Craig Lambert, author and FLOSS advocate

Doing it all with open-source software

April 7, 2016
by admin
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View Your Mind addendum

In my previous post I suggested using the smiling, frowning, and horrified faces to identify good, bad, and ugly ideas in the mind map.  Another thought is to use them to show pacing at a glance.  A smiling face could indicate that things are going well for the protagonist, a sad face could denote minor trouble or portend bigger trouble, and a horrified face could mark those chapters or scenes in which disaster strikes.  Of course, most of the timeline should be marked with frowning and horrified faces, with a few happy visages to break things up and give the character (and reader) some relief.  A quick mark-up of the early map for Children of the Ice looks like this:

Children_of_the_Ice_vym_pacing

Until I get .svg support working, we’ll have to resort to zooming in:

Children_of_the_Ice_pacing_vym_zoom

But trying to use the smiley, sad, or oh-my-god-it’s-the-end-of-the-world faces to indicate pacing in a time-line of more than an handful of lines quickly turns into a list of faces that are indistinguishable until zoomed in.  I still like being able to see the pacing of the whole tale at a glance, so how else can we do it?  How about color?

Children_of_the_Ice_pacing_color_vym

Okay, it shows up better full-size on even a fifteen-inch monitor than it does here.  Here’s a close-up:

Children_of_the_Ice_pacing_color_vym_zoom

An advantage to using colors rather than expressions is the number of levels that can be expressed, although really not many colors can be distinguished against a white background.  Oh for the good old days thirty-five or more years ago of four or sixteen colors against a black background.

Anyway, I think I’ll use the color code for a while (kind of like the terror alert color codes – okay, maybe a bad analog) and see how it works for me.  If you have other ideas, please share.

April 1, 2016
by Craig Lambert
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Mind-mapping software: ViewYourMind (VYM)

Children of the Ice began as a half-dozen or so loosely-related images. My memory being what it is (where was I going with this?) I realized I needed a way to avoid losing ideas even before I committed to compiling them into a story. More than simply a way to keep from forgetting things, a way to organize and interrelate them would be a huge help.

Obvious candidates for the job included 3×5″ note cards (low-tech, hard to link material on the cards to material on other cards, not always readily at hand, …), a spreadsheet (all the material for a book could be kept on separate tabs: one for the time-line, one for characters, one for scenes, … Or each character could have his or her own tab, with the complete dossier for that character organized in columns, …)

I thought it would be interesting to use a mind map. At least several are available in the Linux world (and probably for other operating systems). The one I chose is View Your Mind, or vym (https://sourceforge.net/projects/vym/ for Linux, although it’s bundled with most distros); http://vym-view-your-mind-for-windows.software.informer.com/2.0/ and other sites for Windows; and http://mac.softpedia.com/get/Educational/Vym.shtml and others for Mac). Some reports suggest that installing the software in Windows takes a bit of extra effort, but nothing that should put most users off.

Anyway, it’s free and open-source, which is the sort of software I use as much as possible. As the name suggests, you can use the software to capture a brain dump on your computer, either for a single user or as a group’s collaborative tool. Here’s an example of an early map of Children_of_the_Ice.vym.  I tried to include it as a .svg image so it could be scaled easily, but WordPress doesn’t allow that type of file, so we’re left with a low-resolution .png.

Children_of_the_Ice_vym_gimp

The map starts with just the box in the middle, called the “mapcenter”. I retitled the mapcenter to “Children of the Ice” and added branches as children (Timeline, Characters, Concepts, Locations in the figure above). I expanded the map with more child branches to fill out the ideas I wanted to capture. I think of this more as a collection of important items for the story than as an outline, but the Timeline branch does bear a distinct resemblance to an outline.

This map started as just a few branches with a few notes and grew as the story progressed until the characters took over and stopped reading the map. Any good mind mapping tool offers complete flexibility to arrange your thoughts in a way that works for you. Vym’s complete screen looks like this:

Children_of_the_Ice_vym_whole

The buttons along the top can be used to navigate the map, mark good, bad, and disastrous ideas, zoom in and out, and do a lot of other things. Adding branches and sub-branches is easy, and moving sub-branches up and down along a branch is as easy as highlighting the item to move and pressing the up or down arrow key along the top row if icons. The user can change the color scheme and other preferences easily with the “Format” menu, and branches can be collapsed or expanded for easy readability.

I do most of my writing on a laptop with a fifteen-inch screen, so it doesn’t take long for the map to lose legibility when fully zoomed out. The ability to collapse the parts that I’m not using at the moment is a huge help. The Tree Editor pane just to the left of the map also helps considerably with navigation. Clicking on an item in that pane repositions the map with the item highlighted.

Of course, if you consider taking your novel in a new direction, making a copy of the map and waxing eloquent with a variety of new plot twists and characters is trivial, it doesn’t break anything you’ve already done, and it could lead to a better story.

Updating a copy of the map as you go along so that it reflects your actual tale could be a good way to always have a synopsis of the story.  This could be good both to simplify putting the formal synopsis together for an agent and to give you an idea of what to cut when your novel tops 135,000 words (I’ve cut 20,000 of them.  Don’t judge.)

I’m a pantser (a seat-of-the-pants writer, rather than an outliner),  but I like VYM. It’s easy to use and it does just what I need. One of these days I may try a couple more mind-maps just to see if I’m missing anything. If I do I’ll report my opinions.

November 22, 2015
by Craig Lambert
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A first stab at the back-cover (paperback) or front-inside-flap (hardback) for Children of the Ice

The back-cover copy entices the prospective reader to read at least the first few pages of the book, and those pages get the reader to buy the book.  It’s a tease, exposing just enough without revealing all the goods.  Here’s a first shot at it.

 

A century after a collision with an asteroid created a global ice age, life has returned to a semblance of normal. A few things are not the old “normal”: Agriculture is only possible in large greenhouses, electrical power has to be produced without fossil fuels or running water, and exposure to the environment for more than a couple of minutes without a powered environmental suit guarantees death by freezing.
Sam Johnson, an engineer for the power company, is morbidly afraid of freezing to death, yet his job requires that he spend time outside, building or maintaining huge thermoelectric arrays in areas with active geothermal vents. While on one project, his world suddenly changes.
Sam finds himself in a warm, apparently pre-asteroid world with a hot sun, running water, crops that grow in the open, and a society that will do anything, including murder, to keep its existence secret and free of outsiders.
Sam and another outsider, Ellie, plan to escape near-certain death in what had at first appeared to be a Paradise. But with no idea of how to leave and nothing to protect them from the frigid outside world and whatever else might await them there, their chances of survival grow increasingly dim with every move they make.

November 8, 2015
by Craig Lambert
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Second impressions of Calligra Author 2.8.1 (and the beginning of a short story)

I know I said the next post would be about the book, but I’d like to add a little to the previous entry. The Children of the Ice back cover copy will be posted in a couple of days.

I had an idea for another short story, so I fired up Calligra Author to get the beginning down on virtual paper before I forgot it. After a couple of paragraphs, I noticed something peculiar: I couldn’t type two consecutive spaces at the end of a sentence. Actually, I could if I backspaced to before the first space and typed the second. I tried starting the beginning of the next sentence, then going back to just before the first word of the sentence and typing a space. The first letter of the next sentence didn’t move. If I backed up to just after the previous period and typed a space, the next sentence moved one space. I could keep typing spaces and moving the sentence along, as long as I was not trying to enter the space immediately before the letter that started the sentence. The same is true immediately before any word. I was able to type a space inside a word, but I couldn’t move the dangling part of the word along unless I backed up a space. Most peculiar! Every other word processor (or even text editor like this one) I’ve ever used has let me type the customary two spaces between sentences.

I’m going to continue to use Calligra Author to finish writing the story, mostly to see what other peculiarities pop up, but as of now, Calligra Author (and Calligra Words, the more complete general-purpose word-processing component of the suite) are not going to be my first choices for writing.

Speaking of the story, it will probably be a while before it’s finished, but I like the way it’s coming along, so I’m going to post the beginning in the My Stories page.  It’s called (tentatively) “The Hall”.

November 2, 2015
by Craig Lambert
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First impressions of Calligra Author 2.8.1 (and a short story!)

FLOSS includes an abundance of writing tools, from basic text editors to elaborate office suites that rival (or exceed) Microsoft Word. Many are cross-platform (Linux, Windows, and Mac), and for the most part I’ll report on my experiences with those.

Probably the best-known FLOSS office suite is OpenOffice, which was forked to LibreOffice after Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, which owned OpenOffice. I used OpenOffice and LibreOffice to write Children of the Ice, and I’m using it to write my next book.

Today, however, we’re going to look at a component of another office suite: Calligra. Calligra began life as KOffice, part of the KDE desktop environment with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. Over the years, it has developed into a very capable office suite, picking up a vector graphics component, a full drawing program, database front-end, a project planning program, a mind-mapping component, a program to create flowcharts, and now, a spin-off of the word processor, intended for authors.

This last component is called Calligra Author. Currently, it’s a word processor with the features most commonly required for writing books, and none of the other distractions. It’s targeted for writers of novels and textbooks, but it should be useful for whatever you want to write.  It is available for Linux, Windows, and Mac, but the non-Linux versions are currently less full-featured than the one for Linux.

A welcome feature is the ability to export your work as PDF (nothing new there, but still useful) and as MOBI and EPUB formats for Nook and Kindle. In the past, I’ve had to use Calibre to get a manuscript into one of the e-reader formats, so this is great.

Future plans, as I understand it, include a tool to help plan your books. Maybe if all the components were integrated into one suite, I’d be better about outlining. I’ll keep an eye on the betas and try it out when it happens.

I took Calligra Author for a spin and wrote UNIVERSE, which you can find under the STORIES tab on the home page.  Calligra Author formatted it properly.  WordPress has thwarted my attempts to keep the formatting (proper indenting, no blank lines between paragraphs).

All in all, I’m impressed with Calligra Author.  If I were to choose to switch (which I might do), it would be easy, because Author saves its output in the Open Document Format (.odf), as does LibreOffice.

Craig

October 31, 2015
by Craig Lambert
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Current status of Children of the Ice

I’m going to interrupt the ruminations on FLOSS every now and then to comment on where I am in getting my first book in front of readers. Work began on this tome (yeah, it’s a little long. I’m cutting out as much as I can.) five or six years ago, when a friend told me she had finished hers and challenged me to put my scattered images of scenes down on paper. Thank you, anonymous friend. If you give me permission, I’ll give full attribution.

I remember telling my wife, Janice, almost three years ago that I had finished the book. What I meant was that I had finally reached a place at which I could write “The End”. But, of course, even though I had been heavily revising as I composed, that was really just the end of the beginning. It was followed by years of arduous revision, murdering my darlings, and reading everything I could find on what agents wanted to see, especially in the first pages.

I submitted to a few agents about a year ago, and received polite, personal (except for one form letter) rejections. Along the way I was refining my query letter, and, even though she, too, declined representation, an agent who writes a blog about query letters complimented me on my query.

I’m in the last pass of revision, still with an eye out to cut what little fat remains. A novel is supposed to be from eighty thousand to one hundred twenty thousand words long. Novels that require world-building (science fiction, historical novels, anything set in a world that’s unfamiliar to the target reader) can be a little longer (or so I understand). My novel peaked at a bit over one hundred thirty-one thousand words. Now it’s down to about one hundred eighteen thousand. Even though I’m in the length window, publishers are more willing to buy a shorter book than a longer one, because it’s cheaper to produce. If it’s well-received, the next books can be longer. So I’m still cutting, punching up the wording, and making it harder for an agent to decline. That, of course, should make it a more enjoyable experience for the eventual reader.

The next post will probably be about Calligra Author. After that one, maybe I’ll post a possible back-cover blurb for the book.

Check back. If you’d like to be notified when a new post lands, register. You’ll get an email when I post. I’m going to categorize my posts (Book and FLOSS), and I think I can make only the category that interests you result in an email.

Craig

October 29, 2015
by Craig Lambert
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Why do I use FLOSS?

Besides having been told by my dentist that it’s good for me, Free, Libre, and Open-Source Software offers everything that I (and most people, I’m sure) need to do the things they need to do with a computer. We should probably start by figuring out what this type of software is.

Free software (free as in beer) means you don’t have to pay for it, just like a free app on your smartphone. Libre is more along the lines of the French or Spanish meaning of “free” meaning freedom (free as in speech).  Many free software advocates are on the side of the former.  The Free Software Foundation (FSF) supports the latter.  Most of the software I use is open-source, which I take to be a combination of the two (pedants would almost certainly take issue with that, but that’s how I see it). That means that the program is free to use and the source code (the program in human-readable form) is freely available to anyone to study, modify, and use or distribute in its modified form as long as it’s in compliance with the applicable license (GPL, for example). Frankly, I’ve never done that.  My coding skills have improved, but I haven’t found the need to fix anything.  It’s nice to know, however, that if I found something I wanted changed in a program, I could change it for my use, tell the developers that I had found something that needed fixing, or fork the project (take the original code, add my changes, and offer the new version to the open-source community as long as I do it in a way the license permits).

Free (as in beer) is definitely a reason to explore the software available to the FLOSS community.  The software ranges from simple utilities to full office suites (LibreOffice, for example), photo manipulating programs (GIMP, a direct competitor to Photoshop), and all sorts of other things.  Not all free software is open-source.  My circuit simulator of choice (at work and home) is LTspice, a very closed-source offering from Linear Technology.  The source code is held very close to the vest, but the program is offered for free to anyone who wants it, and it has a huge, very well-moderated Yahoo Groups community.  It is written for Windows, but runs at least as well under WINE in Linux (more on that in a later post).  Several other closed-source and open-source simulators are available.  I haven’t looked at them in years, but I will shortly, and I’ll let you know my opinions.

We’ll start, however, with open-source software that would be of interest to writers.  I’ll tell you about what I’ve used, what I’ve considered, but not used, and which of the things I’ve used or wanted to use are available on multiple platforms (Linux, Apple, and Windows).

I’m a pantser (a seat-of-the-pants writer, rather than an outliner), so I dove into my story-telling with OpenOffice (which has since been forked to LibreOffice).  After the second chapter, with new characters and plot twists occurring to me that wouldn’t appear until much later in the book, I looked for a way to keep everything straight.  I used a mind-mapping tool called VYM (View Your Mind), and I’ll describe my results with that in an upcoming post.  I also, quite a bit later, found Calligra Author, which is described as an “Author Tool”.  I haven’t used it yet, but I plan to take it for a spin with a short story just to see how it works.

When I finished the first draft of Children of the Ice (including multiple revisions along the way; some writing coaches say that’s a Bad Thing, others say it’s the way they work), I used Calibre to convert the LibreOffice document to both Nook and Kindle formats.  The Kindle conversion came out well.  The Nook version had a blank line between paragraphs (like this blog; good for blogs, bad for books).  At the time I couldn’t find a way to fix that.  I’ll try again with the current version of the software.

I printed a few copies of each of several versions of the manuscript, using GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to edit various free images I found online.  I’m probably not going to review GIMP.  It’s cross-platform (written for Linux, runs in Windows under Cygwin (a Linux-to-Windows translator, just as WINE is a Windows-to-Linux translator; okay, those are both simplifications.  The upshot is that GIMP can be made, without much effort, to run in Windows)).  The program is huge and I’ve used only a few very basic tools, and I’m not qualified to offer a tutorial or review.

Now that we’ve gotten the exposition out of the way, check back soon for the next installment, in which I’ll dive into open-source software for authors.  My plan at this point is to write a story in Calligra, using as many of its features as I can.

Craig

October 24, 2015
by Craig Lambert
0 comments

And so it begins…

I’ve resisted using social media for as long as it’s been around.  Yes, I have a Linked-in account because it’s useful in my career in the unpredictable semiconductor industry.  I respond to it when someone I know contacts me through it, and that’s about it.

But now I’ve written a book, which I will soon be pitching to agents.  In my research into the process of making the best impression, I’ve read over and over again that a social media presence is important.  Two things in particular stand out:  A fan page on Facebook (until the Next Big Thing comes along) and an author website.  I created the fan page (aimed, presumably, at people from the future, since no one now knows anything about me or my books), and I’ll keep it up every now and then.  To set that up, I had to create a personal page, at which I will never look.  If I can, I’ll make it just public enough to tell anyone who stumbles upon it (I keep getting texts from Facebook telling me ten people I know are on Facebook) to go to the fan page and here.

On this site (my author website) I plan to maintain two separate blogs:  One will be about my books and activities I’m undertaking to try to get them in front of the reading public, and the other will be about open-source software I use to write my books, design analog circuits, and do anything else I do on a computer.

As I get better at this, I’ll add the bells and whistles to let people subscribe, to send me email (craig@craignlambert.com), and to make the site easier to navigate and more full-featured.  Please check back.  This should be quite an adventure.

 

Craig

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