Software for the Historical Novelist, and Little Birds

I don’t know how I missed this, but now that I’ve found  Aeon Timeline 2, I have to share the good news.

Because I write historical fiction I’m always juggling fictional characters and events with what really happened.  I have spent hundreds of hours mapping out battles in order to wind my plot lines in and out and around. The battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 was a major challenge, and it was, in relative terms, straight-forward. 

With this timeline software I can have fictional and non-fictional events displayed in ways that help me visualize connections and overlaps (and more important: errors), and I can color code everything so I can tell the difference right away. 

Characters are set up one by one and can be assigned to storylines, and that’s just the tip of this iceberg. 

Unfortunately the people at Aeon have put up screenshots that are too dark to really appreciate, but here’s one of them. 

click for full size

The first thing I did was change the color scheme to dark on light.

I would show you a sample of my own timeline, but that would mean giving away information about the next novel (tentatively titled Little Birds) and that would be really dopey of me at this early stage.  She said slyly. 

Software for Writers: ProWritingAid

If you add together all my published work — academic, popular press, fiction — I’ve got something like 1.5 million words in print.  To provide some perspective on this, I wrote my doctoral thesis (1985) with WordPerfect 1.3, and my first published short story with whatever version of MS Word that was floating around in 1990. 

Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of software to help with keeping my research, storylines, characters and timelines organized. Theoretically Scrivener does this, and for a long time I tried to get it to work for me. I gave up on that about four years ago (and explained why, here).  At various times I have tried LibreOffice, Mellel and Ulysses, all of which have loyal users for good reasons, but none of which work for me. There are dozens of other software packages, all of which do the same stuff with differing degrees of complexity and features. You can read about them here, here, and dozens of other places.

In the end I always come back to Microsoft Word as a word processor. Whether I’m writing a technical report with footnotes, tables and cross-references, or a novel that tops out at 300,000 words, it does the job. But it’s not enough. As an academic linguist and as a historical novelist I deal with research of all kinds, and keeping it organized is a ongoing challenge. My approach isn’t perfect, but it’s functional. I use

  • Evernote to organize and backup documents, web clippings, images and other bits and pieces collected for research;
  • Zotero to organize books and articles in pdf format;
  • Calibre to organize ebooks.

What I have never been able to find is software that does some basic analysis on style.  Grammarly is an online program a lot of people like, but it doesn’t work for me as a creative writer. I do not want to be scolded about passive constructions; when I use a passive, I am perfectly aware of that, and I use it for a reason.  However, I do want to know if I use ‘very’ three times in a paragraph. 

 

What I’ve been looking for: software that provides a list of adverbs in my manuscript, and allows me to go right to the little buggers so I can deal with them. Reports on repeated words and phrases would also be very welcome.  But of course, this is too good to be true. SmartEdit — which is free — is Windows only. Even if I went to the trouble of installing Parallels and buying a Windows version of MS Office, it wouldn’t work (according to the FAQ page on the website). 

This brings me to ProWritingAid, which is both an on-line and a desktop application and is available for Windows and Mac.  I spent an hour experimenting, and I can say now that maybe — just maybe — it will do what I need it to do. I imported a chunk of Where the Light Enters and let ProWritingAid go to town on it. The resulting report was eight pdf pages long and included analysis of everything including

  • Style
  • Grammar
  • Overused
  • Readability
  • Cliches
  • Sticky
  • Diction
  • All Repeats
  • Echoes
  • Sentence
  • Dialogue
  • Consistency
  • Pacing
  • Pronoun
  • Alliteration

Maybe sixty percent of the analysis is of no real use to me at all; as is the case at Grammarly, the people at ProWritingAid want to tell me about the passive. They are also fond of sentences like this one: “Avoid using prepositions such as “with” as the last word in a sentence.”  Apparently you can fine tune the analysis to exclude such observations while leaving the very useful observations intact. 

Now I’m trying to decide if it’s worth $40 a year to use this software. Anybody have experience with ProWritingAid? 

 

scroll bars?

I had a comment from someone who says that the vertical and horizontal scroll bars have stopped working for her. Is anybody else experiencing this? And if so, what kind of screen are you reading from?

scrivener and letting go

scrivener-logo-300x300Scrivener is software developed specifically for writers. I started using it in 2007 (that is, when it first launched), and I’ve upgraded as the software evolved. I’ve stuck with it so long because it does some important things really beautifully.

There’s no better way to gather and organize the kind of complex research material that I use writing historical fiction. If you’ve read any of my Sara Donati novels, you may have a sense of how much I get into, from Jamaica sugar trains to 18th century refining furnaces to battlefields outside New Orleans and commercial greenhouses in 1880s New Jersey. So this I have always loved about Scrivener, the fact that I can keep a lot of diverse material close at hand and look through it without leaving the manuscript aside.

However. I’ve written five+ novels starting out with Scrivener and about a quarter of the way through, I’ve had to give up and transfer over to Word. And here’s the reason.

Scrivener prides itself on being flexible enough to meet the idiosyncratic needs of every writer. To achieve this end, there is a  ‘compile’ process. I say to Scrivener, Hey, I need to print out chapters 1 through 20 in draft form to pass on to a reader. Could you pull that together, simple page numbers, chapter numbers, etc?

In theory this is simple. In fact, it is probably simple in most cases. But in my case it’s not, and despite  more than five years of trying to get an upper hand on the compile process, I now declare myself defeated.

On the surface it seems straight forward. I have

(1) front material including title page, character lists, timelines, map legends (not the map itself), author’s note, dedication, epigraph

(2) a prologue

(3) 50+ chapters divided into Part I, Part II, Part III

The page numbering needs to start after the title page, and stop before the Prologue. Then start up again with ‘1’ at  the prologue, and continue, not showing up on the “Part I” “Part II” pages. The chapters need to be numbered, but not the prologue.

There is a lot of documentation to help the writer set up the compile process to get what s/he needs, and I have read it all. I have also bought a ‘dummies’ type guide and read that, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading on the user forum. But no matter what I do, I can never get the manuscript to print out in plain draft form (that is, no fancy formatting) with the numbering handled correctly.

I tell myself, eh so what. So you’ll have to do a little extra work when you export the draft. But what happens is, I get completely distracted by the process of numbering pages and chapters, and I get derailed for at least one day. Sometimes more. That is, Scrivener is supposed to make the writing process more streamlined, but in my case, it’s disruptive.

No doubt a lot of people will tell me that I’m being computer illiterate or phobic, but anybody who knows me knows that I am very comfortable with all kinds of software and web machinations. I’m not dumb. I can handle Photoshop and InDesign and a lot of other not-simple software programs with a decent level of proficiency. I did in fact post on the user forum about this larger issue. I did so very carefully and politely, but I got no constructive responses. At this point I should point out that Scrivener is not free. The mac version costs $45, and while there is a huge and active forum, it’s staffed by volunteers who have lives beyond helping hapless writers number pages.

If you search you’ll see that Scrivener has a great reputation. I have come across only one review that mentions the issues that frustrate me:

So Scrivener stops supporting publisher workflow once you have submitted the manuscript. And arguably it stops an hour before then, because figuring out how to modify the output format generated by the Scrivener “Compile” menu option is a black art … I found it easier to slurp the resulting Word document into LibreOffice for final tidying up and reformatting before I submitted it. Scrivener doesn’t support Word’s paragraph style mechanism as far as I can tell; it simply emits styled text. So it’s output isn’t a direct product you can feed into an unattended turnkey pre-press package: you’ll still have to pay someone to drive InDesign for you. [emphasis added]

So I have to leave Scrivener behind. I’m not happy about it, but I just cannot spend anymore time fiddling with the complexities of the compile process.  It seems to me that the software developer has lost sight of a writer’s larger goals and is too enamored of  technology for technology’s sake, but I can’t follow that lead.

If you have software you use that you like that allows you to write and keep track of your research at the same time AND you work on a mac, please tell me about it. I’ll have to do some serious window shopping and trying-out before I decide how to proceed and how much time I’m willing to put into the learning curve. Thoughts? And be nice.