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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Defining a Character
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.
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.
Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger)