Web/Tech Writing

Dark mode in Ulysses… yes it works

I’m a big fan of writing full screen with no menus, no distractions, nothing but text and any ideas or notes I want included. But dark mode? You get it in lots of apps these days and frankly I always thought it was a gimmick.

Then, while struggling with something in a hotel room, I thought I’d try it. Tip: with Ulysses the nature of the mode depends on the theme you’re using. This one is Freestraction.

And actually. I love it. I’m sure I’ll switch back and forth from time to time. But for a quick way to get a fresh look this is hard to beat. You can move between the two very easily using the keyboard shortcut Command-Opt-L.

Here’s the same thing — a scene heading, a brief synopsis and a couple of lines of opening text — in normal light mode.



Introducing The Flood… a story set in Florence

The FloodThe Flood is my first Italian novel in a while. Published by Severn House (and by them in October in the US) it’s not part of the Costa series though, like those books, it’s very much set in an atmosphere of art and history, in this case in the city of Florence.

It’s a departure from my usual habit of setting stories over narrow time periods. The book begins in Rome in 1942, where a young Jewish boy is about to be smuggled out of the city to escape the authorities. Later it moves between Florence in 1966 and the same city twenty years later. In that last, most prominent period, an ailing and eccentric Carabinieri maresciallo, Pino Fratelli, finds himself with an interesting and awkward English lodger, Julia Wellbeloved. Julia is fleeing a failed marriage and trying to find a new life as a student of art. Pino… well, we’re not quite sure what he’s up to.

There’s an attack on some real-life works of art in the Brancacci Chapel. Pino thinks they are much more serious than the authorities seem to realise, and draws Julia into the search for the truth behind them. Cue our entry into the history of Florence, a bloody and hedonistic heritage that has worked its way down to the present day.

Key to the narrative is a section set in 1966 when the city was devastated by an appalling flood, one which cost lives and changed its face in ways which are still visible today.

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, San Marco, Florence
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, San Marco, Florence

Where did this story come from? The same place as most of my work. From mooching round the real-life Florence and thinking what kind of tales might lie behind its ancient and, in the case of this Tuscan city, rather forbidding stones. Some of the things I noted at the time…

  • Throughout twenty first century Florence you’ll find signs, high up on walls, saying (in Italian of course) the great flood of 1966 reached here.
  • Florence is quite unlike Rome in nature, which is one reason I thought a Costa book might not work there. Rome is showy, extravagant, outward-looking, keen for the world to see its beauty. Florence hides its treasures from the masses behind ugly rusticated walls, like those of the Pitti Palace. It’s more militaristic and more obsessed with enforcing its power.
  • The centre of Florence, while interesting, is terribly overloaded with tourists. And there are far more interesting quarters elsewhere, such as Oltrarno, across the river, and Sant’Ambrogio with its wonderful local market.
  • While all the tourists head for the Uffizi and queue to see the statue of David, some of the most moving paintings in the city can be found in a place they rarely visit, the former convent of San Marco with its wonderful works by Fra Angelico.
  • San Marco was also the home to Savonarola, an extraordinary monk-cum-politician who came to a sticky end slap bang in the centre of Florence outside the Palazzo Vecchio. If you want to know where the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones came from… he’s your man.
  • It would be great fun to write a story in which the characters were constrained by a lack of technology. No computers. No mobile phones. Yet a world that was still recognisably modern. Say in 1986…

I was part way through this book, in Florence on another bout of research, when the email came through asking me to write the adaptations of The Killing. This was an offer too good to resist. So I put Pino and Julia to one side and headed for Copenhagen, and almost three years spent in the company of Sarah Lund.

After that I looked at The Flood again and decided to finish it. The book first came out in audio, narrated impeccably as ever by Saul Reichlin. The Times said of it, ‘The pace is leisurely at first: two small boys separately traumatised in childhood, an ailing retired detective combining forces with an attractive English art historian to solve a mysterious assault on the famous Adam and Eve fresco in the Brancacci Chapel, Florence. But soon historic floods, gruesome murders, orgies, corruption on high and the Red Brigade are skilfully knitted together with abused Renaissance works of art into an accumulation of dread that will have you shrieking, “Don’t go there” to our heroine. She does, of course — and you can’t skip to the end to lessen the tension.’

But I always wanted it to be a book too, so here it is, somewhat revised from the audio version thanks to those splendid editors at Severn House. Florence is a rich, dark mysterious place, and I very much wanted this story to reflect that. In a way it’s a portrait of this extraordinary city, a tale in which Pino and Julia find themselves swept up by its history and culture until the heavy weight of the past threatens to drown them, much as the flood of 1966 swept over Florence itself, and took something very precious from Pino.

I hope you enjoy it. And perhaps one day I’ll be back in Florence trying to work out what happened to this unusual pair. Here are a few of the photos I took while researching this book. If you’re headed for Florence makes sure you look out for the famous tripe stall.


Using Kindle to proof a manuscript

Here’s an idea. How great would it be if you could mark up a manuscript in Kindle and use that as your final proof before delivery? And by Kindle I don’t mean just the Kindle hardware, but also the Kindle app across different devices — say putting in notes on your Android phone then seeing that selfsame stuff on your iPad for the final corrections?

It can be done (though there are limitations). Here’s how — you will need a Kindle account that has document upload facilities, which means you must at some stage have bought a hardware Kindle.

  1. Learn how to upload a Word document to Kindle. The easiest way is to use your Kindle email address for your individual device, be it Android or iPad. More on that here. 

  2. Kindle will convert the file into an ebook which you can read like any other. Then use Kindle’s simple annotation tools — colour highlighting and note insertion — to go through your manuscript.

  3. Work on the device you want. I just revised a manuscript on a plane using a small Samsung tablet. When I got to my destination I synced my iPad Kindle app and the same annotations are immediately there. I can switch between the two devices at will and they will stay in sync.

For me this is very much a final pre-delivery read through. I much prefer to do heavier revises using paper or a pen-enabled tablet since I will be scrawling lots of things on the page. But using Kindle lets you read your manuscript as if it were a published book — which is a great way to spot small things. And Kindle’s annotation tools are fine for that.

The one limitation I’ve spotted so far is this syncing only works for me between Android and iPad devices. For some reason you don’t seem to be able to send documents to the Kindle app on the Mac. I think the Kindle Windows app is similarly crippled but I could be wrong (don’t have it).

All the same… I like this. It means I see the work in book form and I can read and annotate pretty much anywhere. When it comes to handling the final corrections all I’ll do is set the iPad next to the Mac and go through them page by page.

Web/Tech Writing

Ulysses gets even better… and an iPad app too

A new version of Ulysses is out today, a free update that makes what in my opinion is the best Mac fiction app even more amazing. Along with it comes a brand new companion iPad app, for $19.99. I’ll be revising Writing A Novel with Ulysses some time over the next week to reflect these changes, with a new chapter devoted to the iPad app. It will be a free update — just make sure you’re set up to receive them from your preferred ebook vendor.

AttachmentsI’ve been working with betas of both Mac and iPad versions for the last couple of months. The changes to the Mac version are wonderfully subtle, making it both easier to use and a touch more powerful too. I’ll cover them in more detail in the coming ebook but you can see one of my favourites here.

There’s a new panel that contains goals, keywords, notes and images for a sheet (or scene if you’re writing a novel). You get this using Command-4. So now you can effectively manage a whole project through four simple keystroke combinations. Command-1 takes you to your entire Ulysses library. Command-2 shows you the project part you’re working on. Command-3 is your main writing screen for an individual sheet — that glorious nothing-but-the-words view that makes Ulysses so productive. And with Command-4 you can get a quick glimpse of notes, statistics, keywords and any images you want attached.

It’s incredibly quick and very useful too. There’s more to the update than this, including a visual refresh to match Yosemite, but I’ll leave you to discover those delights for yourself. I’ve been using the beta so long now that to be honest I’ve forgotten what the previous version was like. But that Command-4 idea is probably the main new thing you have to learn. The rest of the changes are subtle improvements to routines you probably know already.

Now to the iPad app…

I have to be honest and say… I never really regarded the iPad as a proper writing tool. It is now — and a fantastic one. What’s really surprised me, though, is that Ulysses for iPad has actually extended the way I develop a project. This isn’t simply Ulysses for the Mac recreated on a different platform — though it is that as well. The app offers a new and very efficient way to write and edit easily and quickly on the move.

Here’s the first good news… if you know how to use Ulysses on the Mac, you know how to use it on an iPad. There are a few differences — OS X is not iOS. But they’re not huge and they are likely to diminish as Ulysses on the iPad matures. Here it is in action.

iPad app

The look is pretty much identical to Ulysses on the Mac. The command keys you use to hide and show the sidebars are replaced by simple two finger swipes to the left and right. If you hook up an external Bluetooth keyboard, though, you can use the command keys there just as you can on the Mac. Set up iCloud and your work will sync automatically. Just choose the sheet you want to work on and start typing.


I’ve never been a great fan of typing on the iPad but Ulysses has changed my opinion. This is very good for writing thanks to an extended keyboard. The best way to learn what this does is to play with it. First, get used to the very handy way it offers for moving through text. Just swipe right and left in the space bar and the cursor moves through your words. This is much easier than trying to click on the screen. There’s a configurable word count on the left followed by shortcuts above the letter keys for adding markup and common punctuation. The iPad won’t put smart quotes into text automatically but there’s a handy smart quote feature on the keyboard, for single and double quotes. When you need a smart quote just click that instead of a conventional keyboard character and it will generate the right one. You can also search within a sheet and add notes, keywords and images (though not goals).

You can tweak some features, such as the space bar sweeping and autocorrect, in the preferences available through the cog in the right hand corner. But I suspect the way they come out of the box will be fine for most of us. The best thing to do is just pick up your project from iCloud, choose the sheet you want to work on, hit the full screen button which is the first icon top right and get to work.

The app and its Mac equivalent also work with Apple’s Handoff feature which allows you to ‘hand off’ a file you’re editing on one device to another. This may be quicker than waiting for iCloud to sync though you need to set it up and have Bluetooth turned on. You can find the instructions for managing all this here.

There’s a bit more to be said than this but I’ll save that for the updated ebook. The short of it is that the iPad app is a true version of Ulysses that can handle the same projects you run on your Mac without any conversion or manual syncing. I’ve found it invaluable though not in the way I expected. Yes, it does turn the iPad into a kind of small laptop, especially if you hook up an external keyboard. For writing on the move it is a great MacBook Air alternative.

But it’s also more than that. I’ve found I’ve spent more time using it without an external keyboard, for revision not for writing. Without a keyboard you’re restricted to just a few lines of text from your manuscript. This means you look at them more closely than you tend to do on a desktop with a full page of type in front of you.

Seen this way, sentence by sentence, you get a closer focus on your work. I soon fell into the habit of carrying out an evening revise of something I’ve written through the day (occasionally, I have to admit, on a hotel bed). You spot little things you’d miss otherwise. The fact you’re reading your work in a different way reveals flaws that might otherwise be missed.

Congratulations all round to the visionaries at The Soulmen. They’ve turned the iPad from a toy into an incredibly powerful writing tool. One that’s instantly usable by anyone who knows Ulysses already. This is the best thing I know for writing on a Mac, a marvellous combination of power with simplicity. Love it…

You can download the iPad app for $19.99 here.

Ulysses costs $44.99 on the app store here.

You can browse my past posts on Ulysses here.