StoryMill Takes a Novel Approach

| In-Depth Review

StoryMill is a writer's tool that provides organization and composition support for writing a novel. It exploits the strengths of a computer, especially in the context of Mac OS X and a Cocoa application, to assist the novelist with scenes, timelines, characters, locations and some tactical assistance such as cliché detection. Story Mill is a very technical tool that may not appeal to free spirited writers.

Writing a review of a product that assists a writer with writing is an endeavor fraught with irony, opinion, perspective and experience. While I will be discussing the mechanics of StoryMill, from a Mac OS X application viewpoint, such a review would be incomplete, in my opinion as a writer, without added perspective on how the tool might fit into a writer's psyche and personality.

After all, if one merely evaluates the tool as a Mac app, then the review doesn't serve the prospective writer well. That introspective part of the process also comes into play in evaluating the User Guide for Story Mill. It is a beautiful, concise, thorough User Guide that tells the reader what ... but often not why. More on that, and solutions, later.

For starters, it's appropriate to provide an overview of the structure of StoryMill. StoryMill is designed for novelists. (For those who are looking for computer assistance with a screenplay, Mariner Software has a similar product, Montage.)

Writing a novel is basically the art of stitching together a story that has a story line, characters, locations, and scenes. While some modern writers -- and every writer before the advent of the PC -- can hold everything in their heads and just let it flow, some can benefit from a tool that assists with the cataloging and organization of these components of a novel. To that end, StoryMill uses the popular multi-pane approach of Apple Cocoa apps to build chapters, scenes, actors, locations, notes, and tasks. See the screen shot below.

SM Main

Multiple Pane Approach, Items, Data & Metadata

For example, the writer can create multiple scenes, give them timelines and pre-built characters, then link them together to build a chapter. However, because many writers just want to dig in, StoryMill allows the user to quick start and simply construct chapters, one by one. That feature is one of the most important design aspects of a tool like this: it must be designed to allow the anxious writer to immediately start writing, and, over time, begin to utilize deeper features.

Features

StoryMill has all the features one would expect from this kind of tool:

  • A built-in word processor for the composition of text that affords text styles, notes, annotations, split screen, spelling assistance and cliché detection.
  • Templates for the novel. For example, the standard orsnowflake method is supported.
  • Exporting of the novel. All the formats one might expect to be demanded from an editor are supported: Word 2007, rtf, rtfd, pdf, plain text, HTML and some others.
  • A user definable progress meter allows the writer to set and meet goals for daily and project word count.
  • A full screen composition mode which defaults to nominal Word Perfect-like look with white text on blue, but which can be modified to taste. Rick Castle, the fictional fiction writer would love this -- if only he used a Mac.
  • Context sensitive Toolbar items. As the writer moves from creating scenes to characters to locations to tasks, for example, the Toolbar icons change their shape to reinforce the notion of that mode.
  • A submission tracking system to assist the writer with submitting the novel to an agent.

Chapter editing

Simple Writing by Chapter

My sense of the software is that it is a tool for certain kinds of thinkers, quantitative, precise, organized, and meticulous writers. That's not to say that sloppy story creation is a virtue; it's not. Rather, a user of this software will likely be the kind of person who enjoys that extra level of precision, and is willing to take the time to attend to those details. For some writers, even though StoryMill can be approached on a simple level, the act of learning the software will confront them with a discipline that could be off-putting. And therein lies one of the problems ... the User Guide.

Documentation

As I said before, the User Guide, in PDF format, is a very well organized manual. It starts with the basics, encourages the customer to dig in, and then goes into more detail in subsequent chapters.

For those potential writers, however, who expect a less technical and more friendly introduction, the User Guide, if approached as a crucial tool for the writer's livelihood, could seem a bit overwhelming. I can't fault the User Guide on an editorial level, but my feeling was that there is too much emphasis on the exact operation of the program, with a myriad of definitions, such as project, views, items, and so on without a friendly discussion of why one would want to approach writing in this fashion. Instruction sans motivation for the design combined with a minimalist approach comes to mind.

I should add that to assist in that area, there are online video tutorials and a built-in tutorial in the Help menu that address this issue. The introductory video tutorial assists the new user with installation and registration. More advanced video tutorials go deeper. The app's Help menu tutorial provides the essential 30,000 ft. view. Start there.

Timeline

Building a Timeline for Scenes

The best example I can think of for the challenge to document this app is a college writing class that purports to teach students how to write fiction. On the first day, the professor delves in the English language, nuances, syntax, grammar and so on. The student, full of imagination and eagerness, could feel a little bit dismayed and impatient. In the end, however, those are critical tools of the fiction writer. Whether the professor starts there is a matter of judgment. The student must, in response, use multiple resources to gain traction.

Accordingly, this software and its manual requires a special, inquisitive, technical and methodical frame of mind to approach. However, in time, with experience, one can learn to exploit the finer details of a tool for one's trade. Be forewarned.

Character Definition

Defining a Character

Nits

I admired the care and design of Story Mill. It functioned very well during my testing. I did, however, discover a few minor problems.

  • If one is going to write a SciFi novel that takes place in, say, 2035, I found the control for moving into a future timeline less than rapid in its response. I have a fast MacBook Pro, but the scrolling in time was glacial. I would probably not use that feature as a result.
  • There are many modes and windows in this software. As a result, if one is in the main window with Chapters selected, some menu items are bewilderingly dimmed. One has to double click on a chapter to bring up the detailed editing window, for example, to enable split screen. I found several instances of dimmed menu items and Toolbar icons which can cause initial frustration. The required mentality is dig in and be patient.
  • I had some trouble with the annotation popup being properly populated in chapter editing mode. It may very well be something tied to my MBP with its NVIDIA 9600M GT graphics because Mariner Software couldn't reproduce it on their system. They're looking into it, and it likely won't affect most users.

These are all very minor nits that don't detract much from the value of the software.

Summary

From a technical perspective, this is great software. It will appeal to many Mac users who are accustomed to growing with their tools and reveling in the discovery of power and subtlety of their chosen tool. Moreover, it's just as important to master a powerful tool as it is to master the art of writing a novel. Both require a commitment from the writer.

Would I use StoryMill to write a novel? It's hard to say right now. I plan to review Scrivener and Storyist 2.0 in the coming weeks, and those programs could either leave me cold compared to StoryMill or one of them could drag me into the throes of giggly delight. What I didn't feel in StoryMill was the oh-so subjective feeling of joy and grace that makes one love a tool rather than just work in it.

My buying advice is to download and test this software thoroughly for the trial period. Mariner offers free trial period with some limits on functionality after 30 launches. Dig into all the tutorials first. Start writing chapters. Then go back and study the User Guide to gain additional insight. Also, there is a page at Marinersoftware.com that lists all the reviews that have been published. It sounds like a cliché, but this is indeed the kind of software that a writer will have a strong reaction to one way or the other, depending on his or her personality.

For another perspective on this software, and with consensus on the rating, see Vern Seward's excellent "Just a Peek"from 2008.

System Requirements

Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger)

Product: StoryMill 3.2.2

Company: Mariner Software

List Price: US$44.95

Pros:

Very methodical, concise approach to writing a novel, especially a highly structured one in time: SciFi or mystery. Great writers tools, great export tools. Technically complete User Guide, online tutorial, built-in tutorial. Good price.

Cons:

Not for everyone. Very technical approach. 

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7 Comments Leave Your Own

Gaurav

Thanks for the article John. May I request that you also review a freeware app called Jers Novel Writer. It’s very simple, but it supports everything I needed, and I just finished the first draft of my novel on it. I’m curious how it measures up to the other programs you’re reviewing.

http://www.jerssoftwarehut.com/AboutJNW.shtml

mrmwebmax

+

Very good review. After struggling with a novel for 20+ years, and trying everything from grad college fiction workshops to an extremely elaborate FileMaker database, this sounds like it might be the tool I’ve always needed.

Bill Cameron

Hi, John,

Very nice overview. I would throw in another Pro, which is an active and responsive user community and a great developer who is very open to suggestions. The product continues to grow, with plans to add versioning and other features in the next major revision.

I do have an alternative view on the ideal user for the software. I’m one of those sloppy, disorganized writers who gets easily befuddled by complexity. StoryMill has been great for me. I’ve written 1.95 novels with SM (the second one is due in a week), and a half dozen multi-scene short stories. I’m so scatterbrained I sometimes wonder how I ever finish anything. The fact is, StoryMill has made a huge difference in my ability to manage increasingly complex projects.

I agree there is learning curve, and it behooves any writer to spend time learning the basics. Certainly you can use StoryMill out of the box as a word processor, but until you have a sense of the app on at least a basic level, it can be easy to get confused. That said, I think a few days of tinkering will cover the basics. Scenes, chapters, etc. You don’t need much more than that to start working effectively.

From there, you can feel your way in to the more advanced features. The complexity is easy enough to avoid if you don’t want to deal with it, but it also provides amazing organizational power as you grow more comfortable with the software.

For an addlepated writer like me, that organizational structure is what saves me. On my own, writing in a straight word processor, I’d be lost all the time, especially with projects involving multiple story lines and POVs. For example, my current project features five POVs with three story major story arcs and two minor ones, all told in a non-chronological narrative converging at a single moment in time. I could do it in a straight word processor, but I’d have a much harder time keeping everything organized.

StoryMill helps immensely. I take full advantage of tags, the Timeline, and Smart Views. Did I have to learn to use those tools? Sure, but it wasn’t difficult and now StoryMill handles the organization for me. My addlepation is thus less of a liability. For simpler projects, I don’t need as many of the tools, but they’re there when I do.

Ultimately, the only thing we really need to write on a computer is a basic text editor. You can write a novel in TextEdit if you want. Tools like StoryMill provide a way to streamline certain mechanical aspects of the writing process, ideally allowing the writer to focus more on the craft itself. I find StoryMill a superb tool for exactly this. Others, I know, prefer Scrivener, or Word or Pages,? or a pen and paper. In my view, we are all best served by taking the time to test the various tools available and selecting the one which is the best fit.

For me, that tool is is StoryMill. While there is lots to learn, it’s not that hard. There’s no meaningful comparison between mastering the software and mastering the art of writing itself. For writers who are interested, the 30-day trial should be more than adequate to get a feel for the tool and decide if it’s right for you.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been using StoryMill since its days as Avenir. I have been a beta-tester and am consider myself a friend of the developer and folks at Mariner. I have experimented with Scrivener, a superb tool as well which isn’t quite suited to my needs, as well as other tools.

iJack

John - You might also take a good look at the excellent STORYIST, which is quite similar, but can give you either a novel manuscript, or a screenplay.  It also has a story-boarding feature.  I think you might like what you see.

http://www.storyist.com/index.php

Ralph Bassfeld

Or you could try out “Scrivener” from Litterature and Latte. It is an excellent writer’s tool but doesn’t have a timeline.  http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

carp3tshark

Personally, I love StoryMill. It’s structure is just what I needed. Everything in one place rather than spread across documents and outlines in other apps. Can’t wait for the next version.

Black_Dog

Nice review, thanks.

I am about 30K words into writing a novel and this looks like a wonderful tool to help me with it.  After reading your review I downloaded it and spent the weekend playing with it.  I have yet to experiment with StoryMill?s key competitors, Storyist and Scrivener, so at this point I can?t speak to that, but this is what I think of StoryMill by itself:

Pros:
?Smart Views? work as slick as iTunes for organizing and quickly navigating through a massive document in a way that far outshines any conventional word processor.  Until now I have been composing in Microsoft Word.  StoryMill is far superior for large documents like this and does so without all of the Word bloatware junk.

Unnecessary:
I found little value in two of StoryMill?s key features: full screen writing mode and the clich? checker.  I guess I?m not easily distracted but I have no problem clutter on my desktop.  If I did, I could use spaces or some other method to clean it up myself.  And as for the clich? checker, I figure that if an author cannot police his own use of clich?s, maybe he shouldn?t be in the writing business.

Cons:
Importing weakness.  The import function successfully parsed the chapters into StoryMill chapters.  However, it dropped my Prolog, so I had to manually copy that into two scenes and a chapter (which I named Prolog).  I didn?t expect that the program could be smart enough to organize my text into scenes, yet I want to take advantage of organizing my story into scenes.  Unfortunately, there is no easy drag and drop way to do so.  Instead, I spent hours cutting and pasting passages from Chapter Text, where the import program deposited them, into scenes.  This is a minor complaint, but somehow I think Mariner Software could devise some way to make this more convenient for authors that are moving to StoryMill in the middle of a project.

Bugs.  My story covers about a 2-year span of time.  As I tried to navigate from the past to present, I was incessantly plagued by ?the spinning wheel of death? every time I moved the scroll bar.  I?ve got a one year old 2.4 GHz dual core iMac, so I have a hard time believing that this is due to hardware inadequacy.  This became so bad I eventually gave up on using this functionality.

Also, when I added story lines on the Timeline window, the new story line didn?t appear in the list of story line options on the scene metadata list ? at least not right away.  The new story lines I added showed up there some hours later.  Go figure.

Feature Omissions.
Password protection.  I want to keep prying eyes out of my unfinished projects.  Call me paranoid, but I feel much better emailing documents that I consider confidential from home to office when they are password protected. Furthermore (and especially), I don?t really want my kids reading my unfinished work on our home computer that we share. 

Limited organizational hierarchy.  Of a less serious nature, StoryMill seems to support only two organizational levels: chapters and scenes.  On a macro level I prefer to think in terms of acts and I have no convenient way of grouping chapters into acts.  I compensated for this by naming each chapter Act [act number]: Chapter [chapter number].  Not the worst thing in the world, but I would have liked another hierarchical level in the ?Smart Views? to do it for me.

Timeline ?go to? feature.  A ?go to? feature is a must for the Timeline page to easily navigate to a specified date and time.

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