Friday, June 29, 2012

Storybook 4 A Sad Story in Software Support

It's a sad day when you find a piece of software that looks like it will make organizing your writing easier and more efficient...and learn that the support behind that software is not only unhelpful, but downright rude.

Storybook 4 seemed like a dream come true. It would help me organize my characters, my scenes, and the other bits of information in my story (objects, relationships between characters, the dates on which something happened and more) so that I could focus on the work of writing and plotting rather than trying to juggle the enormous pile of details. "Now, did that clerk in...(what chapter was that?) have green eyes or brown?" Besides that, it would make moving my scenes around as easy as drag and drop.

And once I bought the full program--a potential bargain at $35--I could import my notes or my writing straight to OpenOffice or Word.

So naturally, I was excited.

I played around with the program for a few hours, read the documentation twice, and realized I had a problem. The documentation was based on an older version and I could see that even for an older version (based on what I'd read were the changes in the new one) there were huge gaps in what they explained and what they needed to explain.

Then I noticed a button on their site: "Community on Facebook". Yipee! I could find other users and together we'd figure out how this program worked and how to use it best.

Or so I thought.

Going into their FB forum the first thing I noticed is that there were only a couple of posts. The next thing I noticed is that the forum was not searchable. So both now and in the future, I wouldn't be able to look up a particular issue and find a quick answer without hoping that the posts would be relevant to their subject. (How often have you been in a forum and found a post labeled simply, "Help" without a clue as to what the poster wanted help with or whether it would be relevant to the question you yourself had.?)

So I posted a query saying that I was very excited about the project, asked if there would be new documentation anytime soon and if they planned a better forum. Also, would they be updating their one and only example file, which had been written in German?

I should have seen it coming when the rep posted back a very terse and irritated note saying that they "couldn't work miracles" and that this WAS the forum.

Please note that suggesting a better, more searchable forum wasn't my idea alone. Another person asked if there was a Wiki. Silly me, I actually applauded the idea and asked if us users could help. Now what company doesn't want a dedicated and knowledgeable and UNPAID staff of users helping their customers? It cuts down on user frustration, gives the company time off from putting their own resources to answering those questions and builds the kind of community that can be invaluable to a company. "Not only do we have a great product, but we've got all these folks who like it enough to dedicate their time and energy to helping each other use it."

Well I guess these folks don't think that way.

Having received their rep's snobbish and obviously irritated reply, I wrote saying that I was so happy to find out that their project was actively being worked on.

So many times you find a program on the web and later realize that the last time it was updated or that anybody from the company who made it even READ their own website was back in 2004 or so. And it's not like anybody gives you a warning about that, unless you happen to notice file dates and such. Companies usually don't tell you when their latest updates are happening. And like most, this one didn't. (Okay they noted the date of the new release on the FB page, but remember, I didn't originally find them on FB and was going by their main website.

So this wasn't another internet dustbunny. More good news!

A day or two later, I went to their FB site and found that they actually had new documentation! Already! Wow that was fast and thrilling.

Well except the fact that the documentation itself was about as helpful as the original one. In other words, not. There were huge, even gargantuan, omissions that left me scratching my head and wondering how on earth I could use this program.

Chatty Cathy that I am, and figuring that this was, after all, the purpose of a forum, I pointed out one or two challenges I was having. I made (what was probably a vast mistake) of also updating one of those problems (once only) with new information I'd found in my experimentation, and the report that I still couldn't figure it out. Could someone please make a suggestion of what I was doing wrong?

I also joined in on a discussion of some other features I'd love to see implemented (especially a custom calendar) . Why? Because I loved the project and was excited about how it could be used. In the words of Steve Martin, "excuuuusssse ME!"

Now I want to be clear that I never once was disrespectful of either the program or the company. I never once represented myself in any manner as a representative of their company (and in fact cleared it up when someone made that mistake). I was positive to the max. I even pointed out to one person that "if you get the paid version" (the regular version is free) of this program, you'll get all these nifty extras. And yes, according to this it'll do exactly what you're wanting."

So imagine how I feel when I go to their forum this morning and see the message, "You Have Been Banned From This Forum."

So I guess they don't like excited customers who like their program and want to help. I guess they don't want their users to be part of their support staff. Oh well. As much as I thought this program would do what I wanted, I'll keep looking. If I have to pay more (and I HAD planned to purchase their Pro version) that's fine. In the end, support trumps product. What good is a great product that you can't use because the folks behind it have a bad attitude?

Great software is nifty. Great customer support seems to be a loftier goal, and it saddens me when the two aren't combined.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Killing The Non-Smoking Guns

This week I'm revising my novel and feel almost ready to send it out in search of a publisher.

So imagine how silly I feel when I find I've written an entire long paragraph about a woodstove.

Now this post could almost have been entitled "Kill Your Babies" because that's what I had, a lyrical and long description of a woodstove, based on, yes, an antique parlor stove that I once owned and loved. I adored the woodstove. I adored the description.

The problem here is that no matter how beautiful the woodstove was, and no matter how driving my description might have been...

The woodstove had absolutely no point in the plot whatsoever. That's right. It didn't perform any function. Nobody got burned on it, nobody touched it, nobody gained any realizations from fondling its lovely cast iron exterior. Well okay, it DID dry my protagonist's clothes.

It didn't even belong to a major character. The very minor characters who owned it were there for only one chapter, just serving as a safe place and a way to get my protagonist back to civilization.

So why was I waxing gloriously on about it? Oh damn, it hurt my heart, but I clipped the long paragraph the heck out and threw it away. Maybe I can use it someday in another book where it WILL be pertinent.

At the same time, I had noticed (see my previous post, Too Much Tea - Vary Your Scenes) that a lot of my scenes were involving cooking and mealtimes. Okay, I'm a pretty dedicated cook and foodie, so maybe that's normal, but I was determined to have some of my characters do something OTHER than cook or eat food in the revision.

Late at night, having shut off my computer, I came up with an IDEA. Rather than having a particular scene happen at the breakfast table, I'd put my characters in the living room. Firebuck (a secondary character) would be cleaning his rifle in case the evil faeries showed up. To contrast that, Cath (another secondary character) would be potting some flowers that had already shown up on the porch in a previous description. Falling asleep, I loved the juxtaposition of war and peace and the fact that it would get me away from the "food scenes".

So what was wrong? Well in an earlier-written (but occurring later in the story) scene, Firebuck does tote his rifle around for a bit. Firebuck doesn't use a gun in the end of the novel. I realized that if I added the gun-cleaning scene, readers would THINK it was a clue and be disappointed in the end when they found out it wasn't. Especially since I would now have TWO scenes with the gun in it. Guns don't work terribly well on evil faeries. Just an FYI.

Ouch. So there go my guns and woodstoves. Is my novel better for it? Definitely.

Unless you intend for them to be Red Herrings, get rid of your extraneous plot items. If you show an item and wax glorious about it, the reader will expect you to include it in the resolution of your story. If the item is a weapon, such as a gun, garotte or knife, all the more reason why your reader will expect it to show up at the end and be useful. If not, you risk the possibility of reader confusion and disgust.