OK, let's get this out of the way at the beginning. It's true that not every successful writer uses a computer. Kinky Friedman works on an old Smith Corona ("about the last typewriter in Texas," he told an interviewer in 1999). Harlan Ellison can write almost anything—novels, short stories, TV features, screenplays—all while remaining militantly devoted to his manual typewriter.
But for the rest of us—those who, unlike Ellison, can't churn out 120 error-free words per minute or don't have a career in music to fall back on (like Friedman, who's performed with Bob Dylan)—a computer is essential. And just as essential are software programs that perform clever, labor-saving tricks. From simple management tools to elaborate novel-writing software, the right programs can take care of a surprising array of details, freeing you to do what you do best: write.
Most of the programs featured here are affordable, even on a typical writer's budget. With so much on the market, however, software shopping can be unnerving. Don't rush yourself. Almost all of these programs offer free trial versions that let you evaluate the program in a limited form, or over a limited period of time. Take advantage of these offers—it's the best way to be sure a program will meet your specific needs.
All of the following programs work with the Windows operating system, and many work with Macs. Check each product's Web site for system requirements.
Microsoft Word has served writers well—it's difficult to imagine a world without it, isn't it? Yet for many authors, Word has some significant limitations, and you may find you work more efficiently, and creatively, on a program tailored specifically for your craft.
Final Draft 7, www.finaldraft.com, a scriptwriting program that can also work for novel manuscripts, takes the fundamentals of Word and adds automatic formatting, an index card system and other valuable tools. Because the program is inspired by Word, its format is familiar and easy to use. The screen can be split horizontally or vertically, which is a convenient option. Additionally, the program provides for online collaboration—and simultaneous editing—of a script, and its text-to-speech function can read your work aloud to you.
Writer's Blocks, www.writersblocks.com, is a definite departure from Word—a serious attempt to free users from the traditional cut-and-paste revision system. With a few limitations, it succeeds. With Blocks, you can view sections of text side by side or vertically (albeit in small pieces) and shuffle sections of text more easily than is possible with traditional word processors.
With its most recent incarnation, Writer's Blocks has evolved from a place to rough out a project to a full-fledged word processor. Manual-haters, beware: There's a definite learning curve associated with this one. But given the untold hours that can be spent scrolling up and down manuscripts locating, cutting and pasting sections of text, a half-hour with this tutorial might be a worthwhile investment.
Power Writer, www.write-brain.com, starts with the most useful elements of Word and adds features such as plot- and character-development tools and useful note-taking and outlining capabilities. It also keeps your notes and outlines readily available so you can spend less time shuffling between various functions.
THE NEXT STEP
If you're looking for more than just a word processor, there's an abundance of programs that generate names, assist with character and plot development, and provide structural organization, as well as throw off the occasional creative spark. Some of these programs are relatively simple, while others are complex mentoring tools that guide you through the creative process. Tools and prices vary widely, so investigate fully before you invest.
Character Pro, www.characterpro.com, is useful to the novice or the experienced writer, and it works through a question-and-answer format that's relatively easy to learn. Based on the Enneagram system of personality analysis, Character Pro isolates various parts of a character's personality then leaves it up to you to flesh them out.
Dramatica Pro, www.write-bros.com, is a comprehensive program that can handle whatever type of fiction you're writing. Designed for intermediate and professional writers, the program provides a wide range of tools to manage all aspects of the creative process. A mentoring function, available in three levels of complexity, leads you through the story-writing process, assisting with character and plot development. Whether you're beginning with a detailed outline or just a flash of inspiration, Dramatica Pro provides the means to create a polished script or novel. (Writer's DreamKit, www.write-bros.com, is a scaled-down version of Dramatica Pro, packaged and priced for the student or beginning writer. The program helps with plot and character development, as well as structure, and can handle formatting for any type of fiction.)
The personal journaling program LifeJournal, www.lifejournal.com, provides a place to track emotional ups and downs, note day-to-day activities or write an autobiography. Of course, an old-fashioned notebook can serve this purpose, as well. But the digital journal has several distinct advantages over a bound volume of blank pages. A journal, faithfully kept, can record ideas and impressions for future use, and LifeJournal's search engine can retrieve those thoughts much more efficiently than flipping though a lifetime's worth of daily notations. And—perhaps just as important—with LifeJournal, you won't have to live with unsightly scribble-outs.
Movie Magic Screenwriter, www.write-bros.com, offers an index card system, note-taking capabilities and proofreading features that, together, form a comprehensive screenwriting program. The software's iPartner technology provides for online collaboration, and a text-to-speech engine can read the work aloud.
Hollywood Screenwriter, www.write-bros.com, by the creators of Movie Magic Screenwriter, is designed for the beginning writer. It lacks its big sister's online collaboration and text-aloud functions, and it doesn't offer an index card view. But it's easy to learn, and it still provides many useful functions: real-time formatting and drag-and-drop editing, as well as a word processor for outlines and query letters.
Writer's Café, www.writerscafe.co.uk, for novels, scripts and short stories, is a relatively simple program with an easy learning curve. A visual timeline assists with plotting and structure, and the software includes a guide to the fundamentals of story creation. Other features include a journal/scrapbook and a convenient function that creates links to online documents.
Power Structure, www.write-brain.com, by the makers of Power Writer, takes the company's word processor and adds graphic elements designed to help you scrutinize your story's characters and plot. Designed for writers who already know where their story's going, this isn't a mentoring program, but rather a practical tool for examining and strengthening your work.
Storybase, www.storybase.com, is a brainstorming tool for screenwriters, playwrights and novelists that works with a database of 2,636 brief story situations. Just enter keywords describing your chara cters' relationships, emotions or motivations, and the program generates alternative plot directions. Getting Storybase to take your story in a direction you like can be time-consuming, but the software does produce alternatives that might not occur to you otherwise.
StoryCraft Pro, www.writerspage.com, helps you incorporate elements of great literature into your work, using mythological structure as a guide. Employing a technique called the Jarvis Method (named for the main proponent of this approach), the program assists with outlining and organizing, structure and plot development. It may sound complicated, but it's not—you'll learn the method as you work, and the terminology is kept simple. StoryCraft Pro is also available in "luxury" and "screenwriter" editions, which come with additional tools.
StoryView, www.write-bros.com, allows you the option to view your story in either conventional outline format or on a timeline. The timeline view is comprehensive and efficient, if a bit busy, and it's easy to toggle quickly between the timeline and outline views. The result is a useful and fun story-building system.
WriteItNow, www.ravensheadservices.com, is packed with tools and comes at a surprisingly reasonable price. Designed for novelists, the program handles all word-processing duties and includes organizational tools, formatting functions and a submissions tracker. It offers charts to help keep track of characters, events and locations, as well as character and name generators. A series of add-ons, included in the purchase price, contains everything from research materials on Tudor Britain to a Myers-Briggs-based character generator.
BEYOND THE THESAURUS
I won't deny it: I'm a sucker for a good thesaurus. And digital thesauri are fast eclipsing those old, heavy hardcover books. Faster than flipping through pages of fine print, these programs move efficiently through thousands upon thousands of words, turning up synonyms and definitions as quickly as you can point and click.
Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus, www.visualthesaurus.com, is more than just a thesaurus—it's a visual representation of the English language. An interactive map displays groups of related words, with a window at each intersection describing where you're heading. As the program moves from synonym to synonym, thorough definitions appear on the side of the screen. Thinkmap Visual Theaurus contains more than 145,000 words, and audio pronunciations show you how to pronounce a word, as well as use it. The Visual Thesaurus is also available online via a subscription service.
Word Menu, www.write-bros.com, is to a thesaurus what a word processor is to a pencil—it takes some getting used to, but will take you much further in the end. The fundamental problem with a standard thesaurus or dictionary, of course, is that you have to know how to spell a word to look it up. Word Menu addresses this silliness by organizing words into the categories in which they're used. You can wander though subjects such as "the human condition" and "arts and leisure" until you arrive at the perfect word. (That's assuming you have the discipline to stay on the right path, rather than meander off to explore the "domestic life" tab or figure out what a "calabash" is.) Word Menu isn't particularly quick, but the program succeeds where a thesaurus fails—and that's certainly worth a second or two of your time.
Unless your name is Jayson Blair, you know research is an important part of your work. The Internet makes researching a lot easier, but with so much available, it can also produce a crippling case of information overload. Fortunately, these programs can come to the rescue and keep you on track.
Personal Knowbase, www.bitsmithsoftware.com, organizes your research materials, including information stored in e-mail archives, into a comprehensive database. The program organizes by keyword, rather than subject tree, allowing you to search for terms with qualifiers such as "and," "or" and "not." If you have documents strewn willy-nilly all over your computer, Personal Knowbase provides an efficient means of pulling them all together.
Power Tracker, www.write-brain.com, manages submissions, tracks expenses, organizes files and produces reports. This is an especially good choice for screen-writers—the database comes preloaded with contact information for more than 5,000 agents, producers and directors.
EnLighter Professional, www.enliter.com, makes it possible to do something you've probably always wanted to do—highlight, and add notes to, Web pages. The program also lets the user save online documents in multiple categories. By eliminating the need to copy Web pages into separate documents to mark them up, enLighter Professional can save a great deal of time and frustration.
Idea Tracker, www.intellectusenterprises.com, provides an efficient place to store ideas. Like a journal, Idea Tracker can hold onto random thoughts and impressions that otherwise would evaporate quickly into the ether. The program stores ideas in categories and subcategories, from which they can be resurrected by search engine. Kept faithfully, Idea Tracker can grow into a databank to be mined when inspiration fails.
Creating a brilliant manuscript is only half the battle—and sometimes it's the easy half. Once written, your work must be submitted and resubmitted, sold and resold. Rights must be tracked, contracts returned, expenses recorded and payments collected. And a computer monitor plastered with Post-its is most definitely not the way to organize the business end of your writing life. Instead, try investing in a submissions management program.
WriteAgain, www.write-again.com, tracks projects from inception to completion, manages submissions and records expenses. By creating links between WriteAgain records and manuscripts stored elsewhere on the computer, you can set up a comprehensive management system, complete with links to Web sites and online writers' guidelines. Entering all the necessary information into WriteAgain is time-consuming, but the effort will pay off in increased efficiency. WriteAgain is available in a "professional" version, as well as a "standard" version that doesn't include the expense- and task-tracking features.
Quick Query Tracker, www.quickquerytracker.com, is just that—a quick, simple submissions tracking tool, with virtually no learning curve, that organizes information about your favorite markets. This program also produces reports, provides automated reminders and is easy to back up.
Remember that software programs are nothing more than tools; they can't replace talent or discipline. Think of them as you would a dishwasher or leaf blower—they're intended to liberate you from the chores that keep you from the things you really want to be doing.
Writing software programs can handle everything from helping name your story characters to reminding you to deposit your paychecks. Use them. And if you're still feeling guilty about abandoning that old typewriter, don't worry—we know a guy in Texas who might be interested in taking it off your hands.