The Tools to Create Your Next Great Novel

November 1st kicks of National Novel Writing Month—a chance for budding authors to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards, and bang out a 50,000 word (or more) novel in 30 days. Sound like fun? Well, it can be. And unless you are really fast with a pen, most of the budding authors use some sort of software to write their novel. After all, at a minimum of 1,600 words a day, that is a lot of ink and paper.

But even if this is not your first NaNo, you might be wondering, is there a better program out there for me. The answer is probably yes, but.... Over the past year I have been looking at some of the programs that are available for writing novels, and are Open Source. I hope one of them will help you write your novel.

To begin, the packages break down into two styles: general word processors and dedicated story processors. The distinction is significant and will either help or frustrate your efforts to create a novel.

Story Processors

The two programs I have worked with are Storybook and Writer's Cafe. Both have the advantage of being cross platform, so you can work on Linux or Windows. Since I do write on both a Linux and a Windows machine (depending on where I am and what machine is available to me) so the cross platform capability is critical to me.

I found from an installation perspective that Storybook was much more complicated to install, especially on Windows where a number of Java libraries were required. You must have at least version 6 (2.6) of Java installed on your system or Storybook will not run, but you also do not have to be root to run the program. If your Java libraries are up to speed, all you need to do is grab the tarball, and run the shell script

to start working.

Both Storybook and Writer's Cafe are designed for the plotting novelist. That is, the type of novelist that has done plot development and character drafts and even gone so far as to break their story down into a series of scenes. Storybook I found to be the most structured of the packages and if you are a structured writer you will find it to be a great tool, with places to keep all the little minutia of your novel. Overall, it has a steep learning curve but once you get used to the tool set and way it expects you to write, you will find it has similar features to many of the commercial novel writing software packages and allows you to maintain multiple plot threads without getting confused.

Writer's Cafe
Writer's Cafe comes in a tarball, or pre-packaged for your OS, in both 32 and 64-bit flavours. Since I am running 64-bit Fedora, I grabbed the RPM and installed it in the usual way.

Writer's Cafe seemed a little more intuitive to me from the beginning with a couple of helpful tips on start up to get going. It also has the ability to track character sketches, plot lines and other things to help you write, but it also has a number of more free-form writing areas for more haphazard writing.

Writer's Cafe also had a neat little autogenerator for names when you are just stuck and do not know what to call that swarthy gentleman at the bar. (Seems his name is Hassan Beers).

Writer's Cafe has a number of useful novel-writing features but is again a steep curve if you are not used to using these sorts of tools, or the structured novel is not your writing style.

In short, both are useful tools, good for writing structured novels and for those used to using structured tool suits. But if this is your first shot at NaNo, or, like me, you apply structure as you go along, then you really want something more simplistic.

Word Processors

If you are a user of KDE, or just like a good text editor, I encourage you to get Kate. There are no fancy fonts, no plotting tools and no peg boards, but it does allow you to type without distraction. Kate also has a nice auto complete feature similar to that in Open Office. So if you find yourself typing existentialism over and over, for example, it will offer to insert the word for you after only two or three times typing it. This is useful for those of us that have problems spelling existentialism, the computer does it for us. The only really negative thing about Kate for this type of exercise is it is very difficult to keep track of how many words you have typed. But Kate is configurable and I am sure there is some way to add a word count function.

Open/Libre Office
Clearly, Open/Libre Office would be the hands down winner for simply banging out a manuscript. I found that when I used it last year, its cross-platform performance was more than acceptable and it did count words for me, once I figured out how to tell it to do that. The problem with Open/Libre Office is that it sometimes makes you stop and think about typography. And when you are trying hit a goal of so many words per session, dithering with fonts and layout can soon become a major distraction. The other problem that I had with it was the way it counts words. For Open/Libre Office, every space is considered a word. Something I discovered as we were nearing the end of the month last year and my word counter say I had typed 55,000 words, but the official counter said I was at a little more than 47,000. Nothing like the cold dose of reality that you are 3,000 words behind where you thought you were. It was not until much later that I discovered this little foible.

LyX is a different type of word processor. In fact it calls itself a document processor. Specifically, it is a What You See Is What You Mean processor, rather than the traditional What You See Is What You Get style that most are familiar with.

Like Kate, LyX does not have a lot of interface to clutter up the work space. But it is also a different way of thinking if you are used to a WYSIWYG-style editor like Open/Libre Office. LyX is a front-end pre-processor to LaTeX, and installing it will require a number of LaTex and TeX packages to make it work. Further, while there is not much of an interface to get in the way of you banging out your novel, you might find yourself frustrated at the end of the month when you try to print out your novel, as there are a number of templates and styles that you can wrap your text in, some quite robust and complicated.

On the whole, I find LyX to be a very sophisticated package that is not for the first time novelist, unless you also happen to be an expert in typography, LaTeX, and pre and post processing that go with the publishing industry. There are too many things that will distract you, especially if you are not used to the WYSISWYM meme.

In the end, there are a number of good packages out there to help you write you novel. The one you use is the one that will work best for you based on how you write. Good luck over the next 30 days. I have not started writing my novel yet, but come November 30, I hope to have my 50,000 words done, and then some. See you at the end!


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Using the tool

Marketing Expert's picture

I have recommended several of my friends who are working vagabonds overseas to use the tool. They're thinking about publishing about their lifestyle and this would make their life a lot easier.

Just want to say hello

baju muslim's picture

Hi just found this blog and just bookmarked and I'll come often at future :D

Great Information

boylec's picture

This is a great information and for those novelist who wants to be popular in this field I think this a great opportunity. And the softwares are really good because my sister is using that software too. I will tell this to my sister? Thanks for the useful information.

Good Site

xado7525's picture

congratulations on the usefulness of your site, thanks.

I think Lyx is better! I have

Andrew Mitchell's picture

I think Lyx is better! I have try it and love it so much!

I love to write novel. But is

Andrew Mitchell's picture

I love to write novel. But is it more easier when you're using LateX?

Emacs org-mode

Ian Barton's picture

I use Emacs org-mode. It does lots of things, but is essentially a great outlining tool. Its very simple to learn and the bells and whistles don't get in the way if you don't need to use them.


You need a captcha

Steve Litt's picture

You need a better captcha to prevent the spammers from advertising their silly fashions on a technology blog. What a PITA it is slogging through these silly spams.

I know what a giant PITA it

Webmistress's picture

I know what a giant PITA it is, but we actually do have captcha. It is more complicated than that in that we use Mollom, which analyzes the text and only shows a captcha if it thinks the submission might be spam. The problem is that 1. we can get as many as 12k spam posts per day, and even with tremendously high accuracy, quite a few can slip through, and 2. spammers get better every day, and we all find it difficult to keep up. Captcha alone is no match for the kind of spam we get. Read this article from the NY Times about how useless captcha is: Additionally, use of url shorteners by spammers makes it more difficult for content analysis to be effective. is an old domain. We've been around a long time, so we have a disproportionate spam problem. However, I can assure you that we are doing our best to improve the situation.

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit

You forgot to mention Writer's Cafe is not free

jraz's picture

On their website is the purchase prices. The free download is a demo only. One good point is their faq states one license is good for all platforms and office and home.

My apologies to anyone who has clicked the url in the original comment. I have removed it from my profile. I had previously ran a blog under the url but do not any longer.


vim outliner; vim+latex the best for me

mayuresh's picture

vim outliner is great to begin organizing your thoughts.

It's also great as a PIM - believe me. You can organize whatever information you like from your vacation plans to finances under one umbrella as you can organize contents hierarchically.

latex with any favourite text editor of yours (mine is vim) is a great system whether you are writing novel, document, presentation or drafting a letter.

One may find lyx easy to get used to latex, though the real power of latex can be realized if one is ready to overcome the initial inertia of learning it.

Overall separation of contents from presentation is much comfortable and productive to work with than a WYSWYG software. For example, I am always nervous when using WYSWYG software to create presentation slides, as I am never sure whether I have accidentally misplaced or moved the text box etc. due to mouse movements ... and if so how do I get it back. Also, I never quite managed to get the bullets/numbering exactly the way I wanted in most non-trivial situations with any WYSWYG software.

You left out LaTeX :)

Johann Spies's picture

I use LaTeX with Emacs as editor for nearly all the documents that I create - except spreadsheets.

LyX uses it as backend.


carlfink's picture

55,000 minus 47,000 is 8,000, not 3,000.

Math ... 50.000 - 47.000 = 3.000

MeetBloggers's picture

Hey Math! He refers to the 50.000 words per month goal, you can read it in his first paragraph: "and bang out a 50,000 word (or more) novel in 30 days.".


More math

carlfink's picture

Name's Carl.

He wrote

... my word counter say I had typed 55,000 words, but the official counter said I was at a little more than 47,000. Nothing like the cold dose of reality that you are 3,000 words behind where you thought you were.

That's a difference of 8,000 words.

Hey, I'm being nice. I'm, but I didn't correct his opening sentence ("kicks of").


emacs also includes an

Anonymous's picture

emacs also includes an outliner.

V. Interesting

NickElliott's picture

Good article, thanks.

I find programs like Open/Libre Office really difficult to work with especially when it comes to formatting (or typography). Frankly the WYSIWYG offering is not all it's cracked up to be and I usually spend more time messing around with the look of my documents than I do writing them. And this is after literally years of use.

However I recently started using LyX which has made life a lot easier. I am not an expert in typography - far from it. In fact I find LyX offers less distractions than its WYSIWYG counterparts and makes writing and printing (professional looking documents) a lot easier and quicker.

You forgot about VimOutliner

Steve Litt's picture

What about Vimoutliner? Fastest way to get info from your brain into an organized file. Easy to convert that outline into LyX.

Didn't know about it.

David Lane's picture

And now I do.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


Dan J.'s picture

Might want to check out FocusWriter as well:

"FocusWriter is a fullscreen, distraction-free word processor designed to immerse you as much as possible in your work."

Cross-platform. Gives you instant word count by moving the mouse to the bottom of the screen, lets you track daily goals, etc. Not affiliated with the program, just a happy user.


David Lane's picture

There are literally hundreds of programs out there. I was first inspired to look around by a blurb in LJ last year when Shawn Powers talked about Storybook, and I had just stumbled over Writer's Cafe.

Since then, friendly NaNites have introduced me to other programs. Maybe next year I will do another handful of them. But certainly, this review is not all inclusive.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

wc and wordcounts

crb3's picture

As of a few years ago, at least, the wordcount from wc doesn't always agree with the word-counters you find in CMS like eFiction. I found this out when I was trying to squeeze down some prose to fit the limitations of an online writing challenge.

The discrepancy is because, where wc counts a hyphenated word-pair as one word, the online counters count them as two. I ended up hacking wc to add the option to convert dashes to spaces in the receiving buffer, making a hyphens-to-spaces-filter version for myself.

use the kate terminal and wc

Anonymous's picture

Word count in Kate is easy-- open the embedded terminal, which opens to your current working directory. Then run wc -w [filename], like this:

$ wc -w filename.txt
2081 filename.txt

To re-run the command just press the up arrow to recall it, just like any Bash command. Piece of cake. Remember to save your file; wc doesn't count unsaved words.

Good article, lyx and kate are both very excellent.


David Lane's picture

See, I knew there was a way to do it.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack