Software Review: StoryMill

Published Friday, February 19, 2010 3:52 PM
Men and women have been writing fine novels without the help of a word processor for centuries, dabbing ink onto parchments and scrolling free hand into notebooks, and I have no doubt that people will continue to write novels with no more than simple text input programs or the monolith that is MS Word. No new program can truly improve your writing any more than a new type of pen can. But, they can make things a little easier. A program I've been using for larger projects, including the novel I'm currently writing (broke 30,000 words today!), is called StoryMill. StoryMill is produced by Mariner Software for Mac and costs $49.95.

On its most basic level, StoryMill is a word processor. When you first open the program you are greeted by a window divided into five sections, not counting the bottom bar that says stuff like "Page 1 of 1." The top section is the toolbar, fully customizable though your options are limited. Below that are three columns. The middle and by far the biggest is split in half horizontally. You do your writing in the bottom half, the blank page, and on top of that it shows you what you are writing in. Much like iTunes, the left hand column is for organization, one of the program's greatest strengths. If you click on 'Chapters' the top half of the middle will display a list of your chapters (just like a playlist) and from there you can click on one of those and then see what you've written in the chapter. Besides 'chapters,' the program preloads with a 'characters' playlist as well as 'locations,' 'tasks,' 'scenes' and 'research.' The far right column is a place for tags, notes and the display of data such as how many words are in your current viewed document.

This all-inclusive organization is without a doubt the programs greatest strength. Without having several different programs open or thirty word documents and a dozen finder folders a writer has everything in their project at their finger tips in a single window. You can go from working in a chapter to re-reading that character sketch your wrote by just clicking over to the characters view. These 'playlists' are also customizable (for my science fiction novel I have chapters, characters, planets and moons, other locations, races, research notes, tasks, and finally submissions) and a double click will produce a chapter or locations description in a separate window if you want to have them both open at the same time. I haven't found much use for the tags function but others might and the ability to insert hyperlink annotations into the text is a nice touch that I imagine someone writing a piece of nonfiction that had a lot of research would put to good use.

Other nice features include a full screen capability comparable to WriteRoom and a fun, ultra-simple, must-have delight is the progress bar. Located in the toolbar, you can adjust the progress bar to be a timer or take count of how many words you've written since you opened the program. I've set mine to 1000 words, the bare minimum I must write everyday, and as a blue bar extends as though I were downloading something and a sound chimes when I reach my goal. There is also a "project goal" progress meter. Mine is set to 100,000 words, a ballpark for novel length. I know it sounds quaint but I've come to love it and rely on it just as I often use the full screen (what StoryMill touts as a "distraction free writing environment"). My only qualm is that I can't put whatever sound I want in there. How I long to hear Han Solo yell, "Lets blow this thing and go home," every time I reach my goal.

There are a host of problems with the software, however, not the least of which being a frustratingly unusable timeline feature. Maybe I just never figured it out, but I played with it for a long time and couldn't figure out how to get the events I was inserting to be at any other time than the time I was inserting them at. I don't need a day planner or a calendar I want to timeline my damn book. The timeline is also tied to scenes which StoryMill uses as a way to break up your chapters into individual elements. It sounded like a good idea but it just turned out to be cumbersome (notice that 'scenes' wasn't one of my organizational categories). Another little annoying problem is a lack of hot keys for certain features. I love me my hot keys.

All in all, it has been a great program that I despite its short comings but I have to say that there is a lot of room for improvement. First of all, there needs to be support for multiple drafts. Right now you can label your character sketch or chapter as being draft one or two or finished and it'll be given a different color coded bar in the selection window. This is a nice visual touch, but there is no way within the program to retain a previous draft. So far I've been saving older copies of chapters to independent word documents (grrr...). Speaking of saving to windows, there is an export feature that is so lacking in usability I've resorted to select-all, copy and paste. For someone who likes to be able to back things up, a simple to use but versatile exporter than saves to .doc and .rtf is a must. I browsed through Mariner's web forums and discovered that  support for drafts is in the works for the next version. While we're adding things to the StoryMill wish list, better stat tracking would be nice such a feature that can tell me what chapter is the longest, which the shortest, etc. and while they're building in draft compatibility I'd like to see something comparable to MS Word's track changes and insert comments function.

If you like the idea of WriteRoom and have out grown MS Word in terms of needing to organize and better attack a large scale writing project, despite its flaws and large room for improvement, I'd definitely recommend StoryMill. Its worked for me so far and there's no sign that will change. You may want to hold out for the next version because the price is a little high, but that's to be expected. I give StoryMill four out of five pens.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished fiction writer.

101 days until deadline, eight chapters complete.
by DMI
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