This weekend, I decided to spend a little time formatting one of my books (Dragon Stones, natch) for the Amazon Kindle. The Kindle, of course, is an e-book reader notable for its built-in “Whispernet” wireless client, which allows the user to shop and buy books and have them delivered directly to the device without ever having to connect it to a computer. I got a Kindle 2 for my birthday this year and it quickly became my preferred way to read books. But this isn’t a post about the Kindle, it’s a post about creating Kindle content.
So it’s been quite a while since I did a “free software” post, mainly because I had already blown through all the free software that I use that might be of general interest. (Unless someone wants to hear about the wonderful PekWM window manager for Linux. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) However, recently I’ve been spending time with Avidemux, a simple yet powerful application that allows you to do some basic video manipulation. You’re not going to be creating green-screen Stephen Colbert lightsaber duel videos with it, but you might find it useful for other things. Like what, you say? Let’s take a look:
So I haven’t done a “free software for writers” post in a while because, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve kind of run out of software that I use that I can plausibly label as “for writers”. If I do think of another writing-related package I will certainly post it, but I didn’t want to stop writing about free software until then, so I’ve decided to branch out and just write about other programs that I’ve used or seen (other than well-known ones like Firefox or Thunderbird) that people might find interesting. Today’s software is Stellarium.
It’s been a while since I did a “free software for writers” entry, mainly because I’m kind of running out of free software that I can label as specifically for writers; I may just switch over to doing “free software for anybody” posts. However, I do have at least one more program to write about, and that’s Audacity. Audacity is an audio recording, editing, and mixing program. I’ve mainly used it to fix glitches in audio files (such as MP3s with a skip in them) or to change sound levels; the local Arthur Murray uses it to change the tempo of songs without introducing distortion so that, for instance, a ridiculously fast samba like “Jazz Machine” can be slowed down so that mere mortals can dance to it. (My wife insists on the full-speed version.)
So now you’re probably thinking, “Well that’s just fascinating, Jim, but what makes Audacity free software for writers?” To which I reply with one word: Podcasting.
Writers occasionally need to make use of imaging software, as I mentioned in my earlier capsule writeup about Inkscape. That program is a drawing package; but sometimes you may need to edit or enhance a picture or digital photo, rather than drawing something from scratch. This is where The GIMP comes in. Intended as an alternative to Adobe Photoshop-style applications, GIMP stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program” (again with the acronyms); it can be used for photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. I’ve mostly used it for photo retouching, although I do occasionally use it to mush a couple of pictures together into something else. I used The GIMP to ever-so-slightly lighten the cover of my vampire book, Long Before Dawn. Those who are graphically inclined could create their own artwork from scratch using The GIMP’s bewildering array of tools, controls, and filters. It has so many advanced features that I don’t know what 80% of them do, but they would be manna to an artist.
GIMP is available for Linux, OS X, and Dominant Operating System(TM). If you are already familiar with Adobe Photoshop, you may want to look into GimpShop instead, which attempts to replicate the Adobe Photoshop UI experience. (I’m not, so I haven’t)
If you write large-scale fantasy novels, you are probably interested in drawing a map of your imaginary realm. There are several reasons you may want to do this, including:
- Tolkien did it
- It helps you understand the geopolitical dynamics of your little kingdoms and theocracies
- Tolkien did it
- You know where your characters are when they’re fleeing into the wilderness to escape hordes of orcs or whatever
- Tolkien did it
- Your characters can talk intelligently about landmarks, geographical features, countries that don’t figure directly into the action, etc.
- Tolkien did it
Back when I ran Dominant Operating System(TM), I used ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer, which is software intended for use in drawing maps for role-playing game. This is really nice software, but unfortunately, it’s only available for Dominant Operating System(TM) and I never had any luck getting it to run under WINE (“Wine Is Not an Emulator”). So I had to look for alternatives. Enter Inkscape.
Inkscape is a scalable vector graphics (SVG) editor along the lines of Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. It is not specifically designed for drawing maps, but can easily be used for that purpose. Unless you’re a graphic artist, you probably won’t be using it to generate something that looks like these, but you can certainly draw something that you can use as a reference for your own purposes. Then, once you hit the big time, you can hire an illustrator to turn your maps into actual artwork. Of course, you could always hand-draw your maps on graph paper, but what fun would that be? <ROLLS 20-SIDED DIE> Mmm, six. Not so good.
Inkscape can be used to draw anything, of course, so if you’re feeling ambitious, you could use it to design your cover art, interior illustrations, character sketches, etc. (See also The GIMP, which I’ll talk about at some point, but not today.)
Inkscape is available for Linux, OS X, and, of course, Dominant Operating System(TM). Inkscape is only one of many free drawing programs, so if you find that it does not suit your needs, another one might.
By now you’ve probably gathered that I write short stories and novels. Although publishers tend to put formatting restrictions on the submission of these types of manuscripts, the restrictions are usually easy to meet: Double-spaced, flush left, courier font, wide margins. Other types of manuscripts–screenplays, for instance–have much more specific requirements. Although you can try to implement the required format in a word processor, it’s much easier to use software specifically designed for that purpose. Enter Celtx.
Celtx bills itself as “the world’s first fully integrated solution for media pre-production and collaboration”. In addition to its screenplay formatting ability, it contains facilities for defining characters, storyboarding, index-carding, and production scheduling, as well tracking props, wardrobes, sets, and cast members. It even permits collaboration with other users. I only used Celtx briefly, when I thought I might dabble in screenwriting (an experiment that didn’t last long), but I found it easy and intuitive to use. Even non-screenplay writers might like it for its organizational power. I don’t do index-carding or outlining (tried it once and the end result bore no resemblance to the outline), but many authors do.
Celtx is available for Linux, OS X, and that other operating system whose name I can’t remember at the moment.
As a side note, writers who are interested in learning more about Celtx (and about Linux in general) might want to check out episodes 93 and 94 of the Linux Reality podcast. Episode #93 is an interview with a writer (not me) who uses Linux, and episode #94 is a rundown by another writer who uses Linux (also not me) of various Linux applications that are of value to authors, including OpenOffice and Celtx.
Thanks and happy writing!
So you’ve written your book and have either self-published it or gotten it published by a small press (because if your book is being put out by Random House or Tor or HaperCollins, you certainly aren’t reading this), and now you want to publicize it. This is of course going to be your own job, because the publisher isn’t going to do it for you. Some simple ways to make a nice display include making little handouts, colorful bookmarks, or other promotional material that can be easily handed out to or taken away by people who may be interested in your work.
It’s possible, of course, to do brochures, bookmarks, signs, etc., in a word processing program or a publishing application like Microsoft Publisher; it’s even possible to misuse presentation software, such as PowerPoint, for this purpose. However, this is a blurb about open source software, and I’m going to point you in the direction of Scribus. Scribus is page layout software that lets you design a document to your exact standards, positioning each item precisely on the screen. You have exact control over every element of your document in a way that is difficult or impossible to achieve with regular word processors. I’ve used it to create bookmarks with excerpts from various of my books and stories, as well as a small display card for Night Watchman. (Crows was still out of print at the time so I didn’t make a card for it.) This can be a simple way for you to enhance a small store display or signing. Scribus can also be used to create PDF files, including forms that can be filled out.
I wouldn’t really recommend taking advice from me about self-promotion, because I’m not at all good at it, but even I can hand bookmarks to people. Nobody wants to accidentally start reading five pages ahead of where they left off.
Scribus is available for Windows, Macintosh, and (of course) Linux.
A comment on my last post got me thinking about the software that writers can use to do their work. Microsoft Word is of course the dominant word processing program on Windows and perhaps on the Macintosh, but for those who can’t afford it or (like me) don’t run Windows or Mac, that’s not an option. So I thought I’d do a post or two about other choices that are available.
I do my writing in OpenOffice.org, a free and open-source office suite that includes a word processor (where I spend most of my time), a spreadsheet (which I use to keep track of submissions), a presentation package, a diagramming/drawing program, and a database application. I find the database a bit primitive, but the rest of suite is quite polished, with functionality comparable to Microsoft Office circa 2000-XP. (This is fine with me; I use Microsoft Office 2003 at work and to be honest I think Microsoft Office 2000 was better.) OpenOffice.org will open files from other office suites, up to and allegedly including Microsoft Office 2007 (if you have the correct plug-in for Office 2007). I haven’t tried opening an Office 2007 file so I can’t verify this ability.
One of the most useful features of OpenOffice.org Writer is the ability to export directly to PDF, creating a file that (a) will look the same for everyone who views it, and (b) cannot be easily modified by anyone who gets it. This comes in extremely handy for things like electronic manuscript submission and self-publishing (I’m using PDFs in my Lulu self-publishing project).
For the average user, OpenOffice.org is a more than adequate substitute for the Microsoft Office suite. Power Office users may find that some critical feature that they use is missing, but as OpenOffice.org is free to download and use, there’s no risk or cost to trying it out. OpenOffice.org s available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, although I would recommend that Macintosh users try NeoOffice instead. NeoOffice is an OS X port of OpenOffice.org, so it fits in better with the OS X environment.