The Set Up

by veilwar

The actual writing of the novel has been surprisingly pain free, given that I’d been putting it off for almost a quarter century. Once I started typing, it came out at nearly a 1000 words an hour, which is a pretty respectable rate. What has bothered me though, is the lack of decent writing tools that actually do what I want them to do.

As of late last night I seem to have solved at least one aspect of my problem – the need to be able to seamlessly switch devices without having to worry about whether I’m working on the most current version. I downloaded iA Writer for both the iPad and Mac, which uses Dropbox for sync.  Dropbox, btw, totally rocks.

I’d been aiming for a stripped down writing interface – I don’t want to deal with formatting. I don’t want to deal with most things aside from typing. I didn’t want to use a full-featured word processor. As a technical writer, I fully appreciate the capabilities offered by this sort of tool, but have become increasingly disenchanted with them except for the very final stages of creating a finished document. I find that I do most of my actual writing for work with WordPad. So OpenOffice, Word, Pages – all out. There’s too much in there that distracts from actual writing.

Happily, there have been many apps released since the advent of the iPad that purport to be the perfect tool in this space. Unhappily, most of them are wrong in this assertion. The closest was Byword, which has an elegant, non-eye-straining page for typing. It does the full screen, block-out-all-distractions thing. It does typewriter focus, so your cursor doesn’t always end up at the bottom of the screen.

Yet – it used three different formats for saving files, each with different capabilities. When you fired up the app, if you hadn’t closed your documents from the last session, it opened them in new, untitled files. So if you started typing, Bam! you’ve got a new version whether you wanted one or not. And it didn’t have a companion iPad app, so syncing presented issues.

iA Writer was going for a buck on the iPad, so I had a what the hell moment and bought it. I quickly discovered that it is the best text editor I have yet used on the pad, and I’ve used a lot of them. Advantages: extra bar on the virtual keyboard with left and right arrow, left and right word (jump a word instead of a space) and common punctuation like quotes, dashes and parentheses. Clean typography – it’s very easy to read. (I only wish I could make the text a little smaller, so a little more could fit on the screen.) Word counts. Dropbox sync. Email as body or attachment. Very nice, I thought.

So, I sprung for the $10 Mac App. It doesn’t look as good as Byword, but doesn’t behave oddly. Syncs perfectly with the iPad app. The big type doesn’t look as bad on a 24″ monitor. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

I can now write on the computer, get up and grab the iPad and keep going.  I find it amusing that after 30 years of software evolution; and enhancements in infrastructure, networking and computer power; the very best writing app that I’ve found mimics almost perfectly the functions and behavior of a typewriter from 1950.

So that’s part of the problem fixed. The other part is organization of background material. For my novel, I have tons of background notes to keep everything straight. Lists of characters major and minor, notes on the locations, notes on the various entities and their capabilities, notes on things that the characters don’t and likely won’t ever know but which certainly effect how the story goes. Putting all this in, say, one long word file would work in the sense that all the information would be stored on my computer.

But it wouldn’t be easy to access. If I were careful, and did everything up with headings, I could use the document map sidebar to be able to easily see any one part of it. But often, I want to look at more than one part of my notes. I always want the cast of characters visible, so I can reference that, and usually one or more other things that are relevant to what I’m typing. Word falls down there unless I want more than one document, which kind of defeats the purpose.

And I haven’t found anything significantly better. Right now I’m using Ulysses, which basically organizes text files into bundles, with a navigator at the side. I got it cheap, and it works, but there is no good way to really organize the files. I’d almost be better having small text files in a folder hierarchy – but only almost. Its saving grace is that I can view two (and no more than two) of the individual files. So I can have my cast of characters and one other thing visible.

I’ve tried Scrivener, which is a little better, but not much, and I don’t want to pony up $50 just to see if it works a little better than Ulysses.  (Though they just upgraded to version 2.1…)  I’m tempted to see if I can make Yojimbo work – which I’ve used to keep track of clippings and receipts and the like. If I did make individual text files and dropped them into Yojimbo collections, that might conceivably work. And, as a bonus, all the textual material would not be in proprietary formats.

Aside from that gaping wound in my workflow, other bits have fallen into place.Sigil is a nice little app that creates ePubs pretty easily – and allows you to edit them if you discover some last second thing that needs changing. TextWrangler is a nice power editing tool useful for taking .txt files and making bulk changes and has a good search function. Finally, Pages makes nice pdfs if you’re into that sort of thing.

So, notes get dumped into Ulysses, and sorted as best the application permits.  That sits in the background while I compose in Writer, either in a window or full screen depending on my mood.  Once a chunk is finished, save a new copy, and create pdfs and ePubs with Pages and Sigil.  Rinse and repeat.

If anyone has suggestions for tools, I’d be pleased to hear them.