Category Archives: Writing Tools

Word Needs To Die

I was working on a eBook conversion workflow for a small publishing house last week, as a favour to the owners. I thought I could get away with a couple hours of work: maybe write a few scripts, chain a couple of existing libraries together, and then email them my code. I was dead wrong. I gave up after two days of work.

The problem was with Word. Word’s doc and docx formats are proprietary, clunky to work with, and incredibly hard to convert to ePub and mobi without weird artifacts and edge cases. It doesn’t help that the standard publishing workflow is in Word — many writers, editors, and publishers use Word source files in their daily lives.

The challenges of working with Word are not new. Smashword’s MeatGrinder engine requires authors to tediously format their doc files; other guides warn authors against using Word to ebook conversions. The Outsell-Gilbane report on Publishing Transformation advises publishers to switch to XML-first workflows ‘as soon as possible.’

There are two likely solutions for this:

1) Write a perfect converter from Word to X, where X is any other text-based markup format. This is a technological problem, and is incredibly hard.

2) Get writers to write in non-Word formats. This is a social problem, and is incredibly hard.

The comparison between the two solutions above is, of course, a little unfair. The truth is that the second problem is easier than the first … but only in the sense that nobody has really tried taking a crack at it. There have been many attempts at writing a good Word conversion library, but all attempts have failed for various edge cases. There have not been strong attempts at creating a beautiful writer-focused tool, save perhaps Scrivener. But Scrivener isn’t popular the way Word is – ideally, you’d want something so pervasive writers would be crazy not to use it.

(I could, by the way, be wrong on the first issue – if you know of a good library to use, please hit me up in the comments).

I’m very tempted to take a stab at both problems over the Summer. No promises, but these are huge problems I wish someone would solve. The alternative to a Word-first workflow is a greatly simplified publishing process, one that is accessible to both writers and publishers alike.

Here’s a taste of that alternative world: Matt Neuburg wrote an essay on his book publishing process for O’Reilly Books. It is, admittedly, very technical, and it demands some programming knowledge. But his process is this: he writes chapters in a text-based format; generates HTML for quick previewing (ebook formats are HTML-based, after all) and then, when he’s ready, types a single command to send his source files directly to the O’Reilly server.

Here’s the really cool bit: because he writes all his chapters in a conversion-friendly format, O’Reilly is able to instantly generate a PDF – all properly type-set with fonts and layout as in an actual O’Reilly book. Neuburg then gets a copy of this PDF to preview, walking around his house with the book loaded up on his iPad. If he so wishes, Neuburg may run another one-line command, and all the readers who have subscribed to O’Reilly’s Early Release program for his book gets a copy of the updated book – in PDF, EPUB, or web form (at Safari Books Online). Naturally, his editor is able to plug into this process from the O’Reilly side of things, and every change is backed up in a Subversion repository.

In Neuburg’s own words:

  • I’m working in plain text, lightly formatted; so my writing and editing and revising are easy and nimble.
  • I’m using TextMate, a text editor that makes my use of lightly formatted text easy.
  • I can preview my work as HTML, which makes me a better proofreader.
  • I can “chunk” my book into nice-looking HTML chapter files for public consumption, so the rest of the world can watch me work.
  • Thanks to the O’Reilly commit hook, I automatically get a PDF version of my work. This is fun and encouraging as the book grows, and makes me an even better proofreader.
  • We’re using Subversion, so my editor and I have an easy time communicating changes back and forth to each other.
  • Without any trees being killed, readers can purchase an electronic Early Release edition of my book, and they are kept up-to-date as I continue to write and revise.

My point: moving away from Word enables writers and publishers saner publishing workflows. It doesn’t make sense for the writing/editing process to be done in a format separate from the ones used in the publishing process.

Word is a curse on digital publishing workflows. The sooner we move away from it, the better.

Thursday, 2 September, 2010

Backing Up Your Digital Writing

This isn’t related to web fiction, but I’d thought I’d share a little tip I use to keep my writing secure – regardless of whatever terrible things that may happen to my primary computer. I was on Twitter today, and writer Zoe Whitten posted a couple of tweets on how her machine crashed on her, and with it – two months of writing lost in temporary hell.

There are two things to remember here. The first is that – if you’re reading Novelr, it’s very likely that you already do most of your writing on your computer. The second thing, worth remembering, is the simple truth that computers are fragile creatures and should always be treated with the assumption that something, somewhere, would go catastrophically wrong; that your work is always at risk of vanishing, and if you so forget about your computer or lose it or drop it or have your board fry itself or have your hard disc spin to death – any of these things may happen at any given time, sending your writing straight to a unknowable purgatory.

It pays, of course, to have backups. If you’re on a Mac, get SuperDuper!. But backups aren’t ideal when you’re writing and your computer crashes and you just want to get back to work: they’re a hassle to do, and it takes quite a bit of discipline to backup on a regular basis.

The simplest solution to this is to get Dropbox.
Screen shot 2010-09-02 at 1.55.12 AM.png
Dropbox gives you a little folder into which you dump the files you want to save. And when it’s connected to the Internet, Dropbox syncs your files with all the other computers you have with Dropbox installed. (Plus they give you a web interface to download and use those files, should the need ever arise.)

See the value in this? I use Dropbox as the holding space for whatever document I’m currently working on. I keep backups of my whole hard disc, of course, but if my computer fails or if I’m away I get to download and work on my working drafts – either through the web interface, or via the selection of mobile devices currently supported by Dropbox (i.e.: Android, iPhone, iPad and Blackberry).

There are other uses, naturally. Some of my friends drag and drop .pdf ebooks into their Dropboxes, for reading on the train. Others use Dropbox to share pictures with friends. And if you have your writing organized in a different part of your computer, just follow these steps to have Dropbox sync those folders too.

Dropbox is great as a storage trick, for the few documents you want to protect the most. It’s small, it’s simple, it’s easy-to-use, and (best of all!) it’s absolutely free of charge. Get it at, set it up, and then get back to writing today.

Saturday, 10 April, 2010

Fictionaut Reviewed

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.23.32 PM.pngFictionaut is Flickr for writers. Which, really is to say that it’s a social network built around writing – sometimes drafts of novels, sometimes flash fiction – and so you go to Fictionaut to friend people, and leave comments, join groups, and submit stories, and so on so forth.

In the few months since Fictionaut’s release, a number of writers have described the service as a breath of fresh air. Some use it as a stage before publication – throw the drafts of your latest novel on Fictionaut, and you’re guaranteed a discerning audience. Most striking, however, is this love-letter by James Robinson, who says: “Fictionaut provides a round-the-clock, faithfully attentive audience. Bless its founders.” I saw that, thought for a bit, and emailed founder Jürgen Fauth for an invite.

Here are some thoughts, loosely connected, on Fictionaut.


I’m must say that I’m most surprised at the level of community on the site. The majority of writing websites that I know have communities that aren’t particularly … nice. Fictionaut’s, however, not only seem to be consistently nice, but tend to also refrain from commenting on works they do not like. (If the writing is horrible, you keep quiet and go somewhere else). The net effect is that you feel – when you’re writing there – to be part of this welcoming, supportive group. And that’s a rather refreshing thing to have.

From experience, I’m not sure if such ‘supportive writer culture’ can or will last forever. The culture exists naturally, at the moment, bubbling up from the community, but if at any point Fictionaut opens its doors to the general public, the influx of new members may seriously undermine the tone and pitch of the site. And that’s something I pray won’t happen, though I’m not sure how they’re going to do it. Fictionaut will have to be very careful when they expand; my hope is that they’d get the formula just right.

(I suspect that the solutions for maintaining quality discussion would have to be technological at heart, the same way Paul Graham has programmed several clever things into Hacker News, in order to maintain intelligent discourse. But how exactly this applies to writing I’m not particularly sure.)

Readability baked right in

Fictionaut forces its writers to publish stories according to a standardized, highly readable format. I posted a short story on the site and came away impressed with the quality of the user experience. Reader comments are placed in the sidebar, there’s a section for author notes, and the element placement leads me to suspect that everything you see on-site is deliberately designed to be that way.

There are little flourishes, too, like the beautiful popups that appear when you add someone as a friend, or when you’ve had a failed login:

Javascript Popup

I realize I’m a being a bit of a design geek here, but it’s hard to miss: someone has spent a lot of time making sure everything works intuitively on Fictionaut. I applaud his (or her) attention to detail.

Superb writing

Writing is good on Fictionaut. I sometimes spend hours on the site, reading newer, cooler, better stories – and I can say with some confidence that there’s a high standard to which most Fictionaut writers adhere to. At the very least, there’s a base level of competence that you don’t usually find anywhere else.

A large chunk of the site’s stories are flash fiction, followed by poetry, short stories, and a sprinkling of books-in-progress, posted chapter-by-chapter.

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.31.09 PM.png

I should note that this quality didn’t happen by accident. Fictionaut’s founder, Jürgen Fauth, has a PhD in English/Creative Writing from USM’s Centre for Writers. The core community of the site was handpicked, I think – and new memberships are still dependent on invitations. Accordingly, the site currently leans towards literary fiction, and it feels – at times – like a literary magazine.

At the moment you either get in on invitation, or you apply for an invite. The application page leads me to suspect that Fictionaut enforces a filter for writers – you’ll either have to be competent enough, or established enough to get in (or you’ll have to know someone who’s already in, I suppose). This sounds scary and slightly elitist, but it probably explains the quality of the community and writing on the site today.

There’s a paragraph in the Venuszine Fictionaut review that says:

Pia Erhardt, a seasoned writer from New Orleans who recently had the “most favorited” story, “Ambulance,” agrees that it’s sometimes “terrifying” to post her unedited work, mostly because she respects what her fellow members are writing.

Quality begets quality, and so – again – I’m not particularly sure how they’re going to maintain this without the current invitation system.

(My favourite story on Fictionaut so far is Gold, by Ethel Rohan. To be fair, though, all her stories are just as good.)

Closing Thoughts

Fictionaut’s a little like an oasis, at the moment: it’s quite rare to find a such a large community of good writers online – even at its current size – who’re so supportive of each other. Despite my doubts with Fictionaut’s scalability, I must add that writing and reading on the site has been one of the more enjoyable things I’ve done, lately.

And so – while I’m not sure if Fictionaut can keep it up, or even where they’re headed, I really am quite grateful for the site, for what they’re currently doing for writers. I merely hope that Fictionaut ages gracefully, without the worst of teething problems that so often follows a growing – and social – community. I wish Fictionaut well.

Tuesday, 15 May, 2007

A Writing Flickr

Remember Urbis? This time we find it’s no longer alone. A Techcrunch plug the other day alerted me to the presence of Portrayl … and Ficlets.
Portrayl allows users to write stories chapter by chapter, or collaborate on stories that a user has started. In theory it sounds wonderful, but in reality it resembles Penguin’s group wiki novel experiment … an experiment that ultimately failed. Would anyone really want to browse through a novel with alternate endings, disparate writing styles and inconsistent characterization? I don’t think so.
On the other hand I find Ficlets to be a refreshing take on Internet prose. It allows users to write short stories, and then frees the piece to the community to write prequels and sequels to those stories. Comments and ratings feature heavily throughout the site, as does RSS (used to keep track of all the aforementioned prequels and sequels). See this example for a feel of what the site’s about.

Wednesday, 11 April, 2007

5 Great Productivity Tools for Online Writers

What can I possibly do to start writing creatively on the computer?

I recently talked about how I found writing on paper to be more productive than writing on a computer. And so I started searching for ways to motivate myself – to complete chapters, meet deadlines and revise stylistic elements of whatever novel it was that I’m writing … whether it was on paper or on keyboard.

I thought my answer would lie somewhere on the internet. After all – it’s a rapidly growing ecosystem of blogs, websites, forums and chat conversations, some of which would be able to provide me with a solution, right?

Yeah, I was right. And the solution is paper.

1. The Task Progress Tracker

No – don’t get me wrong. The first solution starts off digitally, but it’s really a cool to-do list that you have to print out on … (waitforit!) strips of processed bark paper. productivitydavidseah.jpg
It’s called the Task Progress Tracker, part of David Seah‘s Printable CEO series of productivity sheets – something we can all do with in our daily lives. You start off with jotting down the name of your task, and then colouring in your progress in 15 minute increments. The maximum time alocated for each task is 4 hours – David includes instructions for what to do on the sheet if you overshoot (rewriting your climax five times), or if the task is too easy (a one page chapter, perhaps).

I found the check at the end of a task very rewarding, and the fifteen minute bubbles prevented procrastination, even with the TV on full blast. And that isn’t all! David provides Destruct-o-Matic and Power User editions, cute little variations on the original idea. Click the links above to be taken to their respective pages, read up a little on his instructions, and print!

2. Language is a Virus!

For downtime and writer’s block I found the Language Is A Virus page, with little writing ‘toys’ and resources to help you overcome obstacles. It doesn’t do much, and it wouldn’t help everyone, but I always find inspiration comes from the most unexpected of places. If walking the dog and chatting over coffee fails, I’d go there and give their toys a little spin. My favourite? The Writing Prompt widget.

Tuesday, 10 April, 2007

Early Thoughts On Sophie

I’ve installed and played around with Sophie for a few days now. It’s an Alpha release, so expect bugs and crashes and weird little things to pop up.
The current Sophie user interface is clunky, to say the least – objects dragged about don’t feel snappy, and there are no help files built into the software. There is no right click functionality anywhere. To make things worse, the only documentation I’ve found is a Quicktime movie over at the Sophie project page, and while it may cover all the basics for writing a Sophie eBook it isn’t enough.

The project site is a minor drawback on its own – it is hard to navigate and is a complete pain when you’re trying to find information about the software. A quick peek around tells me the site is running on Drupal, though I may be mistaken.

Perhaps a wiki will help, in due time.

I’m not exactly sure how Sophie will be accepted by the global eBook publishing community, and from what I see it looks like a glorified cross-platform version of Powerpoint. With comments, streaming and web integration.

But apart from all the Alpha hiccups (we must give it time to grow), Sophie has all the basics in place. Videos, music, pictures and good typography support are built in, as well as integration with servers. The inclusion of a Timeline feature is slightly perplexing to me – books are meant to be browsed at your own pace, are they not? – but overall it looks very promising.

I’ll see if I can help out with documentation – Sophie has a lot of potential; let’s hope it starts taking off in a year or two.

Download Sophie here.

Wednesday, 4 April, 2007

Sophie About To Be Released

Remember Sophie? That project under the Institute for the Future of the Book that was designed to replace PDFs once and for all? I wrote about it in February, and at long last there’s some news about the software.

The Institute’s blog states that an alpha version of Sophie will be released this week, which I can’t wait to get my grubby paws on. It should be very interesting to see how they’ve implemented the features they mentioned in their last press release.

A very rough roadmap for Sophie:

June — a more robust version of the current feature set

August — a special version of Sophie optimized for the OLPC (aka $100 laptop or XO) in time for the launch of the first six million machines

September — a beta version of Sophie 1.0 which will include the first pass at a Sophie (sic) reader

December — release of Sophie 1.0

I can’t wait for December. Find out more about Sophie here and here.

Monday, 26 March, 2007

Urbis for reviewing – Reviewed

topheadleft.gifRemember FictionPress? The site where authors post up their writing, and other authors get to comment on the various works put up?

I personally don’t like FictionPress. Or, for that matter. You don’t get to choose the fonts and font sizes your fiction is presented in, nor decide the environment in which a reader interacts with your words. There you just post fiction and pray that others start taking an interest in what you write. No upward climb towards being published, though some may argue it is a good way to improve your writing.

Urbis, which is basically a polished spin on FictionPress’s idea, does seem to do a few things right. It feels like your typical Web 2.0 service – shiny, polished and well presented. And there is a focused approach to writing – a goals section makes sure you work towards something, while making it easy to socialise with those who are working towards the same goal.
The Be Published goal had 1005 items at the time this post was being written.

Urbis also has a credit system, used as a way to encourage reviews of other people’s work. The underlying concept is easy enough to understand: you earn credits by reviewing other people’s works, and you spend them by revealing reviews other people have written about yours. It’s quite a brilliant move, frankly speaking – it makes sure people don’t hog the duvet and selfishly stick to their own writing.