Archive for the ‘Tools’ Category

Screenshot from 2014-03-08 13:18:59

I have an original, 221 page printed Max94 manual that I’ve kept preserved for 20 years. After I scanned the entire manual and made a pdf file yesterday I contacted Neil Larson, the brain behind MaxThink and received his permission to upload the pdf file so anyone interested may download the manual for their own use.

Left click here: MaxThink to view the MaxThink manual or

Right click here: MaxThink and choose Save Link As to download.

As promised, I’m working on the tutorials. Making the manual available was a priority. Enjoy, please leave feedback and please respect Neil’s copyright.

And please be patient. The manual file is 8.5 Mb and takes a few seconds to view or download (depending on download speed).

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It’s late and I don’t have the time for an in depth article but here’s a taste.
Screenshot from 2014-03-05 22:20:56

You’re looking at a screen-shot of an Org-mode outline on the left and a terminal window running MaxThink on the right. I’ve been trying to get these two to work together for a few years and I finally got it right. So far so good. I generated a small outline with 85 songs, songs I’m picking out of my fake books so I can learn them on my harmonica.

I will put together a comprehensive tutorial of my entire process once I have my thoughts organized. Meanwhile, it’s been too long since I posted anything on The Aware Writer.

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Org-mode is a great outliner/editor and I’ve been doing all my writing with it. The more I use org-mode the better I like it. But org-mode can’t do everything. BrainStorm excels at rapid sorting, reorganizing and brainstorming. Put org-mode and BrainStorm together and the synergy is terrific.

BrainStorm is a windows only program that I’ve been trying to get running properly on my Linux machine under Wine for almost four years. Wine released a new stable release earlier this month and BrainStorm is finally behaving.

I tried an experiment this morning. I used my portable AlphaSmart Neo for a freewriting session. When I was done, I dumped the file via USB cable to an org-mode file. Then I went through the file looking for interesting ideas, etc. Highlight some text, then press Ctrl-c x and the text is appended to a list in another buffer. When I reached the end of the text, I saved my list and fired up BrainStorm (BS).

Then I merged the list file with the file open in BS and sat down to play. BS has powerful tools for sorting and moving topics around, for creating order out of chaos which is what I did.

Now what? How to get my BS file back into org-mode? I wrote a perl script a few years ago that would take a tab indented file written from BS and create a file that I could load into Lyx (a front end for LaTeX). I spend hours trying to modify that program to translate the BS file into an org-mode file without success. I found a perl script on the old BS bulletin board that was posted there almost six years ago by Tony. His script takes a BS file and translates it so LaTeX understands it.

I took Tony’s perl script as the basis for a new perl script that makes an org-mode file out of a BS tab indented text file. It works! So now I have a two way street and can go back and forth between org-mode and BS.

I have high hopes for the synergy between these two programs. You might wonder what happened with MaxThink. Well, as good as MaxThink was, it’s too old, and has to run in a separate environment. I bought a licence for BS during the summer of 2006 because MaxThink was old and tired then. The reason I resurrected MaxThink was because the behavior of BS under the older version of Wine was quirky enough to keep me away. I’m happy that BS is working nicely now (knocking on wood). Stay tuned for further adventures.

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Org-mode is a structured editor that combines the best features of a powerful outliner and a powerful editor in one package. I’ve been fooling with org-mode a lot lately, digging into capabilities, solving issues and fine tuning, always asking the question — is org-mode the best environment for my writing? The answer is an unqualified yes.

Emerald Ring Outline -- click to enlarge

The illustration above is a screenshot showing the outline I used to write “An Emerald Ring,” a short story I wrote at the end of last year. Org-mode uses stars to distinguish heading levels, one star for the top level, two for the next and so on. You create a new headline by pressing either the Ctrl or Alt key together with the enter key. You cycle headline visibility using the Tab key.

As I progressed, I created a new top level heading for each new draft of my story with the latest draft at the top. The first four lines in this outline are structural markups that begin with #+. The markups don’t print. They tell org-mode what to do when the file or part of the file is exported to LaTeX, html or plain text. I put the latest draft at the top of the outline so that when I highlight the structural markups and the first headline, only the latest draft will be exported.

When you’re deep into writing a story, an article or even a book, and you have ideas, where do you keep the ideas so they don’t get lost? Well, I created headings for Story outline, characters and notes lower in the outline. I didn’t lose anything and my notes are right there when I need them.

The screenshot shows the outline partially expanded. Org-mode shows three periods after any headline that has subheads or text below. Yeah you say, all this is lovely but doesn’t it get kind of messy when you want to concentrate on writing a passage of plain text in the middle of an outline? Glad you asked because org-mode has a neat trick.

Focused headline -- click to enlarge

I put the cursor on the headline for the 8th draft and told org-mode to narrow the focus with a simple shortcut command. Here’s the screenshot. Try that one with your word processor. Now I have an uncluttered screen where I can write with no distractions. I wrote this post with org-mode using this trick. I created a new headline, told org-mode to narrow the focus and had a clean screen with the subject line at the top. Works for me.

There’s lots more to come. I figured out how to get the old DOS MaxThink and org-mode to cooperate but that’s another subject for another time.

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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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“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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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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MaxThink satisfies a need for thinking with a computer that I wrote about 30 years ago and reproduced in a post on September 12, 2009, Time Travel: Musing About MaxThink & More… I invite you to hop back and read the earlier post before continuing.

MaxThink (for DOS) opening screen

I’ve been using computers for about 30 years and in all that time, I’ve only found one program that comes close to the genius of Neil Larson and his old DOS version of MaxThink, the unique and wonderful idea processor, and that’s Brainstorm, a thinking and planning aid program that I used and liked for a few years on my Windows desktop machine. Brainstorm was close but not quite, lacking some of the key features that made MaxThink special.

I began migrating from Windows to Linux almost four years ago and made a complete break over a year ago. I do everything on my Linux Mint 9 Desktop now. Brainstorm runs under Wine but loses some of it’s best features and MaxThink for Windows won’t run at all under Wine (I tried the demo twice last week with no luck), so I’ve installed my old DOS copy of MaxThink94 using DosBox, a DOS emulator created to run old DOS games. MaxThink runs perfectly with DosBox and I couldn’t be happier.

My fingers never leave the keyboard when I’m cranking out ideas and reorganizing them with MaxThink. The keystrokes are intuitive and I was up to speed in a matter of a few days. Not having to use the silly mouse is a huge advantage when you are thinking and typing away.

At first glance, MaxThink is a powerful outliner, but the real power is under the hood. MaxThink came with a fat, printed manual that by some miracle, I still have. Neil’s book is more than a user manual for MaxThink. It’s a well written tutorial on ways of thinking: Evaluative thinking with the Prioritize command, synthesis thinking using Binsort and Randomize to combine information in new ways, curiosity or experimental thinking with the Lock command, systematic thinking using Get, Put and Gather, creative uses of the Sort command, and one of my favorites, segmented lists.

And yes, I end up with a well thought out, complete outline. I can’t print directly, but Neil provides a Write command that saves outlines to an ASCII file that opens in my favorite text editor where I can print the way I prefer anyway.

The journey is everything in creativity and MaxThink makes that journey more productive and pleasant. I created a two and a half page outline mirroring and assisting my writing as I go through lesson three in WritePro. MaxThink helps me to generate new ideas, to discover relationships among ideas, to organize my ideas and to preserve them so I’ll remember and build on the ideas.

The synergy is amazing. Begin a new writing project with an open mind and a blank screen in your editor. Write whatever comes to mind without judging or editing. When you go back for a look, pick out the good stuff, the best ideas and start a MaxThink outline to help organize those insights and discover new ones. Then back to the editor for revisions or a complete re-write. Back and forth between insight and editing until the project is complete. Love the creative journey which is never complete because when one project is finished another beckons.

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Early impressions? After 17 1/2 years? Well, considering that I only used WritePro for a few weeks in 1994, then let the program lie fallow until last week, early impressions are accurate. So what is WritePro? In the words of the author, “WritePro is a hands-on interactive tutorial program for people who want to improve their creative writing skills quickly.” Sol Stein, a respected, master editor and author is the brain behind WritePro. But if you want to get a taste of Stein’s ideas about creative writing before springing for WritePro, I highly recommend his book: “Stein on Writing.” I’ve had this book for a few years and consult it often. It’s good.

WritePro distills Stein’s wisdom into a series of rules (or guidelines in the new edition). My full set of eight lessons contains 140 of these rules. The new, full version is now ten lessons. I completed the first two lessons back in 1994. When I discovered the printouts from these two lessons last week, I set out to recreate what I had done so I could continue the course where I left off.

Lesson one teaches how to create believable characters and how to produce dramatic conflict and begins with the first rule, “Somebody has to want something badly” then jumps immediately into rule #2, “That somebody should be your leading character.” WritePro gets you started by choosing that character for you, Beth Reilly, a 35 year old woman. A text entry box appears on the screen with “Beth Reilly wants” and a blinking cursor. Your job is to create the character. The best way to begin is to simply let your imagination go and begin writing. Don’t worry about being wrong because as you progress from screen to screen you will be given prompts and suggestions on how you might improve your character sketch.

The program saves the content of that first screen as your original so you can go ahead an make revisions as you go. At the end of the lesson, you will be given the opportunity to print both the original and your final draft. Once you finish with Beth, you will create the villain (or opposing character). Villains aren’t necessarily bad, but they are obstacles that create conflict.

When you’ve finished the first lesson, you should have two well rounded characters. You will use those characters, along with three others you’ll create in Lesson two to invent a ‘suspenseful plot’ and weave that plot into two scenes. Sol Stein will be with you the whole way, each new screen offering new rules and suggestions along with plenty of opportunities for re-writing and revising along the way. And remember, whatever you type into the initial box for a new character, scene summary or the scene itself will be saved as the original draft. When you reach the end of the lesson, you can print out character sketches, scene summaries and the scenes themselves and you will get both your original draft and the final version for comparison.

Discovering and reading the old printouts of the two scenes I wrote in 1994 inspired me to get back into the program. I liked what I had written and wanted to see what more WritePro could offer. In the spirit of sharing, I’ve uploaded a pdf copy of those two scenes. You will find the link in a new page I created. Just click on the Stories tab and scroll down to Beth_Reilly, then click on the link to download the pdf file. This will give you an idea of how much I learned in two weeks back in 1994 and another five days transcribing and editing. Keep in mind that the scenes are current, not final drafts and you’re likely to find some grammar and spelling errors.

I started in on Lesson three this week and I’m having fun. This lesson teaches how to write an opening scene that hooks a reader, whose point of view to use and more. I’ll tell you more in a later post.

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The Universe works in strange ways, or so it seems, unless you understand the law of attraction. Last week, I found something that I didn’t know I needed, something I had completely fogotten about, when I was looking for something else.

Last week’s Monday Musings featured several modified contour drawings I had done years ago in June of 1994. I was out of work at the time, having been laid off in the Spring. While looking for work, I was spending my spare time (I had lots of that) trying to be productive and creative.

I was searching for more contour drawings this past Tuesday when I found a dusty old three ring binder. When I opened it, I discovered printouts of some of the creative writing I was doing during that same summer. I found final character sketch drafts and final drafts of the first two scenes from a story that I had completely forgotten. The material was from the first two lessons (of eight) from WritePro, a creative writing program I bought at the beginning of August, 1994. When I saw that the final drafts were dated August 24, 1994, I understood why I abandoned the program. I started an exciting new job five days later as a project manager at Thomas Jefferson University.

All the electronic files are long gone, but I still have the original WritePro program complete with printed manuals. Since I’m serious about developing my skills as a creative writer, I decided that I wanted to finish this course. The version of WritePro that I have is an old DOS version and the OS on my desktop computer is Linux Mint. Now what?

DosBox to the rescue. DosBox is open source software that emulates an Intel X86 running MS-DOS. It was created to run old DOS games, but can also run other DOS programs like WritePro. After I installed DosBox, I fiddled with the screen resolution settings in the configuration file until I got it right. So I’ve got the 17 1/2 year old WritePro working on my desktop. Not only that, I recreated the first two lessons, making a few edits along the way and began lesson three Saturday night.

Well, I got one old MS-DOS program running, why not dig out my old copy of MaxThink 94, also an old DOS program? Got that bad boy running on Sunday morning. Would you believe I still have the excellent printed manual and an instructional cassette tape? I do. In fact I used Max to outline this post. I even figured out how to write an autoexec.bat file that gives me the choice of loading either program automatically.

It’s too soon to write an objective review of WritePro, but I will after I get deeper into the course. I loved MaxThink back in the day and once I reacquaint myself with Max, I’ll write an objective review or two. Both programs are alive and well. WritePro is available as an overpriced ($400) Java program available for Windows or Mac and MaxThink is Windows only, at a very reasonable $29.

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