Got the writing bug? An introduction to bibisco

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A pile of books in different colors

A couple of years ago, when I started tinkering with long-form fiction writing, I attended some events for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Among the attendees there was a lot of talk of using Scrivener as a tool for organizing your writing, and as a place to keep your details. I looked into it, but it was kind of pricey—and the license was such that to use it on my Windows PC and my MacBook, I'd need to buy it twice, which did not appeal to me at all.

So I muddled along for a year or so, starting my novel with a pair of LibreOffice Writer documents: one for the novel, and one for my notes on people, places and things, along with some ASCII sketches and a folder full of pictures and scans of drawings I'd made. It was inefficient, and once I got up around 15,000 words, almost useless, to the point that work on the novel has stalled for the last several months. It's frustrating and hard to keep track of all the details!

The writing bug bit me again recently, so I started seeking alternatives and came across bibisco. The application is a personal project of Andrea Feccomandi, who is its sole author. It's licensed under the GPLv2, and freely downloadable from the website, with builds for Windows and 32- or 64-bit Linux. The source code is available on GitHub.

Interesting to me, bibisco is a self-contained Java application that ships with a built-in Java runtime engine (JRE), so you don't need to install or upgrade to any particular version on your system. Just download the archive, unpack it, and run the application. On the first run, you'll answer a couple of questions about configuration, and then you're ready to start writing.

bibisco supports multiple writing projects, and you can start a new one any time, so it's very useful for storing your embryonic story ideas. Once you're ready to actually work on it, just open the project and get to writing! Within the project the work is divided into chapters, with each chapter divided into scenes, and you can drag-and-drop to reorder chapters and scenes at any time. Naming and renaming chapters—and even the whole project—is an easy operation, and the WYSIWYG editor for your text will feel very familiar to most users of modern editors. It has all the usual control keys work for bold, italic, and other formatting needs, and there's a simple toolbar at the top of the editing window as well. A running word/character count is at the bottom of the window, and the editor supports saving revision history of your work, if you desire.

One nice feature is the status flag at the bottom left of the editing windows. By default it is red for to-do!, and you can change it easily to yellow ("not yet complete") or green ("complete") to indicate the status of the scene or chapter. This same tool appears on the editor windows for character traits, locations, and plot elements, so you can keep track of research or other notes that are lacking. There's no built-in value of "done" as that is up to you as a writer. If you were working on a short story or novelette, you might not describe your locations as thoroughly, and the application just doesn't care. The flags are for you.

Across the top of the application the main menu bar is ever-present, and contains sections for architecture, characters, locations, and chapters, as well as letting you analyze your work with some useful reports. Let's take a look at the Characters interface:

The Characters interface, showing main and secondary characters

You can see that main and secondary characters are grouped separately, and each is flagged with the status of my progress in describing that character. Zooming in on one character gives us much more detail about them:

The Character interface, showing a main character

Here you see a lot of common traits and questions about a character; when you create a new one, these blocks are here waiting for you to write in them or not—it's up to you as the author how detailed you want to be. Each block has a series of questions for you to answer or skip, as you wish. Again, the tags tell us how complete the descriptions are for each of the character's traits; not very far for this one. The Characters interface contains a spot for the attachment of images. The Location interface and the Secondary Character interface are much simpler, having only one block, plus a place to attach images.

At any time you can export your work; PDF and RTF are built right in, so with RTF, you could import it into LibreOffice Writer or most any other standards-based tool, if you needed to—then save as Microsoft Word format, which is what Kindle Direct and other publishers desire. The PDF export is handy for making printable or non-editable copies for your draft readers, and it lays things out very pleasantly, in my testing.

I've been gradually working on moving the novel-in-progress into bibisco, and have started work on a couple of short stories as well. So far, I'm finding it easy and pleasant to work with, and it's really helping clean up some continuity problems in my text. If you're interested in writing, particularly chapter-based fiction, give bibisco a try.

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Ruth Holloway has been a system administrator and software developer for a long, long time, getting her professional start on a VAX 11/780, way back when. She spent a lot of her career (so far) serving the technology needs of libraries, and has been a contributor since 2008 to the Koha open source library automation suite. Ruth is currently a Perl developer and project lead at Clearbuilt.


Awesome! Maybe I'll get started on that novel I've been meaning to write...

Wow Ruth! This is great. I am helping a group of aspiring writers publish their first book with at a local public library. This could be a very helpful tool for them. Thanks so much for writing about this.

Thanks for the comment, Don! Yeah, the portability of bibisco really impressed me. I had it put its database out on Dropbox, and so I can get to my projects from multiple computers!

In reply to by Don Watkins

Woohoo! I've been waiting for your article on this to show up here. I'm not sure if I'm willing to give up my current Markdown/Mercurial/Freemind workflow, but your article sure makes it awfully tempting!

Jason, you might give it a try for a shorter piece, just to get a feel for it. I'm super-happy with it--and if there's something you don't *need*, just don't use it.

The only problem I've found is that there's not an OS X build of it--one of my laptops is a Mac Book Air, and it's no-go there. But that may be a solvable problem. My Linux laptop (running Lubuntu) loves it just fine.

In reply to by Jason van Gumster

I'm with Ben on this, Jason--I'd *love* to see an article from you on this method of yours! I use Markdown for my article submissions here, but the rest of your process sounds interesting.

In reply to by Jason van Gumster

Hi Ruth, I'm Andrea Feccomandi the author of bibisco.

Thank you very much for your beautiful article, it makes me very happy.

Yesterday I bought a Mac, so in a couple of week I'll release the Mac version of bibisco!


Thank you so much for your comment! As a columnist, it means a lot to me that you've noticed my article and posted!

(And I'm absolutely thrilled about the news for the Mac client, as I use OS X on one of my laptops!)

In reply to by Andrea Feccomandi

Hi Andrea.
I will be looking forward to the Mac version of bibisco. I was excited by the program and downloaded the Linux 64 bit version to use on my Mac but am flummoxed on how to launch it. I ended up with a folder full of files but nothing seems to launch the program.
How will we know when the Mac version is available.
Thanks for your time.

In reply to by Andrea Feccomandi

Ruth, this is a great article. Just picking up on Ben Cotton's comment about workflow - that's what struck me about this tool (thanks, Andrea). I've been using ASCIIDoctor lately for a static web site, and it occurs to me that a similar organizational / workflow approach could be taken with markup languages.

Anyway, really cool!

Thank you for your introduction to Bibisco. I use multiple Open Source software within my Window environment. Being German French educated, I write and work in English in several Design and Visuals medias.
Writing always brings up my sketchy grammar. Does Bibisco offer help with thesaurus and grammar? I have much writing going on. Several works up to four hundred pages in "Libre Office". And yes it becomes cumbersome at such volume.
Also allow me to put this out here.
I am very keen, not to say "desperado" connecting with anyone bridging me with a quality literary agent/ editing publisher without laying out thousands of dollars ahead.
My subject being a memoir about my adolescence of abuse and molestation within the European clergy system makes it very difficult. The subject still seems taboo or gain very little traction.
Connecting and delivering a digital a manuscript seems to be more work then the actual writing. So many want all on paper. The hoops one seems to need to jump to submit work within required and set frames is overwhelming.
My story is way different than the movie "Spotlight". I been lived my life and battled to sustain pride and had to wait over fourty years to get my day in court. There had to confront more mental abuse with a jury court case. In America claimants get million dollar settlements for matters that Europe may deem as minor. I won an insignificant monetary settlement by the Catholic Church in a European country.
Thanks for anyone advise here or elsewhere.

Hello again I have installed Bibisco into my E drive as I reserve my C drive only for my operating system. When I go to import it seems only to allow importing from and existing archive. How to migrate a .doc file from Open Office into Bibisco? When I chose and existing .doc format it tells me "Archive file not valid" Thank you.

Thanks for your kind helpful reply by e-mail much appreciated.
After exploring further, I overcame my previous comment mentioned problem.
Starting a new project then copy paste chapters into bibisco seems to be a solution.
Would love your instructions on how to "tag" text for future analysis. Can it done after a chapter has been saved or does it need to be done "as ones writing progresses"?
Maybe when you have a little time add a "help" to bibisco www page? Or maybe some indications from other users.
Thank you

Nice Article. I just happened across it in a search for how others are using Bibisco and what they see as its strengths and weaknesses.

I am an aspiring author, finally getting serious about writing that first novel after decades of procrastination. The last time I wrote more than a page in a sitting, I used a TRS-80 Model 100 laptop, which was state of the art at the time. Dot matrix printing being what it was at the time, documents meant to impress were still done on a typewriter. Oh, wait, there was a time I used some publishing software for creating instructions for an employer's products about 20 years ago... Regardless and needless to say, I'm a bit out of touch with the *current* state of the art of producing large documents.

In an effort to figure out what might be best for me, I've downloaded several writing programs. Most have a GUI, while some are strictly text-based ("No Distractions" being the selling point). They come with various capabilities, all having their own strengths, but all missing some handy feature found on some other program. Obviously, not all of us need every feature ever invented, which makes it possible for each program to have its own loyal set of followers. For me, I found some interfaces cumbersome to navigate, others lacking in features I would like to use.

I downloaded Bibisco last night, installed it this morning. The interface struck me as uniquely intuitive from the moment I got to the main window (after those initial setup questions). I find the layout and presentation extremely easy to use. While I am not a big fan of WYSIWYG editors either (A) unless I am creating a document that necessarily has a lot of formatting or (B) until I am putting the "polish" on it, Bibisco's editor is straightforward -- and I love the fact that it has a control-key combination for an em dash.

I have not played with Bibisco for long, but I do not see a tree view for the entire project. Perhaps I missed it. I also don't see how to move a scene from one chapter to another (short of creating a new scene, then cutting and pasting the content). A nice, graphical tree view that would allow dragging and dropping to arrange everything would be nice. After all, that is one of the biggest advantages to having a GUI. Short of that, some simple control to allow the specification of the chapter to which a scene belongs would be nice.

On my own wish list is something I may never see: vi-like command capabilities in the editor. I'm an old programmer who feels more at home editing text in vi (ir Vim/Gvim) than any other environment. If only we could navigate, yank, paste, search, make changes with sed commands... all while working within Bibisco's structured interface, I'd be in writer's heaven. (People that don't know how to use vim invariably find the arcane commands daunting at first, but once they learn to use them, find it difficult to imagine life without them.) Ah, well, one can dream.

OK, here we go!
I've just released bibisco version for MAC!

Outstanding, Andrea! Thank you so much! I look forward to testing it out, and the release could not be more timely; I'll be at All Things Open this week, and won't have my Windows or Linux systems with me, just the MacBook. And with NaNoWriMo coming up soon, too!

In reply to by Andrea Feccomandi

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