Sunday, February 17, 2008

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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Blogger K.G. Schneider said...

What is this "planning" thing you make frequent reference to? Sounds useful!

6:07 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Yeah...and since I'm continually demonstrating to myself how bad I am at it, it's probably time to abandon the whole thing!

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...


Thanks for being so thorough in describing your experience with StoryMill. Much obliged.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Todd Ransom said...

Hello Ian,

The timeline view in StoryMill is designed for scenes that take place relatively close together in time. It does not currently work very well for epic storylines that take place over time scales of several years or for scenes that last less than 10 minutes or so.

This is a difficult problem (representing scenes in such widely varying time scales) and we chose to target what 90% of writers would need for our first version of the timeline. We are evaluating solutions so we can make the timeline useful to more people in the future.

We would love to hear more about your specific needs. You can contact us at

Thanks for taking the time to evaluate StoryMill and we hope we can make it more useful for you in the future.

Todd Ransom
StoryMill developer
Mariner Software

4:49 PM  

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