A blog about blogging

I think I’m getting better at showing people things I’ve written. I used to be terrible at this; and at one point must have had hundreds of pages of writing that I had never shared with another person.

This is largely not the case now. There are things I’ve written all over the internet, I have three pieces of writing about to be published on a new MBTI themed website due soon, and I’m a lot more comfortable with showing people things I’ve written; including things I’ve had kicking around in some form or another for years.

There’s only really one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. And part of writing is showing your writing to other people, listening to feedback, and taking that feedback on board to become a better writer.

I’m hoping to have time to sit down and write something for this blog while I’m overseas next week, but in the meantime, I’ll dig out a couple of things I’ve written over the last few weeks that I’ve not yet got around to posting.

An updated guide to using Pandoc for document conversion

I wrote about Pandoc last year, but I’m using it more and more and I’ve found myself editing the original post a fair few times. This is the updated 2016 version that gathers together useful commands I’ve learned so far.

Last year I found myself needing to do a lot of document conversion, and maintaining documentation that needs to be available in a variety of formats (HTML, Word documents, Markdown and PDF). My tool of choice for this sort of thing is Pandoc, which is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, although most of my usage so far has been on Linux and Mac OS X (it’s a command line package that can output to Dropbox, so it doesn’t matter where it runs really).

There are instructions for installing Pandoc on quite a few platforms. I’ve found that following these is generally enough, although it’s worth installing the latest version of the .deb packages rather than the one in the repositories.

On Debian/Ubuntu I also add the texlive-latex-extra package, but that’s largely because it gives me a specific Beamer theme I like to use.

If you’re using Pandoc on Mac OS X there is one more command you’ll need to issue prior to the first time you want to create a PDF file:

sudo ln -s /Library/TeX/texbin/pdflatex /usr/local/bin/

This will ensure Pandoc knows where to find pdflatex. If this step isn’t followed then you’ll likely get an error message along the lines of pandoc: pdflatex not found. pdflatex is needed for pdf output.

Pandoc works for me because I write everything in markdown, and Pandoc is great at taking markdown and converting it into almost anything else. It’s also good if you need to create a PDF, a Word document and a slide show from the same document. The syntax is fairly simple for most document types:

For example:

pandoc input.md -s -o output.docx
pandoc input.md -s -o output.html
pandoc input.md -s -o output.epub

Conversion to PDF works the same, although I’m not a fan of wide margins, so I tweak it slightly:

pandoc -V geometry:margin=1in input.md -s -o output.pdf

For a Beamer slide show you’ll need something like:

pandoc -t beamer input.md -V theme:metropolis -o output.pdf

Pandoc does a lot more, but the documentation is great, and the commands above should be enough to get you started. If you want to try out the functionality in a web browser then http://pandoc.org/try/ should be able to handle most types of conversions.

Fragments of thought

It’s November, and like a lot of other people I’m attempting to write 50,000 words. At least 40,000 of those are going to be fiction (hopefully more), but I thought it was also worth trying to write down the other things in my head – the things that don’t really belong in a piece of fiction. I have no intention of posting them all here, but I thought a few fragments based on the sort of things I usually write in this blog wouldn’t hurt.


Things I have done this week have involved writing, a small bit of housework, and a few hours in front of the TV (watching Hemlock Grove, a bit of Once Upon a Time and all of Mr. Robot). The latter has some themes that are quite close to what I’m writing, which made me consider stopping what I was working on (I didn’t). I also answered some questions (via email) for a website related to the http://nownownow.com/ movement. I should probably update my /now page to say that answering questions about things like this is generally something I’m willing to do (I love being interviewed).

I’m listening a lot to old Cardiacs records this week. I’ve also found some complete concerts on YouTube which I’m enjoying very much.

My Rough Trade album of the month is Elaenia by Floating Points. I love it, and it sounds a lot better than the description. I like discovering new artists in this way, although I’m a little miffed that the vinyl version won’t arrive until after I’m back at work, and will therefore involve a trip to the post office.


I’m now watching this recording of the Masada String Trio from 1999 – time to catch up on the hundreds of hours of concert footage I’ve downloaded from YouTube over the last few months. The software I use is called youtube-dl (you can get it for Linux or OS X).

One day I’ll get round to writing a blog post about my musical heroes; people I’ll buy/listen to everything they have ever done. Joy Division/New Order, The Cure, British Sea Power, Cardiacs, Red House Painters/SunKil Moon, Jim O’Rourke and John Zorn. Maybe a few others as well, but these will probably have to be the main ones. I suspect this would be a very long piece of writing (10 pages +). I might want to talk about my teenage Felt fixation, and probably throw in a bit of House of Love/Wedding Present related writing as well. I also suspect people will realise exactly how much music I own if I write this post, and also how much some of it is worth (I have New Order and Cardiacs CDs/cassettes that I could sell for above £50 each right now).

Also a post about my vinyl buying experiments, and what you get for your £20 (which varies greatly depending on the artist/record company). Also some of them are a lot less than £20 now which pleases me (I’m waiting for my 1st sub-£10 record purchase in many years to arrive – a re-pressing of Joy Division’s Closer).

I think John Grant wins the “what you get for your £20” competition right now. Double album, CD version included, plus a bonus CD and an insert containing a load of really nice artwork.


Closer arrived, and it’s gorgeous. An exact replica of the 1980 vinyl, with sound from the 2007 remaster. Best of both worlds. Ian Curtis hung himself just after making this record, but listening to it always fills me with hope.


I’m listening to Felt’s The Splendour of Fear. One of the first records I ever bought, and something I love, but would probably never recommend to another human being. Six tracks, four of them instrumentals, clocking in a little over 30 minutes.


I am not sure I’m going to write anything today apart from this. The story I’m writing has hit a brick wall in that I’ve written a whole load of fragments, edited them together into three sections, and now I can see the narrative and chronology starting to form. I’m not sure what else to do though – it’s not clear enough for other people to understand, and so many sections need fleshing out more and rewriting in a more descriptive style. I’ve also got whole chapters that are just dialogue – probably more dialogue than other people write. I think I’ve probably written something that needs to exist in a variety of formats – novel, poem, play, movie, interactive adventure. But I also think it’s not original enough, and that I’ve managed to drag a few things into the chronology that I wasn’t expecting (like the way it’s turned out to be a Grail quest, like everything I write does, it seems).

My process for creating art (of any kind) is largely the same. Improvise fragments, juxtapose the fragments until their context to other fragments gives them meaning, and then take that as a starting point to flesh it out into a finished piece. It’s what I do with music, and writing, and pretty much everything I create. The finished product is just a synthesis of distinct parts that work due to their proximity to other parts. Also known as “there is no perfect chord” (sorry Leonard).


I’m listening to the new Grimes album on Spotify. I’ve read a few reviews of this record, and thought I’d have to actually listen to it as the reviews are really not that helpful (in that no-one can agree whether it’s a good record, whether they like it, what sort of music it’s meant to be). I’ve only listened to it once, but my first impression is that I like it, I’ll listen to it again, and that it’s intelligent pop music that utilises a really varied sonic palate. It’a also on 4AD, who have a habit of never releasing bad records (I may be a little biased as many of my favourite musicians have some sort of link with 4AD). I think the Quietus review does the best job (as it often does), although some of the comments are horrible.


My nownownow.com profile page went live last night. I should get round to writing something about this movement soon, because I think it’s really important.

Converting documents using Pandoc

I’ve recently found myself needing to do a lot of document conversion, and maintaining documentation that needs to be available in a variety of formats (HTML, Word documents, Markdown and PDF). My tool of choice for this sort of thing is Pandoc, which is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, although most of my usage so far has been on Linux (it’s a command line package that outputs to Dropbox, so it doesn’t matter where it runs really).

There are instructions for installing Pandoc on quite a few platforms. I’ve found that following these is generally enough, although it’s worth installing the latest version of the .deb packages rather than the one in the Debian repositories which does odd things to some of my html.

On Debian/Ubuntu I also add the texlive-latex-extra package, but that’s largely because it gives me a specific Beamer theme I like to use.

If you’re using Pandoc on Mac OS X there is one more command you’ll need to issue prior to the first time you want to create a PDF file:

sudo ln -s /Library/TeX/texbin/pdflatex /usr/local/bin/

This will ensure Pandoc knows where to find pdflatex. If this step isn’t followed then you’ll likely get an error message along the lines of pandoc: pdflatex not found. pdflatex is needed for pdf output.

Pandoc works for me because I write everything in markdown, and Pandoc is great at taking markdown and converting it into almost anything else. The syntax is fairly simple for most document types:

For example:

pandoc input.md -s -o output.docx
pandoc input.md -s -o output.html
pandoc input.md -s -o output.epub

Conversion to PDF works the same, although I’m not a fan of wide margins, so I tweak it slightly:

pandoc -V geometry:margin=1in input.md -s -o output.pdf

For a Beamer slide show you’ll need something like:

pandoc -t beamer input.md -V theme:metropolis -o output.pdf

Pandoc does a lot more, but the documentation is great, and the commands above should be enough to get you started.

Getting in the zone

How do you get in the zone? And by that I mean how do you prepare yourself to sit down and work on something for a long time (be that a piece of writing, a song or a computer program)?

For me it’s all about turning off distractions, or at least blocking them out so they don’t impair my creativity. Right now I’m sitting in my office at work with the window open. The clock tower is chiming 8, and there is the sound of building work outside. This is not conducive to getting me in the zone, but I can block it out because it’s a fairly common series of sounds around here (my office being near the clock tower and right in between two building sites, one of which will become my new office eventually).

If I can’t turn off distractions then I like to control my distractions as much as possible. This I’ll do largely through headphones and either very familiar music or unfamiliar music without words. I have Spotify play-lists set up to deal with both of these, and I also have a fair amount of music stored locally on my non-work computers.

So what do I mean by distractions? One of the main distractions is the notifications that any internet-connected computer churns out every few seconds. On my work machine I get notifications about emails, tweets, instant messages, texts and all sorts of other things. I need to have a peripheral awareness of them, but what they would really like me to do is to drop what I’m doing and insert some other task right at the top of my to do list. Sometimes that is what I need to do, but most often the task I’m working on now is the most important task, and anything that deviates from what I had intended to do is likely to make me less productive.

Once I’m in the zone, and once I’m writing, then I tend to zone out what is going on in the rest of the world quite well. I often find myself forgetting to notice that I’m hungry or thirsty, and it’s always a surprise to find that I’ve been sitting at my desk for a couple of hours and that the document sat before me has grown in size considerably.

The other key for me is not noticing my computer at all while I’m working on something. This is partly due to keeping my computer uncluttered and distraction free, but also to do with using the right keyboard. I generally either use my solar power Logitech keyboard, or else the keyboard of the laptop I’m typing on. Any laptop I use for this sort of work is likely to be made either by Apple or by Lenovo; both of whom are well-known for understanding what a decent keyboard should feel like and sound like. I also try and use a text editor for writing as much as possible – which generally boils down to either Sublime Text or Gedit. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite as such, and like most things I like to work in at least two different ways to ensure that I don’t get stale or become too reliant on a particular tool-set.

I suppose the flip side to this is what I do what I’m not in the zone. Sometimes I have to write, regardless of feeling like doing something else. I don’t have the luxury of not needing to work, and sometimes that work involves me sitting and writing something while all sorts of chaos is going on around me. If I feel myself getting too distracted then I’ll force myself to write for a certain amount of time, and then take a break, pace around for a bit, and maybe go and take a short walk somewhere. I’ll also use my walking time (I’m currently walking at least 7km each work day and at least 4km at weekends) to think about the next thing I need to do, or how to express some particularly difficult idea or concept.