Occasionally I’m going to post reviews of writing tools I’ve used, or at least tried. As I do, I’ll always try to keep in mind the fact that a tool that works for one person may be completely useless to another.
I’d appreciate comments on this product, especially if you’ve found a different way of working with it that suits you better. I’d also love to hear from those who use similar tools, especially if you’ve found them to be more helpful.
Disclaimer: I have an affiliate relationship with Black Obelisk Software, the maker of Liquid Story Binder XE.
The Basics of LSBXE
Liquid Story Binder XE (LSBXE, or LSB) by Black Obelisk Software is quite a program. I apologize for the vague descriptive, but it suits the application particularly well. There isn’t really a lot about the program that can easily be considered basic, but I’ll give it a try.
The most basic attribute of the program—one which will exclude a good number of potential users—is that it’s a Microsoft Windows-only application. Sorry to leave all of the Apple Macintosh users out. In the future, I will be offering a review of Scrivener, which is possibly the most popular Macintosh program similar to LSBXE, and which is currently in beta testing for Windows.
Projects in LSBXE are called binders. Typically, a binder will represent a single novel, play, or short story. However, everything about LSBXE is flexible, and the uses to which you put your binders is no exception. One binder can be created for a series of short stories, for instance. I have heard of one fantasy writer using a binder solely for world-building, while using a separate binder for each story or novel that takes place in that world.
Each binder can contain many different files of many different file types. The most important of the file types is the chapter, which is essentially a word processing document. Pretty simple.
Builders are a bit different, being a unified collection of items which are also word processor documents. The basic concept of a builder is a collection of scenes. You can make a builder file, write scenes in how ever many items you want, and then order the items to suit your story. Afterwards, you can “build” the items into a new chapter file, which will include the content of all the builder items in order. This functionality is a minor sample of the way file types can relate to each other in LSBXE. I will explore them in more detail below.
More File Types
Sequences, timelines, and storyboards are the index cards of LSBXE. They are all similar to each other, yet they have their differences. A sequence is a way of outlining in a linear fashion. Each item within a sequence can contain text and an image if desired, and items can be repositioned within the sequence.
If a sequence is one-dimensional, then a timeline adds a dimension. Like a spreadsheet document, you have columns and rows, each of which can be labeled. For instance, you could have your columns labeled with dates and/or times, and then have a row for each character. Then you can keep track of what characters are doing and where they are at any given time throughout your story.
Storyboards are like sequences, except the emphasis is on visual thumbnails rather than text.
All of these file types can be used for whatever purpose you can think of. One of the nice things about each of these file types is that, after you’ve done what you want to do with them, they can be converted to a builder, a chapter. or line notes within a chapter. I will explain line notes later.
Outlines, checklists, and listings are similar in that they are all of a list-like format. Outlines are lists of items that can be arranged hierarchically, just like the linear outlines we are all used to. Checklists are lists with check boxes that are useful for to-do lists that you may need. Both of these file types can also be converted to builders, chapters or chapter line notes.
Listings are a little different. Not only can you use them as a hierarchical listing, but you can add other LSBXE files. Somewhat like a planner, but planners cannot contain all of the application’s file types, where you can put anything—even planners or other listings. Also, where a planner’s strength is in keeping tabs of associated files, a listing is best used for organizing files that may have no formal association, yet still are related to other items. As with line notes, I will explain associations a bit later. Due to the nature of listings, they can’s be converted to other file types.
Mindmaps are for non-linear brainstorming. They can serve as an outline, or whatever else you can think of. And they, too, can be converted to the usual file types.
Dossiers are forms that can be filled out for just about any purpose, although they are most useful for keeping data about people, places, and things. They can be seeded with preset fields—say, for characters or settings—and you can create your own field sets. These sets of fields can replace the ones that are already in the dossier, or they can be appended to the dossier. This way, if you have a set of “questions” you ask your characters, for example, you can make them a preset for character dossiers.
Believe it or not, there are quite a few other file types—notes, resources, and even playlists and image galleries. Since this post is getting a bit long, I will let you check out the developer’s website if you’re interested in learning more about them.
Linking Them All Together
As promised, I am going to define what LSBXE calls associations. Simply put, an association is a link between two or more files. The method of pulling this off is simple: just give one file the same name as an existing file of a different type. The easiest example of this would be a builder file named “Chapter One,” which contains all the scenes for the first chapter, and a chapter file named “Chapter One.” This is made even easier when one file type is converted to another, as LSBXE suggests the name for the new file be the same as the one being converted.
Planners are the best for keeping track of all of these associations, and even makes it easy to create associated files; with a single menu selection you can be given the option to create several associated file at once.
I often use sequences or timelines to outline, then convert them to builders, where I will write the scenes. After that, I convert the builder to a chapter. And if I want to make changes, I go to the builder, make the necessary changes, then re-convert for a revised chapter file.
The biggest drawback to associations is the fact that, since you can’t give the same name to a file of the same type, you aren’t able to associate, for example, six note files to a single builder file. That’s where listings are helpful.
Aside from all the different—and admittedly confusing—file types, there are a good compliment of tools available. Some, like spell check, thesaurus access, and search-and-replace functions are there, and the program would obviously be an epic fail if they and others weren’t. And some of them, like the search-and-replace, can be evoked for a single file or across all the files in a binder. This is great considering the large number of different files you’re likely to have accumulated by the time you’re done writing your novel.
There are a few others that I really like. First, there are the line notes I mentioned earlier. These are essentially notes you can leave for yourself within the text of your chapters or builder items. All you need to do is precede a paragraph with two periods (..), and the type style changes so you can differentiate them from the actual text. Even better, they neither print nor count towards word count totals.
Another great tool is a repetition visualizer. Using this, you can select a word within your text and LSBXE will both tell you how many times the word is in use and highlight each instance of the word. Using this with the thesaurus has become indispensable to me.
There’s a typewriter tool as well: your mouse and arrow keys are disabled, and you can even turn off your backspace key. This is great if you’re often at odds with your internal editor. Or you can just use a full-screen mode for editing, removing a lot of visual distraction—which is another drawback of LSBXE.
And more, some of which are more aesthetic than functional.
If you want an authoring program with a large selection of options to suit the way you like to work, Liquid Story Binder XE will work for you. Black Obelisk Software offers a 30-non-consequitive-day trial (which is pretty awesome), and a lifetime license can be purchased afterwards for $45.95. As stated above, it is only compatible with computers running Microsoft Windows.
Advantages of the application are its many file types and tools, and ways of linking files through associations. This is as free-form a program as I have seen, and there are accounts to be found around the internet presenting the different ways users use LSBXE. There is an active user newsgroup for support, and the developer often participates. There is also a great series of videos created by Rosepetals1984.
Disadvantages of LSBXE also include its many and varied file types, which can get overwhelming fast if you don’t keep in mind the fact that you are not required to use all of them—or even most of them. The user interface is not the most pleasing, either, even though there are many ways it can be customized with themes, images and colors. The program could benefit hugely from some drag-and-drop functionality, too.
For me, the pros outweigh the cons, but it took me a while to get comfortable with it. With the generous free trial available, there’s certainly no reason not to try it out.