Tools for creative writing

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/10/why-microsoft-word-must-die.html 

It’s a nice rant, but as I had a quiet day at work, I took the time to plough through the comments, a mix of horror stories, insight and ‘a-ha’ moments of illumination. 

When I first started designing boardgames on the first relatively modern PC that I owned in 1998 I used a mix of Word (for rules) and CorelDraw (for maps).  I eventually also ended up using Word to design cards and counters, through the use of text boxes and a mix of text and inserted images. It has always been clunky way to do it, as it could not manage to do layers, and this limited how I could display information (I could display text underneath an image easily, but trying to get text to float above an image, in a way that could be easily seen, was hell). 

I never updated my version of Corel Draw, which eventually stopped working on my replacement PCs.  Digital decay has hit other projects I have worked on – I’m not good at off-site backups, copying to DVD or dumping onto external drives – so I lost quite a bit of stuff when my laptop melted down at the start of 2012.  All the early Housewar files (1992-1994) were written in Fulltext, a basic text editor that ran on the old XT PC that I had (with its twin floppy drives and green MDA screen).  I had a few files on a spread sheet as well, but the low memory on the XT prevented me doing anything more fancy. 

While I looked at a few graphic software packages to replace Corel in the early noughties, the one I eventually adopted was Campaign Cartographer, a CAD software system purpose built for maps (and map design was my key focus in playing with graphics) with a lot of symbol files and other tools for people who liked fantasy RPGs.  It can do other things too, such as counters and cards, but I kept using Word for those as it was just a bit faster to use when going through multiple iterations in a short period of time (and because it was much easier to drop image files into than CC was, and a lot of dingbat fonts were useful for this as well).  Certainly though there was a subtle constraint on my design in restricting myself to counter and card design that was easy to do in a word processor. 

CC has been reasonably good for map design, but like all powerful software packages, you need to be constantly working in it to accumulate and retain skill.  Every time I go back and start a new project I am reminded of the importance of getting the layers right at the start, and then of the importance of being self-disciplined about switching between the layers when working on different parts of the map.  The CC publishers have also switched away from occasional CD releases of new symbol files and map types, to doing a monthly update combining examples, tutorials and new symbol sets (later purchasable as an annual collection), but the price point has always made me hold off.  I also still like hand drawing maps the old school way (although if I want to keep doing that I should invest in a scanner).  Even with a specific Fractal terrain world generator, CC struggles to make world maps that look real to me (a 70/30 water/earth map just looks empty compared to a Mercator projection of Earth). 

I parted company with Word when I upgraded my laptop in early 2012.  I just got tired of shelling out hundreds of dollars for software I knew would be replaced a few years later, and I decided to have a go with one of the freeware options.  Since then I have been using Apache OpenOffice.  This has been okay for most of my projects but I have had a few specific problems around writing rulebooks (it does not like having image files dropped into the text, it is not as good for quick counter/card design as Word was, and the auto format style for indents and lists is as bad as anything in word and makes trying to order things logically an exercise in frustration) and a more general issue (word processors are just not good tools for long form creative writing being more suited to short business letters).

 A new problem I realised today – I am usually writing rules in a two column format (it keeps the overall length of the document down) – and then exporting the final into .pdf format for email or uploading to a website.  The two column format for .pdf is not easy to read on modern tablet devices, so I am not sure if there is an alternate format that can repaginate text flow across multiple e-reader platforms, or if I’m going to be stuck with suboptimal layout due to content gardens. 

I have learned that most of the OpenOffice community has moved to LibreOffice over the last couple of years, so just switching software packages might solve a few of my current specific issues.  It is also possible, that I might need to invest in software that is more focused on layout for desk top publishing given that I need to be able to get text and images looking exactly like how I need them to look like in a games rulebook.  Scribus is the name  of the freeware I might go and investigate next. 

For creative writing though, I am intrigued by Scrivener.  I have noticed of late, that trying to write long RPG scenarios or campaign outlines in a Word-style word processors just breaks down as the document reaches a point where I want to jump back and forth between different sections.  The one word after another dictate just doesn’t reflect how I brainstorm ideas out on sheets of paper.  Scrivener seems to promise the ability to switch easily between short creative notes, chunks of research documents, text outlines, editing and an easy offsite backup in drop box. 

Collaborative creative work still looks tricky.  I had a wiki for a couple of years, before a domain name expiry made it vanish, and managed to do some shared work on the wiki for an e-mail based Matrix game, and then for an RPG setting I developed.  I had hoped it would be easy to be able to jump from writing about one topic into writing about related topics.  I didn’t find the wiki language all that intuitive, and again, once you stop using it every day, the skill vanishes quickly.  Like CAD layers, the initial structures needed to be clear, otherwise work could vanish off into hard to find dead ends.  While I have worked on a couple of shared Google doc documents, there is something about Google docs that just doesn’t grab my attention.  If Word is an attempt to integrate everything into one programme, and the trade-off is doing everything sub optimally, Google docs has just felt a bit like an inferior version of Word.

Anyhow, I’m downloading Scribus and LibreOffice, and may give Scrivener a go.

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