Category Archives: General Design

My Author Website Devlog #1

I’ve been using this free WordPress.com blog as my online author site for years. As you can imagine, the conversion toward book sales hasn’t been great. But now I’m finally making a move to improve my online presence and build a better book shop. This video highlights my progress from Black Friday (when all I had was hosting and a newsletter) to mid-December (what I show in the video).

It’s definitely got room to grow and improve. Some of my ideas may not work. Other, more efficient ideas may come along during future development sessions. Time will tell. But this is the beginning. This is what it looks like behind the scenes at my new author site as of today.

Here are my resources if you like what I’m doing and want to do something similar:

WordPress (free)

Divi Theme Builder ($82/yr or $249/lifetime)

Note that Divi requires WordPress to work, and WordPress requires hosting to work. I’m using Hostinger as my hosting service. It’s cheap and mostly reliable.

Look around YouTube for Divi affiliates. Some of them can get you 20% off the market price. Or better yet, subscribe to Elegant Themes’s newsletter to get notices on upcoming sales.

Divi alone is good, but its extensions and layouts make it better. I will likely add Divi Plus, Divi Responsive Help, Divi MadMenu, and Divi Overlays to the first edition of my website. Eventually, I’d also like to add Divi Toolbox, Divi Mega Pro, Divi Essential, Divi Carousel Module, Divi Sumo (not on Elegant Themes site), and Divi Ribbon Module once everything is up and running and I can see better how it performs. With the exception of Divi Sumo, all of these extensions are on Elegant Themes’s Divi Marketplace, but many of them have cheaper alternatives on their developers’ websites.

So, that’s what I have so far. Tell me in the comments below if you have any website development advice or want to share your experience with these or other themes like Elementor.

I hope to open my new site in early 2021, but you can become one of the first to enter by signing up for my newsletter and looking for my announcement. (You also get free stuff for signing up, if you’re in to that kind of thing.)

Thanks for watching the video.

The Chill Writer: Using Frost Writer and Virtual Cottage

Do you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the bells and whistles that Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or other countless writing apps throw at your feet? Do you wish there was a writing app out there that could strip away the distractions and just put you in the mood for writing? Do you wish that such an app was available to you for free?

Well, there is.

Last week, thanks to an article by the Reedsy blog listing eleven apps and programs for writers, I discovered my new favorite writing mood app, Frost Writer. And now it can be your favorite, too.

What is it, exactly?

Well, it’s a website that can store your writing in the cloud. All you do is show up, pick your theme, select a music track if you want background ambience, then get to writing. There’s even an option to save your work as a text file to your Downloads page if you want to transfer your work to another app for formatting once you’re finished or want to start a new project in the same theme.

Image of Frost Writer 3.0's "Room" Theme, with a sample writing.
Screenshot of Frost Writer 3.0, using the “Room” theme.

It’s really as simple as that.

But what it can’t do is store your entire project in any meaningful way, or retain formatting of any kind, at least not as recently as version 3.0. Therefore, my advice is do your distraction-free scene or section writing in Frost, save to your drive (via text file) once you’re done with your current session, then open your note in MS Word or whatever formatting/editing tool you use for revision and storage, make your quick edits to retain your style and/or emphases (italics, bold, etc.) while you’re thinking about them, then go back to Frost, delete the session, and start over again with the next scene or idea.

Or, maybe just copy/paste your Frost writing to your MS Word document or whatever you use for formatting, since saving to a text file will also eliminate your paragraphs, which you probably won’t want to do. You could save to the text file as a backup or if you’re using Frost only to write your tweets before sending them.

It may not be the most efficient way to manage your work, but it’s a darn good way to make sure the work gets done. The music that comes packaged with Frost Writer will get you in the mood every time. Even if you write in your app of choice but leave Frost’s soundtrack on in the background, you can still get in the mood. However, the advantage of writing inside of Frost is you get to use its specialized thematic backgrounds to keep you in the mood. Are you writing a historical novel and need to write directly on the vellum page? Then Frost Writer’s “Vintage” theme is your choice. Or are you crafting your romantic scene and you’re about as romantic as a tree stump? Then select the “Love” theme and discover your attractive side with the pastel shades and romantic comedy score that makes you forget just how bad you are at romance.

I mean, if it works for me…

There’s even an RPG theme called “Room” that gives you a study room background and your choice of four individual or combined sound effects: coffeehouse background, grandfather clock, thunderstorm, and fireplace. Pick one, or pick them all. The choice is yours.

But Frost Writer isn’t the only free app available to those of you who want to write or study in the mood. There’s also a program called Virtual Cottage that you can find on the gaming sites Steam and Itch.io.*

Image of Virtual Cottage, showing how to set up the timer and intended session.
Screenshot of Virtual Cottage, at the project planning stage.

Virtual Cottage is not like Frost Writer. There’s no writing involved here. It’s strictly a background program that sets a timer and plays music while you study, read, do the laundry, or whatever you’re doing that you’d normally find boring or otherwise unappealing. Once the timer expires, it plays a sound effect, telling you it’s time to stop (provided you check the box, which I forgot to do for the screenshot).

The nice thing about Virtual Cottage is that you set the parameters and make yourself accountable to them. Do you want to read for 20 minutes? Then say so on the project page, adjust your timer, and hit “Start.” Don’t stop until the timer rings. Do you want to study during a rainstorm? Then select the atmosphere button and listen to the pitter-patter of raindrops as you hit the books. Do you want 90 minutes of uninterrupted chill music (or is it 15—I can’t remember now) while you organize your filing cabinet? Then click the music note and submerge yourself into that sweet coffeehouse vibe.

And you can do it all for free.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what you really want in a productivity app?

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve used these apps and how they’ve helped you improve your productivity.

Oh, and if you want to see these in action, I’ve featured them in this week’s video review. Check it out.

As always, like and subscribe below. And if you want to stay up-to-date with all of my latest articles, videos, books, and so on, please join my new newsletter, available now. And don’t forget that my official author site will be live to the public soon.

Thanks for reading.

*To run games and apps on Steam, you need to first download and install the Steam App. Consult the header on its store page for more information on how to do that.

Planning a Story: Plottr Review

If you’re writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, then you probably should’ve started already. But if you’re still warming up to the idea, or if you just want to use November as a warm-up month and go for the main event in December (because why do you need a month to tell you what to do?), then you’ll probably want to start planning for it.

Unless you’re a discovery writer (or organic, or pantser, or whatever your label of choice—it’s all the same), which is perfectly fine, you may want a plotting tool to help you prepare.

That’s where Plottr comes in.

Screenshot of Plottr’s Book Series Page

Have you heard of Plottr yet? I’ve probably mentioned it on this blog already, but in case I haven’t, it works like this:

You “create a book” on a series page, give it a title, tagline, short synopsis, and series number (standalones get “1” as their number), and if you have cover art finished, you can attach it to a 3D mockup. Then you click on the book you want to work on and enter the construction zone (my term, not theirs).

Inside the construction zone, you can begin planning your book by creating a timeline, list of characters and places, and establishing keywords to mark important metadata.

Sounds simple and basic, right?

That’s kind of the point. It’s simple. But hardly basic.

Screenshot of Plottr’s Timeline

Once you enter the timeline, you can create plots and subplots, establish chapters and scenes within those chapters, character arcs, etc., but you can also color code everything, insert characters and places inside the scene cards (while also describing them), and tag to your heart’s content.

And best of all, you can import premade templates from some of your favorite story structure devices, including the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat!, and most recently, the Snowflake Method. In fact, you can also import your existing Snowflake Pro file directly into Plottr (as of October 23rd). So, if you’d rather use an established method over your own, you have plenty to choose from (at least a dozen different structure and beat types).

For creating characters, you can import a template or create (and save) your own. For places, you can do the same. For items…well, that part isn’t available yet, but Plottr is adding new features all the time, so I’d expect to see that available soon enough. You can actually see their active roadmap here, as well as post your own suggestions.

Screenshot of Plottr’s Places Designer

But since this is a review, I think it’s fair to list some of its problems:

It’s still a work-in-progress, so it’s missing some options that are sorely needed, including custom sorting inside of character and place menus, as well as the ability to update your existing template with new entries without having to create a new template (and forgetting which version number you’re saving to now). It doesn’t have features for tracking items, nor does it prepopulate with expected tags like “inciting incident” or “main character” or any of the elements that most writers would like to have available. And, well, it’s an outlining tool, not a writing tool, so you’ll still need another program to do the actual writing.

But it does have an interactive timeline with adjustable boxes, and that’s probably all you really need, especially if you’re coming from other story development software that maybe don’t have as good or intuitive of a timeline feature. It doesn’t track actual time, though, but I think it’s coming, maybe (check the roadmap to be sure). It also has an outline view that you can export to your preferred writing app, as long as it’s Microsoft Word or Scrivener, so you don’t have to worry about switching back and forth as you write.

And don’t forget to check out Plottr’s templates if you give it a try. The premade templates are there to increase its value and usefulness, and I highly recommend you look into them if you’re not sure how to start.

Screenshot of Plottr’s Outline Viewer and Export Tool

Finally, there is a 30-day trial available, and if you do commit to the purchase (and you should because it’s my favorite story developing app so far), it’s just $25 for the program and a year of free updates ($37 if you want Windows and Mac access). You’ll have to renew that fee after the first year to keep getting updates, but you’re not required to buy it a second time to keep using it. If you’re happy with its functionality by the end of your subscription period, you can keep using that version indefinitely.

So, there’s no reason not to give it a try, unless you’re really, really broke. And if that’s your situation, I hope it gets better soon.

Also, if you want a video demonstration of Plottr, you can check out its tutorials on Plottr’s website (recommended) or my review on my YouTube channel (also recommended).

Don’t forget to like, subscribe, and comment below if this article has helped you, entertained you, or kept you from starting your honey-do list.

P.S. I may be uploading some of my own character and place attributes templates here soon.

Here’s the video again:

Using Scrivener for NaNoWriMo 2020

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is right around the corner. Chances are, if you plan to participate this year, you’ve already started getting your materials together. But my question for you is, have you decided how you’re going to write your novel?

“Er, I’ll probably type it. How else would I do it?”

Okay, not exactly the answer to my question. Of course you’ll type it. But will you type it in Microsoft Word, Scrivener, or some other software? Do you plan to write it on your desktop or laptop? Or will you pull an E. L. James and type it on your phone while sitting by a pool (in November, mind you)?

Well, if you plan to type on Microsoft Word, a dedicated fiction app, or your window of great distraction (phone), I can’t help you. But if you plan to type it on Scrivener…

Well, I’ve got a template you might like.

It’s my NaNoWriMo Basic Template, which I created last year for my work-in-progress Washed Up: A Pirate Adventure, and you can now download it directly from Drinking Café Latte at 1pm. In fact, you can check it out, along with some of my other templates, right here on my new writing template page. If you see anything else you like (and the list will be very small as of this writing), all you have to do is click the link, read the full description to make sure it’s right for you, then click the download (from Google Drive, if that matters).

Then after you try it out, come back to the description page and leave a comment letting me know what you think.

Hope it works out for you.

So without further ado, jump on over the new templates page and give it a try. And if you want, check out my other Scrivener template, Story Planning General (still a work-in-progress), if you like obsessive planning and complete from-scratch-to-published design work (read: insanity). It’s another way to bring your story from idea to “What Have I Done?” status.

Once again, if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, check out my Scrivener template, NaNoWriMo Basic Template. It’s good stuff.

Watch the before video:

And the after video (Posted December 1, 2020):

Planning a Story: Campfire Pro vs. Campfire Blaze

Remember the days when hunters would sit around a campfire inside a cave and tell each other ghost stories while waiting for the bears to leave camp? Yeah, me neither. But the good people at Campfire Technology haven’t forgotten. In fact, they’ve created not one, but two writing apps that can help recreate that lost storytelling moment, in a manner of speaking.

Okay, they’ve actually created one, Campfire Pro, then used it as a template to create the other, Campfire Blaze. But both apps, which are basically desktop and cloud versions of the same tool, can do a lot for your story planning. Probably more than most, actually.

And that’s why they’re worth a look.

Screenshot from the Characters tab in Campfire Pro

Screenshot from the Home tab in Campfire Blaze

But what can they do? How do they differ? Why are they worth it? I’ll highlight their key points below.

What They Do:

Both apps allow the user to create a vision board of attributes for:

  • Characters
  • Character Relationships
  • Character Arcs
  • Timelines
  • Worldbuilding Elements
  • Maps
  • Encyclopedia Entries
  • And More

What They Don’t Do:

  • Bring Order to Chaos*

*This is my snarky way of saying that the interface for both applications is quite messy and may require some handholding via their instruction manuals before diving in.

How They Differ:

Both apps do more or less the same things, but:

  • Campfire Pro is desktop only
  • Campfire Pro is legacy software, meaning it won’t receive new updates beyond bug fixes
  • Campfire Pro has a one-time charge of $50, plus $25 for the world-building pack should you want it (and you do)
  • Campfire Blaze adds a writing tool (so you can actually write your novel)
  • Campfire Blaze is module-based, meaning you only pay for what you’ll use
  • Campfire Blaze works in the cloud, so you can use it anywhere
  • Campfire Blaze has team and spectator modes for collabs
  • Campfire Blaze has a nice overview screen for progress reports
  • Campfire Blaze is subscription-based, with the option for a lifetime purchase (at the three-year price point)

I’m sure I’m leaving things out, but it’s worth taking a look at what each app has to offer. You can check them both out at Campfire Technology.

Screenshot of “Manage Attributes” under the Character Traits selection in Campfire Blaze

My Thoughts about Whether They’re Worth It:

I like what both apps bring to the table. Even though Campfire Pro is made strictly for story planning and world building, the amount of elements it allows you to customize or develop is practically unrivaled among all other writing apps, with its only worthy competitors being its successor, Campfire Blaze, and probably World Anvil, which I have not personally tried but hear is quite robust as a world builder.

Campfire Blaze takes everything that Campfire Pro can do and makes it better, especially the character and location builders. For example, Campfire Pro has four default categories for developing characters. You can add more, but it comes with four. Campfire Blaze comes with a complete flowchart of attributes, probably as many as a hundred, that you can select and populate, then answer inside of the resultant fields. It’s crazy in a good way. Most everything that Campfire Pro does competently, Campfire Blaze tries to improve on, especially in the user interface.

Except one.

Except with timelines.

Timelines in Campfire Pro are tricky to navigate.

Timelines in Campfire Blaze are ridiculous and the kinds of things the Codebreakers of WWII would’ve had trouble figuring out.

I don’t like it.

Not at all.

That’s my main gripe with either Campfire program, but especially with Campfire Blaze.

Screenshot of the Timeline tab in Campfire Pro
Screenshot of a timeline entry in Campfire Pro

Now, it should be mentioned that Campfire Pro is a legacy program, so it won’t get any new additions or updates. Campfire Blaze is essentially its successor, so any new features that Campfire Anything gets, it’ll go to Blaze. So, if you’re interested in either program, you’ll probably want Blaze, but you’ll also want to preview the instructions to make sure you understand how to use it. As far as user learning curves go, Campfire Pro and Blaze sit below Scrivener, but stand above most everything else on the market. Neither one is particularly easy to use, and unless your imagination is wild, I can’t imagine you jumping in without feeling a little overwhelmed by their available options. But if you want a program that really goes above and beyond the norm, I don’t think you’d do wrong with either Pro or Blaze. The choice comes down to how much you’re willing to spend.

Note: Campfire’s selling point above other apps is its world-building features. If you’re in the market for a story development tool but just want one, you should really take a look at its world-building tools before committing to a purchase of any writing app. It may be the game-changer you’re looking for.

Note 2: Because Campfire Blaze is coming out of beta as of this writing, it will still have a few missing or unfinished features (including the research and writing modules). The open beta will be ongoing until the end of October, so there’s still time to check it out for free. If you buy Campfire Pro before Blaze officially launches in November, you’ll also get three months of Blaze free and one module of your choice permanently free (I’d go with the character designer personally). If you already own Campfire Pro, then you’ll get a free module for however many years you’ve had it (so, one module for 2020, two for 2019, and three for 2018).

Note 3: Campfire sometimes has affiliate deals with ProWritingAid and other writer resources for deep discounts. You just have to be subscribed their newsletters to get the offer. You should sign up for any newsletter you can in the indie writer space so you don’t miss anything.

Note 4: I’ve also recorded a comparison video showing off both apps on my YouTube channel here.

Note 5: Don’t forget to like, subscribe, and comment your thoughts below.

Screenshot of the Relationship Web in Campfire Blaze

If you want to check out the video review:

The Writing Workflow for Plotters, Pantsers, and Whomever Sits Between Them

Writing a novel is no straightforward process, in spite of what the “experts” may say.

Okay, the experts, whoever they are, make no actual claim that writing a novel is straightforward, though the pantsers (like me) will argue that it comes pretty close, given that we start at the beginning and drive toward the ending, discovering as much as we can along the way (hardly straightforward, even though the momentum is almost always forward). In reality, of course, writing a novel takes planning, dedication, and follow-through, with a heavy dose of insanity—I mean organization—and reaching its proper ending will require seeing it at both the big picture level and the micro-scenic level. In short, writing a novel means you gotta have some foresight. There’s no way around that.

But I didn’t always have a problem with that.

For years, I would just open a document in Microsoft Word, crank out a chapter in a day or two (or sometimes a week if I let it get too large), and move on to the next one, making sure to save it in a folder dedicated to the novel. Once I’d finish the last chapter (usually six weeks to a year later, depending on the novel), I’d read what I have, take notes on what I like and what I don’t, and then move on to the next revision. Then somewhere along the line I’d decide that something doesn’t work, at which point I’d start adding, moving, or removing scenes, relabeling my documents to something better reflective of its current state, and make such an atrocious mess of my work that nothing would make sense anymore, yet I’d somehow bring it back together, and then I’d shelve it for a few years until somebody would ask me if I’ve written anything lately, to which I’d say no, then go back and see if I actually like that old novel that I blew up in the rewrites now, because, hey, somebody reminded me that I should really finish what I started because, hey, I’m not exactly starting on anything new. At that point, I’d take note of the scenes I like, try to rethink the ones I don’t, and then shelve the thing yet again for another few years because now I have no idea where to begin fixing it.

(Okay, I’m referring specifically to my first thriller, Panhandler Underground, which I wrote in 2005 but put on the shelf until a time I could make sense of the main character’s profession. Fortunately, I’ve ordered my copy of the Occupation Thesaurus, out now, and should receive it in the mail soon, so maybe I can finally sort this dude out and get his story back on its proper track.)

Nowadays, I find that organizing a novel is as difficult as writing it, especially when I go back and try to repair the damage I’ve already done to an existing novel, so coming up with a plan to make sense of it all is necessary. But merely going back through all of my Microsoft Word documents and trying to remember where everything is supposed to go is madness when my memory is so bad that I often read a story I like, check the author to see if he’s got anything else I might enjoy, and discover my own name on the front cover. (Okay, this doesn’t happen with my published titles, but it definitely happens with old stories I find in my documents folder. The fact that my name is on it is the only proof I have that I wrote it because I don’t remember a thing about it.) Because this is no way to work, I’ve decided it’s time to implement a new system for organization.

This is where I’ve decided to integrate multiple resources into my writing workflow, each one dedicated to a particular function within the writing process, and each one designed to keep me on track.

For the record, I just put together a video about this, which you can watch for more information, but the short version is this:

  1. If I’m writing a novel from scratch or nuking a story that no longer works in favor of starting over, then I’ll want to begin conceptualizing with the Snowflake Method and using the software dedicated to the Snowflake Method, Snowflake Pro, to accomplish this goal. This will allow me to develop the idea and move it through all ten steps toward a fully-fledged outline.
Writing Workflow Slide 1
Snowflake Pro in Action
  1. Next, I’ll want to develop the flowchart and additional character and/or scene details (like setting or items) that Snowflake Pro doesn’t visualize for an alternative way to see the story from a bird’s eye view. I can use Plottr or Campfire Pro (or Plot Factory or some other story planning software) to create the visual map, as well as fill in the additional details that Snowflake Pro doesn’t cover. If I use actual maps (created with Campaign Cartographer 3+, for example), then I’ll want to use a program like Campfire Pro to tie my maps to their descriptions. Using these programs, I can create the world and backstory I need to understand my characters and their motivations better, as well as to keep track of the nitpicky items in their lives that I’ll want to remember and quickly access at some point.
Writing Workflow Slide 2
Outline Tool in Plottr
Writing Workflow Slide 2a
Character Builder in Plottr
  1. Once I have a clue what the story is about, then I can start writing my scenes in Microsoft Word. Or, if I’m revising an existing story, I can write whichever scenes are still missing.
Writing Workflow Slide 3
Writing the Scene in Microsoft Word

Note: If I’m revising a novel, which is my case for The Computer Nerd, I probably won’t use the first two development steps unless I need to go for a complete rewrite, which is currently my case for The Fallen Footwear. The exception would be if I wanted to create an outline or summary or synopsis of an existing novel for verification of its integrity or for various marketing purposes. I would also map an existing novel if I know I’m going to write a sequel, as having a snapshot of the previous story would be immensely helpful in developing a new chapter for its characters, because, you know, my memory sucks.

  1. Once I’ve written my scenes, I can move them into Scrivener, where I can then write notecard summaries and provide status labels to help me determine whether the scene is in its proper location and achieving its proper goal. From the notecard view, I can make a more informed judgment about whether the existing work is, in fact, working.
Writing Workflow Slide 4
Creating the Novel’s Assembly (or Repair) in Scrivener

So, that’s the current workflow I’m using to either write or revise my novels. Are you a writer? What’s your workflow? Let me know in the comments below.

You can also check out my video demonstration below:

New Book Cover Designs Coming Soon

Anyone who scrolls through the archives here will likely see a common theme: I like to update my preexisting books to the point of nausea, perhaps more than I like starting new ones. I’m sure this is frustrating for any reader who’s already read all of my books half a dozen times and just wants to see something fresh for a change (though my sales reports suggest those readers don’t yet exist), but one important element of becoming an author worth reading is to have a backlog of titles worth reading, and I want to make sure that my books are right for their target audiences, covering each detail from story, to content, to metadata, and so on.

This often means going back to the beginning and fixing each title’s cover design.

Now, I don’t have a lot of experience with cover design. Previewing the media galleries for each of my book pages (which you can check out via the side menu to your right) will show you that my early designs are actually pretty awful. But you’ll also see that I’ve done a lot of studying and a lot of practice, and the result has led me to creating some covers that I’m quite happy with. Most recently, you can see my coming of age stories, Gutter Child and When Cellphones Make Us Crazy, have evolved from this:

To this:

While it’s possible that I can still do better, I think these show that I’m finding my way to betterment pretty well.

Part of this gradual design evolution is thanks to me upgrading my graphics software. For years I was running off of PaintShop Pro only. While I think it’s sufficient for performing a simple graphics design task, I also think it’s limited. As I’ve gradually increased my graphics access to PaintShop Pro 2020, Painter 2019, Luminar 3, and GRFX Studio (included with my PaintShop Pro Deluxe purchase), however–all part of a photo design back I got at Humble Bundle last year–I’ve been able to accomplish more tricks and techniques to give my cover designs more pop, as you can see if you look at my gallery of covers for Lightstorm. But they still lacked some of the core elements I’ve most wanted to fix, including my title typography.

Enter Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer.

Thanks to Serif developing a suite of Adobe-wreckers that rival PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign, called Photo, Designer, and Publisher respectively, all for a low one-time fee, I’ve been able to finally design book covers worthy of the stories they keep. I’ve already updated several of these covers to titles I no longer plan to update (again, check the side panel). But there are still a few more that I’m rewriting that will debut with new covers sometime this year or next.

In case you haven’t seen these updates on Facebook already, here are those updated covers (to the right of their older covers for comparison):

If you click on the images to the right corresponding to these titles, you can get more information. In most cases, these updated stories will drastically differ from their current versions.

What still remains? Basically The Fountain of Truth.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview, and that you’ll keep an eye on this blog for when these stories are finally updated.

Also, you should check out Serif’s Affinity products if you haven’t already. They’re the best software purchases I’ve made in the last year, and they’re gaining popularity–probably because they’re awesome products built by an awesome software company that appears to value its customers.

Cover Image: Pixabay

yWriter vs Scrivener Presents: Fictionary StoryTeller, Part 2: Using the Novel Creator

Yesterday, I introduced you to a writing app called Fictionary StoryTeller, which functions as a developmental tool for any writer who wants to see if his or her story is structurally sound before shopping it off to beta readers or actual editors. Its purpose is to provide visual cues to any trouble spots the story may have before any living reader ever sees the flaws.

It works best when the story is finished and imported.

But, it doesn’t require prewriting to be useful to writers.

That’s because Fictionary StoryTeller also allows writers to construct the story from within the app.

Fictionary Blog Companion 4
Starting a new novel in Fictionary StoryTeller

Yes, that’s correct. Building the story from within is just another feature that comes with the Fictionary StoryTeller subscription (along with the feature of paying every month to use the service, but more on that later).

Fictionary Blog Companion 5
The blank canvas of doom in Fictionary StoryTeller

Now, I could spend precious article-writing real estate discussing everything that StoryTeller can do, from labeling scenes, to organizing chapters, to defining characters long before they ever enter the scene, etc. I could also discuss how the savvy writer can label plot points or scene intentions (like establishing setting, character arc, etc.) through metatags within the scene constructor itself. I could even talk about how StoryTeller allows the writer to manage each scene detail through four categories of informative story elements (giving credence to Fictionary’s boast of tracking 38 of them).

But I don’t want to do that because the app’s Web page will do all of that for me.

What I would rather do is to use this article as an opportunity to express what Fictionary StoryTeller can’t do, at least as of this writing, so that you, the writer, have a better idea whether this app is even worth your investment, at least for now.

I should also note that I have a video companion on my Zippywings YouTube channel that not only shows the app’s novel creation feature in motion, but also voices my opinion on what works and what doesn’t, and what the app still needs if it wants to be truly formidable in the war for writing software dominance. So, if you’d rather watch a demonstration than read about it, then click over to my video and spend the 15 minutes it takes to get to the end. And, if you missed yesterday’s article, it’s worth noting that I have a longer video (43 minutes) evaluating the 38 story elements that are already featured in the program (or at least the ones currently implemented).

Now, if you’ve read up on the details, then you should already get a sense of what’s missing, but in case you’re not sure, here are the top elements I believe Fictionary StoryTeller needs to truly stand out as an exceptional program for writers. Keep in mind that these elements are currently missing, or are at least not as well developed as they could be. The app may have improved by the time you read this, so you should still check it out for yourself to be sure. Also note that, as of this writing, some of the 38 story elements may actually be missing or inactive in the trial version:

Scene structure tracking. What Fictionary does well is to track and visualize the story’s global structure, but it does not accurately track how well the scene or scene unit maintains its own five-point structure, in particular when it comes to establishing conflict and resolution or scene beats. It does allow you to set certain “elements” through scene tags, like setting details and mini-descriptions, and even puts them up in a chart, which is a great start, and for anyone who wants a big picture view of his story, it definitely fills a hole that Microsoft Word cannot fill. But when it comes to tracking actual conflicts, polarity shifts, and miscellaneous scene intentions (like scenes that should only establish exposition), the program is good but not yet perfect. When it comes to scene tracking, I still think yWriter and Scrivener allow for a bit more flexibility, even if they don’t handle the visual element nearly as well. What it does track, it tracks well, but it is certainly not complete. Maybe someday it will be.

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A sample of the many scene elements at a glance in Fictionary StoryTeller

Character tracking. Again, Fictionary StoryTeller has some competency in tracking characters throughout the story, but not at the level a subscription-based app should perform to be worth the cost. What it does, and does well, is to crawl through the entire novel and extract every named character it finds and populates them inside a master character list, which you can then check for accuracy. This character chart allows you to set POV characters, mentioned characters, and combine same characters together (“the chef,” for example, may have a real name later, so both instances would be tracked to the same character). It’s a handy management tool.

But, it has major limitations compared to yWriter and Scrivener, and even, oddly, compared to itself. What do I mean by this? Well, Fictionary’s appeal is in the visuals. The two elements it tracks and converts into visuals are the character’s entrance and exit scenes (which can be accessed from the master plot graph) and the number of scenes that the character appears in. It does not actually chart which scenes the character appears in. An app like this should place dots everywhere the character appears, and allow the user to click on those dots to access those scenes. And, on these same lines, I think the character tracker is weirdly absent of character description. Unless I missed something, all you can do at this stage is to name the character and determine his importance to the story (POV only—not even protagonist, antagonist, mentor role, lover, etc.). So, the character tracker needs a lot of improvement. It also has trouble identifying merged characters as the same character. Even if it lets you combine them, it seems to forget sometimes who those combined characters are.

Character arcs. This is a separate component to story structure, but I think StoryTeller could stand to handle character arcs in the same manner: draw a line along the character’s path toward three-dimensionality. It comes nowhere close to doing this at the present. In fact, as I noted in the above bullet point, tracking any kind of character development is currently low-rate in StoryTeller. This isn’t to say that all characters need three-dimensionality (and that would be an option worth selecting: Does this character need three dimensions?(Yes/No/Let me think about it)). But those that do should have a tracker and visual component attached. What StoryTeller does do is allow the writer to set whether the scene develops the character via a simple “scene intention” tag. It just doesn’t let the writer note how it develops the character. The closest it comes is to identify what the character wants, which is still very important, and very useful. But it does not note how the character succeeds, fails, or changes. Not yet. It needs to.

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Another scene visual reference in Fictionary StoryTeller

A/B plot tracking. Perhaps a major omission to Fictionary StoryTeller, both in actuality and according to the 38 elements, is the ability to track subplots within the main story. On a similar note, it does nothing to track external and internal storylines. For any writer who wants to see if the A/B plots or the internal/external plots converge at the end of the story, Fictionary won’t be able to tell them. Right now, it’s all about the main plot.

Genre and obligatory scene tracking. This may not be intuitive to writers who haven’t studied story structure or genre development, but any story written for genre still has its particular obligations (like a romance that fails to bring the lovers together at the end is, perhaps, not really a romance), and Fictionary StoryTeller seems to leave these elements out in the cold. Even a quick scan of the 38 elements suggest that this feature isn’t on the planner. But it probably should be.

Element highlighting. This missing feature is arbitrary, but adding it would greatly enhance the user experience. In short, clicking on buttons and dots in Fictionary StoryTeller will open up whatever scene corresponds to the selected element, so that the writer can review the scene for the specific instance he wants to check. Sometimes it will even jump to a point in the scene where the element can be found. However, what this fast-access method grossly lacks is a simple highlighter that draws attention to the element immediately. I’ve found that whenever I click on the visual that opens the scene, I then have to read the entire passage to figure out where the element sits in the prose. It takes time to find it, especially when the text is small. A simple highlighter on selection of the element would make opening the scene much better. As of now, this relates to character names, but as the program evolves, it should also search for embedded tags the writer may place within the scene to identify “important moments” that link to that tag to make searching for these broader-based elements faster and easier.

And that’s for starters.

Now, in fairness, I believe these limitations are simple enough to add within the current architecture that I’d be surprised if Fictionary never addresses them. So, my belief is that this app will become quite useful for every type of fiction writer in time. But, as of my trial period, I was a bit underwhelmed by my cost-to-usefulness ratio. I’d like to see some of these elements taken into consideration before I take in consideration a subscription to the service ($20 a month or $200 a year).

But, you may feel differently, so by all means give it a go if you’re interested. You get the first 14 days free, anyway.

Also, in reviewing the 38 scene elements listed on the main page, I think it’s possible that the current version of Fictionary StoryTeller doesn’t yet have all the elements implemented (I know that’s true of two of the five senses) but will shortly. It certainly seems that some of the elements listed appear nowhere on the app, as far as I could find. Maybe they’re behind a paywall. Maybe they’re on the way. It’s worth keeping an eye on them if they are.

Anyway, don’t forget to check out my video reviews of Fictionary StoryTeller if you haven’t already.

Video 1: Overview and Review

Video 2: Using the Novel Creator

And, if you don’t think Fictionary StoryTeller is your cup of coffee right now, then check out my series yWriter vs Scrivener to see if either of those programs are a better fit for your storytelling needs.

yWriter vs Scrivener Presents: Fictionary StoryTeller, Part 1: Overview and Review

So, remember that time you told all of your friends that you’re a writer, when what you really meant is that you plan to become a writer, someday?

Well, now’s your chance to prove yourself true, thanks to a new weapon in the arsenal, a new tool in the chest, a new float toy in the pool . . .

Okay, that last one got away from me a little.

Introducing Fictionary StoryTeller, the writing app that actually helps the writer track his or her story’s development structure and informs him if he’s on the right track.

(. . . and also makes it fun to stop wasting time dreaming about becoming a writer . . .)

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The main navigation page in Fictionary StoryTeller

For the next two days, I’ll be bringing you both written and video content about this handy option for the writer’s development needs, the former which you can read right here, and the latter which you can view over at my Zippywings YouTube channel, specifically at this link (but don’t go just yet; you should read on—I’ll repost the link at the bottom so you don’t forget).

So, now that I got your interest, what is Fictionary StoryTeller?

Well, StoryTeller is the developmental tool for writers from Fictionary (see, calling it Fictionary StoryTeller is a lot like calling PhotoShop, Adobe PhotoShop) that provides structural feedback via flowcharts, graphs, and other fun visual things that would make Microsoft proud (or jealous), giving writers an opportunity to spot weaknesses from a bird’s eye point of view.

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Example of the plot structure graph in Fictionary StoryTeller

In short, it tells writers if their novels or novellas still need developmental considerations.

But, how does it accomplish that, exactly? If StoryTeller is just a piece of writing software, a measly app on the Internet, then how, pray tell, does it inform you, the writer, if your story needs more development?

I know what you’re thinking: The robot apocalypse has started.

While that may be possible, that’s not actually what’s happening here. No, what’s happening here is that you feed the app your story’s information, by scene, and based on your knowledge of structure, including inciting incidents, plot points, scene shifts, etc., you’ll essentially give the program something to track, which it can then convert information back to you via graphs, charts, and other visual matters.

So, it’s not entirely scary. It’s barely even an algorithm.

But, if that’s all StoryTeller did, just feed you visuals on the stuff you’ve already written, then it probably wouldn’t be particularly impressive. Clever writers who moonlight as Excel wizards could probably accomplish something similar on their own, for a lot cheaper.

What StoryTeller does well is convert your manuscript into indexes for easy labeling and makes those tracking adjustments on the fly, so you can always know what your development looks like at every stage of the story, even as you’re still writing it.

And what does it track, exactly?

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Using the scene editor in Fictionary StoryTeller

Well, Fictionary’s StoryTeller Web page will give you all the details, but the short version is that it allows you to check 38 different developmental categories, from the core elements of story structure, all the way down to sensory details (minus touch and taste, as of this writing).

It also, conveniently, searches your document for all known names and converts them into character lists (in some cases erroneously), which you can also adjust, reference, or delete as needed. Nearly everything in Fictionary StoryTeller that you can click will take you back to your scene of reference.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, it’s definitely heading in the right direction—I’ll say that with confidence.

The question is, is it worth the price? At $20 a month (yep, subscription!), it offers writers the answers to a number of questions, such as, “Is my structure in line with proper story structure?” and “Do my scenes begin and end in different places or times?” but it still lacks the answers to other important questions, such as “Do my scenes follow an internal five-point structure?” or “Which scenes does Fred appear in?”

In other words, even though StoryTeller does track the entrances and exits of characters, and it tracks how many scenes a character appears in, it does not tell you, the writer, specifically which of those eight scenes he’s in, which would be convenient given that everything in StoryTeller can be clicked, whisking you away to the very scene you wish to explore, and this means, ultimately, that StoryTeller isn’t yet perfect.

But, it looks like it’s trying to become just that, so whatever it lacks today may likely appear as a feature tomorrow, or whenever its engineers figure out not only which good ideas need implementation but how to implement them.

Anyway, I offer you a full look at Fictionary StoryTeller in action, through the lens of my novella Gutter Child, over on my Zippywings YouTube channel. Check it out to see all of its strengths in weaknesses, as well as get my full opinion of the program (and whether I recommend it).

Then come back tomorrow for Part 2 of my mini-feature on Fictionary StoryTeller, when I review its capability as a writing substitute to yWriter or Scrivener. There will be a video on that, as well.

Now I Can Make Proper Industry-Standard Paperbacks (without using Adobe InDesign)

Just found another useful resource last night that I’m super impressed with. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe not.

All of us know about Adobe PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign. We also know that we have to spend $52.99 a month to use all three programs, which is useful only if we plan to use more than three Creative Cloud apps every month. Fortunately, we get a ton of apps for that price. Unfortunately, most of those apps are just add-ons to the big three (or four, if you include Premier). Seems hardly worth it to pay over $600 a year to rent a bunch of apps we’d hardly use.

For years, I’ve been troubled by this price point because I really wanted PhotoShop for game and cover design, Illustrator for additional vector design, and InDesign for accurate layouts for my books. In fact, I’ve often thought I needed InDesign to make my paperbacks industry standard.

Turns out, I don’t need any of them.

When I searched for “indesign alternatives” on YouTube last night, I kept seeing videos for something called “Affinity Publisher.” I’m usually skeptical of any software that claims to compete with the titans of industry, and it didn’t help that the thumbnails for these videos were amateur-looking. But I checked out what they said about it, anyway.

The first video got me curious, so I checked out the more “official” videos. Finally, I watched a 30-minute video from someone who creates books.

And each video got me wanting this thing more and more.

So I bought it last night.

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Turns out, Affinity Publisher is so much like InDesign that I don’t even know if there’s a noticeable omission. From my understanding, the user-interface is actually easier than InDesign (and the free alternative, Scribus). But here’s the cool thing: It integrates with Affinity’s other two flagship programs, Photo (the worthy PhotoShop alternative) and Designer (the worthy Illustrator alternative), by allowing you to press a button, in Publisher, and switch immediately to the profile for the other program, allowing you to access all of its tools. That means you can edit images and other elements right from the page you’re designing for your book, magazine, whatever.

It’s probably no surprise that I also bought Photo and Designer, just to maintain the entire suite.

So how close to $600 a year did I come to buy these programs?

Well, they retail for $50 each. One-time purchase. Free updates forever (I believe).

And I got them during one of their 50% off sales. So I spent $25 for each one. I never have to buy Adobe Anything now, but I can still do just about anything the Adobe products would let me do.

That said, if you’re looking for an alternative to Adobe Creative Cloud that you can own for a one-time payment at a fourth of the cost (or eighth if you get it during the same sale that I bought my copies in), I’d give Affinity a look. I’m impressed with it so far.

Seriously, these are good programs and worth the look.

Cover Image: Pixabay