Plan, Plot--and Write--Novels With Liquid Story XE
It is said we all have a great novel inside us. (My waistline indicates something from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series). Liquid Story Binder XE ($46, 30-day free trial) is a program designed to help you get your story written, offering a wide array of tools, screens, and features to organize and focus your work.
Many programs in this genre, such as Write It Now and Writer's Blocks, have interfaces stuck in the age of Doom and Pets.com; Liquid Story Binder XE does not. It has a slick, graphically intensive interface that seems almost Mac-like. Nonetheless, it for the most part follows Windows operating conventions, though some dialogs and key-bindings are altered. There's nothing wrong with a program looking pretty (hello, Scrivener for Windows!), as long as it also works, and Liquid Story Binder succeeds at both.
Liquid Story Binder XE starts with the binder, a collection of various files that go into making up your novel. These include planners (a way of organizing files into sequences, such as the chapters in your book), dossiers (which contain information on characters or other things), timelines (which help you make sure Bob doesn't kill Mary before Mary kills Joe), and several others, of varying utility depending on your tastes and needs. And this is the point at which Liquid Story Binder runs into one potential problem: There's a lot of it, and it's not always clear what parts to use and when.
The intent of this is clear and explicit: Liquid Story Binder doesn't want to hammer you into its idea of "how to write a book." You can organize and structure your information in a variety of ways, and the multiplicity of tools, such as storyboards, outlines, sequences, and timelines, are different means of putting your ideas in order. Each user is likely to have different opinions on the utility of each tool (for example, I don't see myself using the storyboard tool a lot), but almost all writers will find something valuable in this program. For those who just want to sit down and write, Liquid Story Binder XE offers a "typewriter" mode where you can do nothing but type on a blank screen; the text is inserted into the currently open text document. Most of the time, though, you will do your actual writing in the functional, if basic, word processor, which saves individual chapters as RTF files so they can be easily edited by other tools if needed.
The tools can be used in creative ways. Dossiers can be about characters, places, things, or events, and you can save lists of fields (such as "Character Name" or "Relationship to Father") to reuse, giving you customizability. The timeline does not pin you to a specific calendar (though there is one built in, if you want to use it), but allows you to create sequences of numbers with prefixes and suffixes, so you can set one up divided into hours, for example. You can have multiple timelines per binder, and you choose which characters to add for each. There's a lot of freedom and flexibility here, and there's a temptation to try to figure out the "right" way to use the tools Liquid Story Binder provides, but the truth is that other than a few basic requirements for building a manuscript, there really is no "expected" or "proper" way.
Perhaps oddly for a tool aimed at writing, Liquid Story Binder includes considerable support for images--you can add an image to a dossier, or build up entire storyboards or sequences graphically. There are no art tools in Liquid Story Binder; you must import images from other sources. It even has a built-in MP3 player, letting you queue up your most inspiring music. If it ever adds a feature to feed the cats so they stop trying to sleep on my keyboard, it may be the perfect writing tool.
Reading the Help file in Liquid Story Binder is essential. The interface is not especially confusing, but there are a lot of menus, options, and similar-seeming windows, and you need to know what a tool is for before trying to use it. Just clicking "New Item" at random will produce frustration.
Comparing Liquid Story Binder to another favorite, WriteItNow, I found the latter to be more focused, and its "fill in the blanks" approach to many aspects of writing helped me develop details. Liquid Story Binder offers a more free-form approach and asks you to do a little more work in setting up your basic structure, but this can result in a more personalized work and writing environment. Fiction writers who are struggling to organize characters, events, and themes in their work would do well to check both out.