September 11, 2008

Writer's World Maker aims at wannabe writers

Author: Bruce Byfield

The splash screen for Writer's World Maker (WWM) announces that the program is designed to "help you to summon your imaginary worlds to the printed page." And, considering its flexibility and thoroughness in some areas -- especially defining characters -- at times it almost realizes this goal. However, interface problems, as well as a fannish orientation at the expense of detailed planning in other areas, makes it a program more suitable for wannabes than working writers.

Now at version 1.0.31, WWM is available as source code and Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, and Ubuntu packages. If the Debian package is any indication, though, these packages are not set up for dependency resolution. You must install the Gambas programming language packages for your distribution before you install WWM. You will also need to install Qt support if you do not already have KDE installed.

The basic workflow

So far, WWM is undocumented, but its structure is logical enough that most users should be able to learn the program with very little trial and error. After displaying a splash screen suitable for a fantasy game, the program gives you the option of starting a new novel or loading an existing one. If you choose to start a new novel, WWM opens a window in which you fill out the basic information about your novel, including its title, the number of chapters, and its estimated number of words.

After clicking the Create Novel button, you receive a totally unnecessary dialog telling you that the novel has been created. After dismissing the dialog, you are at the main window. Here, you move -- for the most part -- from left to right and up to down in your workflow. You begin on the left, with an index of chapters, each of which you can rename or reposition as needed.

You must add at least one scene to a chapter before you begin to write. You also have the option of adding information about the date and time of the scene, uploading critiques of the scene, and including notes.

Directly below the list of scenes in the currently highlighted chapter you can add the characters who appear in the scene. To add characters, you naturally have to create them first, which you do in a separate dialog. At a minimum, you must name characters, although you can also fill out information about age and gender, and give some biographical details.

If you really want to describe a character in full, you can use the icons in the top right corner of the character dialog window to open further dialogs. In the Name Maker dialog you can give your character a first, middle, and last name in 13 different languages -- although you probably want to avoid the pseudo-Tolkien grotesqueries of the Fantasy setting. In the character interview, you can answer 23 different questions designed to help you know your character better, ranging from mundane information such as "education" and "occupation" to "psychological disorders," "addiction and bad habits," and "how does he handle aggression?" Alternatively, you can round off your characters by yourself using the Notes dialog.

When you are ready to write, you can select a scene -- any scene, not necessarily the first one -- and begin to type in another window. Click the Done button at the end of your writing, and your text appears in the bottom middle column of the main window. If you want, you can then print the text or export the information about the scene to plain text files.

Interface problems

Unfortunately, while the WWM's workflow is easy enough, the interface works against it in several ways. To start with, fields and controls sometimes respond slowly or even freeze altogether when you try to input information. The Location for the scene field does not work at all. Similarly, the Time of Day and Date fields work only after you right-click and select Simple
Composing Input Method from the menu -- and never, apparently, both at the same time.

Nor is the interface improved by some of the design choices. Apart from one or two spelling mistakes -- which seem an irony in a writing program -- at times the purpose of some fields is obscure. For instance, Current Cast Member presumably refers to the viewpoint character, but why not just use that term? In addition, icons are added above or below fields seemingly at random, while the setting information is placed in the left column, apparently to make use of empty space, instead of positioning it close to the list of scenes where it might be useful.

Even more importantly, you lose much of the advantage of WWM by having to add text in a separate window. This arrangement forces you to juggle windows if you want to use any of the information you entered so painstakingly. You are not helped, either, by the fact that WWM uses only plain text; you'll have to reformat it before actually submitting it to a magazine or publisher. Surely it would not be that difficult to support OpenDocument format, if only as an export option.

Emphasizing the amateur while overlooking the basics

WWM seems aimed at the amateur at the expense of the practical. Forgetting about jokes such as referring to critiquers as "critters," do you really need a pen name during composition, especially considering that you are going to have to reformat anyway? Is it really helpful to set a word count as your daily target, or have a countdown counter so you can see how close you are to achieving that target?

This orientation is at its worst in the character dialog, which has fields for each character's race, type, and class, and in the cast interview, which includes fields for "evil traits" and "curses or negative abilities." Such information not only seems more appropriate to role-playing than to writing, but encourages writers to fall into clich├ęs. Although the target audience may be amateur writers, why does the software have to encourage them in lazy and unimaginative habits? The program might as well have you roll for their characteristics.

None of this strangely unprofessional material would matter so much if the program as a whole covered the basics of creating a fictional background -- but it doesn't. Compared to the thoroughness of the tools for defining character, the setting information is minimal, confined to three fields, and lacking any tools for providing descriptions or notes about settings. In much the same way, additional notes on a scene are confined to a single field, which is not only awkward, but makes planning scenes within WWM unnecessarily difficult. For that matter, WWM could use a field for notes about an entire chapter, to say nothing of the various reports available in StorYBook, a similar program that we reviewed a couple of months ago.

WWM could be useful for serious writers in another release or two. For now, its inconveniences outweigh its flexibility. Hobbyists might tolerate it in their search for tools that will help them improve as writers. More serious writers, though, may find that the program tempts them too easily into irrelevances, and that they are better off with self-made spreadsheets -- or, better yet, to just start writing and worry about consistency when editing.


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