Jelec, the White Bear

Beware an Encounter with a Raven and his Friends

Each Snowflake is a Dragon

Each snowflake is a dragon
or a white sword, which is to say:
a different half of the same heart.

No free dragons, these:
freshly manacled, falling like planets or thieves,
seeking the center of the earth.

I Just Want to be Free

One morning, the hermit leaves his
children sleeping.

He climbs beneath the wooden bridge
where the frogs lie in mud
and begins counting round pebbles.

A shaft of light passes through
the leaves of seven trees and
turns his beard to gold.

A Storehouse, Half-Full

An old friend,
the pine right here.
And Sunday the wind on that crag
taught me how to grow a tree sideways.

If there’s a dog’s bark chirping
at a storehouse, half-full,
then all will be revealed.

If and only if
the light gets through
where the mitred corners meet.

Do You Have a Quiet Time, Early in the Morning

Do you have a quiet time, early in the morning,
when the snow lining a tree branch
is filled with a race of tiny beings
(not unlike your uncle or your sister)
and for whom the tree is a universe set apart,
or at least a celestial mountain with a spirit and a name.
There is a place on that mountain,
high above the mysterious plain
(and where the wind is still strong),
below which they will not go.

Making the Ebook Sausage, Part 2: Write in Plain Text

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This just in: Bears love plain text!

Introduction

Dear Internet Friends,

Last time we met, I told you I’d take you through a multi-point course in creating your own ebooks using a set of powerful open source applications 1. Before we jump in, let’s reorient ourselves with a quick review of the subjects we’ll cover:

  • Write things in plain text with a good editor
  • Use lightweight document markup languages
  • Use version control
  • Keep backups
  • Automate the “build” process for new versions of your book

We’re now at the first subject, “Write things in plain text with a good editor”. As a fellow writer, there’s only one text editor which I can recommend without reservation for the task of editing your opus: Emacs.

I’ll begin with a specious appeal to authority by quoting a favorite author of mine, Neal Stephenson. This excerpt comes from an essay of his entitled In the beginning was the command line 2:

…the engineer-hours that, in the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer–i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed–emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.

My perspective on Emacs vs. Word is that we must recognize that we are choosing between two wildly different types of software application:

  1. An application worked on by programmers, often for no pay, targeted at an audience they understand and care very much about: themselves. The reason they care is that they use it every day to do their own work. This is the category into which Emacs falls.
  2. An application written by programmers, for pay, targeted at an audience they don’t understand and may or may not care about: non-technical users who use WYSIWYG 3 word processors. They most definitely do not use it every day for their own work, since no programming language compilers or interpreters will accept its complex file format as input. This is the category into which Word and other “word processors” fall.

In other words, it’s the difference between building tools for yourself that you love to use, versus building tools for strangers, tools you would never use.

Getting Started

First, you need to download an appropriate Emacs for your computer. See the following table for my recommendations; I’ve used all of them successfully:

Operating System Emacs `Type’ Website
Windows Emacs W32 http://ourcomments.org/Emacs/EmacsW32.html
Linux Standard http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs.html
Mac OS X Aquamacs http://aquamacs.org/

After you’ve installed Emacs, start it up. You should be presented with a window that looks like the following:

./img/ebook-sausage-02/01-emacs-startup.png

There are a handful of commands you’ll need to know to get started doing useful work:

Key Sequence Command Name Description
C-x C-f find-file Open a file for editing. (You’ll be prompted for a filename.)
C-x C-s save-buffer Save the file you’re working on.
C-x u undo Undo the last edit.
C-a beginning-of-line Jump to the beginning of the line.
C-e end-of-line Jump to the end of the line.
M-x shell shell Opens your operating system’s preferred command shell. 4

(Note that “C-x C-f” means “while holding down the Control key, first enter x, then f.” “M-x shell” translates as “while holding down the Alt key, enter x. Then enter the command `shell’.” The other commands follow the same convention.)

There are many other commands available, but these will get you started. I highly recommend working through the built-in tutorial, which you can start by entering the key sequence “C-h t”.

One last thing: In addition to using the key sequences, you can run any of the thousands of commands in Emacs using the “M-x command” technique described above.

The Emacs Customization File

Something you will eventually need to familiarize yourself with is the Emacs customization file. Like most applications preferred by programmers, Emacs reads its configuration options from a plain text file. Generally speaking, this is a file under your home directory called “.emacs”. (Its fully spelled out location on your hard drive is something like “/Users/rloveland/.emacs” or “C:\Users\rml\.emacs”, depending on your operating system.) This file contains instructions that customize the behavior of the editor. The author of a tutorial you find online might say something like “Place the following code in your .emacs file: …”. You’ll do that by entering “C-x C-f C:\Users\rml\.emacs”. In English, that’s “While holding down the Control key, first enter x, then enter f. Then type in the location of the file”. Make your edits, and then save with “C-x C-s”.

If you try to start Emacs with a customization file that has an error, Emacs will still start up, but it will let you know something is wrong by opening up a window with an error message that looks like this:

./img/ebook-sausage-02/02-emacs-startup-error.png

Unlike some other applications, Emacs can still continue to operate normally despite the error. You can still visit files, edit them, save them, etc. If there is an error in your customization file, you will not be able to use the customizations that you have created, but that is all: the editor will still function without them.

If you make changes to your .emacs file that cause problems, the easiest way to undo the changes is to visit your .emacs file again, remove the most recent changes, and restart Emacs. If that still doesn’t work, you can tell Emacs to start without reading its customization file by opening a terminal and entering the following command:

$ emacs -q

For more information, you can read the full Emacs manual right inside Emacs itself by entering “C-h i” or “M-x info”. This will show a listing of all the available documentation. Navigate to the “Emacs” heading and press Enter. You can also read it online at http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html\_node/emacs.

Conclusion

That’s probably enough information to get you started using Emacs. If this seems like a lot of trouble to go to, ask yourself whether having precise control of your work at every level, from editing to backups to document formatting to final publishing, is important to you. If you are the kind of person who likes to do things yourself, if you would like to publish your own ebooks without needing to give up a percentage (and a certain amount of control) to an outside person or company, and if you are serious about your work as a writer, Emacs deserves your consideration.

(Image courtesy blmiers2 under Creative Commons license.)

Footnotes:

1 You can get a copy at http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

2 For a definition of “open source”, see http://opensource.org/osd

3 WYSIWYG is an acronym for “What you see is what you get”.

4 If you don’t know what a command shell is, you can read more at http://linuxcommand.org/ (for Linux/Mac OS X users) or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cmd.exe (for Windows users).

Making the Ebook Sausage, Part 1: The Plan

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So, some time ago I told y’all I was going to show you how to make your own ebooks without relying on MS Word, or Smashwords, or who-and-what-have-you to do it. Well, that time has come. I’d apologize for it taking so long, but apologies are boring and nobody cares anyway. In this document I’m going to refer to “Microsoft Word”, or just “Word”, quite a bit. When I say “Word”, I’m just using that term as a placeholder to refer to any complicated piece of word-processing software that stores your work away in some kind of incomprehensible non-plaintext format. When I say “Smashwords”, I’m referring generically to any organization that’s all like “Hey bro, let me go ahead and format that Word document into an ebook for you. No, really, it’s easy. Just read my 142-page Style Guide and do everything it says and life will be good.” Yeah, bro. OK.

Now I’m not trying to pick on Smashwords in particular here. I actually think it’s an interesting company, and Mark Coker’s presentations and free e-books for writers, not to mention the things that Smashwords actually does for you as an author, are extremely cool (from what I’ve seen). My real point is that perhaps you are growing tired of spending an enormous amount of time fighting with a proprietary black box (Word) owned by a company that has broken your shit in the past and that will probably do so again in the future (MS). You must then go and rely on another private company (Smashwords is one, there are many others) to do the fiddly work of converting your precious-but-horribly-encoded-by-Word manuscript into a format fit for consumption by ebook readers, &c.

Unfortunately, at no point in this process is your work made fit for long-term storage that can survive into the future. If the longevity of your work matters to you, Word ain’t the way to go, my friend. Nor is EPUB. PDF? Nope. Nor any of the other binary/XML-hell formats that you’ll find out there. Can you imagine your grandchildren ever finding your old manuscripts someday and reading through them? Your great-grandchildren? Well, guess what. This version of Word won’t even be around then, nor will PDF. And the antiquated tech it’s stored on will be long broken by the time your great-grand-daughter is old enough to read, much less read your stuff.

There are ways around this situation, however. The way I see it, there are two main ways of dealing with it.

  1. Continue to work in Word, etc., but learn how to backup to plain text for longevity. (We’ll get to this.)
  2. Dive into the world of plain text and lightweight document markup languages and learn how the ebook sausage is really made.

Naturally I prefer the latter approach, as it’s the one I’ve taken. It’s the one I’ll be focusing on in this, the “Ebook Sausage” series of posts.

In addition to just “learning how to make your own e-books,” I’m going to show you how to do it in a way that uses 100% open-source technologies and open formats. This means that you will have complete control over your tools and your written word, and you will never again be in a position where you’re depending on MS Word or some other proprietary technology and you get screwed.

Will it take some time to learn and get used to? Yes. But if you recall, it probably took you quite a while to get up to speed with Word. Remember how painful it was to upgrade from, like, Word 95 to Word 2000? (As you can see I’m not that familiar with Word versions, but bear with me). And did things get messed up, like all of your nice formatting? Were any of your documents ever “corrupted”? (Whatever that means.) There’s a better way. You don’t have to live like that anymore! OK, I’m starting to sound like a Scientologist. Moving on…

Here’s how I see things breaking out: each of the following subjects will get a post all its own. At the end of this series, you’ll be able to

  • write things in plain text with a good editor
  • use lightweight document markup languages
  • use version control
  • keep backups
  • automate the “build” process for new versions of your book

And finally, as a sop to those of us that are still working in Word or similar funky word-processing software, I’ll show you how to convert word documents to text for long-term storage and backup. Depending upon my mood, I’ll either start or end with it. In any case, it’ll be there.

(image courtesy binaryape under creative commons license)

How to Write, Part 2: Deliberate Practice, or, Give Up What You Could Lose

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Albrecht Dürer: Ritter, Tod und Teufel

First: a Note I Wrote for You

It’s come to my attention (via a friend who’s much smarter than I am, and whose opinion I respect), that the tone of this blog is condescending. Upon reflection, I agree. Who am I, anyway, and more importantly, who do I think I am, that I should write these things, and in this way?

The answer is that I’m just some random guy on the internet who has opinions about stuff. Those opinions may have value (or not), but the way in which they’re presented could use improvement. I’m keeping that in mind going forward, and trying to be more real. Even if that’s not cool. Just sayin’.

Second: That Said, Check out this Fortune Cookie I got Today

You must give up what you could lose in order to gain what you could not lose.

I ate some Chinese food last night. Too much of it, in fact. Came away all bloated and depressed, ready to call it a year already and move on to 2013, as if that were possible. That’s when I found this little gem. Little harbinger of serendipity, that. Saved me from thinking too much about the inevitable doom that awaits us all. Death, taxes, larger pant sizes, cavities, retirement (or lack thereof), you name it. Just doom and gloom, and turtles all the way down. Until this.

Perhaps I’ve said too much?

In any case, amid the general waste and decay, the piles of wrinkled clothing and so on that surround me in this, my man-mole internet shut-in habitat, I came upon a wrinkled message from an angel. Or from the LORD, if you believe in such things. Cthulhu, anyone? Whomever the originator, the Prime Mover, if you will, it saved me and kept me strong to fight another day. This day.

Third: What in Tarnation does Any Of This Have to do with Writing?

Easy. Just list all the things that you could lose, without which you’d still be able to function and, beyond that, even thrive. Yes, maybe you could even thrive. Perhaps you could do without your Tivo, your Netflix subscription? What about your favorite internet video games, or your (GASP) Angry Birds? What if you spent three days without seeing an Angry Bird? What would you do?

Why, you’d write, of course. And write some more. Think of all of the distractions you could lose, that would allow you to gain what you could not lose. And if you’re a writer, and love this stuff, and even think of being a “real” writer, one of those mythical, unicorn-like creatures which Absalom absconded with lo those many years ago, then the definition of what you could not lose must absolutely include the time to practice your craft. No, not like I do it when I ramble here on the internet, but really practicing, as in: “Deliberate practice,” which is a term coined by Swedish research psychologist Anders Ericsson.

There’s a great introduction to the research and its general points in this piece by Shelley Gare in the Australian.

Incidentally, I’ve read three of the books mentioned in that article, and they’re worth a look: Colvin, Coyle, and Gladwell. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order, so as not to play favorites.

Let me close by adding a question and an answer, lest you think I’m ignorant of my own failings: Do I need to take my own advice here? Good heavens yes!

Ah! Dollop of the sweet cream that is metacognition! I salute you!

All best to you, my sweet readers, writers and dreamers of all kinds.

R.

Some Preliminary Notes on Making the Ebook Sausage

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So, you wanna make an ebook, huh?

There are lots of folks and/or companies out there who will take your lovely Word document and, from that, generate all manner of ebook file formats, to wit: MOBI, EPUB, AZW, LRF, CBZ, DAISY, PDB, LIT, PRC, PKG, OPF, PDF, PDB, and PS, to name but a few 1. MOBI and EPUB are the biggies, but not the only ones. Smashwords comes to mind as a place where they’ll convert your opus. There are others, of course. You could always ask the mighty Google about them. Or, if you care at all about your privacy (even though it’s half-dead already), avoid the All-Seeing Eye and use Duck Duck Go instead. (Not trying to boss you – you can do what you want. Just sayin’ is all.)

If you don’t know what all those weird file format acronyms stand for, it’s OK. Just click the lovely links and read away. Or don’t, and just know that there are several of them, they mostly do the same things (from our lowly authorial perspective), and you should only worry about them when you need to. Which is probably not just yet (but soon).

If you’re writing in Word (like many people), what I have to say here probably won’t make a lot of sense to you. However, it might be of interest if you just want to see how someone else does it. I’ll try to take it pretty slow, since a good deal of the stuff I’m going to talk about presupposes some really sad levels of computer nerdery. Lots of Friday nights lost to the gods of the machine, that sort of thing. Weight gained, neckbeards grown, women not spoken to. But if you stick with me, there’ll be a payoff, I swear, and it’s this: you’ll be able to make your own ebooks pretty easily (provided you waste a bunch of time up front learning about it, but isn’t that true of anything you want to learn to do?).

Stay tuned for the first installment, in which we’ll begin with the Emacs text editor, which is a truly wizardly tool that has sucked out my weak-willed human brain and replaced said brain with its own malevolent mechanical will. Verily, it is that same dark will which propels my shriveled hands across the keyboard as I type this. Surely you’d like to hear more about it? Don’t be afraid!

(Image courtesy dshaboy under Creative Commons license.)

How to Write, Part 0: Reading is Essence

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For the first post in this series, go here.

Why am I calling this Part 0, when I’ve already written Part I? Because in some ways, I needed to backtrack from the act of writing to that which comes first – namely, reading.

Like many writers, I spent a wonderful childhood surrounded by the imaginary creatures, people, and places found in books. Whatever was going on in the outside world was somehow less important than what went on in the latest book or story I found myself living inside.

I’ve long suspected that this is a common phenomenon.

My argument, therefore, is this: in order to write well, you must read a great deal. One of the best ways to learn remains monkey see, monkey do. No amount of workshopping, collaboration, or talking about your writing process will help you improve so much as burying your head in books for ten years. (Good books!)

This does not mean workshops and collaboration are unimportant. It means that if you have not read a great deal, and do not possess the requisite familiarity with language, phrasing, grammar, and the like, you are walking into a workshop without the tools you need to do your best work. This does not mean you are lazy, or somehow unworthy, somehow “not good enough,” but that you are simply unprepared. One can go from being unprepared to a state of readiness. It’s just a matter of time, and work. Anyone can do it, if his or her desire is great enough. Talent is almost always overcome by preparation and hard work, in the end.

So many activities that surround writing and the writer’s life are distractions. There is a mantra I’ve developed that serves as a reminder: essence over ephemera. Reading is essence.

(Image courtesy henrybloomfield under Creative Commons license.)

How to Write, Part I: Who not to Listen to

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This is the first in a planned series of articles in which I will teach you how to write. More precisely: I will teach you how to learn how to write. The rest involves a great deal of hard work that you’ll have to do for yourself.

(Update: the second article is now available here.)

Perhaps you’re wondering what qualifies me to make such a claim? It’s only fair that I should share my background. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. While studying for that degree, I studied closely under two professors who were themselves published authors. During my time at a previous college, I was lucky enough to study under two equally talented, published writers. Please bear in mind that when I say published, I don’t mean published in an academic journal.

Does this mean I’m a good writer? Am I claiming that the skill and success of others is somehow reflective of my own? No. But it means I’ve been around writers better than me. And that’s important. If you want to learn how to write, you should study those who are better than you, and politely disregard everyone else.

This does not mean that you should be rude or dismissive. Please note the use of the word ‘politely.’ I’m simply claiming that you will not improve by listening to advice from any of the following groups:

  • Non-Writing Friends and Family

    They may know you personally, but it doesn’t mean they know anything about writing, or your writing in particular. Sole Exception: if you are lucky enough to have friends or family members whose intelligence, experience, and taste you respect, by all means solicit feedback from them on your work. Don’t expect them to come back singing its praises, though. You will probably be disappointed.

  • People who Don’t Read Much

    It’s sad but true that many people simply don’t read very much. How could they possibly have any useful opinions about your writing if they don’t read? (Note that I am explicitly not talking about audiobook listeners here. I have a number of friends who enjoy listening to audiobooks. They qualify as readers. Ask Random House.)

  • People who Identify as “Writers” but who do not Actually Write Anything

    Nothing new here: Writers write. Non-writers who sit around and talk about writing are an annoyance at best. At worst, they’ll pull you down with them. Avoid them.

  • Bad Writers

    Dunning-Kruger tells us that there are lots of bad writers out there, and that I’m probably one of them. That’s OK, nobody’s perfect. But be aware of this, and be especially aware of it if you’re not sure where you stand. Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell: if you think you’re pretty good, chances are you’re not. If you think you’re pretty bad, you might in fact be pretty bad. Then again, you might be a little better than average (Most people who are above average rate their skills too low – see the link above).

That covers the basics about who not to learn from. I’ll have more to say about some positive actions you can take to improve your writing in my next installment.

(Image courtesy maggz under Creative Commons license.)