7/17/2015

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. 
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