Wanna-be Software for Wanna-be Novelists

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 06, 2017 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A whole industry exists to encourage would-be writers. Magazines, websites, seminars, and reading services all support an entire sub-culture that for many becomes more of a social club than a means for members to realize their literary ambitions. Written in Java, bibisco is a free software contribution to this sub-culture: a database for planning everything in a novel from the characters to the setting and the plot. As a way to organize your ideas, it seems sensible enough, but whether it is actually useful probably depends on your work habits. Personally, as a very occasional fiction writer, I remain skeptical.

The most useful feature of bibisco is its organization. It consists of a series of tabs, with a series of fields and questions that requires no documentation to begin using. Instead, you simply start from the left and work through the tabs systematically.

So far, so good, but I would be more inclined to use bibisco seriously if it had any endorsements. So far as I can see, all the advice that bibisco gives to would-be writers comes only from its creator, Andrea Feccomandi or perhaps one of its translators. However, a web search suggests that Feccomandi has no published fiction to his credit. Knowing that a few professional publications were created with the software would help convince me that its method was worth trying.

Such endorsements seem particularly necessary because of some of the tips bibisco offers to display as you start a new project. For example, one tip tells users that, "In order to create believable characters, you must know everything about them: physical aspect, behavior, psychology, ideas, passion, life before the beginning of the novel." However, I have heard many published writers who claim to discover many aspects of a character as they write. Some have even described how a character suddenly occurred to them in the middle of writing, and I recall, for instance, that Tolkien only settled on Aragorn's name long after he first entered the narrative.

If taken too seriously, this tip, could urge would-be writers to an impossible standard of organization, or even encourage then to disregard the happy accidents of inspiration during writing. It seems more the advice of an idealism than of experience.

Other tips seem too general to be of use. They remind of the story of how Samuel R. Delany once lectured about your characters should live from the first page, which was interrupted by Avram Davidson intoning from the back row, "Marley was dead to begin with" -- they cry out for interruption.

Another point that troubles me is that, for all the attention bibisco pays to creating characters, how little is paid to location or structure. The Locations tab lists no more than names, while the Architecture tab fails to mention such useful items as the difference between plot and story, or how narrative strands (which I understand as sub-plots) inter-connect with each other, let alone theories of narrative such as following the structure of a Shakespearean play. In biblios, character is everything -- an idea that few writers with experience would promote.

A Single Way to Prepare
I suppose that bibisco deserves credit for being systematic. It even includes an Analysis tab, where you can check what characters, narrative strands, and points of view are included in which strands. Such information could be invaluable for preventing inconsistencies, such as the mysteriously disappearing wall protecting the Greek ships in the Iliad.

Yet producing the information to make such an analysis useful feels as spontaneous as writing a final exam. For example, on the architecture tab, you are ordered to "Describe the entire novel in one sentence," or asked for a "narration of events sorted by their logical and chronological sequence." Similarly, on the Characters tab, you are bombarded with questions about characters' physical appearance, behaviors, psychology, ideas and passions, sociology, backstory, conflict, and evolution through the story. Moreover, several of these categories have additional questions -- Psychology, for example, as over sixty-two.

I am a firm believer that writers should know more about their characters than what is mentioned in their narratives, but trying to fill out the profile for even one character was one of the most deadening, soul-destroying efforts I have ever attempted. Just as talking about a novel can destroy a writer's ability to actually write it, filling out a list of questions for every aspect of a project would leave me loathing the entire idea and wanting to have nothing to do with the it ever again -- all the more so because many of the questions are certain to be irrelevant.

Bibisco would probably be much much less confining if more of its fields were like the ones for Location or Secondary Characters and simply provided a blank field for notes. As things are, it seems restrictive and not nearly versatile enough to cover all the different ways of organizing a piece of writing.

(I make this criticism based on seven years of teaching first year composition at a university, where I soon observed that no one approach to writing an essay fit every student. If that is true for an essay, how more true it must be fiction, which tends to be much more complicated than non-fiction).

The Promise of a Magical Bullet
Bibisco promises a way for would-be writers to organize their notes. Yet, although it might work for some writers, I suspect that for at least as many it would become a subsitute for actually writer, or even destroy the urge to write at all.

Stephen King explained the fallacy when he mentioned that he rarely writes a story idea down. Once a story idea is written down, it becomes fixed and fails to evolve. By contrast, an idea or a character or a plot that is left in a writer's head continues to develop and becomes richer until ready for use.

As much as any writer would appreciate a reliable way to develop a story, in the end I doubt that one is possible. As unreliable as inspiration must be, story-telling seems to depend on it far more than on organization. That is why, although bibisco promises a shortcut to creativity through organization, I suspect it  often cannot deliver on that promise.  Rather than spend their time using bibisco, most writers would be better off simply settling down to write.

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