Programmed to Write

I’ve been trying out several software packages designed for fiction writers and wanted to share my experiences and conclusions.

Let’s get this out of the way: none of these programs are a short-cut to writing Writing-computeryour novel. None of them make it easier to write. In fact, they are all a lot of work to use. Writing character bios, relationships and plot out the story arc. The advantage is that it puts all of these very necessary pieces of information in one place so that you can reference it when needed. All of the programs discussed here follow a construct of scenes into chapters and chapters in book. The advantage of writing in scenes is that you can move them around in the story line easily, modifying how the story unfolds.

Pantsers (i.e. those who discovery write, or write by the ‘seat of their pants”) need not apply.

Having pantsed a novel for Nanowrimo, I know I can’t write a decent novel without an outline. This is fine for short fiction but when writing a novel with multiple storylines and numerous characters, I just can’t do it. I wrote some great scenes that I could use in later work, but a great novel it was not.

Here is a list of the programs I have tried out and some strengths and weaknesses I noticed. This is far from a comprehensive review of any of the programs, but it is my opinion of them, based on at least 20 hours of use (and often much more) in each. It occurs to me that some deficiencies that were deal breakers for me won’t matter to the next guy/gal, and vice versa. I encourage you to keep that in mind as you read my opinions. Simply, your mileage may vary. And that’s okay. And I’m okay, too. So are you. We are all okay. Okay?

In all cases, I used the PC version of the programs.

The Dramatica Writers DreamKit (by Write Brothers, $59.99) is a scaled down version of Dramatica Pro, the acclaimed software which keeps track of the relationships among your characters, plot and theme to ensure consistent story structure. Dreamkit tracks fewer ‘story points’ but is otherwise very similar to the Pro version of the product and sells for considerably less.

Mitch’s opinion: While I liked the professional approach this application takes toward writing, I found its interface to be uninspired and just plain fugly. For me, its academic approach to writing was a bit of a creativity-killer, too. Other than that, I found it easy to use and really like the Story Guide, which steps you through the process of outlining your novel. Bar none, I found it to be the best at helping develop an outline than any of the other programs reviewed here. I found this feature very helpful.

New Novelist 3 (by Lifestyle Toolbox, $49.99) claims to be, “the first novel writing software package to provide what aspiring novelists need at an affordable price and has always kept that edge. Over the past 10 years, NewNovelist software has been used by thousands of budding and successful novelists. You gave us feedback – we listened, and developed an even better version.”

Mitch’s opinion: I don’t like it. Sorry, but I don’t. I even dislike the splash screen as it starts up – reminds me of THX-1138 for some reason. It has an aesthetic interface and I found it unintimidating to use. I did like the story board presentation of chapters on the left, Resources like characters, places and objects of the right and the middle for actually writing. It just had functionality built-in that I would never use – Research Browser is just a web browser, and not a great one. Everyone has a web browser they like, so this was a useless addition in my opinion. It had a nice readability analyzer, but since I would use this for first drafts and edit in a more functional word processor, it’s not helpful to me. It had very little in the area of creating a useful outline. It’s a pretty but weak word processor with a few extra features.

yWriter 5 (by Spacejock Software, *FREE*) breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work while leaving your mind free to create. It will not write your novel for you, suggest plot ideas or perform creative tasks of any kind. yWriter was designed by an author, not a salesman!

Mitch’s opinion: I like this program but it definitely has shortcomings. There is no outline assistance and the word processor leaves a lot to be desired. It’s designed to create a first draft of a novel (as most of these programs are), but a better spell-checker would be really nice.

The interface is very functional but not pretty nor ugly – I liked that. It has components to keep track of characters, places and things to keep those handy as you write. It has a daily word count and feature to automatically update Nanowrimo.org and for Nanowrimoers, that’s very cool but not required. Still, for the price (FREE!), you can’t beat it. I used it to write my novel for Nanowrimo 2010.

By the way, I encourage you to check out Sonar3 and some of the other software designed for writers by Spacejock. Cool stuff.

Scrivener (by Literature and Latte, $40.00) is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.

Mitch’s opinion: It was a long wait for the Windows versions of this program to release but it was worth it. Absolutely lovely interface to use and a full-featured character name generator that beats all of the other programs reviewed (if they even had a name generator at all).

I like the hierarchical format of scenes in chapters, chapters in binder and note cards for characters and places, but really, it’s not unique in those features. It just presents them in such a way that I prefer Scrivener’s aesthetics over the other programs.

Mitch’s bottom line: I use Dramatica Writer’s Dreamkit for developing outlines and Scrivener for the first draft. I wouldn’t use any of these programs for short stories, but all could be easily applied to long non-fiction. Seasoned novelists might think Dreamkit’s Story Guide to be rudimentary but I found it very helpful in guiding my thought process as I developed the story arc.

Most of these programs have free trial versions, so I encourage you to try them out before committing hard earned money to any of them. Each has strengths and appeal to specific users. All I’ve done here is tell you what I liked or didn’t like. Your mileage may vary, or didn’t I say already?

A much more comprehensive comparison programs designed for writers is here.

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2 thoughts on “Programmed to Write

  1. I have to admit I don’t like the idea of using a program like any of these, but I hit the same problem at the end of NaNo this year as I did last–keeping each day’s work in a separate document, I thought I was keeping track of my word count and I could go back and see where I was going plotwise. But on Nov 30, the word count was messed up when I merged things.

    So–I would consider just about anything that would help me stay on target.

    Thanks for your insight!

    Twana

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