Periscope Depth

now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke

Neal Stephenson, in his excellent essay In The Beginning Was The Command Line, introduced me to the term “metaphor shear,” which he defines as when “you realize that you’ve been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus.”

GUIs use metaphors to make computing easier, but they are bad metaphors. Learning to use them is essentially a word game, a process of learning new definitions of words like “window” and “document” and “save” that are different from, and in many cases almost diametrically opposed to, the old. Somewhat improbably, this has worked very well, at least from a commercial standpoint, which is to say that Apple/Microsoft have made a lot of money off of it. All of the other modern operating systems have learned that in order to be accepted by users they must conceal their underlying gutwork beneath the same sort of spackle. This has some advantages: if you know how to use one GUI operating system, you can probably work out how to use any other in a few minutes. Everything works a little differently, like European plumbing–but with some fiddling around, you can type a memo or surf the web.

This stuck with me because Stephenson has a gift for giving convenient mental hooks to abstruse concepts. But it’s also lasted because the tangible sensation of metaphor shear has taken more years off my life than any other source of stress.

When confronting the sensation of knowing I should be able to do something, yet being absolutely unable to figure out how, my body produces a fight-or-flight response stronger than anything short of an actual fight. Every square inch of skin flushes. My breathing and heart rate triple. I have been known to throw whatever is in reach – a pen, a mouse, a water bottle – into whatever is out of reach – the opposite wall, the floor, an adjacent office. It’s a childish and unforgivable display, and my only excuse is that the world stopped working. Someone rewrote what words mean overnight and didn’t tell me.

Scrivener threw one of those at me this week.

I have loved Scrivener for a while. For its fullscreen and cursor centering features alone, it’s well worth the $45 for a desktop license. But I also love the “project” concept that Scrivener is built around. Everything you might use for a project – your research notes, some images you’ve looked up, your various drafts – exists in a single file. Scrivener arranges the different folders in one sidebar and displays what you’re currently working on in the center. Jump between stages of your project without losing anything. And Scrivener automatically saves, backs up and assists you with version control.

Then I tried to compile a project into a novel.

When I write a first draft, I don’t insert scene or chapter breaks. I write everything in one undifferentiated hash. Chapter breaks, for the modern thriller writer, are best used to sustain tension. I don’t know which cliffhangers need to end a chapter and which can end a scene. When writing in Word, this meant inserting page breaks, lots of carriage returns, and chapter titles manually. It also meant updating all of them if I moved the chapters around.

In Scrivener: … hmm.

First, I broke out my one large file into several text files. No dice. Then I gave each text file its own folder, naming the folders after what happened in them and trusting Scrivener to recognize them as chapters. It did, but it subtitled each chapter with the folder name, which would diminish the reading experience (“Chapter Ten: Mara Finds Dead Body”). After a little bit of poking, I disabled the function that subtitled each chapter, and compiled the Scrivener file into a PDF once more. But now the centered lines that I had used to break up scenes within each chapter were too long for the file’s margins. UGH.

Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to insert dividing lines between scenes. If each text file were its own scene, Scrivener would do that for me when it compiled. And then the organizing principle clicked:

Novel = Project; Chapter = Folder; Text File = Scene

That’s it! That’s how you’re supposed to use Scrivener. It’s like figuring out the subjunctive tense in French: suddenly, a whole new corner of the language makes sense to you. I could write out my first draft in one headlong rush, like I usually do. Then I could split the file into separate text files during review. Then I could group those files into folders to make my chapters.

So I didn’t break anything. I didn’t throw a temper tantrum. I kept experimenting, checking and unchecking features, until I got the results I wanted. It’s a process – perhaps more of a process than it needs to be – but that’s what happens when you interact with the world through colorful menus.

If you want to read the last novel I wrote without Scrivener, check out Too Close to Miss, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes. Readers call it “… a briskly-paced, thoroughly entertaining thriller that lives up to the heritage of the noir genre.”

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