Ulysses (yes, again)

Okay, so maybe the last couple of times I got talking about Ulysses I was being a bit grumpy. I got some editing work in since then and thought screw it, and bought the desktop version of the app as well. And you know what? I quite like it. It seems a bit minimalist compared to Scrivener, but it looks nice and - like I think I mentioned last time - it's got an attractive layout that somehow prompts me to write. Is it better than Scrivener? Hell, no. But it's close, and if Scrivener hadn't been invented I'd have probably thought Ulysses was pretty great. But someone did invent Scrivener.

The thing that puts people off Scrivener - and draws them towards Ulysses - is the latter's simplicity. God knows I've known enough writers who seem to get severe techno-fear when it comes to computers that the appeal of something like Ulysses is clear.

Now that I have the desktop as well as the iPad version, Ulysses turns out to sync really nicely between the two machines. In fact, the iPad version only really comes into its own when used together with the desktop version. On its own, Ulysses for iPad is perfectly acceptable, but with a certain small degree of hassle that means it doesn't entirely get out of your way as you write. But these are minor concerns, and it's otherwise a genuine pleasure to use.

And that's what for many people gives Ulysses the greatest advantage over Scrivener at the moment: you can use it on the iPad.

Like many, I'm sure, I've discovered that an iPad paired with a bluetooth keyboard makes for a much better laptop than most actual laptops. It turns out that you can use an iPad for work, if the tools are good enough: and Ulysses is more than good enough. If you wanted to write on the iPad, you really, really couldn't do better than Ulysses.

However, I do still have a strong sense of loyalty towards Scrivener, having used it to write almost all of my books apart from the first two (and how the hell did I manage that?), and I really want them to get out an iPad version of their software and blow everyone else out of the water. And when it comes, I'm sure they will.

In the meantime, I'm gradually getting used to Ulysses odd-to-me quirks like the insistence on markdown text. I like that I can drag documents into Ulysses for OS X and boom, it's transformed into markdown; I'm using it at the moment both for working on outlines for future potential books and the aforementioned editing work. I was a bit annoyed at first by a fairly constricted notes panel (I write a lot of notes) until I realised they could be undocked. Even so, I'd like to be at least able to name the bloody notes, so when I look to the right of the screen I can find what I'm looking for immediately instead of having to scroll up and down for ages until I finally find the specific note or detail I'm looking for.

It's little things like that which keep Scrivener just ahead in the race. For some, its flexibility is a bug. It seems too complex. For me, that's what works about it. I don't use that many of Scrivener's features, but I don't notice them at the same time. If I one day need them, I can find them fairly easily.  Scrivener is flexible enough you can figure out what you want to do, and how you want to do it, and do it that way - as I demonstrated in the previous post. It's a serious working tool for novelists, for people working on theses, or on all kinds of documents. Ulysses is...more like Scrivener Lite, let's say.

Here's the best metaphor I can find for Scrivener's utility: it lets you see past the trees to the whole wood.

When you're writing, and you're deep in the guts of a book, you feel like you can't see the forest for the trees, right? You're there in the middle, and you can see the immediate detail, but getting a mental grasp on the whole picture can be difficult. But with Scrivener, with its multitude of ways of displaying information, you can in fact get very close to seeing everything at once. You can surround your primary text with all kinds of ancillary windows containing synopses, paragraph-specific detail, other chapters, notes, and so forth. You can move everything around until it's displayed in a way that suits you. Can you do that with Ulysses? A little, but not nearly so much as I'd prefer.

But it does look terribly pretty. And I wanted to be able to work on the iPad as well: my laptop, with its buggered-up keyboard, now sits on a Roost stand and I type on a bluetooth external. That makes my iPad my true laptop, for now. I still don't know if I'd be able to write a whole book in Ulysses, because I still have a sneaking suspicion once a project got complex enough I'd have to go back to Scrivener to finish it. But we'll see. 


Ulysses on the iPad versus Scrivener on the Macbook

I read a rumour somewhere online that the much hoped for Scrivener iPad application might still be a while away, and possibly not this year, as many were hoping. Well, shit happens, even to the best of us, assuming this is true: even so, Scrivener remains by far and away the best of the writing tools out there for people like me, by a very long mile.

But increasingly people want to write on tablets like the iPad, and in that respect Scrivener are playing catch-up with everyone else at the moment. I suspect there's a huge market out there for an iPad app of Scrivener, and a lot of people aren't going to think about the cost whatsoever once it does finally appear. 

I wrote recently about other apps like Ulysses and Storify, and found them wanting, for various reasons. I'd been holding off buying anything else until Scrivener arrived on the iPad, but I finally gave in and decided to get the iPad version of Ulysses, which I've previously tried on a limited trial basis on my Macbook.

To my surprise, the markdown aspect didn't bother me nearly as much has it had the first time around, and in fact I'm getting used to it. The app works beautifully - in most respects. It's all very swishy and pretty, and it makes me want to write, which is a definite plus.

Previously I'd been syncing Scrivener on my Macbook with another app called Textilus on my iPad, which has the advantage of being very cheap. But it, alas, has serious problems. Every time I plug in an external keyboard while using Textilus, half the text disappears precisely as if it's hidden behind the onscreen keyboard...except the onscreen keyboard isn't visible either. A recent attempt to use Textilus to work on some Scrivener documents was painful and distracting enough for me to think fuck it, and pay the money for Ulysses for iPad. 

I can see why people like it. I can see the advantages of the app, in that the files it works on are purely text files. There's not a hint of a proprietary format, which means your text files aren't going to be inaccessible twenty years down the line. 

But here's the problem(s).

The biggie is iCloud syncing. I cannot begin to express how completely the app's ability to sync with iCloud sucks. It's ridiculously bad. They've just introduced a new backup feature, but that only functions locally: if you lose or break your iPad, you're pretty much screwed when it comes to accessing those backups. I've just wasted the better part of forty-eight hours trying to get the damn app to sync with anything, and it just. Won't. Work. 

There is a way to save your information, however, but it means accessing various submenus. It's hardly the seamless, always-on background Dropbox syncing I'm used to with Scrivener. Because Ulysses...doesn't work with Dropbox. 

Go figure. 

But, when you're a writer like me, you like to try new things, because it varies up the workflow. And I do really like writing on the iPad, I find, even when my Macbook is right next to me. As I said in the blog recently, the more I muck about with my iPad air, the more I'm impressed by it as a piece of hardware, even if certain functions such as iCloud are ridiculously bad. I can't entirely blame Ulysses: the true blame, I suspect, is with Apple's bungled cloud software. But even so, for the kind of money Ulysses costs, you really expect better. 

If one thing puts Scrivener far, far ahead of its rivals, it's in multitasking.

This is what Scrivener looks like when I'm working on a book, most usually, as above, in fullscreen mode. On the left is the current draft of whichever book I'm working on. On the right and on top of everything else is a "quick look" window: this is a movable, resizable text window containing documents from elsewhere in a Scrivener "project". It can be anything: another chapter, other notes, whatever. I can also open up additional information such as comments, footnotes, synopsis and so forth in a little window at the bottom. 

Behind that, is an illustration of a bridge (some of the action in Extinction Game took place near a bridge, and I used this for reference). And behind that is the scratch pad. 

The scratch pad is pretty much what it sounds like - an in-app notepad in which I can create multiple documents saved separately from a book draft. This is where I just blast down anything that comes into my head as I work out the mechanics of a scene, or - more often - just cram down ideas where I can see them. From this same window, I can also launch a synopsis for a particular chapter or book, or keywords, or external web references, and more. One thing I really like about Scratch Pad is it always remains on top. Even if I switch to a Chrome or Safari, it's still there, which means I can take quick notes without having to switch back to the full application. Which is amazing.

In the main text window, some text is surrounded by a soft-edged bubble. This is an annotation - an in-line note that won't appear when I compile or print the document. Similarly, a sharp-edged box lower down shows where a comment has been placed, and displayed on the right. 

Everything you see in the above example can be moved around or resized. I can change the background colour. I can change the text colour. I can move windows around. I can move the current draft to the middle, or the right, make it narrower or wider. 

If I opt out of fullscreen view, even more ways of displaying information become available. There is, in other words, a wealth of strategies to place the information I need, right now, where I can see it all at once. It's as close as you can get as a writer to seeing both the wood and the trees, all at the same time.

Not to mention that the whole thing backs up seamlessly. automatically and constantly to Dropbox without having to think about it (I also have a paid CrashPlan account for the whole hard drive - never rely on just one method of saving an important document). 

This is an awesome level of functionality. I get why people might be daunted by it. Pro tip: you don't need to use all this. You can just use it on a very simple level. Nobody's bending your arm and saying you must use any of this. God knows, I didn't at first: but over time, I tried things out, or got bored enough to play around with settings, and gradually discovered there were many, many things I could do to improve my ability to both write and to clearly understand the context of what I was writing within the larger work. 

Now, I don't know what I'd do without it. 

So: Ulysses. It looks great. The markdown threw me at first, but now I actually kind of like it. But when people talk about keeping an app simple, so you can "just focus on the writing", that makes the mistake of assuming that writing is a process that travels directly to the screen, from the brain, via the fingers. 

Wrong. It's an accumulation of data, both invented and actual, merged together into a narrative. That data can come from reference works, from web pages, from Wikipedia, and sometimes, as above, you need to be able to see it all in front of you so you can work out the connection...and quickly write notes without having to switch to some other app and risk forgetting that carefully linked-together daisy chain of plot logic hanging on in your brain by its fingertips. If you're not used to writing the way I do, the above might look messy. It's not. It's perfectly aligned to my particular way of writing, and if your way is different, you can change it to suit. 

I've played around with Ulysses on the iPad for long enough now to actually find it quietly impressive, despite my reservations. But for really serious, hard-grinding novel-writing, Scrivener is by far still the best of the pack. I could see myself writing at least part of a book in Ulysses, but eventually I'd get to the point where I'd think hey, where is that web link? and wouldn't it be easier to see what happened in chapters two and three that explain why chapter four is happening, all at once on the screen? and why do I have to keep changing apps to check out that visual reference?

But for now, Ulysses at least makes a nice change. I can at least put together outlines in it on the iPad, and it feels nice to type in. Even if it can't sync for shit. But for doing serious writing, to a contract with a deadline? Not so sure about that. 


In praise of my Ipad

I'm back. I need your ironic glasses, your skinny jeans and your...fixie.

*Checks time machine chronometer, realises twenty-five years too late to terminate Sarah Connor, gets back in time machine, disappears*


I'm back! I mean, I finished a major redraft of the sequel to Extinction Game, which will be out some time next year. I've basically been welded to an office chair for the past couple of months and haven't really seen much of the outside world, and...

Oh yeah. My iPad. I can't remember when I bought it exactly. Just over a year ago? Something like that.

I think there's a kind of growing-in process with an iPad. You're not sure if you actually need one, but you like the idea of getting one. Because, you know, Star Trek. In Star Trek, everyone had some wizzy little tablet-looking prop (that looks unbearably clunky in retrospect) and whenever you tried one you thought hey, this is pretty cool, then checked the price tab and thought...maybe next year.

But things tend to be a little cheaper in Taiwan, so it made sense to get one while I had the cash. So I did. And I've talked about it before. But it's gone from being kind of cool, but do I really need it? to downright indispensable.

In the morning, it's my newspaper. I check Facebook, not just to see what friends and other writers are up to, but to check various newsfeeds plugged into the service. I read the Guardian, a couple of online magazines. I could use my laptop, but I don't want to get milk and coffee all over it. I could use a phone, but who the hell wants to eat one-handed?

In the afternoon, it sits next to the Macbook. I use it a lot for checking online resources because, frankly, it's faster than the Macbook. It has a flash memory, an attribute it shares, so far as I understand, with the current iteration of the Macbook Air, which Emma has. And that's a whizzy little beast itself. That flash memory means what I want to get just pops up. Often, I don't need to even type anything: I just tell it to open Google, then use the voice-activated search which works really terrifyingly well.

It's also my TV a lot of the time. I've been using Netflix and BBC using a VPN service, and it's terrific. I watch when I'm having my lunch, or stick it on top of the fridge to catch the UK news when I'm doing the dishes.

It's a games machine and a comic reader. Granted, I don't play that many games any more, and I don't read that many comics primarily because of the cost and because I won't pay serious money for anything with DRM on it, but still. I have become a touch immersed in Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and I'm still working through a bunch of graphic novels I got from HumbleBundle.com.  They look great on my iPad.

And it's fast. Fast. It's wonderful using a machine that responds more or less instantly while my Macbook grinds its way noisily through a process, and I am forced to watch that little spinning blue ball until it finally does what I damn well want it to.

I even use it to work on, most usually with a bluetooth keyboard. I could use my laptop, sure, but I killed one of the keys through sheer overtyping the last couple of years, and the Macbook now lives, more or less permanently, on top of a Rooster stand, and I now type using the same Mac bluetooth keyboard I use with the iPad. Now, if I want to move about, or even go outside, I have the iPad to work on.

And that, interestingly enough, is where the iPad - or indeed many tablet computers, by their very nature - are possibly superior to the laptop as we currently know it. The things that go the most wrong with laptops in my experience are either the keyboard, the trackpad, or both. Those, after all, are a person's primary points of contact with a computer of any type, and hence are the ones most likely to be affected by wear and tear...at least, they are if you're a busy working writer.

And because the average laptop, whether Mac or any other flavour, is a fully integrated device, you can't easily swap one part for another the way you can with a desktop. With a desktop, all you need to do with regards to a faulty keyboard, mouse or screen is buy a new one.

To me, ultimately, tablet/laptop hybrids are the way to go in the future, for economic reasons as much as anything else. By separating the tablet from the trackpad and/or keyboard, you create the possibility of replacing parts that are relatively cheap to replace. I can't do that with my Macbook. I can with my iPad. Having a separate or detachable keyboard creates an extra layer of versatility that a fully integrated device lacks.

Most recently, because of the inherent vulnerability of the keyboard and trackpad on integrated machines, I've been considering that in the nearish future instead of using a Macbook to work on, as I have for a few years now, I might switch back to a Mac Mini with separate monitor, keyboard and trackpad, but also have an iPad with a good quality keyboard and/or cover for when I want to be on the move.

In fact, the primary reason I haven't already done that is because you can't get Scrivener on the iPad. Yet. But it will be released sometime this year: the iPad version is currently undergoing testing and the minute - the second - it becomes available on the iPad, I'm buying it. And when it does become available, the iPad, as much as a good laptop, stands a very good chance of becoming indispensable as well for a good many writers.