A Writer’s Lament

Given the title, you might be surprised to see that this is not, in fact, another post about writing — at least, not directly. It is rather a ramble about the tools of the writer, better known in this day and age as software packages. This is true for all writers: technical writers, journalists, students, academics, novelists — and yes, even the poet who writes long-hand with a fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook will eventually type it up if he or she wants anyone else to see it.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, of a variety of different kinds. My novel, of course, has consumed a lot of my time, but I’ve also been working on an academic paper, a yearbook, and even a programming language specification. All of this different writing has gotten me thinking about the tools I use for each, how they’re different, and how I’d like for them to be the same.

These musings have been based around a few issues that I keep coming across.

  • When submitting fiction to publishers and editors, they usually want you to use standard manuscript format. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I find it hideous to look at. Though this hasn’t affected me personally — as I have yet to produce anything good enough to submit for publication — I’d like there to be an easy way for me to switch from my preferred format to manuscript format, without having to change the fonts and italics/underlining explicitly every time.
  • I want to be able to control my own data — the text I write should be available to me, even if I no longer use the program I wrote it in.
  • I want an easy way to generate output for different uses — such as going from two-column text for printing to single-column landscape display for screen reading.
  • I want something that is generally easy to use, but has all the functionality you might ever want.

Unfortunately, none of the tools I use regularly can satisfy all of these desires.
I’ve been writing my novel in Corel WordPerfect 12 (the current version is X3, which I assume means 13). It is my favourite word processor. All of my early instruction and word processor use was on Microsoft products, but in university I bought a copy of WordPerfect 8 because it was cheaper, and everything about it was just so much better and easier to use that I never used Word again, apart from single-page documents. (Even those documents were an exercise in frustration, actually.) The “Reveal Codes” feature is a godsend for debugging peculiar word processor behaviour, it has maintained the same file format ever since I’ve been using it, and it had built-in PDF export long before Microsoft ever did.

I’ve also used OpenOffice, and generally like it. A few aspects of how it works are kind of confusing, but that’s to be expected when using a new software package, and it is free, so I can forgive quite a lot. I very much like the use of the open standard file format, and had started to move my general word processing to OpenOffice because of this — but when the latest version kept crashing when I was starting my novel, I had to abandon that approach.

But all word processors have some major flaws. They suck at long and complex documents, and aren’t especially good at doing much beyond simple layout. If you throw in a ton of graphics, they all tend to slow to a crawl. And though many of them try, they aren’t very good at handling structured documents. Thus, for my Masters thesis and all of my academic writing these days, I use LaTeX.

LaTeX is a document preparation and typesetting system, and it excels at producing nice-looking structured documents, though it can do so much more. I use the MikTeX distribution for Windows, along with the free TeXnicCenter editor/IDE to produce my documents, though there are a multitude of other configurations and distributions you can use.

LaTeX separates the content of the document from its presentation, allowing you to enter the text and identify its structure and meaning with special commands. These special commands are then processed before the document is displayed — sometimes in several passes — so LaTeX is definitely not WYSIWYG. But it does mean that the same document can be reprocessed to produce vastly different kinds of outputs with just a few simple commands, and citations and references are automatically kept up-to-date.

There is a wealth of functionality available to LaTeX — but that is part of its problem. There is so much that you can do with LaTeX, but you are hardly aware of how to do any of it. If you are using standard kinds of output, and don’t need to modify anything at all, its fine, but once you get into customizing the output, things get real hairy, real fast. The extra effort and complication is well worth it for complex documents, but it still leaves something to be desired.

So the word processors are easy to use for entering text, and LaTeX is great for organizing and generating long documents.  Is it so much to ask for something that does both?

What I would like is an XML-based document system, with a nice word processor-style text entry editor, which would allow multiple views to be associated with the single document.  Perhaps at the top of the document window there might be a row of tabs — XML, Word, Manuscript, Slide, Print, and so on — that allow you to switch between the different views to see how your source text will look.  For each view, you can choose to print or output to some other file format.

Now, I’m given to understand that software used for producing huge technical documents has some of these capabilities.  The only existing example I’ve heard of is Adobe’s FrameMaker, but I’ve never had a chance to try it, and it costs a hojillion dollars anyway.  MadCap Software has a competitor in development, called Blaze, that looks promising too — but I’m sure that will also be rather pricey.

Hopefully something reasonable will come along soon, or I’ll get the stupid idea to try writing my own software to do all of this….

NaNoWriMo 2007 is Done

November is over, and that means NaNoWriMo is over, too. The good news is that I won!

Official NaNoWriMo 2007 Winner

It was a painful, excruciating experience, and I churned out some awful prose, but I hit the 50000 word mark on the evening of Friday, 30 November 2007. Unfortunately, the novel itself is not finished just yet — I’m near the climax of the book, so it won’t grow too much longer, but I’ll be continuing at a much slower pace until its done. Once this draft — this first, very rough draft — is done, I’ll set it aside for a while and start on some shorter pieces. After a few months, I’ll come back to it to do a second draft, but I’m afraid that will be harder than the first, since there’s an awful lot that I’m going to need to fix up.

Despite being a painful experience, it was a good one. I learned that I can, indeed, churn out 50000 words in 30 days, although they certainly aren’t 50000 good words. I also learned a lot about how I approach writing, and especially about what works for me when approaching longer projects like this one.

  1. First of all, I need to write from an outline. This is especially true when trying to meet a word count goal, because otherwise my characters will talk in circles around each other while I try to figure out what happens next. I started November with no outline for the novel in mind, and while I’m happy with the story that has emerged, there’s a lot of dead weight in the writing that I’m going to have to cut in the second draft.
  2. Unless I get on a roll, I’m not good for much more than 500 to 1000 words per day. I managed to force more than that for this month, but it usually seemed that getting the first 500 to 1000 written each day wasn’t all that hard, but I just started to lose my mind after that, and the writing became much harder.
  3. I have lost any sense of dialogue, pacing, and overall flow that I might once have had. Figuring out how much dialogue I need to include, how much descriptions, discussion of action — I just have no idea. These days when I read novels for pleasure, I tend to blaze through them as quickly as I can, which means I don’t notice all these details that make a novel, well, you know, readable.
  4. I have to write from a point of view. Everything in the novel so far is external narration, with only a few bits delving into the psyches of the characters. I need to get inside the main characters head more, which will make him more likable and make the whole damn thing more readable.

I know that draft two will require some serious editing. I think that between drafts, I’ll need to do some careful pleasure reading just to learn how fiction flows again, and then maybe I can apply that to my own writing.

In the shorter term, however, the completion of NaNoWriMo is relevant in that I will now have more time for non-novel writing, as I plan to cut that back to 500 words per day. With my newfound free writing time, I plan to blog more, and have some (what I hope are) interesting posts coming soon.