Review: How to Write a Blockbuster Novel With Storybook #nanowrimo

Why Novel Planning Software?

November is just around the corner, which means National Novel Writing Month is fast approaching. Whether you're planning to take part in NaNoWriMo, or whether you are perhaps entertaining the idea of writing a novel for any other reason, it might be a good idea to take a look at what tools are available. Even though NaNoWriMo is supposed to be blitz writing without editing, you would be well advised to plan your novel ahead of time. There are some software packages on offer out there that allow that, and Storybook is one of them. One of the most appealing factors about Storybook is its price; it is open source and available for free. 

Storybook is novel planning software; specifically, it allows you to put characters in locations and scenes and arrange them into chapters. This is all done using a visual representation of all the scenes in your masterpiece, almost like moving index cards around on the table. The scenes can be ordered and placed into chapters, and progress on the actual writing can be done within the Storybook program. 

However, it's important to note that Storybook is not a text editor or a word processor. The text entered into Storybook should be of the form of short notes, not your actual text itself. You will still need a text editor or word processor to do the actual work!

Installing and Using Storybook

Storybook is available for both Windows and Linux, and requires that you have Java 6 already installed. (If necessary, visit the Sun Java web site to download the latest version of Java appropriate for your computer). The installation process is relatively painless, with a one-click install available for Windows platforms and a single file to unpack for Linux. By far the most common reason for an installation failure is not already having the correct version of Java. 

Once the program is started, you will see the main Storybook screen. A demo project is available, illustrating Storybook's main concepts. Storybook is all about the arrangement of individual scenes; a scene typically takes place in a single location and is occupied by various characters in the novel. The characters and locations can have some background information, and the scene can be outlined. Scenes typically take place on a line of narrative called a strand; while there is obviously a minimum of one strand, more complex stories can intertwine multiple strands, for example to present multiple viewpoints or sub-plots. Scenes are then assigned to chapters, and, in effect, the planning is done. 

A novelist planning their novel with Storybook will typically create their characters and locations upfront, and then write a brief synopsis of each scene that is required to tell the story. Once all the scenes are planned, correctly ordering them and locating them into chapters to ensure the novel is correctly paced can be quite a challenge. Storybook allows this to be done in a reasonably visual and intuitive manner. It can also be used as a repository for notes, and is a good place to record details which need to be referred to several times during the writing process, such as the description of a character or a location.

What's Good, What's Not So Good

Storybook reasonably impressed me with the way it attempts to focus the novelist's mind on those important details that it is very common to lose track of when writing. For example, when defining a character, it is an option to specify that character's date of birth; it is all too easy when time passes within a novel that the character's age gets forgotten about. Similarly, it ensures that the author puts some thought into other important plot devices such as locations; no matter what the novel, it is all too obvious (and annoying to the reader) when there are inaccuracies that illustrate the novelist did not bother to do any research. 

However, Storybook did also seem to have some considerable failings. As far as I could tell, scenes in the book could only be assigned a date, not a time. This made several scenes that took part on the same day very cumbersome, and in situations where attention to time might be important (such as writing a murder mystery) it would appear more granularity was required. Similarly, there is no easy mechanism to ensure scenes on a strand appear in the correct order when assembled; although it occurred to me that may not necessarily be a desirable feature depending on an author's preferred narrative style. It was not entirely clear whether some of the interface elements were clickable or not; there were many places I wanted to be able to click and drag, or right-click, but it seems that wasn't always intuitive. Above all though, my biggest concern with Storybook was that the planning file becomes another artifact that the novelist would have to keep in sync with their external edits. Once writing starts, and presumably even more once a novel is edited, chapters and scenes could be rearranged, and it seems like it would be difficult to keep the Storybook file up-to-date. It seems it outlives its usefulness once writing actually begins. 

There may be some of Storybook's advanced features that writers might find particularly useful. Several reports are available, such as on the occurrence of characters and locations within the novel plan. This may be a means to eliminate potential conflicts at the planning stage, and also denote whether or not each of the characters gets a sufficient amount of "air time" in the completed work. There are export facilities that allow you to print your completed plan and use it as a guide when it comes to writing your masterpiece.

Conclusion

Storybook certainly serves a role; it might well be a valuable tool for you to use when planning your next novel. One thing is for certain, there is no right or wrong way to write, or even to plan to write, and so you might want to give Storybook a try, and see what it has to offer. 

Visit the Storybook website at http://storybook.intertec.ch, where you can download it, read about features, view tutorials, and see if Storybook is right for you. It may just be the tool you need to plan your next blockbuster. It is just up to you to provide the time, motivation, talent, and the hundreds of other character traits you'll need to be a successful novelist!

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About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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