Archive for February, 2012

I want to be able to do all my creative writing in a single, plain text environment. Org-mode provides outlining and organization, so what’s next? Well, org-mode is an Emacs major-mode and Emacs, like most text editors was written with programmers in mind. Emacs only added a real word wrap (visual-line-mode) with the last version, an absolute must have for a writer. But printing from Emacs doesn’t do proper word wrapping. So, I dug around and found GNU enscript, a printing program that takes plain text and outputs to a postscript printer with word wrap and lots of other command line options that give me what I want.

Once I nailed down the options (margins, word wrap, extra vertical space between each line, page numbers where I wanted them,etc) I wrote a function (defun) that automated printing with enscript. I also reassigned a key combination and put both in my .emacs (config file). Now when I want to print all I need to do is highlight the text region and press Shift <print>.

I use org-mode to export to Latex and get a professionally typeset copy that’s far superior to anything you can get using a word processor. The latest version of org-mode can export to Open Office / LibreOffice format and if I wanted, I could save to Word format. I use org-mode to export to html and with a few tweaks to the html source and a run through kinglegen, I have a file that can be sideloaded into my Kindle. But for draft copies, I export as plain text and use enscript to print. The graphic at the top of this post is an example of a plain text printout. All this from plain text files that can be read and edited with any text editor.

So what’s next? I need to add some ‘rules’ and tools to my org-mode creative writing environment. I’ll keep the actual story text at the top of the outline with story or chapter as the top level headline then use the next level down for scenes. That’s it — two levels. Then I can use the rest of the outline headings further down for character sketches, plot ideas, notes or whatever strikes my fancy to keep things organized. It’s easy to export only the text but I don’t want headings so what to do?

I solved that issue earlier this evening when I built a regular expression (regexp) that can find all the scene headings:


Org-mode uses asterisks to mark headlines, with first level *, second level ** and so on. The above regexp finds the entire line for each scene heading.

I can replace each instance with the latex markup (\bigskip) that puts extra vertical space between scenes. And I can also insert the Latex markup for no indent for the first paragraph of the new scene. Sounds complex but it’s not, especially since I’ll write a function to automate the process once I have it ironed out to my satisfaction.

Now that I know I can tweak org-mode, I’ll lay off for awhile and do some serious writing instead.

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I took a series of photos of a drone bee sitting on a hosta bloom at the end of the summer in 2009. I published versions of several of these images in 2009, but I decided to re-scan, rework and re-publish them tonight. The last image was never published before. This series was shot using Ilford Plus 50 B&W film and my Nikon F3HP mounted on my tripod. The film is high resolution but also high contrast and a bit fussy.

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“Keep simple things simple… and do more” A great quote from the org-mode website and here’s another: “Org: an Emacs Mode for Notes, Planning, and Authoring.”

I installed Emacs back in 2010 in my quest for an outliner to replace the aging but never equalled MaxThink for DOS. I also wanted a solid, powerful writing environment. I once used word processors for all my writing: Word, Open Office Writer, Lotus, Sprint (Borland) and I cut my teeth with WordStar back in the 1980s. None for me thanks. I’ll take a powerful, plain text editor any day. Writing with a Word Processor is like trying to run fast while wearing combat boots with the laces untied.

Plain text is a must. I’ve had too many bad experiences with proprietary file formats that change when you least expect it. Now I just lace up my org-modes and fly across the page. I use a single file to manage all my blog posts. I have a journal where each day (when I write something) is a top level headline. And I wrote and published my short story “An Emerald Ring” using a single org-mode file for all the drafts.

Still, I wanted more. And I finally figured out how to get more this weekend. Last week I talked about how I wrote a script in gedit (another good editor) that allowed me to parse ideas from a rough draft into a neat list at the end of the file. I spent hours trying to get Emacs to do the same thing. Org-capture (built into org-mode) did the trick for me once I worked out the details and it works better.

I can use that list to brainstorm and build an outline from the bottom up using org-mode. Then take that same outline (think chapters, scenes, sections) to build the format for an article, story or an entire book. And then write the damn thing using the same program — org-mode. And while I’m writing, I can play with characterization, plot, etc. in the same file!

Keeping simple things simple works right out of the box and I was up and running in no time. The do more part takes more time. Last week I said that until I find the perfect text editor for writers, I’d build my own any way I could. Org-mode is a damn good start.

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Livvy and Maddy had a virtual ‘do not disturb’ sign hanging in the air above their heads while watching their favorite TV program in our family room. Livvy is on the left, Maddy is on the right. Can you tell them apart?

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I don’t shoot color much these days because I must send the film out to a lab for processing. Outside processing is expensive, takes time and moves me out of the control loop. But every once in a while I’ll shoot a roll of color film.

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I took this photograph in Ceres Nature Preserve in the spring or summer of 2010 and this is an encore presentation with a different interpretation this time. The reflections, the shapes, the light and shadow and the colors all fascinate me. I took some of the lessons I’ve learned since the original posting and applied them. The image has more contrast, the shadows are deeper and the color is more accurate (I think).

I tried a conversion to B&W. It was merely OK, not worth pursuing. I like this image in color. I used Kodak Ektar color print film, an exciting new (well it was new two years ago) version of an old emulsion with vibrant color designed for scanning. When you get the color right, the results can be stunning. I struggled with the color a bit (no profile in VueScan) and I think this version is better than the first.

Maybe I’ll order a few rolls of Ektar just to have around when I get in the mood for color again.

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OK, you’ve been free-writing, letting the words flow without judging or editing and you’ve exhausted your idea pool or think it’s time to stop. What do you do with the mind dump, first draft now?

I wondered the same thing and wished someone would program a decent text editor for writers. Most, if not all, text editors are written with computer programmers in mind. They are powerful, fast and can do some amazing tricks, most of which are useless for a writer.

Writers are supposed to use word processors (I wonder who started that myth?). I seldom use a word processor and why writers think they should write using a program designed for secretarial tasks in a business office puzzles me. (reminder to self — write an article explaining why word processors suck for creative writing).

Creative writing needs good software that helps instead of getting in the way. What if I had a good text editor that could help make sense of a first draft? What if I had a good text editor that helps me organize my thoughts? What if I could start at the beginning of a shitty first draft and whenever I found a word or phrase that resonated, highlight the word or phrase, press a key combination and send that word or phrase to a list?

I got the idea when using NoteTab Pro which has a neat function that lets you use a file as a ‘pasteboard’ so each time you copy anything from another file, the text appears in the ‘pasteboard’ file. Keep going and you create a nice list of all the ideas culled from your draft.

Unfortunately, NoteTab is a windows program and I need a native Linux editor. I discovered a solution that works even better than the NoteTab ‘pasteboard’ function.

I like gedit, the default editor for the gnome desktop and use it a lot. Gedit has a tools plug-in that let’s you create scripts that can either run from a pull down menu or an assigned shortcut key combination that runs the script when pressed. I figured out a script that appends a list to the end of a file and it works without taking my hands off the keyboard.

I move through the file using the arrow keys. When I find something I want to add to the list, I highlight the selection using Ctrl/shift and the right arrow key, then press Ctrl/F12 and the highlighted text is appended to the end of the file as the next item in the list.

When I’m finished, I can simply copy the list and paste it into a new file. Another gedit plug-in lets me sort the list alphabetically and I can move items up or down the list easily using the Alt key with the up or down arrow — neat ways to help distill and organize the meat of a first draft.

I set the tool to use the current selection and append the output to the end of the file. Here’s the script:

sed ‘s/[a-z]*/\n&/’

I tested my idea with this article. After writing the first draft on my Neo, I plugged Neo into the USB port on my desktop and dumped the draft into a new file in gedit. Then I played around with a list. It worked fine, but since my first draft was reasonably coherent, I pulled another neat gedit trick instead.

I opened another empty file in a new window and simply dragged and dropped the text I wanted from the draft into the new window. (Gedit doesn’t delete the original text so you are moving a copy of the selection). Then I edited and added to the second draft until I was satisfied.

The point? Go ahead and make a mess with your first draft. The job of the first draft is to get your thoughts out onto the page. Editing comes later. A tool like my list builder can help. And until I find the perfect text editor for writers, I’ll build my own any way I can.

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Say hello to Emily, one of our six lovely granddaughters. Here she is in a moment of introspection getting ready to play her clarinet for Uncle Jim (Tracy’s brother) on Christmas Day.

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“If we taught our children to speak in the way that we teach them to write everyone would stutter.” Mark Twain

Imagine for a moment that your ideas are like a room full of butterflies, that you delight in watching them flit about swooping up and down and around and then you hold out your hand. First one, then another and another lands on your finger. Now picture Sister “I’ll smack your hand with this ruler” Marie standing over you, commanding you to pin your butterflies to the wall, killing them one by one.

We’ll have no mistakes in our copybooks. God will punish those who dare to cross out, now pin your dead butterflies to the page with your ruler, take up your red pencil and make the perfect diagram.

Worse than being taught to edit and write at the same time, we were taught to edit before we ever had the chance to play, before our ideas could be born out of the delicious chaos of our imaginations.

I’d love to go back to grade school so I could color outside the lines, cross out words in my not so perfect copybook, snatch Sister Mary Nasty’s ruler out of her hand, break it in two and then give the pieces back with a smile on my face that tells her what she can do with her instrument of violence.

Instead, I did the next best thing. I wrote the draft for this post out by hand, room filled with butterflies, using one of my fountain pens and plain old lined paper. I turned my computer on only after the butterflies landed on my page.

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Wenonah Trail Guide in hand (actually it was tucked into one of my pockets), I stopped on the way home on Friday afternoon last week for a scouting expedition. I knew there was a railroad trestle spanning the Mantua Creek so I headed there first. The water level drops as the Mantua Creek spills over a rocky waterfall a few feet west of the trestle. Perfect!

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This is a hand held shot taken with my F3HP and 50mm lens. The bank under the trestle is wide and gravel covered. I crouched down as close to the water as I could get without falling in.

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I stood up and moved east upstream from the falls for this shot looking west in the direction of the late afternoon (around 3:30 PM) sun. I’m pleased with the mood I was able to capture here. The tones, the textures, the play of light and shadow all embrace the essence of B&W photography. This image alone made the hike worthwhile. But there’s more…

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Back again on Monday afternoon at about the same time. I hiked in from the West this time, tripod slung on one shoulder, F3HP on the other and the pockets of my field jacket bulging with two additional lenses, extra film, cable release and a few filters. I used the 50mm lens again but since the camera was loaded with high speed film, I screwed on a circular polarizing filter so I could use a slow shutter speed. I mounted the camera on my tripod and knelt on the knee unfriendly gravel (big gravel). I left my digital recorder in the car (duh) but I think I shot this at 1/15 second. I also forgot to bring my right angle viewfinder attachment so I made a few contortions so I could see.

I used the F3’s built in meter set on manual. That sucker is accurate and has never once let me down. When shooting at 1/30 second or slower, mirror slap can cause camera vibrations so I locked the mirror up before shooting. This is the first time I’ve ever tried capturing the movement of water using a slow shutter speed.

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OK, I love my 50mm lens(es) but I needed to get closer so I switched to my 75-150 zoom. I took four shots using different aperture/shutter speed combinations. The shots ranged from freezing the movement too much to too soft. I chose one in the middle. I think it was 1/30 this time. I’ll remember to bring my recorder next time. I’m learning. I like the way the water flows over the rocks in this one.

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I zoomed all the way in to 150mm for this one. I shot three frames this time. Shooting multiple frames at different settings is the only way to be reasonably sure of getting a good image with film. Again, my intuition told me which of the three was the best image. I followed the same drill using manual exposure with the mirror locked up.

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My fingers were getting cold and I was kind of tired so I only shot two frames for this one. I fiddled with the zoom and camera angle just a bit.

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I really lucked out here — the single frame came out fine. I moved my tripod so I could get this shot looking across the falls to the far bank of the creek.

I learned a lot on these two shoots. Thanks to Kerry for his example and encouragement. If you haven’t seen Kerry’s photos, get your butt over to his web site Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog . You won’t be disappointed.

So, here are the technical details. The camera for all shots was my Nikon F3HP. I used my Nikon Nikkor-H Auto 50mm f/2, a lens I picked up on eBay years ago for about $35. This lens was made sometime between 1968 and 1971. Originally a non-AI lens, it was converted to work on modern Nikon SLRs. It’s a lovely, all metal lens, the kind they don’t make any more and this guy is sharp.

I prefer prime lenses but make an exception for my 75-150 Nikon e zoom. It’s sort of a cult classic and a damn good performer. I use it exclusively (along with a two element Nikon close up lens) for all my macro work.

The camera was already loaded with Tri-X rated at ISO 1250. I shot the first seven frames indoors on Christmas. Why rated at ISO 1250? Because I process all my film with Diafine and the Tri-X speed in that developer is 1600 but most people get better results at 1250. Next time, I’ll probably load the F3 with Ilford FP4 rated at a more modest ISO of 250 so I can work with slower shutter speeds more easily.

So glad I finally got my first taste of the wonders of the Wenonah trails. I’ll be going back (a lot).

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