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Novel Writing Software

Writers intending to create something beyond a short story or in fact any other kind of document approaching humble complexity beyond a single thought are soon faced with the limitations of general use word processing software. Especially novel writers can have a hard time dealing with the approach standard text programs have been using since their inception in the dawn of the computing age.

While doing a good job in their own right, general purpose text processors, like LibreOffice or Microsoft Word, just don't offer much in terms of assisting tools for the struggling writer. Faced with a multitude of characters, places, plot devices, story threads or important thoughts to be laid out before the reader, it's easy to get lost in a storm of unfinished ideas and half written snippets of text.

There are of course ways to work around this, like having separate files for every piece of information that doesn't strictly belong in the main text. Tables populated with items are also possible, but in the end those are cumbersome solutions to a problem that can be solved more elegantly by the right piece of software.

Benefits of the Specialists

To the rescue come specialized writing programs with a multitude of structuring and organizing tools to alleviate some of the problems plaguing writers near and far. Sadly, a remedy for writer's block or a 'create best seller button' isn't one of them, but the promised streamlining of the writing process might go a long way toward easing the creation process of short fiction and massive tomes alike.

One of the most important concepts offered by any writing software worth its money (or open source license) is the ability to compartmentalize a document in a meaningful manner. That essentially means a document is no longer one long flow of text where headers are the only conceptual breaking points. Instead novel writing programs allow the writer to have separate informations units, usually in a hierarchical manner with parent and child relationships between the subdivisions.

These units serve to store bits and pieces of the world the writer creates for his story. It's for example a good idea to write down descriptions of the main characters, including their looks and fictional biographies. Important places can be fleshed out with a background history of their own. Even if much of this information never makes it into the final story this approach serves well to guide the writing process and to help remember what was going on where and when. That goes double for long novels with intricate narrations, but short pieces can also benefit greatly from this technique.

Here are two exemplary programs of the novel specialist sort, Kabikaboo and Plume Creator. Both are free, open source and run on Windows and Linux. They are also both quite light on resources and are easy to understand. There are of course some feature behemoths out there targeting the aspiring novelist market, but not only is functionality overload not necessarily a good thing, they are also mostly proprietary programs and few run natively on Linux.

Kabikaboo

Homepage: launchpad.net/kabikaboo

Available for: Windows, Linux

Licenses: GPL 2/3

Kabikaboo is a free open source program for writers looking for a clean and somewhat minimalistic approach to their writing program of choice. It's based on the GTK toolkit and largely seems to follow the GNOME philosophy as far as the user interface is concerned: few options, a general layout that is very easy to understand for beginners and yet offers everything that the program intends to do. There hasn't been much activity on the development side for quite a while, you can look at it optimistically and consider the program “done”, in the better sense of the word.

At Kabikaboo's heart are the two main components that make it a good pick for writers: a tree pane one the left side and the actual text editor on the right side. The tree pane allows for an easy overview and the creation of the topic hierarchy within the document. At the very top resides the root of the document, usually named after the title of the work in question. Below that the user can create any number of subsections, called “nodes” in Kabikaboo's own terminology, which in turn can also contain subsections and so on.

Prominent use cases for the sections are for example acts of a book, with scenes as subsections and perspective changes as even deeper subsections. Also possible are separate sections for the various characters, maybe with subsections for their looks and background history. Locations, items and background info tidbits also lend themselves well to this kind of tree organization. The possibilities are sheer endless and there is no need to be shy about the number of created entries either.

Additional tools allow to split or merge sections at will and of course to move them around in the hierarchy. This is very useful since the overall structure of a work can be ever changing during the writing process and Kabikaboo makes it easy adapt the text flow at any time.

Selecting any section in the tree view either opens the appropriate editing tab on the right hand or, at the user's behest, a collated view of the section with all its subsections. The right side editing pane is tabbed like a browser to allow quick access to an adjustable number of recently opened sections. The tree view, the tabs and an additional bookmarking system make it very easy to quickly pick any desired part of a document without tedious searching.

The editing area itself is very much like a plain text editor. There is no formating to be had at all except for the basic convenience that are line breaks. In the scope of what Kabikaboo sets out to do this no shortcoming though, the premise is to help create the actual content, the core of a textual work, not its surface coating. The simplicity of this approach promotes distraction free writing, something that supposedly more advanced text processors fail to offer with their myriad of bells and whistles.

Still, there are concessions to comfort: an integrated spell checker that happily underlines any suspicious word creations with a squiggly red wave and a very handy statistics window. The latter offers a view of the current total word count, the count at the beginning of the session, the difference between the two and the running time of the session as well as a words per minute figure. The offered statistics are tools a writer combating his weak concentration or looking to reach a certain verbiage mass might certainly find useful.

Kabikaboo uses its own file format (.kaboo) which reveals itself as a structured text file with the necessary additional section elements. There is no need to deal with that head on though, as the program allows to export to either standard text files or to HTML files. The whole document or separate sections, with or without their subsections, can be exported for further editing in this fashion.

Another sensible function is the option to autosave the document every couple of minutes (adjustable) and optionally as a new version with a counting double digit. Anyone who ever had their computer crashing on them, right after that brilliant, never to be repeated writing session, will surely appreciate this. Kabikaboo never deletes old versions, so a little manual housekeeping might be necessary from time to time.

Regarding the export and subsequent editing: Kabikaboo is decidedly not a program that aims to finalize a written work, neither in terms of content, layout or final publishing format. These are tasks intentionally left to other programs, word processors, layout programs and the like. Kabikaboo merely helps the aspiring writer to organize his thoughts and to put them into written form.

Kabikaboo at a Glance

  • Free, as in beer and freedom
  • Clean, easy to understand interface
  • Very lightweight and does not need much screen space (netbook friendly)
  • Intuitive division of elements into a tree structure
  • Helpful statistics window (if you fancy numbers)
  • Autosaves with adjustable time intervals and the option to create a new version of the document every time
  • Easy export as text or HTML

Plume Creator

Homepage: plume-creator.eu

Available for: Windows, Linux

Licenses: GPL 3

Plume Creator is free open source software too, but unlike Kabikaboo it's still relatively early in development and has at the time of this writing a number of rough edges and one or the other missing feature. Nonetheless it's already a very promising and viable tool for novelists. Plume is based on the Qt toolkit and already has a sizable number of options and a relatively flexible interface to bend the program to your liking.

On the left of the main view is a tree pane which allows to split a project into books, acts, chapters and scenes in descending order. All sections can be freely named and allow the saving of arbitrary items too, like notes or other info snippets the writer wants to keep separate form the main text body. Prominently featured at the center is Plume's editing area, where the actual writing is done. A double click on any leaf of the tree opens the requested item here. Multiple editing windows are opened in a tabbed fashion to allow quick access to any part of the project presently required.

Where Kabikaboo is all about keeping it simple and sticking to plain text editing, Plume offers the usual text formating options, including style management. It's all optional of course and doesn't get in the way if a writer should have his mind set on doing it barebones.

On the far right side Plume has a vertical row of additional buttons, which offer a number of useful tools at the tip of a mouse click. Among them is a notes and synopsis function that allows to add further thoughts to a text in an extra area. This can be handy to store reminders, quick thoughts or wild ideas for future progression.

Next is a button not quite aptly named “Tools” that opens a countdown timer on the left. Anyone who is struggling with concentration or just wants a challenge might find this useful. It can also be used to implement the infamous Pomodoro Technique, where you repeatedly work full steam ahead for 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break.

Further down is a function called “Mis en scène”, which means “placing on the stage”. It's Plume's repository for characters, places and items. In a separate window all units can be given a number of characteristics and descriptions. Right now this is still very character oriented with descriptors like “Protagonist” and “Antagonist” but other items can be managed here just as well.

Then comes the “Outliner” view. This is basically a table of all acts, chapters and scenes with their most important attributes, like point of view, synopsis, notes and editing status. The status is meant to categorize any section as first, second or third draft, one of three editing revisions, as proofread or finished. Writers working incrementally on various parts of their work rather than the whole at once will appreciate this.

Last but not least comes Plume's fullscreen mode. A click on the button turns the screen black with a minimal toolset hovering in the lower right corner. This distraction free writing environment is supposed to help overcome the urge to play with all the toys that scourge every desktop. It's just you and your words now, might as well spill them out and finally create that long hidden masterpiece. It is worth a shot anyway.

Plume's whole interface can also be freely recolored, so a low key dark gray look is possible for example. A special netbook layout is also available to accommodate those extra small screens. The program saves the open project in adjustable intervals, but sadly there is no versioning to be had, at least not in the latest version at the time of this writing.

The export function allows to save the project as a whole or any selection of parts in five different file formats, namely: plain text, HTML, CSV, OpenDocument (.odt, the native format used by LibreOffice and many others) and PDF. Even notes and synopses can be included in the export.

All things considered Plume Creator still has some miles to go and some edges to smooth out before it can be considered a perfect solution for writers, but the parts that are implemented work already well enough for serious writing.

Plume Creator at a Glance

  • Free, as in beer and freedom
  • Rough edges but in active development and already very promising
  • Text styling available but doesn't get in the way
  • Separate storage for characters, items and places
  • Useful “Outliner” provides a good overview of the project status and its various parts
  • Distraction free fullscreen mode
  • Flexible export options to several file formats

Parting Words

The choice of the right program for any writer naturally boils down to personal preferences. One might be perfectly content with good old Word, another does it old school all the way and sticks to pen and paper. Anyone looking for a modern tool, specifically created with the novelist in mind, should take a look at Kabikaboo and Plume though. Where the former is very much intentionally plain and notepad like, the latter is striving to be a more intricate solution all around.

When the creative writing process is done, further editing in a traditional text processor or layouting program is still necessary or rather inevitable. All things considered, it makes sense to use a separate program for the different tasks: writing, finalizing and layouting.

Computing | Non-Fiction | Software | Writing


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