Can Software Lead to Writing Happiness?

In my ongoing efforts to be a more organized writer, which in my fantasies means I’ll be a more effective writer, I’m test-driving various programs touted to help me structure my story, envision my plot, tackle my characters and organize my research. These programs hint that by using them, I’ll steer clear of the middle-of-the-book sag, the curse of the lifeless character and the gaping plot holes big enough to jump a herd of sharks through.

In my quest for organization, I’ve tested three programs, all in the $45-$80 range. I did not try Dramatica. As Amy, another Saturday Writer, so eloquently put it, “for the price you’d think it’d write the book for you.”

First up is Black Obelisks’sLiquid Story Binder XE. We try to pretend we don’t care about looks, but let’s make like John Edwards and tell the truth: we do. This is not a visually appealing program. In fact, whenever I open it, I feel a sense of dread because the page is so stark and demanding and cold it’s worse than starting a new file in Word. I don’t know how to explain it, but it makes me feel stupid and unworthy, that screen. Desperate to make it do something, anything, so I don’t feel so bad, I click on one of the pull-down menu options (Library, Files, Create, Open, Planners, Associations, Listings, Playlists, Workspaces, Shortcuts, Tools, Display, Preferences, About, aaaaaaahhhhhhggggggggggg! It’s just too much!). Under each menu option, there are at least a dozen more options. For example, under “Create” I can create a New Chapter, New Note, New Outline, New Checklist, New Builder, New Timeline, New Sequence, New Dossier, New Storyboard, New Image, New Song, New Gallery, New Playlist, New Recording or New Shortcut. Honestly, after muddling through all that I’m too tired to write. I want help, not a nervous breakdown. And what’s the difference between a Sequence, a Storyboard and a Timeline, I ask you? Even at the bargain price of $45.95, this isn’t the one for me.

Next up is Write Way. I like this program. It’s okay to look at… a bit on the Plain Jane side visually (and lord knows there needs to be a place for us Plain Janes of the world), but it’s well organized and not brain-scrambling in its complexity. It has many of the features I found helpful in the third program, with the added benefit of being able to write directly in it (you’d think that would be a core function of any of these programs but alas, it is not). This is a program for organizing your actual text more than designing a complete novel. One of the most helpful features is that you can store your book by scene, within chapters, within acts. This is great because if you decide to move a whole chunk around, you don’t have to retype, or cut and paste. You just drag it where you want it and et voila, it’s done. There are some cool printing features, too; you can choose Draft, Galley or Manuscript. The character charts are nice, again a bit plain to look at but plain has its place in the world. There’s a storyboard function but I haven’t quite figured out – so far it won’t play the way I like to play but I have hope. There’s a research area where you can store images, URLs, text, etc. Handy. Now, the good news is, this is the least expensive of the programs at $39 for the basic version. The bad news is that to get Outline, Storyboard, Synopsis, Research Folders, Future Book Idea Folders, the Galley print option and the ability to import your work from a word processor, you have to bump up to the Pro version which is the most expensive of all at $79.

Lastly we have Anthemion’s Writers’ Café, an attractive little program that can be had for under $50. Writers’ Café is attractive to look at. You wouldn’t think that was a big deal, really, but after working in Liquid Story Binder, you realize like size, it matters. At the main screen of the program, you have a number of tabs to pick from: Scraps (notes, photos, whatever); Storylines (visual and verbal storyboards that you can drag around, organize by plot line, color by character or scene type); Journal (doh); Notebook (a place you can type, but not like a word processor, unfortunately); Cookies (which are cute little quotes about writing and creativity – there’s a lot of cute going on in Writers’ Café); and Bookshelf, which is “help” plus the basics of writing, 101. There are templates for tracking character information. You can see your Storyboard in outline form. You can print it in manuscript form – but only the bits that appear in the Storyboard. Writers’ Café’s biggest flaw is a huge one, in my opinion: There’s nowhere to store your manuscript. It’s strictly a plotting and organizational tool. If it had but that one piece, I’d consider it as close to perfect as this sort of software can come.

Now if I can find software that’ll keep my butt in my chair and temporarily lock me out of any other program connecting me to the outside world (DSW is having a sale? I’ll just take a quick peek! I have got to unsubscribe from Harvey’s Horse Hut before I get one more hay sale email…)

Sara Ennis