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Writer’s Tools: StoryMill Review

December 20, 2011 by Kiersi

StoryMillSpecs: Mac OS 10.6 or higher, 16MB of free disk space

Mac Only

I’ve only just downloaded the demo of StoryMill by Mariner Software, but to its credit, I’ve already developed a decent handle on the program. Overall, it gets the job done; there are some hugely irritating bugs, but the flexibility and tools StoryMill provides over a traditional word processor makes a huge difference. I will be looking into other novel-writing products soon (at least those that offer free trials, like StoryMill) and I’ll let you know when I have a new opinion on the matter.

Let me back up and explain why I went out looking for a writing program in the beginning. I work on an 11″ Macbook Air, a real beauty of a machine. It’s easy to take with me wherever I go (key for a writer who tends to work out of coffee shops and garages) and the battery can last the whole day if all I’m doing is word processing. It’s a great little tool, but the Mac platform isn’t always as kind to writers as it is to artists and photographers.

For years I’ve used Word for Mac 2008 to write everything from my 120,000-word book, Demonology (the sequel to Fire and Brimstone, the second book in the Devil’s Throne series) to short stories, from book outlines to brainstorms. Yesterday I opened yet another new document (Document14–I’d created fourteen new documents in the last 24 hours) to hammer out some ideas for a potential book project, and I spent nearly five minutes correcting the stylesheet and other garbage before I could get to work. Then, when I started pounding out my ideas, there was just no logical way to organize them: I had characters, introductory prose, style comments, plot comments, and nowhere to put them.

So I took a deep breath and looked back through my email inbox for a message I’d gotten from Writer’s Digest a couple months back. They had an exclusive discount for a number of different novelist’s-best-friend-type pieces of software, and StoryMill had stuck in my mind as the most fully-featured of the lot.

Now, StoryMill is Mac-exclusive, so remember that when shopping around for yourself. To me, this was a big perk: this was a program designed for my platform, not a port from Windows (which often suck major-time). Right off the bat I discovered some great features.

First is this side-bar:

Screenshot of StoryMill SidebarAt the top is “Novel.” Below that is “Chapter 1,” and an area to insert and rearrange scenes as necessary. You can write from any of these levels.

Next is “Characters,” where you can add text, links, images, and more. You can tag your characters in scenes that you write.

“Locations” hasn’t proven extremely useful to me yet for this initial project, but I imagine using this feature when I return to work on The Devil’s Throne, the third book in my trilogy. Part of the story takes place in Heidelberg, Germany, and I’m developing a bit of a drool when thinking about inserting all those city maps, photographs, and Wikipedia links into my Location files.

I’ve already used the “Research” tab, and while it’s nothing fabulous or amazing, it does provide a place to dump information relevant to your project.

One thing I really appreciate about the “Scenes” function is the ability to create scenes that have not yet occurred. I often write pivotal moments in my stories early on, to give direction to the rest of the development process. (It’s also partially the selfish doings of the reader in me, wanting to know the juicy parts first–like eating dessert before dinner.) The ability to create scenes and leave them out of the actual novel (until you’re ready for them) is huge for me. You can see I’ve already added a scene titled “Morty turns on Sasha” and simply left it out of the novel organization at the top of the sidebar.

Now for the downsides: Mariner Software advertises their “Timeline” ability, where you can organize scenes on a timeline. This is a brilliant idea, but the execution is downright poor.

StoryMill Timeline

My first complaint is that time is organized in real time. January 2010, January 2011, etc. What about those of us writing in a fantasy universe? How do we track time then?

The placement of scenes is all done via dialog box–there is no drag-and-drop feature. I’m a visual organizer, and while the idea of organizing your scenes on a visual timeline is a good one, there’s no visual user interface. Though I do like the “Storylines” menu for keeping track of multiple story arcs or sub-plots.

The novelists out there will appreciate that StoryMill also provides motivational tools, such as the Progress Meter. StoryMill Motivational Tools

The meter is divided into two sections: “This session,” and “Project goal.” You can set short-term and long-term goals for yourself, and you have a sweet little blue bar at the top of your interface at all times tracking your progress and encouraging you along. I did this subconsciously during my work on the Devil’s Throne series, but a visual representation is about a million times better.

I mentioned earlier that there were some major bugs with StoryMill. Here they are:

1. Undo feature doesn’t seem to actually work. Not much to say about that other than, wow–totally obnoxious.

2. The formatting functionality made me want to stab myself in the eyeball with a butter knife. StoryMill could learn a thing or two from Word here. I have not yet discovered how to create my own styles, and the default styles are NOT novel-friendly (e.g. no first line indentation). All I want is large, clear text with indented first lines to make writing and reading easier. That’s it. Is that really too much to ask from novelist software?

Overall, StoryMill is a great tool. Now that I’ve finagled a decent formatting style (though not been able to save it to the style drop-down), I’m rather enjoying the process of developing my new book. StoryMill is the kind of program where you can use as few or as many of the features as you like.

I’ll be on the lookout for more Word-alternatives. If you have a recommendation, please let me know in the comments and I’ll test and review it.



  1. Amy Yamasaki says:

    Just to help out us poor and misguided Windows users, I’m going to try out 2 free windows software and let you know what I think. So, far only have done one with yWriter5. Seems to be very like the one you found, but a little more old “ES” style. Only those who worked where I’m working will get that reference.

  2. Jim Snell says:

    OK, this is the one I’ve been thinking about a bit.

    I like that you can try it for 30 days free. Oh, the program itself – I think – is called Scrivener.

    Mostly considering it because I’m kinda thinking about the next 4 books and possible stories and characters, etc., for them – and it would be nice if I had some kind of way/place to organize it.

    Although, the thing is…. I’m perfectly comfortable writing the novel on my MacAir (got the 13″ one). Love the Apple Pages software for writing. Easy to track how much I do each day, easy to set up the format I want to write it in (font, size, double-space, etc). Plus, I like that it gives me a running word count at the bottom of the page – and when I highlight a section it shows me the word count for the section, automatically without me having to go anywhere else to look for it or figure it out.

    But I am curious about Scrivener.

    • Kiersi says:

      My boyfriend just recommended Scrivener as well. I’m about 20k words into my new book, so I think I’ll try importing it into Scrivener and see how it goes. Good to know it’s on your radar as well;.

  3. sayles50th says:

    I know this is from a while back, and you’ve moved on to other software since, but any chance you know how to move chapters around in StoryMill? I am about halfway through a 70,000 word novel and started trying to simplify the timeline (yeah, I’m with you–the one in the software doesn’t work for me) by putting dates in the notes section underneath each chapter as I write.

    So glad I did this, because I realized that I had one chapter that was completely wrong in the timeline!! I have a bad habit of skipping around–OK…all writers have that habit!–so I had stuck this one in where I thought it would probably go, and I was completely wrong.

    I know how to move Scenes around–should I just stick everything in a scene and delete the Chapter altogether?

  4. Stephane says:

    I like the information you have provided as the software seems to work similarely to my brain. I especially like the timeline and scenes flexibility. Now my question is:

    Does the software provide a product in (MS Word format – as you already know, Mac has the software available.)?

    This question is in prediction of the potential publishing of a book – is this software something publishing companies can use or will the final product be usable as a widly distributed format.

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