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Lon Prater reviews the Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software

Writing

Lon Prater kindly agreed to guest post about Marshall Plan novel writing software. Lon is a friend through the online writers’ group Codex. You can find out a bit more about him and jump to his Web site at the bottom of this post.

marshallsoftware

Near the end of October 2013, I was given a free copy of the Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software (Mac version) to review. After tinkering with it about 10 weeks, I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Some Background
I was first exposed to The Marshall Plan as a set of extremely helpful books by agent and author Evan Marshall. One book focuses on writing your novel, the second on selling it. There are also some workbooks, but I have no background with them. The two main books have a lot of meaty, useful stuff packed inside. Though geared for planners over “pantsers” there’s still a lot of valuable technique to be learned in these books, as well as crunchy good info on the business and career side of selling what you write. There are sections of these books I have gone back to reread no less than eight or nine times over the years.

One of the most specifically structured aspects of the Marshall Plan is a breakdown of how many scenes a book of a given length should have, with some additional consideration for genre, and how the viewpoints should be distributed across those scenes. As you can imagine, this can get incredibly fidgety.

As an example: a 70K Suspense/Crime novel would be broken up into 56 sections, with so many from the point of view of the Lead, the Opposition, and the Romantic Involvement—each happening in a specific (but not confiningly rigid) order. Pivotal turning points and other standout scenes have specific requirements, and there are certain elements that every Action or Reaction Section should have.

Laying out a plot using these strictures will probably suffocate the dedicated discovery writer (much the way Randy Ingermanson’s fractal-based and mostly helpful Snowflake Method has been known to do to unsuspecting pantsers) but don’t let this sway you from the value of the Marshall Plan when it is telescoped out from the scene by scene structuring. There is just as much valuable information in the Plan when it comes to the overall arc of your story, subplot, etc.

The Software
For those who enjoy the level of detail employed in the Marshall Plan, the software is probably going to be very appealing. I know that I personally jumped at the chance to review the program based simply on how much I adore the main book. I had expectations that this software would be on par with Scrivener or WriteWay Pro (both of which I have used over the years).

When I say “on par” let me spell out my expectation: a program that would help me organize key information, plan and outline my novel, and provide a native word processing function that would allow me to write the novel in sections tied to my outline. I get all of those and more with WriteWay Pro and Scrivener. (Much more in some cases) Those programs generally cost about $50.00, less when you catch a sale.

Now here’s the part where this review gets painfully honest.

The Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software fulfills all my novel planning and outlining needs, but lacks a function for writing and saving sections within the program itself, and also lacks a dedicated place to stow your research and scratch pad ideas. For so much less functionality than similar writing-based programs, you’d think this would cost a lot less than Scrivener or WriteWay Pro.

You’d be wrong. I checked for sales during NaNoWriMo and Christmas and again in mid-January. The current and constant price for this software has been $149.00.

Most aspiring writers just made their buying decision at the end of the last paragraph. But some of you are no doubt wondering “Is the part that’s there so awesome it makes it worth paying triple the money for 1/3 the functionality?”

What You Get For The Money
Again with the expectation/reality game. I thought, surely for that much money this will be one hell of a polished machine, a sleek German-engineered novel planning joyride. I mean, the sales literature even says, “It practically writes your novel for you!” and who wouldn’t want that kind of efficiency? No one, that’s who.

I searched for signs of that luxury app feel, some clue as to what would make this program worth that kind of scratch, and the only thing I can muster up as a reason is, as the cool kids say today: “because proprietary”. True to its promises, the software automates the difficult sectioning and outlining functions, in the specific proportions of The Marshall Plan. This would have otherwise been a laborious project, even if you had purchased the Workbook to help you. It also repeats key concepts from the books in scrollable windows of advice. Though the entire book is not included, just summary passages on structure, character building, editing, and careers. (To me they left the best part of the book out of the program, the parts covering techniques for clarity and how to handle exposition, dialogue, etc.) There is also an extensive list of Character Names and meanings.

Minor Complaints
The software feels unfinished to me for several small reasons, and one large one.  The small ones first:

  • There are numerous typos and artifacts of earlier builds hiding in the sparse help text and directions. For $150 this thing better be as typo-free as a query letter. Examples: 1) The text says click the Genre List above, but actually it’s a drop down menu on the left side of the screen. 2) “Or use a Reaction Section, as explained above” but the explanation is below. 3) There are an awful lot of doubled quotation marks “” scattered throughout the documentation.
  • Arrowheads used to open and close parts of the program felt stingy and smallish; they required concentration to click them reliably.
  • Minor Character support is not robust at all. You get to put in a Name and a Role, but if you want to keep any other info straight about them, you better go buy a notebook. Also, there does not appear to be a way to export Minor Character data.
  • The List of Names is very long. Which would be just ducky if there was a search function, or you were allowed to jump to a certain letter. Nope. Start scrolling at A on either the Male list or the Female list. 7,000 names between them…

The Worst Offender
One of the earliest, and most important steps of planning your novel with this software is when you pick the overall length you are going to aim for. The program gives a lot of valuable information about averages for genres and so on, in perhaps a bit more granularity than that handy 2010 post from Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet everyone likes to go by.

But where it gets dicey is when you decide on that length and then enter it into the form field directly under this, in red: (Warning: Reducing your novel’s word length removes and/or resets sections, so data may be lost.)

To be fair, the software does provide a warning. What does this mean in practice?  It means that once you set a word length, the program will create a list of Action and Reaction Scenes and tell you which ones need to be from a certain viewpoint character and which you can choose the point of view. It will also dedicate space for you to write notes about what will happen in each of those sections.

But if in the course of writing—or even outlining—you discover that this is really panning out to be more of a 70K novel than the 90K novel you thought your idea would support, you have two choices:

  • You can start a brand new outline file (because remember, this program doesn’t actually have a word processor built in) in the software and laboriously cut and paste all your notes for each section into the new outline file.
  • You can change the existing file, knowing that you will lose what you have saved as notes for several sections. Print a copy before you change the length and then retype your notes back in.

To me, either option seems like a lot of wasted time that would be better spent writing that first draft. To me, this would be a dealkiller even if the program cost less than a Happy Meal.

Wrapup
I started evaluating this program from a very positive and hopeful place. I like The Marshall Plan books and I was excited about getting a copy of the software to try.

In the end, I wanted to give a better review than I was able to.

Until the software has more features, more polish, allows changing novel’s length without losing data, and doesn’t bite so deep into the wallet, I cannot recommend it for anyone without money to burn (a rare descriptor for novelists) and extraordinary confidence that they can make any story idea take X amount of words to tell it. There are just too many better values currently available in the marketplace, at a fraction of the cost.

That said, if you haven’t read The Marshall Plan for Writing Your Novel, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

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About the Reviewer: Lon Prater has worked in the Reactor Compartments of USS Enterprise, edited the military’s textbook on arms deals, and kept things safe in the produce and laundry industries. His fiction has appeared in the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5, Origins Award finalist Frontier Cthulhu, and dozens of other publications. Visit www.LonPrater.com to find out more.

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Would Scrivener Make You a Happier Writer?

Writing

The process of writing has changed enormously in the past 50 years. Word processors transformed writing from something you have to redo every time you want to make changes to something that can include any number of changes with no extra effort beyond the edits themselves. The Web has elevated research from a limited, time-consuming, and sometimes expensive process into a few minutes communing with Google. Laptops and similar devices have taken these improvements out on the road. Print on demand and especially eBooks have opened an entirely separate career path for some independent writers.

In comparison to these game-changing tools and resources, what difference does Scrivener make? Well, if you’re like about 80% of writers, the answer used to be “none at all,” because Scrivener was originally a Mac-only program. Unless you’ve been beta testing the Windows version, all that changed yesterday when Scrivener 1.0 for Windows was introduced.

What’s so great about Scrivener?
I originally posted about Scrivener in an article called “How Tools and Environment Make Work Into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener.” My main point in that article was that for long or complex writing projects–novels, screenplays, stage plays, non-fiction books, articles with lots of information, or even short stories with especially detailed worlds or plots–Scrivener takes the heavy lifting out of organizing a lot of thoughts, resources, research, ideas, plot points, facts, scenes, or other details into a living outline that naturally evolves into your actual book.

For example, when I wrote my short book The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation (available in PDF form for free on this site, or for 99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle), I had an enormous number of tips, tricks, insights gleaned from scientific research, anecdotes, and whole articles to organize into a well-structured book. Using Scrivener, I dumped everything in without worrying about the order and then was easily able to organize it all into a structure that I could write and rewrite my way through until I had a clean final draft. While organizing, I was able to focus on just a few elements at a time, which took away that crazy, overwhelmed feeling of worrying that I’d forget some important piece of information. Once I began my actual writing, it also allowed me to focus singlemindedly on what I was writing.

How does Scrivener work?
The basic idea behind Scrivener is very simple: it conceives of a piece of writing as a bunch of pieces of text, each of which might be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, an illustration, some research material, notes for your reference, etc. These pieces are organized into two general categories: Draft (for the writing itself) and Research (for supporting material that’s not intended to wind up in the actual book).

All of these pieces can be organized into an outline. For instance, I might start with these ideas for an evil bathtub story:

Note that in this picture I’m just showing the “binder,” the section on the left where I come up with the pieces I want to organize. I typed the names of my pieces right into there. I also could have started with some material I’d already written, which would go into the text area on the right that appears as I click on each item.

As you can see, I’m starting with some ideas about characters, a few plot points, some incidents, and some research. I’m not sure what happens when yet: all I have is glimpses of what’s happening in a short story about an evil bathtub.

(It’s ironic to me that I had forgotten, in putting together this example, that in college I actually wrote a story in college about a cursed bathtub. I guess this is a thing with me. I think the title was “Miriam Pzicsky and the Handyman from Hell.” I’m pleased to say that I have improved as a writer somewhat since college.)

In the next picture, you’ll see what I did with those pieces of information: I chose to impose three-act structure (something I don’t have to do and generally don’t do explicitly) and then dragged the items around into something resembling an order for the story. One of the great things about Scrivener is that in doing this, I automatically begin to see where there are holes in the story, where it might get repetitive, and what kind of structure I’m dealing with. Just seeing the story as an outline helps me improve the story.

click to enlarge

Once I’m done adding or changing elements in my outline, I’ll just start clicking on items in it and writing those items one by one. I can add, delete, and move around pieces as I write (which is why I refer to this as a “living outline”), and the click-and-write experience makes it easy to focus on one part of the piece at a time.

Scrivener has many, many more useful features. This glimpse is only meant to show what I think is the key useful concept behind the program. Fortunately, it’s more than a concept: the software has been developed with a lot of appropriate, productive, and easy-to-use features.

While Scrivener is useful, it’s also fun, at least for me. When I use Scrivener, I use less of my attention to keep track of details and more of it to write. This makes me a happier writer.

When is Scrivener not useful?
Scrivener isn’t for everyone. If you like to start writing a piece from the beginning and then go right through to the end, or if you tend to make a traditional outline just to get a grip on what you’re doing and then don’t do much with that outline except consult it as you write, I’m not sure Scrivener would be especially helpful for you. If you write off the cuff, without research or planning, there won’t be much Scrivener can help you organize. Personally, I love Scrivener’s organizational features, but I rarely use it for short stories: I find it much more useful for outlined novels and non-fiction projects.

Even if you write by the seat of your pants, though, you may find Scrivener invaluable. You can start writing a novel by typing “Chapter 1” and plunging ahead with only the most general sense of where you’re going, but even in that kind of situation you will probably start coming up with scenes you want to include later, plot developments that need to occur, bits to insert into what you’ve already written, research materials, and more things to be organized. Scrivener doesn’t care whether you organize before, during, or after writing: it just helps you get everything into a usable structure.

If I’ve piqued your interest
The fine folks at Literature and Latte offer a free, 30-day trial which is in fact far better than most 30-day trials in that it doesn’t count calendar days, but instead days you use Scrivener. If you use it twice a week, your 30-day trial will last you 15 weeks. You also don’t have to create an account, sign up for anything, or even supply an e-mail address to get the trial. You can download it here: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php .

If you do opt to buy, the price is $40, but there’s a 20% discount you can find at http://www.literatureandlatte.com/nanowrimo.php . A 50% discount is available for people who “win” NaNoWriMo, completing at least 50,000 words of a novel project in the month of November. (For more info on NaNoWriMo, go to http://www.nanowrimo.org/ .)

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