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Electronic Cocktail Napkins:
Organizing Story Ideas with Liquid Story Binder


by Brian Mercer

To outline or not to outline? That is the writer's timeless question for which there is no correct answer. 

Very few writers sit in front of a blank piece of paper (or blank computer screen) with no idea what they're going to write.  Writing usually begins with inspiration, the spark of an idea that compels one to set thoughts down on paper.  Similarly, I don't know of any writer who outlines so meticulously that there are absolutely no surprises when the narrative is fleshed out and stylized.  Most of us fall in the middle of the two extremes, where the line between pure planning and pure spontaneity is blurred. 

It's probably safe to assume that most writers do some measure of planning before beginning the writing process, even if the ideas are only in the writer's head.  For some it's cocktail napkins and sticky notes, for others its complex character profiles and through-lines, historical notes, outlines, and chronological charts.  Every project is different.  Some stories require deep family backgrounds and carefully deliberated plotting, while others just need a broad brush idea to get the pen moving. 

The challenge is how to capture and organize story ideas so they can be easily retrieved when you need them.  I recently began using writing software that has transformed not only the way I write, but the enthusiasm to which I bring to the task.  The program is called Liquid Story Binder, a poetically titled medium for both documenting story ideas and crafting the narrative itself. 

The key to my success with Liquid Story Binder has been its flexibility.  It doesn't force me down a specific path for story creation, but allows me to work the way I want to work.  It does this by offering multiple sets of tools that I can use or not, all in an elegant, easy-to-organize package that motivates me to kick off the covers at 5:30 AM and put fingers to keyboard.

The tools available in Liquid Story Binder can fit into roughly four categories: atmosphere, story planning, story writing, and productivity tracking. 


Liquid Story Binder allows me to set the mood for my writing sessions.  There are predefined color schemes that let me choose something bright and sunny or something dark and shadowy or anything in between.  I can generate music play lists directly from the program, permitting me to establish just the right ambience for the scene I'm writing.  Perhaps the most inspiring mood-setting tool has been the ability to define a custom wallpaper background that lets me feel the setting I'm trying to create.  As simple as these things sound, the power to double-click an icon and instantly have color, scenery, and sound transport me into my story has been hugely inspiring. 

This screenshot shows Liquid Story Binder for my Civil War novel.  The background, a Civil War battlefield, immediately allows me to feel I'm part of the story.  (Click to enlarge.)


Story Planning

Liquid Story Binder has all the tools you'll need to plan your story:  Outlines allow you to plot out your story in the conventional top-to-bottom hierarchy.  Timelines let you organize characters and plot along a consistent timeline.  Builders give you a means to detail out scenes with titles, subtitles and synopses (perfect if you like to summarize each chapter and play around with sequencing).  Mindmaps allow you to diagram ideas or sketch out family trees in an org chart-like format.  Journals let you write a journal from the perspective of your characters (a great way to keep writing while you're busy with that historical research).  If you're writing a movie script or are just artistic, story boards let you combine multiple images to form a visual narrative.  And notes give you a means to capture random ideas on small, note card-like windows. 

Dossiers alone are worth the price of admission.  With a dossier you can flesh out characters, settings, organizations, etc.  Easily define your own prompts for main characters, minor characters, places, family, animals and the like, and save them for easy retrieval.  Or customize your own sections on the fly.  This was without question the one function that made me most excited about using the software.  I loved filling in my characters' details section by section:  Physical Description, Friends, Enemies, Family History, Internal Conflict, and so on, breathing life into them one step at a time.  There is nothing like seeing your cast lined up on the screen, portraits included, to motivate you to do something with them. 

Creating all this information would be useless if you couldn't easily retrieve it.  With Listings you can create a handsome index of all your content in a neat, collapsible, outline-like format.  You can even create short-cuts to access your external programs and documents. 


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Here is a dossier for General Grant.  Cast your characters before you start writing using Google Images and then paste their portraits directly into their dossiers.  You'd be amazed at how this adds texture to your characters.  (Click to enlarge.)


If you love your current word processor, then there's no need to look further; however, using Liquid Story Binder's built-in application for writing has some distinct advantages, like the Planner tool, which creates a tidy little catalog of chapters and backup files.  Dividing the work into separate chapter files makes the effort of writing an entire manuscript seem easier by breaking it down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. 

The word processor comes with a spell checker, although it doesn't automatically underline misspelled words.  There is also a built-in thesaurus, which returns synonyms in one long list rather than Microsoft Word's answer of breaking like-words into meaningful subsets.  This admittedly makes the function less useful when the lists get too long.  But Liquid Story Binder has a hot key to Word Web, a free, third-party dictionary that will instantly define the highlighted word. 

Along with this there are some other useful functions.  The Word Analyzer tool looks at word usage and highlights overused words.   The Typewriter function makes your screen resemble a blank piece of paper, simulating a typewriter in that it stops allowing you to edit your work in-progress or even use the Backspace key.  This is perfect if youíre the type who tends to revise so much while writing that it prevents you from advancing.  The Typewriter function forces you to press on, even if the writing isn't word perfect.  (I just wish it made the click-click-click sound of a real typewriter.) 

When you complete your work, it's easy to combine chapters into a single document and export them to your word processor of choice.  

Here is a typical layout showing a Listing, a Builder, a Timeline and an Outline.  Liquid Story binder makes it easy to save layouts using its Workspaces menu.  (Click to enlarge.)

Productivity Tracking

Liquid Story Binder keeps track of words written and time spent writing.  It provides a means for goal setting and writing timelines, even projecting the number of words you'll need to write per day to reach your goals.  You can set session goals for number of words to write, or specify the number of minutes you'll spend writing and use the built-in timer to discipline yourself to follow through.  Read your novel out loud using the recording feature and hear it played back in your own voice.  Or create checklists of tasks to get done for each step of your project.  This, together with extensive backup and auto-save features, supports your goals every step of the way. 

Try Before You Buy

Like many software programs of its kind, Liquid Story Binder is free to download and try free for thirty days (after that, if you want to buy it, the cost is only $45.95).  Don't be intimidated by what seems upon first glance to be complexity.  The question you'll immediately want to ask is, "Where do I start?"   Think of Liquid Story Binder as a golf bag with putters, wedges, irons, and drivers.  Just as you might play several rounds of golf, even go through an entire season, without using every last club in your golf bag, so too might you never use all the tools in Liquid Story Binder.   Because it's so flexible, there is no one place to start. 

I have a few suggestions for you, though, to make the most of your evaluation time.  When you begin using the software, first browse through the example files.  While this will give you some sense of what you can do with the program, the example files' high production values will likely make you think you won't be able to create anything that looks as good.  Donít worry too much about it.  Try playing with the different color schemes listed in the Display Menu until you find one that suits you and your story.  Then move on. 

Create a new file for a story you might have in mind.  Set the color scheme you discovered while playing with the example file and, if you'd like, use the Display menu to set appropriate background wallpaper and the Display Preferences to tweak the fonts to your taste (I'd recommend resetting the Title Font to 14 pt. and the Description and Caption Fonts to 11 pt.). 

Now you're ready to start using the tools.  Start by creating a new Listing using the Create menu.  This will be the index of your content.  Now use the Create menu to create a note.  Type something in the note and save it.  Now use the listing tool to add the note to your listing (use the Listing's Item menu and select "Add Files").   There, now you have a new note and a means to quickly access it via the listing. 

Proceed by creating a new type of file using the Create menu:  Create a Builder, play with it, add it to the Listing.  Create a Checklist, play with it, add it to the Listing.   Dossiers, Mindmaps, Outlines, etc.  Take each one out for a little test drive and add it to your Listing.  This will begin to show you the many things you can do with this very powerful software.


Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007).  He is a board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.  www.kaladrious.com










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