Archive for category Software

Tools for Writing 7 – Writer’s Café

Simon West

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.

Writer's Café Desktop



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.

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Tools for Writing 6 – yWriter

We’ll be looking at a PC tool in this part of the series, and it’s one that is squarely aimed at the structured approach.  yWriter is produced by Spacejock Software, and as you can probably tell from the developer’s moniker, is designed and built by an SF writer, Simon Haynes.  Like some other tools that have been reviewed here. yWriter is free to download, but unlike some of the others it is actively being developed and supported.  There is an active user community and there are even video walk-throughs to watch on the website.  There is an opportunity to donate if you find the software useful.

yWriter Main Screen

The opening screen (shown right) provides an insight into yWriter. You see the main project window with chapters arranged in the left pane and the description associated with those chapters in the panel below.  The main panel has a number of tabs showing Scenes, Project Notes, Characters, Locations and Items.  Clicking on a chapter in the side-panel shows the scenes, etc. for that chapter in the main panel.

yWriter aims to structure your work into chapters which then comprise multiple scenes.  Clicking on a scene shows a preview of that scene in the bottom of the main panel, along with Characters, Description, Locations, Items, Scene Notes and Goals for that scene.

Writers working on multiple projects, or writers with large and complex works will know that it is sometimes hard to keep track of all the information associated with their work-in-progress and yWriter aims to address this by giving you ample opportunity to document what you are doing and build structure around your work. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 5 – FreeMind

As part of my series on tools for writing, I wanted to take a look at, not only tools for drafting and editing your work, but also tools to help you plan what you write and structure your thoughts.

In this post we’ll be looking at FreeMind, a mind-mapping tool which allows you to organise and structure your ideas.  FreeMind runs on a variety of platforms and is an Open Source project, so it is entirely free.  Don’t be put off by the fact that this is not a commercial product – it is well-supported, under continuous development and is downloaded about 6,000 times a day – so it’s a very popular product.  I have used it for years and found it to be very reliable.  You will need Java runtime on your machine to run it, though, but that is also free and many people will already have it installed.

Basic Mind Map (click to expand)

When you first open FreeMind, this is the screen with which you are presented (this is on a Mac, on Windows it adopts the Microsoft look and feel).  There is a menu, a toolbar with usual Save, Print, Copy Paste etc with a vertical toolbar with lots of small icons.

In the centre of the screen is an oval with the word “New Mindmap” in it.  If you type at this point it will replace these words with a title of your choosing, usually the subject of this particular map.

If you are familiar with the techniques of mind-mapping then you are going to be right at home, but if you haven’t used this technique are are unfamiliar with it then I would suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Mind-Mapping, which is agnostic of any tool, or get hold of Tony Buzan’s book Mind Mapping: Kickstart your creativity and transform your life.  The claim may be hyperbole but it is an interesting book.

As a very quick introduction for the uninitiated, mind mapping allows you to connect thoughts and ideas to a central concept and then connect and re-organise those ideas in a non-linear manner allowing increasing levels of detail.  It’s like an ever-expanding tree of ideas, notes, concepts, reminders and thoughts, specifically arranged around a central concept. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 4 – Scrivener

This time in Tools for Writing, I’ll be looking at another Mac product, Scrivener from Literature and Latte.

This is not freeware and costs USD $39.95 at the time of writing, but it’s still within the budget of most writers and it has advantages over the products we have been reviewing like RoughDraft 3 and Jer’s Novel Writer, in that it is both supported and subject to further development.  Scrivener is available on a 30 day trial as a download from the website, so you can try it before you decide whether to buy.

Main Window (click to enlarge)

The initial interface presented by Scrivener is relatively simple, showing a rich text editing window together with a structure pane to the left.  The name of the item being edited is shown above the editing pane together with forward and back button so that you can skip back and forth between items like a browser.

There is a button bar across the top with view and search options and a status bar at the bottom which controls the viewing scale and shows the word-count and target.  This simple interface hides a great deal of functionality, preventing Scrivener from appearing daunting to the novice.

As blocks of text are created in the tool they appear on the left in the outline.  How you structure these is up to you, but you can create folders and sub-folders, text files and sub-text files within that structure, allowing you to break up your work into chapters, scenes or whatever makes sense to you.  Rearranging your work is then simply a mater of dragging and dropping in the side-bar. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tools for Writing 3 – Jer’s Novel Writer


Click to Enlarge

For this post in my series of posts on writing tools, I’m going to have a look at a free tool for the Mac OS-X platform called Jer’s Novel Writer.

The application presents itself with a simple, rich text edit window without formatting menus or clutter.  It is focused very much on writing and the minimalist approach reflects this. There is a margin on the left hand side and prominent forward and back button on the toolbar.  More of these later.

Much like Roughdraft 3 for the PC, Jer’s Novel Writer is unsupported in that the development of the product has ceased but the product is fully functional.  This says more, perhaps, about the ability to make a living from developing your own software than about the quality of the product, which is excellent and stable.

I said in the introduction to this article that the software was free, and it is, but there is an annoying nag feature which will pester you to register every time you start a new project.  GIven that Jer no longer develops the project, it is irritating and you wonder whether he might not simply have removed that one ‘feature’, but it is free and for that reason it can be tollerated.

I’ve had a couple of comments about the risks of using unsupported software, and the point is fairly made.  There is a risk that an operating system update or patch may make the software unworkable, which is worth thinking about, but at the same time the risk is fairly limited and eminently testable.  A quick search on the internet will tell you whether the software runs on your machine and you are free to use it or not.

In contrast, try buying a copy of Microsoft Word and getting any kind of personal support.   Unless a general patch is issued for your problem you have no chance that it will be fixed.  If you do a risk assessment based on the relative stability of the products, you will have a good idea of which represents the greater risk.

Having said that, there is an additional risk of using JNW (as we’ll refer to it from now on) which is that it has its own file format.  I discussed this in a previous post: Before You Hit Save, and here we see that one advantage of an open file format is that you do not risk having your work locked into a file from which you cannot retrieve it.  Having said that, JNW does allow you to export to text, RTF, MS Word or XHTML formats.

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Before You Hit Save

If you’re a writer, does the format of the document you save your work into matter? What you’re reading now is HTML, but do you care? Before you see the HTML tags, the browser has stripped them out and replaced them with document formatting, so what difference does it make?

Well, it matters as soon as you share it with someone else.  You might think that sharing a document with someone else is simply a matter of giving them what you’ve created, but as will will see, that is oversimplifying the problem.

When a document is exchanged, there is an underlying assumption that the recipient will be able to open the document, access the contents and render them in a way that is acceptable to both sender and recipient. This becomes more challenging when you introduce different platforms for reading the document – is it a PC document or was it created on a Mac, or even on a Linux machine? Will they access it via mobile phone or on an iPad, for instance? All these factors can change the format and the content of any document you share.

If you don’t believe me, try changing your email client to one that only reads plain text. Any emphasis added the sender in bold or italics, by altering the size or colour of the font or the inclusion of tables or embedded objects in the message will be completely lost. Your choices are upper and lower case characters, hence the development of emoticons :-) and conventions for *emphasis* .

Fiction writers tend to use very little in the way of formatting when you consider what is available. They may change font, add bold or italics for emphasis and change line-spacing. They probably use centred text for titles and left-justified for the body of the text. These are not demanding or challenging requirements and have been available in word processors since they were invented.

Why, then, do you need a heavyweight word processor like Microsoft Word, Open Office Write, or Apple iWork Pages to create basic documents? These tools have enormous functionality and are verging on desktop publishing in their scope. If you’re writing non-fiction then it makes sense, as the ability to insert tables, generate a table of contents or an index, embed spreadsheets or include images in the text are all things you are likely to want to do, but for fiction?

Writers who create both fiction and non-fiction may feel they want to stick with a tool that’s familiar, since swapping around brings its own problems, but fiction writers simply don’t need all that extra functionality – they’re not going to use it and having it there is a distraction and an opportunity to introduce unwanted variability into your work. Do you really need a separate font, or slightly different margins for each chapter? Does it help to have a six-point line space before a paragraph in one chapter and a twelve-point one in the next? Worrying about these things is a displacement activity and a distraction from the task at hand, which is writing.

The other thing that writers tend to do is to write whenever they can; in their lunch-break, on the bus, when they wake up early or after everyone else has gone to bed. Many would describe it as a compulsion. What happens, though, when you change from the version of Microsoft Office you have at work to the one you have at home, or when you switch from Microsoft Works to Open Office Write, or when you go from PC to Mac.

Then we run into real problems.

In order to contain all the additional functionality, each of these packages have taken the format in which the document is stored and made it their own. Word uses .doc, while OpenOffice uses .odt. Microsoft Works has it’s own format (compatible with neither of the above). Furthermore, as these products develop they change that format, so that the .doc you used in Word 2000 is not the same as in Word 2003, and is .docx in Word 2007 where you will be invited to convert your old documents to take advantage of the new functions. Indeed, there is often a warning that documents which do not conform to the new standard may lose data or formatting if they are not saved in the new format.

For many individual users, the change in document format that comes with upgraded software is pain without gain. They do not want, need or use the additional functionality and the change in format simply means an additional cost, a waste of time and the opportunity for something else to go wrong.

How, then, do you avoid this pain? How do you ensure that you can open your documents, send them to others in a format they can read, and have all the facilities you need without the pain of document incompatibility or legacy conversion? Plain text won’t do the job and almost any commercial product wants you to adopt their document format as your personal standard.

You could use HTML. After all, it is about as ubiquitous as they come and well-supported on most platforms. The problem with HTML, though, is that when you create a new document, it adds in the header and footer tags to each individual document (I’m referring to the HTML, BODY, etc. tags that start and end each HTML document). When you come to merge the documents together, you end up with nested or duplicate tags that make a mess of your document, and so far I haven’t found a tool that will readily merge a whole bunch of html documents together into a single cohesive document.

There is an answer, though, that was originally provided by Microsoft in 1987 to address exactly these issues. The latest version of this standard was published in March 2008 and it is supported by almost every word processing tool you can name.
Rich Text Format (.rtf) was created to allow the transfer of documents between systems. The file format is directly readable by humans (i.e. it’s not a binary format) and it supports all the elements that a writer of fiction could require.

Although it is a format proprietary to Microsoft (and controlled by them) it is implemented so widely that a file created in one package is normally completely portable to another package, making it the de facto standard for simple document portability. It can be read and written natively by MS Word, Open Office, Word Perfect and a host of other packages and it is supported on Macs and PCs.

I have used .rtf for many years as the native format for my writing because it doesn’t then matter where you work. You can write in your break at work, on the train, before breakfast, on a Mac or a PC – wherever. As long as you save in Rich Text Format you can always read the file.  In short, it is the most neutral format for storing your writing.

Of course, writing on different machines gives you another problem, that of syncing your work between computers, but that is also solvable as long as you have saved your work in a platform-neutral format, such as .rtf.  So as you start a new project, consider what you’re gaining and losing by using a document format that is unique to a single product or a single platform.

You might want to consider changing the document type to RTF before you hit the save button.

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Tools for Writing 2 – RoughDraft 3.0

In my last post I went into some detail as to why Microsoft Word was not the best tool for creating long works of fiction, not because it was bad software, but because it wasn’t designed for that purpose.  In this post I am going to offer you an alternative piece of software which is designed for exactly this task and has the added benefit of being free to use.

The software is called RoughDraft 3.0 and is produced by Richard Salsbury who is himself a writer.  You can download the software and check out Richard’s writing on his website here.  Unfortunately, Richard is no longer developing the software, but apparently it runs under Windows Vista and Windows 7, and personally I have found it to be extremely reliable.

As you can see, it is running here under Windows XP Pro.  If you have a Mac you can, apparently, run it under Wine or as I do, under a Windows OS in VMware Fusion.  I will, by the way, be looking at writing tools for the Mac platform too, later in this series of posts.

Across the top you get the usual windows menu button bar which may be displayed stacked, as shown here, or as one long menu to maximise vertical screen space.  You can also turn these off and use shortcut keys or menu options.  Below these is the main editing window, shown here with five files open, with a tab for each one, and the current file highlighted.

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