Archives for March 2014

Read Stealer of Flesh Free Online

You can read the first book in the Kormak Saga free online here. This is a result of my project to archive all of my books in markdown format for easy future reference. To create it, I found the original production copy of Stealer of Flesh, converted it to markdown then to HTML and uploaded it to the site.

Unfortunately, the process of creating my archive was not quite as simple as I had hoped. First of all, my various ebooks were scattered all over the place in different formats usually Word or Scrivener. I had to find them and do the conversion.

For the Scrivener files this was easy. I simply compiled them as MultiMarkdown. For the docx files, I used iA Writer, a markdown text processor I bought from the Apple Appstore for the princely sum of £2.99. I used it specifically because it can automatically convert docx files into plain text.  It was after this step that I encountered a few small problems.

It turns out that my word-processor derived method of paragraphing using a carriage return is not quite what markdown expects. Markdown indicates a new paragraph with two line breaks. In addition, I use the classic method of indicating scene breaks with two carriage returns. These were converted into the only true paragraphs in the document. The result of this was something that seemed fine when I looked at it in my text processor but when I came to export it, was a bit messy.  You can see how export filters could get confused under the circumstances.

The solution was not hard. I used the excellent TextWrangler (available free here) to search through the plain text files and replace one line break with two line breaks. I then replaced all quadruple line breaks with section breaks. (The previous double line break paragraph markers had increased to four line breaks during the first step.) That was it. Job done.

Once this was done I stored the finished markdown files inside a dropbox folder, Ulysses and a VoodooPad document so I can find them again easily in the future. The version of Stealer of Flesh you can read online is a product of HTML export from markdown. It was all a little more work than I expected but I now have (hopefully) future proof archives of all my work.


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The Advantages of Markdown

I was going to review the writing app Ulysses 3.1 today but David Hewson saved me the bother. If you’re interested I suggest you take a look at David’s thorough and fair review. I’ll just add that, as an owner of Ulysses 3 and its previous versions, I agree with everything that David says.

For those of you who want an edited summary, Ulysses 3.1 is a text processing program that uses Markdown as its basic file format. It has some very clever ways of storing your writing either on your computer or in iCloud. It makes it very easy to keep your writing in one place and even easier to export your work to any format you may want to use it in. It is one of the new breed of text processors with a minimalist interface designed to get out of your way when you are writing. It is also spectacularly beautiful and very easy to use. I’ll get back to that later.

For me the main selling point is Markdown. This is essentially a cut down version of HTML originally designed by John Gruber of Daring Fireball to allow non-coders to work in HTML back in the day. It uses very simple codes to modify text for export. For example, a hash sign at the start of a line indicates a level one header, two hash signs indicate a level two header and so on. Italics and bold are represented by enclosing the text to be emphasised in either one or two * signs. Yes, it really is that simple.

At this point you are probably thinking the same thing as I did when I first encountered Markdown. So what? My word processor allows me to do this with Command/Control +i or +b. This is just a throwback to those old control code based word processors of the 80’s and early 90’s.

Well, yes and no. Markdown is not WYSIWYG. It separates the writing from the formatting more or less completely. What it does not do, which is what nearly every word processor does, is use a proprietary format for saving its files. Markdown is just plain text, pure and simple. This means you can write it on almost anything, and use it almost everywhere.

It may not sound like much but it is important at least to me. On my computer live bits of novels written in file formats known only to the Blind Priests of Set from the Oasis of Aank-Re who chiselled them on the very first stone hard drives. At least it looks that way to me. I suspect some of them were actually written in the Lotus version of Ami Pro back in the early 90s because that’s what I was using back then but who knows?

It’s one of those things that is a trivial problem until it isn’t. Right now I use Scrivener for 90% of my work but companies change their ways, go out of business and hey, sometimes even change their file formats. Today Word’s doc and docx formats are universal. Who knows whether they will be in 20 years? Who knows whether Microsoft will even be around then. Hell, different versions of Word sometimes have problems talking with each other and this may be compounded in coming years. Plain text is pretty close to a true universal format. Chances are it will be around.

The real advantage of Markdown is that there are numerous converters which enable you to transform it into other things: HTML, Doc(x), OTF, PDF, LaTex, ePub, you name it, it exists. I can take a markdown file on my computer and transform it into almost anything you can think of with a touch of a button. This is useful for me when I want to create ebooks, send manuscripts to publishers, put stuff on the web (and, yes, I am writing this post in Markdown).

Scrivener has a MultiMarkdown export function for compiling. MultiMarkdown is a superset of Markdown with some more functions for publishing. I use this Scrivener function to create Markdown versions of the things I write in the program and keep them in a Dropbox file in case of future need. In ten or twenty years time I can revisit what I am doing today and be able to read it even if I don’t have a copy of Scrivener on my computer.

From a writing point of view Markdown has a couple of advantages. The first is that it gets out of your way. Most of the Markdown based text processors I know of have a minimalist interface that lets you write with no distractions.

The second advantage is that your hands never have to leave the keyboard. Whatever formatting I need to use, which admittedly is very little, I can access from the keyboard. This speeds up my writing by a few percentage points.

Again, its one of those things that sounds trivial but has long term consequences. I write thousands of words per day, hundreds of thousands per year, and a few percentage points becomes many thousands of extra words written over a year, possibly hundreds of thousands over the decades of a career. (If you’re one of those people who consider it crass to talk about production and word counts when applied to creative writing, consider it extra time to lovingly craft your glittering prose.)

Which brings me to the final great advantage of markdown. On the Mac at least , the Markdown text processors are simply beautiful. They are lovely to look at and lovely to work in. Ulysses actually makes me want to write whenever I look at it. For a man as naturally indolent as me, that is quite an advantage. Also, given a choice, why not work in an environment that is beautiful?

All of which seems to have brought me back to Ulysses, a program I set out not to review. I really like it. It won’t replace Scrivener for me because Scrivener does too many things too well that I personally need done. It won’t replace Word for the thing I need Word for; exchanging files with editors.

What Ulysses has become for me is a giant notebook for lots of other bits of writing: ideas, essays, rules for Old School D&D, notes for RPG scenarios I might one day run. I have all of these things now, scattered across various Scrivener and Word files that I am constantly losing track of. Ulysses makes these things easy to find and back up. I’ll also be putting the markdown versions of my novels in it so I can easily search them.


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.