The Big Writing Decision, 2019 Edition

See this post for details.

Today is the day I make the decision on what software to use for my writing and the hardware platform for said software. Below is a partial list of the options.

Software:

  • Ulysses (Mac, iOS)
  • Scrivener (Mac, iOS, Windows)
  • WriteMonkey (Windows, Mac [beta only])
  • FocusWriter (Mac, Windows)

Hardware/OS:

  • macOS on a genuine Mac, either a Mac mini, iMac or MacBook
  • macOS running on a Hackintosh (PC built to run macOS on the sly)
  • Windows 10 on current PC or shiny new PC
  • Windows 10 on a new NUC PC (separated out from the above because it would not be used for any gaming)
  • Amiga 500 bought from eBay running WordPerfect 4.2

And the winner is…

mumble mumble mumble

No, really. The winner is:

Nothing. Nada. I am plagued with doubts at every turn and am still undecided. However, I said I would make a decision today and I’m sticking to that, so here is my decision of sorts:

I will resume Road Closed in Ulysses (Olde Version) on the MacBook Pro and when I work on it at home I will use the power of The Dongle to connect the MBP to the 24″ monitor and a keyboard that clacks in a pleasant way.

So this is decision deferred. I’m not sure I’m ready for a Hackintosh experiment, I still want to get an actual new PC, and none of the current Mac offerings are very appealing. If the $1399 Mac mini option was the $999 entry-level offering, I’d probably go for that, but it’s not, so YOU LOSE TIM COOK LOL. Seriously, I hope the blatant moves to extract as much money from buyers as possible (while getting increasingly shoddy with quality) bites Apple in its metaphorical ass. I don’t expect or event want Apple products to become cheap, just reasonable. They are not reasonable now.

And so, quasi-decision made, the writing journey continues. I will report on my success on that front next Friday, February 1st. Excelsior!

A haiku on writing little and writing late

Late and sleep beckons
Inspiration eludes me
Time for crazy dreams

Once again I have waited too late to get any kind of real writing done (it’s post-11 p.m. as I type this), and I frittered away another non-hour session by listening to the gripes and concerns of co-workers. Plus some chat about Diablo 3 because IT is, let’s face it, full of gaming nerds.

I promise to do better tomorrow. Promise!

The long way to not doing something (Writing Edition)

At least I didn’t wait until 11:56 p.m. to start writing tonight (it’s 8:26 as I type these words). I have been re-reading parts of Road Closed, my still-unfinished 2014 National Novel Writing Month novel. And I have to say, I rather like the parts that I’ve read. The story, told from the perspective of Christian Warren, a 20-year old alcoholic college student trying to right his life, is engaging, he’s appropriately self-deprecating and never comes off as “woe is me.” He feels like someone you could sit down and listen to tell stories. Which is good, because the whole novel hinges on him telling his story.

Road Closed has mutated a fair bit from its inception as a writing exercise based on a photo prompt. By the time it became a NaNo novel, I was writing it using WriteMonkey on a Surface Pro 3 (and on my home PC). After getting a MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar in late 2016, I found Ulysses and switched to writing the story using that. As Ulysses is Mac (and iOS) only, this meant I could only write on the MacBook, which was maybe not the best idea, given I still had my home PC at, well, home.

Then Ulysses switched to a subscription model and I’ve made it well clear what I think of that.

After that I moved the story over to Scrivener, which has the bonus of being available on Mac, Windows and iOS. Problem solved, novel finished, royalties and accolades flooding in.

Well, not quite. There were two remaining wrinkles:

  • My fear of Scrivener eating my work based on past experience where Scrivener ate my work
  • Disparity between the Mac and Windows versions. I upgraded to version 3.0 on the Mac in November 2017. At the time the 3.0 PC version had just released as a free beta, with the final release due “soon.” Now, in January 2018, version 3.0 for Windows is…still unreleased (they are now pretty sure it will ship sometime between April and June of this year). While the Windows 3.0 beta continues to be available to use, I am hesitant to put anything other than test material in it, mainly due to the bullet point above, with the bonus of seeing how much more likely beta software will eat my work.

So although the story is in Scrivener, I haven’t really done much with it. In theory this could change in a few months when the Windows version finally catches up.

But then I actually dusted off Ulysses on the MacBook (the earlier non-subscription version still works) and was entranced by its simple, clean interface all over again.

But as I mentioned, it’s now subscription-only and Mac-only.

And I started mulling over various scenarios:

  • Get a dock for my MacBook Pro to hook it up to my PC monitor and peripherals so I could use it to write on a larger screen (and with a keyboard that won’t jam up from motes of dust)
  • Get an actual desktop Mac. The choice here is simple: the Mac mini, because Apple literally has no other model that isn’t an all-in-one like the iMac, or horribly outdated, like the 2013 Mac Pro.
  • Build a Hackintosh, either using an Intel NUC (advantage: very tiny and can sit unobtrusively on the desk while my PC remains under it) or with something full-size that could also serve as a replacement for my current PC (probably not a great option for a host of reasons)

After this mulling, I realized what I had actually done was concoct a grand series of excuses that all led to one thing: Not working on the actual novel itself. Whatever software I use is just a tool. I had become the equivalent of a person tasked with hammering nails into a board and could not choose between three slightly different hammers, so the board remained nail-free and perhaps something sad or awful transpired as a result. Maybe a dollhouse collapsed. I don’t know. But dithering over what piece of software to use is not going to accomplish anything useful that I can see, unless the future completion of my novel somehow starts a chain of events that accelerates global warming or something, and the world is better off if I never finish it.

So consider this an addendum to my New Year Resolutions:

  • Pick a program and hardware platform to use for my writing, then continue to work on–and finally finish–Road Closed. My self-imposed deadline for this decision is Friday, January 25, 2019. Writers work better with deadlines, right? I predict great success!

We’ll find out in six days.

Addendum: This post was written on the MacBook Pro, hooked up to my 24″ monitor, using the CTRL keyboard and a Logitech Marathon 705 mouse. To get this working, I needed:

  • The Apple HDMI dongle. This includes:
    • HDMI port to connect to the monitor
    • USB 3.0 Type-A port to connect the receiver for the mouse
    • USB Type-C port for the power cable so the laptop isn’t running off battery
  • To plug in the USB-C cable for the keyboard directly into the other USB-C port on the MacBook, as it would not work on the USB-C port on the HDMI dongle

It’s not pretty, but it works and almost makes me forget how terrible the keyboard on the MacBook is. The setup looks like this:

Write something every day

That was one of my resolutions and these words are proof that I am sticking to it, if only technically. But give me a little time and the words will soon flow like some big flowing thing, like lava, but faster and less likely to incinerate you.

In the meantime, here is a kitten:

A certain irony

A recent email from Zinio–a digital magazine store–arrived and the enticement in the subject line rather suggests the person dispatching their mass emails might want to subscribe to Grammar Weekly*.

* It’s entirely possible there really is a Grammar Weekly magazine. I didn’t check, though.

This time I’ll really do it! (write, take photos, draw)

Or not. We’ll see.

What will I do? Parade through downtown in the nude? Don a wingsuit and glide down to English Bay from Grouse Mountain? Attempt to lift five times my own body weight? Pull a fire truck with my teeth?

In a word, no. I will do none of these things, for the following reasons:

  • likely arrest and fine
  • probably not physically possible, likely to result in devastating injury or death or both before possibility can be verified
  • would result in arms popping out of sockets or other less entertaining permanent injury
  • teeth would be really sore, fire truck would remain unmoved

But what I am going to try to do is at least one of the following on a daily basis:

  • write something
  • take a photo of something
  • draw something

The “write something” I’ve been pretty good with for the last few years on this blog, though the daily part slips occasionally and the quality varies wildly. I am in no danger of writing a Pulitzer-nominated essay is what I’m saying. But This one I’ve mostly got down. (We won’t mention my fiction writing. That is a separate and semi-tragic discussion.)

Since my kidney infection–which is admittedly a curious trigger–I’ve been more interested in taking photos of flowers and things and often catch myself observing angles and shots, even when I’m not actually taking pictures. I find it relaxing, engaging and possibly a tiny bit therapeutic, though I’m a ways from writing the book How Taking Photos of Simple Things Changed My Life and Made Me A Better Person. Since I don’t always have a ready subject, I can’t rely on a photo a day, but this will encourage me to look for more opportunities. I now also want a phone with some kind of optical zoom. That costs less than a thousand dollars. Make my dream come true, Apple (ho ho, as if).

For the drawing, I’ve wanted to do this for awhile but never seem to find the inclination to just sit down and draw. Part of it is fear of mediocrity–I was never especially great at drawing, though not awful, either. But to improve would take the kind of dedicated practice I’m unlikely to engage in, so I may have to content myself with artfully arranged stick men or something. Still, I do not lack for media–I have pens, pencils, paint (sort of–some dried-up watercolors tucked away in a drawer), sketchpads, plus technology like a Surface Pro 3 with pen, an iPad Pro with pencil and also my own uncoordinated fingers and smartphone (which I used to produce an apple).

In the end I’ll mostly keep writing, but I’ll try to mix in some photos and drawings, something every day. And maybe I’ll post these things to some social media, though I generally think all social media is awful and truly one of current society’s ills. Facebook is terrible. Instagram is owned by Facebook. Twitter is largely a dumpster fire of hate and misinformation. Maybe I could lead a revival of Myspace. Or local BBSes. A man can dream.

The first result will come tomorrow. What will it be? I have no idea!

I have a very large microphone, would you like to see it?

I decided to give voice dictation/speech recognition a serious try for my writing, to see if it actually works as well as its advocates suggest.

I didn’t want to use my gaming headset because I didn’t really want to wear a headset at all, if possible, so I looked into desktop mics.

I picked up a Blue Yeti USB microphone during Amazon’s Prime sale, both due to its sale price and its generally stellar reputation. I can use it for dictation, podcasts (if I had anything to talk about) and karaoke (if I want to annoy others and embarrass myself, or perhaps become the next Justin Bieber, except older, with better legs and fewer run-ins with the law).

This thing is gigantic. And it’s heavy enough to use as a weapon. A lethal weapon. But set up is dead (ho ho) simple and initial testing confirms it’s working just dandy. If I get some quality alone time this weekend (voice dictation is not something you want to do with others around, because it’s likely to bug them and make you look a little weird, to boot) I intend to give this thing a shot, probably starting off with Google Docs, as it has integrated speech. If I am convinced of its worth, I may move onto getting some flavor of Dragon Naturally Speaking (and how naturally does a dragon speak, anyway?)

From there I would also consider an app for the phone to record when I am out and aboot, or even get a digital voice recorder, which could later be played back into the appropriate software in order to transcribe my recordings.

It’s kind of exciting because it’s an approach I’ve never done before, but it could always be one of those crazy things that just doesn’t work for me, like touch typing, swimming or programming. I’ll find out soon.

Writing exercise: A Walk in the Snow (Part 1)

I vowed to write at least 250 words of fiction every day this year, so here’s the first attempt. I tried scouring some writing prompt sites but they left me feeling despair, so I just mulled things over, remembered how much I hate snow and the results are below (352 words).

This is the first part of what could be a scene, a story or a big budget Hollywood production. I can’t say when I’ll write Part 2. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. It’s a surprise.

A Walk in the Snow, Part 1

It is very quiet in the snow.

That’s how I hear the person walking behind me. I stop and a moment later the person stops. It is silent again.

I am walking down a service road that’s about two kilometers long. Its main function is to provide access to railway workers and park staff, but there’s little vehicle traffic on it most days. Tonight it’s covered in virgin snow and I’m up to my knees in the stuff after an early winter blast. My breath frosts in front of me, a steamy cloud that drifts up into a clear, dark sky and disappears.

I’m about halfway down the road, heading toward South Street, the main road that runs through my neighborhood. I live a few blocks east of South. I like telling people that, then watch their faces as they try to process it.

It’s bright enough to make my way without a flashlight. There is no artificial light here, just the stars dotting the black above and the snow shimmering around me.

I became aware of the footsteps–more the sound of someone pushing their way through the snow, really–a few minutes earlier. Twice I’ve tested by stopping and the person following has also stopped. It’s hard to escape the sensation that I am prey being stalked. The snow is just deep enough to make a quick escape impossible. The closest things to weapons I carry are my house keys and smartphone. I keep my breathing calm, knowing this person is probably close enough to see the puffs. Don’t show signs of panic. I gaze up at the sky, as if I’m looking for a constellation. Casual. Curious. Inconspicuous.

Maybe.

I resume walking and count one thousand one, one thousand two. The footsteps resume behind me, shushing through the snow. It will take at least fifteen minutes to reach South Street, where the road is plowed, the sidewalks shoveled and regular traffic passes by. It seems very far away. I strain to hear cars but it’s late and all I hear are my steps and the ones mirrored behind me.

(to be continued)

Pencilled in

This post was lovingly hand-written using my iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and the Nebo note-taking app.

Nebo converts the handwritten text to type on the fly and the accuracy seems pretty good considering l’m writing this in bed while the neighbors make strange thumping sounds upstairs.

All in all, I give the technology ten thumbs up and this post’s excitement level half a thumb up.

NaNoWriMo 2017, Day 30: LOL

Yep, with today being the last day of the month, it’s time to summarize my National Novel Writing Month effort this year and LOL is a pretty good summary.

I wrote 2557 words a few days in…for a different novel. Then my keyboard was stilled as I was overwhelmed by events, ennui, personal drama and The Rains (I read today that this November is the fourth-wettest since they started keeping records. The forecast is for sun to return next month. Then probably blizzards for the next three months).

In all, my effort was so minimal it’s difficult to feel disappointed. It’s like scolding yourself for how you placed in a race you never actually participated in.

Apart from this blog, my writing in general has stalled, which is not good. I’ll be returning to The Other 11 Months writing group on Sunday and seeing how it goes there, but if I am to write more I need to do it more often than just on Sundays. It’s not like writing is a religious experience for me.

But perhaps I should pray to the spirit of Harlan Ellison. Except he’s still alive and would tell me to stop writing nonsense on a blog and start writing a ripping good yarn by grabbing legal pad and fountain pen.

Tomorrow I’ll unveil my newest and bestest writing plan.

A tech nerd’s writing dilemma

Or what you do when your preferred writing application goes subscription-only.

I love playing around with software, so looking for a new writing program is kind of exciting in a geeky sort of way. At the same time it can be a convenient excuse for not actually writing, so I am determined to make a choice as soon as I can.

Now that I have eschewed Ulysses (see here for more) I need to pick another piece of writing software to use for all my writing needs and desires. The first thing I need to establish are the must-have features this software will have:

  1. Must let you type words into a computer and save them to disk or “the cloud”
  2. Must work on both a MacBook Pro and Windows 10 PC or more broadly speaking, it must work in both macOS and Windows environments *or* support a file format that is natively supported in both OSes without requiring magic or witchery to work properly.
  3. Must please me in somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined ways
  4. Must not require a subscription. Paid or donate to unlock all features is okay.

Now, let’s review the criteria:

1. Must let you type words into a computer and save them to disk or “the cloud”

This one is easy as literally any program except whimsical comp-sci projects will pretty much let you do this. This does not narrow the criteria down in any way whatsoever, so my inclusion of it here was simply to start the process with a little levity. A tiny smidgen, if you will. Moving on…

2. Must work on both a MacBook Pro and Windows 10 PC or more broadly speaking, it must work in both macOS and Windows environments *or* support a file format that is natively supported in both OSes without requiring magic or witchery to work properly.

This is where it gets trickier. There are some programs that work across both platforms and these are my preference. However, if I opt for a common file format such as text (.txt) then I can write in different programs and the actual work will be the same in each. The biggest downside to this approach is probably the mental shift required when switching off between programs that could potentially work very differently even as they ultimately accomplish the same thing.

3. Must please me in somewhat arbitrary and ill-defined ways

This category covers “nice to have features” that aren’t strictly required but in a way actually are. For example, the ability to set a writing goal is pretty essential for National Novel Writing Month and some of the major programs like Microsoft Word do not feature this, because they focus more on making the writing look pretty, rather than the actual process of putting the words down.

Other nice-to-have features would include:

  • focus mode (highlight a line/sentence/paragraph)
  • distraction-free options (full screen support, etc.)
  • easy to access word counts
  • ability to easily move around scenes or chapters
  • built-in support for cloud services like Dropbox, OneDrive or others
  • and other things

4. Must not require a subscription. Paid or donate to unlock all features is okay.

This is pretty straightforward, unless the chosen program does what effectively amounts to a bait-and-switch by changing their pay model after you purchase the software (as happened with Ulysses, which went from a traditional paid program to subscription). There is an increasing move toward subscriptions (boo) but enough options exist outside the model to allow me to steer clear of it for now.

With the criteria set, let’s look at the pros and cons of some candidates.

Microsoft Word

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS, iOS
  • integrates nicely with OneDrive
  • offers web version in a pinch
  • familiar
  • supports indents
  • .docx format is widely supported
  • has a full screen mode

Cons:

  • no options for setting goals
  • no focus mode
  • no easy way to move scenes or chapters (it can be done, just not easily)
  • the WYSIWYG approach can lead to fighting the formatting
  • no built-in support for markdown, though it will auto-convert some markdown to formatting, such as using asterisks for italics.
  • about the complete opposite of a Zen writing program

WriteMonkey

Pros:

  • supports Windows and macOS (Mac version is currently beta-only and not feature-complete)
  • supports cloud services for saving
  • supports indents (Windows version 2.7 only)
  • can auto-generate backup files to a specific location
  • supports distraction-free/full screen modes
  • has focus mode
  • allows you to set both overall and immediate goals, with visual aids
  • word count is always visible
  • many options to customize the look and feel, along with theme support
  • supports markdown and in version 3 offers good visualization of markdown in the editor
  • saves in simple .txt format, making it easy to load its files in other programs (this changes a bit in version 3 but is still possible there)

Cons:

  • Mac version is in beta and lacks some essential features, such as indents, meaning cross-platform support is not really there yet. The workaround for now is to use version 2.7 on a Mac running wither in Bootcamp or through a VM solution like Parallels.
  • UI is a bit fiddly and can be difficult to work around (I’ve gotten past this particular hump, though, having used the program for several years now)

FocusWriter

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS and Linux
  • clean interface without billions of distracting options
  • can save to .txt format for maximum flexibility
  • supports setting goals
  • supports indents
  • shows word count
  • customizable themes, including different wallpapers and sound effects for distraction-free mode
  • can save to cloud services without issue
  • will start up with the last opened document to allow you to jump right in

Cons:

  • no real markdown support, though it offers one tag as a divider to separate scenes or chapters
  • maybe a bit too Spartan

Typora

Pros:

  • supports Windows and macOS
  • supports indents (awkwardly, as it has to be implemented by editing a theme file)

Cons:

  • doesn’t offer anything that isn’t also available in FocusWriter or WriteMonkey
  • focus is clearly on technical writing, not fiction

Scrivener

Pros:

  • supports Windows, macOS, iOS
  • supports indents
  • supports goals
  • offers focus mode
  • offers distraction-free/full screen mode
  • shows word count
  • highly customizable
  • allows for easy shuffling of scenes or chapters
  • excellent community support
  • can easily handle large projects

Cons:

  • UI feels dated and can overwhelm with options
  • offers poor cloud support due to the way it saves projects as collections of files. This can lead to corrupt projects.
  • Windows version perpetually lags behind Mac version in development (though files always remain compatible between the two)
  • weirdly forces you to name your project before you can start writing

No indent support

As mentioned above, supporting indents is crucial for fiction writing because a dialog exchange between characters woulds requiring hitting the Enter or Return key all the time and looks weird, as illustrated below:

“Hi John.”

“Hello Sally.”

“How are you?”

“I am swell, how are you?”

“I broke the Enter key on my computer.”

“Oh, that sucks. How did it happen?”

“My preferred writing program doesn’t support indents.”

Both John and Sally cried and bonded over this horrible tragedy.

It turns out that a lot of markdown editors lack support for indents, which was one of the things that made Ulysses so nice.

Here are programs that might have been considered but are ruled out because they lack support for indents or are platform-specific or both:

  • iA Writer
  • Bear
  • Editorial
  • Pages
  • MacDown
  • plus about a billion more

The Big Decision

In the end there are only a few reasonable choices.

Choice 1: WriteMonkey

My preference is to use WriteMonkey because I am familiar with it and it has worked well for me in the past, despite some rough edges on the UI. The main issue here is the beta version works well but lacks any way to use indents, so if I’m writing on my MacBook Pro I need to use a different program that saves to .txt format or I have to use Parallels/Bootcamp.

As it turns out, I’ve actually set up Parallels and while the Windows 2.7 version of WriteMonkey works well enough in it, something about the arrangement makes me nervous. Still, this remains a viable option.

One workaround is to use FocusWriter when on the Mac, as it has a native version of the program. I’ve tested and haven’t noticed any weirdness when switching between files created in WriteMonkey and then edited in FocusWriter and sent back to WM again. FocusWriter doesn’t support markdown but it also doesn’t do anything with markdown in the body of the document, either, so it’s still there in WriteMonkey.

Once WriteMonkey 3 is out of beta this should be a much stronger choice but it’s being developed by a single person, so work is not surprisingly proceeding at a slower pace (the first public beta came out in September after a private beta that ran most of the year).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 indents

Choice 2: FocusWriter

FocusWriter’s strength lies in its simplicity and its native support for both Mac and Windows platforms. It doesn’t support markdown but perhaps because of this, it offers more fiction writer-friendly features.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 indents

Choice 3: Scrivener

I spent enough time using Scrivener, including writing NaNo novels with it, to learn most of its quirks and workflow. Then I stopped using it for long enough that I’ve forgotten most of that.

If you are simply typing words into the editor it’s pretty easy to use. It gets complicated as soon as you do anything else. The UI is bad.

The good news is its getting a major revamp to version 3. The less good news is that it’s not out yet, though the Mac version is expected by the end of 2017, with the Windows version coming in early 2018.

My biggest issue with Scrivener, though, is the way it saves files. By default it saves after two seconds of inactivity, which is nuts. This can be changed, but still, it seems like a recipe for introducing file corruption by invoking near-perpetual writes.

Along with this, the cloud support is very bad. It can work decently with Dropbox but people are actively told to steer away from OneDrive, iCloud and Google Drive. OneDrive is my preferred place to save things in the ephemeral cloud, so being told it’s not a good idea is a bit of a put-off.

I also lost a large chunk of a NaNo novel a few years ago when I botched the local/cloud saves while using Dropbox. This is mainly on me, but I felt it likely wouldn’t have happened in a different program due to the way Scrivener bundles projects into a multitude of files.

Rating: 3 out of 5 indents

Choice 4: Microsoft Word

The ubiquity of Word is probably the best reason to pick it. Its supported everywhere. You can probably run Word on your toaster now. But it offers few features for a fiction writer that are very nice to have. It lets you write the words and make them look pretty. It doesn’t do much beyond that.

Rating: 3 out of 5 indents

Darkhorse possibilities

There are some web-based editors that can usually work in offline mode if you lose connection (your work is automatically synced when the connection is restored) but I’m very leery of going web-only for my writing.

I could also just use a typewriter. No one ever lost a save file on a typewriter. The trick would be to find one. Plus I hate using typewriters because I’m not Harlan Ellison.

Finally, there’s always a notepad and pen. The very thought is causing my hand to spontaneously cramp, so no.

In the end it looks like the best candidates are:

  • WriteMonkey
  • FocusWriter
  • Scrivener

My plan, then, is to do some testing as follows:

  1. Write a small project in WriteMonkey 2.7 (Windows version) and edit it on the MacBook Pro using both the same version in Parallels and through FocusWriter and see if anything screws up and also if the workflow actually works. I’ll use OneDrive for saving in a specially made folder for testing.
  2. Create a Scrivener project in Windows and make changes back and forth in Windows and Mac. I’ll save in a specially made Dropbox folder (in theory OneDrive should work if the folder/files are set to be available in offline mode but I can’t be bothered jumping through this many hoops. I’m not a good hoop-jumper).

After the week of testing I’ll commit to my decision and go on to great writing glory. Hooray!