The hardest thing about life is living it.

It’s easy to look at life’s little hurdles and respond with something trite, like “It could be worse,” or “You could have brain cancer.” The thing is: those things are true; it could be worse, you could have brain cancer… and sometimes you do. Sometimes the bump in the road is minor in comparison to the chasm ahead, but that doesn’t mean the minor issue doesn’t matter.

It does. It adds to the depth of the well you find yourself in. It doesn’t make it any easier to maintain perspective; in a way, it just adds to the tide of despair.

Sure, it’s easier to handle those little mishaps when you have something giant on the horizon; when you have a broken leg, a chipped nail isn’t that big of a deal.

Especially from the perspective of others.

That chipped nail, though, might be the thing that’s holding you together. Who can say? That one little glitch might be enough to erode hope and future.

Encourage others, when you can. Until you’ve really walked in their shoes – and not just seen their feet and thought, “Okay, I might have been there” – they need as much of your help as you are able to offer. Pay it forward; some day, you may need them the same way they need you.

(And in the end, sadly, the response still becomes “c’est la vie.”)

Writing formats for books

I’ve recently started contributing to another book, and one of my tasks was, like, “start the book.” I’ve been dealing with the tyranny of choice – poorly, as it turns out – and I think I’ve finally solved one of the hardest problems:

In what format should the book be written?

I’ve gone around and around on that question. It comes down to two features: simplicity and power.

Simplicity is what you get when you use plain text; you’re just writing. Most writer’s editors emphasize a plain writing surface; they just present you a simple screen, with nothing in front of you but the plain page. No proportional fonts, no bolds, no italics, no spellchecking, nothing: just the page; you get to (or have to) focus on just writing; the editor is out of your way. (This is a good thing.)

Power is the ability to modify the text, adding features and maximizing the impact of each word. It implies all the cool fonts, leading drop-text, references, specific layout control, grammar checking, spelling, all the bells and whistles.

Publishers tend to prefer Microsoft Word; that’s the format I’ve used for another book. Word’s certainly capable, but it’s not open source (a critical aspect for this book), and it’s not available on all of my platforms. Word strikes a good balance between simplicity and power; the ribbon doesn’t help (you have to learn how to use it, and it’s not especially fast with which to interact). As far as open source and wider availability goes, well, LibreOffice can work with Word documents, for the most part, but that “for the most part” isn’t really enough.

LibreOffice Writer might be a workable substitute altogether for Word, of course. The Open Document Format isn’t terrible; I don’t know what really biases me against this choice, but I am biased. Maybe it’s because I also use Word, and the finger-familiarity dissonance isn’t entirely pleasant. LibreOffice is a lot like Word on the balance between simplicity and power; it’s a little simpler without necessarily losing power.

I considered DocBook, and even set about writing some with it (with the help of Publican). I can’t argue against DocBook’s raw power, and won’t… but I will say that writing in DocBook is almost as fun as gnawing off your own neck. Almost. The signal-to-noise ratio for DocBook is incredibly bad – I spent more time muttering under my breath about <para> than I did actually writing the text. DocBook is the epitome of power, and doesn’t even pretend simplicity; SGML, for the … win.

If a format like DocBook prevents you from concentrating on writing, it’s a bad format for you.

HTML is out there, of course, and while HTML is very well known, it is pretty much straight markup.

I looked at Markdown, which is the format I use when writing on my blog (thanks to JetPack in WordPress). Markdown’s fairly old, but closer to what I think I want, except as a format for large, printable documents it’s vastly underpowered. Markdown tries to end up more on the side of “simplicity,” with some power; this is a good thing, because it means a simple text editor can be used to write workable Markdown.

That led me to AsciiDoctor, which is a lot like Markdown in substance, but has a lot more power: footnotes to abuse, a full working table of contents, references, a bibliography, customized rendering templates (including to DocBook)… basically, AsciiDoctor has most of the features one thinks of when considering word processors, without the “word processor” part – it’s just a markup engine with a lot of power.

AsciiDoctor strikes probably the best balance I’ve seen between simplicity and power. If you need it, you have all of the power you need; it’s not a layout engine, so the power you have to endure to get layout isn’t in your way. (This is where Word fails, honestly; you can use Word for layout, which means you get to face features aimed at layout.)

So there you have it, folks: I’m choosing AsciiDoctor to write with.

Repost: Brandon Sanderson might actually understand people

I’ve been reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, trying to finish it at last after having abandoned it fourteen years ago or something like that. I abandoned it because the books were becoming repetitive, and because Robert Jordan created characters who were plastic and immature even then; his fondness for corporal punishment was vaguely offensive.

I had written a critique of the series up through book seven, as I’d given up during book 8; there were a few good books in the series (four and six) but much of the “advancement” involved abuse and misinformation among allies; I’m not a feminist, but the women in the series are portrayed as such buffoons (and powerful buffoons, at that) that I couldn’t quite swallow some of the premises about culture. Unfortunately, my review has been lost in the mists of time.

But the series is finished now, surviving past Jordan‘s fatal encounter with cardiac amyloidosis; the final three books were written by Brandon Sanderson, who had Jordan’s notes and the blessing of Jordan’s wife and editor. It’s basically fan fiction as canon for the series.

Book eleven (“The Knife of Dreams“) actually showed some progress – I don’t know the timing involved, but it’s almost like Jordan realized that his cash cow wouldn’t be very useful to him once he had passed away. (I am unaware if he knew of his disease by the time he was writing book eleven.) With that, though, Sanderson seems to have decided that it was time for the series to actually wrap up as quickly as it could, while respecting the historical (and glacial) pace – he finished in three books, and I’m only halfway through the first of the three.

But it’s a marvelous change so far! People actually react in ways that you could imagine real people reacting.

For example, the women in the series are all bullies and buffoons; those women who can use magic (or “channel”) are among the worst of them, except for their social peers who are unable to channel. They are the worst. The men, bullied and chastised (and often beaten), simply take it, with the suggestion that they just don’t understand women, but that this is somehow valid behavior.

It’s not.

It’s especially not valid when you absolutely need the investment of the target of bullying.

The main protagonist (among what seems like hundreds of protagonists) is the Dragon Reborn, a reincarnated and tragic hero from the distant past, destined to combat the “Dark One,” dying in the process. He takes a number of wounds – some through ignorance, because even if people have useful information – a rare event – they still won’t share it with him. He takes a number of wounds that will not heal and cannot be healed; he is maimed and marked over and over again.

It’s not an easy role to fulfill. Everyone fears him; many see him as a target, because they’re idiots. Those he loves are targets, and he loves a lot of people.

So naturally, the bullies – remember, this is where I started this thought – spend a lot of time bullying him and those closest to him. “You may be the Dragon Reborn, boy, but I need a fresh cup of tea. Now travel five hundred leagues and get me one. Jerk.” They make promises they can’t keep, but so what? He’s a man, he’ll never be able to tell the difference just because you kept an artifact fatal to him just lying around.

… at least, that’s the way it is in the books Jordan authored.

In The Gathering Storm, the Dragon runs into an artifact that’s, um, fatal to him and his purpose. And commits himself to a path from which he may not be able to recover in order to survive. Because, well, survival. There’s no guarantee that he will win against the Dark One – but if he doesn’t survive to fight the last battle, there’s absolutely a guarantee that he’ll lose. (And for some reason, despite all the bullying, he cares.)

So after he commits himself to this irredeemable path, one of the people who keeps putting him down as a boy who needs to learn his lesson in order to die in battle … runs into him, head on with her failure to protect him from this artifact that she’s had in her possession. Sure, she put it in what she considers a safe place… in her room… in the same house in which one of the Dragon’s most powerful arch-nemeses is kept prisoner. Sure hope the arch-enemy doesn’t somehow break free, maybe through the aid of the arch-enemy’s allies and spies!

Because if the enemy did break free, well, the enemy is super-duper powerful, more powerful than anyone except for the Dragon! And the traps set for anyone trying to reach that artifact, well, the enemy might be a lot stronger!

In other words: “Whoopsie-doodle, boy! I suppose I screwed up a little, for the first time ever. Glad you survived, I guess. Now you’d better pay attention to me and what I have to tell you to do…”

And bless you, Brandon Sanderson! Because the Dragon, the Big Bad of the side of Good, has had enough.

The person who’s been whining at him, derisively calling him “boy,” using the idea that she is supposed to be somehow a trusted advisor, the one who kept that dangerous artifact around? She’s exiled. And all of a sudden, she realizes that if he actually needs her – and apparently he does – her exile would be fatal for the world. All of it. Fatal. Cataclysmic.

Whoopsie-doodle, indeed. And Sanderson doesn’t even write it as if I’m supposed to pity the poor old whiny woman. She’s been abusing the most powerful man in the world, constantly putting him down and punishing him despite his maturity and necessity. And all that abuse and insult comes home to roost, and he’s done with it. Surprise!

… and surprise for me, too, as a reader, because I can’t see Robert Jordan as having allowed the Dragon to have human responses. (Or, well, anyone, but especially the Dragon.)

Excellently done. The rest of the series might redeem the long, long, interminable stretches of dreck that the Wheel of Time had been. I’m now looking forward to seeing what happens.