Just a Peek - StoryMill

November 19th, 2008

I'm Not Dean, And Never Will Be

For a very long time I've wanted to write a book or short story and have it published. Way back, before I bought my first Mac I wrote a bunch of short fiction and believed that what I wrote was good enough for publication. After all, family and friends who read my efforts dutifully heaped praise on them. After a while I started believing I was an undiscovered Dean Koontz and all I had to do was write that perfect story, find the right editor, and the rest would be literary history.

I took out some of my early stories recently and read them.

They were horrible.

While there were plots with characters and conflicts that needed resolution my stories didn't flow. It was interesting to me at the time I wrote them. Looking at them now, through the spectacles of time and experience, the stories are dull and hard to follow, even to me. There are moments when the characters seem to awake and become animated when a plot twists just so, but those moments are few and far between.

What I desperately needed was an outline for my stories, a way to map progress towards the resolution. I also needed a way to describe my characters better.

What I had created in my writing attempts were streams of creativity that had moments of literary goodness (at least to my current and somewhat jaded eyes), but lack coherence that ultimately overshadowed any goodness there might have been.

Now I understand why no one ever published my stories. I'm positive I gave many junior editors something to laugh about as they stuffed the form rejection letter into my return envelope.

I gave up trying to write stories and placated myself with an occasional article in the public eye on a website here or a newspaper there. Mr. Koontz's position in the literary world was safe from me.

Recently, however, that dormant urge to write fiction has reemerged, shaken awake by the realization that this month is National Novel Writing Month, and by a recent rediscovery of StoryMill, a product from Mariner Software, the folks who brought you the spartan yet infinitely useable Mariner Writer word processor.

National Novel Writing Month is a neat notion where you take the month of November and try your damndest to start and complete a novel. Many people will think that 30 days just isn't enough to write the epic that they have locked away inside, and they would be missing the point.

As long as that book remains inside you then it isn't really a book, it's a concept, maybe a collection of ideas, nothing more. You need to get those ideas from your head and into your computer, on your typewriter, or pen and paper, or cave wall and charcoal before it can become anything that remotely resembles a novel. National Novel Writing Month is suppose to give you a push and get you writing.

You can get your ideas out in a flow of creativity, like I did, and take a chance that what you produce won't suck to everyone but you. There is goodness in this approach, your ideas are no longer in you, they now have taken shape in the real world; they are a story. For many, this is a monumental step. Surprisingly few wannabe authors ever get this far and if you've cross this milestone then you should be congratulated.

The problem with this approach, as I've discovered, is that the more complex your story is the less effective the "stream of consciousness" style of writing becomes, and the more likely it will resemble a disjointed collection of loosely related ideas, which tends not to be very interesting reading.

Stories need structure to be effective. They need strong characters that are well developed, and plots that are deep and interesting. This is where StoryMill comes in.

Ideas Go In StoryMill...
StoryMill is designed to help you take your ideas, characters, and plots and wrangle them into something coherent.

To do this, the designers of StoryMill decided to use scenes as the basic building blocks for your stories. Words describe scenes which collect to form chapters. Get enough chapters together and before you know it you've got a novel on your hands.

While StoryMill is designed to take advantage of building stories with scenes, it by no means limits you to do so. You can create your story pretty much anyway that makes sense to you and use the many features of StoryMill however you see fit.

For instance, you can add notes and comments anywhere and at any time in the creation process, you can create data bases of characters, places, and events, and then plot them all on a timeline. You can also keep track of your research and facts so you get it right the first time.

One feature in StoryMill I really enjoy is the full screen mode which lets me write on a blank screen. There's nothing to distract me from my writing, which is a good thing because I get easily distracted. I can select any color combination for background and text so as to reduce eye strain as much as possible, and, of course, I can play around with the size of the text as well. When I need to go back to the regular windowed mode I hit the ESC key.

Spell checking, text statistics (word and sentence count, etc.), auto-save are included as well as the ability to spot cliches, which, for some reason, didn't work for me.

Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
The key to using StoryMill effectively is to make use of its features, and there are many.

One of the strongest feature is the app's ability to view your data in any way that seems logical to you. For instance, if you've decided to use scenes as your basic story unit, then you can search, sort, and display your text as scenes. You can also do the same with characters, locations, or any of the other data categories.

StoryMill has lots of features.

This allows for a lot of flexibility in how you see what you have written and could offer insights and connections within your story that might not have occurred to you before.

Other features include task and research tracking, word frequency checking, and once you've written that award winning novel StoryMill will help you keep track of where you are in the submission process.

Of course there are the basic editing tools, and I like that StoryMill isn't burdened with excess fluff. The text editor is unencumbered with features you don't need, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable writing experience.

I mentioned the full screen mode earlier, but I didn't mention that a right mouse-click while in full screen mode gives you standard editing options (spell check, font formatting, even text direction and speech) that disappear when not needed.

I'm also a huge fan of StoryMill's export function, that lets me output my writing and any of the associated metadata into several popular formats include Word 2007's .docx.

If Wishes Were Horses...
In my brief existence I've encountered relatively few moments or items of perfection (maybe I need to get out more), and while StoryMill is on a path to perfection, I don't believe it is there. What I've found are a few nits that takes some of the shine off an otherwise stellar product.

For instance, when I shift to full screen mode the line cursor has an annoying habit of starting at the beginning of my text instead of where is was in the regular mode. It's also very thin and I prefer a nice fat cursor so I always know immediately where I am currently editing.

Nothing magic about the timeline in StoryMill.

To make matters worse, the mouse cursor becomes so hard to see in the full screen mode that you have to move it around for a second or two to find it.

I know that doesn't sound like much, but the full screen mode is suppose to reduce distractions and let me type. Searching out cursors is a big distraction. If I want to edit an earlier line, for example, I have to first find my edit cursor then find my mouse cursor before I can move either, you shouldn't have to think about this.

Another bit of annoyance is that the "highlight cliche" feature doesn't seem to work. I tried peppering my prose with more cliches than you can shake a stick at, but try as I might, for what seemed like a month of Sundays, StoryMill refused to ferret out my cliches. I think I would have liked this feature had it worked.

There's something else about StoryMill that you should know: It is a process driven application, meaning that in order to use it properly you've got to develop a process that uses its features then stick to that process. StoryMill does nothing for you automagically. You have to populate each scene with actors and locations, of course, but I should be able to see a plot or timeline of my story that is generate for me, for instance. I'm sure there are other places where automation can help, just don't expect it from StoryMill.

For example, I'd like it if StoryMill would bring up characters and locations in a sidebar whenever I mention them in a chapter or scene and allow me to easily switch between them so I can see how they relate. That way, if I wanted to expand on a character or location I could, while the thought is still fresh, then get back to where I was in my main manuscript when I'm done. As it is now I have to get out of the scene or chapter to update characters or locations. And that's another distraction.

Bottom Line
So, can StoryMill help you become the next Steinbeck or Hemmingway?


What StoryMill can do is help you organize your thoughts and get your ideas out of your noggin and into something coherent that sits on your computer, and that is very much a good thing.

StoryMill won't write your epic novel for you, but it can help your define a process for doing so that could move your manuscript along.

The application is not without minor annoyances, the cursor problem in full screen mode being chief among them, and there's nothing automatic in any of the processes and features. Those are minor complaints, but distracting and diminish an otherwise stellar product.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as the (unhighlighted) cliche goes, and the proof is this article: I wrote it entirely in StoryMill. I found that I enjoyed using the app and that it made me think about how my story, this story, would progress. If I had StoryMill back when I first started writing short stories maybe they wouldn't have sucked so badly.

Hmm... Maybe I have another short story left in me after all.

I highly recommend* StoryMill.

Peeked at StoryMill
Manufacturer Mariner Software

US$44.99 (Download edition)

US$49.99 (Boxed edition)


Mac OS X 10.4 or higher (including Leopard)

* Note: My rating system goes like this;

Vern Seward is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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