If the big and famous writing assistance apps, StoryMill and Scrivener, are like an aircraft carrier, a floating city with its own ZIP code and a flight deck, Jer's Novel Writer is like a destroyer, fast, sleek and focused. A major feature is being a memory aid for the creative writer.
Jer's Novel Writer is a breed apart with a different focus than the other applications reviewed in this series. For example, JNW assumes that the author can keep track of his chapters, numbered in sequence and doesn't need a graphical display of all the bits and pieces of text, chapters, notes, and so on. What is does assume is that the writer may have a hard time keeping track of all those personal text tidbits, characters and places in a novel where she wants to go back and fix things up.
JNW Main Working Window
To that end, JNW has these features:
- Margin Notes
- Automatic Outline
- Database of people, places, events, user definable
- Full Screen Mode
- Typewriter Mode
- Separate formatting options for print and screen
- Focused definition of chapters, text and their appearance
- A notes panel
- Novel stats and accurate page count based on output
- Better performance than most word processors for really, really big documents
Every novel writing application reviewed so far has, or appears to me to have, a central theme. For StoryMill is was defining the structure of a novel in time and its components. For Scrivener, it was managing text. For Ulysses it was cleanly separating the act of writing from the output. While JNW does that as well, it also gives evidence of a labor of love by a writer who, himself, has worked on a novel. Doing so brings out both the author's personality and the experience gained from a large writing project.
For example, one can move text around, order chapters, create characters as part of novel writing. That's the mechanics. Where it really gets interesting is when the writer is trying to remember what kind of car a minor character drives. Or needs a memory jog for some additional research required for authenticity. Or even remember a key phrase a character said on page 40 when working on page 310 of a mystery. These are the things that challenge a writer, and if not attended to, can make or break a novel when read by an experienced publisher or agent.
Defining a Character
Jer's Novel Writer has a single window for entering text, and how that text appears, by chapter and text block, is defined in the preferences. It may be quite a bit different than the output format required by the publisher. In that regard, JNW is as capable as any of the other applications reviewed.
One concession made, also made by all the apps except Ulysses, is that during composition, the author may visually set bold, italics, and so on. That seems to be a feature that writers demand in all the apps, even though it violates the strict, clean separation of semantic text from formatted output.
On the right side of the composition window is a drawer that contains three tabs: Outline, Database and Notes. Here, also in a style somewhat different from the other apps, the author provides for command key sequences that bring up context sensitive menus that create entries in the outline or the people/places/events database. It's fast and clean.
On the left side is a column for author notes, "margin notes," and this is one of the most useful and charming features of the app. The writer can define the theme of the note and a rubber-band-like line ties the note to the corresponding text. The gutter size is adjustable. A writer's own notes to himself, at key points in the text -- easy to find -- are crucial for the creative writing process.
Another feature is that the developer assumes that the author is writing a novel (hence the name of the app). Once that assumption is made, the software can focus cleanly on the pretty much standard structure of the novel. Each time one inserts a Part, Chapter or Text Block, an automatic entry is made in the outline. One can then click on any item in the outline and jump to that section of the novel.
Up to ten bookmarks can augment the margin notes to flag areas that may need work. They are keyed to CMD-1, CMD-2, etc. and show up up as dynamic menu items. It's too bad the bookmarks are limited to ten, but, again, simplicity can be a virtue as well as a vice.
With this database approach and a hierarchical display, JNW uses the power of a computer combined with the visual appearance to assist in the actual act of writing.
In contrast to Ulysees, JNW presents the options for output in Project Settings, a menu item. One thing I have noticed is that many developers have a hard time differentiating between the preferences, which dictate the operation of the application itself, and the appearance of the environment displayed. The review of the astronomy sky simulators brought that home in spades. There, Voyager excelled in the differentiation while TheSkyX did not. In this case, JNW excels where Ulysses did not. JNW clearly does separate Project Settings, as a menu item, from the behavior of the app itself in Preferences.
It may seem like a subtle distinction, but this subtle understanding of good software design can not only make or break and application but also make it much easier for the user to approach.
There is no formal import function, and I found that, oddly, JNW won't even open a standard .txt file. However, one can cut and paste text into JNW. That's not terrific, but it is justified by the simplifying assumption that most writers will be creating content for the first time within JNW. Projects are saved as XML, so even if, someday, the app is unavailable for some reason, the body of the text will be accessible.
Export is another, much more complete, story with detailed control over output to plain text, rich text, rich text using the print settings, Microsoft Word, MS Word using the print settings and XHTML. The export process is amazingly fast, with speed being one of the focus points for a program that expects to manage possibly 100,000 words or more.
Like all of the other novel writing programs, JNW has a full screen mode with a typewriter mode that keeps the cursor seeking the center of the page. Changes to the background color are immediate upon setting the color wheel in the app's preferences.
Currently, as of version 1.1.8, there is no Help or formal manual. All the documentation is contained in a default JNW ReadMe that's included as a document when the app is first launched. If one can't figure something out, it's off to the forums or ask the developer.
On the positive side, the program is mostly documented in the informal and light hearted ReadMe. In contrast, the manual for StoryMill, while complete, can also be described as somewhat acerbic. Jerry Seeger, the author of JNW, certainly knows how to pump up the customer enthusiasm for the novel writing endeavor. Also, JNW, as a Mac app, seems intuitive, and if something just isn't jumping out, typically double-clicking or right-clicking will be a good guess on how to proceed.
There isn't a lot to not like about JNW. Because the program is so single-minded in its task, it can afford to be lean and clean. That helps reduce the complexity and also leverage the code to focus on writing assistance, not managing a myriad of code possibilities and a large code base.
Even though I can understand why it's left out, someday, for completeness, I'd like to see a plain text import mode. I'd also like to see a facility to search the margin notes, not just skip to the next one.
As mentioned above, the lack of formal documentation on all the features would serve to fully document this app and address oversights in the ReadMe. For example, the ReadMe discusses re-tying the note to the associated text but is just a bit vague on how to actually do that in the first reference. Some trial and error is necessary to get the feel for re-anchoring, and an alternate explanation in a manual is where one would instinctively go.
Jer's Novel Writer and StoryMill are two applications specifically aimed at the standard novel. Scrivener and Ulysses can be used to create a novel, but also other types of content. As a result, Jer's Novel Writer has the luxury of focusing on the kinds of tasks that a writer typically encounters: remembering what she wrote and remembering what to do to clean up the content. That is, providing an affordance to manage research notes means nothing if the author doesn't remember to do it. And where it goes in the body of the text.
If there's an overlying theme to JNW, it's providing memory aids as opposed to strictly structural aids for the novel -- which is a given. Some key aspects of the the novel are internal consistency and flow, and that's what JNW helps with. If one can't manage those elements, then all the other structural components, timelines, details of characters and locations will simply reveal to the publisher the immaturity of the author's writing discipline.
Also, while all the other apps seem to blur into a common layout and theme, JNW is distinctly focused and memorable in its design.
In all the above, I found Jer's Novel writer satisfying. And yet, while simplicity and focus are a virtue, they can be carried to a fault. It's my subjective feeling that some customers may feel that they didn't receive enough oomph (application scope) and documentation for their US$30 spent compared to, say, StoryMill which is $15 more, can be considered fairly complete as a tool -- albeit cranky in its timeline handling -- and has the weight of Mariner Software behind it. And yet, without this particular implementation of margin notes and automatic outline of JNW, StoryMill is missing something essential as well. It boils down to what what one needs as a writer.
I also got the vague, subjective feeling that the author implemented features constrained by his programming skills rather than define a set of system requirements and take all measures to implement them. That requires a higher level of programming skill.
For its clean focus, fast operation, margin notes, user definable database, elegant separation of app preferences and project settings and robust facility to dictate the appearance of the output, Jer's Novel Writer would receive a 5 out of 5 rating. However, the lack of formal documentation creates a problem -- the app purports to be the tool of one's trade, perhaps the only facility for the bread winner to use in his craft. Full, formal (yet light hearted) documentation is a must for such a rating. Also, during the course of the review, I was unable to contact the author which is worrisome. Hence, JNW received only 3.5 out of five.
Jer's Novel Writer requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later.
JNW Glory: Outline, Bookmark, Margin Notes