Tag Archives: software

Writing Software for Writers

This is especially for writers of big things. If you write small things, like blog posts or short articles, your best tool is probably a text editor you like and a way to handle markdown language. Chances are you use a word processor like MS Word or LibreOffice, and that is both overkill and problematic for other reasons, but if it floats your boat, happy sailing. But really, the simpler the better for basic writing and composition and file management. If you have an editor or publisher that requires that you only exchange documents in Word format, you can shoot your text file with markdown into a Word document format easily, or just copy and paste into your word processor and fiddle.

(And yes, a “text editor” and a “word processor” are not the same thing.)

But if you have larger documents, such as a book, to work on, then you may have additional problems that require somewhat heroic solutions. For example, you will need to manage sections of text in a large setting, moving things around, and leaving large undone sections, and finally settling on a format for headings, chapters, parts, sections, etc. after trying out various alternative structures.

You will want to do this effectively, without the necessary fiddling taking too much time, or ruining your project if something goes wrong. Try moving a dozen different sections around in an 80,000 word document file. Not easy. Or, if you divide your document into many small files, how do you keep them in order? There are ways, but most of the ways are clunky and some may be unreliable.

If you use Windows (I don’t) or a Mac (I do sometimes) then you should check out Scrivener. You may have heard about it before, and we have discussed it here. But you may not know that there is a new version and it has some cool features added to all the other cool features it already had.

The most important feature of Scrivener is that it has a tree that holds, as its branches, what amount to individual text files (with formatting and all, don’t worry about that) which you can freely move around. The tree can have multiple hierarchical levels, in case you want a large scale structure that is complex, like multiple books each with several parts containing multiple chapters each with one or more than one scene. No problem.

Imagine the best outlining program you’ve ever used. Now, improve it so it is better than that. Then blend it with an excellent word processing system so you can do all your writing in it.

Then, add features. There are all sorts of features that allow you to track things, like how far along the various chapters or sections are, or which chapters hold which subplots, etc. Color coding. Tags. Places to take notes. Metadata, metadata, metadata. A recent addition is a “linguistic focus” which allows you to chose a particular construct such as “nouns” or “verbs” or dialog (stuff in quotation marks) and make it all highlighted in a particular subdocument.

People will tell you that the index card and cork board feature is the coolest. It is cool, but I like the other stuff better, and rarely use the index cards on the cork board feature myself. But it is cool.

The only thing negative about all these features is that there are so many of them that there will be a period of distraction as you figure out which way to have fun using them.

Unfortunately for me, I like to work in Linux, and my main computer is, these days, a home built Linux box that blows the nearby iMac out of the water on speed and such. I still use the iMac to write, and I’ve stripped most of the other functionality away from that computer, to make that work better. So, when I’m using Scrivener, I’m not getting notices from twitter or Facebook or other distractions. But I’d love to have Scrivener on Linux.

If you are a Linux user and like Scrivener let them know that you’d buy Scrivener for Linux if if was avaialable! There was a beta version of Scrivener for Linux for a while, but it stopped being developed, then stopped being maintained, and now it is dead.

In an effort to have something like Scrivener on my Linux machine, I searched around for alternatives. I did not find THE answer, but I found some things of interest.

I looked at Kit Scenarist, but it was freemium which I will not go near. I like OpenSource projects the best, but if they don’t exist and there is a reasonable paid alternative, I’ll pay (like Scrivener, it has a modest price tag, and is worth it) . Bibisco is an entirely web based thing. I don’t want my writing on somebody’s web cloud.

yWriter looks interesting and you should look into it (here). It isn’t really available for Linux, but is said to work on Mono, which I take to be like Wine. So, I didn’t bother, but I’m noting it here in case you want to.

oStorybook is java based and violated a key rule I maintain. When software is installed on my computer, there has to be a way to start it up, like telling me the name of the software, or putting it on the menu or something. I think Java based software is often like this. Anyway, I didn’t like its old fashioned menus and I’m not sure how well maintained it is.

Writers Cafe is fun to look at and could be perfect for some writers. It is like yWrite in that it is a set of solutions someone thought would be good. I tried several of the tools and found that some did not work so well. It cost money (but to try is free) and isn’t quite up to it, in my opinion, but it is worth a look just to see for yourself.

Plume Creator is apparently loved by many, and is actually in many Linux distros. I played around with it for a while. I didn’t like the menu system (disappearing menus are not my thing at all) and the interface is a bit quirky and not intuitive. But I think it does have some good features and I recommend looking at it closely.

The best of the lot seems to be Manuskript. It is in Beta form but seems to work well. It is essentially a Scrivener clone, more or less, and works in a similar way with many features. In terms of overall slickness and oomph, Manuskript is maybe one tenth or one fifth of Scrivener (in my subjective opinion) but is heading in that direction. And, if your main goal is simply to have a hierarchy of scenes and chapters and such that you can move around in a word processor, then you are there. I don’t like the way the in line spell checker works but it does exist and it does work. This software is good enough that I will use it for a project (already started) and I do have hope for it.

Using Scrivener on Linux the Other Way.

There is of course a way to use Scrivener on Linux, if you have a Mac laying around, and I do this for some projects. Scrivener has a mode that allows for storing the sub documents in your projects as text files that you can access directly and edit with a text editor. If you keep these in Dropbox, you can use emacs (or whatever) on Linux to do your writing and such, and Scrivener on the Mac to organize the larger document. Sounds clunky, is dangerous, but it actually works pretty well for certain projects.

Scrivener can look like this.

OpenOffice May Close The Door

The history of what we call “OpenOffice” is complex and confusing. It started as a project of Sun corporation, to develop an office suit that was not Microsoft Office, to use internally. Later, a version became more generally available known as Star Office, but also, a version called “OpenOffice” soon became available as well. The current histories say that Star Office was commercial, but my memory is that it never cost money to regular users. I think the idea was that large corporations would pay, individuals not. This was all back around 2000, plus or minus a year or two.

In any event, the Open Office project built two things of great importance. First, it made a set of software applications roughly comparable to the key elements in Microsoft’s Office Suite, including a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation app, and, depending, something that draws and something that relates to databases.

The second thing it did was to create and develop an important open source document format.

But, believe it or not, in the world of software development and programming, even in the happy fuzzy world of OpenSource, there can be fights. And, not just the fun and tongue in cheek fights over which religion you are (vi vs. Linux). These fights often involve differences in points of view between megacorporations that get involved in OpenSource projects, and the unwashed masses of programmers contributing to such things. The majority of code is written and maintained by corporations, much of that in the hands of a very small number, but the contributions from individuals not linked to corporations is extremely important.

In the case of OpenOffice, the tensions were between the broader Office-interested development community and big corporations shifted in 2010 when Sun corporation which had always been involved in OO development, was purchased by Oracle Corporation. Oracle has not been friendly to OpenSource in the past, so the wider community freaked. There is a side plot here involving Java, which we will ignore. Oracle didn’t end up doing anything clearly bad against the OpenOffice project. But, they also ended up not doing anything good, either, which is essentially a death sentence for a project like this. Later in the same year, an organization called The Document Foundation was created and took on the job of forking OpenOffice.

Forking is where a given lineage of software is split to create an alternative. Sometimes this is to bring some software in a different direction, perhaps for a more specialized use. Sometimes it is a way of resolving conflict, much as hunter gatherers undergo fission and fusion in their settlement patterns, by separating antagonists or putting a distinct wall between antagonistic goals. In this case, while the latter is probably part of it, the main reason for the fork and its main effect was to get the project under the control of an active development community so work could be continued before the project stagnated.

That fork became known as LibreOffice. For some time now, it has been recommended that if you are going to install an OpenSource office suite on your Windows, Linux, or Apple Computer, it should be LibreOffice.

One could argue that the OpenOffice suit or its analog (earlier, Star office, later the LibreOffice fork) is the most important single project in OpenSource, because an office suite is a key part of almost all desktop computer configurations. Of course, most servers don’t need or require an office suite, and there, web servers and database servers, and a few other things, are more important. But to the average end user (in business or private life) being able to open up a “Word Document” (a term misapplied to the category of “wordprocessor document”), or to run a spreadsheet, or to make a presentation, etc. is essential, and that is what an office suit provides. OpenOffice was comparable to Microsoft Office, and now, LibreOffice is comparable to Microsoft Office. By some accounts, better, though many Microsoft Office users have, well, a different religion.

Now, it is being reported that the mostly ignored, maligned by some, historically important yet now out of date OpenOffice project is about to byte the dust. As it were.

Dennis Hamilton, VP of the group that runs OpenOffice, “… proposed a shutdown of OpenOffice as one option if the project could not meet the goals it had set. ‘My concern is that the project could end with a bang or a whimper. My interest is in seeing any retirement happen gracefully. That means we need to consider it as a contingency. For contingency plans, no time is a good time, but earlier is always better than later.'” [Source]

Approximately 160 million copies of LibreOffice have been downloaded to date. The closing of the OpenOffice project, should that happen, will probably have little effect on LibreOffice, since most people had already walked away from the venerable old but flawed grandaddy of OO Suites.