Giving Ulysses another shot, post-subscription

After securing a 25% lifetime subscription discount, I bit and got a one year subscription to Ulysses, the writing app I famously said I would never use again after it switched to a subscription model.

I still really dislike a subscription model for a writing app, but for $36.99 per year, I’m willing to try it again…for at least the next 12 months. And I have missed it, as the app itself I still consider pretty faboo. I lament that the closest equivalent on Windows is a shameless rip-off. Nothing else matches its UI and interface, though some come close.

This, of course, means I’m committing to writing on my MacBook Pro again, though I am still no fan of the keyboard. I think I may be part-masochist.

And for home, I’m thinking of a better solution than the dongle mess I’m currently using, either a Mac mini or a Hackintosh. Time to ponder.

I am again defeated by Scrivener

I love Scrivener, or rather, the platonic ideal that Scrivener can represent.

The actual program inspires something less than love in me. I long ago adapted to its complicated, cumbersome interface and learned to ignore the long list of features I would never use. I write simple stories, I don’t need a lot of sophisticated tools for that.

I came to appreciate the Scrivener features I did use–easily dividing chapters into discrete blocks that could be moved around or removed, being able to set goals and see my progress (especially handy for NaNoWriMo), the corkboard for keeping track of scenes, and being able to set up my editing environment and have it complete separate from the compiling of the document. I realized I did not need the WYSIWYG approach of Microsoft Word and it was nice.

I’ve been thinking of doing a proper outline of Road Closed, then going back and properly finishing the first draft. I’d written the novel using WriteMonkey and earlier this year I took the time to convert it over to Scrivener. This is a somewhat time-consuming process as Scrivener would  import the novel’s entire text and place it into a single scene, from which I would then copy and paste the different chapters into their own Scrivener folders.

Now, my first mistake was using the Scrivener for Windows 3.0 beta. In November 2017 Scrivener 3.0 for the Mac was released, and at the same time the first beta of Scrivener 3.0 for Windows was made available. A final release date was never offered beyond “2018” and that, too, ended up not coming to pass, though it seems a release in early 2019 is possible.

All the caveats of using a beta apply, of course. And I already had the novel safely backed up and ready to go in WriteMonkey in the case of disaster striking.

Last night I updated to the latest Scrivener 3.0 beta,. with the intention of loading Road Closed so I could export it to the older Scrivener 1.9 format, allowing me to keep writing in a safer, more stable environment.

Except when I loaded Road Closed, all of the text was gone. The chapter and scene structure was preserved in the binder, but the actual story had vanished. I thought about why this might have happened for a minute or two. It’s quite possible–even likely–I had done something wrong. I considered my options.

And then I did nothing. Because I had a current version of the story intact and ready in WriteMonkey. I am not going to spend any time playing my own personal technical support. I’ll just wait until version 3.0 comes out of beta, then consider then if I want to invest in the upgrade.

This is not the first time Scrivener has gone sideways on me, losing or corrupting data, and if I keep using it, I would fully expect it would eventually happen again. And I emphasize once more, this may be my fault entirely. Maybe I just don’t get it.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I can’t trust Scrivener, or perhaps I can’t trust myself to use it, so I won’t. For now, anyway.

This irks me in another way, too, because last year I had what was close to the perfect setup, using Ulysses on my MacBook Pro. There were a few problems, though:

  • I came to strongly dislike the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard. Some people (tech writers especially, weirdly) love the shallow, clicky keys, but I ultimately did not. I ended up going to the other extreme on laptop keyboards by getting a Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1. This has one of the deepest keyboards you can get on a laptop. I very much like it. This is an issue for Ulysses because the program is Mac-only and Apple’s entire line-up of MacBooks now use the butterfly mechanism in their keyboards (my 2016 MacBook Pro is helpfully still eligible for free keyboard repairs for another two years, a testament to the issues that have plagued the design, even if you do love the keyboard).
  • The other issue was the decision by the developer to switch to a subscription model, which I have ranted about before. As much as I like the app, I don’t think it’s worth paying what amounts to the full purchase price every year in perpetuity.

But there is really nothing else like Ulysses out there. There are dozens of markdown and minimalist writing apps available on every platform and I’ve tried a bunch of them, but they all fall short in some way. The biggest issue for me is failing to support indents, something I consider crucial for writing fiction.

FocusWriter is lean and generally nice to use, but it’s almost a little too basic and its organizational structure is pretty bare.

The WriteMonkey 3.0 beta looks promising, but indents are still only a “might include” feature and the beta is moving so slowly I may be 110 by the time it hits official release. It’s a one-man project, so I’m not knocking the dev, just saying.

iA Writer has a wonderful minimalist interface, but it lacks indents and the Windows version lags behind the Mac version of features (even though the Mac version itself is not exactly feature-rich).

And on it goes, with other programs either getting abandoned, lacking features, not working well with cloud-saving (like Atomic Scribbler–though really, how can you develop and launch a writing app in 2018 and not plan for people wanting to save their work to cloud-based storage?) or just somehow not being the right fit.

It’s also possible I may be too fussy. Very possible.

For now I’m sticking to WriteMonkey 2.7. It’s getting old, but it still works and it’s pretty solid. It only saves text files, so the possibly of data corruption is pretty low (insert GIF of Jeff Goldblum saying, “Nature finds a way” here).

Now I just need to get back to the actual writing. One of my resolutions for the new year. Let’s hope it pans out better than my attempts to get my weight down.

Down the writing app rabbit hole again

I sat down at the computer tonight to write about…something. I’m not sure what, as it was one of those “see what happens when I start typing and find a funny cat picture if all else fails” sessions.

Instead, I somehow ended up doing another look at distraction-free writing software. Note this is distinct from markdown editors (which number in the millions now), though a program casn be both. Most of the apps I’ve tried before have been updated, though none with revolutionary new features that radically change or improve them. I didn’t see anything new that was compelling.

I continue to be vexed by the simple lack of first line indentation on most of these programs. This is a common feature in word processors–you’d be hard-pressed to find one without it, but official markdown does not support indented paragraphs. You want to separate paragraphs? You’ll hit the Enter key twice and you’ll like it!

But a few programs have included both. WriteMonkey 2.7 for Windows does. Alas, the author, busily working on version 3 (currently in beta) has said he will not be supporting this in the new version:

Right now wm follows markdown rules, i.e. Double return is new paragraph, single return is soft line break. First line indentation is not supported in wm3.

Sad trombone.

Ulysses supports both markdown and first line indents, but switched to a subscription model and is Mac-only.

Another sad trombone.

Scrivener has no problem with this and has a Composition Mode that is meant for distraction-free writing. And I’m okay with it, I just still have fears that the program will gobble up my text with no hope for recovery, having had that happen once several years ago (I’m willing to admit it in part user error and I know more now than I did back then. Still, it makes me nervous).

Having looked again at some others, I can eliminate the following based on my own peculiar needs and preferences:

  • iA Writer. An otherwise decent minimalist editor, it now has a Windows version–yay–but still doesn’t handle indents. It sort of supports them if you import or paste in a document with them, but that’s a clunky and unreliable hack. It’s a shame, because the program is fast and looks great.
  • WriteMonkey 3 (beta). As noted above, no support is planned for indents.
  • Q10 does support indents–but it only runs full screen and was last updated in 2011.
  • Quoll Writer has an interface that weirds me out. It supports indents, though I couldn’t find out how. Also, when I try to update it, it downloads the update and is supposed to install it when you exit the program, but nothing happens, so I dunno!
  • Typora. It supports indents, but only if you edit a theme. Kind of awkward and there’s nothing about Typora that makes it seem especially worth having to tinker with it for basic functionality. It’s not too bad, though.
  • Ulysses. Subscription model–boo. Mac-only. Also boo.
  • yWriter has an interface that scares me. I appreciate the depth it brings, but I’m not a fan of windows/frames all over the place. This is kind of like maximalist software.
  • FreeWriter has a paid version, so the name is a bit deceptive, though technically you can use the free version forever if you’re fine with the limitations. The UI is tab-happy and non-standard and sometimes aesthetics matter, even when it may seem less than rational.
  • Abricotine sounds like a medication or maybe a liqueur. Preferences are in a config file you must edit. Also no indents.

UPDATE: The author of WriteMonkey replied back to a discussion thread, saying there is still hope for a first line indent feature eventually: “It is possible. I received so many requests to allow first line indentation that I’ll do it eventually. It is not trivial to do it since changes to 3rd party libraries are necessary.”

Now onto the remaining contenders:

  • Scrivener. Pretty much does everything, my main concern as expressed above, is that I might lose work due to a saving snafu, especially now that most of the saves are in the ephemeral cloud.
  • GhostWriter. A markdown editor that sort of supports first line indentation. It allows you to set a tab as x number of spaces, and once invoked, it will continue to pseudo-indent every paragraph otherwise. Still, there’s not much support here for long form documents, so I’m not sure.
  • WriteMonkey 2.7. This is the current version and I’ve used it a lot without issue. My main concern now is it’s EOL and so won’t receive support if there are issues. It’s also a tad fiddly, though quite powerful.
  • Microsoft Word. There’s always good old Word, but I really don’t like not being able to see the plumbing behind the words, because it’s a mess back there. If the formatting goes awry it can be a daunting challenge to fix things. It can be run in a sort of distraction-free mode and headers can be used to act like chapters for navigation. Still, meh.
  • [unknown contender here]

In all likelihood, I’ll keep using Scrivener for now and see how it goes. The Windows version is still in beta but should be caught up to the stable Mac release sometime in the next few months (my hunch is the beta that will launch at the end of this month will be the final one before release. But I’ve been wrong a grabillion times before).