November 27, 2019

Toolchain

A while back, before I went silent for a few months (it happens), I mentioned that I’m tinkering with my toolchain — the physical and electronic stuff that I use to project my ideas into your brain1. Mostly, it’s about consolidation. What prompted this post, however, is that I finally made a major change. This blog no longer runs on Wordpress; it’s now powered by blot.im.

I looked at making a static site using Jekyll or Pelican. I put a surprising amount of work into exporting from my existing Wordpress blog into what claimed to be Markdown, fixing the godawful mess that the exporter produced in place of real Markdown, and trying to get either of the two static site generators to do what I actually wanted. They do about 90%, but I’m just enough of an obsessive that the missing 10% irked me.

blot.im, on the other hand, does precisely what I want it to. It’s got all the templating bits already in place, I don’t have to write or tweak any code, and they handle everything from hosting to rendering. Compared to Wordpress, it’s a fucking revelation. Some of the backlinks from outside may be broken still due to a small change to schemas, but all the internal stuff Just Works ™. It’s beautiful.

I’ve got an IFTTT applet set up which should crosspost to the Zero Point Information facebook page and my Twitter feed automatically, but this is the first new post so we’ll see if that actually happens. But if that doesn’t work, that’s a tiny price to pay for no longer using fucking Wordpress.

Edit: Huh. Seems that the applets are either taking their sweet time but they do work.

Notes

My standard” way of keeping notes and ideas before now was the electronic equivalent of my student flat: thousands of text files, scattered across half a dozen different cloud providers. For a long time I used MacDown on my desktop and laptop to compose them, as it’s feature set meant that I could do everything I needed in Markdown2 rather than hacking together a couple of engines to get all the features I want. It even includes Mermaid and Graphviz rendering, for making flowcharts, graphs, and the like. Macdown is the closest I can get to perfection in a Markdown editor.

So I’d write everything in MacDown and save it whereverthefuck came to mind. Like I say, much like my student flat, which had reams of printouts, handwritten essay drafts, and large scrawls of equations covering every flat surface, providing a handy carpet for the ashtrays and empty vodka bottles. I don’t have the electronic equivalent of those3.

Organising that way has a few problems. First, it makes it a royal pain in the arse to find anything. Even with Spotlight4, trying to figure out a) where a file was and b) which version of the fucking thing was the one I wanted swiftly became impossible. I also ran into the problem of length. See, Markdown is very good for turning text into lovely HTML, with which I can do so much — as an example, see any of the writing samples on http://www.digitalraven.org, which have both their Markdown version and the resultant HTML available for anyone to read. As such, MacDown is great for that kind of mid-length writing, and I was also using it for short-form notes. So far, so good.

Writing Longhand

The problem swiftly showed up when I used it for other things. Long form work, such as the beginnings of a couple of novels, aren’t the kind of thing that were workable in one file. It’s not like I don’t have a solution for that kind of thing: Scrivener, which is the god-tier of software for writers. It’s a full fucking IDE but for any kind of long-form writing rather than code, with all manner of ways to arrange things and then export to any format a publisher (or a self-publisher) could want. It has competitors, but none of them do everything that I use Scrivener for; the 80/20 rule of software design strikes again5. Seriously, this thing works for everything from writing novels to plays to technical manuals to film scripts to scientific papers.

So I’d take this long, long markdown file, dump it into a new Scrivener project’s Research” folder, then split it up into different chunks based on headings or whatever felt right to act as a separator at the time6. After that, I’d take those bits and either leave them in Research and rewrite them as content, or copy that section’s rendered rich text from MacDown into a draft (as Scrivener is by its nature a rich-text editor). All of which is, let’s be honest, a bit of a ball-ache.

Organisation

I’d previously tried solving the organisational problem in a few ways. For a short while I used OneNote, though the feature disparity between iOS and macOS left a lot to be desired, and many of the advertised features were only available on Windows — a platform I only use for gaming. I also didn’t get along with the three-step organisational hierarchy at all, which is probably down to me having no idea how to use it properly rather than a deficiency of the software. For a while, I had to use it because people at my day job stored useful information in it, but fortunately that practice has ceased. The benefits of working in a strong community of Linux users.

I also tried Apple’s native Notes app. Which is actually pretty good, though it only gained a bunch of necessary features in the past couple of years. It does cross-platform sync, notes are available on the web when on an unfamiliar platform, and, like OneNote, it works as a place to dump ideas. The organisation is better as well: notes go into folders. Like a normal piece of software. Not the three nested levels of OneNote.

Unfortunately, like OneNote, Notes fails at Markdown support. It’s rich-text, replete with not-always-intuitive shortcuts for formatting. Also, after using both Notes and OneNote, I realised what it was that made organising with them such a pain: I need tags. Lots and lots of tags.

Then I heart that Drafts was coming to macOS. I’d tinkered with it on iOS a while back, and was impressed — here was a notes app with tagging, markdown support, and a robust and extensible set of ways to do stuff with text once it’s in a note. I can use workspaces, filtering on a range of tags, to set up projects, and have a whole bunch of tags in that space. Drafts also has a killer app: Actions. Actions can do pretty much anything to a note. Send it as a text message or email? Sure. Post to any number of blogging platforms? Sure. Save to anywhere? You got it. Create a calendar event? Yup. Actions are currently in beta on macOS, but I’m already fiddling with ones that can move notes into a Scrivener project. About the only thing that doesn’t already exist is a way to post to Patreon.

Patreon

…is a massive pain in the arse.

Patreon’s interface for writing posts is about as palatable as that of Wordpress7, with the added fun of a restricted set of HTML that varies according to the phases of various Jovian moons. Fortunately, the editor will (almost) render pasted rich-text. Unfortunately, Patreon’s team are functionally allergic to good practices or allowing anyone to post from external software.

What I’m Actually Using (or, Getting To The Fucking Point)

A rough guide to workflow:

  • Pretty much everything — ideas, notes, stories, flowcharts, etc. — starts in Drafts.
  • Generic note-y stuff (drum patterns, quotes, etc) stays there, as a text repository
  • Short- to mid-form writing, including articles for digitalraven.org and blog posts here goes into MacDown to be properly formatted.
  • Patreon updates also go into MacDown, and the rendered rich text is copied and pasted into the editor, and if the chicken entrails come out right then it might not need a ridiculous amount of tweaking.
  • Ideas with a common theme get a workspace of their own in Drafts. Once things in that workspace start to coalesce, that workspace gets kicked over to Scrivener, like God intended.
  • For professional work, Scrivener compiles to .docx, .pdf, or .epub, and basic LaTeX and they’re further fucked with according to the needs of the destination.

  1. If you think about it, writing is just a slow form of telepathy.

  2. I’m not going to put a specific link here. What started as a quick and easy way of marking up plain text to make it pretty has fractured in the name of standards”. Find a markdown editor for your platform, and learn its flavour. It’ll have a good tutorial that shows you what you want.

  3. Yet

  4. The macOS built in search, which is actually really good.

  5. This is not the Pareto principle, but the idea that 80% of your users use only 20% of the features of your software — but every one of those 80% use a different 20%, adding up to ~95%+ of your feature base before considering power users.

  6. Not helped by my preference for setext-style headings in Markdown, which make first- and second-level headings so incredbly more obvious and readable in plain text than ATX-style, but that only cover <h1> and <h2>, so half the time my h3-equivalent is just a short para in bold.

  7. Which is about as palatable as drinking a pint of cold sick.


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On the Slate Since kicking off my Patreon, my muse has given me ideas! Not yet the time or energy to push them to completion (yet), but ideas are a good start.