#151 What Happens When a Software Developer & a Pair of Writers Get Together? with Lee Powell
Lee Powell is a writer and expert in technology. He works with Angela Ackerman and her co-creator Becca Puglisi at One Stop for Writers. He also created the Windows version of renowned writing program Scrivener.
When the team collaborated, they came up with the Character Building Tool, which combines Powell’s software design skills with Ackerman and Puglisi’s thesaurus writing skills.
In this episode, we chat about the following:
the importance of collaboration
Scrivener for Windows
One Stop For Writers
the Character Building Tool
following your passion
what happens when creativity and coding meet
integrating technology into the writing process
the importance of deep thinking
You can find out more about Powell, One Stop For Writers and the Character Building tool here and buy Passion Drivenhere.
You can download your FREE Issue 3 of Author Success Stories Magazine here for your chance to win one of two six-month subscriptions to One Stop For Writers. Entries close 31st March, 2019.
Mel Lee Powell is an expert in technology, who works with featured author Angela Ackerman and her co-creator Becca Puglisi on their site One Stop for Writers. He also created the Windows version of renowned writing program Scrivener.
Lee I can’t take credit for the inception of Scrivener itself. Keith Blount created the program for the Mac – I actually had to buy a Mac to use it as I was studying in the UK. I wrote to him in 2008 and said, “This is an amazing tool. You have a total paradigm shift. It’s non-linear. It allows me to make a mess and write in any way I want. Have you thought about doing a Windows or Linux version?”
He hadn’t. He was busy enough trying to rewrite the base version of Scrivener – the first write of that code had been a disaster. He’s not a programmer by trade. He was a teacher and working towards a PhD in medieval history, or something like that. When there was so much interest in Scrivener, he had to go back and write it properly. He’s a really interesting guy. We formed a reasonably good friendship over the years, and eventually he acquiesced to my petitioning and we started collaborating in 2008 or 2009.
Mel What kind of process was involved in creating the program?
Lee It took me about three years to even get to version one of Scrivener for Windows and Linux. We were so far behind the Mac – he had a seven-year start on me. As a software engineer by trade, I thought it would be reasonably easy. I’d been building banking, finance, and trading systems during my career. Unfortunately I was totally depressed. I used to write a lot when I was a kid (terrible novels that thankfully never saw the light of day). I used to write poetry and songs as well. I’m a terrible musician, but I’m quite good with the lyrics side of things.
Scrivener saved me. I was in my late thirties and had all the things I thought I wanted in life – kids, family, my wife. We’ve been married for 28 years now. It’s had its ups and downs, and fundamentally we’re happy. But I was totally depressed. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this corporate thing,’ but of course you get used to the money. It was a Catch-22. I just wanted to align myself with my core values.
I’ve always loved writing, and the whole creative aspect of coding. The Windows version of Scrivener is completely rewritten from the ground up. We had to start from scratch, which was a wonderful experience. We had many years of seven-day weeks, until there was a little bit of money coming in and we could step back.
It was a huge risk, stepping away from the corporate work. But it’s like anything in life, anything to do with writing. You have to start on the side. The reality is probably only 100 authors in the world make a ton of money. The millions of others can make a decent income. If it’s part of who you are, you have to pursue it. You have to follow your curiosity and go down that rabbit hole, balancing the other things in your life as best you can. It’s risky, but it’s cathartic. Therapeutic. That’s why people read and write. We’re looking for answers; we’re looking for comfort. We’re looking to make sense of the world and our lives, with our wounds and past hurts. I just love being in this space.
Mel How does Scrivener help us with our writing?
Lee You can write a book with pen and paper – get someone else to type it up and correct it. You don’t need any software at all. The reality is that writers just write. They get on with it and do it every day. It’s not about software. What I like about Scrivener is that it allows me to write in any way I want to. However, the majority of people are overwhelmed by the complexity of Scrivener, even though we’ve tried to make it as simple as possible. There are a lot of different types of writers. Some are more sophisticated, some are technical writers, some are script writers. You can try to simplify the Scrivener software as much as possible, but at the end of the day it’s up to the writer.
There is a generous trial process. It can last months and months, because it’s thirty days of use, not thirty consecutive days like most software. There’s also a tutorial, which probably takes three or four hours – it’s a huge ask. But if people took advantage of the trial and the tutorial, the proverbial light would just go off. The software isn’t like anything else. It doesn’t care how you write, it doesn’t care what order you write in. It’s totally non-linear. It allows you to make a complete mess. It allows you to write different versions of something, and then compile and consolidate it. You don’t have to worry about styling. It’s a powerful tool, and I love it.
Creating the tool has been a great procrastination strategy. I don’t have any excuse, especially when version three comes out (which will be soon – it’s been in beta for about a year). Both Keith Blount and I want to continue with Scrivener, but we also want to write. To write again as an adult, after reading so many books on writing…
Mel What kind of books?
Lee There are so many options. You can do the whole Joseph Campbell thing, but he’s quite technical. There are people building businesses around teaching people to write. I did a course for three years, and it was really good – but I was paralysed with the amount of information that I was getting. What I should and shouldn’t be doing, what my inner and outer motivations were, all these technical terms… After reading all the literature and doing this course, I was so insecure in my writing that I just stopped, for about five years. It stopped being fun. Analysis paralysis, information overload.
When I look back over a decade of reading and studying this space, there are only a few books I keep coming back to. Strunk & White, ‘The Elements of Style’. That’s a staple. Sol Stein, ‘How to Grow a Novel’. Stephen King, ‘On Writing’. I can’t read his fiction – it scares me. But ‘On Writing’ is one of the best books I’ve ever read. He does believe that you’re either born a writer or not, which is probably the only thing I disagree with in the book. Technology and information and the way we assimilate information and feedback has changed.
This is why I like One Stop for Writers. You need a tool to write – Scrivener works for me, because it’s flexible and accommodates my changing style. One Stop is all about how you come up with an evocative, integral story. It’s about making your characters as deep as you want to make them. Ultimately a reader wants to live vicariously through a character. Deep down, we’re looking for answers. A fundamentally flawed character, with great traits and negative traits and wounds and lies they believe about themselves is compelling. It triggers ideas for your plot. Before I started to engage with Becca and Angela, my work was more plot-driven. I knew the character was important, but I thought it would come together by itself.
One Stop is amazing for character. It distils the plethora of information out there into tutorials and tools and worksheets. It makes sense of the information. I’ve understood more about the components of creating a story from working with One Stop and developing tools with them than I have from anything else. I love working in that space with them. It’s the other piece of the puzzle.
Mel What’s your role with One Stop?
Lee I take care of the technology. We’ve just released the Character Builder tool at One Stop. We spent maybe nine months drawing up wireframes to get us all on the same page, and make sure I understood where they were coming from. Then we spent a year developing the tool. It’s all web-based – totally different from Scrivener, which is a desktop tool. I haven’t worked in the web space for years. There was so much to learn, and it took me a while to get up to speed.
It’s a different process from working with Scrivener. Keith is the real brain behind that. He’s very involved in the community, and understands fundamentally what the tool should be. It’s also got a great interface. With One Stop, it’s been far more evolutionary. Even today, we’re a bit frustrated with the look and feel of the site. It’s evolving.
The Character Builder tool came about because a while ago I created this dictionary called Clever Dictionary. It was like a visual thesaurus, where you could look up synonyms. It was a complete disaster, but it had integrated quotes, various dictionaries, all integrated. You could search and find the perfect word. I approached Becca and Angela and said, “I’ve been using your books and I love them. I’ve got this tool, and I was thinking we could use it to put your content in electronic form.” They said, “It’s funny, because we were thinking about contacting you!” It was a moment of serendipity. Eventually we formed One Stop. We started out with just the thesauruses in electronic form, then moved to tools and worksheets. With the Character Builder, we realised we could leverage all of the thesaurus content and integrate them together. I’ve tried all sorts of character tools, but none of them are like this.
It’s elucidated how we can integrate all the other tools – how we can pull the whole of One Stop into a kind of global roadmap, so the writer can feel like they’re in complete control. They can see any part of the story project at any moment in time. The creation of a deep, compelling story becomes a lot easier.
Mel I’ve been playing around with the Character Builder, and it’s amazing. You can pull in backstory, personality, motivation, physical details, daily life…and it’ll give you a PDF summary of everything at the end. It’s not just another tool, is it? It’s going to be as big as Scrivener.
Lee I just don’t know. None of us are really businesspeople. It’s a labour of love. I’m very lucky that it’s worked out. One Stop is still in early days, but Scrivener’s been out for a while. We don’t actually do any advertising at all for it.
They’re both very organic tools. The Character Builder is a game-changer, not from a business point of view, but because I’ve never seen anything like it. You can as deep or as light as you want, but as you say, there are lots of different tabs you can use. There’s also a gallery, where you can upload photos. The tabs are also quite detailed. With backstory, you can go into emotional wounds, which are pulled from the thesaurus. You can make one wound primary, or have as many as you want. There’s also a ‘fear’ section where you can talk about secrets and lies, a section for positive and negative traits… The tool will then generate a summary or a blueprint, which you can augment as much as you want. You then select a character arc to suit that summary.
When you look at the three or four paragraph summary, you go, “That’s my character. I’ve spent five or ten years reading books and I’ve never gotten anywhere, and then One Stop comes along and nails it.” We’re going to finesse things in the future, but we’ve spent a lot of time trying to get this right.
One of my contributions, because I’m so stupid when it comes to writing, was implementing contextual help throughout the tool. Anywhere you are, there a little tab that you can expand or collapse. So if you don’t know what character arc or change type means, you can just click a link that walks you through the process.
Mel Have you tried out the tool with your own writing?
Lee Yeah, I tried it with one of the characters from a novel I’ve been working on in the background. I put him through the tool, and I tried to go through every area to test it. It took me four hours. I learned so much about my character. For me, I realised, ‘This character is a real piece of work. He’s nasty – but he’s got this really good side as well.’ And it brought up so many knock-on effects that could happen in the plot. It spawned a lot of other stuff. If you do the deep dive, you’ll get huge benefits. You think you understand something technically, but once you put your own character in there… It’s revolutionary. It’s a game-changer for people who invest time in their characters, and our stories can only benefit. Our characters can be so much deeper, and the vicarious connection with your reader can be so much deeper too.
The integration aspect is what we want to focus on now – integrating the content from the thesauruses into tools. I encourage people to check it out. Corporates always carry on about synergy, but I think we really have it at One Stop now. Working with women is a really interesting dynamic – they always want to stay in contact. I’m all like, “Leave me alone, I’ve got stuff to do…” But they’re so caring and loving, and we’ve managed to produce something amazing as a group of three. I know people balk at the subscription price, but I just think the value-cost equation will become more and more evident for people.
It’s interesting getting back in touch with my own writing. I’ve been out of contact with writers in general, because I’ve been so focussed on the tools. I had a guy write to me the other day, bemoaning something about Scrivener. I had no idea who he was, but I walked into Dymocks and he had a whole shelf of books to himself. I didn’t even know his name!
Mel You’re about to take a break for a bit, though.
Lee Yes. I don’t do enough of it. My wife has said to me, “This time there’s no laptop going with you.” We walked the Camino de Santiago all the way across Spain, about a thousand kilometres, and I still took my laptop. I just love my work – I don’t believe in retirement at all. You just stop working for money. One Stop and Scrivener aren’t about money; I’m doing my passion. Ultimately I’d like to do some writing as well, learn another language, get better at guitar… Life is getting simpler.
I’ve got whiteboards all around my room now, which is the best investment I’ve ever made. I get a coffee at the beach in the morning, then come home, sit, and think about whatever comes to mind. Then I challenge my beliefs about that. It’s fostering or feeding an innovation mindset. I started with five minutes, but now I can get up to about an hour. It’s a big ask for a lot of people, having the time to be able to do that, but when we start thinking about what we want, what juices us up, how we find balance…it feeds our creative energy.
You go through a phase when your kids move out, and you’re left with your partner, who you’ve been living with for twenty-five years. You’ve been reacting to the kids and talking to the kids, and suddenly it’s just you two, and you’re like, “I don’t even know if I like her. I don’t even know if I like myself. Who am I? What have I been doing?” It was actually a real blessing. It makes you think about who you are intrinsically.
I have a photo of me as a kid. I’m like four years old and I’m standing with a friend of mine. We’re at some kind of a building site, putting pallets and boxes together into a little cubbyhouse. And I remember the emotion of that moment. I’ve never been as happy in my life than at that point. That child knew. He was lost in the moment. I’ve got photos of my nan and granddad when they were very young. I see them at their wedding, I see them celebrating their sixtieth anniversary, but then there are also the obituary photos. Life is just gone. If I beat myself up and try to take on too much, I’m going to fail and hate myself.
I just try to create a rhythm every day – it might be taking one step, or four or five on a good day, towards a goal. I’ve got to work, I’ve got to pay the bills, but I also want to do this novel on the side. If I can take a step forward, write something or plan something, it’s like saving. Pay yourself first. In two years’ time, you’ll look at that saving and you can do something worthwhile with it.
Life is fundamentally becoming simpler as I get older. Maybe I’m becoming Stoic, as I shed off the material stuff and think, ‘What do I really need to be happy?’ It’s One Stop, Scrivener, writing, music, reading… I love learning stuff. It makes me feel whole. Does it have value at the end of the day? I don’t know. But I’d just encourage people to have a go.
I’m never going to be a great writer. My grammar’s terrible, I’m never going to be an amazing writer, but that’s not going to stop me writing. Some of the people that I like reading the best are pretty rubbish writers. Even the proverbial ‘Fifty Shades’, which I had to read because I lost a bet with my wife – regardless of whether E.L. James is a terrible writer or not, she’s talented enough to capture emotion, things that everyone was feeling, things that everyone resonated with. She deserves credit. She captured that essence. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are. What matters is whether it gives you a sense of pleasure