Trouble At StoryMill

I’m trying a rather different approach to the writing of my next book. That is, I’m going to plan it. Not in great detail; just at a level of granularity that should help me avoid some of the more cataclysmic culs de sac that I’ve wandered down in the past.

This thing I’m typing on isn’t just a type writer. It also computes. So I’ve attempted – variously – to engage it in the business of helping me organise the novel.

Organising a novel is like herding cats remotely using yet another cat who is completely indifferent to your whistles, hollers of “Come by!” and attempts to use your crook as a javelin on those maddeningly uncooperative but ultimately charming moggies.

I’ve spent a couple of hours today with an application called StoryMill, released by Mariner Software. It’s an application that somewhat takes after Scrivener (though I wouldn’t want to suggest plagiarism; the three-paned, database-like organisational approach is a good way to approach the novel).

My impression was favourable at first. It’s a very Mac-like application that observes Apple’s human-interface guidelines.

On the leftmost panel, above, you’ll notice the breakdown into chapters, actors, scenes, locations and so on. This is a great idea. You can create a list of actors, for example, and select one from the drop-down list when you’re in a given chapter – signifying that the actor is present in the chapter. Likewise, you can then return to ‘actor’ list and see all the chapters that contain a given actor. So far so good; this is an excellent and intuitive implementation.

The bit I was most desperate to try – and the bit that has subsequently brought my mood quite, quite low – is the timeline option on the menu bar. Doesn’t it look beautiful? Here, let’s click on it:


If only the buggersome thing worked.

Allow me to set up just how disappointing this is. For months, I’ve been searching high and low for an application that will allow me to graphically represent a story: a ‘flowable chart’, if you dig, that indicates the main- and sub-plots of a novel; uses connecting arrows; and degrades gracefully when information is removed. Having looked at OmniGraffle, Keynote, Lord knoweth how many free mind-map applications, and even the staggeringly expensive Final Draft, there still does not seem to be a story plotting application available for the Mac.

What you see in the above screenshot bears about the same relation to the actual functioning of the timeline feature as…oh, I’m too weary for an outlandish metaphor. Make up your own. Involving monkeys, I’d suggest.

What it should do is this: Allow you set real-time start and finish times for a scene; assign it to a plot thread; and link it through such that clicking on a scene title brings up the text comprising the scene. Brilliant! Authors like me can then finally stop re-drawing huge plot maps whose iterations take about a week and become steadily less tidy.

What it actually does:

  • Allows you to create scene but, unless the scene is very long, its representation becomes invisible. Then you have to switch to a list view in order to edit the scene, or manually change the scale. How this should be fixed: The timeline should automatically scale to the earliest and latest times in the story.
  • Brings up the scene representation one minute, then removes it the next. It does so with such impish randomness that you really hope that the thing is actually working – then it breaks. How this should be fixed: It’s just a bug; fix it before releasing the software.
  • It does not live update information about the scenes when information about them is altered in other windows. So, if you change the start time of a scene elsewhere, this new start time is not reflected in the timeline view. Closing the window and opening it again doesn’t seem to help. How this should be fixed: If the application will not synchronise between elements that should be synchronised, constrain the user so only one element can be altered at a time.
  • Some of the fields relating to the scenes seem to be broken. For example, I can set up a smart list (good idea) that accurately uses data like who is in the scene, but the date field won’t work. I can’t set up a smart field that produces a timeline of dates between 1907 and 1908, say. How this should be fixed: it’s just another bug.

Overall, I really tried to like this application. It appears – pardon my ultra-casual glance at the website – to be a new iteration of an older program called Avenir, so you’d think that it would actually work. Why is this a final release candidate? Parts of the software fundamentally don’t work. Moreover, the trial period is measured in terms of open-close cycles, not days or weeks, and since I’ve had to open and close my document about twenty times trying to get parts of the program talking to one another, I’m at the point where I need to make a decision about buying it. I won’t, I suspect, be doing so.

Anyone else using software to represent story plots? Surely there must be at least one program out there that works.

Post script: I feel quite bad about this post, by the way. I’ve spent a longish time on the forums trying to find workarounds and the chap who wrote the software seems very nice. The application does have several excellent features…I’m just too grumpy to list them right now. Alright, just one: the progress bar on the toolbar is great. And one more: and there are some unusual proofing aids, such as a lexical frequency indicator. What’s that? Oh, it’s like the flux capacitor, only more so.

Post post script: I should point out that I’m running OS X Leopard 10.5.2 on a 2 GHz first-gen MacBook Pro in a lovely red Speck case. My mouse mat is from the Kennedy Space Center.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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