Southeast of Disorder


Freeware Review: Text Block Writer
October 16, 2008, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Writing | Tags: ,

I’m still bumping up against some creative roadblocks with my current work in progress, but thanks to a couple of freeware tools with which I’ve been experimenting, those annoying little disruptions are fewer and farther between. (I’ll never again complain about my muse’s hyperactivity, because when she decides to take a vacation, she doesn’t leave a number where she can be reached in case of emergency.)

So, while I’m sitting around hoping some stupendous solution to writer’s block will land upon me with an unmistakable thud, I thought I’d give other writers a heads-up about one of the tools I’ve found helpful. Maybe someone else will find it helpful too. (In the interest of full disclosure, I receive nothing for reviewing, endorsing or linking to this product.)

Understand that I didn’t pull this nifty freebie out of a hat. I spent far too many hours surfing the Web, reading product descriptions and reviews, and downloading and playing with demo packages that ranged in price from free to about $50. In addition, I’ve been a technology journalist for about ten years, so I feel at least marginally qualified to comment on software. Still, all of what follows comes with the caveat that it’s nothing more than my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

The program I’m using most often these days is Text Block Writer, a sort of virtual note card organizer and manager. Many writers prefer to use physical index cards to jot down scene ideas, because the tactile experience of arranging the cards into a workable pattern is important to them. I’m not a fan of physical note cards, primarily because not even I can read my handwriting when I become frenzied during particularly inspired moments, but also because I find thinking easier in front of a computer screen. (We all have our little peccadillos.)

Here’s a screen grab (click to enlarge):

Text Block Writer desktop

Text Block Writer desktop

Text Block Writer is quick to download, easy to install and the learning curve is quite shallow. File size is virtually unlimited, so each project can include as many or as few virtual cards as one desires. In addition, the desktop interface can include as many columns as the user wants to define. For my purposes, I defined five six-column pages upon which each column represents one chapter. (I could as easily have defined one 30-column page, but scrolling sideways makes me cranky.)

Each virtual card represents one scene, and it can hold as much or as little information as one wants to include. (Yes, each card will hold an entire scene as it appears in the WIP, but I use them to jot down just the classic “essential details” like point of view, conflict, characters and basic action.)  Scenes can be arranged within columns in whatever order the user desires. They can be moved around. They can be deleted, although that’s never really necessary because the “Block Shelf” space near the lower right-hand corner serves as a repository for unused scenes until you find a place to put them. The Block Shelf also will hold cards for scenes that pop into your head unbidden, just in case you want to add them somewhere later.

Cards also can be color-coded to indicate anything your little heart desires. I color-coded the ones in the example to indicate character POV at a glance.

Along the right-hand side of the page are a number of tabs that offer quick access to an overview of the cards included in the project, a card index, grouping options and the ability to change certain aspects of the project’s layout if you decide you’d like to try another way of looking at the desktop. The program is capable of printing everything in hard-copy form.

On the negative side, people who are accustomed to working with physical index cards will have to adjust their eyes to an altered reality. The virtual cards in Text Block Writer look nothing like the real thing. However, for the money (Did I mention the software is free?), this is a killer app for writers who use Windows-based computers. Sadly, it’s not available for other platforms.

The developer also offers a sort of big brother to Text Block Writer: Text Block Author. It has a few additional bells and whistles and only costs $19.95, but I didn’t find enough important bells and whistles to convince me to buy it. Author also doesn’t seem to be in active development right now; the most recent update was released in 2007.

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