Why Zhura isn't perfect

(Follow up post here…)

As you may recall, my writing partner and I are using the online script writing collaboration tool “Zhura.com“. We usually use Final Draft, but wanted something that was web based, would allow us both remote access to the script, and preferably simultaneous access for true collaboration.

We looked at a number of options, including ScriptBuddy, CELTX and others. We arrived at Zhura because, at least at the time, it was the only one entirely web-based and offering true simultaneous logon and editing. Zhura offers a free and a paid version (comparison here), and we opted for the free version. Not because we’re cheap, but because we thought it did everything we needed it to.

Since then, it’s proven to be useful but terribly buggy.

Early on, I had ongoing problems with the system throwing in strange spaces, line returns, and so on. It was pretty consistent, and being an old Information Architect and Web App Usability whore, I did a careful QA on the glitches, took copious notes, and shared them with Zhura. They kindly got back to me, we swapped a few emails, and ultimately, I was told that I shouldn’t use Internet Explorer… that Zhura was optimized for Firefox. (Now, the site says Zhura works with Firefox, Google Chrome, IE and maybe one other…)

Okay, I like Firefox fine. So I dedicated myself to it, and continued on with Zhura.

There is no “import” feature to bring a doc in from another application, but in edit mode, I am able to paste in new content from other sources with a simple “paste” button. So we started by copying our outline from Word, and pasting it into the Zhura editor. It didn’t stop us, it didn’t give a warning, and there is nowhere on the site that says we shouldn’t do it. So we did.

Over time, we began getting some troubling glitches…

  • Everything would suddenly be italicized, randomly, while in mid-edit.
  • Everything would suddenly be formatted as an ACT, randomly, while in mid-edit.
  • Zhura includes an option to highlight the recent edits, color-coded by authorship. But when I clicked that button, our script would revert to its original version — just the outline — all our weeks of changes gone. Leaving the page and coming back would correct this, but it was very troubling.
  • And we would occassionally, randomly, find large paragraphs of strange code suddenly appearing at strange places in our script. We could delete them, but they’d reappear at will.

We were concerned that we could never be sure if we were looking at our most recent version. We began to wonder if we should stick with the tool.

So I sent another set of notes to Zhura. They did respond, nicely and promptly, as they always do.

Again, it was my fault.

This time, for pasting from a WORD doc. I was told that as a paid “PRO” member, I could upload files from other apps. But to copy/paste from a WORD doc would create issues as I was experiencing.

Now, there is no place on the site that I can find that tells me this is an issue. The tool offers a “paste” option. It offers no warning. I looked at the “help” files (which are colorful and graphical, but not terribly helpful), I looked in the “discussion forum” (which is largely novices asking other novices “how do I format dialogue”), and could find nothing about what I could paste and what I could not.

I did find the “Free vs. Pro” comparison table. This chart indicates that the Pro version will allow me to “Import and Export Rich-Text, Word, WordPerfect, and OpenOffice”. The expanded explanation states:

If you have a script in Rich-Text (.rtf), a document written in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx), or a screenplay in OpenOffice (.odt), as a PRO member, you can import them directly into the Zhura editor. You also have the option to export your Zhura scripts to any of these formats.

But remember, I don’t want to “import” a file. “Importing” a file is a very different action than is “pasting” content. All indications are that I should be able to copy and paste my doc, because I am given a “paste” button in the tool, and am not told that this is a restricted activity. My assumption, and I think a reasonable one, is that the tool will default to a “plain text paste” function, stripping any formatting.

Clearly I was wrong.

Other ongoing issues that I’m keeping an eye on:

  • Page count is random. The page count shown in “edit” mode doesn’t quite match that in “view” mode, and neither quite matches what I get if I export to a PDF.
  • It makes a new historical version of the script every time it saves. And it auto saves about if you stop typing for more than about 30 seconds. So right now, my script (on which I’ve worked for about two weeks) has 1,425 historical versions on file. Seriously? I don’t even want to look at any of them. Not a bug, not a glitch. Just seems like a terrible waste of space to me.
  • Sometimes an element will appear properly formatted in “edit” or “view”, but won’t be so after export to PDF. (e.g. – an “action” sequence looks right, but simply doesn’t show up in the PDF. Going back into “edit”, I discover that it’s actually tagged as a “character” — even though it appears left justified and otherwise formatted as “action”. For some reason, this confusion of the system results in the passage simply not exporting to the PDF at all.)
  • Strange extra “spaces” at the end of a sentence, after the period (I can’t put my cursor immediately after the period). Backspacing to remove the space also removes the period… meaning the period and the space are treated as one character. Big issue? Probably not, but troubling, as it indicates another weird bug that may or may not impact the integrity of my script file.
  • And there are other random little hiccups.
  • And some, none or all of these may or may not also be the result of my pasting in text from a WORD doc.

But all is not lost. Zhura has proven to be a convenient tool for us, and I suspect will continue to be refined and revised. But the easy, short term fix for in-built systemic restrictions is to communicate them clearly for users. Zhura really needs a more thorough and explicit set of FAQ’s and HELP files. It’s not acceptable for users to struggle withΒ  apparent bugs and submit help tickets, only to be told that they’re using the system incorrectly, when there is no clear help (contextual or otherwise) to offer actionable direction.

I like you a lot, Zhura. But I don’t love you yet.

But opinions vary, as seen here on WriteForgeAhead… “Working With Zhura” – parts ONE and TWO.

(Follow up post here…)

New horror project: day eight writing

As last mentioned, we’ve reached a place where an adjustment of our outline is in order.

The outline calls for another day at the cabin before the creatures are fully revealed. A day of further development of the character arcs, a ratcheting of tensions between them, some flashback scenes with the crazy old lady (illuminating her back story).

But as the story has developed to this point, there’s been plenty of organic evolution in the characters and their relationships… in other words, the characters needed to say some things and we let them say them. We allowed them to find their own paths, rather than forcing the outline on them. Consequently, although we’re essentially on task as per the story outline, the characters’ awareness of events, and their natural revealing of their subtexts, are further along than anticipated.

And that’s great. It means we’ve allowed the characters to develop naturally. And, it means we’re ready to really hit the big reveals, get the blood and panic flowing, and start the real juggernaut through the second act (which we’re both looking forward to).

So, today we met to review what that “fourth day” in the woods was going to offer, choose which of its story points we can live without, and which story points we must have. We were able to lose about half of what that day was going to deliver. Those things we must have, we found new homes for by folding them (elegantly) into previous scenes.

That means we’re able to get to the (horror) meat sooner. *

And our pacing will be better.

And we’ll be ahead of our outline as regards page count. πŸ™‚

So, here’s where we are.

Page 40. Outline says we should be at about 42.

Hours (chip): 44.5**

* Lest one be concerned that we’re not getting to the “horror meat” soon enough (we’re on page 40!) we’re building something that’s akin to “The Descent“. I looked at that film again just the other day. The first time we see the creatures in the cavern, we’re at minute 50. We’ll beat that.

** Hours are approximate. It’s just my hours. Sean probably has about as many, maybe a few more. So our total man hours may be around 100 (just to keep numbers round). This INCLUDES the hours spent building the ten page outline. That means we’re averaging a page every 2.5 hours. Crazy. This process is proving very efficient (provided the quality is not compromised. From where we’re sitting, it’s not).

New horror project: day seven writing

Four pages today.

Went back and added a scene… we’d had the discovery of the hidden darkroom happen off screen, but decided that was a lame move. We need to see that happen… the secret door, the creepiness of the first entry into the old root cellar. So now we do, thanks to the new scene. And we took it as an opportunity to further define the back story on our writer character, and demonstrate his strong friendship with his buddy’s wife.

Then moved on into a scene where his buddy’s secret plans for the cabin are further revealed.

The past two days have been tough writing days… scenes with more subtlety, that require a certain amount of exposition of information without writing expository dialogue. Definitely the toughest two days so far.

It’s possible that we need to contract our story’s time line by one day… it feels like we’re ready to move into the action sequences, but on the outline, there’s still another day’s worth of discovery and character revelation yet to handle. The pacing to this point feels like we’re past most of that, and ready to go on to some faster, more action oriented scenes.

We’ll decide in our next session whether we can excise that day, just reveal the creatures in all their glory, and start the juggernaut of action and blood and dying and whatnot.

Total pages: 36.5

Total hours (Chip): 38-ish

New horror project: Day six writing

God it’s hot. It’s around 98 degrees outside, and at least 85 inside. Oh, for a little AC.

Oh well.

We tried something new today… Sean stayed home, and we both logged into Zhura, while talking on the phone. Worked pretty well. Still not as satisfying as being in the same room together, but all in all a successful round.

We got 5 pages done today. We’ve had a sweaty round of hot monkey sex in the woods (boobies for the genre purists), found a pile of bones on the roof, and stumbled across the creepy hidden darkroom in the root cellar.

God, I hope it reads as good as that just sounded!

Probably no work again till Thursday.

We’re up to page 33. That makes us about 7 pages long I think. Ouch. But we’re not worried yet. We can trim that down in our next draft. Right now, focus on getting done.

Total hours in (Chip): 34-ish.

New horror project: Day five writing

Two new things experimented with:

ONE: Starting not with prewritten dialogue, but a tighter set of plot points for the day’s scenes, grown off the existing outline. It still gave us a head start without sucking the creative satisfaction out of it. We had fun again, actually collaborating, writing from (closer to) scratch.

TWO: Writing in a coffee shop. That I’m not so sure about. It is awfully cool to be able to hang out in one of my favorite places (Java Junction), but there’ s a lot of distraction in noisy kids, screaming espresso machines, grinding smoothie blenders and the like. A lot of distraction. This might be better saved for the outline brainstorming (most of which we do at Seattle’s Best in Borders) or later editing/review bull sessions.

Nevertheless, we did get another 2.5 pages done. We know the creatures are getting more brazen, we’ve learned that one of the husbands is a total douche-nozzle, and we know that the douche-nozzle has convinced his wife that she’s just being paranoid about the possible danger.

And next, we get to write about another bout of hot monkey sex — in the woods!

We’re now at about 28 pages, give or take. According to the initial estimate, this point in the story should be about page 31-32, so we’ve made up some of our overage. Right on track. I feel like I’m jinxing it just talking about it.

Total hours in so far (Chip): 30-ish.

New horror project: Day four writing

Another day down already.

Sean had worked on some dialogue for the upcoming scene and forwarded it to me last night. I’d gone through it and fleshed it out, so when he got here we just had to review it, paste it in, and format. Then a quick polish, and on to the next scenes.

We’ve found their lost dog, introduced the Ranger and the Grad student, learned about other missing animals, gotten their generator running, and were warned about fires. Oh, and one of the couples had hot mad monkey sex.

We ended up adding 6 or 7 pages today in pretty short order. That brings us to 25.5 pages more or less. According to early outline estimates, we should be at 23.5 pages, so we’re still running a little long. But my original estimate was a conservative 82 pages overall, and I’d really like to hit 90-100, so I think we’re just fine.

(NOTE: We’re using Zhura, an online script writing collaboration tool. It’s kinda buggy, and the page count it shows you in edit mode doesn’t exactly sync with the page count it shows in display mode. And neither quite matches the formatting you get when exporting to PDF. So we’re fudging a little on the numbers.)

What we’ve learned about the collaborative process is this: one or the other of us can work independently and come to the table with a first draft of the day’s scene(s), and that gets us mechanically through the outline pretty efficiently. But it’s not the most creatively rewarding system. It’s like we spend our time together editing each other’s work, rather than brainstorming and creating. We’re going to focus more on that, and less on independent work. Because when we do that, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. And isn’t that the point of collaboration?

Total hours in so far (Chip): 28.5

New horror project: Day three writing

Sean spent a little time on his own over the weekend writing some first draft dialogue for the upcoming pages. So when we sat down today to work, we had a kind of a head start. We pasted in his notes, then set about refining and formatting them.

By and large it all worked. He hit all the points the outline called for, the dialogue worked well, it had the appropriate subtext. I hadn’t expected to have that head start, so that’s cool, but I am curious how it might have looked if we’d written it together. But so long as it all works, and we’re making forward progress, I’m not going to stress on it. πŸ™‚

We added 7.5 pages today, so now we”re at about 18.5 pages. According to my early estimates, we should be at about 16.5, so we may be running a little long. But we’re going to save any deep edits for the next draft, and continue forward.

Regarding the story, the secret past relationship between two of our principals has been revealed, they’ve found the first stripped coyote corpse, and had our second (even more strange) interaction with crazy-old-lady.

Now the Ranger is about to appear, setting up a few plot points for later payoff. That’s for Wednesday.

Total hours in so far (Chip): 24.5

New horror project: day 2.5 update

It’s Sunday night and this upcoming week looks less than full of writing… Tuesday I’ve got a lunch with a buddy and great writer from Sacramento to BS about writing, toss around some story ideas, and whatnot.

And since I got the part in the commercial, Friday will be all about the shoot.

So we won’t get five work days in. But I still hope to get 15-20 pages written this week. Too ambitious? We’ll see…

New horror project: Day two writing

Day two of writing done. We’ve taken our principal characters from their meeting with the crazy old lady all the way into the mountains to the old cabin. They’ve gotten the boards off the windows, we’ve established their relationships and personalities a little more, and we’ve finally got them through their first night in the woods. And, we’ve heard the creatures for the first time! Good stuff.

We added 5.5 pages. That brings us to 11. According to my rough estimate, we should be at 11.5 pages, so we’re a little ahead of the game. At this rate we should be able to finish draft 1 in around 17 working days. And working days for us are far less than 8 hours, what with the family obligations and all.

Unfortunately that won’t be 17 consecutive working days. This week in particular has been less than optimally productive, since it’s Spring Break and my son is home from school all week and I’m Mister Mom. But my awesome wife has had him go to work with her a few times, so that’s been really helpful. Nevertheless, Sean had a doc’s appointment that took him out of town for the day, I had a couple things come up, and Friday is Good Friday. So we’re just getting two days in this week. Next week I hope will be better.

New horror project: Day one writing

Day one is in the can (bag? hard drive?).

Zhura‘s online screenplay collaboration tool is working well.

It went quite smoothly… we plugged through the first half of our characters’ first day, getting all four primary’s introduced, learning a bit about the remote mountain locale, and meeting the creepy crazy old lady down the road. πŸ™‚

We ended up with 5.5 pages of completed script, and it read pretty well. We’ll tweak on it, but it’s readable, and that fits in just fine with our “crap but done” goal for draft one (though really, I’m way too anal to accept crap, even in a first draft).