The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Scrivener: Truth is counter-intuitive, software shouldn’t be


Yeah, that title sounds like a snark, but I’m sure a lot of the problem is me. I’m playing with Scrivener mostly because it will make life easier next time I do a collaboration with Skyler. I’m going to keep track of how things go as I learn this thing, and add to this post as I do so. I’m used to the Unix world in general and emacs in particular, and for me, what I loved was how intuitive everything was. The first time I created my first emacs file, back in the Dawn of Time, I was doing useful work within five minutes, and looking up what I needed to know as I went; in general, I’ve found that true of Unix stuff and DEC software, and almost nowhere else. Obviously, this may say more about me than about any particular software package.

The first annoyance I came across is author name–it appears at the top of every compiled page, just like it should.  The name of the author is $surname.  As some of you know, that isn’t actually my name. If I were to publish as $surname, many of my fans wouldn’t find the book. I would think there has to be a way to set scrivener so that when I start a new project it automagically plugs my name in. It has to exist. Why am I having so much trouble finding it?

As those of you who read the Vlad novels know, I write with a lot of dialog, a lot of italics, and a lot of lines with both.  “I know what you mean, Boss.” “Shut up.” One thing I can do in emacs (thank you, DDB!) is that I can just hit a button that defines Start Italics Here and Stop Italics Here and puts the cursor in the middle. Sweet. I’d actually be okay with a Start Italics button and a Stop Italics button. So far, however, the only way I’ve found to do italics is to write the passage, then select the text, then click on the italicize button. This slows me down and makes me think about things other than the next sentence, and that is exactly what I don’t want to be doing.

On the other hand, Scrivener gets serious props for a neat little switch that goes, “convert italics to underlining.”

Also, there’s the word count issue. My version (Windows) permits me to count characters or words. The thing is, I was taught that what editors actually want is the One True Word Count, which has the same relationship to actual number of words that a New York Times article has to an international news event: some, but never as much as you’d like. There might be a way to fake this thing into giving me the One True Word Count, or at least information to make it easier to calculate, but so far I haven’t seen it.

Anyway, gonna keep playing with it.


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. For those of us who aren’t now and are unlikely ever to be published authors, what is meant by “the One True Word Count”?

  2. I’m interested to see what you discover. I love Scrivener inasmuch as it isn’t Word or LibreOffice. That said, I honestly have no clue how to use it. I just now had a mini meltdown trying to remember how to compile something. I had to call my partner over to push the buttons so that if I lost the whole thing in the process the blood wouldn’t be on my hands.

    The $surname thing could be because you haven’t edited the title page. I work from Mac, so I don’t know if the settings are exactly the same, but if you go into “Front Matter” –> “Manuscript Format” and double click the “Title Page” card, you can edit it. I don’t know why it’s not just at the beginning of the document for novels like it is with short fiction.

  3. skzb

    One True Word Count:

    Determine the average number of words on a full line.
    Multiply by the number of lines on a full page
    Multiply by the number of pages.

    This, I am told, produces something useful for production people doing a cast-off. I don’t know what a cast-off is, but it is an important thing, no doubt.

    The “title page” card permitted me to change the author name, but not the surname as it appears in the header.

  4. Good morning, love! Have you looked through Tools > Options > Keyboard shortcuts? It will let you change what the keyboard shortcut is for italics. (I am remembering that we had a conversation once about why you find ctrl+I unsuitable but I don’t remember what it was. You don’t have to select the text to start and stop italics with it.)

    Go to Project -> Meta-Data Settings -> Project Properties to fill in the data for the $surname tag.

  5. skzb

    Jen: Weee! You’re hired! Can you start work next Wednesday?

  6. Sure! I’ll take payment in a box of wine. Or if you wanna be fancy, some gin, a lime, and a bottle of the fake st germain. Don’t get fizzy water. I have a stash of it in your house.

  7. I tried writing a book using Scrivener but after a few weeks I declared my ass thoroughly kicked and went back to MSWord, the devil I know.

  8. In my experience, editors gave up on getting One True Word Counts about 10 years ago, and are now completely acculturated to getting Word Counts the Text Editor Way.

  9. skzb

    I asked my editor, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, about this a year ago, and she says One True Word Count is still preferred.

  10. Wait, your surname isn’t Brust?

  11. @Pepe I think Scrivener is literally outputting “$surname”.

  12. skzb

    Yes, that is correct. Fixed now, thanks to Jen-Who-Fixes-Things. She is ultimately useful.
    [I also fixed the typo in this comment. <3 jlm]

  13. I think it would be interesting to get a group of authors to publish a series of books by “$surname”. For some value of ‘interesting’.

  14. What is the emacs shortcut you use for Italics? I could easily whip you up an Autohotkey script that would take your input and output the right kind of keystrokes for italics. Also are you using the latest version of Scrivener (should be 2.6)?

  15. Any software that lets you make a lot of choices, will at some point require you to make a lot of choices. You can have shortcuts so you don’t have to run through the whole decision tree, but you have to memorize the shortcuts or they don’t do you any good. (Weird things happen when my cat walks over my keyboard. She triggers various shortcuts that I don’t know anything about.)

    So there’s a maze of decision after decision, and it’s sheer luck if the software developers happened to set it up in a way you find intuitive. (Or if not luck, it takes a lot of expensive testing with naive testers.) There are things they can do to help. If there are lots of different ways to get each result, then you will stumble on one of them quicker and feel less frustrated. Lots of interconnections can help — if it’s more like city streets than like a tree where there’s only one path to get to each destination, then you can sort of navigate and have some sense when you’re getting where you want to be.

    Sometimes they can make it easy. Like, if you type your name into the $surname field anywhere in the document, and it changes it everywhere, that saves you having to look. Of course, powerful commands let you mess up worse. This one doesn’t look so bad.

    “With my klava glass in one hand and the Morganti butter knife in the other, I” Wait a minute, that isn’t my name. OK, undo.

  16. skzb

    Jeff: F3 is the emacs command. I’m using, 11-Mar-2015. I’m pretty sure it’s the latest Windows version.

  17. I miss emacs. I really miss kill-rings.

    Though I agree with the sentiment. Too often it feels like software is not written by someone who actually uses it (or has even tried to use it).

  18. I like Scrivener (Mac version). I am still getting used to it, and for large projects it is quite useful, but for shorter things I use a simple text editor or Word if it’s going to have a lot of formatting.

    It is always disturbing to have to alter one’s workflow to fit one’s tools. I do a lot of formatting after I have pounded out the text, and almost any software will let you do that. But I prefer to be able to switch formats as I type; unfortunately, the ways of doing this often are so non-intuitive that they break any flow I’ve got going.

    Guess what I am saying is–I feel your frustration. There is almost always a way to do these things, though finding it is not always easy.

  19. I asked my editor and he said you are both right: editors have pretty much given up asking for the One True Word Count, but they still want it. Which is why he did not ask me for it on my last book, and why I ended up having to cut out 4,000 words over a last minute weekend, cause otherwise my page count would have been higher than the publisher was willing to pay for. (Academic press – very tight budgets and tiny print runs). My editor has not used OTWC is so long, he has forgotten the formula. You could save a bit of trouble if you remember it offhand, cause I am going to use it from now on. My editor remembers it involves using Times New Roman, but he forgets the font size and the margins. Basically, the easiest way I gather is to use any version of Word with the right font, font size and margins and so on. And then you multiply the number of pages you end up with by something/



  20. skzb

    Gar: See above, 3rd comment. Font size and margins ought not to make a significant difference.

  21. If you ever cross paths with Charles Stross, beg/bribe/threaten him into giving you a Scrivener tutorial; he’s been using it for years & is a big advocate for it.

  22. This might be the first time in recorded history a non-programmer has suggested Emacs is intuitive.

    Still, I write in it, so I’ve been trying to implement Emacs keybindings across my workflow. Getting them in the browser was easy, but I haven’t been man enough to force feed them to OpenOffice. I wish I wasn’t hooked, but the fingers don’t lie.

  23. skzb

    I was a programmer at one time.

  24. I have a book that requires coordinating large numbers of stories across chapters, in a way foreign to me as a historian. It’s not how I organize source material and seems to me what scrivener is designed for.

    So far, I hate it.

  25. Jen kind of alluded to it, but just in case: Ctrl-i (commonly written ^i or in Emacs-speak C-i) toggles italics mode. ^b / C-b toggles bold. C-u toggles underline. So ^i type type type ^i and you should have some italics.

    Most/all of the hotkeys listed under Format work this way. I had some fun with ^> (ctrl-> / c->) and ^<. 🙂

    Disclaimers: If you've changed your hotkeys or remapped your keyboard, you're on your own. And: Everything I know about Scrivener I've learned in the past 20 minutes playing with their 30-day-trial. Yes, I installed their trial just to answer your question about italics. 🙂

  26. Just testing … can you do _italics_ here? *bold*?


    I wish I could preview …

  27. I wrote my dissertation in Scrivener–for big projects that require lots of research, the ability to swap back and forth between all the bits and pieces (including with split windows) was incredibly convenient.

    I also used it to draft my first novel. The research bit was not as important for that, but the program suits my workflow and mental organization really well. I confess that I don’t use the advanced tools to track characters and ideas and such, but I do use the corkboard.

    Because I used to work in a document production office, I use keyboard shortcuts without even thinking about it. I have a hard time remembering what it’s like to actually go click on “bold” or “italics”…at least until my middle school students come in with their papers.

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