January 17, 2006

GhostWriter: A Linux distro for writers

Author: Scott Nesbitt

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


  • Linux