t build a good house.

M.H.                                           Absolutely. Okay, so let’s get it down into the specifics of Scrivener. When you’re planning, when you’re doing your beats, do you use the corkboard? Do you use just the file tree on the left?

G.R.                                             Yeah, I’m a file tree guy. I used to use the corkboard because—I don’t know if you can see it back there but I have a corkboard in my background with a lot of… I really love the physical, you know being able to move cards around and everything like that. It just helps me visualize things a lot more. But by the time I get to my computer and I’m working on my stories, I’m pretty much ready to just do it in a linear fashion. So I started off using the corkboard a lot more and then I was just like, “I don’t really need that.” Because I’ve usually done all of that work in the physical universe on my actual physical corkboard.

M.H.                                           I just discovered recently that you could use the corkboard in Scrivener and then print out notecards and cut them out. So, of course if we end up releasing this as audio the users won’t be able to see, but I’m sure you can see now, I use a corkboard too and they’re color coded, right? So for those who can’t see the video, I have two point of view characters in this novel, one is colored green and one is colored blue and I put those in Scrivener, printed them out and arranged them into a four-part story.

So absolutely, I totally get that. You want the physical manifestation of your ideas because it makes it more real. And it helps you fill in the gaps. If you put it on a corkboard and you are like, “The second half of part three is totally empty,” you know that the story is not ready yet.

G.R.                                             Yeah, exactly. And when you start planning that stuff out—and you do it with your corkboard and I do it with my binder in the thing—color coding is just one tiny little thing that is so, so great. Because by the time I’ve written what I think is going to be my outline, I’m like, “Cool. Well in the last half of this book we never hear from this character until the last chapter when they pop in. And the reader is expected to care about them?” No. We need to tell more. It just really helps you identify and physically see what’s going on and who it’s happening to.

M.H.                                           Are there any other structural theories or methods that you use? You mentioned Save the Cat which is a great book. One of my favorites is Story Engineering.

G.R.                                             I haven’t read that one. I’ll check it out.

M.H.                                           I would definitely recommend that one. It’s very informative and I used that to plan this book I’m writing. But are there any other structural methods that you use?

G.R.                                             Blake Snider’s Beat Cheaters is essentially my storytelling bible. And then other that I have spent a lot of time studying and really trying to understand the three act structure. Because I feel like the three act structure is a simple concept to explain and sort of get, but it’s very difficult to get into the nitty-gritty of what it actually means. And of course where most people fall down is the second act. Everybody knows how their story’s going to start and most people know how their story is going to end and it’s everything else in the middle that people just go, appetite over tin cup.

That is something that I am very, very adamant about: the middle of the book needs to be every single bit as good as the beginning and the end. And it can’t just… Obviously the middle of your book is the steps that are necessary to get from the beginning to the end, but it has to be more than that. There has to be value in the middle of your book, in the second act itself. It can’t just be—it can be if you are writing a very plot driven thriller but it’s way more interesting to me if there are things that happen in the middle of the book that don’t necessarily relate to the beginning and the end. That are their own little—for me Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of that.

Lord of the Rings is my favorite book and they do these things that don’t really relate. Moria, you know when they go down into the mines of Moria and Gandalph fights the Balrog? That doesn’t directly relate to the confrontation with Sauron. It’s just a thing that happens. And it’s its own little vignette of a story with the characters. And if it was strictly a plot-driven novel there would have been absolutely no delay between them leaving Rivendell and arriving in the forest of the elves and meeting Galadriel and her giving them the gifts and everything. But Moria is something that was put in as its own little mini-story within the story.

M.H.                                           That’s really interesting. I think you’ll really like Story Engineering. The reason that I find it fascinating is because he sets out milestones, especially through act two, which he calls part two in three of a four part story. And he has specific milestones that kind of break out act two and make it less of a drag. Because that’s the big middle part of the story that people struggle with—they call it “The beginning, the muddle and the end,” right? Because nobody really knows what’s going on in the middle. But he defines it: act two is separated into two parts by a midpoint and then each of part two and part three should have what he calls a pinch point in the middle of each of those acts. And of course we can’t get into that whole book right now, but I think you’ll find it very interesting, because it definitely goes into this three act structure and kind of defines it more and gives each part a different context. So, it’s very helpful.

G.R.                                             That’s great. Well I’m definitely going to check it out.

M.H.                                           So let’s talk about the writing process. You mentioned briefly that you color code and use point of view labels. How else do you use Scrivener to help you do the actual writing, the actual drafting? So, some examples would be the word count goals, split screen, full screen, sometimes people use custom labels or status labels. What’s your process for drafting?

G.R.                                             So by the time I’ve got my outline done and I’m ready to start writing, I go all out. I work in hour long chunks. I have a timer on my computer and I unplug the internet, I literally shove my phone into my couch in my office—like, I don’t put it there, I put it in between the cushions on vibrate so I can’t hear it. I put on my headphones, I start playing Rise Against—they’re the only thing I listen to when I write. I don’t really know why, except I can write to them and they’re great, I love their music.

So then for an hour I am just writing. And I’ll generally write between 2500 and 3500 words an hour. And I keep track of my hours, I always staticize everything I’m doing. So I write as much as I can for that hour and I have my word counter sitting there and I always have it set for a goal for this hour of 2500 words. But honestly that’s my minimum; I usually do more than that. And by the time the hours done—and the timer’s sitting in the corner of the screen so I’m watching it while it’s going. And I’m always full screened. My second computer monitor over here is shut down so that there is literally no distractions. It’s just me and the draft.

So by the time the clock starts getting into the last fifteen and the last five minutes and everything, I’m really pounding away at the keyboard. And I’m definitely a big believer in the faster I write, the better I write. I might have more technical errors but I feel like the voice is a lot cleaner because I’m not thinking too hard about every single thing that I’m saying. That’s for editing. First drafts should just be raw and then you refine it.

So then I write. When the hour’s done I plug my internet back in, see if I got any texts, any emails, and everything like that and I’ll generally take between a 15 and 30 minute break and then I’m just right back in for another hour. And I keep track of my word counts like I said and I also post them. If anybody follows me on Instagram—I don’t really know why you would, some people do—I always take a photo of the little Scrivener screen counter with my phone. Just because it looks more Instagrammy that way, rather than screen capturing it. So I take a photo of the screen capture and then I post it to Instagram, which automatically posts it to my Facebook, my Twitter and my Tumblr. And that’s actually a way that I keep myself accountable to my audience, because they’ll see, hey I am actually working on the next book. You don’t need to send me any more emails asking me for the next book!

M.H.                                           I’m working, I promise!

G.R.                                             I swear! And it’s such a little thing, it sounds like such a little thing, just having a word counter sitting there that you can actually share with other people. It’s not a little thing to me. It’s very important and it’s part of my interactivity with my fans. Of course my Instagram feed looks ridiculous—it’s just a whole bunch of pictures of word counters. But that and the ability to write a chapter and then move onto the next chapter, as opposed to something like word where you start a new page or you could start a new Word document for the next chapter… but that’s ridiculous. Like just, I’m done with this file, start a new one and being able to flip back and forth is… it just makes writing a dream. It’s really amazing.

M.H.                                           Do you record the word counts anywhere else? Like in a spreadsheet or something else?

G.R.                                             Yeah, I have a spreadsheet. It tracks my daily totals and then it also tracks, this hour I did this many, this hour I did this many. For me the statistic is the most important thing. So I don’t track data on like, did I check my Twitter during this hour? Because if I check my Twitter during this hour, then the hour ends at that point. I just—I don’t. So I keep track of my totals, I’m always trying to push my level of production up. You can only really get so high at a certain point; you can’t really easily push it beyond a certain level. But I keep track of my daily production, my weekly production and pretty much everything else I do. I’m a little detail orientated when it comes to that.

M.H.                                           I think that’s good though. Because how else are you going to find when you’re most productive and what the most productive system is for you if you never track it.

G.R.                                             Exactly.

M.H.                                           Is that how you discovered that the one hour blocks are your sweet spot?

G.R.                                             Yeah. I tried 90 minutes for a while and it’s weird—sometimes I will change back to 90 minutes because I feel like a change can increase my productivity. But when I change to 90 minutes I’m usually really productive for the first few times I do it and then that productivity starts to decline. And then I switch back to an hour and I get much more productive and then it sort of settles. And it takes a long, long time for hour long blocks to become less productive. Eventually they do, and I switch back and forth.

So 90% of the time I’m writing in hour long chunks and then every once in a while to just switch it up I switch to 90. But also, I’m not my most productive first thing in the morning. That’s why I always make my YouTube video first thing in the morning. I wake up, I make a video for YouTube and then I start writing. Because if I sit down first thing in the day and start trying to write, I’ll write 1500 words in an hour. I’m just not there yet. I need time to get my gears going. And I can write late at night, no problem. Some of my most productive hours are actually between 1 and 4am. I just can’t do that because I have a wife and children.

M.H.                                           I think this is fascinating, that everybody’s productive at a different time of the day. I’ve heard other people say that they’re not productive in one hour chunks, they need six hours of uninterrupted time in order to actually produce anything. But everybody’s a little different and the way you discover what your most productive time is by recording the data.

G.R.                                             Exactly. And good luck tracking any of that data if you are writing in Word.

M.H.                                           Do you ever go back and self-edit while you are typing? Or is it a no, you can’t look back rule—I will not read what I just wrote in the last hour chunk, because then I’ll start self-editing.

G.R.                                             Sometimes I’ll go back because I will have written something or mentioned some detail that I need to refer to in what I’m writing now. But in general—and every time I do that, when I go back to look for a detail, I’m reading through things and I’m looking for the detail I’m looking for, and I always spot shit. But I’m able to disengage and not self-edit, other than… it’s not self-editing. I do have a thing of, I’m not going to edit it until I’m done with the first draft. And minor little notes and typos and stuff doesn’t really count in my mind, if that makes sense.

M.H.                                           Totally. Oh, I see that, might as well fix it since I’m in here.

G.R.                                             Exactly. But it doesn’t drag me in. Like some people talk about, when they start looking at what they’ve already written they get dragged in and they can’t stop themselves from reading and continuing to go through and try and make everything perfect. And it’s like, you’re not going to make everything perfect. Sorry.

M.H.                                           And you’re losing all the productivity that you could have had writing the next chapter, instead of re-writing what you just wrote.

Okay, so now you’ve written the draft, walk us through your self-editing process. And I say self-editing because I find that most people do one self-edit before they send it to an outside editor. Do you do that?

G.R.                                             Well, I’m going to do a “do as I say, not as I do” thing here, which Johnny B Truant did for a long time. Johnny B Truant now uses an outside editor, because he has a really good one and he can afford it. I self-edit. I do not hire an outside editor. I run into the same problem he ran into when that was the case for him—it sounds really douche to say that I think I can do it, but most people can’t. But I know from my own work and from reviews I’ve gotten and from what other people have said, not just my own ego, that my self-editing doesn’t hold back my writing. I know that it would be even better to hire an external editor, and I have two people that are my developmental editor and my copyeditor that I am—I can’t wait to be able to hire these people. But they charge good rates, because they are very damn good at what they do and I can’t afford them right now. So I self-edit.

And it’s not something that people should generally do. If you can it saves you some money, but it will always, always be better to get an external viewpoint. Somebody else looking through your word and your story and everything.

M.H.                                           Maybe after a decade of storytelling experience, at least you know what your blind spots are.

G.R.                                             Exactly. And I’m always trying to look for new things. I’m part of a Facebook group called Writer’s World and I’ll post samples of my work in there all the time. And they are always like, “You’re doing this too much, I’ve noticed that you’ve overused this phrase repeatedly…” And it’s a fairly innocent phrase, it’s not something that I could necessarily spot myself. Even just something as simple as “and then he.” Beginning a sentence with “and then he.”

I submitted one thing that was 2000 words long and they were like, “You use “and then he” three times in these 2000 words and it’s just odd enough that it sticks my attention.” So I changed two of them. You have to constantly be looking for what you do over and over again and you need to be constantly trying to knock those habits out if you want to be a self-editor. But I’m very, very lucky in that my command of spelling and grammar and specifically punctuation—there’s so many people who just can’t really get what a comma splice is. They don’t understand. And that’s fine, if you’re a writer honestly the exactitude of spelling and grammar is the job of the editor. So you don’t need to be perfect at all that stuff unless you are also the editor. But if you are not perfect at that stuff, don’t be your own editor. Because then you immediately to any reader or any reviewer you come off as “self-publishing schlock.” Quote unquote. And we don’t need more of that in the world.

M.H.                                           It sounds like you are using a critique group as well, so I would count that as outside editing, even if it’s not for the whole thing. Here’s an important scene, why don’t you guys make sure I’m not screwing anything up. So do you edit straight in Scrivener? Do you use the comments? Do you print it out on paper and read it that way?

G.R.                                             I do pretty much everything in Scrivener. First I just do a read through—well I export an e-book immediately and I read the whole thing on my Kindle. Because I’m not even close to typos and punctuation and all that sort of thing. That is for essentially developmental editing. Are there major flaws in my story? Does this chapter relate to the other ones appropriately? Are things too long? Are things too short? And so I’ll make just general notes on my Kindle. On my Kindle App you can tap and insert a note. And I’ll read through the whole book that way. And then I’ll flip through it, flip through my notes and I’ll go back in and make big edit changes. Like a chapter gets cut in half or a scene gets removed or a new scene is added.

So I’ll do that. If I feel the need to—I rarely feel the need to, I’ve only felt the need to do this once—I might do that a second time. Generally once is enough. And then I start going through and I do line/ copyediting, where often my phrasing is not ideal on the first draft. I can tighten a lot of my sentences up other sentences can be combined, other sentences are entirely unnecessary and it’s getting into the paragraph level of editing. And if I do see typos and punctuation whatever, I’ll fix them, but that’s not the point. The point is to get my phrasing the way that I want it to be. And my language to communicate what I want it to communicate. And then once that’s done, then I go through it in Scrivener again, watching for misspellings, wrong character’s name, etcetera, etcetera.

And then, I actually also record my own audio books, so I narrate my audio books and so on. So audio book is actually my final copy editing phase. Because reading a book out loud is the best way in the world to catch errors that you don’t catch.

M.H.                                           That’s great, I love that you said that. Do you ever use the text to speech functionality in Scrivener? Just to hear it?

G.R.                                             I don’t actually. And I know that’s a thing that a lot of people use but something about it doesn’t totally work for me. Because I feel like—this is going to sound really dumb—I feel like I’m concentrating on the delivery and I’m like, “This delivery sucks.” And of course it sucks, it’s text to speech! But I do come from a directing background and I was an actor when I was a kid and I’m actually a professionally trained voice talent so I can’t disengage my mind from being like, “You’re not reading this book well at all.”

M.H.                                           And I’d feel the same way if I had to read my own books out loud, I’d be like, “Oh god, I hate the sound of my voice!” I would be so distracted by that I couldn’t listen. But for me hearing that robot voice, it’s removed my personality from it and I can just listen to the words. But either way, whether you’re reading it yourself out loud or you’re gritting through the robot text to speech voice, I think it’s good to hear it out loud. And that allows you to do the final proofreading/ copyedit phase.

G.R.                                             Absolutely.

M.H.                                           It’s interesting to me too that your process mirrors what a professional edit would be, right? First draft, then the structural edit, redraft, then a line edit and then the out loud proofread. That’s what you would go through with a professional editor as well, right?

G.R.                                             Absolutely.

M.H.                                           So the process is still there; it’s just that you happen to be doing it yourself.

G.R.                                             Exactly. Which again, if people are really self-aware of themselves and they are good enough to do it, then I’m not going to tell you not to. I still think anybody from Johnny, to me, to anybody else out there is always better with an external editor. If you’re self-aware and you know that you’re skill level won’t hold you back, go for it. Because it’s also a really valuable learning experience for when you are working with an editor at some point. It’s really valuable to know what they look for, what they’re going through, how their process works. So I think everybody should edit themselves as best they can before they send it to an editor.

Because that’s another thing. I do some freelance book editing for other people and I’ll say the majority of the time people send me, what I’m pretty sure is their first draft. And if it’s not their first draft… yeee. Because it’s just got errors. I mean typos and grammar and so on aside, it’s just… wow! Wow. And I’m just like, “Dude you are literally paying me to do something that you could easily do yourself.” If you send a book to an editor that’s 50%, they’re probably going to return it to you at 85%. If you send an editor a book that’s 85%, they’ll return it to you at 95-100%. 100% is basically impossible but you get it. The better the quality that you put into the editing machine, the better the quality that’s going to come back.

M.H.                                           And if you’re paying for it, why waste your money? You’ve gotta send them the best thing that you can produce.

G.R.                                             Certain people I just… because I offer developmental editing and copyediting separately. Copyediting is by the word, developmental editing is by the hour, is what I charge. And certain people are like, “I want to hire you as a copyeditor,” so I go through and of course I am reading the story, I have to be. And sometimes after the first chapter I’ll write the person, I’ll be like, “Um, not to be whatever but I think that you should hire a developmental editor. I offer that service, but if you’re not—I’m not trying to upsell you, I can recommend many other great developmental editors…” And some people just get stuck. Stuck in their own minds, “No, no, no I just want to clean up the copy and keep the story exactly the way that I want to.” And fair play to them. I mean who am I to say? But some people do need it.

M.H.                                           Yeah, that’s fair. So after you‘ve edited, you are going to compile the book for e-book formatting. We’ve talked a little bit about custom images and custom fonts and e-book formatting. What’s your process for exporting for publication?

G.R.                                             Okay, so I export in three formats. I export Kindle, e-pub and then to Word for print. And that is the one thing that I would love—that’s my number one most wanted feature is, I want Scrivener to be able to export directly into InDesign. Because InDesign is how you design a print book, right?

M.H.                                           Wouldn’t that be nice?

G.R.                                             My god, it would be amazing. Exporting to Word, and then importing Word into your InDesign document is not that difficult. It’s just one extra step. But oh man, if we could only put it directly into InDesign.

So I’ll go for the Kindle file first. And generally I have a number of templates for books that I’ve already done. I have a template for Touch, I have a template for Non Zombie, Hit Girls, Midrealm, etcetera, etcetera. So, I look at my other books and I’m like, “What do I want this to be most like?” And I use that template and then I modify it from there.

And when I started I actually was a big believer in the “as is” feature. I just want all of my chapters and all of my files to go out as is and I’ll do all of my formatting in the files themselves. That works for really simple formatting, but boy, you are not tapping into Scrivener if you do it that way. So now I’ve gotten to the point where everything is taken care of in the compile window and everything is formatted according to metadata tags. And I do all of my padding that way and everything because then if you decide that you want a little bit more padding on the pages of each new chapter—like if you wanted to start six lines down, every chapter has six blank lines before it says Chapter One. So you export that. And you look at it and it’s not quite enough space—if you’re doing everything as is, then you have to go into every goddamn chapter and you have to add two lines. Or you can go into your compile window and you can just add two more lines at the beginning of each chapter with two clicks.

M.H.                                           So you have the metadata doing all of the padding and the formatting as opposed to going into that file and pressing enter a couple of times to move it down?

G.R.                                             Exactly. And once you really get a handle on how all of that stuff works, that’s huge. To some degree it helps to know computer programming because it works almost the exact same way as designing a website. All files of this type will be formatted this way; all files of this type will be formatted this other way.

M.H.                                           And isn’t that the power of Scrivener? It’s supposed to be formatting agnostic. So whatever you format in your editor, like if you want a bright pink screen to write that’s fine, when you export it, it totally strips it and turns it into an e-book. And that’s what makes it powerful.

G.R.                                             And the different functionalities—a lot of people don’t even realize this but you can set different formats for different levels of documents. So, a perfect example of that is, I also format all of the print books for Johnny and Sean from The Self-Publishing Podcast. So, their most recent book is a book called Invasion, it’s a book about an alien invasion, and it’s told in a series of days. You know, Day One of the invasion, Day Six, Day Ten.

So the way that I structured that is that there are all these chapters that take place on Day One. So I have a folder called Day One and all of the Day One chapters are in that folder. Well, you can set formatting for the folder itself so that you start with a title page that just says really big, in a special font in the center of the page, Day One. And then you turn the page and Chapter One starts and it just looks completely different. That’s a small thing, but if you don’t know how to use the multiple formatting levels in Scrivener, you really couldn’t achieve that effect.

M.H.                                           And it’s hard to do this, especially if we’re doing this as an audio interview or even as a video interview because we can’t see the interface. But what you’re saying is, you’re taking the scenes that you write and you’re putting them into a chapter folder.

G.R.                                             Exactly. Well, it’s actually chapters that they wrote into a… I guess you could call it a section folder.

M.H.                                           And so did you have different formatting for Day One, as opposed to Day Ten? Did the formatting change as the book progressed?

G.R.                                             No that stayed consistent.

M.H.                                           So you’re just formatting the section title?

G.R.                                             Exactly. So that sections looked different from chapters. And also the back matter looks different from the chapters. The chapters, I think they had eight lines of padding at the top of the page for each new chapter. The back matter, that was too much, so I changed it to four. And that’s just because they are a different type of document. A different level of document.

M.H.                                           So are there any other Pro tips you have for compiling e-books with Scrivener? Anything we haven’t covered?

G.R.                                             There’s a billion of them. I mean, one of the most powerful things in Scrivener is metadata. And metadata—like a lot of people just gloss over it as soon as you say the word metadata, because they have no idea what it means. And all it really means is extra data and tags that are applied to any file. And a really good way to understand it is, pretty much everybody knows ITunes and has an ITunes library. Well, if you took one of the songs in your ITunes library, and you found that file on your computer, it would be the title of the song. If the song is Miss American Pie, if you found the file on your computer it would just be Miss American Pie.mp3. But all of those files have metadata, which is something that is written into the file that lists the artist, the album it’s from, the length, the genre—everything. And that metadata is why, when you open that file up in ITunes it lists all of those things. It’s not that ITunes recognizes the song and is like, “Oh this is from that album!” No, it’s all written into the file itself.

So Scrivener metadata works the same way. So if you have a chapter that’s a text file, you can create your own metadata for it. A really common use of that is what character POV is that chapter from. And if you have that—that’s how in Realm Keepers I did the elemental symbols at the top of each chapter—it referenced what character is this chapter from? Okay we’re going to put that character symbol at the top of the chapter.

Another one is location. Another one, if you had a story that was told from the viewpoint of multiple factions. Like maybe you have a sort of very technological society and a more warrior, broodish society. If you were writing a book about Vulcans versus Klingons, one of them very logical and one of them very “Rrrrr! Kill people with the faces!” And you could tag each of your chapters with metadata as a Vulcan chapter or a Klingon chapter. And the font that began each chapter would change depending on that. It’s like, use the Vulcan font, which is very clean and simple lines and then for this one use the Klingon font which is very bold and sharp and Rrrr.

It’s hard to tell people a specific usage for it, because it’s so powerful and versatile and everybody’s book will be different. So I feel like the best advice is google how to use Scrivener metadata and just start fussing around with it. Play around with different options for your book and you’ll really swiftly discover, “Oh my god! This thing will change the way I format my books.”

M.H.                                           Yeah. Know what’s possible… and then google it. So do you use Scrivener for anything else? Blogging, journaling for your writing, anything like that?

G.R.                                             I actually am in the middle of a video series with the guys from Sterling & Stone. It’s on hiatus right now but I am working on bring it back. It’s called Nuts & Bolts and it’s how to’s on self-publishing. And there’s some Scrivener data in there but there’s a lot more like—there are very few tutorials online, on how to actually publish your book to the Kindle Store. People know that you should publish to Kindle, but you could very easily get into the dashboard and be like, “I don’t know what to do.” And the first couple of books you publish you don’t do them right, you don’t format your page correctly, you don’t use the right tags.

So that’s what the series is called, it’s Self-Publishing Nuts & Bolts, it’s on YouTube and the series is going to be returning really soon. We write that series in Scrivener. We have a shared Scrivener file, and every episode is its own script that is a file in there. So I write the script and then Sean goes through and makes sure I’m not forgetting anything and that I’m not saying anything I shouldn’t be and then I export that script to a Kindle file and that goes on my IPad and that’s what I use as my little teleprompter when I’m filming the show. That’s just one other way to use it. It’s a damn versatile program.

M.H.                                           Absolutely. So now let’s take a step back. We talked earlier about how these chats, these interviews are about going beyond Scrivener and I think we’ve definitely done that here. But one thing I like doing at the end is just kind of speculating. Because we use all these writing tools, and I have—you talked a little bit about how you want a couple of new features in Scrivener and it would be great if it could export to InDesign for example. But where do you see the future of creative writing tools headed? I mean is Scrivener the endgame? Obviously they’re going to improve it over time but it’s certainly not ideal because it doesn’t do everything that we need right now.

G.R.                                             It’s one of those things where, everything is the endgame until you discover there is a new game nobody even thought of before. And I feel like Scrivener was actually very futurist, which is a term that I really love. A futurist is somebody who knows what people need and want before they’ve even conceived of it. And before Scrivener, everybody was like, well Word is word processing, that’s what you use. And Scrivener was like, “No, no, no. This is word processing.” And everybody was like, “Oh my god.”

So what I see happening in the future is a couple of different things. First of all, a huge needed and wanted in the self-publishing industry is some capability for more graphics oriented books. Children’s books, graphic novels—there is no way to design those and publish them to Kindle. When Kindle—and Kindle is working on it, they just released a new feature not too long ago that was for Kindle kid’s books and graphic novels. Per review so far, it’s a little bit short of the mark. When that’s really done and awesome and ready to go, you’re going to see people developing tools for that. Maybe Scrivener will be into it, because Scrivener is not good for graphic novels right now. It’s not meant to be. It’s a word processor. But you’re going to see tools happening for that.

I’m not sure if I buy the whole e-books plus thing. People talk about music playing while you read a book and embedding videos in a book and additional features and everything. For me, I’ve tried some of those books; I don’t like the experience. It’s a novelty, but it doesn’t really lend for me.

M.H.                                           The only place I’ve seen it work is with ITunes You. You can download a course and you’re basically watching a series of lectures inside this one e-book essentially. But otherwise, I wouldn’t want any videos or music in my novels.

G.R.                                             Completely. But nobody thought that they wanted 3D until Avatar came out. It was like, “Oh that’s how you do it right! Let’s do more of that.” So if e-books plus as a concept begins to take off more and starts to become more successful and people do really amazing things with it, either Scrivener is going to adapt to that and make it a lot easier to do things like that, or some other new tool will come out that is.

As far as, if you just want to write a more traditional book, where the person sits down, begins to flip pages and eventually comes to the end of the story—that’s an art form that the creation process and the delivery process have changed slightly over time, but they haven’t changed that much. Except for some minor adjustments, exporting to InDesign, being able to share files more easily—except for things like that it’s hard for me to see something replacing Scrivener in the foreseeable future.

M.H.                                           You mentioned briefly that you were working in a collaborative Scrivener file. That must be difficult.

G.R.                                             It is. We do it through Dropbox. And Scrivener is really good, if I try and open a file and Sean is working in it, it’ll say “Sean’s got this open. Don’t touch it.”

M.H.                                           Oh really, I didn’t know that. That’s awesome.

G.R.                                             Yeah, that’s really good. But sometimes I go to open it and it says, “Sean’s got this open, don’t touch it,” and I text Sean and I’m like, “Hey dude, can you close the Scrivener file?” And he’s like, “I don’t have it open.” Every once in a while you have something like that.

Google Docs for example, you can both have the document open and you can both be writing in there. I’m not a programmer so I don’t know what goes in to it, but it would be great if Scrivener could do that. You know if you could literally both be—if I could be writing the first draft behind Sean, while he’s outlining. It’s like he’s laying down the railway tracks and I’m just barreling down as a train. Holy cow that would be fantastic! You could even have a third person following behind and editing as you go. The possibilities would be limitless. So that’s a key feature that I’d love to see. InDesign is a key feature that I’d love to see. Those are the big ones.

M.H.                                           Absolutely. Well we are coming up on an hour so we can wrap up now. Where is the best place that people can find you and your work online?

G.R.                                             You can search me on Amazon, Garrett Robinson. Or you can just go to my website, all of my books are there. It’s And if you sign up for my email list, which I of course recommend, you get a free copy of my book Rebel Yell. I send you that e-book straight away so you can check out what I do. And if you want a more fantasy work, Nightblade is my current series that people seem to be enjoying.

M.H.                                           Cool. And when is that Nuts & Bolts series going to go back up on Sterling and Stone?

G.R.                                             As soon as I can carve out the time to actually make the video.

M.H.                                           But you did a couple, right? You did the first couple?

G.R.                                             Yeah, there’s seven up there right now and they cover things like: How much does it cost to self-publish a book? What goes into the process? And a few things in Scrivener as well. So you can check it out, it’s on YouTube and just search “Self-publishing Nuts and Bolts.”

M.H.                                           Fantastic. Thank you so much Garrett.

G.R.                                             Awesome.

About Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

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