Sunday, 11 January 2009

Tools for authors

There is one thing that all writers do (as opposed to would-be writers), and that is write. Whilst there may be some people who still write with pen and paper, I would guess the vast majority use computers. Therefore, it is somewhat strange that such a vital tool is rarely discussed.

I would guess that the majority of writers use Microsoft Word, either on the PC or Apple Mac. MS Word is a highly capable piece of software, which in many ways suffers from the sheer size and functionality that it contains. For instance, it has the capability to draw diagrams within the document, something most writers probably do not require. Having said this, it is undoubtedly a massive achievement, and (despite what many people say), one of the major reasons that it is so popular is that it is very, very good. However, it is not flawless, and the claims of it being 'bloatware' (large, unwieldy software) are accurate. For many purposes, it is simple overkill.

There are, of course, other rival general-purpose writing software that can be used, from the humble Notepad or the word processors in Apple Works and OpenOffice. All of these have the same basic features, and the major differences for writers can, for most purposes, be summed up in usability terms. How easy is it to create a dictionary in the spellchecker? How easy is it to convert the document into a manuscript? How easily can I see my current word count?

However, such general-purpose software rarely has the exact features that many authors require. For instance, before I write a word of a novel, I plan the characters and locations out in (sometimes exhausting) detail. For locations, this can include textual descriptions, pictures, maps and even diagrams of room layouts. All minor inconsequential stuff, but (for me at least) this worldbuilding is an enjoyable part of writing. There are various ways that this information can be stored; in separate word-processor documents, or loose files in a folder. These can then be printed out, and are kept on the desk beside me as I write. However, there are alternatives.

There are various packages that are specifically for authors, and which allow them to keep all of their data on a novel together - the character and location descriptions, scene data and various other items. There are many of these packages, such as YWriter5, Scrivener (on the Mac), Write Your Own Novel, Page4 and others. These all have various capabilities that are directed towards authors, such as the creation of time lines and storyboards. Some of these packages are free, whilst others are expensive; some are available only on PCs, and others only run on Apple Macs. However, all the ones that I have tried have various problems that do not make them suitable for my personal use. For some of my writing I have created my own package that allows me to keep track of the progress of my story. This is written in Visual Basic, and, although good enough for my purposes, will never be released publicly. for this reason, I am probably in a good position to review such software.

So what features do I look for in writing software? The list below is a good start, although note that no one package has them all:

1) The ability to split a story into scenes, allocate characters and locations to a scene, and then put multiple scenes into a chapter. This is, in my honest opinion, the biggest advantage that specialist authoring software gives you. Instead of treating a novel as a gargantuan whole, it splits the book down into more manageable chunks. The chunks can then be re-ordered with ease. Think a scene in the third chapter may work out better in the fifth? In a word processor, you have to work out the beginning and end of the scene, then cut and paste. In a specialist package, this may take one mouse click. This is of definite use to writers who do not plan their work in advance.
This confers other advantages. Breaking a large work into smaller sections can make it seem more manageable. When editing, you can read scene-by-scene, or read all scenes that include a certain character or location.
It is also useful to have a full-view mode, where the scenes can be found in their correct order. What is really nice is if any alterations done to the story in this mode can be put into the relevant scenes, making editing of the whole story easier.
One note of caution, though: I would always proofread using a large file, which is representative of how the reader will view the story.

2) A spellchecker is important. True, a spellchecker should never be relied upon, and all text should be proofread before release, but a spellchecker can help. Additionally, I look for the ability to have multiple, user-specified dictionaries. For instance, I have a character that I am working on in my current book whose given name is 'Ennor'. Fed up with having this come up as an incorrect spelling, I put it into a dictionary that will be used just for that book. The name 'Ennor' will not pollute the main dictionary, so it will still show up as a mistake in other writing.

3) Likewise, autocorrection is useful. I am a fairly poor typist, and my fingers suffer from dyslexia - for instance, I type 'teh' instead of 'the'. I know very well how to spell 'the', but I frequently mistype it. Many packages have the ability to put in lists of words that you commonly mistype, to allow them to be automatically corrected. This saves a surprising amount of time.

4) I am not too fussed about grammar checkers - the one in MS Word does not do a terrible good job, although it can be indicative of problems such as passive voice. Again, such automated tools should never replace proofreading. Having said that, they can be useful.

5) Output is also important - if you are a published author, with books accepted by publishers, then, for convenience's sake, the publishers may well want that book sent to them in their preferred format. This is likely to be MS Word. Although other applications can convert or save to to MS Word format, there may potentially be problems. Do you want to take that risk? The more complex the document, the more likely it is that there will be conversion problems. On the other hand, as MS embraces a more open document format (ODF), this situation will undoubtedly improve.

6) When submitting a manuscript, most publishers and agents require a standard format - usually double-line spacing, one side per sheet of paper, large left-right margins, etc. Some specialist packages automate this, and have a manuscript-output option. However, as the rules mentioned above vary from publisher to publisher, you will probably have to set options to get the correct format. And if you have to do that, why not just do it in a Word Processor?

7) Another feature that may be of use to some authors is collaborative writing software. If more than one person is writing a book, then some packages will aid the process. This is one thing that Word is very good at (although I have only used it for collaborative technical documents, rather than novels), it does work remarkably well.

8) Automated backup of files can be useful. This could be regular autosave (supported by most packages), or copying the file to other locations (even on the Internet). Again, this could be useful.

9) Word count features can also be useful, from the basic wordcounts of entire files and selected text, to more complex daily wordcount targets. The usefulness of these is highly dependent on the way you work, or whether the way you work can be moulded to them.

10) Time lines. With a complex, non-linear story, it can be useful to have a timeline showing how the plot evolves over time. These can show you where a character is at any one time, and how often they appear in the story; or how locations are used in the plot. For simple, linear plots these are of limited usage, but for complex plots they are massively useful. Do you have two scenes with the same character in New York to London? If so, you'd better not have the two scenes (London and New York) set an hour apart, unless some pseudoscience or magic is involved. Likewise, a hut in the middle of a forest in Canada may look radically different in the depths of winter than in summer. A time line can help see that a new description detailing the changes might be necessary.

11) To-do lists or notes. This can be a list of items that remain to be done, or notes for reference later. As I write, I tend not to go back and edit; instead, I get a first draft out of the door before going back. However, as I write that first draft, I come across things that do need altering. Instead of breaking my flow, I jot them down in a list that will be referred to during the first heavy edit.

As an aside, another interesting tool is Sonar3 from SpaceJock software, a free package that allows writers to keep track of submissions. I have yet to try this, but it seems like an interesting idea.

As Jerry Pournelle says, at the end of the day which tool you use is totally down to personal preference - if you find that your writing is improved by use of quill and parchment, do so. If you wish to use all the writing-specific features of Scrivener; again, do so. Likewise, with Word and OpenOffice.

But, and here I must be quite forceful, do not mindlessly rely on the same tool. Give different packages a try. If you have a Mac, download a demo of Scrivener. Likewise OpenOffice. Who knows, it may be better than you think, and may just help you work more productively.

I intend to do mini-reviews of some of these packages over the next few weeks.

No comments: