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Writing tools: software

I wrote my earliest stories using a range of tools, from my dad’s old manual typewriter to Bank Street Writer on the Commodore 64. After I got a real job and disposable income, I bought a PC and used Microsoft Word, because every writer used a word processor, right?

After a decade of that, when I switched to Linux in 2011, I stayed in the word processor paradigm, using LibreOffice Writer as my main writing tool for years, well into my independent publishing career.

But word processors are not built for generating electronic books or PDFs for upload to print-on-demand publishers, like IngramSpark or Kindle Direct Publishing. Sure, most word processors have an “export to epub” button, but if you inspect the raw HTML inside that epub, there’s a whole lot of conversion cruft that bloats file sizes. Plus, a formatting fix doable with one edit in a CSS stylesheet is practically impossible if you have to do it for every paragraph of an epub.

“Print to PDF” is worse. It’s a pain in the a$$ to manually add page breaks at the end of page 1 of a chapter and tweak heights of blank lines to get text to line up from a left page to a right.

On top of that, word processors have a million settings, almost none of which a writer needs. A book is 99% plain text, with markup usually only required for italics and, very rarely, bold.

If word processors are overkill for composing and ill-designed for publishing, what’s solution did I arrive at?

I write stories in the Markdown markup language. Plain text, italics, bold, HTML headings that can become chapter titles, and a few other tricks I haven’t had call for yet but would love to use someday.

To generate publishable formats, I run my Markdown file through Pandoc to generate epub and LaTeX files. Multiple tools can convert ebooks from epub to mobi format for Amazon’s ecosystem (I use Amazon’s kindlegen command line tool). LaTeX is a complex beast, but I concatenate my LaTeX manuscript with boilerplate front matter and back matter and make a few edits to get to a print-interior PDF. No tweaking blank line heights or manually adding page breaks.

Pandoc can also convert Markdown to ODT, a word processor format, if I’m working with an editor who wants to receive manuscripts as .doc or .rtf files. LibreOffice Writer gets me the last mile on that conversion.

Since Markdown is basically plain text with a little markup, any text editor will do. After using Kate (the text editor shipped with the KDE Desktop Enviornment), I took the plunge into Vim. My advice if you’re switching to Vim: use Vimtutor. A great way to climb Vim’s notoriously steep learning curve.

Information management is the only other thing I need. I’ve used Zim, a personal wiki for your desktop. In my quest to vimify my workflow, I’ve tried various wiki plugins for vim. Lervag’s wiki.vim is my current choice. I’m manfully resisting the urge to fire up Emacs to see if org-mode is as great an information manager as people say.

In Memoriam: Neil Peart

Attribution: Weatherman90 at en.wikipedia

I became a fan of Rush back in the early ’80s, the first time I heard Tom Sawyer over the radio from KBFL, at the time the student-run radio station out of Buffalo (MO) High School.

The three members of the band were all virtuosos on their instruments, but the thing that raised them above other bands of that era was the song writing. Lots of science fiction (2112, Red Barchetta, The Body Electric, and more) and stuff that’s science fiction-adjacent (Countdown, obviously, though Digital Man and New World Man fit with the cyberpunk esthetic of the early ’80s). But most of their other tracks, with their recurring themes of individualism, resistance to authoritarians, and introverts and outsiders trying to find their way, spoke to me as well. And most of those lyrics came from Peart’s pen.

Peart, who died last week of glioblastoma, aged 67, took influence from science fiction, but in turn, science fiction took influence from him. Last month (December 2019), the Libertarian Futurist Society nominated The Trees, an anti-equal-outcomes parable, for the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. Kevin J. Anderson, a long-time friend of Peart’s, novelized the band’s last studio album, Clockwork Angels. And Rush’s music has popped up in my own stories in different ways.

In addition to Peart’s relevance for science fiction, he also exemplified some positive traits creative people of any stripe should emulate.

After the album Caress of Steel failed to meet their record company’s expectations, the band faced a choice. Record an album more in line with what the suits wanted, or follow their weird. They followed their weird and recorded 2112, which ended up being their best selling album to that point and laid the groundwork for the next four decades of their successes.

When asked about writing the lyrics to Limelight, a song about the pluses and minuses of fame, Peart said, “I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to be good.”

And he was, for a career lasting about fifty years, speaking to the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. All because he and the other band members forged their path and stuck to it, regardless what the suits and the critics said. You can’t ask for more than that in this life.