Programming is like sex, one mistake and you have to support it for the rest of your life. --Michael Sinz

Writing Software for the Novelist

PieceWorx Writing Studio

Where One Journey Ends Another Begins

Four months ago I began writing my third unfinished novel.

I count it among my unfinished novels because I put it on the shelf about three months ago, only one month after starting it.

This time, however, I had a specific reason for doing so. I became frustrated with the software tools available to the novel writer and decided to create my own writing software.

And so I would like to invite you to join me on the journey of creating, marketing and selling a successful software product. Whether it turns out to be successful, of course, remains to be seen and depends largely on my definition of success. Those are things we'll look at more in the days to come.

It may seem a silly undertaking for one man to decide to create a new writing software. After all, lots of writing programs already exist. Not the least of which is Microsoft Word which is more proven and has more functionality than a thousand Swiss army knives.

Yet, after contemplating my insanity, three reasons compelled me to continue. The first, of course, being insanity itself. That leaves two reasons.

The second reason was that I could not find all the features I desire in a single program. The principle reason for this was not that all existing writing software lacked features, but that one of my overarching desires is simplicity. Feature richness often has a way of negating simplicity. I did not want a software program that was all things to all people.

In order to maximize simplicity I would need to limit and focus the feature set. It would need to contain only those features which enhance or support the creative writing process.

The third and final reason I decided to continue with my undertaking was because I'm a software developer. It's what I do, even more than writing. For me, the two disciplines have a lot in common, but my compulsion to create software often trumps my writing efforts. I couldn't explain if I tried, however, the following fable comes to mind.

The Scorpion and the Frog

Once upon a time a scorpion arrived at a river bank where he politely asked a frog if he would carry him across the river.

The frog, knowing the nature of a scorpion, wisely responded, "I would rather not. You will sting me half way across for the joy of it."

"Now why would I do that," said the scorpion. "If I sting you while you are carrying me across, then we will both sink into the river and die."

The frog was convinced by this argument so he agreed to ferry the scorpion across the river.

When they reached the middle of the river the scorpion stung the frog and they both began to sink.

"Why?" asked the frog. "Why would you sting me knowing you will die?"

"Because I'm a scorpion," replied the scorpion. "It's what I do."

In other words, not everything makes sense. Some things are more about ones nature than they are about reason.

It is in my nature to create software and so I do. I only hope my efforts lift others up rather than introduce them to the bottoms of river beds.

Why Not Microsoft Word?

You may be thinking that Microsoft Word (or any other general purpose word processor) counts as writing software. While it works for many writers, here are some of the reasons I prefer something else.

I find Word to be distracting when I'm trying to create. There are so many menus, bars, ribbons, styles etc. that it's a bother. And even if I could hide or minimize them all, I still know they are there and I don't trust them.

I'm just sure they will jump out at some random time when I accidentally hit some key sequence or type a misspelled word. They are so eager to please and so clueless about what I really want that I'd rather they do nothing.

I can hear it now. All the people telling me how I can turn all these features on and off and sideways and backwards. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to have to figure it out. If I'm going to figure something out, please let it be something tailored just for me and my creative writing task.

Word also does not support managing or organizing multiple files well. When I'm doing research or free writes or multiple drafts, I don't have easy access to all of this content. The best I can do is try to organize it in a file folder in Windows. I can have multiple files open, but Word does not lend itself to high levels of interaction between multiple documents.

There are other reasons as well. Word doesn't have a true full screen mode. It's difficult to manage relationships between documents and there is no theming or as I like to call it ambiance control.

Obviously, Microsoft Word does many, many things well.

My objective in creating writing software is not to be another Word or to make Word unnecessary even.

But having a product tailored specifically to the task at hand can often be much better than one designed for general purposes.

Horzontal Versus Vertical

Business people talk about vertical markets and horizontal markets.

These words are generally overused by people trying to make themselves look important. And while most jargon has little meaning these words actually have fairly specific meanings in the business world.

In my own words, though, a horizontal market is when a software program tries to be all things to all people. Microsoft Word serves a horizontal market--everyone.

A vertical market is when a software program tries to tailor itself to satisfy the needs of a specific set of users who all have something in common--writers for example. Or dentists. Or single people looking for a date.

However, you can imagine even more specific groupings among writers, dentists and single people. And this is the reason I've never really liked the terms "horizontal" and "vertical." They are vague.

For example, there are many kinds of writers. Novelists, reporters, poets, students writing theses, scientists writing papers...you get the picture. There is some overlap, but each of these subgroups has specific needs the others don't. For example, a novelist may need the ability to merge multiple chapters. A scientist may need support for mathematical formulas. A poet may want colored text.

Anyway, the writing software I wish to create would be described as satisfying a vertical market rather than a horizontal market.

The vertical market for my writing software is novelists who write in English on computers.

I could have chosen to make my target market broader or narrower than this, but after quite of a bit of thought, targeting novelists gives us plenty of work to do, but also limits the scope somewhat.

Knowing that I wish to serve novelists and not all writers will help to clarify many of the choices I make going forward.

Publishing Versus Creating

Obviously, Microsoft Word is a very good piece of software. But I consider Word to be publishing software, not creating software.

When you are in the throes of birthing a novel you have little concern for margins, line spacing and fonts. It's a messy process. These things don't matter much at this stage.

However, some order among the chaos is necessary. So, you do actually care a bit about things like margins, line spacing or font because some tasks benefit from this. Printing drafts with double spacing allows for easy review and markup. Clean margins and fonts can give you a feeling of accomplishment much the same way speaking aloud suddenly makes your thoughts more real.

In the end, you want the benefit of the features you want as long as they stay out of your way.

You don't need all the capabilities of a publishing software like Word which gives you control over every jot and tittle. During the creative process, this level of control is more distracting than helpful.

Why Not a Plain Text Editor

I've done a lot of creative writing and journaling in plain text editors. And while I prefer them to a full scale word processor, they lack some features I would really like to have. Here are a few.

  • Full screen
  • Ambiance control/theming
  • Spell check
  • Some formatting (bold, italic, font size, centering)

Writers Deserve Their Own Studio, Too!

There are many writing programs available. Most of them focus on providing a creative environment with minimal distractions.

Features like full screen mode, custom colors, simple fonts, typewriter sounds and even background music support the creative process.

Others go a step further and provide a working environment in which to track notes, outlines, multiple documents and files in a way that is more natural for the writer.

Features which enhance my creativity and simplify common creating-related tasks are what I call studio features.

This is analogous to the studio of a sculptor or a painter.

Why can't writer's have studios, too?

With a good writing software, your computer can become a virtual space where you keep all of your tools and all of your works.

It's a place where you can adjust the light and arrange your tables to fit your preferences.

It is a place which feels like an old glove each time you return to it. You settle in and everything about it invites your imagination to come forth.

In my experience, most software programs fail to do this. Much great writing happens on a computer in spite of the software rather than because of it.

PieceWorx Writing Studio

And so PieceWorx Writing Studio is born.

It is both an idea and a real software program. Although, it will be a few months before the program is ready for its debut.

I want feedback from developers and writers as I continue. You have the ability to direct and shape this product! What would you want in your writing software?

As I alluded before, I intend to sell copies of this software rather than give it away. There are several reasons for this and I considered all possibilities. The steps to arriving at this decision could fill several more articles.

However, one of my goals is that this product would bring so much value to novelists and other creative writers that they will be happy to trade some of their hard earned dollars in exchange. If this is not the case, then I'm failing.

I also believe talented, hard-working software developers deserve compensation when they provide value to the world. It is certainly easier to give away software than to sell it, but the rewards are also proportional. Perhaps my journey will provide a template for others who wish to create something useful.

At any rate, a few screen shots of the work in progress follow.

I invite your thoughts, support and criticism with equal zeal.

Please join the conversation by adding a comment below, on my Facebook page or by emailing me directly at the address in the footer of this page.