writing: outlining in tomboy notes

There are tons of outlining tools out there. Graphical ones, bulleted-list ones, physical ones the writer draws on large sheets of wallpaper, ones set up in word processor templates. Personally I tend towards onscreen sticky notes, maybe because of all the document review meetings I've sat through at the day job which included a "parking lot" full of yellow stickies. I've been using Tomboy Notes (available for Linux, Unix, Windows, and Mac OS X) since at least 2008, which is the last time I blogged about it.

Tomboy is better integrated with Ubuntu now than it was then, which is a bit ironic since they no longer officially support it. No biggie so far — it works fine in v11.04. I set up my system to automatically start it when I log in, so it's always in the top toolbar waiting for me (see screen shot above). Clicking the icon displays all of the major menu choices plus all of the recent notes you've made.

Each note allows very basic word processor functionality, can be as long or as short as you like, and can be categorised into a notebook. Notebooks are just collections of notes given a label the user creates. It's a pretty unfussy way to store information, and if you forget what a note is called, the search function will let you do a text search, either on a specific notebook, all uncategorised notes, or all your notes.

I love Tomboy for outlining larger works of text. My Tuesday Serial has finally got far enough along that it's hard to remember all the character names and plot points, so I made a cluster of notes to keep track and illustrate this blog post at the same time:

I started with the note in the top left. Once that was written, I highlighted the text "the Zondernaam family" and clicked the Link button. Tomboy created a new note for me with the title "the Zondernaam family". Any time I use that phrase in any other note from now on, it will automatically create a link back to the note with that name. It's important to choose meaningful text as note titles, which is a good thing because it keeps you from making a note called "this" or something else non-descriptive.

If you look at the screen shot at full size (click to view), you'll see that all the major characters are have notes with their first names except for Beth Zondernaam. I was worried because I've had other characters named Beth in the past, so I changed the title of the note about her. Tomboy asked me if I wanted to update the links, and I said yes, so it did an automatic global search and replace for me. If a note gets deleted, all links to it get deleted as well (not the text itself, just the linking formatting and behaviour).

Notes may be exported to HTML. The links will stay intact, so if I were to export the top-level "Tilly with the Others" note, for instance, Tomboy would include all of the child notes attached to it. The result would be a single HTML page with internal links to the different notes (now sections in the overall HTML document). This has come in handy when I need to move content from one machine to another.

It is possible to synch notes (you can see that option in the menu screen shot), but I've never had much call to use it. Some of the features highlighted here can be altered or turned off as well.

Tomboy isn't as strict or as hierarchical as other outlining tools out there, but that's partly why I like it. I'll often arrange a set notes on a screen pane when I'm trying to organise something (there's that whiteboard parking lot training again). It doesn't go as far as some of the "mind cloud" organisers out there (which personally I see as a good thing), but the physical/spatial aspect can be a definite plus.

writing: the virtual environment

I run a proudly Microsoft-free and Mac-free household. No Windows, no iThings. I admire some of the design of the various iThings, but their "intuitive" interface drives me crazy. Whenever someone hands me a Mac product to use, they always have this gleam in their eye, because if they know me well enough to lend it to me they know that I work in software development and they know I'm a freak about user interfaces. They're always disappointed when I can't figure out how to work the damn thing half the time.

So instead my (Dell) laptop runs Ubuntu, which is a flavour of Linux. My phone also runs Linux, but that's not so unusual in phones — both Android and iOS are Linux flavours. More on how I use the phone to write in another post.

Linux has got a bad rap over the years for just being a nerd toy. Sure, it started out like that.... but then again, Steve Wozniak's first PC was an Altair, and look where he took things. I'd argue that Linux is actually more user-friendly now than the Big Two operating systems.

Plus it's free (at least the home & small office versions), so there's far fewer licence agreements, security keys, and other DRM crap to deal with. Ubuntu in particular installs all the common applications most users will need at the same time it installs itself, so you can spend half an hour installing it and then settle down to your word processor and spreadsheet immediately afterwards. And because Linux software developers know they're developing for a world where most computers don't run Linux, they tend to include features (like file converters) that let Linux users interact with the rest of the world, even if the rest of the world doesn't know it's interacting with Linux users.

So, this is what my virtual writing environment looks like:

Not a whole lot of clutter. To the left is a (hidden) toolbar which launches all the applications I use regularly. At the top are Tomboy notes, the mail/chat/Twitter menu, Bluetooth, wireless, sounds volume, calendar, and screen lock/logout. If I wanted to, I could save files to the desktop, but I try not to want to.

One thing Linux tends to have standard that other operating systems tend not to have is an extended desktop. I have mine set up to the Ubuntu standard four panes. This means I can set up application windows in logical groups on each of the four panes and flip between them as necessary. If you use more than one monitor, the pane will include the extra real estate on the monitor.

For writing, this is wonderful because you can open all your virtual Post-It notes in Tomboy on one pane and your word processor on another pane, and flip between them. If you want to change the arrangement, you can switch to the all-panes view and drag and drop the windows to where you want them, or use the window menu to change which pane a window shows up on.

The screen shot below also shows the left-hand toolbar that I usually keep on auto-hide (although you don't need to).

There's been a lot of talk lately about getting off the Net while you're trying to write. Ubuntu has an application (yes, a free one) called FocusWriter that blocks out your entire screen, including its own toolbar. All you see is what you're writing and whatever theme you've chosen for the background. If you mouse over the toolbar or status bar, you can check your word count or alter your formatting. I use it for Friday Flash and Tuesday Serial pieces a lot because it converts well to Blogger, but for longer works I just go straight to the Libre Office word processor.

It's comfy, it's simple, it's free, and it's easy to install. It also comes with all the basic tools a writer would want to use right away: a word processor, a note-maker, Twitter and e-mail connectivity. (Yeah, we're not supposed to want Twitter and e-mail connectivity, but let's face it, we do, especially for the communities I mentioned above.)

Somehow this wound up being a long post again. Next post about environments, I'll show how I use Tomboy Notes to keep longer works straight.


There are some things that it is reasonable to think that you don't have to worry about as a laptop computer owner. One of those things is that you shouldn't have to fix the partitions on your hard drive just because you pressed the wrong power button when you turned on your machine without wearing your glasses.

That's exactly what happened to me today. This blog is about what happened.


I was up the all of last night battling "flu-like symptoms" (to put it politely), and woke up this morning realising I'd only had two hours of sleep and still felt like crap. In the interests of professionalism I decided to take a sick day. I stumbled from the bedroom to my living room, opened up my laptop, and hit what I thought was the power button. I didn't have my glasses on at the time — I figured I'd put them on and tie my hair back while the machine was booting up, then e-mail my boss to tell her that I wouldn't be in today.

When I returned to the living room, there was a screen saying that Dell Media Player tried to set itself up and couldn't write files to the hard drive. My two immediate thoughts were, Oops, that wasn't the power button and Well, duh, I don't want you to write files to my hard drive anyways, and what are you still doing on my computer? You should have gone away when I ditched Vista 45 minutes after accepting this computer from the shipping company. Remember, The Eyrea is a Linux shop, currently using Ubuntu.

I rebooted the computer by using the correct power button, and got a GRUB 17 error. GRUB, in case you don't know already, is a utility that manages operating system loads. It comes with most home & office Linux distributions, because Linux understands that it has to play well with others. But now GRUB was broken.


I was in no physical state to take care of a broken computer, but in between lying down and trips to the washroom I checked out the Ubuntu Forums. This is what I learned: when I hit that button with the house on it instead of the power button, some ill-conceived firmware tried to install a bunch of stuff on my hard drive, even though I hadn't explicitly said "go for it" — I'd just hit the wrong damn button. It had created a new partition on my hard drive and made it the root. That's a lot of power for something with a benign name like "Dell Media Centre." Sounds like it would just play CDs and DVDs, but instead I'm stuck with a non-functioning computer. What gives?

Luckily I had a) my Nokia internet tablet and b) an old live session CD of Ubuntu lying around. the Live CD showed me that a 2.6 GB partition had been created on my hard drive, with an embryonic version of... Windows 95??? on it. This was scary, but the Ubuntu forums had answers.

Turns out I wasn't the first Dell owner to suffer through this, and I was able to find the exact solution I needed. Here's the link if you're interested. I had to download and install testdisk and follow that path to a resolution, but it was easy enough to do. If I'd been healthy, I could have been done in 15 minutes. As always, I'm grateful to the Ubuntu community. On my own, I probably would have taken a deep breath and reformatted the hard drive to fix things. As it is, I lost no data or config settings at all once testdisk restored things.


As easy as the solution was, I'd really rather not have this problem again. I'm backing up my files right now — I do that regularly anyhow — but once I know all my data is safe I'm going to have a look around the machine's BIOS and see if there's not a way to disable that button. No-one should have to re-do their partitions with a special utility just because they had bad aim one morning.

And now for the real rant part: I know this sets me up for the cheap shot of "you had a legal copy of Windows, why didn't you just stick with it?". I'd put it another way: if I'm running an operating system, successfully, on a computer for over three years, why should I have to worry that I'll hit the wrong button when I power it up? Linux supports every last bit of hardware on this machine — even though Ubuntu wasn't available as an OEM OS when I bought it, I made a point of making sure its specs matched those of the Ubuntu machines Dell sells in the USA. I shouldn't have to worry that some convenience add-on that was created as a marketing thing for non-techie home users would break my hard drive's ability to boot.

That isn't just a Linux/Windows/hardware thing. The same thing could happen if Microsoft ever comes out with a version of Windows that isn't 100% forwards-compatible for older software (like they already did when they came out with the NTFS format), or if I had greatly tightened the security on the machine — as is standard for machines used in the corporate world. Or maybe I just don't want Dell Media Centre installed. One button push should in no way have the power to wreak such havoc. Remember folks, this is a laptop: if I realise my mistake and try to power down before the worst happens, I probably won't have time. It takes a few seconds to get the battery pack out of this thing. That's not fair to users of any OS.

Postscript: I just looked, and the Ubuntu community spoke accurately — there is no way to turn off the Media Centre button. Looks like I better keep my rescue discs somewhere I can find them easily.

Dell, you've always been a good computer company to me, and very likely I'll buy my next machine from you anyhow, but I'd like to meet the person who came up with this design and hear a very good explanation as to why things were set up this way.

Postscript #2: I just found a link that confirming that if you get rid of the Media Center partition simply because you don't want it, and put Windows over the entire hard drive, hitting the button will wipe your root Windows partition too. So it's not a "Linux thing" at all, but a "hitting this button can cause scary stuff" thing.