Web/Tech Writing

Dabble – the future of novel writing?

I don’t know what other authors are like but I go a bit funny whenever I’ve finished a long project. It’s easy to be sucked into trying to write something straight away but I long ago discovered this is a mistake.

You need time to recover. Time to think. So I often take a long look at my work processes — the tools I use for the job — and try to work out if I can do things more efficiently next time. I’m not talking about ‘inspiration’ here. I’m talking about processes, approaches, the day-to-day practice of writing.

Years ago I came to the conclusion that standard word processors don’t cut it for me when it comes to dealing with the complex, threaded business of putting together a book-length narrative. I was an early user of Scrivener, a piece of software I still admire and use, and later adopted Ulysses, a lovely app on the Mac and iPad that combines power with simplicity.

Today I flit between both depending on the project. Scrivener is by far the more complex but better, it seems to me, for multi-threaded stories. Ulysses excels at simpler narratives without too many twists and turns. Most people will stick to one app, of course, which is eminently sensible. But when you write for a living, five days a week or more, you sometimes need a change of the daily scenery. Which is one reason why I always try to keep an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in the writing software scene.

Time moves on. Scrivener was originally a Mac-only app. There is a Windows version but it’s some way behind the current Mac one at the moment though the release of Windows version 3 appears to be imminent. You can get an iPad app too but Scrivener is complex and awkward when it comes to syncing between devices. I gave up on the iPad app long ago since moving between screens something I do all the time. Ulysses does that without a second thought and, unlike Scrivener, doesn’t mind if your story is open on another machine elsewhere. But these are still both conventional computer programmes designed to run on individual devices. Meanwhile mainstream writing apps have often moved, very successfully, to the web and given up trying to demand you use a particular operating system to get on with your work.

Microsoft Word is the ultimate destination of all my work except scripts, since that is the lingua franca of book publishing, the format we’re expected to deliver. Once a very closed product limited to Windows and an inferior Mac version, it’s now available across the spectrum, for iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, and with a version that runs very well in a browser. It does all this through smart web storage. I can have a Word file open on my desktop and add a note into it on my Android phone while walking down the hill. It doesn’t care what device I use or where I am. That is something I’ve come to like a lot.

This approach, it seems to me, is the future of most apps we use. Not as standalone programs on standalone computers, but as web-based systems that work however and wherever you want.

So how about a dedicated novel-writing app that thinks this way? There are several out there, all young, all developing. I tracked down three, Novlr, LivingWriter and Dabble. They all offer free trials. They all have some odd omissions — Novlr, for example, has no search and replace, while LivingWriter seems to think a Word-style format bar is needed. I don’t.

So I soon found myself warming to Dabble over the others and decided to give it a test with an actual project, currently at the 25k mark. Here is what I made of it.

Something looks familiar

Dabble describes itself as ‘Like Scrivener. Minus the Learning Curve.’ If you’re a user of any kind of specialist fiction app you’ll know what that means. Like pretty much all the software in this field it treats a novel not as a big homogenous glob of text but as a mosaic of chapter and scenes — and parts too if you work with those. Each is separate but sits in order alongside the rest to form the narrative. You can move scenes around, split and merge them (though not as easily as with Scrivener or Ulysses — this does involve cut and paste). You can see word counts for individual scenes and chapters.

As you write the background will fade away so that pretty much all you see are your words. You get statistics for how many you’ve written. There are notes sections for research, character details and locations.

You’ll also find two types of index cards — a freeform one for general ideas, and a second tied to the scenes in your script where, in separate columns, you can introduce plot elements and key events. So you can see very quickly, for example, where Character A learns something about Character B without having to sort through the entire text narrative.

This is a very brief description of the index card feature which is quite extensive and takes a bit of work to understand. If you want more I’d read Dabble’s lengthy explanation which still doesn’t mean that much until you try the thing for yourself.

It works everywhere

Most of the main tools of other novel-writing software are there, though with some omissions which I’ll come to later. One other good point: it’s dead easy to use. The ideas behind it will be obvious to anyone who’s used other writing apps, and you never, ever have to insert a line of code or fiddle with anything but real words. Dabble’s big selling point, however, is that all of this is based on the web. You can download dedicated apps for the Mac and Windows, and turn the editing side of Dabble into apps on your iPad, iPhone and Android phone too. They are effectively mini-browsers that look much like the page in a web browser. They will, I’m told, work offline, and sync anything you write then until you next connect. Not that I’ve tried that.

But the real point is… it just works. However big or small your screen, whatever you’re using as far as I can see (I don’t know about smart TVs), so long as you have access to a web browser you have a formidable novel-writing app at your disposal. All your work is stored online, synced as you go. This suits my writing process down to the ground. I have a desktop where I write a lot of the time. But I’m forever having ideas when I’m somewhere else with only a laptop, a tablet or a phone to hand. With Dabble I can just pick it up, read something, change something, make notes, and it’ll all be there when next I get to the desk.

You can always check your sync state too.

Of an evening, for example, I sit downstairs where there’s a cheap Samsung Android tablet for everyday use. I can pick that up, read through the day’s writing and edit on the fly. Everything goes back to the web as if I was sitting at my desk. I could do that with Ulysses but only on the iPad (or iPhone if I had one), and with Scrivener too but only after a messy sync session and making sure I’d saved and closed down the same project elsewhere.

Dabble does adapt its interface to mobile devices but in essence it looks pretty much the same however you use it. Even on a phone screen the general idea — navigation bar to the left, info bar on the right, story in the middle — stays the same. You don’t need to worry about having to learn different approaches for different devices, or think twice about syncing.

Dabble on an iPhone

I’ve tried importing an existing project of 20k words and it worked without a hitch using copy and paste. The system seems fast (I am on fast broadband mind) and reliable. The spellcheck was a bit sluggish at times, more so on the Mac than Windows for some reason, but it’s no big deal to be honest. If you work on the Mac you can use the built-in dictionary and thesaurus tools. If you write with anything else you won’t get those unless you install a separate app. In any case, the big clean-up task of line editing will take place later when I’m on a final version in Word. So this doesn’t trouble me too much.

What’s missing

There were a few omissions for anyone coming from other apps. First, there’s no versioning — which is supposed to be appearing soon. I don’t use versioning much in Scrivener or Ulysses. But I do like to be able to do a big rewrite and know I can go back one step if I want. Nor is there an automatic backup of any kind. I’m not terribly worried about the cloud storage Dabble uses going bad on me — it’s Google’s own cloud app system. You can export Word versions — of an entire book or individual scenes — very easily. That is a manual process but one I think I’d get into the habit of using probably weekly and before any major rewrites.

Some of the finer touches I like in Scrivener and Ulysses are missing. You can’t select multiple scenes out of narrative order to check particular story threads for continuity. There’s no comment function in the text. You can’t colour scenes or cards to denote story threads, though the plot index card tools may go some way to make that unnecessary. There’s no direct import from other apps, just cut and paste (though it will recognise chapter and # marks as scene dividers when you do that — my 20k draft was instantly turned into scenes and chapters just by Dabble recognising the word ‘chapter’ and the hash marks between scenes).

There are no keyboard shortcuts to speak of. You have to click just to create a scene which is a bit of a pain. Spelling is included but if you want the grammar checking of ProWritingAid — which I don’t — this will involve you paying for the highest subscription level of $15 a month. And while everything else syncs beautifully, grammar checking doesn’t, nor does it allow you to tailor what kind of issue you’d like it to check. PWA is good at spotting typographical errors but nags constantly about the passive voice, for example, which is ridiculous in fiction. There’s no way to turn this off as you can in the full PWA app and, worse, if you dismiss a grammar whine on one device the nag about it will still be there when you look at it in something else — clearing it in one place doesn’t turn it off elsewhere. Not for me…

The cost

This is a subscription service, as most web-based apps will be. I know some people feel subscriptions are the creation of Satan. I don’t, provided they prove valuable, reliable and deliver on their promises to improve with age. Most of the novel writing web apps out there cost around the same, about $10 a month for the mid-level version.

If you take out a free trial with Dabble and sign up during the 14 days you can get a year’s worth of mid-range service — without co-authoring and grammar — for the dollar equivalent of just over £60 guaranteed to stay at that level for as long as you stay with the service. You can buy Scrivener outright without a subscription for under £50 (though if you want to sync across more than three machines you will need to stump up for a Dropbox subscription to do so). Ulysses is £50 a year and you can probably get by with the free iCloud storage to run that, or update to a modest storage package for a pittance from Apple.

To be honest for a professional author£60 a year for your main writing tool and all the storage you need isn’t a big deal. I don’t expect professional software to be dirt cheap or free. I earn my living with it and if the stuff works it pays back the price many times over.


I really enjoyed playing around with Dabble. It’s well thought-out, well-executed, and doesn’t make a big song-and-dance about the whole ‘unlocking your creativity’ and ‘we can teach you to write’ thing like some of its rivals. It feels as much aimed at the professional as the beginner. In the end an app’s an app. It won’t write your book for you or make it easier to finish that novel. What it should do is make the whole messy process a little less hard and Dabble does that as well as bringing a few new ideas to the table.

One I particularly liked was the ability to set up a hierarchy system for series books in which they all live under the same header — and can share the same notes about locations and characters — with separate manuscripts for each title. I wish I’d had that when I was writing a ten-book series and constantly having to hunt out character descriptions from books hiding inside Word files running to over 100k.

As so often in publishing the only way you can discover if something really works is to test it to the limits. I’ve forked out for a one-year subscription to see what my next project looks like inside it. If that doesn’t work than I’ll write off the cost as money going to a worthwhile small business venture and simply transfer the project to Ulysses or Scrivener. That’s easy enough.

But if you’re not serious about writing and just want to play around then any of these subscription apps may seem a bit of a luxury. A few offer writing lessons which may or may not be useful — I’m not in a position to judge. But never think that any piece of software will ‘unlock your creativity’. Or that an idea that refuses to take life will miraculously begin to work if only you transfer it do a different program. If you don’t have a book in you, an app won’t put it there. What good software can do is remove some of the pain and repetitive labour.

One thing I am certain of. This is a glimpse of the future. A decade ago most of us were using desktop web design apps such as DreamWeaver to create websites, uploading and updating them from a local PC or Mac. Now most of us are on web-based systems such as WordPress (like this site), Wix or SquareSpace. The same shift from desktop to web is surely going to happen in other areas too.

It’s a long way from the days, not so far away, when backup used to involve me driving round a few floppy disks to a relative for safe keeping. A long way, too, from the time we were forced to buy a particular computer system because that was the only one that ran the software we wanted. And we all worked at a desk. Which is ridiculous when it comes to writing since a big part of this job isn’t just turning out the words but reading them back again — something often best done away from a big screen and an office desk.

I’ll probably do a couple of progress reports on using Dabble along the way. So if you’re interested hit the subscribe button here or follow me on Twitter @david_hewson for future posts.