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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Click to enlarge

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.

Click to enlarge

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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