A comparison of open-source Novel programs

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Hello,

As you may know, I am a writer in my spare time and love to write long and complex novels. However, when I started considering writing novels seriously, I re-considered my choice of software; L.O Writer. Now, as you all may know, LO Writer is a program that competes with the more well known program, called MS Word. Unlike MS Word, L.O if free (and not just as in free beer, if you want to go all Richard Stallman-y) and, unlike Word, cross-platform (i.e it runs natively {Not wine hacks} on Linux). But otherwise, it is very similar to MS Word, has many of the same features and many of the same problem. The only other notable difference between them is that MS Word has the Ribbon interface whereas L.O favours the more traditional text-menus-and-lots-of-icons-you-never-use on the front (that’s probably the only real advantage Word has over Writer, and even then, lots of people were alienated by the new Ribbon interface).

Left: MS Word Ribbon interface.

Note: The program is running under Ubuntu Linux with Gnome 2 DE.

Above: L.O Writer interface.

This is all willy-nilly, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with writing a novel? Well, as a writer, I can tell you that writing novels with these programs is an absolute nightmare. It is clear that these programs are made for writing business documents and other generic documents; everything from the annoying and intrusive auto correct (which is often wrong anyway, particularly when writing fiction and you have names and what-not) to their inability to handle large files shows this. And of course, converting non-reflowable .docs and .odts to reflowable formats like ePub and MOBI, formats that an eReader can actually use, is a headache. Empty pages, missing text boxes and even serious issues like special characters not rendered properly, or, God-forbid, messed up text that’s been stretched over multiple pages are common.

So, what are the alternatives? Well, I’m here to name a few…

Plume Creator

The strangely named “Plume Creator”, written by French programmer Cyril Jacquet, is an unusual little program that does however, bring in a lot of nice features.

Plume Creator supports exporting to HTML, which is a much easier format to deal with when writing eBooks, and also has an additional feature of exporting to ODT. This means that you can do editing and formatting on Writer, though I don’t really recommend it, for the reasons mentioned earlier. The program has useful features like a word count visible when writing, a timer and clock, as well as the ability to write notes about a specific chapter (or scene) and make a mini-synopsis writing what you plan on writing (now isn’t that a weird sentence?). The nifty thing stays out of way but is helpful when you need it. Oh and the auto-save? Brilliant.

What’s certainly unusual however, is the programs interface:

The program is running under a newer version of Ubuntu with the Unity desktop.

The program has chapters on the left side, which can also be sorted into parent and child trees. On the right are the various menus. In the middle, stays the text. The notes are down below. The usual text menus are conspicuously absent.

I don’t miss them.

Sigil

Sigil is another program made for eBook publishing. It is certainly great in that it supports ePub; none of the others do. This means that you can put it’s files directly on an eReader, no conversion required. It has support for various useful things such as metadata, covers, Table of Contents and others such as references.

However, my biggest issues with it is that it lacks some very useful features, not least of which include a word counter. Additionally, the spell-checker doesn’t seem to work for me, although granted I don’t usually need one.

The interface is more akin to the traditional text menu with icons that you can’t guess what they do in the front. Doesn’t pick my fancy, but it’s functional.

Also running under Unity.

Storybook

I was sadly disappointed with this program. I had hoped it would be a powerful free program. And it is a powerful program… If you pay for it! The trial version may be GPL (v2) but it has a lot of features missing- one such notable features happens to be the one that allows you to export your book to HTML, ODT etc.

I do like the interface, as you can plan very well, including the ability to make character profiles, notes, locations and various other things. It is quite daunting to the novice user though, and I think it would take me a fair amount of time to get to grips with it.

As you can see, this program is not friendly to the novice user who just wants to write.

Installation Notes

Linux users, please note that to install Sigil and Storybook, you will have to use the generic (and non-standard) .bin installers. To install bin files, you have to run them from the command line as graphical installation is not possible:

I am going to assume you downloaded the file to your Downloads folder, change the file path accordingly if you have not. Do not run the commands as root.

cd ~/DOwnloads

chmod +x Sigil<version>-Linux-Setup.bin

./Sigil<version>Linux-Setup.bin

Obviously, you replace <version> with whatever version you are running. I believe the latest is 0.5.6. Do the same with Storybook, but replace the file name with Storybook’s.

With Plume Creator, non Debian users must compile from source code. Download the tar.gz file, extract it and read the instructions file.

 

Other Options

The alternate solution would be to simply use a plain text editor, write your chapters and books, and then let someone else do the formatting. The disadvantages are many however; you will have to manually add the formatting later on (like Italics for example) and really, it’s a lot more effort spent.

Unfortunately, the list of decent novel writing software at this time (October 2012) is limited at best. Even high-end programs like Scrivener are far from perfect. We writers will just have to deal with it.