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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Review: Liquid Story Binder

Disclosure: I received a copy of Liquid Story Binder free from Giveaway of the Day about a year ago (maybe longer) and this is the version of the program I took out for a test drive. Last night, I went to the website and bought a license for this software because I wanted to be able to upgrade to the current version.

I've had a story in my head since the early 1990s. (Actually, it's a trilogy idea, but one story is more vibrant for me than the others.) In the last five or six years, I've played with it off and on, trying to put together a proposal for my agent. It's mostly been lingering in the recesses of my brain the past few years, but a couple of weeks ago, the characters started talking again. Loudly. And with their resurgence came a plotting epiphany. This flash struck me as cool beyond belief...and it scared the hell out of me because it will be very complicated to write. Apparently, I'm a masochist because I decided to give it a try anyway.

I immediately made a list of things I'd need to do in the books and terrified myself even more. I also had a realization: If I really planned to tackle this idea, I was going to need some kind of writer's organizational software to help me because there was no way my current method was going to work. Last Friday, I went in search of a program that could do what I needed.

Every program I tried was either free, had a free demo, or something I already had on my laptop, including one I had bought earlier based on other writers' recommendations. Some of them I tried for a matter of minutes before ruling them out, but I had very specific requirements.

My must-haves included: The ability to make notes and find them easily. The ability to create a timeline. The ability to use images within the program.

Most of the software I tried lost out when it came to images. I still gave them a whirl because if I absolutely had to, I could live without immediate access to my pictures, but none of them impressed me with their other attributes. After hours of downloading and testing, there was one clear winner for me. Liquid Story Binder. (I'll call it LSB from here on out.)

I've had LSB on my laptop for at least a year, easily. I'd opened it a few times, clicked a few things, and closed it again because it was intimidating. I'm very good with computers and software, at least for someone who isn't in the IT field. I subscribe to the motto: If all else fails read the instructions and I almost never do because I'm able to figure software out by playing around with it. That wasn't the case with LSB. This program has a very steep learning curve, and after working with it for hours over several days (including much of the day on Saturday), I still only know a fraction of what it's capable of doing. A series of video tutorials would really help, but a search of You Tube and a Google video search turned up nothing.

What does LSB offer? Among other things it lets the user create timelines, story boards, and I can upload images and create galleries from those images. This totally rocks for things like my heroine's home because I can open the gallery and all the pictures are lined up in rows. Need a closer look? Click on the image and it comes forward full size. It allows the user to upload a song or a playlist, a cool extra since all of my books get theme songs and I know a lot of authors create playlists to listen to as they write.

It's a word processing program (although I haven't tested this feature yet and don't know if I want to stop using my copy of WordPerfect), it allows notes and brainstorming. It has character dossiers with basic information, but it also gives the writer the ability to add data fields to the dossier. (If I wanted, I could add every question from my character sketch.) My favorite part of this feature, though, is that I can add an image and have my character's picture right along side their description.

There's more it can do, too, although I haven't explored these features yet. Right now, I'm trying to learn the ones I really need. Probably the most awesome thing about LSB, though, is the flexibility. I can't imagine any writer who can't make LSB work with the way they write--if they can get past the learning curve. (Did I mention it's steep?) I found a tutorial online that explains how to use the program if you're 1) a linear plotter, 2) a nonlinear plotter, 3) a linear pantser, 4) a nonlinear pantser. That's pretty much everyone, right? :-)

Anyway, after working with version 2.9 (the version I got free from Giveaway of the Day), I decided I wanted the latest build (they're up to 4.something) and I wanted to be able to move it to a new laptop since I'm only months away from replacing my current one. The Giveaway version wouldn't let me do either thing, so I bought my own license last night. (Liquid Story Binder is currently 50% off.)

Pros: Very customizable to any writer's style
Great features and lots of them
Can use only the features you want and ignore the rest

Cons: Steep learning curve
Not intuitive
Daunting at the start

I've tried a lot of writing software over the last five years or so because my organizational system isn't the best. I have notes in at least 4 places on my computer and another 2 or 3 places for my hardcopy notes. I frequently can't find what I need despite my best efforts and get frustrated. I want one place where I can put everything and LSB is going to let me do that.

LSB is not perfect and I can imagine a lot of writers giving up before learning how to use it. I printed out the PDF instruction book and had the tutorial open in Firefox and I still messed up twice as I tried to setup my first book. I deleted and started over both times. I think this program is worth the effort it takes, and once I'm familiar with it, I think I might be in my own personal organizational nirvana. :-) I'm already in semi-nirvana.

There's a 30 day free trial period and the program is on sale right now for NaNoWriMo. The LSB website. You can find the official LSB tutorials here, and here are some unofficial tutorials written by other authors here, here, here, and here.

Bottom line: Two thumbs up for Liquid Story Binder. Highly recommended.