Novel Novel Writing Tools

The combination of technology and the written word (much like the combination of technology and everything else) is a point of contention. It’s a subject we’ve touched on a few times in this blog and one that promises to keep supplying us with new material in case we ever run out. What isn’t contentious, however, is that we have more options now than ever – whether it’s reading, researching or writing, most things have been brought inside the scope of a trackpad. Today we’ll talk about that last category, a lot of readers are writers and for a lot of writers “that big project” is something very close to their heart so the idea of giving it to some new ethereal caretaker is something fraught with worry. Here’s a quick lowdown on a selection of the systems, their pros & cons.

  1. Word – an obvious choice to start with. While Microsoft’s word processing package is incredibly useful in terms of autosaving and recovering lost work as well as some formatting and review capabilities, it really provides little in terms of storyboarding, scene splits and generally keeping track of the elements within a story. It can import many formats and export to PDF which are huge bonuses but in many ways it’s the common denominator – partially suited to many tasks and as a result, not terribly specialised. While it may work for some, it is not necessarily always the best tool for the job.
  2. Scrivener – Much more specialised than Microsoft’s ‘jack of all’, Scrivener is marketed as an application specifically for long writing projects. It comes with idea boards and ways to link those plans together – the main idea being to jot your ideas down in their natural disjointed, chaotic, form and use the tools it provides to draw them together. It also has places to keep your research and boasts that it is already used by a number of different writers. Some have argued that this application tries too hard and as a result ends up distracting them from actually writing, in addition, there’s little in the way of free trials so testing the program to see whether it works for you requires a $40 investment before you even start.
  3. Storybook – many of the same features of Scrivener but with the optional extra of a free trial. The ‘character’, ‘scene’, ‘chapter’, ‘part’ ,‘object’ and  ‘location’ tabs (to name but a few) are great for putting all the elements of a story together and steadily fleshing them out but unfortunately, in the unpaid version , you cannot export the full formatted document straight to other programs. The good news is that, if you try Storybook and decide it’s the program for you, you can easily upgrade your unlimited time trial to the full version and also access items like Memoria – a host of timeline features that are all designed to visualise your project and help you slot everything  into place. Unfortunately a painful lack of autosave and the fact that you have to ‘save’ each scene, chapter or character as well as saving the file as a whole can result in infuriating losses to start with. If you’re using it mainly as a storyboard or if you’re in the habit of frequently saving your work it’s a minor issue but something that should be borne in mind.
  4. Blog posts / Readwave / Campus Diaries – I lump these options together not because there are no differences between them but rather that there’s so much choice in the online arena, I couldn’t possibly cover it all. The important bonuses of putting scenes or chapters of your work up online is that  you’re protected from hardware failure, you can   use individual posts to cut your story into manageable portions and you can have much more immediate feedback on characters, events and other narrative elements. Apart from these factors, the opportunity to build up an online audience is a huge advantage – one that the dedicated sites such as Reawave and Campus diaries know very well. Obviously downsides exist in terms of needing an internet connection to update your project and having the added distraction of opening a web browser while you work. All in all – far better as a platform for transmission than one for creation.
  5. Focuswriter –apparently a reaction to the problem of distracting word processors, Focus writer swings in the opposite direction to Scrivener in that it aims to be as simple as possible.  When you open it, it fills the screen with a plain grey background, obscuring all other desktop items. It does allow you to create multiple document tabs (invisible until you scroll over them) and has a ‘daily goals’ function – both very useful features. Apart from this, Focuswriter is almost an homage to no frills oldschool writing (it even has the option to include typewriter sound effects) but doesn’t have the interesting element options of Storybook and Scrivener.
  6. Pencil and paper – in line with the ‘focused’ and pared down line of writing styles, writers such as Austin Kleon swear by using tactile tools to keep the imagination working. In his book How to Steal like an Artist he makes a pretty convincing argument for why  we all (as writers) can benefit from doing a lot more writing with our hands. You know the cons, it’s hard to ‘save’ without scanning each page individually, there’s no spell check and it can take a lot longer than touch typing but the pros can be unexpectedly many, particularly because things like ‘increased creativity’ couldn’t be included in the specs and adverts that nobody makes. One thing I can tell you is that you’re bound to look artistic and mysterious if you whip out a notebook in public and start writing. Either that or like someone who’s trying to look artistic and mysterious -an effect worsened when it starts raining and you have to whip out that wrinkled old sandwich bag you’ve started bringing around with you since your last epic was reduced to blurred mulch.
  7. Dictation – easily the least conventional of the options. If this were a historical drama someone would most likely mutter a disparaging ‘hockum’ under their breath but in the year 2013 we can rest assured that most people who use that word don’t read blogs. Speech recognition software is coming forward in leaps and bounds but I would find it difficult to place my trust in such systems. To me they would turn something that is supposed to remove hassle and into an exercise in creating a manuscript that runs: “he’ll looked into the right loo kai, tie, try, sai, suck-kai. SKY. He. LOOKED. INTO. THE. RIGHT. BLUE. SKY. I sieve up, I’m turning his of-” Then again, I think there is an immediate danger of me being that kind of person that says ‘hockum’ – time will tell.

What did you think of the options here? Have you heard about better systems? Let us know in the comments below.

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