Litlets

January 18, 2009

Software for Writers Review: StorYBook

StorYBook is free, open-source software for novelists. (Other writers too, supposedly, but I think that’s a stretch.)

There are novelists who outline their plots, write biographies of all their major characters, and create many maps, diagrams and charts before typing, “Chapter 1. Scubby Malone rubbed his unshaven chin…” StorYBook is for them. It is not for me.

If you want to write fiction in a more structured way than I do, this might be just what you’re looking for. It looks like it would be very good at organizing chronology, characters, settings and subplots (“strands”). I’m a geek, and I’ve created spreadsheets and templated documents to do that for me. Even so, it sometimes takes me a few minutes to find out how old the main character would be in 1977, for instance, or whether his mother was in rehab when he got beaten up after school. (Is it obvious I write comedies?)

StorYBook constrains narrative thought into a modular format, which could be good or bad, depending on the novel and the novelist. From my limited tinkering, it seems rigid. For instance, when creating a new scene, you have to specify a date. Even the requirement to specify a character’s gender might be an annoyance if you’re writing speculative fiction. Male/Female could be too many choices for the Aeeoia (who are sapient ameboids), too few for the Khekhlee (who need seven), and too fixed for the Aglogline (who switch genders every few years).

The pros and cons below are based on about forty-five minutes of testing, and when I say there’s no way to do X or Y in StorYBook, it could mean only that I didn’t find the way.

Pro:

  • Open Source and free (GPL license)
  • Cross-platform: works on Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Interface is relatively uncluttered
  • Organizes chronology, characters, locations and plot strands
  • Provides a variety of reports and views
  • Reports can be exported to various formats
  • Scenes can be imported from text files
  • Drag-and-drop to move scenes, add a character to a scene, etc.

Con:

  • Many parts of the interface are not immediately clear: the button icons are often enigmatic, and it’s not obvious up front how Projects, Parts, Strands, Chapters and Scenes all fit together
  • No local help: must be connected to the internet
  • No way to export a manuscript (only reports)
  • No way to import larger components than scenes
  • Too rigidly structured for some writing styles

December 6, 2008

Software for Writers Review: TextRoom

TextRoom 0.2.5 is, judging by the numbering, a beta version, and many of its shortcomings undoubtedly stem from that. According to the software’s wiki (http://code.google.com/p/textroom/), TextRoom is “simple open-source full-screen rich text editor for writers.” Basic formatting is enabled: font, font size, italic, underline and bold. TextRoom is available for Windows and Linux at http://code.google.com/p/textroom/downloads/list.

Cons:

  • The interface is unintuitive.
  • The help documentation consists of one pop-up window keyboard listing shortcuts. I cannot find any further documentation, either in the program itself or online.
  • There is no visual indication of selected text.
  • There seems to be no way to change the default document font; it must be changed for each document. Default foreground/background colors can be changed (I have mine set to a nostalgic blue background/white foreground scheme), and the default font for the status bar can be changed.
  • Formatting is glitchy. For example, I often have to press the prescribed keyboard shortcut twice to turn on bold, italic or underline.
  • Documents are saved in HTML 4 (strict) format, though the default extension is TXR. No other options are provided.
  • For the timed writing mode, it is not clear what units of time are being used. I tried setting it for “2” and starting the timed mode, but after three minutes I could not tell that anything had happened.
  • Saving documents has a bug that made me lose one version of this review because it was saved as an empty document.

Pros:

  • The statusbar (at the bottom of the screen) shows a running wordcount total.
  • There are modes for targeted writing, either by wordcount or by time limit, and a deadline feature.
  • One nice feature of the wiki is a list of alternatives to TextRoom.
  • The interface and feature set are deliberately kept simple so that writers, who are TextRoom’s target users, can focus on one thing: writing.

Overall impression:
I find two features of TextRoom useful: the running word count (something I would like to see standard in word processing software), and the targeted modes for writing exercises. However, the bug in saving documents is impossible for me to overlook, and I will not be using the current version of TextRoom. I will keep an eye on future releases, though.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.