Ben Crowder

Blog: #storybook

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Storybook intro

Still another entry in the will-it-ever-end series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Storybook is my fiction writing app. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from, uh, books with stories in them.

Overview

First, the dashboard, which lists weekly writing stats and active stories at top and backburnered stories at bottom:

storybook-1.png

The writing view has a stats bar at top (showing how close I am to meeting my daily 1,000-word goal) and then the textbox for the actual writing:

storybook-2.png

The menu has some overall story stats and an outline (with somewhat vague and hopefully unspoilery scene titles), and some admin links:

storybook-3.png

Syntax

As you can see from the screenshots, it expects Markdown. I’ve put in a convention hack where h2 tags (##) delineate scenes. Also, scene titles that begin with “Chapter X” create chapter divisions. (Clarification: a story has a flat list of scenes. The chapter divisions are display-only.)

How I use Storybook

On my laptop, I have it open in Firefox as a pinned tab. On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA.

I mostly avoid using Storybook (cough) but somehow still manage to put in a thousand words a day, one word after another.

There’s a payload syntax so I can send writing from Gate or Quill to Storybook, but I never use it.

The future

Same old story: I’m planning to move it to FastAPI and start using plain text files for storage instead of a database.

At some point I want to refactor the outline UI and add search functionality.


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Writing and retooling

I’m currently working on a short story (working title is “A Glass Darkly”), outlining the whole thing before I write it. For a while I thought I might be a discovery writer, but I’ve learned that I do better if I have a solid plan. Figuring out the structure of the story beforehand — the overall arc, the individual scene arcs, the character arcs, etc. — seems to help me write better stories, and not to panic when I get to the middle and usually have no idea what should come next. Structure is my friend.

Anyway, I’m wrapping up the outline (figuring out the middle, as it happens), and should have a first draft banged out a week or so after that. This time, rather than releasing it on my site immediately after I finish it, I’m going to start submitting it to magazines, something I haven’t done before. Racking up a few rejection slips will be a good thing for me as a writer, I think. (Sidenote: I’m very much on the fence re: trying to get my fiction traditionally published vs. self-publishing it. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Tool-wise, I put together a Google spreadsheet for tracking daily word counts, but I realized that when I’m not drafting — when I’m outlining — it doesn’t make sense. Time spent (plus deadlines) is a better metric. So I’ve revised my spreadsheet to track minutes instead.

I’ve also been itching to have a better place to do the actual outlining and writing. This may just be my neverending toolmaking itch, but I think it’ll help me be more productive. I want to write an outline, then flesh it out in place into a list of scenes, then flesh that out into an actual draft. A simplified version of the snowflake method, basically. Forest, trees, branches, leaves.

While you could do this fairly easily in Word or any other writing app, some of the other bits I want (easily moving between levels of abstraction, drag and drop reordering of scenes, etc.) might not be as easy, so to work through the ideas and figure out what I really need, I’m working on a new web app called Storybook. I built an initial prototype a few months ago, but it isn’t very good, for a number of reasons (it isn’t mobile-friendly, it’s too cluttered, etc.). I’m in the middle of rethinking how it should work, and I think I’ve got a better handle now on how the UI should work.

A final word: back in my younger days, I would build tools and then stop using them after a short time. I’m not entirely sure what changed, but now the tools I build stick with me a lot longer, and I can easily see the productivity gains from using them. Toolmaking does take time away from whatever it is the tool is supposed to help me with (writing, in this case), but I’ve found it to be well worth the investment.


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