Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.
The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.
As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”
The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:
“Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
“[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
“It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.
Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:
The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.
Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.
If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.
Update, 8/5/19: see the footnote below regarding the Writers Studio.
Last Saturday, July 20, I had the pleasure of participating in the summer literary reading organized by the Writers Studio, Hudson Valley branch. The reading was held at one of the Hudson Valley’s best bookstores, the Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY. There was a good turnout, as there generally is (the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Reading Series takes place once each quarter).
The reading was divided between Writers Studio faculty and students. There was a nice mix of fiction and poetry and, as you would expect, a reasonably high level of quality. The fact that some of the work was a little uneven—particularly my work—just made things more interesting, especially because hearing the work elicits a somewhat different response than simply reading it would. More on the read aloud-written page symbiosis below.
BTW, if any of you are contemplating the writing life, you should certainly put the Writers Studio at the top of your list for workshops. They’re well-established, well-respected and available in a number of venues: NYC, San Francisco and Tuscon, in addition to the Hudson Valley. Online courses are available as well.* The Writers Studio was founded by Philip Schultz, a Pulizer Prize-winning poet, and has nurtured and partnered with (especially in Craft Class) many fine writers over the years, including Jennifer Egan and James Lasdun.
I read five short poems in my allocated slot. A couple of them, this one and this one, have already been published; the rest are currently making the rounds. What I found invaluable about the reading, apart from the positive feedback of the audience, was the experience of hearing myself sound the words of these poems aloud while watching people receive them. It’s a different experience for writer and reader/audience alike, yet it’s closely linked to the way readers (and writers) experience words on the page.
While reading, some of my own lines suddenly sounded flat to me. (One’s delivery is important too, of course: you don’t want to drone on in a monotone and elicit reactions like this.)
Conversely, some lines in a recent poem that I felt worked well clearly resonated with my audience, too—a number of people came up to me after the reading and singled them out, along with the poem that contained them. That bodes well for publication, I hope.
The moral here, for aspiring writers, is this: even if it looks good and you think it works, if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not there yet. When it does sound right, you know it at once, and so does the audience.
Kudos to Therese Eiben and Anamyn Turowski, the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Co-Directors, along with the Spotty Dog, for organizing and hosting these fine readings, and for contributing to the ongoing development and appreciation of fiction and poetry in the Hudson Valley.
* 8/5/19 update: I stick to this general recommendation for newcomers, but not for experienced writers. The two-page exercises become repetitive and tedious over time, and the workshop students tend to have wildly varying abilities, which has the effect of slowing things down as outsized attention is paid to people with little chance of making much progress. Instruction can be uneven as well.
As the Fourth of July approaches, here is a brief, belated review of a book apparently inspired by our present dysfunction.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is a couple of years old now. It was widely reviewed when it appeared (the reviews were largely favorable, although some prestigious outlets—the Times, the Guardian—pointed out many of the book’s considerable flaws). There have been mutterings about a second American Civil War ever since Trump’s flawed and fraudulent election, but fortunately these have so far remained in the background. Nevertheless, the book has obvious resonance with our current moment.
I wrote a draft novel during 2016’s NaNoWriMo based on Trump’s election, but reality has since far outpaced the still optimistic plot strands in that effort (the book requires a complete overhaul). El Akkad errs in the opposite direction: his novel offers plenty of pessimism (war as the universal human language is a central theme), but has very little relevance to the state of the country today. Here are some of the reasons why:
The novel is set more than 50 years in the future. One of the causes of the second American Civil War is the South’s refusal to give up gasoline and other fossil fuels.
Fifty years is a long time from now. It is highly unlikely that gasoline could ignite a war that far into the future, especially since the novel notes that much of the South has been washed away by climate change.
The war is once again between the North and the South. Much of the West has been annexed by Mexico (this goes unexplained). There is a new, united Arabic superpower in Northern Africa and the Middle East (also unexplained, except by noting that the 5th Arab Spring succeeded).
The great divide in the country today is not between North and South (though remnants of that history still exist). It is between the cities and the countryside, between educated “elites” and credulous have-nots, between truths and “alternative truths.” American War has nothing to say about social media, fake news or the visceral hatred and contempt MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters and college-educated professionals in our major cities feel for one another.
The writing is just passable. Clichés abound and the characters are not fully realized. The plot is elaborate but full of unlikely coincidence. American War is fairly well-paced but never really takes off, never seems fully real.
Still, one has to give El Akkad some credit for writing one of the first novels built around America’s unraveling. Truth seems stranger than fiction in Trump’s America, so today’s writers face some large challenges indeed. But there will be other novels inspired by the country’s dissolution, and many of them will have more to offer than American War.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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,
—keyboard friendly (an understatement!) and
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.
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.
This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.
None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times100 Notable Books list.
Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.
If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?
The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.
The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.
Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.
I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.
As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”
People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.
R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.
I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.
The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.
Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.
The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?
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).
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.