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TUAW Review: Storyist 2.0, a professional's writing tool

Over the past several months, we've been publishing a series of reviews of writer's tools (last year we posted some great writing tools for students). While a few of the tools that have been covered in depth have been minimalist writing environments such as WriteRoom, there are more powerful and complete writer's tools that are available for Mac users.

One of those tools is the recently updated Storyist 2.0 (US$59 as a download, or US$29 upgrade from a previous version) from Storyist Software. This application is very complete, with capabilities for completely planning out a story before writing it, as well as managing the writing process while the story is under construction.

I started testing this application a while back, and actually had a lot of my review written before it became stale and disappeared from our queue of posts. The reason it took me so long to write the review is that Storyist works differently from my brain, and it took me a while to get used to it as a tool. Every writer has his or her own particular style of writing, and I find that pre-planning the writing process just doesn't work very well for me. I prefer to jump in and start writing, but want a way to capture important information about characters, settings, and plot points so I can refer to them later. Storyist can also be used for this method of writing, so I found it to be more useful to me after learning how to navigate its many features.


My reason for looking at all of these writing applications for the Mac is not just to write a lot of reviews, but to actually find a tool that can help me in my personal dream to become a novelist. Last November, I participated for the first time in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. The creators of NaNoWriMo realized that the only thing that keeps many people from reaching their personal goal of writing a publishable novel is just sitting down and actually putting words on the virtual paper of our computer screens. They created an annual event in which budding writers can participate in writing a 50,000 word novella during the month of November.

I was a "winner" in my first NaNoWriMo last year, which meant that I actually wrote more than 50,000 words (about 1,670 words per day average). My novel wasn't by any means complete, and it certainly wasn't publishable, but I had proven to myself that I could wedge the joy of writing fiction into my daily life. The other thing that I learned is that although my imagination was able to come up with a plausible plot line, engaging characters, and interesting settings, I needed to organize the flow of my writing. The novel was actually only at about the one-third point in terms of telling the story when it came to its premature 50,000 word limit.

As I've mentioned in other reviews of writing tools, there are some tools like WriteRoom that excel in letting you simply get words out of your brain and into the computer. For first-time NaNoWriMo participants, something like WriteRoom is perfect, as you're not really worrying so much about writing something readable as much as you are just getting that daily quota of words chugged out. Once you've had that first experience of proving to yourself that you can indeed generate a lot of words and dialogue, the next goal is to think about writing a more complete story within the 50,000 word box, or at least knowing where your story is going so that you can complete it after NaNoWriMo ends. That's enough about NaNoWriMo, but I'll refer to it as I write the remainder of this review of Storyist.

Storyist 2.0 seems to me to be the consummate writer's desk from the days of typewriters, all condensed down to one piece of elegantly crafted software. The typewriter is the manuscript, either a story or a screenplay/script, and there are other tools to help you out. For instance, many published novelists plot out their stories in advance, writing plot points onto 3 x 5 note cards, then pinning those cards onto a board on the wall. Sure enough, Storyist provides the electronic equivalent of those note cards, pinned to a virtual corkboard on the screen. Other cards provide summaries of settings, and there are cards which can be used to describe characters (including their physical description) in detail.

The "cards" don't need to be note cards; Storyist also provides sheets for settings, characters, and plot, which are templates for filling in the details on these important novelistic attributes. For writers who are more outline-oriented, Storyist even has a way of capturing information in outline form.

The point here is that Storyist 2.0 is very flexible, bending itself to the most workable method for just about any author. For me, however, that flexibility was somewhat confusing until I had used the application for a while and realized that I didn't have to use all of the tools, just what was useful and comfortable to my way of writing. If there's one negative point to make about Storyist, it's that it can be confusing to beginning users. Sure, the novel manuscript includes a Getting Started description, and there's an extremely complete User's Guide available for download (if you're thinking about using Storyist, read this first!), but I think it would be useful for Storyist to include a short video summary of the tools for those who don't want to "Read The Frickin' Manual."

Let's dive a bit deeper into Storyist 2.0. When you first start up Storyist, you're asked to choose a template for your project. There are four templates; novel, screenplay, stage play, and blank. For my purposes, I pulled up the novel template:

The screenshot above shows a number of the user interface details of Storyist. You can accumulate information about a writing project into a project file (the briefcase icon at top left). The project file can include multiple manuscripts, notes, and information about characters, settings, and plot points. Commonly used tools are available from the menu bar at the top of the page, while links to individual items that you've created are listed down the left side.

The formats used by Storyist are common in the industry. If you're a novelist and want to send a copy of your opus off to a pile of publishers, most are going to want to see a printed manuscript in a particular format. They like to see double-spaced, left-aligned, 12-point Courier type, with certain margins, so that it's simple to estimate a word count from the number of pages you've submitted. Using Storyist's default novel template, you'll be able to complete your Great American Novel, print it out, and send it out to those 1,200 publishers who are just waiting to send you a rejection slip.

That's not to say that you can't use your own format for writing. There's an Inspector tool for changing text formatting, styles, page attributes, and keeping track of your writing goals. The last tool (at right) is a very handy one to use for a goal-driven writing competition like NaNoWriMo, since you can set your final goal and daily goals, track time, and otherwise become obsessive about how many words you have left to write.

One thing I like about Storyist is the ability to get into detail about your characters. While I was writing my NaNoWriMo entry last fall, I had several lead characters who I had a very good mental image of. Since those characters were in most of the major scenes in the novel, it was important to know how they'd react to a situation, what physical characteristics they had, even what their relationship to another character was or how it would develop. There were other minor characters, however, who would show up from time to time and I really didn't have as much of an idea of who they really were! Using the Storyist character sheets (or cards) would have helped me keep track of these imaginary people.

Here's one situation where the Storyist user interface had me boggled. I like to keep notes on note cards, so I thought I'd use one of the virtual note cards to create some character details. In the proper mode, I saw cards for protagonist and antagonist characters, and wanted to add a picture to the protagonist card. Simple, I'll just drag a picture to the card and drop it. Wrong. The picture ended up as a separate element on the page, so I deleted it. What I found after digging into the online help for a little bit was that I needed to add that picture in the Character Sheet view by dragging and dropping the picture onto a drama mask icon.

The best way to think about the user interface is that you essentially have three different ways of working; with the story sheets, with note cards, and with an outline. Sorting out which of these three views is going to work the best for you is half the battle in becoming best friends with Storyist. You do need to realize, as I did, that you'll sometimes have to move out of your comfort zone (your favorite view) a bit to add details to characters, plot points, and settings.

If you have written a draft of a story in another tool like Microsoft Word, and you need to import it into Storyist, the application has a powerful Import Assistant that works quite well. I wanted to import my 2008 NaNoWriMo story into Storyist, and upon selecting the original Word document, I was surprised to see that the Assistant was going to customize an Automator workflow for me to perform repetitive tasks such as removing curly quotes and replace them with straight quotes. The custom workflows can be saved for future imports. Storyist also has an impressive export capability in case your publisher wants to see the document in Word, Open Document, or several other formats. Screenplays can be exported to Final Draft, considered by many to be the industry standard for script writing.

Writers who are familiar with Storyist and who are considering spending the US$29 for the upgrade probably want to know what has changed in version 2.0. One of the big changes, and the thing that I like the most about Storyist 2.0, is the full-screen mode. This was what I loved about WriteRoom; the ability to have nothing but a blank piece of paper on the screen capturing my keystrokes. With Storyist's full-screen mode, you can jump into creative mode very easily, yet still fall back to the rest of the set of powerful tools when you need them. There are now split views for viewing your test, storyboards, and outlines simultaneously.

For writers with multiple monitors on their desks, you can open multiple project windows to avoid switching back and forth between windows on a single monitor. Once you have your windows set up the way you want them, you can save your workspace arrangement.

Sticky-note type comments are a new feature in 2.0, as are bookmarks for returning to frequently-viewed locations in your text. Storyist has added changes to the outliner, such as one-click editing and a yellow background to the outline pad. In the storyboard view, one of the most obvious changes is the addition of a collage view. This allows writers to create a collage of text and images in order to visualize story elements.

Storyist 2.0 also allows multiple manuscripts or scripts in one project; for instance, if you were a writer for a TV series and wanted to work on multiple scripts for a season in order to keep a story line accurate, you could have the season be a project, with each episode being a particular script.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, Storyist 2.0 is a US$29 upgrade for owners of previous versions of the software. However, if you purchased Storyist after 9/1/08 and before the release of 2.0, you can get the upgrade for free.

If you're thinking that Storyist might be the writer's application for you, there's a free full-featured, time-limited download available. I'd recommend downloading and installing Storyist 2.0, but make sure that you take the time to read the comprehensive user's guide before getting started. You will be much more productive and much less confused than I was when I started my journey with Storyist 2.0 without reading the guide.

In summary, Storyist 2.0 is an incredibly powerful writing tool that is flexible enough to handle almost any writing assignment. Writers who like to pre-organize their stories will be ecstatic about the depth of management tools provided by this application, while those like myself who like to "write first, organize later" can use the Storyist tool set to their advantage as well. I know I'll be prepared to write my second NaNoWriMo novel with the right tool this time -- Storyist 2.0.

Check the gallery below for an assortment of screenshots of Storyist 2.0.

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