Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tech Tuesday: Rolling Your Own Writing System, Part 1: Markdown

I’ve said this before, but for people who want to make a living (or even beer money) writing fiction, the best writing advice out there is still Kristen Kathryn Rusch’s: treat it like a business. Simple enough, but the ramifications are as wide as the world of commerce.
  • Watch your expenses, but don’t hesitate to spend where it’s going to improve your product.
  • Plan time for editing and marketing as well as writing (I haven’t done too well in that regard over the last year).
  • Set a budget, and track your expenses (and income) so you know if you’re meeting it.
  • Analyze your processes, and look for better ways to do things.
For someone like me, the latter can be dangerous. It’s really easy to go down a rathole, constantly tinkering with stuff instead of actually accomplishing anything. That goes double when I often have to write one-handed, with a baby in my lap who is trying to grab the keyboard or anything else within reach.

Still, I think I might have stumbled across something.
  • What if there was a way to write stories, using any computer (or tablet), anywhere you are?
  • What if you could preview your writing using a web browser?
  • What if you could output your writing in squeaky-clean HTML for producing EPUBs?
  • What if you could easily copy your entire oeuvre to a USB drive for backup or to continue writing when you’re offline?
  • And finally, what if you could play with different versions of your story to figure what what works best?
In other words, I think I might have found something better than Scrivener. That’s saying a lot; I’ve been using Scrivener for about five years now, and it’s close to ideal for the way I work. The fun part is, it’s possible to keep using Scrivener as long as you want, until you’re ready to let go.

So what is this miracle? Read on…

About Markdown

Markdown was created by John Gruber to make it easier to write blog posts. It has been extended every which way to work with more technical documents, but the vanilla version is well-suited for writing fiction as well as blog posts.

If you’ve ever decorated a text-only email, you already know how to use most of Markdown. Here’s an example that easily covers 90% of what you do in fiction writing:

# The Swamp Road

Night was falling,
yet Joe doggedly marched up the swamp road.
Time was pressing,
after all.

In the flickering light of his torch,
Joe saw two signs:

**SHORTCUT LEFT**

**Do NOT take the shortcut!**

He pondered the advice for only a second.
*Bah*, he thought,
*I have to get home*.

Taking the left fork,
Joe soon found himself sinking in the bog.

Let’s see how this looks when formatted:

The Swamp Road

Night was falling, yet Joe doggedly marched up the swamp road. Time was pressing, after all.
In the flickering light of his torch, Joe saw two signs:
SHORTCUT LEFT
Do NOT take the shortcut!
He pondered the advice for only a second. Bah, he thought, I have to get home.
Taking the left fork, Joe soon found himself sinking in the bog.
It’s pretty easy to see how this translates: blank lines start a new paragraph. Use asterisks to highlight, *for italic* and **for bold**. The number of pound (or hash) characters set the heading level. For example, # Heading 1, ## Heading 2, and so on.

In the example above, I broke lines inside each paragraph so each line is a phrase. That’s not necessary; you can go long and run your paragraphs together, like you would in Scrivener or a word processor. Either way, you’ll get properly-formatted paragraphs.

But I LIKE Scrivener!

Hey, no problem. Scrivener has built-in Markdown support, and can use it to produce cleaner output for publishing than its direct word processor or eBook output. We’ll have a look at how to set things up, and a couple of things to look out for, next week.


Thoughts? Questions? Floor’s open!

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