Friday, November 7, 2014

The Technology of Writing

In honor of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which began last Saturday, I decided to chat about options for producing novels, short stories, and screenplays. The technical aspects, if you like, of writing in the Internet Age.

Some people write longhand, in pencil on legal pads. Some pound out their manuscripts on electric or manual typewriters. I prefer a computer—the bad typist’s best friend. Specifically, I use Storyist, as I mentioned when this blog was brand-new.

Let me say right up front that Storyist won’t work for everyone. It runs on the Mac and on iOS devices, syncing files between computer and iPad with minimal fuss. Windows users have Scrivener—and other programs about which I know less. But their features are similar, if not exactly the same. So the question remains: Why pay for—and learn—a dedicated novel-writing program? Why not stick with a word processor? This post explains why. 

First, let me show you a screen shot.


Here you see the opening paragraph of The Winged Horse, combined with a photo gallery of my characters (I’m an intensely visual writer, so I love to imagine my characters while I’m telling their stories). On the left, you can see the Project View, which lists the different kinds of information that Storyist can hold: plot points, character and setting descriptions, research, notes and writing exercises, synopses and more. Already we’re in territory a word processor can’t touch, where I can write in one window while displaying other useful information in various ways.

The second screen shot shows a different view of The Winged Horse. Here you can see the chapters of the novel listed on the left. The character images still appear on the right, but the center manuscript has become a set of index cards representing chapter 1, each containing notes about the individual scenes—their purpose in the story, what they need to convey. If I were to double-click on a card, I would enter its collage, where I could write comments or drag pictures of the characters and settings associated with that section.

The third screen shot comes from The Swan Princess, the book I started this summer. So far, I have only about ten pages of text, which is sure to change as I write, so instead I’m showing the individual character sheet for Nasan, the heroine. It includes fields that came with the program (age, gender, eye color, hair color, build), fields that I defined (patronymic, character type, emotional makeup), my image of the character, and moments in her development—her character arc—linked to scenes in the story where that development takes place. I can show and hide these fields as I like. On the right I’ve displayed the novel’s main settings in outline mode, the third available option (besides text and grid—that is, index cards or photographs). On the left sits the usual list of folders, expanded to show different sets of information. I can get rid of windows, stack them on top of each other instead of side by side, or go into full screen mode and show only the manuscript.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that multiple options have their downside. Learning a new program takes time you could have spent writing. It costs money (although less than some word processors). And just as it’s possible to workshop a novel to death, you can spend so much time plotting and constructing timelines, defining character traits, and collecting data that you forget to write the story. Everything in moderation, as they say.

But the upside is huge. When I can’t remember the color of a character’s eyes or how old that person is in this book, I click into the appropriate sheet, then back to my manuscript, without losing minutes or hours. I can search the entire project for facts, words, or phrases. (Did I overuse “gadget”? I can find out in a flash.) For calculating distances or sketching out a story, saving that great page I found on the Internet or reusing information from a previous book, Storyist is invaluable. When I get farther into the story and want to read it as a book, I can export an ePub or Kindle file; when I need to send chapters to my fellow writers, I save the manuscript as RTF; when I get that great idea right after I’ve shut down my computer, I type it into the iPad app and sync it back to Dropbox. If I need an overview of the story or a shorthand list of characters or settings, the outline view exists for that purpose—and I can export that, too, for distribution in Word. In all these ways, Storyist helps me make good use of my time.

I don’t bother with every bell and whistle. My character and setting sheets remain half-filled, I have yet to produce a complete set of plot points, and it’s a rare book that contains more than a few section sheets. My timeline is perennially out-of-date. Full screen mode leaves me cold, and I tend to forget the collages exist until I stumble over them. But the options I do use, I use every day, and I like knowing the others are there if I need them. When I’ve painted my protagonist into a corner, I set up index cards to walk her out. I add fields to track characters’ internal and external goals. If a chapter seems flat, sheets show where the conflict died. At the end of each book, I save a template to preserve all that work for the next one.

I stay in Storyist until the last minute, then export the RTF files to InDesign for final typesetting. Any revisions I make go back into the Storyist file, which in turn becomes the basis for the e-book versions. At the moment, I still do a bit of final formatting in Scrivener, which lets me remove first-line indents from chapter and section opening paragraphs. But otherwise I produce my novels entirely in Storyist.

If what I’ve said interests you, this is the perfect time to explore: NaNoWriMo participants can get a 25% discount in November. At any time, you can download a demo from the Storyist site. And if right now you need to focus on cranking out those 50,000 words, don’t forget that November 2015 will arrive before you know it. Plot out your next book and characters in Storyist, and you’ll be halfway to the finish line before NaNoWriMo even starts!

I am not employed or otherwise financially compensated by Storyist Software, although I have voluntarily acted as a beta tester for the program since 2007.


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