Back in the bronze age –my high school and university years, to be more specific– I spent a lot of time writing fiction. Just like every other struggling writer (and perhaps those with far more experience), the development of plot and subplot elements within story lines proved to be one of the most intimidating and frustrating parts of the writing process. And, like so many others during that epoch, I turned to index cards. I’d jot down a title like “Man peers down into sewage drain” and then use the rest of the card for details. Afterwards I’d lay out the cards on a large table and shuffle them about till I was satisfied with the progression. Nowadays, I often use outliners for that purpose, but they never felt, well… authentic to me, at least as a writer.
Enter the Writer’s Café, a woefully under-publicised application from a UK husband-and-wife team that seeks to deliver an authentic writing experience in ways other software falls flat. The duo is an interesting couple: Dr. Julian Smart is a fairly well-known software developer, the man behind the cross-platform wxWidgets project, and Harriet Smart is a novelist with several books to her credit. For this product, they combined their respective disciplines to create an application that might prove invaluable –if not essential– to many writers.
Writer’s Café is essentially a suite of writer’s tools. The emphasis is not on word processing –there are too many of those out there already, including the free OpenOffice.org Writer– but rather on the development of ideas and the organisation of material. StoryLines is their equivalent of the index-card-shuffle, and you can create several streams, one for each plot line. You can create detailed content for each card and even add annotations and an image, then export the whole lot to an external file as a report suitable as the basis of a first draft (it even supports OpenOffice.org format). Another application serves as a hub for:
- Keeping a journal
- A “notebook” for writing down your loose ideas and developing them
- Displaying random inspirational quotes the developers have selected (they call them cookies)
- Timing your writing, with optional prompts to kickstart your brain
- Creating simple brainstorming diagrams or collages, with ovals, rectangles, pictures and text interconnected with lines and arrows
- The scrapbook: this is essentially an outliner in which you can organise text, web links, images, collages and shortcuts to files on your hard drive
There are a few other applications, such as WordTiles (like a fridge-magnet poetry tool) and Forty Thieves, a card game to help de-stress. Also included is a 60-page ebook called Fiction: The Facts, which should prove handy to beginning writers, and a catchy theme song by Jay Goldmark called Untie Your Tongue. (Hey, why not?)
So is this for you? Well, it depends. There are a few things I really like about it. First, it’s cross-platform, running on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux (which is probably a bigger deal for me than it is for you). Second, it does a great job of creating a nice little self-contained system for writers to develop, research and arrange ideas, plots, locations and characters, even if one’s computer skills are fairly basic. Most things work by dragging and dropping or by simple menu commands. An effort has been made to keep it flexible but user-friendly. Third, I like that it caters to writers and the writer’s mindset… everything is ordered and implemented in such a way to make a writer feel at home, using standard time-honoured nomenclature and techniques. Even the title is meant to evoke this. Fourth, the StoryLines program is definitely a best-of-breed, and I can’t say I’ve seen many comparable pieces of software, at least in terms of helping writers to re-arrange and annotate their plots. (I’m not about to mention the oft-hellish Dramatica here.) Last but not least, the program contains functions that are normally only found in higher-end and more technical applications, albeit here they are far more basic and intuitive (read: less intimidating). Programs like DEVONthink Pro and Visio would scare the pants off many creative writers I know, but Writer’s Café should hit the sweet spot in terms of balancing technical know-how with the need to be productive as a writer.
Downsides? Well, there are a few. Depending on what applications you already use, the Scrapbook and Collage tools can seem rather primitive and a little clunky. Unless you’ve invested time, money and effort into learning other applications, though, you’ll still do fine by these tools. The text tools are another matter, however. I understand that the emphasis is placed upon developing your ideas, and not to recreate a fully-functional word processor, but the lack of certain functions like search/replace are a little frustrating if –for example– you decide to change a character’s name or a location. That being said, you can do a search within the application and replace text manually, or simply export the “report” to your word processor and just change the words there when you begin work on your first draft. The good news is that (according to a post in the forums) improving the text tools is high on the developer’s to-do list.
My only other qualm, and it’s a fairly minor one, is that of aethetics. The cross-platform widgets set seems a little out of place on Mac OS X, and things lack a little of the Aqua “elegance” that many expect from most native applications. Likewise, the application icons seem rather primitive, not at all lickable or even anti-aliased. That being said, Writer’s Café looks quite natural on Windows, and only slightly awkward under Linux. These issues mean little when contrasted against the value of the software, though.
While I probably won’t be giving up my cherished DEVONthink Pro or other professional tools very soon, I can certainly recommend Writer’s Cafe for those writers stuck in the mire of a story going nowhere, or for those trying to get along with only a regular word processor. Many professional writer’s tools –several of which are of inferior quality or hopelessly complex– cost several hundred dollars, so at $45 USD, Writer’s Café is a great deal. StoryLines itself is worth the cost of admission.