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Log on, and the plot thickens ...

Mark Chadbourn offers chapter and verse on software designed to cure writer's block
Every writer dreads The Wall. That computer screen, horrifying in its blankness, which dares you cruelly to come up with something, anything, that will further your story. Yet whatever you do, your characters stumble en route from A to B, your subtext becomes so sub it disappears and your dialogue becomes the stuff that Neighbours rejects.

Writer's block is a nightmare, but how can you fight it? Some people suggest a hefty jolt of caffeine, a long lie-down or the pleasures of your local pub, but the computer literate can now turn to Collaborator II.

This piece of software, for IBM or Mac, is described as a "creativity enhancer" - "the writing partner that won't let you down". It comes with an impressive list of professional users: Stephen King, writer of doorstops and international bestsellers, John Cleese, horror film director Wes Craven, Aaron Spelling, Barry Morrow, writer of Rain Man, and Goldie Hawn (or Goldie Horn, as the advert says rather Freudianly). Plus it was co-developed by Louis Garfinkle, who wrote the story for the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter.

Despite all that, I approached it with caution. After all, what writer would want a database of raddled old plots and hackneyed characters, or a computerised clipboard where you pasted up bits and pieces of too-familiar stories like some information-age Victor Frankenstein?

With relief, I quickly discovered Collaborator II wasn't an ideas factory. And let's face it, if you can't come up with the basic idea for a story, you shouldn't be writing anyway. What it is is a problem-solver.

It is a DOS-based program based on the index card system used by most screenwriters. Imagine a desk top covered with index cards and on each card is a question about a particular element of the story - character, plot or setting. Every time you get a new idea you note it on a new card and at the end you sort them into order so your story progresses naturally from beginning to end.

Collaborator II takes this several steps further. It provides key questions to prompt the development of the story and it responds to your ideas with new, pertinent questions that lead you on. In effect, it makes you think in incredible detail about every single aspect of your story.

You start off by typing in the names of your characters, the title, the setting and the basic theme, and then you're away. The questions come thick and fast: "Why will an audience respond to this story?"; "Why is the protagonist the only person who can resolve the main conflict?" The former makes you think whether you are actually telling anything new, and the latter focuses on a more fundamental element: the protagonist must be the only person who can bring your story to an end. If he or she doesn't, you have an immediate and very large flaw in your story. The program does not understand your answers, but if you answer a question it will automatically ask a series of ancillary questions: the aim is to make you think, rather than to give specific ideas.

I should point out that Collaborator II is not for the Nicholson Bakers of this world, or for anyone who vehemently believes there are no rules in writing. If your storytelling style is elliptical, surreal or abstract, look elsewhere. Collaborator II is based on Aristotle's six elements of drama - plot, character, thought, diction, music and spectacle - so we can be pretty sure David Lynch didn't use it to write the screenplay for Eraserhead.

The manual says: "Converse with Collaborator as you would with a colleague, trusted friend or writing partner." However, I would rule out swearing at it or getting drunk with it. On the plus side, it doesn't throw dictionaries at your head when you come up with a stupid idea.

It is really a nursemaid, encouraging you to test the worth of your ideas and find your own solutions, and by allowing you to print out part or all of your story in report form you can take it away and mull over it. There is a 120,000-word dictionary and a thesaurus too, and the help facility is near-perfect. It also has a Collaborator-generated outline of the classic screenplay It's A Wonderful Life so you can see how it works in the real world.

On the downside, it has obviously been written by Americans with their own peculiar language and views on how the world works. But good old British cynicism will soon get you past that.

As it proclaims, Collaborator II is a good buy for both the pro and the aspiring writer (although at pounds 249 plus pounds 10 packing, those aspirations have to be pretty firm.) For the hopefuls, Collaborator II acts as an online creative writing course, honing the all-important structure that is often so elusive in the early days. Publishers, agents and film companies or broadcasters will often point out the writing is good, but the story falls down. Collaborator II should help you to bypass that and get a vital step closer to a fully polished piece.

Collaborator II is available from the Writers' Software Catalogue, Suite 137, 2 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3DQ. Telephone: 0171-413 9985, fax: 0171-581 4445.

The writer is an author and journalist. His second novel, 'Nocturne', was published by Victor Gollancz in November and his next, 'The Eternal', will be out in January 1996.