How to Write a Novel by Breaking it into Manageable Chunks Using Scrivener

I’ve used and loved Scrivener for breaking all my writing into manageable bits, but what is it and how do you write an entire book with it? As part of my post-job goals, I plan to publish more. This is the process I follow that works for me.

Creative Writing is Tough

Sitting down to a blank Word document and knocking out the Next Great American Guncat Novel at 150,000 words in the next three months ranks as probably one of the most impossible sounding tasks a writer can manage. There are many ways a writer can make this easier for themselves, ranging from notes sprawled everywhere in their house all the way to the bizarre spreadsheet method J. K. Rowling used for the Harry Potter series.

Beyond organizing all the information, it’s also difficult to actually write all of the content without distraction. I’ve personally had the most success with a method that can be scaled down to blog articles and all the way up to long form novels and non fiction. I also find it’s the easiest to explain. The method makes use of a piece of software called Scrivener.

An IDE for Writers

Anyone familiar with a bit of programming will know what I mean by an IDE, but those who don’t should understand that long streams of thousands of lines of code aren’t knocked out and maintained in notepad (typically).
A special application, called an Integrated Development Environment, organizes all the puzzle pieces so that you can focus on one individual part at a time. Maybe while a team mate works on another part. The IDE’s job is to keep all these parts organized and make sure everything knows where everything else is. An IDE may also have a compiler, another application that pieces the entire puzzle together for you.

Even useful for blogging!

Scrivener is very Similar, in that it lets you create projects that can includes all parts of your manuscript, character outlines, research, covers, front matter, templates, etc you can imagine. Then, at the end of the day (or year…) it can even compile your project into a completed document fit for publishing!

Getting Scrivener

Scrivener can be bought directly from the developers at Literature and Latte, however they also provide keys through boingboing that are almost always on sale. From my experience the keys are valid for future updates as well so you won’t be purchasing it every year like certain other word processing suites.

They also provide a month long free trial so feel free to give it a try before you buy.

Creating Your Project

When we first open Scrivener we are offered a variety of templates to start a project. We’ll be going with Manuscript for our Guncat epic, but there are plenty of other templates that are useful or you can start blank if you’re more comfortable organizing everything yourself.

Each project is going to consist of a binder, a big folder of all your work subdivided between the Manuscript, Research and any other folders we may need.

The Manuscript

The documents within the Manuscript section are what will be used to “compile” the novel when we are finished. Here is where the real meat of writing is done and we begin to break the Guncat epic down into parts.

The manuscript folder in the Scrivener binder.
Easily organize chapters!

Index Cards for Each Chapter

If we click on Manuscript we get to see our first corkboard. The corkboard is a collection of pinned notecards created to divide our novel into chapters. In practice they act as folders, but we give a short description to the chapter as well for quick glances later.

To create new files on a corkboard, you can right click a blank space and Add. For Guncat we’re starting with the first 3 chapters. After creation, you can right click a card to label or change it’s status. The status shows up transparent in red on the card, indicating parts we still need to write or that may need revised. There aren’t any hard or fast rules on where you begin your novel and it looks like I finished a draft of Chapter 3 before deciding I wanted a better introduction. Maybe a particular scene was stuck in my head and I had to get it out on paper?

That chapter 3 is straight fire AF

Index Cards for Each Scene

But wait, there’s more! From our binder we can also right-click our chapters and add new files. We’re going to break each chapter down into a series of scenes to make writing a bit more manageable. There are no rules for the length of chapters, but let’s not go crazy. Guncat is predominately action suspense, no matter how horrific it gets. Since we want rapid pacing we would rather aim for the shorter range of chapters as opposed to mega-epic fantasy novelists. That’s about 3-5,000 words I’d say. That feels right to me. If you are writing and it feels like a particular chapter needs to be longer or shorter, that’s your call. I’m not your boss.

If Guncat is the next 150,000 (300+ page) action novel epic, then that gives us about 30-50 chapters. With each chapter being comprised of anywhere between 1-5 scenes. Chapter 1 is going be three key scenes. Using a bit a math, we have a target word count! Each scene should be 1000 words or more. Hell, this article is 1,500 already!

short descriptions of each scene in chapter 1
Chapter 1 is going to be a real page turner!

Writing Guncat

You knew it had to come to this. Eventually, you’ve got to stop playing with the new toy and sit down and write. But with all these frames on the sides, some of which I don’t even get into here, how do you keep your attention focused? F11 my friend. Fullscreen typing mode. Settings can be changed in Scrivener preferences to make this easier on your eyes. I personally go with a dark background with grey text myself.

Screenshot of Scrivener's full screen editor
This is how I work. Add twitch playing in another monitor or some Kanye.

The other feature that I can’t really illustrate with a screenshot is that Scrivener offers “typewriter scrolling”. If you’ve never used a typewriter this may be bizarre, but it really helps keep me from being distracted. With typewriter scrolling your typing will never go past the middle of the screen. All text shifts up and you continue typing on the next line. Imagine your eyes scanning back and forth on the same line of the screen and you’ll get the idea. This makes writing those long and gruesome Guncat aftermath scenes a lot easier on the eye strain.

Restructuring the Novel

Does your particular scene not fit? From the chapter folder we can see how the scenes fit together at a glance without having to read the whole novel. Now that we’re looking, Maybe “A Horrific Scene” should take place after Guncat has already been “Stalking the Prey”, wince we already opened with an aftermath scene on “The Dock Job”. To correct this, we grab the index card and move it after Stalking the Prey.


That simple. No cutting and pasting and risking the loss of work. Just a drag and drop. Now when you compile the chapter will have all its scenes in the order you placed

Places and Character Outlines

Similar to the manuscript, you can write as many index cards and folders as you’d like and organize them however you feel.

Front Matter

Some day I may go over this area in more detail, maybe an article on publishing, but for now it’s more important to know that this is where you put your title, dedication and copyright page as well as any cover that may be necessary.


For the Guncat novel we have our reference photos for both cats and guns. The reference section can also include media like music, video and pdf. And if you haven’t discovered the search bar at the top of Scrivener yet, you should probably know that the entirity of the project, including research, is instantly searchable. Want to know all the characters who know Guncat’s secret identity? Just search for it. I know, it’s crazy to know we live in the future.

Finishing Up

When you’re finished you could copy and paste everything into another word processor and organize and format it how you’d like, or you can compile within scrivener.

This can be as easy as telling Scrivener to take all the manuscript and plug it into a text file in order, or as complicated as a complete .mobi or .epub ebook ready for Apple iBooks. There are many output templates available but you are also free to customize or create your own.

Scrivener is a very powerful tool and can be used for all writing. Write a blog? Organize it all in one big scrivener project. Screenplay? You bet and it can even handle Markdown for the formatting. Short stories are cakewalk at this point.

TL;DR: Breaking up the document into manageable chunks and using Scrivener to organize everything helps keep your attention focused on the writing and not worrying about invisible characters, broken tab settings, your style sheet flipping out and messing with XML.

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