By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey, Jack Steel and Thomas Payne)
Matt Lynn and I have talked on several occasions about writing, which shouldn’t come as very much of a surprise, because we’re both full-time authors and authors, like people involved in any other trade, usually taken a keen interest in how other people approach their work. In our respective cases, we’re entirely different. Matt has the patience and the ability to work out an enormously detailed synopsis for each book, a synopsis that might approach one third of the length of the finished manuscript, and then he basically writes the book exactly following that synopsis.
One of the things I like least about writing is doing a synopsis, even a one-page effort, and I simply wouldn’t have the patience to work the way he does. I tend to start with an idea and a blank page in Word. I think of a decent opening sentence – or I try to – and then go on from there. I always know more or less how the book is going to end, but I very rarely have any idea of the twists and turns which the plot will take during the writing, and for me this system works. Neither of us is right or wrong. Like all authors we work the way that seems to suit us best.
But occasionally I do stop and wonder if some form of specialist software might help me to organize my thoughts rather better than simply trying to keep the entire plot and all the characters tucked away in various compartments of my unreliable brain. Hence my decision a short time ago to try Storybook Pro. I played around with the free version for a short time and then decided to buy the ‘Pro’ version and see how that worked.
On the face of it, this should be a remarkably useful program for any writer, offering the ability to create major and minor characters, describe locations and all the rest of it, inspect the timeline and use various charts and other tools. In reality, and in use, it’s precisely the opposite. The program is non-intuitive in many respects, and the parameters are so rigid that it actually acts as a dampener on creativity. I doubt if any working author had any input into the design of the program at any stage.
For example, in most of my books I begin with a prologue, normally set many years, sometimes many centuries, before the action which takes place in the present day. This program simply won’t let me do that, because it insists on a precise date for each section, and it also won’t allow me to call the first chapter ‘Prologue’. In fact, I did eventually find a way around this, but it took me the better part of half an hour to do so. The dating system is particularly rigid. You either had to insert a specific date or what it calls ‘relative dating’, where a particular section occurs a number of days after the previous one. It’s so much easier in Word to just type the date I want – rather than the date the program wants – at the head of the chapter.
As well as chapters, there are also ‘strands’ and ‘parts’, neither of which seem to be particularly useful for any purpose I could discern. The program is also irritating in that various icons on the screen don’t do anything – for example, at the beginning of each chapter is either the word ‘draft’ or ‘outline’, each followed by a different icon which logically you would expect to allow you to switch views. They don’t. Neither the name nor the icon does anything at all, which makes you wonder why it’s there in the first place.
Other niggles with it are that it’s incredibly slow to load, so slow, in fact, that usually I end up clicking the icon again, when it generates an error message telling me that the file is already in use. Word is a big program, but it loads in less than half the time that Storybook Pro takes to appear. It’s even clumsy when you leave it. Clicking the close button doesn’t close the program, but generates a dialogue box which asks you if you want to close the program. Oddly enough, that was why I clicked the close button, but the program – or more accurately the programmer – appears to be too stupid to realize this.
But perhaps my biggest concern with this program is that shortly after I purchased version 3.2, the company sent me an e-mail explaining how much better version 4.0 was, and how much less rigid the parameters were, and offering me a substantial discount off the purchase price of the new program. The idea was that existing users could input a code during the purchase process, and the price would then be adjusted accordingly. So I tried this. In fact, I tried it about a dozen times, and it simply didn’t work. I e-mailed the company. I actually e-mailed them six times pointing this out and asking if they could fix it. The last e-mail went off last week, and to date I have had no response whatsoever to any of my messages.
Bearing in mind that all I was trying to do was purchase the upgraded version – to send the company money, in fact – the total lack of response is extremely worrying. If that’s the way they treat potential customers, I very much doubt if they even have a support staff, and if they have I suspect that you’d be most unlikely to get any kind of sense out of them.
So in short, my personal review of Storybook Pro is ‘don’t bother’.
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