Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wanted: Working Tools For a Novelist

I am done with word processors.
I need a novel processor!
I am not writing a business office document. I am not writing a letter of communication to a colleague. I am not writing a pamphlet. I am not writing sections, I am writing chapters. I have front matter. I have afterwords. Author’s notes. Indices. Footnotes. A book title. Page numbers. Particular formatting that I need for print or ebooks. I have editors that go over my tripe prose with a fine-toothed comb. Spine-width calculations (for print). Word counts. Outlines. Custom dictionaries attached to the manuscript I’m working on now.
I am writing a novel.
Yes, I know about Scrivner. I know there are writers who swear by it. But I can’t get it to open a window where I can actually just write! And it requires time for a learning curve that I just don’t have. Their trial period just isn’t long enough for me to figure it out.
I’ve got a growing list of things I want in a writing program. What I want it to show me while I’m working. What kinds of tools I want available to me, when I want them available:

A word counter that also timestamps my writing. This way, I can look at my writing trends. Am I falling off or keeping up with my writing schedule? How many words did I write today? Yesterday? Last week? Writers live and breathe by their word counts. That is the metric that writers live by to measure their progress. Am I keeping up with the schedule I set for myself? Can I really make that deadline? Am I dropping off in my productivity? Am I possibly pushing myself too hard and need some time off from writing. All this can be measured by word count and time.

Custom Dictionaries
A working dictionary that is attached to the manuscript I’m working on right now.
I write speculative fiction—science fiction and fantasy. So I’m often coming up with words that aren’t part of the English language or any other language for that matter. Dictionaries and spell checkers already exist in word processors and they do a great job. But often I have to add a word or two that don’t exist to my dictionary. This means that word I just made up also gets added to every other writing document and email I might create.
Flobnar might be a word used on the world of Xhangtu, but it sure the hell isn’t used in Aggadeh. Or on Earth for that matter. So why should it be included in the spelling dictionary that my entire computer system uses?

Related to spelling is the creation of new proper nouns. People, places, things.
I often create characters by accident. I’m writing a given scene and there is more interaction between my character and the extra than I intended. Conversation happens. The scene becomes more important than I thought it would. But either way, I end up naming that character.
If I type a word that is flagged is a misspelling but has a capital at the beginning of the word, the program should be smart enough to pop up a small window asking if this is a new character or place name. The program should also know not to put the pop-up window over the area where I am currently writing. If I’m in the flow, I don’t want to be interrupted.
For the same reason, if I don’t acknowledge it, the pop-up should disappear and the program should wait until I stop writing for a set period of time before bringing the matter up again. If I use the word a second time, then the program should index the word automatically for me and add it to the proper noun dictionary.
If I wrote “Vinci” several times, capitalized while not at the beginning of a sentence, then the program should be able to figure out that this is a proper noun. When my writing really bogs down and my word count is spread out by minutes at a time, the program should then bring out the proper noun window and say, “You typed ‘Vinci’ several times, is this a name or a place?” and then I can work that out. I could even expand it by adding to “Vinci” so it is spelled “da Vinci”. This way, the proper noun spell checker will know to check for the da, too. Then appropriately capitalize when necessary, such as at the beginning of a sentence.
Part of the proper noun dialogue will also be a space for me to write out a description of the character. A place for me to write out speech patterns for the character if that character speaks in the vernacular. This way, I can keep a running character list that I can refer to just in case I forget someone or how to spell that character’s name.
Last, if I change the name of a character, I should be able to do it in the proper noun dialogue and the program will go through the manuscript and change every instance of that character to the new name.
Even if I have two characters named Ernest, if I change one of the Ernests to a different name, then only that character will be changed. (Yeah, it does mean I’ll have to flag which Ernest as I go along, but the ability would be awesome.)
Character names, place names, ship names, special objects, etc. These things should be trackable.
Ship names and publication titles are special. They are always italicized. The program should know that. If I type Tiger Shark, then the program should know that is the name of a ship and change it to Tiger Shark. Though, if I type it in lower case, I could be writing about the pelagic fish called a tiger shark. The program should recognize that and just flag it for later review, just in case.

As I said above, I write in chapters.
I don’t write in sections. I don’t use web headers to delineate chapters. I use page breaks to separate them.
Word processors have page breaks, why can’t they have chapter breaks?
This is important because the chapter heading requires special handling that a section heading wouldn’t get.
Right now, word processors like Word and Pages separate chapters by locating heading styles.
I’d like to insert a chapter break, and see my outline expand by the new chapter. The chapter heading be automatically created and numbered. I should be able to apply a chapter title in the outline and have it appear instead of just “Chapter 7” or something like that.
I’d like to be able to grab the outline title and move it between two other outline items, and that would move the entire chapter, and then automatically renumber the chapters to match the change.

Structure formatting
An ebook and a printed book may contain the same text, but they are not formatted the same. A novel is flowing prose. A text book is not.
Printing from a novel processor is not the same as printing from an office word processor. I am not going to output a 400 page book to the inkjet printer sitting on my desk. Though, if I’m nuts enough to try it, the program should know to print the even pages first, wait for me to flip over the stack, and then print backwards from the end to the beginning the odd pages. In fact, I should be able to tell the program my printer can only take stacks of 25 sheets at a time, and calculate out what pages will be printed for each stack.
I should be able to tell it, I’m printing to a 9-inch by 6-inch US Trade book format. Knowing the paper type the book would be printed to, it should be able to figure out the margin settings necessary to make this happen.
Same issue if I’m printing to a 4x6 paperback format.
I should be able to set the paragraph indentation by ems, centimeters, or inches.
Ems are important when generating an ebook file.
Ebook files are formatted for flowing text, not fixed text like a printed book.
Even if I preset the format of the book for US Trade when I started writing it so I can see how the writing is going to appear as I’m going along, when I go to output the file to a production file, I should able to specify the final format.
Most book manufacturers can take a PDF now for printing. Software has come that far.
Margins, header offsets at the beginning of a chapter, text indentation at the beginning of a paragraph—all these things are important to self-publishers.
Typography is just as important is the writing is. A novel processor should be able to handle that.

Unobstructive Writing Tools
Writing tools are important, but they should not get in the way of writing!
In Apple’s Pages 5, the %#@!-ing word count window actually floats in the working window! It actually covers my text while I’m writing. That is a huge no-no.
Nothing should get in the way of the writing.
Alerts to misspellings, formatting tools, statistics, character guides, outline, etc. NONE of these things should get in the way of writing.
Just opening the window to start a new manuscript. There should be nothing else popping up other than the window to start writing. No windows for letter formats, flyers, book types, etc. All these format things should come after the writing is done.
Nothing should get in the way of writing!
A novel is flowing text. If I want to apply styles right now at the beginning of the manuscript, then I can hold down the <SHIFT> key along with the key sequence to open a new document.
NOTHING should get in the way of writing!
How many times must I say that?
In fact, if my typing speed is above XX letters per minute, the program should silence all dialogues. It should earmark issues and set them aside for when I stop writing for YY minutes. This way, if I’m in the flow and on a really good tear, don’t interrupt me with spelling error alerts, or other stuff. Set it aside until I stop typing for five minutes or more (preset by me in the preferences).

File formatting
This is vital.
One program absolutely gets it: Mellel by RedleX.
It stores my documents in a human-readable XML format. This means if the program stopped working and RedleX went out of business, I can recover all my writing.
But I’d like to take my program a step further.
I’d like my format to be very similar to the ePub format. Chapters become their own files, support files, etc. But take it further than that.
When I insert a chapter break, the program should know that. It should save that chapter as its own file in the folder and create a new one for the next chapter.
Support files would also include the character biographies, the custom dictionary for the book, the proper noun dictionary for the characters and places in the book. Publication data such as the ISBN, author, publisher data, etc.
A new book file should also be able to connect to the first book file if the two books are related, such as being part of the same series and use the support files from the first book as resources.
It should automatically save while I’m writing, so nothing gets lost if the computer goes down for some reason. Apple OS X really gets this right! But it should go further than that. When I manually save the document, it should also be able to save it to more than one location, including a remote server if I set one up.
Last, when I’m ready for production, it should be able to save directly to EPub and generate a perfect EPub file that will pass epubcheck, the industry-standard vetting tool for EPub-based ebooks.
This is why I stopped using Mellel. It can’t save to ePub files. And copying from Mellel and pasting it into Pages caused a lot of formatting to be lost.
Versioning is important, especially when the manuscript goes to editing.

What happens to a manuscript when the writer types The End?
It doesn’t magically appear as a book the next morning for readers to devour.
Real writers send their work to an editor who will scour it for problems. Editing is the process of refining the manuscript into a book.
There should be a tool for editors.
A smaller program would allow editors to read through the book and highlight problem areas and enter comments attached to those highlighted areas.
Then the editor saves the file, sends it back to the writer.
When the writer opens the editor’s file, the novel processor opens the manuscript file and overlays the editor’s comments over the prose. It also creates a new version, so the original isn’t overwritten.
It will also open multiple editors’ files, those from proofreaders, and overlay their comments all together, color-coded.
This way, the writer can then go through all the requested corrections, make the fixes, then save it into a new version file and send the result back to the editors. (Now, all this versioning is transparent to the writer. We want to keep things simple. But if the writer ever had to back up to an earlier version, it’ll be there.)
This way, the rounds of editing can be better managed.
When the writer sends back the new version to the editor(s), the editor(s) can look at the newest version and even recall the earlier version(s) and compare them. Changed text will be subtly highlighted so not to impede the reading process; the highlighting could even be turned off to remove the distraction. This way, an editor could either dive right to the earlier problem areas and review the changes or just read through the manuscript to see how it flows.
Different kinds of editors need different kinds of resources and approaches.
The key is, you can’t charge the writer for multiple copies of the program to hand out to everyone. So you create an editor’s version of the program. Stripped down so all it does is present the narrative prose and give the editor the comment tool.

So, this is just a portion of the ideas I’ve come up with for the novel processor I want.
There’s considerably more to it I didn’t touch on here. Every time I’ve come up against something that I wish I could do or that the program I’m using just doesn’t do right, I add it to my list. There are a lot of things that need to be done in the background that should be transparent to the writer so the writer can focus on writing.
How bad do I want it? Very.
Enough so, I’ve been studying programming in my spare time to relearn how to program so I can write it myself.
I call it Word Hammer.
Right now, it’s just vaporware. I’d like to move it out of that category and at least into alpha at some point.
But, I have a book I need to finish first…