Two simple things I like about Scrivener and Ulysses

When it comes to writing fiction (and specifically fiction), there are two things I like that both Scrivener and Ulysses offer that, perhaps surprisingly, very few other writing apps do. One is nice to have, the other I consider more essential.

  1. A list of scenes that can be re-ordered. Both programs show a list of scenes to the left of the main writing window, acting as containers for scenes/chapters. You can move them around in any order that you want. I rarely move scenes around, but having them visually laid out next to the main editing window helps me get a visual overview of a novel, a case where technology really does offer something you can’t easily replicate going old school with pen and paper (or typewriter).
  2. Indents on paragraphs. This might seem trivial, but hear me out! When I write blog posts like this one, I hit Enter (or Return, for Mac purists) and a new paragraph begins. This can work in fiction, too, though you’ll never see a book printed this way (it would add many more pages and drive up costs on paper books, for one). In paper books and their digital brethren, the first line of each paragraph is indented to distinguish it from the one before. If you use a typical markdown editor, hitting Enter will only start a new line, it won’t add a blank line (WordPress does not use Markdown and is coded to add the blank line automatically). You need to hit Enter twice for that. In fiction, you can have a lot of short paragraphs, such as when there is a back-and-forth dialog between characters. This means you are constantly having to hit Enter twice to properly separate paragraphs and avoid getting what looks like a wall of text. Ulysses cheats by using a modified version of Markdown that allows indents on the first line of a paragraph. Scrivener avoids this entirely by adopting a Word-like WYSIWYG approach.

I could, for example, use Obsidian, a free Markdown editor I am using for notes, to write a novel. There’s even a community plugin called Longform made just for this purpose. But there’s no support for indents, so I’d be doing the double Enter thing, and in my experience it breaks flow just enough to be consistently annoying. Maybe I’ll try again as an experiment on a short story or something, because there are aspects of both Scrivener and Ulysses I don’t like, so finding an alternative to both would be nice.

And for the extra-curious, here are some of the things I don’t like about each:

Scrivener:

  • Does not handle cloud saves well at all
  • Cumbersome, ugly and unconventional interface (yes, even on the Mac)

Ulysses:

  • No Windows version
  • Requires subscription (I think it’s a great example of how a subscription is great for developers while being a poor value for the user)

Again, both of these things may seem relatively small, but together they add a lot to make the experience of writing fiction a better one for me. And I really can’t think of other writing apps that offer both, which is kind of weird!

My own private NaNoWriMo

I came to a final decision regarding National Novel Writing Month 2022: I won’t be taking part.

BUT! I have also decided to go ahead and revive my incomplete NaNoWriMo project, Road Closed. It currently stands at over 70,000 words, many of which will no doubt be excised from the final draft (not to be confused with the software of the same name. Not that it’s not totally confusing to use a common term as the name of your software).

Since I am not reviving this as an actual NaNoWriMo project, I’ll be working on it at my own pace, which is really for the best, anyway. There’s going to be a lot of revision, and NaNoWriMo is definitely not built around revising your work.

I’ll have more on this sometime soonish.

NaNoWriMo 2022 sponsors: Pay now, pay later, pay forever

While looking over the list of sponsor offers for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I noticed a similarity among them: Subscriptions are dominant. Pay up, writer! And keep paying, forever! [evil laughter here]

Here’s a look at the sponsors that are offering novel-writing editors (ie. a text editor, but tailored for writing fiction):

DabbleSubscription
World AnvilSubscription or Lifetime purchase ($650 U.S.)
NovelPadSubscription
First Draft ProSubscription
Campfire WriteSubscription or Lifetime purchase (by module)
4thewordsSubscription
StoryistOne time purchase
ScrivenerOne time purchase

Monthly pricing starts at $4 at the low end and the high end varies quite a bit, but seems to be mostly in the $15-20 range. Interestingly, Novlr (apparently not a sponsor this year) sent out an email today noting that its pricing is changing, going from $10 a month to $18. Yikes. But you can now also write one full novel for free, so if you think you only have one book in you, you’re set! Otherwise, that’s a serious case of inflation.

Conversely, I got an email recently from Ulysses announcing a drop in price, from $49 per year to $39. They claim research showed it was their “sweet spot.” What does it mean that one company is jacking up their prices while another drops theirs? It may mean the same thing–both are underperforming and they’ve each taken different approaches to shoring up revenue. I don’t know how successful Novlr will be (I think even $10 a month is too much), but their new pricing puts them more in line with most of the subscription software out there (again, Ulysses and a few others being exceptions).

Now, I have previously established that I’m no fan of software as a service (SaaS), so I’m not going to rant about it yet again, just note that it’s a little depressing to see so many developers turn to it. Subscription fatigue is real, not to mention there are plenty of good one-time purchase options that will work just fine. Two of them are in the above list! Also, you don’t need to go full Harlan Ellison and write out your novel longhand on a legal pad, but Macs come with Pages, Windows comes with WordPad and both will allow you to write an entire novel. Want to go minimalist? Try TextEdit and Notepad instead. Notepad even has dark mode now!

The main thing is while these tools may offer nice-looking interfaces and handy tools, Steven Erikson didn’t use any of them, and he’s written like two tonnes of novels, at least. Stephen King has written probably a billion pages, only half of them being the uncut version of The Stand. Don’t pay these people a monthly fee, just write. Write write write. Spend the money on important things, like muffins and a really nice mouse pad.

Contemplating National Novel Writing Month 2022

Since 2009 I have participated in most NaNoWriMo outings, with a success rate of something less than 50 percent. It has been enjoyable at times, maddening at others, and has proven to me that one cannot wait for inspiration to arrive (not that I ever really believed that).

My last effort produced very little of note (and while I did enjoy my re-read of what I wrote on The Journal, I moved almost all of my creative energy back to drawing, rather than writing, so it remains unfinished, neglected but not unloved).

So here’s a list of pros and cons on participating this year:

Pros

  • Could be zany fun
  • If I finish, I have an entire novel I can brag about to people, maybe even real people
  • It would get the creative juices flowing like a mighty river after a huge storm
  • My typing might improve slightly

Cons

  • Would occupy a big chunk of time that could be used for other things that might yield more results, like:
    • Brushing my teeth
    • Reading other, already completed novels
    • Walking around
  • Maddening lack of progress would be maddening and also make me a little sad
  • Writing a novel in 30 days would probably produce a lousy novel
  • Seriously, I have no idea what I’d write. The pressure would cause an ulcer, or anxiety, or maybe some kind of rash

The outlook doesn’t look good, but you never know. We’ll find out for sure in just 31 days!

What’s the deal with note-taking apps?

DISCLAIMER: Technically, I am talking about personal knowledge management (PKM) tools, which act like your own little personal Wikipedias, and not just plain note-taking apps. My main purpose for using a PKM is note-taking, though, and I make the rules here! Am I using a hammer instead of a screwdriver? Probably. Read on, anyway!

I love fiddling around with new stuff. It’s why I have three mice sitting on my desk (computer mice, not the living kind) and a bunch more stored away. It’s why I have more keyboards than I could ever need in five lifetimes, stuffed into drawers and scattered about my place.

And it’s why I’m a sucker for a shiny piece of new software, which leads to this post’s topic: note-taking apps.

Even if you have absolutely no interesting in note-taking apps, you probably still have one, anyway, whether it’s Notepad on Windows, the Notes app on Macs, or some built-in app on your iPhone (Notes again) or Android device. They are ubiquitous. And now, with the whole second brain1Go ahead, try looking up what a “second brain” is. Your actual brain will explode. thing being the new hotness, note-taking apps have started popping up like bunnies. Note-taking bunnies.

I noticed that after expressing some interest in technology on Medium (via my preferences), it started offering me stories on note-taking apps. I believe there are roughly a trillion of these articles on Medium, which nearly matches the number of note-taking apps themselves.

I thought to myself, “Self, you need to be more organized, somehow. For some reason. You need a note-taking app that will let you consolidate all your notes in one place, so you never need to figure out where your notes are. This future of unparalleled organization will be awesome.”

It’s a good theory. My notes were previously scattered all over. I used:

  • Paper. Actual paper, like cave people used to do
  • Drafts. An app on my iPhone that can send to other apps.
  • OneNote. I kind of stopped using it a few years ago and I’m not sure why.
  • Microsoft Word. Because I had it, so why not?
  • Apple’s Notes app on various Apple platforms. Because it’s there.
  • iA Writer. Not really built for notes, but…
  • Ulysses. See above, plus a subscription. Ew.

There’s more I’m forgetting, and this was all before the current explosion of note-taking apps. Since then I’ve tried:

  • Craft
  • Notion
  • Obsidian

And contemplated a million others, while absolutely only positively ruling out a few, like Evernote, usually due to what I deem excessive pricing.

For a time I thought I had settled on Obsidian. It supports markdown, is free, can work between Mac, PC and (somewhat) with iOS (it really wants you to use iCloud for your “vault”). On (virtual) paper, it provides everything I’d need in a note-taking app and also has all the second brain stuff, like backlinks and things.

I feel like I’m grossly under-utilizing it by not making proper use of links (back, forward or any other direction), tags and other means of keeping things organized. I mean, look at this guy wax poetic about how useful Obsidian is. It makes me want to install it again right now!

While I’m clearly not tapping into Obsidian’s potential, I am big on bullet lists, because I love lists. So now, as I think about whether to stick with Obsidian or not, I wonder: Why do I take notes? The answer is in a list. Right below!

  • Track ideas. These can be ideas for:
    • stories
    • blog posts
    • game design
    • comics
    • drawings
  • General reminders (I have moved these to actual to-do apps)
  • WIP stuff on my newsletter (five issues so far, published very intermittently)
  • Book and movie reviews (that get posted to my blog, Goodreads or elsewhere)
  • Random tips and tricks, usually associated with tech
  • Everything that doesn’t fit into the above

And Obsidian has worked reasonably well here. I’ve added plugins to expand on what it can do. Look how organized everything appears to be (I have redacted a few items, but it’s nothing scandalous, like panda porn or something, just stuff regarding the condo or other personal yet banal items):

And yet I feel like:

  • I am underutilizing Obsidian to the point where I probably could just use Notepad, for all the difference it would make
  • Maybe I don’t have the kind of personality to connect the dots, or in this case, the notes?
  • Maybe I actually don’t have a compelling reason to use backlinks and I’m overthinking things, as is my way

But it all seems so useful. There are so many articles! I want to do more! Yet I am not feeling there is a yawning chasm in my life because I have only clicked a backlink maybe once in Obsidian, and that was just to see if it worked (it did).

Anyway, have a look, there’s plenty to choose from!

Labor Day 2022, or Labour Day 2022

A long time ago I had a dream to become a published author and I read somewhere that the biggest English-speaking book market is the good ol’ U.S. of A (this was before TikTok ruined everyone’s attention span and reading became quaint and/or gauche), so when it came to writing, the advice was to make your work as publication-ready as possible for the U.S. market, in anticipation of possible publication.

This led me to shunning my Canadian spelling heritage and switching the dictionary/language in various applications like Microsoft Word to U.S. English. I felt dirty, but also efficient and professional.

I had one story published in a (Canadian) Moose Lodge newsletter when I was 12. This was an actual newsletter, printed on actual paper. It was pretty thrilling when I was 12. This was the sum of all my publication efforts, and it was because the man who ran the newsletter was nice and wanted to encourage me.

But thanks to inertia and a weird need to be efficient, I have kept using the American spelling of words, even though I had long given up the idea of seeing my work formally published. Heck, I skipped National Novel Writing Month in 2020 and didn’t even feel guilty about it!

I am starting to lean back to switching to Canadian spelling. Sure, “labour” has one more letter than “labor” and with my typing speed, it makes a difference, but “labour” has character and flavor flavour. “Labor” has the blood ruthlessly drained from it.

Perhaps I am overthinking this.

I’ll ponder some more on this Labour Day, then make a decision, because I think that may have been one of my New Year resolutions–to be more decisive. Maybe?

Somewhere, Mavis Beacon is laughing at me

Yes, it’s come to this. I mistype the word “humidity” so often, and I’m now talking about it so much, that I’m now using the Mac’s built-in text replacement tool to fix my persistent misspelling of the word:

I will always regret not taking that typing class in high school. With real typewriters and everything. I wonder if schools expect kids to start Grade 1 as advanced typists now. “Todd, you can’t take recess break until you hit at least 75 wpm!”

Current humidity is 55%

UPDATE: It’s not working! Apparently the text expander doesn’t work in Firefox or browsers or something. I am sad. And full of typos.

An Inspire-d post

After referring to the possibly skeevy nature of the Microsoft Store app Inspire Writer, a fairly shameless Ulysses copycat, I noticed it had a 10-day trial, so I thought I’d download it and have a look. What could possibly go wrong?

The developer is Sunisoft, which describes itself thusly: “Established in 1999, Sunisoft is a developers tools software provider located in Zhu Hai, China. We are committed to providing more effective tools for software developers” (link). It apparently has fewer than 25 employees.

In terms of user interface, this is a straight-up copycat. You have the Library bar on the left, the list of sheets next to it, then the editor next to that. You can toggle these on/off the same way you can in Ulysses.
You can export to multiple sources, including WordPress, which is how I’ve made this post (I’ll edit this if it turns out to not work, and I have to post the old-fashioned way in WordPress).

EDIT: While Inspire recognized all of my settings for my blog (categories, tags, etc.) it produced a simple error dialog every time I tried to export this post to WordPress:
There is an option to configure a proxy, but I have not successfully gotten that to work (yet), either. I'll update this post again if I do. Also, dumping in the straight markdown from Inspire into WordPress leaves a lot of clean-up to do. The rest of my look at Inspire continues below.

It supports markdown, of course, and you can set it to sync across devices, mimicking Ulysses’ seamless use of iCloud. You can also choose any font you have installed on Windows for the editor, unlike some markdown apps that restrict you to ones that are deemed most appropriate. Want to use Comic Sans? You can!

You know someone will do this.

But there are differences.

Missing features

  • While there is a Dark Mode you can toggle on, there is no support for themes or styles. You get Light and Dark modes, and that’s all. In this way, it feels closer to iA Writer.
  • Some shortcut keys are missing. For example, there is no shortcut for bringing up Preferences. Mac-first apps often use the Mac Preferences shortcut for their Windows versions, which would translate to CTRL-.

Clumsier or simpler features

  • Like Ulysses, Inspire Writer includes a word goal you can modify and invoke by hitting F5. Unlike Ulysses, there is no way to keep the goal open while writing, since its dialog takes control of the UI. You do get a ring icon in the top-right corner of the sheet in the Sheets view, which can be kept open. To its credit, the ring fills dynamically and changes from blue to green when you’ve hit your goal.
  • The documentation is obviously translated, but it’s never difficult to understand, so I don’t knock it too much for this.

Overall, it seems to do all the core things Ulysses does, just without the same degree of polish, and with some “extras” missing. It seems to work well otherwise, but it still feels like it hews a little too closely to Ulysses’ UI and would benefit from breaking free a bit and charting its own course. Ulysses is a fine program, but it’s not necessarily the definitive word on distraction-free writing apps.

I am unsure on what I will do when the trial ends. I really like the way it matches Ulysses’ use of indents, as it’s so helpful when writing fiction and most markdown editors simply don’t include this support or require you to at minimum add in an extra key for it (like hitting Tab), which eliminates the convenience of having indents in the first place.

Why do I care about indents so much, anyway, you may ask. Let me illustrate.
Let’s say there is a scene where two characters are engaged in rapid-fire dialog, like this:

Bob tapped on the desk. “You see this desk here?”
Jim nodded. “Yes. It’s very desk-like.”
“It’s my desk.”
“Says who?”
“Says me.”
“You and what army?”
“The Swedish army!”
“I’m pretty sure Sweden doesn’t have an army.”
Bob sighed. “You need to see more of the world.”
Jim folded his arms. “Yeah? How much more, smart guy?”
“Twelve percent, minimum.”

Now, I was able to write that quickly (never mind the quality) because the indents happen automagically. In most text editors, I’d have to hit Enter twice after every line of dialog to get proper separation of paragraphs. I mean, I absolutely could do this, but having automatic indents is just easier. It’s the one concession to being Word-like that I approve of in a text editor.

All of this is to say, why is is that only a clone of Ulysses matches this feature among all the text editors I’ve tried. I was even hoping Obsidian would somehow have a community plugin that would mimic this, but I haven’t found one. It puzzles me, but maybe it’s a niche feature or considered “wrong” somehow.

Anyway, I will continue to tinker with Inspire Writer during the 10-day trial and render a verdict by the time it ends (curiously, it gives no indication of how much time is left, so I have no idea what will happen when the trial ends. Also, the app has only a single one-star rating on the Microsoft Store, and I’m really curious why).

Addendum: This SEO-y site lists a great big pile of alternates to Ulysses on Windows. I will perhaps go through this list in another post soon.

My two writing app wishes, July 2022 Edition

Wish No. 1

A Windows version of Ulysses or its functional equivalent. It would need to be fully cross-platform and have no subscription.

There is actually a suspiciously Ulysses-like program on the Microsoft Store called Inspire Writer from a publisher I’ve never heard of. I mean, it basically has everything I like about Ulysses–again, suspiciously so. Whether they were just “inspired” by the app, reverse-engineered it or just plain decided to copy its features and UI, it makes me feel a little skeevy even considering it. And it makes me lament that there are no other writing apps for Windows that are like Ulysses. iA Writer is a pretty good markdown editor, but it doesn’t work well for long form (novel) writing, and most other markdown editors are the same–excellent for writing blog posts and short pieces, but not much else.

Odds of this happening: Pretty much zero. The company behind the app is one of those weirdly proud Mac-only (except now also iOS and iPadOS-only) developers. Also a Windows version would totally have a subscription, anyway.

Wish No. 2

Scrivener fully supporting cloud saves and syncing.

Scrivener was never designed to work with cloud services like Dropbox or OneDrive, due to the way it saves (by default every two seconds!) and the way it handles files (each project is not just a simple document, but rather a collection of files that effectively appear as one to the user). They cobbled in Dropbox support when the iOS version was released, but the official word from their support is to stick to using Scrivener locally and use cloud storage only to keep backups of your work.

It’s good advice, because it’s pretty easy to mangle your Scrivener files if you keep one document open (in error) on Computer A then go to open it on Computer B. Trust me, I know!

Odds of this happening: Very close to zero. I think we’d have to see a complete rewrite of the application, or a different “cloud-only” version of it, and neither seems remotely likely at this time.

That word

HISTORICAL NOTE, April 8, 2022: This post was saved as a draft on August 18, 2015, but never published. I think I wanted the list to be longer. I no longer feel this need, so enjoy!

Words that don’t mean what some people may think they mean:

  • Bemused. It sounds like “amused” so maybe it’s a synonym. It means perplexed or bewildered.
  • Penultimate. Some may think this means “uber-ultimate”. It actually means next to last.
  • Arid. This one gets confused with arable (fit for cultivation) but means pretty much the opposite in that it refers to land that is very dry. Like a desert or all of California, for example.
  • Inflammable. This is perhaps the perfect example of crazy English. If you think it’s like invisible and thus means “not flammable” you’d be wrong because it actually means flammable. What does flammable mean, then? The same thing. Why? English! Actually, you can blame the Latin origins, which treat the words similarly.