Taming Chaos - an interview with Neil Cross

by Julia Pierce | 29 July 2016

Taming Chaos - an interview with Neil Cross


Designed to be extremely adaptable, Scrivener has a range of tools that can be utilised or ignored to suit the way different writers work. Thus, while some may prefer to meticulously plot and plan their draft in the outliner before even the first sentence takes shape, Scrivener can be equally useful as an organisational tool for those who write first and order their output after. 

 When it comes to novel writing, author and screenwriter Neil Cross definitely falls into the second camp. Along with a number of bestselling novels, he has also used Scrivener to write the scripts for several BBC dramas and ongoing movie projects. One of the program’s earliest adopters, he has been a user since 2006. Here, he explains how Scrivener has helped him organise his creative process.

L&L: How did you first hear about Scrivener, what software were you using before this, and what advantages does Scrivener provide over a standard linear word processor during the drafting process? 

NC: Some years ago, via an excited review in - I think - Macworld, I chanced upon an application called Ulysses, which I downloaded and purchased. (Ulysses is well-respected writers’ software for the Mac that pioneered full screen mode for writing among other things, and can be found at www.the-soulmen.com - ed.)I loved the concept of Ulysses, but never quite fell in love with the application itself - very nearly, but not quite. Despite its elegance, in several small but vexatious ways it sought impose a working method on me. 

Until then, however, I'd used nothing but traditional word processors, primarily MS Word. Ulysses' very existence made me wonder if there might be software out there to accommodate my chaotic workflow. So I embarked on a quest to find it. 

 For a short while, I used Bartas Technology's Copywrite. For a somewhat shorter while I used Supernotecard. I tried DEVONthink, which doesn't even pretend to be a convivial environment in which to write a book. I was very fond indeed of Jer's Novel Writer, but it always had the faint, nervy tang of vapourware. The best of the bunch I found to be Jesse Grossejean's Hog Bay Notebook. But even that never felt quite right. 

I forget exactly how, but I think it was Jesse Grossejean who pointed me towards the yet-to-be-released Scrivener… and the angels sang and my pupils went pop. It was love at first sight, and it's been love more or less ever since.Like serial killers (whom they in many ways resemble) writers tend to fall into one of two broad camps - organised and disorganised. 

Although I try not to, I work in a spectacularly disarranged manner. I keep a lot in my head, and in my head it kind of makes sense, in a hazy and optimistic way. But during the actual composition I'm all over the place.Scrivener didn't offer to make me organised, nor did it aim to change or in any way dictate my working practices. What it did was give me a place to manage the long, controlled skid of writing a novel. 

Then, when the time was right, it did an outstanding job of helping me introduce structure to that chaos and to keep refining and refining until, at the very last, order emerged.Not incidentally, it also allowed me to keep a record of all the discarded notes, scenes, versions, drafts, research and the infinite miscellany of odds and sods that had been abandoned along the way and which I thought might prove useful in some other project. 

L&L: So, what have you written in Scrivener? 

NC: I've written three and a half novels: Natural History, Burial, Captured and the untitled, unfinished new one. Actually, a bit less than that - because it was Natural History that got started in Ulysses, moved through Copywrite, Jer's and so on, landing up - by now a thoroughgoing shambles - in Scrivener beta 3. 

 I've also used Scrivener to: 
 - research, plan, outline and write eight episodes of the BBC spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in the US - ed).
 - propose, develop, research, plan, outline and write six episodes of my BBC crime drama Luther.research, plan and write Luther: Series 2.
 - research, plan, outline and write a forthcoming, four-hour BBC drama about Queen Victoria.
 - adapt M.R James's classic ghost story Whistle And I'll Come To You, which is shooting later in the year, to screen Christmas 2010.
 - research, plan, outline and write some movie scripts I wish I could tell you more about, but can't.
 - look after other writing; 
 - interviews like this one, blog posts, articles and so on. 

L&L: Can you say a little about your creative process and how you tend to plan out and start a novel or screenplay? 

NC: I tend to start from a "what if"? From this skimpy premise, a plot unfolds exponentially and omnidirectionally - like a flower blooming or a controlled explosion, depending on where you're standing and how quickly you play it back. I usually start with a very basic outline that takes the form of a series of questions which arise naturally from the premise. It's less daunting, filling in little pieces of the bigger picture, and it's more fun, allowing yourself to make discoveries and go off at tangents and still somehow join the dots. 

If I'd ever written a story as good as the one below, this is how my "outline" might have looked: Ilsa needs the letters of transit -- why, exactly? hmmmm. Maybe she needs papers for her husband's transit?- but if she's in love with Rick, why is she married to someone else? Was she married to him before she and Rick met? But if she loved Rick that much, why didn't she leave her husband for him? Because she couldn't?? Why not? Maybe she loves them both?! Hmmmm. Yes … but if she loves her husband (call him Victor?) more than Rick, there's no story. She needs to love Rick more than Victor … but for some reason of which we will approve, she needs to choose Victor over Rick. Why?Because Victor is in some way important? Important to whom, exactly? 

However, it would be dishonest not to account for the kind of false steps I'd have taken along the way, such as: Maybe she can't leave her husband because he's evil! Maybe he's a Nazi?!! Maybe she did some kind of DEAL WITH HIM TO MARRY HIM IN EXCHANGE FOR KEEPING HER FAMILY ALIVE!!?? 

L&L: Given that you don't start out with a traditional plan or outline but use these questions instead, how does Scrivener help with your draft? 

NC: I don't really use the corkboard or the outliner. In the early stages, I use the Project Notes function to jot down where I'm going next, and maybe some loose ideas which might help to get me there.

Usually, the problem isn't so much the story as what the Structuralists called the "vertical axis" and what a producer would call backstory - characters' histories, motivations, jobs. That stuff comes to me in dribs and drabs, apparently at random, throughout the composition: What the hell is Rick actually doing in Casablanca anyway??? Did he end up there, in some way, BECAUSE OF Ilsa? If so, how? 

To me, the real beauty of Scrivener is that it enables me to think about structure after the chaos of writing the first draft.  

L&L: So, have you set up a template project in Scrivener for your own work?

NC: No, but I use named layouts. Sometimes if I get bored looking at my own words, I switch to a different layout, just to give my eyes a change. 

Generally I use a layout I named ‘ultra-minimal’ - basically it resembles a TextEdit window. I got the idea from Amber V on the Scrivener forums.

I invoke the binder and inspector panels with keystrokes so inscribed in my muscle memory I'm barely aware I'm doing it. Essentially, Scrivener gets out of my face until I need it to help me. 

L&L: Could you tell us a little about what your binder might look like in an average project - are there particular folders that you create for characters, locations or anything else in the research folder or elsewhere, for instance? 

NC: For books, I keep one folder per draft. Draft One tends to be a single file, Draft Two is that single file broken down into a couple of dozen fragments, using Split With Selection As Title. I'll edit these scenes individually, in whatever order I choose. And I'll move them round in the binder until it looks and feels right. 

By Draft Three, it's an exploded diagram of a novel, broken down into even more fragments. By Draft Five, the fragments are beginning to merge into chapters - like the T-1000 putting itself back together after being hit by a truck.I keep refining like that, through six or seven drafts, the last couple of which differ only superficially, until one day it's finished. Then I go and have a lie down. 

 I don't use a "characters" folder or anything like that. Usually the characters just come to me - although not always on the first draft. 

L&L: How much research do you import, and in what format does this tend to be? 

NC: By now you may be less than aghast to hear that I do my research on the hop, during composition rather than before. Experience has taught me the prudence of doing it this way. Too much preparatory research can be oddly paralysing - certainly it makes me less willing to kill my darlings. More than once, I've found myself re-jigging the structure not in service of the story, but because I wanted to find a way to include some really interesting fact about chimpanzee territoriality or, I don't know, the coded recurrence of the Fibonacci Series in the works of Michael Bublé.  This paralysis nearly killed my novel Natural History until Scrivener helped me rescue it. 

Basically, for novels I now don't research until I'm pretty confident I know what I'm going to need to know.It's a bit different for screenplays, where I do some preliminary research around the "what if" that's inspired the story - mostly that involves the employment of actual books, of which I have far, far too many. 

That's supplemented by a few days following my nose on Google, using my early research to wander into some unexpected corners and, hopefully, make some unexpected links. ("The Effect of the Coded Recurrence of the Fibonacci Series in the Works of Michael Bublé on Manifestations of Chimpanzee Territoriality.”)I keep this material [in Scrivener] in the form of text files, web archives, PDFs, sound files, the very occasional image, the even more occasional video file, mostly indexed by keyword.On my Queen Victoria project, I read so many books on Victoria and had transcribed so much into Scrivener, I began to despair of the depth and breadth of it all. 

Then one day I began hacking and slashing at facts that were fascinating but, for my purposes, essentially useless - not so much killing darlings as mowing them down. It was both fabulously therapeutic and useful. I hacked away until I saw my stories emerge, as from a block of stone.I keep all this deleted stuff archived in a folder called "Stuff I didn't use". Now and again I'll browse the "Stuff I didn't use" folder and come up with some gem I'd completely forgotten. Seeing these odds and sods from a different angle, in light of another day, I often find a use for them. 

L&L: At what stage of the writing process do you start using Scrivener, and at which stage do you take your work elsewhere for final formatting? 

NC: For novels, it's Scrivener from go to whoah - until the day I export to Nisus Writer Pro or Word and press Send.With scripts, the heavy lifting is done in Scrivener but I'm obliged to make submissions in Final Draft. For revisions I use Scrivener and Final Draft in parallel.

L&L: Are there any tips on how to get the most out of the program that you would give to other writers embarking on a novel or script in Scrivener? 

NC: I just use what I use and more or less ignore what I don't. Certain functions that are key for many users, such as the corkboard, feel less obvious to me simply because I don't really use them.That said, I was surprised to see recently that some users were a little confused about how to make use of the Project Notes pane, without which I'd be lost.I like to use the floating scratchpad, too. 

Oh, and when I'm planning a script I like to use a vertically split screen, with no binder, no inspector, Ruler, Toolbar, Header or Footer visible. I use the left panel of the screen for notes towards the "A" Story. The right-hand is for notes towards the "B" story. Random thoughts go to the project notes pane.Any outline is essentially linear - even when it's been colour-coded to within an inch of its life. But managing A and B plots is a lot more twisty-turny, more like working in a kitchen that an architect's office. It really helps me to see both elements up there, separate but side-by-side - bubbling away. 

 L&L: Do you have any other general tips or non-software related bits of advice for writers? 

NC: There's no "correct" way of doing it.Joseph Heller didn't begin writing a novel until he knew what the first and the last lines would be. John Irving works his way "backward, like following a roadmap in reverse."Neither approach is better, or less terrifyingly inexact than the other. It's just what worked for Joseph Heller and what still works for John Irving. What works for you will surely be different. 

 So with that caveat, I've only got one piece of advice, but luckily, it's the best advice there is. It was given to me by the author Tim Binding when I was a young man with a long-unfinished first novel wasting away on his laptop hard-drive.I said - Thing is, I always wanted to be a writer…He said - Wonderful! So be a writer!- But to do that, I really need to finish my book!- Then finish your book.- But I don't have time. I'm soooo busy. It's mad, how busy I am.- If you want to write, then write.- Thing is, I've got this day job…- If you want to write, then write.- The hours are just insane, like twelve or fourteen hours a day…- If you want to write, then write.- And my boss is just crazy demanding. And there's this one bloke who hates me and…- If you want to write, then write.- And it's all so draining; come the weekend I'm so tired I can hardly concentrate…- If you want to write, then write.And so it went on, until at very long last I got the hint. Which is when I went home and began to write. 

 To be honest, I'd been hoping to hear some Gnostic formula, some mystical insight that would light my way, make it all clear.To be even more honest, what I was really hoping was that Tim could make it easy for me. 

But the point is - it's not easy, and there's no secret. There's just you and a keyboard and a story. If you want to write, then write. 

 Neil Cross is currently working on a variety of projects including Luther Series 2, Whistle And I'll Come To You, an adaptation of M.R James's classic ghost story (starring John Hurt, to air Christmas 2010 on BBC2), and Midnight Delivery, a film for Guillermo Del Toro. 

His most recent novel is Captured (Simon and Schuster UK). 

For more of Neil’s insights into the writing process, visit his occasional Blog at: http://www.neil-cross.com/wordcount/


Julia Pierce

Director of Literature and Latte


Media, Transport


Project lead

Keith Blount

Project status


Start date

December 2015

End date

December 2015

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