James R. 
Strickland, Author
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02/29/2024 10:14pm Blog Entry

Toolchain changes

 Skimming back over my blog entries, I realize I left out something important—at least to me. In addition to switching to Obsidian on the front end, and Pandoc for first-stage back-end (it's getting complicated), I dropped LaTeX in favor of Typst.

What is typst, you ask?

Let me back up.

My goal is to write a novel once, and debug it once. This never happens.  

Instead, I write a novel in Obsidian (Markdown), turn it section by section into .docx for my writing group. They respond with the track changes and comments feature in Word, or any of the other word-ish programs they use. I use TextMaker for this. So I go through their comments and changes and manually apply all the changes, and any other changes I see fit to make.

Then, when the novel's done, I compile the whole thing into a .docx and send it to E.C. Tobler. She corrects and comments, and I go through the entire novel, all 392 pages for Dead of Winter, and implement her corrections and most (if not all) of her suggestions.

Then the fun really starts. Once the book is ready, I make it into an epub, which Amazon can digest into a Kindle book, and into PDFs, which Amazon can turn into MoD books. If you're keeping score, that's five different output formats: single-chapter docx for the writing group, huge honking docx for E.C., EPUB, pdf for paperback and pdf for hardback. (though the last two are identical except for the internal ISBN number.)

 Then, after I release it, I find typos. Sometimes they're editing scars, things I introduced during the preceding steps. Sometimes they're search/replaces run amok. Sometimes they're things I missed in E.C.s edit comments. Doesn't matter. The point is, I have to regenerate three of those five formats again.

If I were to typeset the PDF versions with conventional typesetting software (InDesign, Affinity Publisher, etc), change tracking would be the bane of my existence. Did I fix the comma on page 205 in both print versions? It would only get worse as I add more MoD houses and Ebook sellers. 

I have to have, must have, for sanity's sake, I need one source of truth for my novels, one place I can make a correction and propagate it to all the different output formats in a completely automated format. For me, that source is the markdown file.

Pandoc can translate markdown into HTML, and thence into epub in one step. I can control what it looks like, to the extent that the Kindle App respects what I tell it to do (not much) by twiddling the Pandoc template file and the CSS file. These are the same for all the novels in this series.

For the PDFs, I used to use LaTeX. LaTeX is ancient. LaTeX is vast. LaTeX is poorly understood. I've described writing LaTeX code as "write code, sacrifice a chicken, and hope for the best, and sometimes it just breaks, even with the same input." 

This is where typst comes in. Typst takes a markdown language (its own, naturally) and writes it out into pdf, according to code logic. In short, it does exactly what LaTeX does, except that it's new, written in Rust (so stability is good), well documented, with coding paradigms that don't seem like you need a grimoire to understand them No chickens need be sacrificed.

Even better, pandoc has support for typst. So I can make a change, bake the document together (from individual scene files) in obsidian, pandoc it into typst source according to a very customized template, and compile *that* into a PDF. This is repeatable. Which is good, because I wind up repeating it. A lot. For my hardcopy books, both Amazon at the moment, these come from one amazon 5.5x8.5 pandoc template. All the novels in the series should use the same template here, too.

Typst has a few warts. Like LaTeX, it tends to go bananas with hyphen-breaking words. You can turn that off. The biggest wart for me is that it does not yet have the ability to make page blocks in a spread the same length. In fact, its widow/orphan/slug avoiding code will *always* break equal page lengths any time it cycles. I'm looking forward to when they fix that. But I can live with it.

I see I've put the sly implication above that I might be releasing books through more venues than just Amazon/KDP. I have to lay some groundwork for that. Right now, my books all have Amazon ISBN numbers, among other things, and there are a lot of moving parts I have to take care of before I can fix *that*. Once I do, this toolchain will become even more important. Everyone's EPUBs are different. If I'm doing MoD, their formats are probably subtly different. With one source of truth, the markdown files, I can live with that.

Way more info than you wanted? Probably. But maybe it will help someone else trying to put together a similar toolchain. If you are putting such a thing together, and you'd like to see my template files, pop me an email or comment.

Links here:

Obsidian with the following plugins: Advanced New File, April's Automatic Timelines, Easy Bake, Enhancing Export, File Order, Force Note View Mode, Global Search and Replace, LanguageTool Integration, Linter, MonoNote, Note Refactor, Novel Word Count, Outliner, Shell Commands, Smart Typography, and Templater.



Languagetool (The desktop server) 

Affinity Publisher (Which I use to typeset my covers)

Canva (Where I create my cover art)

02/27/2024 02:57pm Blog Entry

Dead of Winter

 I’m not your ordinary gumshoe. 

My name’s Nina Cohen. Born: 1898, died: 1912. I’m a poltergeist in a human body. I work from home as a private investigator. I watch entirely too much TV, and I talk to my cat. Say hello, Djinn.


My cop buddy Cronenberg talked me into this case. I’m just saying.

Nikita Zapata had everything to live for: friends, teammates, good grades, a volleyball scholarship to college. Then she went missing.

Jenny Thordarson had nothing: abused, trafficked from a young age, family history of drugs, you name it. She went missing last summer.

On the face of it, these two high school girls have only one thing in common: they were both Morgan Whitney’s best friends, and Morgan’s not talking.

My job was to find Nikita. There were fifty-thousand dollars in it for me. That’s why I’m undercover in high school.

Now I’m hip deep in ancient powers beyond anything I knew about, the spirits of serial killers, teachers that don’t like me, and snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Nobody said the life of a high school girl was easy.

 Dead of Winter, available on Amazon now!

02/06/2024 10:02pm Blog Entry

Music and my books

 A novel is a big project. I plan each of the Poltergeist books to be in the neighborhood of 50,000 words and give myself about six months to write it. Over that time, each book finds a song on my phone that tends to pull it toward its conclusion. So for the Poltergeist books thus far, here are those songs.

Ask the Dust:
Anikin vs Obi wan
London Symphony Orchestra (John Williams)
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

There's a lot of betrayal in this book. Some is resolved peacefully, some is not.

Dead of Winter:
Love is Christmas
Sara Bareilles

The harshest of the bunch so far, but it ends on a note of love. Really, that's kind of the underlying theme. Still working my way through editing this one. Hopefully I'll get it out there soon.

Bikini Body:
Sarah Mclachlan

I'm only 20,000 words in to this one, so I'm not going to talk about the plot as though it's a done deal yet. Even the title's not a done deal yet. I set out with the theme being truth, but it's drifting toward bodies and family. We'll see what happens.


01/15/2024 04:04pm Blog Entry

SoftMaker Office

I liked SoftMaker FreeOffice enough that I went ahead and bought SoftMaker Office.  After all the years of using never-quite-finished open source software, SoftMaker Office and FreeOffice have a level of polish that I'm not used to on my Linux box. (It fits right in on my Mac, and there's a Windows version too.)

The only serious complaint I have with TextMaker—the word processor—is that it doesn't have a wordcount field you can put in the document and have it live-updated.

Seriously?  Seriously.

Wordcount is readily available, right down in the status bar of TextMaker, and I can copy-paste it into the document readily enough. It's just weird that it's missing. That's been my experience with TextMaker (and FreeOffice) to date: works great, stable, but sometimes there's an odd thing missing and it takes time in Google to either find the allegedly missing feature, or devise a workaround. It also takes probably thirty seconds to a minute to load a 98000 word novel. This is acceptable, if not ideal. Once the novel is loaded, performance is fine.

Still. A hundred dollar one-time-payment for an office suite? Worth every dime. Strongly recommended.

12/30/2023 06:48pm Blog Entry

FreeOffice Textmaker

I've been a LibreOffice user for years. It works well enough, is feature rich, and does everything I need.


Until now.

I loaded the edited draft of Dead of Winter (Nina Cohen #2), to go through it change by change, comment by comment, and apply those comments to the master manuscript in Obsidian, just as though it was the old days, and we were all still dealing with typed manuscripts. With a 98000 word document, plus many, many comments (E.C. Tobler is a great editor), LibreOffice staggered under the load. Cursor movement was choppy, rendering took visible time, and was often glitchy. In all respects, it behaved like the steaming pile of Java it is, asked to do some significant computing.

This was on my desktop machine, a Core i7 4790K, 32GB of ram, video accelerator, and everything. It's not a heavy breathing gaming machine anymore, but it's no slouch.

So I started looking for a word processor that was better, ran on Linux, and was inexpensive, ideally free.

The pickings were pretty thin. They seem to fall into three camps: mediocre markdown editors, online office suites on JoeBob's server company for twelve bucks a month, and LibreOffice. There was one standout: Softmaker's FreeOffice suite.

So I tried it.

It loaded the file without a hiccup. It displayed all the comments with no issue, and somehow made it easier to read than LibreOffice. And... well, it's free. As in beer, not the other kind.

Like free beer, there's a catch. It's small. Freeoffice TextMaker is an older version of Softmaker Office, which is available as a subscription service*, or as a pro version for a one-time payment. FreeOffice is their way of advertising to the world, "Hey, we sell a nice office suite!" Occasionally, it advertises that fact when you first start it. I'm okay with that.

In truth, I've not asked a great deal of FreeOffice yet, and I've not yet purchased SoftOffice Pro, but on the face of it, if you have corner-case problems with LibreOffice like mine, it's definitely worth checking out. The price, as they say, is right.

*Every time I see "Software as a service," a line from Starter Villain goes through my head: "Imagine testicles as a service..." I can't take them seriously anymore. Thanks Scalzi. :)






SoftMaker Office 

Starter Villain 



10/02/2023 06:57pm Blog Entry

Markdown Tools, Revisited

 I've switched to Obsidian for my markdown editing. With the right plugins, it can compile my books into a single wad of markdown that pandoc can ingest comfortably. With the right plugins, and some luck, it's got a grammar checker that will even catch my habit of forgetting closing quotes. (Yes, this makes programming a special joy too.) It's even cross-platform.

Is Obsidian the most wonderful software ever? No. I don't much like the license (for companies larger than 1 person, you have to rent it, otherwise it's free.) I don't really like the UI that much. The plugins are all written in javascript, which I don't know, and it's an electron app, so it's huge. But what Obsidian does is most of what I need, and the plugins make up most of the difference, so for the time being, Obsidian is it.

IA Writer is a lovely thing, but I had a data-loss argument with its library management system. Really, I don't understand why software (to include Obsidian, but less irritatingly so) insists that it has to manage *all* the documents. I am not taking notes. I don't need to graph the interconnections between notes. I am *WRITING A NOVEL*. Sheesh.

09/16/2023 05:43pm Blog Entry

Poltergeist 2 is written.

At long last, I've finished the writing of Poltergeist! The Dead of Winter (or Winter's Fury, as it may be renamed to.) It was supposed to be a 50,000 word novel and take about six months to write. Instead it's a 92,000 word novel and took about ten months to write. (A three hour tour, a three hour tour. :P) Nina's back, Cronenberg's back, and of course, Djinn is back. We have an all new cast to meet, new badguy, new friends, new awkward situations.

So what now?

Well, the next couple weeks, I'll be doing a read-through edit. Some of these scenes have been sitting in their files for most of a year, and they need to mesh well with the scenes I wrote *today*. I'll also be reviewing the new sections with my writing group. They make me a better writer. And then, the whole shebang will go to my editor, almost certainly E.C. Tobler again. She's a *very* good editor, and a friend. Cover art is coming along. I'm using new tools to do the cover layout: Afinity Publisher 2, to be exact. I could typeset the whole book in it, obviously, but I doubt I will. I have a *lot* of experience and automation with LaTeX.

When will it be out? It depends. My original goal was to have it out before Christmas, but that assumed six months or so from the time it was done to the time it went into print. The release may be late. I will not rush my 'back end' processes, nor will I rush E.C. Quality before quantity.

How many books am I planning?

Ok, here's how I number them. P1 is Poltergeist! Ask the Dust. P2 is Poltergeist! The Dead of Winter (or Winter's Fury, whichever.) P3 is the one I'm going to start next, tentatively titled Bikini Body. Px is the last book. It already has has several interesting scenes already written. That one seems likely to get written, but no promises. I have an idea for P4 that isn't Px, and there may be more. Px is flexible, and pulls in stuff from previous novels, so I can adapt it to however many there are between then and now.

Clear as mud?

Yeah, it is to me, too. :)

Anyway, watch for more news on the second Poltergeist! novel, coming soon/eventually to an Amazon near you.


 Friend Jeff has now posted two lists of "Things That are Slowly Vanishing."

Things that are Slowly Vanishing

More Things that are Slowly Vanishing (Or Gone) 

I was going to reply to the second one, but my own list got too long, so I'm posting it here.

Things that were Vanishing that are Trendy Again 

Mechanical watches: Since they're now strictly a fashion item rather than a utilitarian one. Rolex is still around, and their watches are bloody expensive, and highly decorated, and by all accounts, better than ever. More mechanical watch brands, some classic, some new, many with movements made in China, are cropping up every day to cash in on this trend.

And I'll be honest, when my Apple Watch dies, assuming they don't have one with a blood sugar sensor in it as they've been working on for some years, I might go that route myself. I feel naked without a watch, but I don't need a 32 bit computer on my wrist for most purposes.

Cassette players: Why, god, why?

8-Track Tapes: not quite the resurgence Vinyl is enjoying, probably mostly for the antique car world so you have something to put in that big rectangular hole in the dash. But there are new albums being put on rebuilt vintage cartridges. To which I say again, Why, god, why?

Vinyl Records: Better bandwidth than the average mp3. This one I get. Even with my dodgy hearing I can sometimes hear the artifacts that lossy-compression music poops all over cymbals and the lack of dynamic range. You can get digital sound that's as good as records, but it takes a lot of storage space.

Vacuum tubes: Still manufactured and growing for the electric guitar and high-end audiophile market, both for their distortion properties.

To contradict Jeff, neighborhood mailboxes are alive and well, they're just not the old round-topped rectangular things of our youth. The house I grew up in had a mailbox on the front wall right under the address sign, and you certainly did *not* put your outgoing mail in someone else's outgoing mail holder. Nowadays, my house has a mailbox on the corner with a very anonymous and legally protected outgoing mail slot. Neighborhood mailbox? Check.

Ice Cream Truck: We have one that prowls our neighborhood every summer, although with as much rain as we've had, I haven't heard its dulcet tones much this summer. Now that it's hot (and we're home) I expect to. Also, you can get high end ones to show up for your favorite party. Not gone, just changed form.

Typewriters: Okay, this is a stretch. To my knowledge, they're not being manufactured anymore, but you can still get ribbon cartridges for even weird typewriters like my 1970s corona super 12 with a Google search. Again, no longer a utilitarian item, but for those of us who went from handwriting directly to computer printouts, an interesting curiosity.

Knitting, Crocheting, Needlework of all kinds, and Quilting: Hand work is making a comeback. I'm not a practitioner, but M, my wife, does crochet and needlework, and her sister does the other two. She says it's relaxing, forces her to focus, and tune out all the noise in the world.

Manual machining: The number of YouTube channels dedicated to manual lathe/mill/drill/shaper(!)/surface-grinder work is truly startling. New tools for this are made with the hobbyist in mind every day, and refurbishing big old industrial iron for the task is a hobby unto itself.


Handwriting: The trend of not requiring cursive in schools is showing signs of reversing. Also, the net is replete with reprints of old handwriting guides, calligraphy supplies, and so on. No longer utilitarian, but as a handcraft.


Pottery: Okay, hand-thrown pottery stopped being how most china was made hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Now it's done as a craft and an art form.

There's a meta-trend afoot here. Back in the 1980s, I read a book called Megatrends. To some extent, it predicted the technological world we live in today, but it also had an interesting backlash trend. They called it high tech vs high touch. They predicted that the more technology we use, (High Tech), the more hands-on craft we'll see (High Touch.)  If you look at the things that have come back, they all fall into that.

Consider: Handwriting and even typing with a typewriter force you (the writer) to be much more intimate with the document you're creating, rather than just its content. You're not just putting words together, as I am now, you're putting them together, by hand, on this particular piece of paper at this particular time. These are the crafts I know something about. 


Having a wristwatch that goes tick doesn't seem like a hand craft, but the machine itself is, and there are hobbyists who are into fixing them. Sooner or later, hobbyists will be making them from scratch.


Even vacuum tube electronics are a handcraft, really. Sure, you can do pcbs to put a device together, and if all you want is the finished device, that's fine. But for the joy of it, point-to-point wiring is a handcraft. The smell of the solder, the singed fingers, the anticipating watching tube filaments light and waiting for the high voltage circuit to come up to see if your creation will live, that's a hand-craft in my book. There are people out there who hand-make their own tubes, too, but even if you're just using the equipment, the sound is more analog, more human, even if it's less precise. The hands of humans are all over vacuum tubes.

If Megatrends is right, if it continues to hold true, the more technological we become, the more our handcrafts will matter. And if AI ever takes over, it will be because humans lost interest in technology that didn't let use use our old fashioned, imprecise, primate hands and brains.

06/30/2023 05:47pm Blog Entry

To Edit Markdown

Why, exactly, do I need a markdown editor? 

Good question. Almost any code-aware text editor can color-code Markdown so you can see what's highlighted, what's italic, and so on.  But having an editor that can and will display the markdown in its final form, tell you when you've goofed up the syntax by not doing what you had in mind, that kind of thing's useful.

I've tried quite a bunch of markdown editors. So far, I have *one* winner.

iA writer for mac is lovely. It fits my workflow, by having a library manager, a spell checker, a grammar checker, even a usage checker (although it's annoying, so I leave it off unless I'm editing.) It's rock stable. 

Downside? It's Mac only*, and it's expensive (as this sort of software goes.) I'm looking for software that is similar for Linux. No steaming piles of Python need apply (now watch, that's what makes iA writer go. :P ).  Do I *really* have to write my own?

Anyway. That's where I am.  iA writer can apparently compile individual documents direct to .docx or PDF, but as it does not handle multi-documents directly, I don't think that'll be of much use. Pandoc does it better, and uses my templates.

Anyway. That's where I am.

*It's not actually mac-only. There are Windows, Android, and IOS versions as well, just no Linux version. So of my platforms, it's Mac only, because writing long work with a touch-screen keyboard makes my hands hurt just thinking about it.

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