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Authoring Tools from Alpha Geeks

Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) has posted a nice article covering some of the tools he’s built or borrowed to make his writing life more manageable. I’m especially intrigued by the Flashbake project, which augments simple use of version control (something many of our authors have been using for years, and which we use extensively in our production toolchain) to automatically capture contemporaneous data about the writing process:

Now, this may be of use to some notional scholar who wants to study my work in a hundred years, but I’m more interested in the immediate uses I’ll be able to put it to — for example, summarizing all the typos I’ve caught and corrected between printings of my books. Flashbake also means that I’m extremely backed up (Git is designed to replicate its database to other servers, in order to allow multiple programmers to work on the same file). And more importantly, I’m keen to see what insights this brings to light for me about my own process. I know that there are days when the prose really flows, and there are days when I have to squeeze out each word. What I don’t know is what external factors may bear on this.

Thinking about content like code opens up a wealth of tools and techniques for managing that content. After all, programmers spend more time than just about anyone doing what can very easily be called “creative writing” with text, so it’s no surprise they’ve built tools to make their lives easier and more productive. We’re getting ready to announce a new project over at O’Reilly Labs, one also built on top of version control (Subversion in our case) and another example of using software tools to improve the writing (and in this case reading) experience.

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  • bowerbird

    git? subversion?

    get real.

    real authors don’t wanna have to mess with
    messes like git or subversion… sheesh!…

    > Thinking about content like code opens up a wealth
    > of tools and techniques for managing that content.

    the number of writers who _want_ to “think about content
    like code” is very small indeed. i’m guessing the idea will
    be offensive to most writers. (most of us don’t even like
    to think of our art as “content”, since that ugly label is so
    generic that it’s insulting.) it’d be much smarter to work it
    the other way, by modifying those “tools and techniques”
    so they map onto the modes of thinking used by writers.

    you’re asking creatives to bend to the needs of the tools.
    that’s bass-ackwards.

    but i guess it’s typical of publishers, who far-too-often
    think of writers as the bottom rung of the totem-pole…

    -bowerbird

  • http://toc.oreilly.com Andrew Savikas

    Who decides who a “real” author is? Dozens of our authors, including ones who have made millions of dollars in royalties, use tools like Subversion for their writing, and have done so for years.

    Of course that’s not appropriate for many other authors, but the tools will evolve. For example, look at Time Machine on a Mac, which accomplishes much the same goal that Cory’s use of Subversion does, without (most of) the complexity.

    That’s why writers like Cory are the “alpha geeks” of authors, who we can watch for an indication of what “real authors” (Cory’s not a “real author?”) will be doing.

  • bowerbird

    andrew said:
    > Who decides who a “real” author is?

    the general practice of the vast majority of authors
    defines what a “real” author is, and how s/he works,
    and the tools that s/he is likely to use in the workflow.

    if you like the word “typical” better, fine, use that instead…
    (i was doing some wordplay on “get real”, which was in turn
    some wordplay that came out of the name of “git”… get it?)

    and no, your authors are not “typical”, and neither is cory.
    (how many authors can describe a tool and have a couple
    different versions of it delivered up out of the lazyweb?)

    and if that’s the best (only?) counter-argument you have,
    it shows just how weak your logic was in the first place…

    and no, it’s not the case that “the alpha geeks of authors”
    are a leading indicator on what “typical” authors will do
    in the coming years. you might want to ask some of us
    who have been around for a while how long (and tortured)
    the path was to get writers to understand the benefits of
    _word-processing_. it’s all very obvious right now, and
    to anyone with an ounce of sense it was _always_ obvious,
    but a number of writers were determined to be blind to it.

    and geez, how long has desktop publishing been around?
    so if authors really wanted to be geeks, they would have
    been polishing their stuff up in pagemaker or quark or
    framemaker or indesign, because heaven knows the pride
    goes up when it looks nice. but are they doing that? nope.
    they consider “making it look nice” to be a publisher’s job.
    which is a lucky thing for you people working in publishing.

    if authors really were to turn into geeks, their creativity
    would reinvent the system so publishers weren’t needed,
    because “typical” writers would strongly prefer _not_ to
    have to work with publishers, having been burned by ‘em.

    i’m a writer. and i’m a programmer and tool-maker too.
    and i have my priorities straight. we must bend the tools
    to the needs of the creatives. _not_ the other way around.
    when you get your priorities straight, i will support you…
    until then, i’ll tell you that you’re doing it bass-ackwards,
    so people don’t get confused by the bull you’re emitting.

    -bowerbird

  • http://intermittence.net ccarlson

    I’m not at all surprised to see that Mr. Doctorow served as the seed from which two ingenious writing tools have sprung. It’s a testament to the community he’s built around himself that the ‘lazyweb’ (excellent term, bowerbird) so readily scratched his particular itches.

    (As an aside, bowerbird, I have to wonder if you visit this site specifically to spit and hiss like a wounded cat. It’s all you seem to do. Surely as a writer [whose computer appears to be incapable of generating upper-case letters--you might want to check into that], programmer and tool-maker, you have better things to do than ceaselessly malign the writers on this site, don’t you? If not for this blog post, I wouldn’t have seen Cory’s excellent article. Thanks, Andrew!)

  • bowerbird

    ccarlson-

    i didn’t invent the term “lazyweb”. it’s been in wikipedia a while.

    i visit this site specifically to correct the disinformation and
    misinformation that too often occurs here, and to praise the
    insightful commentary that too rarely happens here, so that
    people who care to read the comments can be educated… :+)

    i’m also here in case anyone else wants to have a conversation.
    because now that we have the tools that allow us to dialog with
    each other, i think maybe it would be a good idea if we did that.

    as for “maligning the writers on this site”, well, gee… i don’t
    do that very much, because i try to concentrate on their posts,
    and not their personalities. i don’t even know them personally.
    (except to say andrew is surely a nice-looking young fellow.)

    i think if you look closely at what i’ve written, you’ll see that i
    do indeed focus on the topic, and avoid any ad hominem stuff.
    just because i feel that an _argument_ they make is _stupid_,
    and call it _stupid_, and explain the seventeen reasons why i
    think it’s stupid, doesn’t mean that i’m calling _them_ stupid.

    we’ve all made stupid arguments at times. i know that i have,
    anyway, and i appreciate it when someone then enlightens me.

    for instance, here in this topic, did you think i went off-topic?
    if so, and you feel i was addressing andrew as a person, and
    failing to address the topic per se, then you can make that point.
    or if you felt i got something wrong, i’d like you to correct me.

    as it is, though, i’m not sure you did that. indeed, you seem to
    focus on _me_, and my _motivation_. that’s not really relevant.
    if my argument was faulty, address _that._ not my “motivation”.

    i wouldn’t call what you did “ad hominem”, since you “wondered”
    what my motivation was, rather than simply ascribing some bad
    motivation to me, as if you had some kind of omniscience going,
    so i don’t take too much offense to that… but it _is_ off-topic…

    now, i wish i never had to “spit and hiss like a wounded cat”,
    as you put it. (gee, maybe that _was_ ad hominem, but i will
    give you the benefit of the doubt and not interpret it that way.)
    i wish i never had to do that. i wish they made wise, discerning
    posts, so that i could cheer them on and issue calls for more!

    and i’m sure if i looked, i could find a few times when i did do
    exactly that. i’m sure if you look, you will find those times too.

    i’m certainly not here _looking_ to find fault. that would be very
    unwise on my part, because that would lead me to make replies
    which were unpersuasive, and thus damage my credibility, right?

    especially when you’re critical, you’ve gotta get the facts straight.

    and nope, i don’t really have “better things to do” than to dialog
    about electronic-books. i have _other_ things i do, things that
    are “just as good”, but not necessarily “better”, yet i manage to
    do those too. i also drink beer, and smoke pot, and sleep a lot.
    and i try to kiss my girlfriend often, and do poetry every week.
    but yes, if i do fall behind here, it will be because i got too busy.

    oh, and if you want to tell me about _you,_ and your exciting life,
    please feel free. but right after that, we should get back on-topic.

    -bowerbird

  • http://intermittence.net ccarlson

    Thanks for the well-reasoned response, bowerbird. You’re absolutely right that we should stay on-topic (and in any case, my life could hardly be considered exciting).

    While I’m no author, over the years I’ve heard several people comment on how word processors and DTP software has complicated the writing process. With all these fancy layout and formatting tools now available, it’s now significantly more difficult to resist the urge to tinker with text instead of focusing on the craft of writing. Tools like LaTeX (and, at one particular extreme, WriteRoom and its ilk) form part of the resistance to that movement, and the simplification of version-control systems to the point where they are neither complicated nor intrusive to the writing process seems like a very natural step.

    (For whatever it’s worth, I’m the easily-distractable sort, but not by fancy formatting tools. Instead, I’m drawn to utilities. I loved reading Getting Things Done and all the online articles about how people implement it, but can’t seem to get myself organized–because it would get in the way of reading about how people get organized. Likewise, I can’t ever seem to focus on writing because I’m too busy trying out the latest productivity-boosting tool.)

  • bowerbird

    > With all these fancy layout and formatting tools now available,
    > it’s now significantly more difficult to resist the urge to
    > tinker with text instead of focusing on the craft of writing.

    i understand. completely.

    the authoring-tools i’m developing don’t let you do that.
    at least they don’t encourage it. they “make you” write in
    plain text, and then simple rules determine the formatting.
    (for example, a set of 4 blank lines starts a new chapter.)

    so, in some senses, it’s quite similar to writeroom —
    as you’re writing in plain text — but you get wysiwyg
    display, and end up with formatted .html and a .pdf…

    it’s actually what’s become known as “light markup”,
    the most prevalent system of which is “markdown”…

    and since the files are “plain ascii” (or “plain unicode”),
    it lends itself well to simple diff programs, without all
    the fuss and muss of full-on version-control systems.

    -bowerbird

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    > real authors don’t wanna have to mess with
    > messes like git or subversion… sheesh!…

    I have a little bit of sympathy for your point, but the problem is, I’ve seen too many people writing with Microsoft Word, which is a much bigger mess than GitHub or Subversion. It’s easier to start writing, but as you go you get crashes, files that won’t open, files that open incorrectly, and so on. Generally speaking, the crisis is too many writers using Word, not too many writers using Subversion.

    You don’t have to use BBEdit and Subversion, but there are definitely many writers who do. It’s easy to set up, and you write and store UTF-8, which is very creatively rewarding, because that’s truly what we write these days. But if those tools are too technical, you can use Scrivener and Time Machine instead, that takes almost no set up and you have an environment that is optimized for creative writing and versioning that is controlled by an interactive cartoon.

    But either of those is 1000 times better than Microsoft Word and prayer.

  • bowerbird

    i agree that ms-word is a piece of bloated crap…
    i don’t think any writer should be using that dung.

    -bowerbird