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.


How to double your manuscript control in Ulysses

People are funny about computers. They use them day in and day out, often in quite complex ways, but sometimes miss the most obvious of useful options. One of these on a Mac is full-screen mode. It’s been around for years. With some apps it’s not much use because they work in one window only.

But if your app does the magic ‘new window’ trick, as Ulysses does, then you are in for a treat. I’m not going to show you any screenshots to illustrate this because really they’d all be the same. And since Ulysses is best used in the most minimal of fashions, as it is above, you wouldn’t learn much anyway.

So let me describe the situation instead and if you have Ulysses in front of you try it there.


A few more words about Hamlet

Hamlet-Prince-of-Denmark-A-Novel-NookI’m still a little shellshocked by yesterday’s discovery that A.J. Hartley, Richard Armitage and I are responsible for Audible’s Audiobook of the Year with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel.  I really had no idea any of this was on the cards. The first I knew was when people started congratulating us.

Reflecting on it now though I think a few more words are in order. I know people thank everyone on these occasions. But thanks really are in order. I couldn’t have even contemplated this project without the hard work and deep intellectual insight of my fellow author, Andrew (sorry — I know it’s initials when it comes to the author name but he’s always Andrew to me). I write from ignorance. Andrew writes from knowledge. I suspect that’s one of the things that made us a good pair since I asked the questions that elicited the right answers from him.

More to the point are the people who don’t often get thanked, especially the production team behind the task. Let me make no bones about it: taking Shakespeare and turning these classics into different dramatic forms, ruthlessly and with no fear of rewriting the original, takes guts. Audible went out on a limb when it commissioned our first Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth. It took an even bigger risk with Hamlet, a project that goes much further in playing with the original, inventing new characters and reimagining existing ones in ways no one has ever tried before.

Richard Armitage at work in the Audible studios

It was incredibly brave of Steve Feldberg, our guide in the creative team at Audible, to put such trust in us. Just as important when it came to finding the vital deliverer of the book — the narrator — Steve took a careful and painstaking approach over many months looking for the right person for the job. As we now know that person was Richard Armitage, who now possesses the book so confidently I simply cannot imagine how anyone else could have managed it.

We deliberately tried to push the envelope with this project and Audible stuck with us every inch of the way. This isn’t common in the media. Hamlet doesn’t fit into any obvious genre or marketing category, which may be why, even though listeners clearly adore the work, no publisher has shown any interest in turning it into a book. You can, of course, get our self-published ebook of the original now through all the usual sources.

So when I say thanks to Steve’s team… truly, I mean it. Without Audible’s courage we couldn’t have pushed the boundaries the way we did. Now all we need is a visionary TV company to come along and turn it into a six-part series. I have the perfect title by the way: Yorick. And kindly cast Peter Dinklage in the lead part.


Dream of Venice

Dream-of-Venice-CoverThere are millions of Venice-lovers out there. If you want a reminder of why people adore this unique city on the water here’s a book for you. Dream of Venice is a compendium of photos by Charles Christopher with words by a selection of writers and artists associated with the city over the years, from Woody Allen to Julie Christie, star of Don’t Look Now.

I’m delighted to be represented too with an extract from Carnival for the Dead, which is set entirely in Venice during the February carnival.

You can read more about the book on this site. I very specifically tried to capture the atmosphere of the city during a freezing February carnival, and spent a lot of effort there trying to get it right. Given that Venice is an unreal place at the best of times the idea of setting a story there when it deliberately tries to put on a show was a challenge I found quite irresistible.

Carnival isn’t conventional crime or thriller though. It’s what I think of as an entertainment — a toying with literary forms, false stories within false stories, designed to evoke the atmosphere of carnival itself.

Here’s a clip from the Dream of Venice’s Facebook page. I’m delighted to say I’ll be back in Venice next month for a week finishing off a new book. I seem to have fallen into that habit over the past few years — it’s the perfect place to work undisturbed. So the third Pieter Vos tale, set entirely in the Netherlands, will be completed in Dorsoduro.

And here are a few of the hundreds of photos I took while researching the book.