Pondering Writing Software: A Review, of Sorts

A long time ago, I started using Liquid Story Binder XE. This would have been … what? 2007? Maybe.

Anyway, I started using LSBXE and quickly realized the benefit of having a dedicated software bullt around the way writers want to work. Having timelines, sequences, rough- or detailed outlines at hand, character dossiers, even images and mood music all in a single package could accommodate either pants-seaters or planners/outliners. There are a ton of features in LSBXE and a word processor too. But…

But nothing. I’m a software slut, that’s the problem. So for the next four years I went on a quest to find other writer-oriented software packages which might make the planning and execution of a novel easier. I found full-screen text editors, and those are AWESOME for blocking out distractions and getting the words on the page, but they lack style and pizzazz and any sort of the planning tools which can help a writer guide themselves through the story. But for just getting things written, software like WriteMonkey, DarkRoom or JDarkRoom, Q10 and others are brilliant. They even have some features a writer can use to help them reach daily writing goals, so if you’re NaNo-ing yourself into an insane November, you can at least count the words and characters you’ve put up. To me, this is a pantser tool. The planning has to be done elsewhere, if you do it. But if you’re a pantser, these do full-screen like a fully-featured word process simply can’t.

Then there are some really amazing writer-specific software. RoughDraft 3.0 is one of those. It has a tiny bit of help for planner/outliner, because it has a scratchpad. It’s a little sidebar which associates with the document you’re working on. It can contain notes of any kind you’d like to include — plot points to be covered, a gentle outline (which is how I used it) for the chapter or scene, notes about … well, anything. So RoughDraft 3.0 can work, at least a little, in favor of both pantsers and planners.

imageAnother dual-role software are things like EverNote and OneNote. Those tools are very powerful; you can collect information from all over the web, your computer, whatever, and stick into a place where it’s at your fingertips. A research folder can become part of the book you’re writing, so you don’t have to go fishing all over creation for your notes, that little scrap of paper with that one bit of information about that one little thing, or hope to God you remember what you were going to do with that one little… yeah. Not like that at all. With these programs, you can compile it all and then go right ahead and start your writing. Whether you’re a pantser or planner, you can use One- or EverNote to great benefit.

And then there’s Scrivener and WriteWay, and a new one I’ve discovered (though it is more expensive than I’d like) called Power Structure. The benefits of these tools comes in their ability to work for both pantsers and planners, and yet they’re less overwhelming than Liquid Story Binder XE. While LSBXE has so many incredible features to play with, it’s weakness is the overwhelm a writer can feel. You need to get used to the interface first, before anything else happens. Then you need to become familiar with their very unconventional file name system — things like planners (which threw me for a loop), builders (eh?), sequences, timelines (what’s the difference here?), lists, chapters, and so many more. It becomes overwhelming. Yes, there’s no need to use all the features, but they can be a little harrying to try and decipher. And before you can effectively use the tool, you’ll have to know how to work with the software. So the learning curve can be steep.

imageyWriter is brilliant also, but again, the weakness of the editor is a drawback to me. (Most of you won’t care about that, though, so if you’re a writer, bear that in mind.) It’s scene-oriented, which is a fantastic thing for writing. (LSBXE is really chapter oriented, and requires a writer build sub-chapters within a chapter to work with scenes.) But there are so many different aspects to yWriter I can’t even begin to tell you about. There are scene TYPES, descriptions, whether it’s an action, outcome or response, whether it’s a first-, second-, final draft, and more. It’s overwhelming in other ways. The designer, Simon Haynes, is an extraordinarily cerebral writer and probably uses all those facets of the program in his writing. He’s also a brilliant programmer and has built a software tool which is useful for both pantsers and planners and is so in depth I don’t know if any of us except him will use all of it. The best part, however, is yWriter’s cost: FREE. Simon GIVES it away, so if you’re a writer and you HAVEN’T tried it, you’re missing out.

But the way I write isn’t just in scenes and chapters. It’s in little sections which are a four-part model of the three-part story structure classic architecture. So I wanted software which was capable of dividing a book into not just scenes and chapters, but keeping those scenes and chapters organized according to the acts of the story into which they fall. And that is where WriteWay and Scrivener came in.

imageScrivener allows a writer to work however they’d like; it keeps your book organized without presenting too many other file types to overwhelm the writer. It provides a nice little “corkboard” where each scene’s description is shown as a file card. There’s also the ability to drag-and-drop scenes and chapters in the outline view or the far left panel of the screen. This is a big boon for pantsers, because they often will use the old “notecard” method of getting their story organized and everything in its place. This takes that idea and makes it super simple to do by allowing you to drag-and-drop the scenes to move them arouhd. Scrivener also allows the scenes to be given their description, assigned a scene or chapter label, and lots more, and the columns can be rearranged to your liking. Scrivener used to be a Mac-only tool, but the developers are beta testing a Windows version now, and they say it will be available for purchase in 2011 (which they’re rapidly running out of).

imageWriteWay takes almost the same approach, but adds the dimension of the Act to the mix. Each book is broken into three acts (and you can add more if you’d like) and then the planning proceeds from there. Within the Act, which is provided as a folder, there are sub-folders for chapters, and then the individual scenes for the chapters are included in the folder for that chapter. It has a scratch pad for little bits and pieces which you may or may not include, but don’t want to lose completely — this is a GREAT tool for editing and revision, by the way. And it too allows the drag-and-drop of scenes, chapters, and maybe even acts to rearrange them in the story line. The outline view is great, and structured into levels and sublevels. And WriteWay includes front- and back-matter templates, character dossier templates, and many other notecards, and allows you to edit the master templates to suit your needs. Don’t like the way the character notecards are presented? Change it. Simple as that. In fact, you can do that at any point in the writing process, or right out of the gate first thing, it’s up to you. Scrivener and WriteWay are a planner’s dream, but there’s no reason at all a pantser can’t use and love them. As pantsers move through their story, they may find they want to track certain things or need to keep up with their characters, and WriteWay and Scrivener don’t require any up-front investment in planning prior to launching into the writing. SCORE!– for both pantsers AND planners! And good news to all — WriteWay is available as a 30-day, almost-fully functional trial version for which a license can then be purchased and the product activated. Pantsers may be able to get away with the $24 standard version, but I’d recommend planners go with the $49 pro version. It allows up to nine acts per book.

imagePower Structure is pretty expensive, but it’s very powerful. And it divides things into the nice little acts the way I like. It’s also a screenwriting tool, but does novels too. I’ve not played with it as much this weekend, but because it’s not novel-writing specific, it includes a plethora of features most of us who write prose won’t ever use, and that makes it less likely to top my list. At $99.95, it’s probably more than most are willing to spend anyway.

The problem with all those tools is their sucky RTF editors. And one of the things I like (and again, it’s just me, so its probably not a concern for you) is to be able to both research, plan and write all in one place. So if the word processor portion of the software is only using the RTF engine of Windows to do its work — and such is the case for things like LSBXE, RoughDraft and One/EverNote — then you get lousy formatting which is hard to clean up later when you use a real word processor to actually prep your manuscript. Whether you’re sending the piece to an agent or editor for representation or publication, or you’re submitting it to Kindle for publication and distribution, you need a well-formatted and clean manuscript document you can use. Who wants to spend months or years pounding out a book only to have to pore over the exported product and try to find the messes, oopsies and ham-handed formatting? Not me, for sure.

So, in the end, you’re down to choices. Are you willing to clean up your RTF document, and possibly compile them into a single document yourself, or does none of this matter to you?

All I can say for sure is, I’ve spent more time downloading, installing and testing software than I have using it to write. And that’s just pathetic.

Those of you who now say “Just use Word or OpenOffice and forget the rest of that crap!” — I’m starting to see your point.


Copyright DarcKnyt 2011, all rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Pondering Writing Software: A Review, of Sorts

  1. You are always looking into new somethings. Software Slut, I like it!

    Oh gosh, I’m terrible. Given unlimited funds I’d own almost everything just to avoid missing out on something! 😀

    I don’t write too religiously about anything, so when I do, I use a website called Zoho, it has a bunch of Microsoft Word like options within it, and it works well enough for what I use. And there’s no fear of losing anything if my computer dies, so that’s handy.

    Similar idea to Google Docs, I’m sure, and Microsoft has online versions of Office products now. 🙂

    I am a bit timid at venturing into new software/programs. I don’t even like when Facebook makes changes. My friends are always telling me about “oh you should be using this instead”, but it’s all greek to me, ultimately. New software/programs, to me, are too much hassle in *themselves*.

    Hehehe. Atta girl — keep at it until it’s ingrained. “Themselves…themselves…themselves…” No singular form for that word. You’re doing great!

    • You’d need to hire someone just to catalog your software for you!

      I could live with that! 😀

      Practice makes perfect! This man who used to come to our house daily for black coffee and burnt toast used to give my brother and I a “word of the day”… by the next morning we needed to have found out the definition, and use it in a couple of sentences properly.

      Now that sounds like a fun game. 🙂

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