Markdown Files and the Seinfeld Method

One of the apps I missed when I switched to Windows Phone (yes, I am one of those benighted souls) was Habit Streak. This is a very simple and slick bit of software that let me track my chains of success for the Seinfeld Method of developing a new habit.

I’ve talked about this technique before here. In essence its very simple. You set yourself a daily goal and track whether you manage it. You can mark off days on a calendar, use an app to track your success or any other method you like. All you need to know is the number of days you’ve been successful. The trick is that you build momentum. The longer you manage to keep the habit going the less likely you are to break it. At least that’s the theory. I have found that, for the most part, it works.

Anyway, after I abandoned Habit Streak I looked around for another method of tracking chains but I never found one I liked on Windows Phone. The thing about phone apps is that they go with you everywhere and they are usually very easy to use. They need to be otherwise only the most dedicated would use them. I don’t number among those people. I need something as simple as an app or I just won’t track things.

I work on multiple machines using several different operating systems. The glue that holds my work together is Dropbox and markdown so I decided to use these.

These days my method of tracking habit chains is so absurdly simple I am almost ashamed to blog about it. I set up numbered lists in a plain text file in Dropbox. It’s called Habit Streaks.txt. Each habit gets its own markdown header (A # sign) with a name.

To set up a numbered list in markdown you simply type the number with a period immediately after it. Any markdown text processor worth its salt (or Microsoft Word for that matter) will begin to automatically generate a numbered list. It will look something like this

# Number of days I have blogged:

  1. 04–01–2016
  2. O5–01–2016

and so on.

As the list is generated I just add the date and any notes I have about the habit I am tracking. Next day I hit enter and repeat the process. As the list updates, it automatically gives me the new number of days. When a streak ends. I just cancel the numbered list and begin a new one.

Now its probably struck you that you don’t need to dally with auto-numbered lists and such fripperies. You can just type the numbers yourself. You’re absolutely right.

I just find that it gives me a small jolt of childish pleasure to watch the number being automagically generated. It’s a bit like the satisfaction I get from putting a line through something on a todo list. That tiny dopamine rush gives me encouragement to continue. Every little bit helps when you’re trying to maintain a record system or change a habit.

The system works for me because it’s easy for me. I am a writer. I live inside word processors. The chances are I will open one every day, and once I do, somewhere on a Windows jump list or a recently opened files list will be habit streak.txt. I just need to click on it. It’s easy and that’s the secret.
– – – –

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.

Improving Writing Workflows

I changed my workflow a lot this year. The most important alteration was that I started using markdown as much as possible. I’ve talked about the advantages before so I won’t go into them again here. I’ll just say that I love the way I can work anywhere on anything when I am using it.

I am using Scrivener less. I know, I know– me saying that is one of the signs of the End Times. In the past I used Scrivener for pretty much everything I could. But all is flux as Heraclitus once said.

My workflow is now broken into five stages mostly defined by the program and text format that I use for them.

The first stage is outlining which I do in markdown.

The second stage is writing the first draft which is also done in markdown.

The third stage is revision. If only light revisions are necessary then I make these in markdown. If scenes need to moving around for a major structural edit then I import the file into Scrivener. In Scrivener I can still write in markdown. It is set up for it.

The fourth stage is editing. This is where the files get transferred to Microsoft Word for my test readers and editors.

The final stage for e-book that I happened to be publishing myself is to load the file into Scrivener for production.

When streamlining my revision process I discovered the advantages of using a checklist such as Folding Text. I found that I liked having a separate outline to the one inside Scrivener.

I used to write a synopsis and then transfer my scene by scene descriptions into the index card window in Scrivener. One side-effect of this was that I sometimes found it difficult to get a broad overview of my story. One limit of using the index card method is that you can only put a small number of words on them – at least if you have eyesight like mine. This can be an advantage when you’re sketching out the broad outlines of the story. It becomes a restriction when you need to see more detail.

One way around this was to put a brief description on the index card then put the rest of the information in the documents window. This meant that you could see everything but only when you were looking at that specific document. These days I prefer to keep my synopsis, character descriptions and scene by scene outline in a separate document. This lets me check everything at a glance. Since that document is in plain text, I can access it from pretty much anywhere.

One thing that has not changed has been my reliance on Dropbox. I jump around from computer to computer and operating system to operating system a lot. Syncing between the Windows and OSX versions of Scrivener via Dropbox can be problematical. Files can get corrupted. The problem probably occurred because I did not wait for the file on one computer to finish syncing before opening it on another. It happened often enough for me to be wary of doing this. I don’t like losing work.

These days I have a separate folder in Dropbox for every type of project that I am working on. I have one folder for novels, one for short stories, one for blog posts, one for interviews and so on. I have one folder for outlines as well. Everything that goes into these folders is stored in markdown. I can access these files anywhere, even on my phone.

I try and keep revisions to a minimum during the first draft stage, because I never know what I am going to chop out. Doing a lot of heavy editing on a scene that later gets dropped can waste a lot of time. I prefer to wait until I have a working final draft before polishing things.

I write my first drafts in markdown text processors. On Windows my favourite of these is WriteMonkey. On my Mac I use is Ulysses. Both these programs have excellent export capabilities. They are the only markdown-capable wordprocessors I know of that can export Microsoft Word styles properly.

Most programs seem to spray on header styles locally. They change the appearance of specific paragraphs to give the illusion of coherent styles. They do not insert actual styles such as header one or header two. Ulysses and WriteMonkey can give perfectly formatted Microsoft Word documents if I need them.

I only switch to Microsoft Word when I need to send a document to an editor or to my test readers. Even then I use markdown formatting inside the manuscript instead of local style formatting. The reason I do this is that sometimes Microsoft Word adds many strange and corrupt codes to my text during the editing process. At the end of the editing process if I need clean code all I have to do is save the file as a text file. All of my chapter headings, scene headings, italics and bolds will be preserved.

I use Scrivener either for heavy structural editing or for final production of my indie ebooks. The program does a brilliant job of importing markdown files. It stores them all in one folder and breaks them into scenes based on the header type. It has a compile setting that automagically translates markdown into the correct formatting for the final output version.

When it comes to e-book production I still find Scrivener the way to go. Not only does it produce Kindle and EPUB formats easily, I now have it set up so that it can produce PDF files for CreateSpace books.

Using this system I get all the advantages of Microsoft Word and Scrivener. And I get to keep my files universally accessible for as long as possible. This has been the biggest change to the way I work in years and I just wanted to share it.

Starting A Mailing List

Every writer should have a mailing list. That’s one of those of those bits of advice that you will get sooner or later if you hang around writers’ boards on the internet long enough. It also happens to be true although it took me a long time to realise it.

I started my mailing list a few years back. To be honest, for the first year or so, I made no effort to attract folk to my mailing list whatsoever. And, oddly enough, it never seemed very useful.

Then I read Your First Thousand Copies which made a pretty convincing case not only for mailing lists but for using the much-hated browser pop-up to get people to sign up for them. Which is why many of you who visit this site get to see the aforementioned pop-up every couple of weeks. Since that time I have collected a couple of hundred names. That is still pretty small as mailing lists go but much better than it was.

So what are the benefits of mailing lists? Well, it depends on the kind of mailing list you want to run. Your First Thousand Copies recommends using your mailing list in the way most writers use their websites – to promote reader engagement by sending out articles, extracts from your books and other stuff, as well as sales links.

I’d love to do that but I am a bit too lazy, and by the time I had this information I had already spend a lot of time getting this blog rolling and, much as I enjoy writing it, I did not feel like setting out to create something that involved just as much work.

So, in the case of my list (which you can join here if you are interested), people who sign up get to hear about my new releases before anybody else and also get occasional freebies and special offers.

Often I release my new books at a low introductory price and then raise them after a few days and being on the mailing list gives you a head’s up about this.

Last month I gave away free copies of A Cold and Lonely Place to everybody on the mailing list. Amazingly enough a large number of people went off and bought it anyway. So thanks to everyone who did that. I’ll be doing similar giveaways in the future.

What benefits does the mailing list give me? Well, it gives me a bunch of initial sales, which is always gratifying and more to the point, that bunch of initial sales, even with a mailing list as small as mine, gives me a chance of getting onto some of the less important charts at Amazon. This visibility in turn leads to more sales. That’s the theory anyway.

Does it work?

As far as I can tell, yes. The past few times I’ve done a new release I’ve managed to hit the the charts for sea stories, short stories and a couple of others which I can’t be bothered to check my records of right now. My average sales per new release have been higher as well even after the initial introductory price has gone. As time goes on and my list gets larger, I might start to appear on the more important charts which in theory should lead to even more sales creating a virtuous loop.

Now you’re probably thinking that’s all very well for an indie writer but what about folk still with traditional publishers. Well, I reckon there is an even stronger case for them using a mailing list, particularly in the US where, if your book does not take off in the first couple of months it will be stripped and returned.

Having a mailing list means that you can notify your fans that your book is out and that they should go get it. You have a short window of opportunity to make your mark and you need to do everything you can to take advantage of it. It’s a bit like turning the voters out on election day.

Why use a mailing list? Why not just advertise it on your blog or website? Because there is no guarantee that people will be checking those out when you need them to be doing that. Your email will arrive in their inbox, and you can provide them with a handy-dandy sales link to click on which makes the task of buying your book easier. And hey there’s no law that says you can’t also use your website to make these announcements.

So how do you go about setting up your mailing list?

There’s all manner of laws concerning spamming and holding people’s personal data on your computer, so I recommend using a service like Mailchimp or Aweber who have already jumped through the legal hoops for you.

Mailchimp is free until your list reaches 2000 addresses (by which time you probably won’t be too worried about paying). Aweber costs money from the get-go but a lot of marketing professionals swear by it. There are a number of other services which I don’t know much about but which a swift Google search will turn up. I use Mailchimp myself and I’ve never had a problem with it.

Reputable services use what is called the double opt-in system. This means that once somebody signs up for your list they get sent an email and they need to click on a link within that email to opt-in. This gives them a chance to rethink signing up if that’s what they want. Of course, this also means there is a chance that the confirmation email might get caught in a spam filter so if you sign up for my list and haven’t got a response please check your junk mail filter.

Once you’ve uploaded your books to Amazon and whoever else you publish them with, you just need to wait a day or so until the books are live then you can cut and paste the links from the website into your mailing list newsletter and you’re good to go.

The nice thing about having a mailing list is that the list grows organically once its started. Just put a link to the sign up page at the back of your books and on your website and you are set.

Bonus Tip. If you decide to go with Mailchimp the web interface can be a little fiddly. It’s WYSIWYG but to create links you need to select text and cut and paste stuff into boxes. Making headers involves selecting text and clicking on buttons. It’s not difficult but it does take time and getting out your mailing list is one of those things you want to make as easy as possible.

I recommend using markdown and signing up for a free account with Draft. This has a nifty feature that allows you to send your markdown text to Mailchimp and have it transformed into fully functional HTML complete with links.

For those of you unfamiliar with markdown, it’s a simplified version of HTML meant to be easily usable and readable by ordinary folks. You can find out more here

You can learn enough markdown to create you mailing list in two minutes. In fact here is all you need.

To create a header in markdown you enclose your text in hashtags. The more hashtags you use the deeper the header level you get. One hashtag means a level one header, two hashtags means a level two header and so on.

Thus ####This is a level four header#### gives you

This is a level four header

You get italics by enclosing text in asterisks like so *asterisks*.

You get bold text by enclosing your text in **two asterisks**.

You create a link by enclosing the word you are intend to be clicked in square brackets and then placing the target of the link in normal brackets immediately thereafter. The format is [linkword](www.targetlink)

And there you have it. You now know enough markdown to create your own Mailchimp newsletter using Draft.


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.

WriteMonkey

Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of writing in simplified plain text word processors using Markdown. I was surprised and rather pleased to discover my favourite of these was not one of the many excellent Mac programs such as Byword or iaWriter but WriteMonkey which is available solely for Windows.

WriteMonkey hits all the right zenware buttons. After launch you get a blank screen and a blinking cursor. At the bottom of the screen is the name of your file, your word count and a small digital clock. All of these can be switched off either en masse or on a case by case basis, for those times when all you really, really want to be looking at is a blank screen.

Since all of the zenware applications look pretty much the same why do I prefer WriteMonkey? There are a couple of reasons actually.

The first is that WriteMonkey is not, arguably, zenware at all. For me that implies a really stripped down and basic writing environment which cuts down on the number of features available and lets you just get on with the writing rather than tinker with your formatting or your settings. WriteMonkey actually has rather a lot of features but they are all ones that I really like or need. In fact, WriteMonkey has almost every feature from Scrivener that I require and that from me is high praise indeed.

It has an easy automatic backup system. You don’t need to worry about file format since it’s plain text.

It has a timer and a progress meter. Want to set yourself a target word count? WriteMonkey has you covered. Want to set yourself a countdown for writing sprints. WriteMonkey has a timer. Want to combine the two and attempt to write 1000 words in a fixed interval. WriteMonkey can do that to. WriteMonkey will even show you a progress bar along the bottom of your screen if you want.

There’s a scratchpad for keeping your notes somewhere easy to find so you can refer to them. Those features are pretty much all I need from a basic word processor. On top of that WriteMonkey can do a lot more.

There are small TextExpander type shortcuts similar to auto-replace in Word which allow you to insert the date by typing /now. Any other word or sentence boilerplate you have previously defined can be triggered by a combination of keystrokes you define.

If you make a donation, you get access to WriteMonkey’s plugins. These range from index cards that float above your text when you need them and vanish when you don’t, to my favourite (and a feature Scrivener does not have) a Pomodoro timer. This is very useful indeed if like me you use the Pomodoro Method. I’ve never actually found a pomodoro timer for Windows that I like as much as the ones available for the Mac so this is a real bonus. Another plug-in allows you to navigate around your document using the Markdown headers.

There are many more plug-ins such as a sentence highlighter, a clipboard picker and a thesaurus. I haven’t used any of those.

All the features can be uncovered by hitting function 1 which provides you with a handy list of everything that is possible. The same list provides you with a guide to Markdown syntax if you want to use it.

The other reason I like WriteMonkey is that its quirky. If you like it will make typewriter noises when you type or provide you with a funny quote when you load up the program. It’s a zenware program that has a bit of personality and a sense of humour. All of these things can be switched off if you don’t like them.

WriteMonkey can be installed on a USB stick and carried around with you. It’s free. If you make a donation you get access to the plug-ins but you don’t need to and everything essential is there in the basic program. I could do my pomodoro sets using the dash timer if I really wanted to. If only WriteMonkey could move blocks of text around within an outline structure the way Folding Text can then it could do everything I need from a word processor. As it is, it is by far my favourite of the plain text zenware writing environments. Highly recommended.


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.

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.