November 28, 2007

Writer's Café: An IDE for writers

Author: Dmitri Popov

Legend has it that a Moleskine notebook and a pen were the tools of choice for Chatwin and Hemingway -- but that's because they didn't have Writerââ¬â¢s Café. Designed specifically for writing professionals, this application suite includes a few clever features that make it a must-have tool, whether you write for a living or for fun. Although the Writer's Café developers state that it's most suited for writing fiction, novels, and short stories, you can easily use it for all kinds of writing activities.

Installing Writer's Café is easy, which is good news for less tech-savvy writers. Download the latest .tar.gz package, unpack it into a temporary directory, and run the installwc script. Follow the on-screen instructions to perform the installation. When that's done, you can take care of a few additional things, such as specifying external applications to open Web links and view PDF documents, and making Writer's Café handle accented characters properly. Check the Linux installation notes for more info on how to deal with these and other issues.

Writer's Café consists of two applications: Writer's Café Desk and StoryLines. The former acts as a dashboard that gives you quick access to Writer's Café modules: Scraps, Journal, Notebook, Cookies, and Bookshelf. Each module has its own tab in the main working area of Writer's Café Desk, so you can easily switch between them.

As the name suggests, the Scraps module is used to store and organize miscellaneous stuff such as text notes, links, and pictures. It may not be the most innovative tool for the purpose, but it comes in handy when you need to keep track of your research material. Moreover, you can add shortcuts here to external applications and documents, so you can easily access them directly from within Writer's Café. You can create an unlimited number of scrapbooks and organize the scraps into folders by setting up so-called Folder Scraps. To keep tabs on multiple scrapbooks, use the left pane of the Desk, which provides a tree overview of the existing scrapbooks and their contents. Adding a scrap to a scrapbook is a cinch: in the left pane, right-click on the scrapbook you want and choose New scrap (or use the commands available in the Scraps menu in the main toolbar). Choose the desired scrap type, give it a name, and fill out the relevant fields. Using the commands available in the right-click menu, you can rearrange scraps when needed. The Search tab in the left pane allows you to quickly find scraps containing specified search criteria.

The Journal and Notes modules are similar in design and function. Both allow you to write down your thoughts, ideas, and pretty much anything else. However, while the Notebook consists of pages, the Journal keeps your entries organized by date.

The Cookies module is Writer's Café's quotation database. Every time you launch Writer's Café and switch to the Cookies tab, it shows a new quotation. You can change the current quotation by pressing the space bar. Finally, there is the Bookshelf module, which provides a convenient way of browsing the online documentation and the bonus book Fiction: The Facts (available upon registration).

While the Writer's Café Desk is good for keeping tabs on research material and miscellaneous notes, the actual planning and writing process takes place in the StoryLines editor. Unlike traditional linear editors, StoryLines allows you to write ideas onto cards and plot them onto storylines. A card can contain anything from a few key words to a detailed description of a particular scene. Each storyline can represent an event, story thread, character, or anything else. You can rearrange the cards on a storyline and move them between different storylines. This unique approach allows you to write the story in a nonlinear manner.

To create a new project, choose File -> New Project. A simple wizard then guides you though the process of configuring the project and adding storylines. If your story has many different characters and locations, you can use Writer's Café to add them to the project to keep better track of them. To do this choose Edit -> Project Information and use the Characters and Locations sections to populate your project. In the Basics section, you can change the basic information about the project, as well as provide a more detailed description of the project (e.g. Format and Genre) under the Details tab.

Once you've set up the project and storylines, you can start adding cards to it. To do this, press the New Card button in the main toolbar, or choose Edit -> New Card. You can then type either a few keywords or a short description, or use the available options to enter as much info as you like. For example, the Content window provides a simple editor with a few text formatting tools, which you can use to write parts of your story. The Setting tab allows you to specify location and time as well as choose location details. To place the card on a particular storyline, switch to the General tab and choose the desired storyline from the drop-down list.

There are, however, situations when you don't want to place the card on a particular storyline just yet. In this case, you can hide the card by right-clicking on it and selecting the Move to Pocket menu item. When you are ready to place the card onto a storyline, right-click where you want to insert the card and select the Insert from Pocket menu item. To view your story in a more conventional linear format, switch to the Report tab, which shows the card as properly formatted text.

Writer's Café also sports an export capability, which can come in handy if you want to edit your project in a word processor or publish it. To export the project, choose Report -> Export and select the format you want. You can choose between the HTML, Writer (albeit the older .sxw format), and plain text formats.

Final word

Writer's Café is a classic desktop single-user application suite, and as such it lacks some collaborative functionality we take for granted these days. You can't sync your scrapbooks between multiple computers, nor can you share your data with other users. But if you can live with these limitations, Writer's Café can prove a productive tool in your writing arsenal.


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