Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Binding stories

For the last couple of years, I've taken part in National Novel Writing Month. I signed up again this year, and decided I'd try something a little different. In addition to generating 50,000 words of text over the course of November, I'd change up my habits a little, using some new writing software. Specifically, I decided to give Liquid Story Binder a try instead of trusty WordPerfect.

LSB isn't a standard-issue word processor; it's really a variety of things, allowing you to enter text in a range of formats to help you outline and organise a long multi-part work. There are text editors that you use to write "chapters" as well as "notes"; you can also create "dossiers" and "outlines", which format information in ways that might be useful as you work on the structure of your story, as well as "journals" which link info to specific days, and "mindmaps" which create a kind of virtual pin-board on which you can move brief notes around to help you get a visual sense of how ideas link up. You can use the program to set up a playlist of mp3s, or establish a gallery of images related to your story. And so on.

The program does so much, in fact, that it can be difficult to get your head around. It's possible to look at all these features and wonder what it all has to do with actual writing. Certainly I found it difficult at first re-imagining my working process to take advantage of LSB's features, but over the past couple of weeks I've come to find the program really helpful; I suspect the novel I'm working on has gained a level of complexity it might not have had otherwise. Or, more precisely, I've reached that level of complexity with a certain ease that I might not have got with a word processor.

A word processor is by its nature linear; you're basically entering text on the screen as though the screen were a sheet of paper. Liquid Story Binder takes more advantage of the properties of a computer. On one level, that means that you can change the colour scheme of the program to match the tone of your work. More profoundly, though, it makes it easy to have multiple applications -- or sub-applications, in this case -- open at once. So you can work on a chapter, have three notes open while you do, and have an outline next to the chapter which tells you where the chapter fits in to the overall framework. And you can have a visual reference in the background to help you along. The program seems designed for the current generation of rectangular monitors, taking advantage of all that horizontal space to have multiple stuff going on at once.

Crucially, having these multiple formats and multiple windows seems to make it easier for me to visualise what I'm doing. It's easier for me to make connections between parts of the book. It's easier for me to see how it builds, how the parts interrelate to the whole, and I what have in mind for each of those parts as individual pieces.

Now, up this point, I've actually just been working on the story's outline. Which is a bit of an issue in terms of NaNoWriMo, in that I now have to write 50,000 words over the next dozen days or so. We'll see how Liquid Story Binder does with that; I haven't yet tried out its actual text-entry aspect yet. That's where word processors shine, obviously, and we'll see if LSB can match the ease and flexibility of WordStar. That said, I like what it does so far, and like the way it helps me think about structuring fictions. I'm going to seriously consider buying the program when the free demo expires.

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