Web/Tech Writing

So how do you start a book?

Arnold Clover 2 is delivered (hope it works). Finishing a book is always a funny time for me. I’ve been obsessed with one particular project since starting it in January. Now it’s gone I always feel a little deflated. It’s hard to go from dealing with a list of complex characters, locations and events on a daily basis to looking at a blank screen.

Inevitably, I begin to think… what next? How do I start the book that follows?

First things first. I do not start writing into a blank page. If that works for you, fine. Not for me. Neither am I the sort of highly efficient writer who can sit down and outline a whole story from beginning to end then fill in the blanks. What I need before I begin is some idea of direction, of structure, of the kind of book I’m trying to write. A framework, I guess.

Web/Tech Writing

Revising on the Remarkable tablet … an update

I wrote here recently about the Remarkable 2 tablet, an unusual device that I bought for revising a manuscript, a replacement for those 300-page printouts I used to use for going through drafts of a book.

Now I’m a long way through the process so I thought I’d bring you news on how it’s going. In short… wonderfully, with one reservation. This is turning out to be everything I’d hoped, though there are some tweaks required to make it perfect as I’ll explain.

The best part? The fact this thing does so little. You can tuck yourself away in a corner and be guaranteed you’ll want to do nothing but read and scribble away with annotations. Remarkable doesn’t do apps or online social media. You load up your book, you write on it, then, when you’re ready, you go back to your desktop and laptop and deal with the corrections. Perfect…

Here’s the workflow I’ve come up with. First, you need an epub file of your book. I write in Word so that means converting the file in the popular free ebook app Calibre.

Then you upload your epub to your Remarkable, either through the web interface (easy) or the Connect app if you’ve signed up for a Connect subscription. The book will then appear on your Remarkable looking like a proper ebook.

Next you tweak the font, size and page layout to the design you want. And after that you can start going through it page by page and scribbling your notes. As I mentioned before, it’s important to set the format before you start annotating. Change that later and the annotations won’t be in the right place.

After that you bury yourself away somewhere — a corner, the garden since this works outside — and scribble away. You could revise the whole book then go back to the manuscript and handle the edits. I prefer to do it chapter by chapter. I think I might lose a few threads if I tried to handle the work — all three hundred and sixty odd pages of it — all in one go.

Now how do you handle the business of matching the scribbles on your Remarkable with the Word file (in my case) on the PC? Here’s where it gets interesting.

You could simply park the Remarkable on a stand next to your computer and go through it like that. But the Remarkable is a mono device. I like seeing revision marks in red. It’s easy enough to set up the Remarkable to produce these but in order to see them you need to view them through a colour screen.

The obvious way to do this is through the Connect app that comes with a Remarkable subscription. You can have this in half the window with your Word file in the other half. Or pull up the revise through Connect on an iPad or Android tablet.

Here is where the only glitch in the system I found appeared. After thirty pages so I opened up a new revised chapter ready for the rewrite only to notice some marks were missing on the Connect view of the Remarkable script. They were there on the Remarkable, gone on Connect. This was sporadic and quite unpredictable. If I went back to the pages again and scribbled on them the new marks would then appear, but still not the old ones. Which is pretty useless for the job in hand.

I talked to Remarkable’s support who had no solution to offer. Epub files, it seems, are temperamental and not a fixed format, which may or may not be a problem. I’ve no idea but it’s clear the Connect apps, on Windows, Android and iPad, cannot be relied upon to reproduce all your edit marks reliably from an epub document.

Happily there’s a simple fix. Use pdf for the markup instead of epub. So my new routine is this. Import the epub into the Remarkable and get it into the font, layout and general format I want. Then export that to pdf and import the resulting document into the Remarkable for markup. It looks just the same as the epub — like a book — and the marks you make will come through very reliably either in Connect or another pdf app on your computer.

You could, I’m sure, manage all this without paying for a Connect subscription by emailing the pdf export to yourself and importing that back into the Remarkable.

It’s an extra step and I really think the Connect app should be more reliable for people paying for a monthly subscription. Perhaps a future update will fix this. But the pdf trick works perfectly and I’m still, I have to say, absolutely delighted with this printer replacement for tweaking my book.

Web/Tech Writing

Proof reading on the Remarkable 2

There’s an important update to this article for anyone trying the Remarkable. Please read after this post.

I’m about to start work on one of the regular tasks every author faces: revising a final manuscript before submission. Doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are — sci-fi, non-fiction, technical academic — revision is an essential part of the process. That last five per cent of polish can make all the difference.

I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve developed certain habits about revision. The first is understanding that it’s different from rewriting. You rewrite at the computer, line by line, viewing your manuscript as an author. Revision, for me, is a reading and annotation exercise. That means it has to happen away from the work desk and in a format the reader will finally see — that of a finished, typeset book.

The usual way I achieved this was printing out the whole manuscript in book format — either from a template or using Word’s less accurate two-page up setting — and vanishing to an armchair with a red pen. This is quite an exercise with a 300-page book. Managing all that paper is a pain and taking it with you while travelling impractical in the extreme. In recent years I’ve been uploading my Word file to Kindle and proofing it there. This works pretty well. Your manuscript looks like a book. You can highlight passages and insert bookmarks and notes. These sync through Kindle so you can view them on other devices and through a browser.

But… this is not as intuitive as scribbling on a sheet of paper with a pen. Kindle currently doesn’t recognise as a stylus. The few ebook readers that do only allow you to scribble on the tablet in my experience — there’s no way of exporting your annotations. This doesn’t work for me.

Enter something called Remarkable 2, a very thin, very light e-ink tablet with extraordinary battery life. Something that promises to give me all the revision power of paper and ink but instead of making me print out hundreds and hundreds of pages does the job in a single, compact package.

This isn’t a full review of Remarkable. Lots of places to look elsewhere for that. All I want to know is will it let me dump the printer for good. So…

What is it?

In a world of pen-driven iPad and Android tablets, Remarkable is unique. It runs on its own OS and its big selling point is how little it can do, not how much. While the competition offers app stores and endless countless add-on purchases, Remarkable is a pared-down tablet dedicated to scribbling on digital paper alone.

There are no apps, no audio, no browser. When you head off to the armchair with this there’s no chance you’ll get distracted by Twitter because it simply isn’t there. You’re alone with your work and a digital pen. And since this is an e-ink screen and a pen it feels very much as if you’re writing on paper, not a tablet. Even to the extent of there being no backlight — if you want to use it in the dark, you’ll need a reading lamp.

For revision this is mostly perfect in principle, though there are the inevitable gotchas along the way. All the same I don’t expect to be printing out stacks of revision pages ever again. This curious little device does the trick.

But let’s get the basics out of the way first…

The costs

The basic tablet is £299 delivered. To this you’ll need to add a pen — the thing is useless without them — and probably a case too. Remarkable offers two pens, a simple marker at £59 and a Marker Plus for £109, the principal difference between them being the Plus comes with an eraser on the top. All these items are available on a 100-day return, at no shipping cost to you. So there really is no risk in trying out Remarkable to see if suits your needs.

Remarkable use Wacom technology for the pen so there are lots of cheaper alternatives out — and none of them need a battery.

I went for the Staedtler Noris Jumbo which is a nice fat pen with an eraser, for less than the basic Remarkable marker. Very good it feels too.

Remarkable’s cases are pretty expensive too. A basic folio is £69 and a Book Folio from £119. Again, there are cheaper alternatives. I went for this which is much the same as the Book Folio for a fraction of the price.

The subscription

Everyone is into subscriptions these days and Remarkable is no exception. Unless you decline, your purchase will include a 100-day free trial of their Connect service; after that you’ll be paying £6.75 a month. Connect offers unlimited cloud backup for your work, integration with Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive along with handwriting conversion, an extended warranty and the ability to send documents by email.

You can use the Remarkable without Connect, and if all you’re doing is annotating epubs I doubt you actually need it. So I wouldn’t bother with Connect and that recurring charge. You’re set with the £299 tablet and around £80-£90 for the pen and case.

Getting started

There really isn’t much to getting Remarkable going. You sign up on the website for an account, update your tablet if needed, then download companion apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android — these will give you access to your Remarkable files though no way of editing them.

After that you can scribble your own notes with a variety of templates, from drawing frames to lined notepaper, and import external documents — pdfs and epubs being of most interest here — for annotation.

If you write in something like Scrivener or Ulysses you can export directly into ePub. Apple Pages will do this too, and open a Word file for export. Word itself doesn’t support direct epub export but you can do this easily yourself using the popular and free ebook manager Calibre.

Once you upload your ebook to Remarkable it appears just as you might expect in something like Kindle. You can navigate the whole document very easily page by page or with an overview.

Browsing an ebook — image from Remarkble

You can also change the font, the spacing, margins and type size to your choosing.

Changing the book layout — make sure you do this before annotating. Image from Remarkable.

It’s essential you do this before starting to markup your text. If you change the layout later your scribbled annotations won’t be in the same place.

After that you choose your style of pen — I find the fineliner good for annotation and choose to export in red — and away you go.

It really is like writing on paper. There are none of the digital tools you might expect from a more conventional e-reader — bookmarks, the ability to inset actual typed text in any usual fashion. You scribble away. Then at the end you can either view your annotated ebook through a companion app on your computer, or export it as a pdf and use it for revisions that way. I prefer the latter because then you see your edit marks in red.

Remarkable as an e-reader

Is this an all-round alternative to Kindle, Kobo or Google Play? Not for me. For one thing it will only handle epubs that aren’t covered by DRM. You can’t use files directly from Kindle or any of the popular ebook stores because they are copy protected. There are ways to remove this through Calibre plug-ins but I hope you’ll only do that with books you buy.

Just as importantly I use ebooks for reference work and make extensive notes and bookmarks for later use. All you can do here on the original pages is scribble or insert a blank note page. Handwriting recognition only works on blank pages you insert into ebooks and pdfs. There are no keywords, no easy way to see comprehensive annotations at a glance. It’s great for marking up my own work. It’s not much use to me for making extensive notes on the work of others.

Could I mark up typeset proofs from my publisher on this? Possibly. The trouble is all the entries would have to be in pen, not typed as I’d normally do when going through this on a computer. Since that process depends upon others interpreting my editing marks, I’d rather use something that doesn’t force others to try to decipher my terrible handwriting. Others will feel differently I’m sure.

Could you write a book on this?

Only if you could write a book longhand on paper as well. I couldn’t. The text recognition does demand quite neat writing as far as I can see. And when you export you’ll get a pdf, not a Word document. It’s a great shame the device won’t work directly with Word.

What I could imagine, though, is using this as a system for poetry or developing a simple book for children with illustrations. The device does come with a storyboard template that looks ideal for the latter. You’ll also find a host of paid-for templates for Remarkable on places like Etsy, everything from calendars to planners and fitness journals.

I can’t comment on any of these because I’m not going to use them. I gave up on paper in most ways years ago, and I’m not going to be making written notes about anything these days. Judging by some of the reviews out there, people who are in the writing habit mostly love Remarkable’s highly focused simplicity. It’s just not for me.

The fact you can’t search handwriting — only pdf text — is a big drawback. For example, each year I keep a gardening diary recording what I’ve sown and how it’s done. Using Remarkable I’d have no easy way of finding, say, entries about tomatoes, except scrolling through to read them. This is a job much better done on something like Evernote or OneNote.

One other clever other trick it has is a web browser extension that can clip web pages to your notebooks for future use. I can imagine that might come in handy.


I tried out Remarkable to see if it was a better way of book-style revision than printing out hundreds of pages. And the answer is… yes, by a good margin. The investment will pay back in paper and ink saved I guess, but just as importantly in time too. It’s quicker working this way. There are doubtless other hidden tricks this thing can do I’ve yet to try. I really have focused on my needs and nothing else.

If you think this might be your cup of tea, I recommend ordering from the Remarkable website and giving it a try. The 100-day trial is risk-free and returns are very easy and cost you nothing. Bye bye paper…

Web/Tech Writing

Dabble – the future of novel writing?

I don’t know what other authors are like but I go a bit funny whenever I’ve finished a long project. It’s easy to be sucked into trying to write something straight away but I long ago discovered this is a mistake.

You need time to recover. Time to think. So I often take a long look at my work processes — the tools I use for the job — and try to work out if I can do things more efficiently next time. I’m not talking about ‘inspiration’ here. I’m talking about processes, approaches, the day-to-day practice of writing.

Years ago I came to the conclusion that standard word processors don’t cut it for me when it comes to dealing with the complex, threaded business of putting together a book-length narrative. I was an early user of Scrivener, a piece of software I still admire and use, and later adopted Ulysses, a lovely app on the Mac and iPad that combines power with simplicity.

Today I flit between both depending on the project. Scrivener is by far the more complex but better, it seems to me, for multi-threaded stories. Ulysses excels at simpler narratives without too many twists and turns. Most people will stick to one app, of course, which is eminently sensible. But when you write for a living, five days a week or more, you sometimes need a change of the daily scenery. Which is one reason why I always try to keep an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in the writing software scene.

Time moves on. Scrivener was originally a Mac-only app. There is a Windows version but it’s some way behind the current Mac one at the moment though the release of Windows version 3 appears to be imminent. You can get an iPad app too but Scrivener is complex and awkward when it comes to syncing between devices. I gave up on the iPad app long ago since moving between screens something I do all the time. Ulysses does that without a second thought and, unlike Scrivener, doesn’t mind if your story is open on another machine elsewhere. But these are still both conventional computer programmes designed to run on individual devices. Meanwhile mainstream writing apps have often moved, very successfully, to the web and given up trying to demand you use a particular operating system to get on with your work.

Microsoft Word is the ultimate destination of all my work except scripts, since that is the lingua franca of book publishing, the format we’re expected to deliver. Once a very closed product limited to Windows and an inferior Mac version, it’s now available across the spectrum, for iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, and with a version that runs very well in a browser. It does all this through smart web storage. I can have a Word file open on my desktop and add a note into it on my Android phone while walking down the hill. It doesn’t care what device I use or where I am. That is something I’ve come to like a lot.

This approach, it seems to me, is the future of most apps we use. Not as standalone programs on standalone computers, but as web-based systems that work however and wherever you want.

So how about a dedicated novel-writing app that thinks this way? There are several out there, all young, all developing. I tracked down three, Novlr, LivingWriter and Dabble. They all offer free trials. They all have some odd omissions — Novlr, for example, has no search and replace, while LivingWriter seems to think a Word-style format bar is needed. I don’t.

So I soon found myself warming to Dabble over the others and decided to give it a test with an actual project, currently at the 25k mark. Here is what I made of it.