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The creative writing process is much more than just coming up with some fancy characters doing interesting things. You need to keep track of where these characters go, what they’ve done, and how they’re supposed to complete their journey.
The standard for this on Windows and Mac is Scrivener. (Here’s our Scrivener keyboard shortcuts cheat sheet for Mac users.) While Literature and Latte had been developing a native Linux version, 2015 is the date of the “latest” beta. We’ll take a look at five similar novel-writing applications for Linux, of which four are fully free and open source.
Main Features of Novel Writing Apps
At a basic level, all you need to write your novel (or any piece of fiction) an application that can capture text. This includes word processors (arguably the default app for authors), text editors (e.g. “distraction-free” environments), note-taking programs, and/or outliners. You can get a book done with any of these, alone or in combination.
While these applications help you record the words of the story, crafting the story itself needs to occur in your head. The novel writing apps we’ll look at below distinguish themselves from those more generic programs with features to automate this process, including:
- Segmentation, which entails writing parts like”scenes” that get ordered into chapters, which are in turn lined up into the book.
- Character/location/object managers that let you keep their descriptions handy, so you never need to remember what your protagonist’s favorite food is.
- Research/clip organizers that story all those random URLs or pics of exotic weapons handy.
- Mind mappers/”idea corkboards”/timelines to let you visualize your story, particularly across sub-plots or points of view.
- Automatic export/formatting that assists you in getting your work ready for submission.
In the below section we’ll take a look at examples of novel writing apps that run on Linux. We’ll highlight the features they support as well how they perform at “text capturing.”
First on our list of programs is bibisco. It’s available for download from its website, and installation on Linux is as easy as unpacking the .TAR.GZ file into a directory and running the “bibisco” executable.
On first run, a wizard will ask for your language and a location to save projects. But once you make these quick settings, you can dive right into the app and make your first project.
The layout of bibisco is pleasant, though noticeably not keyboard friendly. It’s a Java-based web app packaged up in desktop format, and so looks like a web site. For example, the main menu isn’t nested in the usual fashion, but a row of links at the top of the screen.
The main building blocks of a novel in bibisco are scenes. Even when you create chapters they’re comprised of scenes, i.e. you’ll need at least one scene per chapter. While you do your main writing in the scene editor (shown in the screenshot below), bibisco does provide a left-hand pane with your site structure, other chapters/scenes, characters, and locations for reference.
One unique function in bibisco is the status it attaches to items. For example, in a chapter the “reason” (why the chapter is there), as well as each scene, has a status of either “to-do,” “not yet complete,” or “completed.” It gives you an easy visual indication of how much work you still have to do for a particular project. The status “rolls up” as well. If you have a chapter where the summary and first scene are complete but the second scene is marked “to-do,” the chapter overall is “not yet complete.”
A pretty-looking application for users who need help tracking all the individual pieces of their novels to “done.”
Manuskript, written in Python, requires a few packages before you can run it. The instructions on its wiki lists some, but I found it also requires one more in Ubuntu 16.04-based distributions. Use the following at the command line to install everything you’ll need:
sudo apt-get install python3-pyqt5 libqt5svg5 python3-lxml python3-enchant zlib1g python3-pyqt5.qtwebkit
Once complete, Manuskript is a quick download-unpack-run to get started (although a PPA looks to be on the way for 17.10). Its layout is much more traditional, including some big icons/tabs on the left.
A “project dialog” also gives easy access to a few different sample project types (novel, short story, non-fiction paper, etc.).
The “Redaction” tab is where you’ll actually create your story by typing your text in the center pane. Based on the project type you selected, Manuskript may have set up default chapters (up to 20 of them) with “Goal” word counts for you. This may be overwhelming for writers who “build” their stories, as opposed to those who do lots of planning. (Who knows how many words will be in a chapter before writing it anyway?)
Each chapter added to the project is referred to as a “Text.” But you can also label a new Text item as a “Note” or “Research.” These appear in the same hierarchical level by default. The “Outline” view let’s you easily create “Folders” to contain, for example, the Notes, Scenes, and Research for Chapter 1 (shown in the below image).
Once your story’s structure is set,”Summary” gives you fields to do synopses of varying length (shown in the below image). Likewise, “Characters” and “World” track the people, places, and things in your story (both things and places are grouped into “World”).
Finally, the app allows you to export to a variety of formats (including Pandoc support). It lets you configure which files are included, how the transitions between them look, and even if you want to replace characters like curly quotes.
This will appeal to “planners” moreso than “pantsers,” as it allows them to lay out their novel in detail before even writing the first word. The export tools are excellent.
3. Plume Creator
Finally comes Plume Creator, which we already highlighted with some other great Linux writing tools. Plume is available from the Ubuntu 16.04 repositories, and you can install it easily from the Software Centre or with the following:
sudo apt-get install plume-creator
In contrast to the above apps, which use different tabs or views, Plume displays its tools as four panes around the main writing area. “Project” (number 1 in the below image) is the most important, as it shows your novel as a tree. You can select an item from the tree to open it in the main pane and enter text. Scenes can contain text, but so can chapters, even if they contain scenes (and acts if they contain chapters, and so forth).
Your other panes are “Mise en scène” (characters/places/items appearing in the scene, 2 in the above image), “Notes” (3), and “Tools” (4, which contains a clock and timer). You can add/remove items or characters based on their presence or absence in the text. “Notes” provides a plain text field for “Synopsis” and “Note.” And the Tools, well… they’re useful I guess.
You have access to all these while you’re writing in the center pane. If this view is a little busy for you, Plume offers a distraction-free mode that is frankly quite nice.
Plume’s export also offers a selection of formats, and allows you to select what items should be part of it. So if you’re using scenes to capture your actual prose and storing bullet points at the chapter level, you can exclude the chapters from the export.
A nice balance of feature-packed views for planning and a great distraction-free mode for drafting.
4. Writer’s Cafe
Writer’s Café is the most Scrivener-like, yet a bit of a strange beast. When you launch it, it displays what is essentially a desktop-within-a-desktop (there’s even a “Start” button). The tools, including a “pinboard,” “journal,” and “scrapbook” all have their own icons.
The “Storylines” tool is where you arrange your story on a very Scrivener-like corkboard. After creating cards on this board, you enter passages of text for each, which you can then re-arrange into different storylines.
This app really does provide a self-contained environment, as it’s name would suggest. But for those who just want to start their program and start writing, the set-up and overhead of Writer’s Café may be too much. It’s also neither free ($40 after the evaluation expires) nor open source.
oStorybook is another grid- and tab-heavy application along the lines of both Manuskript and Plume. The interface is arguably even busier than either, with lots of panes and buttons. Also, you need to open an entire other window to actually start working on your prose. And it’s the second tab at that!
The organizational features of oStorybook are powerful, but the interface has so many buttons and tables it could distract you from your writing.
How Do You Write Your Fiction?
The applications discussed here certainly offer some powerful features to help you organize the details of your novel. But more important than all this is the concept of “BIC, HOK”: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. These tools are meant to save time. Take care they don’t end up costing you time you could otherwise spend writing.
What do you think? Are you a “planner” who could make use of all the bells and whistles these applications offer? Or do you let your writing take you on the journey, and would these tools just slow you down? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: lipik/Shutterstock