For this week’s post in Tools for Writing I have a guest contributor, Simon West. Simon is a new writer, dipping his toe in the waters of fiction and non-fiction and has a long-term goal of writing for a living. Simon has been using Writer’s Café and has volunteered to review it for us. Over to you, Simon:
Writer’s Café is a software package on offer from Anthemion Software Inc – and yes, despite the single program, it is a package, targeted towards: creative story writers, screenwriters, biographers, directors – in effect, anyone who would benefit from an organizer to compile their ideas. Writer’s Café is not marketed as a fully featured writing platform, rather it strives to be a stimulant and nerve centre of creative thought; a “playground for the imagination”. Husband and wife team Dr Julian and Harriet Smart have attempted to offer writers a comprehensive set of tools to kindle and control the path of writing projects, and have outdone themselves in terms of customisation and escapism. What is meant by escapism? The tools are nestled within a Windows styled desktop which can be maximised to fill the screen, obscuring the taskbar and every other program (or rather, distraction) from view. This leaves the writer free to immerse themselves within their writing when research is no longer a necessity.
The core features available are: storylines, pinboard, scraps, notebook, journal and the writing prompt. These sit alongside various eBooks of technical tips, inspirational quotes and a guide to fiction entitled: “Fiction: The Facts”, based on over twenty years of Harriet’s professional writing experience. A name generator is also included, however the results are often amusing and would likely be of most use during speed writing exercises. To access any of these features, program icons are locked to a grid on the desktop and snap to the four sides, while a windows-style start button groups everything into categories. A menu bar is also available across the top of the screen, providing links to tools and the home screen (desktop). Icons for all of the above on both the desktop and menu bar can be removed and added at any time via the preferences menu, so the environment needn’t be cluttered with unused tools.
“Storylines”, arguably the jewel in Writer’s Café’s crown, is a linear timeline tool for plotting the events in a writing project. In one window, users may add cards for each scene along any number of horizontal, interweaving story arcs, which in turn can be divided into custom sections like parts, chapters or acts. Each scene can be re-arranged, deleted or “pocketed” for later when unsure of placement. This window has a feeling similar to Window’s Excel, and indeed a right click provides options to add and delete scene columns at will. Simultaneously, the top right window offers meta-data tabs for each card when selected. “Summary” should be self-explanatory, and appears on the face of cards on the visual timeline, while “annotations” and “tags” gives opportunity for brief notes such as “unfinished” (a yellow triangle in the card’s top corner marks this fact). Finally and most powerfully, screenplay or prose content itself can be inserted for each scene under the “content” tab, which when re-arranged on the timeline, changes its place in the compiled work viewable under “report”. This meta-data is local to each card, whereas the left-hand top window holds standard character and location information, and a search tool. The feature, as a whole, would be useful to those who like to take a structured approach to story development, whilst also keeping their walls devoid of hundreds of post-it notes.
“Pinboard”, on the other hand, is “storylines” without the timeline. A customisable board – which can again be maximised to full screen – sits in wait of notes of text, images, picture slideshows or web addresses. Each note can be captioned, and may be dragged and re-arranged across the board. The idea here is that how the pin board is used is entirely in the user’s court, whether it be for compiling research or tossing around ideas. This tool is easier to adopt than storylines, and with every facet from background colour to font and note size free for customisation, is bound to be of use to writers whom benefit from visually organizing their ideas. However it should be noted that whilst the pin board can be exported as an HTML file, it will lose visual formatting and assume the style of a list; unfortunately it is best left where it is unless resorting to screenshots. Meanwhile for more permanent collections of research and concepts, “scraps” is a digital scrapbook incorporating folders of text scraps, web scraps (URL’s and saved web pages), image scraps, picture slideshows, and collages; a blank slate and set of drawing tools to brainstorm ideas using shapes, text and images. One particularly nice feature – although only available on windows – is the ability to “auto-paste” external text into a new scrap by copying to clipboard twice in quick succession.
The last of Writer’s Café’s core selection of tools, “notebook”, “journal” and “writer’s prompt” are aimed solely at writing practice. Notebook appears as a sheet of note paper, with a small header containing the title, an unobtrusive grey link to a contents page and page arrows. Each can be endless in length, so similar prose can be grouped onto different pages, rather than creating new incarnations of notebooks at every turn. In regard to customisation, the width of the notepad may be altered to suit the layout chosen, aside from the standard font formatting. All this is also true for the journal, with the single addition of a calendar to chart daily entries. Finally, writer’s prompt incorporates the name generator with random goals and obstacles, set to a custom time limit within which to speed write an entry into the notepad or journal. The aesthetic feel of the notepad/journal is pleasing and complete if not for the lack of password protection and encryption. For that reason, the journal is not suited for those who are liable to divulge information they would wish kept from prying eyes.
True for any software a writer uses, file compatibility is of great importance. Every tool in Writer’s Café can export to HTML, Plain Text and OpenDocument; the latter being compatible with numerous word processors including Microsoft Office 2007 and later. As a rule of thumb, selecting OpenDocument by default should ensure formatting stays consistent between applications. This is comforting news, but the real gem in Writer’s Café is its backup manager and support of all three major operating systems (Windows, Mac and Linux).
By default all files are saved within a folder in My Documents (Windows). This of course can be moved to anywhere on the hard drive, but also a memory or USB stick. Both project files and preference settings may be stored on a USB drive, giving the user freedom to divide work between their laptops/computers/netbooks – running any operating system – without copying files manually between systems. Alternatively, the entire program can be installed to a USB drive, negating the need to install Writer’s Café more than once. When open, each tool automatically saves the project file at timed intervals (again customisable) to the location of choice. The only manual legwork required is an occasional backup of all – or some – of the files to a .zip file.
For those writer’s who have yet to develop a working routine or find it difficult to organize their ideas effectively, Writer’s Café makes an admirable effort in eliminating that worry. Users working on several writing projects can create workspaces with separate associated notepads, pinboards, scraps and storylines to fully divide their work. They can pick and choose the tools needed, mould the software to an impressive extent and all the while rest safe in the knowledge that wherever they find themselves, all their ideas are organized together in one place – one virtual café – which need never be far away. Writer’s Café is available via download for £22 (£16 for students) and on CD-ROM for £32.90. A free demo is also available for download with a 20 card limit in storylines and scraps, and blocked access to the eBook: “Fiction: The Facts”.