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GhostWriter: A Linux distro for writers

By Scott Nesbitt on January 17, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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One of the things that I love about Linux is that it has tools for everyone, including writers. Linux distributions come with word processors, text editors, spell checkers, typesetting, and publishing tools galore. Normally, you're using these tools with a standard desktop distribution in an environment like KDE or GNOME. Billy-Bob Ming, however, has taken a different tack and rolled his own Linux distro specifically aimed at writers.

GhostWriter is a live CD that provides a small number of tools for writers of short stories, novels, and screenplays. But GhostWriter can be used by someone authoring works of non-fiction as well. It's easy to use and has a small footprint. In fact, there's nothing to install -- you run GhostWriter off a CD. Unlike some live CD distros, GhostWriter doesn't have install scripts that let you make it a desktop distribution, but Ming has hinted that a future version might come with such scripts.

GhostWriter is a novel approach to writing and publishing documents -- perhaps a little too novel for many writers.

Under the hood

GhostWriter is based on Slax, a variant of Slackware that was specially developed for use with live CD distributions. Riding on top of Slax is the venerable twm window manager. twm is simple, but it's not pretty. It is, however, easy to use and it gets the job done.

I ran GhostWriter on two systems. One system was my laptop, which packs a 2.8GHz processor, 1GB of memory, and a 52X CD-RW drive. The other was a desktop server with a 2.6GHz processor, 512 MB of memory, and a 52X CD-RW drive.

Unlike most of the live CDs that I've worked with in the past, GhostWriter booted quickly -- seconds from the time my laptop powered on until the desktop loaded; slightly longer on the desktop system. Most other live CDs take anywhere from two to four times that long.

Why GhostWriter?

GhostWriter was created to scratch the itch of writer/programmer Billy-Bob Ming and his wife. "Over the years that I have been writing, I have been developing writing tools to meet my needs," Ming said. "My wife also writes. The set of tools and applications that my wife uses, I bundled as GooseQuill WriterWare."

GooseQuill is a combination of Slackware, LyX, and Python applications. Ming said that it "was too much for most writers to even consider dealing with. It was one thing for me to set it up for my wife, and another for a writer to install all these things." GhostWriter is Ming's way of combining the usefulness of GooseQuill with the simplicity of a Linux live CD, which requires no installation.

GhostWriter is designed to remove a number of technical barriers for writers. "Writers are often creativity-rich and confidence-poor," Ming says. "We don't want to put anything technical in their way. GhostWriter is for anyone who can put a CD in the CD-ROM [drive] and turn the machine on."

According to Ming, GhostWriter puts a lot of power into the hands of a writer, and does it cheaply. For example, he says that "writers of screenplays have only the options of $300 Mac or Windows solutions, or the less satisfying attempt to create scripts on something like Microsoft Word. LyX, with our screenplay template, produces the exact output of those expensive apps."

The applications

The GhostWriter distribution is barebones in the extreme, but then again writing is usually just a matter of putting words on a page, or in this case, on screen. You really don't need a lot of complex software in order to write.

GhostWriter comes bundled with only four major applications: LyX, for writing and typesetting documents; The GIMP, for creating illustrations; gv, for viewing the PostScript and PDF files that LyX produces; and the Dillo Web browser, which is used to view the GhostWriter online help.

For the more geeky among the writing set, GhostWriter also comes with the xterm terminal emulator and some basic command line utilities, including Elvis version 2.2_0, a clone of the popular vi editor. Whether or not you'll need them is debatable, but the tools are there. A full list of packages is available on the GhostWriter site.

Notable by their absence are any networking and Internet tools. There's no FTP or SSH client, no dial-up tools, no audio or video players, no email clients. According to Billy-Bob Ming, "There's nothing here that isn't for writing. You cannot dial up, log in, enter passwords, or print."

The inclusion of LyX is an interesting choice on the part of the GhostWriter's developer. I would have expected a lightweight word processor like AbiWord or Ted, which can save documents as Word and RTF files, respectively. "We like LyX because it removes most of the fiddling from writing on a computer," Ming says. "You can actually make LyX do anything; it is more flexible than OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Word. Most writers don't need even what AbiWord offers."

The copy of LyX on the GhostWriter CD comes with five templates that you can use to write articles, short stories, letters, novels, screenplays, or to produce print-on-demand books. While testing GhostWriter, I worked with the article, letter, and screenplay templates. The article and letter templates are easy to use and produce clear, usable documents. I ran the screenplay template by a friend who's trying to break into the scriptwriting business, and he pronounced it perfectly usable for creating a basic screenplay.

While the number of templates limits the kinds of documents you can produce, it fits in with what seems to be the underlying philosophy of GhostWriter: small is good, distractions are bad.

As for The GIMP, Ming says it was included "because we see writers using the CD to create children's books," which often include illustrations.

Using GhostWriter

Using GhostWriter is surprisingly simple. After booting from the CD you simply click on the desktop and start LyX. Once in LyX, you select a template and start writing.

However, if you're not used to authoring documents the LyX way, you may find it be a bit frustrating. It's not an easy-to-use word processor like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice.org Writer, but rather a very quirky tool with which to write. For instance, you can't apply formatting to a single word or single paragraph in a LyX document. On top of that, adding elements like tables and graphics can be a chore. Once you have added tables or graphics, you don't have precise control over the size and placement of the elements. (You can find an excellent and in-depth analysis of LyX here.)

LyX isn't a word processor so much as a document processor. With LyX, you type your text, apply basic styles that define the document's structure, and let LyX (along with its back end, the LaTeX typesetting system) take care of the look and feel of the output. The structured approach takes some getting used to for writers who are comfortable with traditional full-featured word processors.

On top of that, if you're only used to working with files in common word processing formats, then you'll probably find LyX to be frustrating. Besides the native LyX format, you can save your documents as PDF or PostScript files. If you're collaborating with another writer, or have to exchange manuscripts with an editor, a word processor format is more welcome than a PDF. In this respect, GhostWriter falls flat.

Reading and writing files

While you're working in LyX, documents and graphics that you create are saved in memory. If you turn your computer off, you lose what you've written. You can, however, transfer your files to physical media -- but the options are limited.

At the moment, GhostWriter can save files only to a diskette. It can't write them to to a hard drive or a USB drive. Admittedly, saving files to a floppy is easy. The desktop menu includes commands to mount and unmount a diskette drive. But many newer computers don't come with floppy disk drives.

Another option is to use a utility called BashBurn that comes bundled with GhostWriter. BashBurn is a command-line CD burning interface, which works with a popular set of utilities called cdrtools. BashBurn will only work if you have a separate CD burner on the system on which you're running GhostWriter, and if you know how to configure and use BashBurn and the cdrtools package.

Summing up

The concept behind GhostWriter -- to bundle a set of writer's tools on a live CD -- is an interesting one. However, I can't see many writers adopting this approach to producing documents. Two major impediments are the burden of learning a new and fairly non-intuitive tool such as LyX, and the need (at the moment at least) to continually save files to a diskette.

GhostWriter scratched an itch for Billy-Bob Ming, but it may not satisfy yours. If you're curious about writing documents in a simple but structured environment, take GhostWriter for a spin. You might be pleasantly surprised with it. But if you're happy with the way in which you write now, I suggest that you stick with the tools that you know and use.

Purpose Distro for writers.
Distributor Billy-Bob Ming
Architectures Runs on x86 machines
License Available under the GNU General Public License
Market GhostWriter is targeted at writers.
Price (retail) Free, or on CD media for $6 in the US, $7 for international orders
Product Web site GhostWriter home page

Scott Nesbitt is a freelance journalist and technical writer based in Toronto, Canada.

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on GhostWriter: A Linux distro for writers

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Not even remotely interesting.

Posted by: cprise on January 18, 2006 03:39 AM
Could we see some more reporting on standardization efforts like LSB, Project Portland and the DCCA?

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Re:Not even remotely interesting.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 18, 2006 06:11 PM
Depends on how you look at it. For those of us who work in the publishing industry this may be a good set of tools that we could pass onto our authors.

Unfortunately I have looked at the site and can only find ISO discs that are sent by disc. I am looking to try this out quickly and I cannot find an ISO to download!!

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windows

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#

Where is the downloadable ISO?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 17, 2006 11:52 PM
I mean, doesn't Ming have to provide the source for FREE according to the GPL? There are many ways to find free hosting for the ISO, it just seems lazy IMO.

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Re:Where is the downloadable ISO?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 18, 2006 02:25 AM
Lyx is meant to be a front end for the TeX typesetting system along with the LaTeX macro package.

The LaTeX package is meant to handle the details of formatting a document like a book, academic thesis, or script. The book publisher, or academic institution may furnish the LaTeX macro package, style formatting as a<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.sty file. The academic institution, or book publisher likes to have their documents to be type set all in the same style. They do not want the individual writer to be burdened with the details of how chpaters, Titles, sections, section titles, table of contents, index , etc are laid out. The TeX/LaTeX package accomplishes this.

Academic types have typeset their books, thesis's, research reports, for years using LaTeX. The actual document source is generated with a simple editor-- not a word processor. It is somewhat analogous to using a text editor to generate an HTML web page.

The problem is that ordinary mortals are not interested in using a text editor to generate the LaTeX source any more than they are going to generate HTML with a text editor.

That is where Lyx comes in. It is a semi-WYSIWYG front end interface to LaTeX. It makes the chapter titles, section titles, etc., look somewhat like the final document will lool like. The Lyx user does not need to have a detailed knowledge of LaTeX to generate publication quality documents.

A few academic publishers use LaTeX from their authors, as do scientific journals.

If you are writing book length document, Lyx is an easy way to get started with LaTeX. The purpose of Lyx is to generate LaTeX as output. This format can be exchanged with writers and publishers who accept it. The PS or PDF output of Lyx is a final product for a printer rather than a collaborative exchange tool. As far as I know, Lyx will not edit the PDF. You would edit the LaTeX.

If you are doing less than a book length document there are probably easier alternatives. If your publisher does not accept LaTeX, you may not want to use LyX. However, if your publisher wants camera ready copy in PS or PDF, Lyx can do that, as can wordprocessors.

In summary, what Lyx gets for you is the power of the LaTeX package: TOC, index, math typesetting, military chapter and section numbering, preformatted stypes, etc.

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Re:Where is the downloadable ISO?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 19, 2006 11:22 PM
"I mean, doesn't Ming have to provide the source for FREE according to the GPL? [...]"

As a matter of fact... no.
"Free software" as described by the GNU GPL does not equal "software for free". But, of course, one could buy the cd and then freely distribute an image via ftp.
Check out the official faq: <a href="http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html" title="gnu.org">http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html</a gnu.org>

 

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Re:Where is the downloadable ISO?

Posted by: Administrator on January 18, 2006 12:21 AM
From the home page:

"Any source that is ours is on the CD. The rest is available at kernel.org, slackware.com, linux-live.org, lyx.org, and many other sites in the free and open software community. If you can't find what you're looking for with Yahoo!'s search engine, ask and we'll help you out."

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how do you distribute your work??

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 18, 2006 03:23 AM
""Notable by their absence are any networking and Internet tools. There's no FTP or SSH client, no dial-up tools, no audio or video players, no email clients. According to Billy-Bob Ming, "There's nothing here that isn't for writing. You cannot dial up, log in, enter passwords, or print.""

Umm...how are you supposed to transfer files, then? If you're writing stuff for other people to read, do you loan them your computer?

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floppies are evil

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 23, 2006 08:11 AM
And likely the least reliable computer media I could think of. And bulky. This is useless until at least can save to usb.

(Oh and no one's going to be saving gimp illustration files to floppy either. JPEGs might fit; but no one works with JPEGs, they use something with non-lossy compression.)

And would be better if had ssh, so can copy off the machine to home.

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A very good idea

Posted by: Administrator on January 18, 2006 12:40 PM
There should be a fairly large vertical market for this kind of distro. This one is built specifically for the needs of one person. There's nothing wrong with that. But if it doesn't fit your needs take the source and build your own live cd. I would probably add printing to this baby, if it were mine. And having a way to save to HD or USB would be a must. But other than that it seems pretty good.


One possible change might be to use the <a href="http://www.conglomerate.org/" title="conglomerate.org">Conglomerate XML Editor</a conglomerate.org> in place of (or in conjunction with) LyX. Working with DocBook and XML might be a more forward looking setup.

The best part of this distro, though, is the "out-of-the-box" idea of what a Linux distro should be. Taking the concept of having only what it absolutely needed is pretty good.

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