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.