Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Value of Software for Writers

I admit it, I'm a gadget-a-holic. Maybe it's because my day job deals with computers, or maybe my day job deals with computers because I like gadgets, but I do like gadgets. I like all the latest little cell phones, Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), handhelds, laptops, desktops, and so on. If I had an unlimited budget, I'd probably have to buy one of those steel buildings for all the gadgets.

And along with gadgets I love software. I buy all kinds of software which I ultimately don't use, but wanted to play with anyway, and that's what this article is about. Unless you are fabulously rich thanks to all those bestsellers you have published, I actually have one piece of advice: don't buy software for writers.

Sounds odd, doesn' it? Particularly since I just bought ANOTHER package today, and I quite like it. However, in point of fact, other than giving me another excuse to mess around with something and avoid editing the paranormal manuscript I have sitting here needing to be edited, most writing software really is just a waste of time and money.

Sort of.
But not really.
Well, no, really. Most writing software is just a way for you to give your money to someone else.

Here's the long and short of it: writing software just gives you a framework for you to fill in your story information. Sadly, you still have to write and edit your story. So you can save your money and create your own story framework with the questions you need for your story, in whatever word processor or other software you already have. You don't need the software to do that.

If that is the case, why do I continue to buy writing software? Oh, I don't know. Actually, I do know. It's because I keep hoping the software will be the magic bullet. If I fill out all the little blanks, the light will go on, the heavens will break open, angels will appear, I'll write a brilliant manuscript, and I will be published.

This will never happen.
If I manage to write a brilliant manuscript, it is because I put in the work and sweat to improve my skills and actually write a brilliant manuscript. Whether it gets published or not is an entirely different matter and in no way relates to the use or purchase of any software.

Software might help, however.
Oh, NO! Aren't I contradicting myself? Didn't I just laboriously go over in excrutiating detail how software will not create a brilliant manuscript for you? Yes, I did. However, there is always a flip side and this is why writing software continues to sell and continues to be written about in writing magazines (and blogs).

I doubt writing software will be of much use or relevance to authors who are already published. They know what they are doing, they are doing it, and they are doing it well (or at least well enough).

However, if you are just starting out and having problems, and you really, really like messing with software, you might think about writing software. I still think it may be a waste of time and you would be better of going to some classes and getting character/story grids such as those from the Creating Story Magic classes, however...

  • So, you have some disposable income and you like software.
  • You are writing, but unable to get anything published. You seem to be having problems with character developement, and getting all the story elements in place.
  • You're not sure what the story elements are that you should be getting into place.
  • You have problems organizing things and just need some kind of framework
Given those factors, you might consider writing software. You see writing software does offer a few advantages. If you use it, it will force you to learn all about those nasty little things such as: turning points, conflicts, who is in what scene and why, does the scene increase or resolve the conflict or is it useless? Things like that.

Those "things" can be pretty handy things to learn about. Software will force discipline into your story magic-making process and help you realize why you may have a sagging middle (the scenes don't increase/resolve any conflicts) or where you have gone astray. However, you will have to use the software in order to learn what it has to offer.

Then, once you learn it, you pretty much stop using the software because you don't need it anymore. Entering all the story details you have to enter gets to be a major pain in the patootie and after a few stories, I can almost gaurantee that you will stop using whatever software you are using and just do it with a simplier grid or two in your wordprocessor, and then go on and write your story. Or use index cards. Or a scroll (that's what I do). Or whatever.

Software can be a data entry nightmare, but it will teach you what the critical story elements are, how to identify them, and how to put them together. If you can stand it.

Software also has a very steep learning curve.

Now, since you've come this far, I have the following information for you. I've used the following software and here are my comments. Take them for what they are worth.

Power Structure
Very expensive and a very high learning curve. However, this is the product that will teach you (through blunt force trauma--or so it feels) how to avoid a sagging middle. It makes you enter WHY you have each scene and what it does for the story. You can plot the escalating tension and/or see if you don't have any escalating tension. It will teach you the elements of a story, broken down in three parts (3 acts). You can create plot points (even color coded) broken into chapters. You can document everything there is to know about your characters PLUS what their journey through your story is, where they start out and where they end up. What they learn along the way. The hero's journey as well as the traditional characters that help or impede the hero's progress.

Technical note: After using it for a while, it started locking up on me. Data entry also got to be a major pain in the patootie. It was hard to copy or include characters from one manuscript into another, and since I often have "continuing" characters, this was a problem for me.

Power Writer
This is the baby sister of Power Structure. It is easier to use with less of a learning curve, but what you will not get is the disciplined approach to "does this plot point/scene really add to the story and escalating tension or is it a waste of time" kind of help. It is less expensive. Because it is easier to use, you may use it longer than you would use Power STructure, but since all these products are crutches, eventually, you will probably find you don't use any of them because you have internalized what they have to offer.

Power Tracker
I bought this to track submissions because I didn't want to develop my own database.
This is really for screen writers. It has a database of contacts for movie producers and the like and it is IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of all this junk if you are not interested in writing screen plays. It was moderately expensive (under $100) but like Power Structure, after a while, it started locking up on me. I grew so annoyed with the built-in database of contacts I didn't care about that, I finally wrote my own database to track my submissions. Then I got an agent and I no longer worry about tracking submissions. She does that.

So, if you are not writing screen plays, I would not purchase this. Just track your submissions in a spreadsheet or document or database or whatever, but this is way overkill. Besides having pre-populated junk that you might not want. And it finally crashed on me and wouldn't come back up, so good riddance.

Anthemion's Writer's Cafe
Okay, this is sort of like a much cheaper and easier to use version of Power Structure. I just bought it today (I told you I have this addiction, didn't I?). It's under $50 U.S. It really is cute. It doesn't force you to learn all the elements of a story (3 Act structure, escalating tension, etc) the way Power Structure does, but it is very well organized so the learning curve isn't so steep. It's got places for a Journal, Notebook, Scraps and Storylines. You can even keep track of web sites and pictures. Within the Storyline part, you can create your character sketches and you enter your plotlines with little scenes/plot points for each plotline. This is similar to PowerStructure, but it does not force you to identify how this relates to the tension you are trying to create. This simplicity, then, is both good and bad. It is good because there is less data entry and it is quicker to just develop your story idea and go one.

In many ways, Writer's Cafe and Power Writer are very similar products.

However, since you don't really need software specifically to write up character bios and an outline of your plot, well... That's the problem. PowerStructure is triple the price and harder to use, but it will force you to identify all the necessary and critical story elements so that you will learn where you may be going wrong. You will learn discipline. You will not be so disciplined with Writer's Cafe, nor will you learn anything about the 3-act structure, escalating tensions, hero's journey, and so on. But it's more fun and easier to use. It's more likely that you will continue to use it. We'll see if I have the same kinds of technical problems when I've plotted out a couple of manuscripts in it.

So, those are the products I have played with.

So, my final conclusion is that most software for writers is just a way to give your money to someone else. None of them do things you couldn't do yourself, fairly easily with a few wordprocessing documents and a regular folder structure on your computer. I have a master folder for a project and then within that I have subfolders for:
  • Communications (e.g. letters to agents, etc)
  • Contests (if I submit it to any contests)
  • Critiques, with subfolders for source chapters and assimilated critiques
  • Reference material
  • Synopses
  • Background (character sketches, etc)

I save off web pages and any information I scan or use in my book in the reference material folder. The other folders are self-explanatory (I hope). All of these folders contain what these software products try to make you enter in them.

I'm seeing if I find any lasting value in Writer's Cafe. I actually bought it because I do the National Novel Writing Month challenge each year, to write a 50,000 word novel in one month, and I find that I can only write 50,000 words in a month if I have the manuscript plotted out, first. So, I'm thinking this software may be a conveniant way to do that.

However, you should see from that, that I am no longer looking for software to "improve my writing." PowerStructure taught me the elements I needed to know, as well as teaching me that software cannot write a novel for you. It was an expensive lesson.

These days, I'm just looking for organization. Of any kind.

And of course, to feed my software addiction.

1 comment:

Lynne Simpson said...

Hi, Amy! I wandered over here from Magical Musings. Thank you for such a helpful article about writing software. I've gone through a few phases of software buying, myself, but I hadn't gotten around to purchasing the ones you reviewed. You made excellent points about what writing sofware does -- and doesn't do. And you probably just saved me some money. :-)