The Joys of Two-Timing

As a late-blooming watch nerd, I didn’t think much of smartwatches at first. I owned one, though it was a bit of an outlier—a Polar M600, which was more of a running watch than anything else. The M600 did its job well (though not on a treadmill, where it couldn’t track distance) but I never really used its smartwatch features. I preferred “real” watches: high-value-for-dollar Seikos, tough-as-nails field watches, Swiss steel chronographs.

(I also owned the original Pebble Classic, arguably the first smartwatch. Chunky, all plastic and quite lovable. Also quite capable—I still have it and still wear it now and then, fashion be damned.)

Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.
Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.

All of this changed when I purchased an Apple Watch Series 5. Although I’d been curious about the Apple Watch for a while, it wasn’t until the 5 came out that I was tempted to purchase one. The always-on screen was a huge factor in this decision, as were the favorable reviews on high-end watch sites such as Hodinkee.

Since I was already planning a privacy-based transition from Google/Android to Apple products in general, I purchased the Apple Watch 5 along with an iPhone 11 and the latest iPad Mini (the latter is mainly for reading e-books).

The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.
The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.

As many have discovered before me, the Apple Watch is an amazing device. Well-designed and stylish, as you would expect from Apple, but extremely capable and versatile as well. It has beautiful watch faces, yes, but it also has a wide range of digital complications (extra features, in watch parlance) that you won’t find in the analog world. These let you discreetly check the weather, stock prices, your heart rate, news headlines, messages and a whole host of other things. I was astonished to discover that you can have conversations with the thing, a la Dick Tracy. I didn’t purchase a GPS + Cellular model but as long as you’re connected to wi-fi you can use your watch as a phone, at home or elsewhere.

You can also use your watch to monitor your health, particularly your heart health, with its ECG app, and use it as a really good fitness device, too (Apple Watch Series 5 does measure distance on a treadmill, and does so pretty accurately). You can use this watch for so many things, in fact, that it is hard to imagine not wearing it.

That’s why some watch aficionados have started a trend called “double-wristing”—you wear your traditional classic analog watch on one wrist and wear your Apple Watch 5 on the other. I prefer the term “two-timing,” and I’ve become a strong advocate of the practice. The Apple Watch 5 is simply too good to leave at home, but then so are your exquisitely crafted analog timepieces, which offer unique pleasures of their own. Wear both, and experience the richly sensual joys of two-timing.

Enlist your significant other as well—that will give you a foursome, and a sexier experience still!

Do Writers Need Writing Software?

Update, 1/31/2020: it should be noted that the abandoned Scrivener Linux beta, version 1.9.0.1 with no expiration date, is still a valid option. Scrivener 3 on Mac or Windows can export to the version 2 format, which the Linux beta version can read, so you can go back and forth between platforms. At least for now. You’ll want the AppImage version, available here.

Do writers actually need specialized “writing software” such as Scrivener? Or is the publishing industry’s standard word processor, Microsoft Word, sufficient unto itself?

The questions above have been making the rounds for a while now. When specialized software for “creative writing” first began to appear a decade or so back, there was a definite stigma attached to such software by professional writers. This piece in The Atlantic by Scrivener creator Keith Blount, from 2011, sums that stigma up nicely.

Even today, in the third decade of this troubling new century, the question is not entirely resolved. But I don’t believe it remains particularly relevant. Most writers have acknowledged the usefulness of Scrivener and its competitors, even if they stick with Word or (in some cases) don’t use a computer to write at all.

Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.
Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.

R. O. Kwon, whose debut novel The Incendiaries received very strong reviews, told me she investigated Scrivener but found its complexities too distracting and decided to stick with Word. For her, that was obviously the right choice. Michael Chabon, on the other hand, has credited Scrivener (along with iA Writer, DEVONthink, Nisus Writer and numerous Apple products) in the creation of his work.

The more relevant question today, then, is how can writers make sure today’s technology works for them, rather than the other way ’round. And this question was prompted by a recent experience I had with Scrivener itself, which remains the most popular (and capable) program of its kind.

When I reviewed Scrivener 3 a couple of years ago, I was running it on both macOS and Linux (via Wine). I continued to so until quite recently—the Windows beta ran fine under Wine until late last year (Beta 30, I believe). For whatever reason, the developers upped the .NET system requirements and I have not found a way to get the program running again on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. What’s more, I spent far too much time trying. This was time wasted, which I regret. One should never follow technology down a rabbit hole, and I did precisely that.

It’s true that, these days, every minimally conscientious citizen needs to pay some attention to the software they run, both for ethical reasons and to protect themselves from the surveillance state (and surveillance capitalism), to the extent this is possible. That’s why I recently moved from Android to iOS, and why my main computing platform will continue to be macOS. Apple is not without serious ethical flaws (Asian labor standards, tax policies, Chinese censorship, et al.) but they do seem to be the best commercial platform from the standpoint of privacy and security. And by and large, their stuff does “just work.” I run Linux to avoid being completely captive within Apple’s attractive walled garden.

But since my main focus these days is writing, I don’t have time to screw around with software configurations, as I mistakenly did trying to get Scrivener running again on Ubuntu. Past a certain point, the technology has to defer to the writing. No more Scrivener on Ubuntu unless or until it simply works under Wine, which may very well be never.

And that brings us back to the original question of whether specialized writing software is necessary for writers. From an absolute standpoint, the answer is of course “No.” But from the standpoint of convenience and flexibility, I find Scrivener to be invaluable. Syncing a story or poem from my Mac to my iPhone via Dropbox is an almost ideal way to proofread and revise—there’s something about the iPhone’s smaller screen that enhances focus wonderfully. And as Chabon noted in the interview cited above, Scrivener remains by far the best program for long-form writing.

I’ll still run Linux as an escape hatch now and then, and I’ll occasionally even write on my Linux laptop: LibreOffice Writer is more or less equivalent to Word on my Mac, and there are many open source writing programs that run fine under Linux. I’m disappointed in the Scrivener developers for abandoning their original intention to support Linux and then breaking compatibility with Wine after a long run of successful betas. Such is life; this is definitely a minor first-world problem.

For me, though, Scrivener in conjunction with Word or Writer continues to be indispensable. At least until something better comes along.

Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

A Modest Proposal

It’s often said that America has not been this divided since the Civil War. Indeed, some prognosticators even suggest a new civil war may be in the offing. To this I say: nonsense. There is always a way to resolve problems, even the most intractable ones.

For example, take guns. That’s a pun, as I am literally suggesting to take the guns. But I do not suggest this merely as a progressive who would like to see a degree of sanity restored to American society by reducing gun violence. Of course not—I recognize that there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate. That being the case, it will be necessary to provide each side with something of what they want.

Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.
Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.

So, let’s start by envisioning a Democratic landslide in the election next year. Warren or Sanders as President, a solidly Democratic Senate and a Supreme Court which has been expanded to 15 members, now under Democratic control. The first step will be to abolish the Second Amendment and the second step will be to establish a mandatory buy-back program for every gun in America, all 300-400 million of them.

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim, if you happen to be a Republican. “Everything you’ve just described is part of a far-left Democratic wish list! What do Republicans and gun nuts enthusiasts get out of this?”

I’m coming to that. I’ve anticipated your concerns, and I have some answers I believe you and the Proud Boys will like.

Obviously, a great many patriotic right-wing Americans will defy the new buy-back program. The new socialist government will offer them, and anyone who wants to join them, an attractive cash incentive to relocate to the great state of Idaho. And that’s only the beginning.

Once ten million gun owners and their 350 million guns are in Idaho, the real fun begins!

Now everyone knows guns are only one topic which sorely divides today’s Americans. Race, religion, economic status, climate change and immigration are a few of the many others. Well, I have a plan for that. It’s called The Great American ShowdownTM, and it will enable these brand-new Idaho residents to resolve their differences in the most direct and down-to-earth way possible: with their guns.

Every Idahoan who kills someone with an opposing viewpoint will receive $50 cash. That might seem a meager amount, but with ten million people involved the rewards can add up fast. Not only that, but the victor gets to claim the deceased’s weapons, adding to their stash of guns that are illegal in the rest of the lower 48.

But wait, there’s more—The Great American ShowdownTM will be televised! It’s going to be the biggest program of all time (bigger even than “The Apprentice”), and it will be available for streaming and on network TV. Imagine the thrill of watching real-life bloody shoot-outs in the comfort of your own living room. And imagine the gigantic advertising revenues that will result!

Your new government will be nothing if not fair. Advertising revenue will be divided between renewable energy programs (45%), universal health care coverage (45%, for the other 49 states) and the Republican National Committee (5%). I will retain 5% as the originator of the concept, but the RNC will be able to use their dollars for any purpose they see fit (except firearms).

Idaho will benefit, too. Tourism will increase dramatically, as our more adventurous citizens venture to the Gem State (who knew it was called that?) to witness the mayhem firsthand. And eventually, when all the shooting is over, one lucky Idaho resident will wind up with 350 million guns and a substantial fortune to call their very own.

I call this a win-win! So be sure to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren next fall and do your part to make it happen.

My apologies to Jonathan Swift.

AI Poetry

Here’s another step forward in humanity’s slow, steady march toward … our future. Google, which recently vowed to make privacy a paramount concern, has enlisted the UK artist and stage designer Es Devlin and its own formidable artificial intelligence capabilities to come up with a demo they call Poem Portraits.

It’s actually kind of fun.

Google Poem Portraits—AI tries its hand at art.

The execution is straightforward enough—visit this page, enter a word of your choice (be creative!) and give your device’s camera permission to take a selfie.

Voilà! Your very own Poem Portrait! Poetry courtesy of Google AI in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture; facial mapping inspired by the art of Es Devlin. Have a look:

Thomas Pletcher, after processing by Google’s poetry machine.

The word I chose was “fluid,” and the resultant poem reads:

This fluid beauty of the sun is broken on the sun,
A sea of stars, where the wild bees are blind.

Hmm. I might have chosen to write a somewhat different couplet. But this does have a certain resonance, doesn’t it? (All “generated” poetry does, if you’re receptive.) Not to mention the ability to imprint itself across one’s face, like tire tracks. I’m impressed, Google!

Actually, this venture is a very clever move on the company’s part (as is the whole arts and culture effort). It makes one prone to regard Google with friendly affection, as I’m sure it wants us all to do.

Cynicism and privacy concerns aside (does AI analyze, tag and catalog all those selfies?), this is really quite an interesting exercise. And in fairness, it should be noted that Google gives you the option to skip the portrait and simply generate a poem if you’re concerned about privacy.

Try it. You may come up with something that speaks to you and matches your own uniquely identifiable face.

More Open Source Writing

Update, 1/31/2020: the Organon plugin for LibreOffice Writer no longer works with the current version. Development has been paused.

It’s been just over a year since I reviewed some open source writing apps, so I thought it would be a good time to check back in and see what, if anything, has changed in the interim. It also gives me an excuse to take a break from my own work, and from America’s ongoing national crises.

Last time, I stressed the importance of open source code (and the Linux OS) in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation, and privacy. I continue to believe in these criteria. Eric S. Raymond famously wrote about the importance of openness in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and there’s no doubt that open source software has become enormously influential since then—the Internet runs on it. Yet many people, writers included, remain only vaguely aware of the distinction between open source and commercial software. What’s more, to the extent that they are aware, many people believe commercial software to be superior.

Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.
Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.

There’s little doubt that a dedicated commercial team, properly motivated, can accomplish wonders. In this field (writing software), Scrivener is the outstanding example. But as I argued a year ago, I think Scrivener is the exception. Its developers seem to be at least as motivated by the desire to serve writers well as they are by the urge to make money. Quality is the preeminent focus, and it shows. iA Writer is another proprietary program that fits this model; unfortunately, they do not plan to release a Linux version, and the newish Windows version will not run under Wine.

However, commercial imperatives drive some decent software right off the rails. I’m still incensed by the decision Ulysses made to employ a subscription model—there is no justification for it, apart from a naked desire to maximize profits. And I note that sometime over the past year, the mystery-shrouded Write! application has made the same greedy decision. The latter case is especially telling in terms of the vulnerabilities you may encounter with commercial software. Write! has always been coy about who the developers are and where they are located (they are located in Kiev, the Ukraine), and the program requires you to log in in order to use it. You can save your work to their servers, which are also vaguely described. Write! is a potential privacy nightmare, and their decision to start charging a monthly fee after purchase only adds insult to injury.

OK, then. Rant over. Let’s take a look at what’s new with open source writing tools.

First off, there’s a new writing application to report, or rather the revival of a previously languishing application. It’s called UberWriter and it was directly inspired by iA Writer. Its young creator, Wolf Vollprecht, wrote the app for an Ubuntu App Showdown and it was named one of the Top 10 Ubuntu Apps of 2012. Vollprecht charged $5 for it at the time, but then the program was idled for several years (this happens in open source development, especially with young programmers). Now the software is being actively worked on again, with the addition of a second developer, Manuel Genovés, and it’s licensed under the GNU GPL v3.

UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.
UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.

UberWriter is written in Python and it’s quite nice—you can definitely see the iA Writer inspiration in its look and feel. Like iA Writer, it has an optional “focus” mode which greys out all but the sentence you’re actively working on. (I hope the developers will also try to implement something like iA Writer’s Syntax Control, where adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions and/or conjunctions can be highlighted; this is extremely helpful for brief, concentrated writing like poetry.) UberWriter uses Markdown and it can export to .odt and .rtf, along with .pdf and .epub, among other formats. I’m glad the app is back. It seems very promising, and it’s already quite useful for shorter work. The chief downside: it’s only available for Linux.

Here’s what’s up with the other open source writing software reviewed last year. LibreOffice Writer remains a superb (and I believe superior) alternative to Microsoft Word. I’ve noticed that more literary publications are open to accepting .odt files these days, but even for those that continue to insist on .docx or .doc format, Writer’s compatibility with Word is such that this is a non-issue. Writer is very actively developed (as is the entire LibreOffice suite). The Organon plugin for novelists that I mentioned last year has seen no development since then, but it still works fine with the current version of Writer.

Writer is cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows), as are all the programs that follow below. I think it’s essential for any writer.

FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.
FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.

Graeme Gott’s outstanding FocusWriter is also actively developed, and I still intend to provide a full review of this wonderful application at some point. FocusWriter has multi-document support when you need it, though it’s not really intended for lengthy projects like novels (that’s what the next three programs do). It can be customized to look exactly as you want, and it really shines for short-form work of all types. I think FocusWriter is an exemplary open source program, and it’s well worth adding a tip for the developer when you download it. This “tip jar” approach is far more appropriate for open source projects that offering a handicapped free version and a full paid version, as some apps do.

Bibisco is one of those apps, and I tend to rule it out for its payment model alone. It hasn’t changed much over the past year—there is still no distraction-free mode, for example. And I actually find the program to be quite homely. In addition, I think its character-driven approach is overly rigid.

Plume Creator is still under development, but slowly. Its creator, Cyril Jacquet, states that an entirely new version is underway. The current version (0.67) is available to download from SourceForge for Linux, Mac and Windows. Since the interface hasn’t changed, I’ll refer you to last year’s review for an overview. Plume Creator is helpful and usable now and I look forward to an eventual new release.

Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.
Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.

Manuskript, my favorite Scrivener-inspired program from last year, has been updated: it’s now at version 0.90 (ever closer to that key 1.0 release). The look and feel of the program are much the same (again, see last year’s review for a more complete description) but the application’s exporting capability has been noticeably improved. It’s now possible to export directly to .docx with fairly decent results. You can also, as before, export to plain text, then use a program like LibreOffice Writer to export to the format of your choice.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is very usable now and it’s growing more so. Scrivener remains the preeminent tool for long-form writing, but it’s good to see these open source programs striving to provide some of the same functionality.

Before I sign off, here’s one more news item for your consideration. It involves the longtime Windows writers’ program WriteMonkey, which is not open source. However, there is now a new beta version of WriteMonkey 3 which is available for Linux and Mac, as well as Windows. I downloaded the Linux version and was very pleasantly surprised by how capable the program is. WriteMonkey 3 (WM3) is a complete rewrite of the original Windows program, which has been around since 2006. To quote the WM website description, the app is:

—simple yet poweful,
—plain text only,
—minimal interface,
—distraction-free,
—keyboard friendly (an understatement!) and
—markdown-enabled.

WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.
WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.

That list barely scratches the surface. Don’t be fooled by the text-only aspect; this is a very powerful program. It is largely keyboard driven, so there is something of a learning curve. And while it can handle files and directories, I wouldn’t classify WriteMonkey as Scrivener-inspired. Instead, as the Scrivener website itself says,

“WriteMonkey is a free app that presents a stripped down and isolated space for pure writing. Although plain text, it supports Markdown, making it easy to export formatted documents. Its focus is on writing rather than editing, based on the idea of reducing distractions to increase writing quality and speed.”

I would add “enormous flexibility” to that description.

"Monkey wisdom" on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.
“Monkey wisdom” on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.

Although WriteMonkey is not open source software, it is free. It follows a donation model, much like FocusWriter—the free version is in no way stripped down, as it is with Bibisco. And if you decide to donate you can unlock bonus functionality with various WriteMonkey plugins. This is a fair arrangement, in my estimation, particularly when you consider what the basic program can do.

Unlike the questionable Write! application, WriteMonkey doesn’t hide its source or location: it’s developed by Studio Pomarancha in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you’re put off by the Balkans origin, you shouldn’t be—WriteMonkey has been around for well over a decade and I’m not aware of any sort of security or privacy issues that have arisen with it. It’s a very capable and polished free program that deserves to be used alongside the open source apps recommended above.

Can We Still Think?

Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.

A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.
A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.

“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.

To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.

Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.

Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.

I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.

(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)

To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

Open Source Writing

Update, 1/31/2020: the Organon plugin for LibreOffice Writer no longer works with the current version. Development has been paused.

Update, 4/26/19—There is a follow-up open source overview here.

Update, 6/20/18 (see Bibisco section below).

I will acknowledge at the beginning that articles such as this one can be viewed as a distraction from, or evasion of, “real” writing. And God knows I have several projects I should be working on instead. But I find the tools writers use to be a fascinating subject (and I’m not the only one). Moreover, the focus of this piece—using open source tools to do your work—strikes me as especially timely in light of recent concerns about the intersection of commercialization, privacy and technology. I think most writers should find something of interest below.

This article, then, will provide a brief evaluation of a number of open source programs designed for writers. The one prerequisite for inclusion here is that such programs run on Linux. While I do much of my work on a Mac (which remains, in many ways, the “creative” platform), Linux has become increasingly important in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation and privacy (Tim Cook’s protestations notwithstanding). The OS is in the process of becoming quite a decent platform for writers, as well.

My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.
My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.

 

 

 

 

I’ll mention a few commercial writers’ programs up front, just for contrast. One of the problems with proprietary software is clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of Ulysses to employ a subscription model. I regard this form of pricing as a kind of extortion: pay us a monthly fee, or else. Unfortunately, this model has become more prevalent in recent years. Blame Adobe, the company that started it all. Microsoft isn’t helping, either.

Another potential problem with proprietary software involves security and privacy. Not every software maker is as transparent as it could or should be, and there are times when you should be very cautious as a consequence. For example, I was initially  impressed by the program Write!, which I’ve mentioned more than once on this site. But the program’s developers have not offered any public transparency concerning their location and personnel (both are potential issues), and the program itself still requires you to log in order to use it, which is both unnecessary and quite dubious from a privacy and security standpoint. I no longer use this software and can’t recommend it.

Not every proprietary program is potentially hazardous or exploitative to use, though—Scrivener is generally exemplary in its pricing, customer relations and overall quality. As I noted in my recent review of Scrivener 3, the program looks as though it will run fine under Wine on Linux, and I will be happy to buy a license to use it there, as well as on my Mac. But Scrivener is arguably an exception. You’re likely to encounter pitfalls of one sort or another with much commercial software, not least an endless, too-frequent “upgrade” cycle. Free and open source software is another paradigm altogether.

OK, then. Let’s start our survey with LibreOffice Writer, an extremely capable word processor that in my opinion renders Microsoft Word unnecessary for the majority of writers. Yes, Word remains the publishing “standard” for both books and periodicals. But Writer is so adept at producing compatible .doc and .docx files that Word really isn’t necessary in this context. Writer’s Track Changes feature operates seamlessly with Word’s, at least in my experience, and formatting for novels, short fiction and poetry is straightforward enough that compatibility issues are a thing of the past. It wouldn’t hurt you to have Word available for some unforeseen contingency but as a writer you really don’t need it. And Writer is available on Mac and Windows, as well as Linux (the same is true for all of the software mentioned below).

What’s more, Writer can be customized for particular needs. There is a terrific plugin called Organon which turns Writer into a Scrivener-like tool for novelists which can organize your work by chapter, scene or section and also give you a place to store notes on characters, locations, etc.

Here's a novel first draft in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Here’s the first draft of a novel in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Organon's Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.
Organon’s Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For shorter work, look no further than Graeme Gott’s excellent FocusWriter. This is a very attractive distraction-free writing program that can handle switching between individual scenes or chapters and also offers basic tools like daily goals and the ability to save to .rtf and .odt formats. FocusWriter deserves a review of its own, which I’ll try to provide at some point.

The following three programs try to do what Scrivener does so well: provide an environment conducive to longer creative work, especially novels. None of them can yet equal Scrivener but they are surprisingly capable in their different ways.

There is an update for the general summary of Bibisco below. The 2.0 version of the program is now based on node.js rather than Java, and it’s not backward-compatible. However, the look and feel are much the same as they were before (though full-screen mode is now possible). The program has now been divided into a “community edition” (free) and a “supporters editon” (minimum €10 donation). For the donation you get the option of enabling the ubiquitous “dark mode” that seems to have overtaken most of today’s software. Now, I have no objective to supporting open source projects with donations—I support several of them. But I think this new Bibisco “freemium” mode is inappropriate for an open source project. Either go commercial or don’t, but don’t try to split the difference.

Bibisco (I have no idea what this name means, but it sounds nice, like biscuits and cookies) is open source software from Andrea Feccomandi in Italy which is aimed at novelists. It is very much oriented toward planners rather than “pantsers” (as in “seat-of-the-pants” writing born of experience and instinct). The program asks you to define your characters and their desires in quite extensive detail before you begin writing, although of course you can choose to ignore this. Such extensive preparatory organization will suit many people; it doesn’t match the way I work (though I do appreciate having a section to define characters in briefer detail). Other sections are devoted to narrative strands and locations and the program does a decent job of exporting to .pdf and .rtf formats, though some after-export tweaking may be necessary.

Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.
Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibisco is Java-based and comes with its own runtime. It is the least attractive of the three programs we’re discussing here, in my opinion, and also the most rigid—there is no full-screen option, for example, let alone a distraction-free environment. The main editing/writing window is rather small and can’t be resized. Nevertheless, if you can work within the software’s current constraints it does offer all the basics that planning a long work of fiction requires. Many people seem to like it and I think it does show some definite promise.

Bibisco's editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.
Bibisco’s editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript and Plume Creator are more to my taste, both in the way they work and in their appearance. Both of these applications also come from Europe and were developed by Olivier Keshavjee (Manuskript) and Cyril Jacquet (Plume Creator).

Let’s check Plume Creator first. The application is organized logically, with the editing/writing space prominent in the center and various tools located in panels to either side. The right panel can be hidden entirely and there is a distraction-free full-screen mode available. Many other tools in various stages of development are also available—for example, there is a “Workbench” view you can overlay on the main interface in which you can provide synopses, notes, POV and status for various scenes. Workbench is somewhat akin to the Organizer view in Writer’s Organon plugin.

There is also a separate, standalone Notes area—Plume Creator is in development and many features are still being sorted out. Despite this, the program seems quite stable and it offers a great deal of flexibility in how you arrange things.

The Plume Creator interface, with tools to either side of the writing workspace.

 

 

 

 

 

The program offers an attractive dark theme as an alternative to the light theme shown above, and as already noted there is a distraction-free mode. This lets you shift from scene to scene while still in full-screen view: quite handy.

Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.
Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.

 

 

 

 

 

BTW, that red highlight on the 4,052 word count is to let me know that the story’s draft exceeds its target of 4,000 words. Again, quite handy. Plume Creator does an excellent job of autosaving your work and a credible job of exporting to .pdf and .odt (minor tweaking may be required). Given that this software has yet to reach version 1.0, it is quite impressive—I like it a lot.

But my favorite of the three open source Scrivener-inspired programs we’re examining here is Manuskript.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is logically organized with the writing area centered between two side tool panels. In this case, the left panel can disappear entirely while the right panel can be minimized. There is an excellent full-screen, distraction-free mode (borrowed from FocusWriter) which can be customized.

The Manuskript interface, Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.
The Manuskript interface. Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript, again like Plume Creator, is still working toward version 1.0. But the program seems very stable and I feel pretty confident my work is safe while using it (likewise with Plume Creator). I prefer Manuskript for its somewhat more intuitive organizational scheme and its somewhat greater flexibility; the program just “feels right” to me and I also think it looks more attractive than the other two.

A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.
A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Manuskript does fall down somewhat is in its exporting performance; both Bibisco and Plume Creator do a better job at present. Manuskript uses Pandoc to export (or “compile,” as Scrivener does) to a wide range of formats, including .epub, .odt, .docx, .pdf and even LaTeX. But there seems to be some sort of mismatch with Pandoc when exporting from Manuskript’s graphical interface. I’ve discovered a workaround of sorts on a Manuskript GitHub page: simply export to plain .txt format, then use Pandoc on the command line, like so:

pandoc -s -o myprj-output.odt myprj-export.txt

where “myprj” is the name of your Manuskript project. This will give you a LibreOffice Open Document file that at least separates your scenes properly. A more direct solution is to simply copy-and-paste finished scenes from Manuskript into LibreOffice Writer. I feel confident the developer will improve the export function in future versions of the program.

And there you have it: a (relatively) brief overview of today’s most popular open source creative writing tools. Since all of these programs are available for both Windows and Mac you can easily try any of them that pique your interest. With luck, you’ll find a writing app that helps improve your workflow, provides some added privacy/security (as long as you download the software from the developers’ sites linked above) and saves you a bit of money in the process.

 

Scrivener 3 Review

This is a somewhat belated review of Scrivener 3, which was released (for Mac only) last November. Scrivener is the dominant app for novelists and other long-form writers (not counting Word, which is still the publishing industry standard), and this latest update—which was years in the making—brings some important changes.

First, the program’s interface has been significantly improved. Scrivener simply looks better; it seems more modern and up-to-date. This is important, since competitors like Ulysses have long had an aesthetic advantage. Better-looking software seems more inviting and easier to use (even if it’s not), so Scrivener’s visual update is important. And Scrivener 3 is more inviting and easier to use (click the images below to enlarge).

Scrivener 3's 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3’s 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, this Swiss Army knife of writing programs has a lot of changes under the hood as well. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • The Compile function has been updated to be more flexible (although I’ve never had a problem with the previous version).
  • “Styles” have been improved (this will be important chiefly to those who self-publish).
  • Index cards can now be viewed on colored threads to differentiate them; this is more like a plot outline than anything Scrivener has offered before.
  • Outlining in general has been enhanced.
  • Up to four documents can be viewed in the main window using “Copyholders” features.
  • You can now see draft and session progress bars in the toolbar.
  • The new “Dialogue Focus” can highlight all the dialog in your text.
  • Scrivener’s codebase has been updated for 64-bit, making the program faster and more stable.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrivener’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?

The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

Quite nice, actually. Scrivener has always had the ability to focus on just your words (it’s called “Composition Mode”), and this view is slicker and more useful than ever. It’s customizable, and it lets you access the Scrivener toolbar by moving your mouse to the top of the screen and access a word count and other helpful features by moving your mouse to the bottom. Plus, Composition Mode is very attractive at its default setting (which you can modify to your heart’s content).

Scrivener's Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.
Scrivener’s Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The chief complaint I’ve heard about Scrivener over the years concerns its complexity—there are so many tools available that the program can seem quite daunting, especially to newcomers. I think version 3 mitigates this to some extent with its compelling visual makeover. And in point of fact, you’re not required to use all the tools Scrivener provides. You can set up the program to simply work with chapters or scenes and forgo all the extras if this seems more appealing. This will give you a work environment much like Ulysses, but without that program’s unfortunate monthly subscription fee.

Actually, I suspect that for most professional writers Scrivener’s chief competitor is Word. Word contains its own universe of tools and options, but many people are accustomed to using it simply to outline and write. Scrivener can be used in similar fashion, but it provides a significantly more attractive environment for writing (and it exports to Word flawlessly when you’re ready to submit your work).

If you have Scrivener 2, an upgrade to version 3 costs $25. If you’re purchasing Scrivener for the first time, you’ll pay $45. In both cases, this is money very well spent.

Scrivener is cross-platform and version 3 for Windows is due sometime later this year. If you buy the current Windows version now ($45) the upgrade to version 3 will be free.

A couple of final notes. First, Scrivener 3 is not backward-compatible with the previous version, but this turns out not to be much of a problem—the program thoughtfully creates a backup in the old file format when it converts your work to version 3. You can go back and forth between the two versions, in other words. Second, there is a beta version of version 3 available for Windows now. I’m delighted to report that it works fine in Wine on my Linux system (and presumably on Windows itself as well). Scrivener originally had a Linux beta available, but as a small company Literature & Latte decided to suspend Linux development and focus on Mac and Windows (and iOS) instead. I commend them for taking pains to make sure Scrivener 3 can still be run on Linux, through Wine compatibility.

Scrivener 3 is an important upgrade and writers at every level should benefit from its improvements.

Should Fiction Get Its Facts Straight?

This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?

As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)

Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.

Fortune Smiles—an exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.
An exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.

The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.

“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.

The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.

Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)

As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.

To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.