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Close to the Edit

Tools of the Trade

by Ross Winn
Aug 22,2005


Tools of the Trade

Disclaimer: I am not so "close to the edit" this month. My wife, who is also my editor and collaborator, is away at War in Pennsylvania as we speak. So this is all me, unedited.

I am shortly off to the annual "running of the geeks" in Indianapolis. If any of you miss the point of all this I refer you to my earlier column on the subject. For those of you in the back here are the three key points. Spend money, wash yourself, and play games. I know that sounds trite, but it really is not meant to be. One very important point, last year's registration was orders of magnitude better than the year before; possibly even better than it has ever been. I have received my badge three weeks before the show, and so have thousands of other attendees. I still recommend pre-registration. However, if you cannot pre-register, you can now go to the show without pulling your hair out.

I wrote with more than a little fervor about my love of office supplies, specifically for the possibilities they represent. Rarely have tools helped me create things, but I must take time to mention one that has. In writing my new Traveller series ("The Terran Dominion" is a working title), I stumbled into the updated version of a program I like a lot. It is called OmniOutliner, and it helps me write. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should mention a little history.

When I was younger, I did not understand the idea of outlining. When they taught us outlining in composition, whether I was taught poorly or learned awkwardly I could not say, I just did not get it. Write a bunch of ideas on cards and play with them until they make sense. I never was one for puzzles as a child. Either I understood them immediately and solved them in seconds or I just did not get them and I never would. When I forced myself to work in the form, I would eventually become frustrated. I would get through the outlining process, finish writing the piece, and without fail then have a brainstorm that involved rewriting everything i a slightly different order for much improved effect.

My first computer was not a Mac. It was either a TRS-80 or a TI-99, they were both at school, I honestly can't remember which one I used first. I did not understand operating systems then and I do not now. I barely understood the rudiments of BASIC. The tools made me crazy, but I could do things with them that were amazingly cool. I could write.

The frustrating parts of writing for me were always that if I wanted to change things it was tedious as all hell. Typing and retyping would have been great for my keyboard skills, but was quite exasperating otherwise. Learning the ins and outs of each of these systems was even more tedious. Commands and controls in all of these systems were different.

In January of 1984 I was watching the Super Bowl, and saw a commercial for a new kind of computer. It was called Macintosh. The rest, as they say, is history. It was not just a computer, Byzantine and arcane in its complexity, it was a simple tool that I could understand.

One of the things about the Mac that made it different at the time was what we know call the GUI. As revolutionary as that was, I think people give it too much importance. What was more important was that commands generally remained the same in many programs. What this allowed was an innate familiarity with the basics of almost all Mac software. All those man-hours were not necessary to relearn the basics of each unique interface.

Along with this uniformity in action came a sort of uniformity in thinking; a system of approaches that made sense to people who did not normally understand bits and bytes. Then came More.

More was many things to many people. It developed a cult following that is still vocal today. More did two things very well; outlining and presentation. I never really understood the presentation part as a separate idea. The two are always so integral to me.

One of the main reasons that so much of the Mac community was loathe to transition to OS X is applications like More, FullWrite, and a host of other simply won't ever work, and Classic (as good as it may be) is not the "classic" Mac OS. Slowly, and this is one of the most frustrating things about the switch to OS X, the functionality is coming back. Even Three years after I started using OS X there are still some things missing.

While More was revolutionizing outlining on the Mac, I was doing other things. I struggled in the DOS world for some time. I simply did not have the money to buy a Mac of my own. I made do with hand me down PCs until I bought a PowerBook 140 in 1990. The only commercial software I bought was Microsoft Word 5. Finally, with Word I began to understand outlining. The way that Word's style system worked explained it. It all suddenly made sense, or at least it made sense to me.

Then I found Inspiration. Inspiration is a little outlining program. That was version 2 on MacOS 7.1, now it is version 7 and OS X 10.3 compatible, but I digress. The thing about Inspiration that was so intriguing to me was that you could flip between an outline view and a graphical view. Outline items became thought bubbles that you could assign symbols and associations to. Changes you made in each view were represented in the other. With Inspiration the idea of outlining crystallized for me. I could flip back and forth and the graphical associations showed me places I had not connected, and places where the outline was flawed a lot more closely. These tools served me very well until about 1998, when my old PowerBook finally gave up the ghost.

I had become addicted to outlining as a writing tool and was even more disorganized without it. When I got my first Palm in 2000, I could not wait to find an outlining tool for it. Eventually I found BrainForest, and I was happy. Inspiration even eventually released a version for the Palm about two years ago, but the program had become bloated and over specialized. BrainForest was sold to Ultrasoft and stagnated, at this point it has been nearly five years since any significant features, or even updates have been released.

I purchased a Performa 5400 in 1996. I still think it is the best Mac desktop I have ever owned, for what I did in any case. Most Mac guys think that machine was pure trash, but I liked it. Through 2001 I relied on Word 5.x for the Mac. I mention that my wife is cringing reading this because she feels Word is completely unsuited for documents of any significant size. We disagree. So on my Palm I used BrainForest, and on my Mac I used Word. I was happy, I was moderately productive, and I was not writing anything huge, so it seemed to work all right.

When I started working on Action System! for Gold Rush Games with Mark Arsenault and Pat Sweeney I started wanting again. I also developed a real grudge against Microsoft. Office started causing a lot of issues with later versions of OS 8, or vice versa, and I had become more than a little perturbed that when I went to OS X without Classic I had to repurchase a full version of Word, or reinstall my old version in classic to upgrade. Instead, I sought out a replacement. After two years of trying, and fifteen licenses for different shareware and commercial software programs I gave up.

As much as I resent Microsoft's dominance of the Word Processing market, I simply cannot find a better tool. However exposure to other outlining and word processing tools had lead me to feel Word's outline tools were limited. Much to my dismay they still are, the "notebook" features do not really add anything substantial.

Coincidentally (or not) about that time I became acquainted with OmniGroup. I think I was trying to ditch Internet Explorer and came across OmniWeb, Interesting idea, but I just could not bring myself to pay for another browser. I had been burned by Netscape and did not want to repeat the same mistake.

Why was OmniOutliner the solution I was looking for? It is a great all around tool as well, but my reasons probably have a lot more to do with what and how I write. I write games, and I write about games. OmniOutliner seems to make this easier for me.

With OmniOutliner you can put anything in an outline; QuickTime movies, words, recordings, and pictures. With the pro version you can even record directly from the toolbar. Word Exporting works, which is a big deal to me. It does not export to every format that word uses, but I find the HTML and RTF with attachments options more than ample.

Writing a new series means slapping together a lot of different idea and thoughts in to a set of areas and a gradually expanding them until you make a cohesive whole. OmniOutliner allows you to do this more quickly and better than anything else I have found to date.

If you miss the ability to flip between graphical and outline views you can simply pair OmniOutliner with OmniGraffle. Just drag the Outliner file onto the Graffle application and "poof" instant diagram. I am told the reverse works just as well, but I will admit to not having OmniGraffle to try this. Since so little of what I do requires that any more I do not see the need, but you might.

OmniOutliner lets you bring sound, text, pictures, and much more into a cohesive whole that makes stories easy to put together and series easy to plan. For developing RPG material and settings I don't think you can find anything better.

Of course, if you run Windows you are out of luck.

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What do you think?

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