Starting a novel with Ulysses

Since lots of people seem to be looking at Ulysses right now let me give a condensed starter guide to setting up a book project with the app. I do this in much fuller detail in my little guide Writing A Novel with Ulysses. But this should get you up and running.

All that follows based on using Ulysses on the Mac. I always do my setup there rather than on the iPad because it’s easier with a decent-sized keyboard. Once you’ve set up the basic parameters they will automatically sync to the iPad along with all your work. Then you can just think about writing (which is why we’re here). Continue reading “Starting a novel with Ulysses”


Five reasons I use Ulysses

The reaction to the news Ulysses is moving to a subscription basis has been pretty remarkable. After I said I thought it was a good idea for the reasons outlined here I had a few weird responses on Twitter calling me, among other things, a ‘fanboy’ (confession: when it comes to Ulysses I am) and a supporter or ‘extortion’. I have to admit if a piece of essential (to me) software is extortion for asking for the equivalent of half a pint of beer a month then something’s wrong with my dictionary.

I’m not going to go over those arguments again. If you don’t like subscriptions just don’t sign up. No one’s forcing you. But a number of people did come on through Twitter asking why I used Ulysses at all. It’s a while since I covered that topic and a while since I published my little book Writing A Novel with Ulysses. So let me explain the five big killer features that mean I base most of my writing life (except for scripts) in Ulysses.

One. Everything is in one place

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve started a piece of writing, abandoned it and then, a few years later, decided to take a look at it again. But where is it? In the documents folder of an old Mac I’ve abandoned? In Google Drive or Dropbox? Or OneDrive? And oh… look. There are three versions of it, one in each. Which one’s current? Can I trust the date stamp? And what if I’ve lost it altogether?

With Ulysses that simply doesn’t happen. Since I moved to the app three or four years ago everything I’ve written stays in the single Ulysses library, stored in the appropriate folders for completed work, archived, in progress, ideas, whatever. I can find something simply by remembering a word it contained, not the title. I can pick up abandoned work, abandon it again and come back to it later in a flash. I no longer lose a thing. So when my agent asks for a synopsis of a book from a few years back it’s there at my fingertips. When you’re as hopeless at filing as I am this is an absolute godsend.

Two. Everything syncs and syncs properly.

I like to work in different places and on different machines. An iMac desktop at home. A MacBook and an iPad when I’m travelling. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a work in progress. Sometimes I want to note it down immediately and have it in the story I’m working on when I go back to the desk the next day. Syncing work quickly, easily and reliably across machines and platforms is essential but lots of apps do it in a pretty clunky fashion.

Take that midnight note-taking for example. If I have a conventional file open on my desktop the app will usually shriek if I try to access it from somewhere else. Scrivener syncs well across Dropbox (and Dropbox only) but you have to follow the rules. Make sure the file is synced and then, if you’re cautious, you’ll close it too before opening it elsewhere. To try to access it simultaneously throws up a warning box and the probability of errors.

In Ulysses it doesn’t matter. I’m writing this on my desktop. But I could just as easily pick up the iPad and carry on there. The words I type on the iPad would pretty soon appear on the iMac screen as the two files kept in sync automatically with no effort on my part. The files are pretty small too. Even with years of work there my Ulysses library is only 95 mb in size on iCloud. So I could easily stay inside the free 5 gb iCloud storage plan if I wanted. Though since I keep photos there as well I subscribe to the 50gb plan which, horror of horrors, costs me 79p a month. Extortion!

Three. It makes writing a delight.

I don’t know why I’m making this number three because really it’s the most important reason of all. Over the years I’ve used pretty much every writing app there is. I somehow discovered a kind of mission to try stuff that’s out there and support smaller software companies in particular because they tend to be the ones who come up with the brightest ideas. For years my books were written in Word, then Pages, then Scrivener, then Ulysses. Writing is a very personal thing and what works for me doubtless won’t work for others. But I’ve never used anything that’s quite so delightful to work with as Ulysses.

Why? Simple. It’s about writing. There’s something I always used to say when I was giving talks at writing schools, an obvious point that’s all too often overlooked. You can have all the theory you want, the timelines, the reference material, the background and all that fancy meta stuff. But in the end your story will be a book, and a book, to readers, is simply the words they see. They don’t know or care about all that complex story building you may or may not have done behind the scenes. They just see the text on the page and judge you on that.

Ulysses is about text on the page. Yes, you can do lots of clever things with tagging and stuff if you want (and I do when it’s necessary). But at its heart Ulysses works like a very clever digital typewriter. Clear the decks of all the frills, the folders, the styles, the agonising over whether to write in Avenir or Helvetica. Get all that out of the way and just write. What you see is what the eventual reader will see. In essence Ulysses is extremely simple. Once you get your head around the basics you can forget about software and focus on the hard bit — saying what you want to say and saying it well. There are no distractions, and that’s a wonderful thing because writers tend to hunt for distractions all the time. It’s easier puzzling over them than getting down to the real job in hand.

My productivity went up by a significant and noticeable amount the moment I decided to write in Ulysses and nothing else. I no longer think software I think words.

Four. Merge, split and move.

Someone asked me on Twitter what the difference was between Ulysses and something like Google Docs. This is a really important question and goes to the heart of software made for creative writing. Google Docs, like Microsoft Word, is a serviceable conventional word processor. You can write a novel in it, no problem. But for me the most essential element in story building is flexibility in structure. As I develop a story I will outline a series of scenes. Then as I write them the idea will change. Maybe I’ll want to move something to another part of the story. Or I’ll realise one scene is actually two and needs to be split with the parts shifted around the narrative.

In conventional word processing that’s a chore usually involving cut and paste. In creative writing software like Ulysses and Scrivener it’s an integral part of the process, something you can do quickly and easily just by dragging scenes around. Without the ability to merge, split and move, story building is a tedious and time-consuming chore. Once you’ve come to understand that and embraced an app that does it well there is no going back.

Five. It’s a doddle to get it all out.

Whatever app you write in if you’re headed for commercial publishing you will, sooner or later, have to submit your manuscript as a Microsoft Word file. There’s no point complaining to a publisher that they should use the app you prefer. Word is the lingua franca of publishing as Final Draft is the standard format for most TV and movie scripts. You have to be able to get your work out to Word.

This isn’t always easy. Scrivener’s compile routine always throws me so much I often have to refer to my own book, Writing A Novel with Scrivener, to remember how to do it properly. In Ulysses it’s a doddle. There are lots of pre-written styles which output Word or PDF documents in an instant. It’s not hard to tinker with them to produce your own as well.

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And Ulysses now drives WordPress posts too. So I can write this in the app and then simply press the publish button to send it directly into WordPress, with images too.

If you write regularly this is a wonderful tool. Powerful yet simple, reliable and a joy to use. I use it for books but if I was still a journalist I’d be producing my copy in it too. Imagine being able to write an article on my desktop then proof it on an iPad and dispatch it from an iPhone.

In short I find Ulysses quite remarkable. It’s helped me write more effectively by taking software out of the equation and making me face up to the words on the page. If you write regularly and own a Mac I suggest you give it a try. The subscription model even means that you could, if you just wanted to write for three months, say, simply pay for it during that time at $4.99 a month then stop.

I’m not a huge fan of subscriptions. WordPress for this site. A TV service. Internet. Microsoft Office because I have to have it. All of them have one thing in common. They are essential. For me Ulysses is at the top of that list. I’m more than happy to pay a modest fee each year to make sure it sticks around.


The new Ulysses subscription plan is a wonderful idea

Yesterday my favourite general writing app Ulysses announced a change in pricing. Until now you’ve paid a one-off fee for the Mac app and another one-off fee for the iOS one. Now the app is changing to a subscription system. You can read the details here. In a nutshell,  a fixed fee per month or a year ($4.99/$39.99 with hefty lifetime discounts for existing users and a generous free trial)  gets you both apps on all your devices.

I suspect most regular, professional Ulysses users will breathe a sigh of relief and think, ‘Thank goodness for that.’ As Max Seelemann, one of the app’s founders, says in a longer post here, ‘Our users expect a continuously evolving high quality product — and subscription is the only way we can truly deliver on that expectation.’


Still there are, inevitably, a few people out there shrieking in fury about greed and ‘bait and switch’ tactics to squeeze out of an impoverished public the equivalent of the cash we’d happily spend on coffee and a donut in a couple of days. All for something which in my case has earned pretty large sums of money (four published books, two published audio works and more in the pipeline). If you’re of this mindset may I point out a few facts?

  • Using computers is cheaper than it’s ever been. When I first started writing for a living the average desktop (without screen) cost well over a grand, laptops over two grand and both of them were obsolete within three years of purchase if you were lucky.
  • A copy of Word for Windows when it launched listed at something a little way under $500. Yes $500. Today I think it a relative bargain that I can get a subscription for Microsoft Office for £80 or so. Not that I use it except for dealing with manuscripts going to and fro between publishers.
  • The app store model is simply daft. I bought Ulysses back in 2013 and made it my primary writing tool because it matched my approach perfectly (though I still use and like Scrivener for script development). In that time Ulysses has been updated nine times, very substantially, adding more features and an iOS companion app (similarly updated for free since purchase). I haven’t paid a penny for those extra features. They were gifts from the developer and would stay that way forever. For a commercial company this cannot be sustainable.  Think of the business you’re in. Imagine you sold a product years ago and then promised to improve it in perpetuity for free. How long could that last?

I’m really delighted Ulysses has gone down this path. I raced to take out a subscription as quickly as I could. As an existing user it means I will get the finest pure writing app around on all my devices, Mac and iOS, for £26.99 a year. That’s less than I spend on inkjet cartridges per annum and I don’t use ink much at all.

For some reason the internet has encouraged us to place little value on the things we use, even the ones we rely on heavily day to day. It’s not just software. Books have been discounted and devalued in many places to the point where the people who write them get a pittance in return for their work. Apps have been driven down to price points where people buy them casually, never use loads of them, then wonder why the things don’t get fixed or improved then disappear a few years down the line.

As a solitary producer of intellectual property myself, I want to pay a fair price for the products I use. It’s important they produce a return that persuades their makers to stay in business. They have lives to lead, families to bring up, companies to develop. They need our support.

Some of the moans out there also remind me of a curious fact I noticed years ago. There are lots of people who want to write and expect others to pay for their writing. But when it comes to paying for the intellectual property they use themselves… well that’s different.

Ulysses is a high-level, professional product being shipped at bargain prices. I’d pay twice that for the efficiency and productivity it brings through that marvellous combination of simplicity and power.

There’s no such thing as free beer. Only beer that someone else pays for. And one day their generosity will run out.



Win a free copy of the new Pieter Vos novel, Sleep Baby Sleep

The next Pieter Vos novel, Sleep Baby Sleep,  will be out in the wild on June 1 in the UK. We have three signed copies ready to be won in our prize draw. The contest is open to anyone with a Twitter account worldwide. All you have to do is retweet the pinned contest tweet at the top of David’s Twitter page, follow the account then reply to @david_hewson with the hashtag #LoveVos. The winner will be drawn on publication day, June 1, and notified through Twitter.

Contest terms and conditions.

  1. The prizes are five copies of Sleep Baby Sleep to be won individually.
  2. The contest closes at 5pm UK time May 25.
  3. Entry is open to anyone with a Twitter account.
  4. Winners will be chosen at random and informed through Twitter. If you’d like your book personalised please tell us at this time.
  5. Only one entry per user will count.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, a small memory

Sir Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP who died a few days ago aged 86, the oldest MP in Parliament, I met twice. Once was when I was the arts correspondent of The Times and he interrogated me in the rudest way possible about the arcane details of the government arts budget of the time, knowing I’d never be able to answer the questions.

The second was years later when he’d obviously forgotten the first and instead had been enjoying a gig writing reviews of crime fiction for one of the Scottish papers. My then editor and then publicist decided they wanted him to review my latest Nic Costa novel and so a lunch was organised at an incredibly expensive Italian restaurant not far from Westminster.

He was a voluble chap very fond of offering advice unasked for, and began by congratulating me on always sticking to what he believed to be the cardinal rule of crime writing: always introduce the eventual villain in the first thirty (I think) pages of the book. This was a rule I was unaware of and if I have stuck to it that’s entirely accidental.

After this the wine flowed and the priciest dishes on the menu were dispatched to the Kaufman plate. He regaled us with entertaining stories of his political life and how, as a Manchester MP, he managed to walk the fine line between supporters of United and City over the decades. Then, when the fanciest dessert I’ve ever seen in an Italian restaurant appeared before him and the team from my publishers was beginning to think in fearful terms of the bill, the crux of the issue was broached. Was there any possibility Kaufman might think of including me in his latest crime write-up for the Scots?

His eyes opened wide with surprise.

‘Oh, no. I can’t possibly do that.’


‘They fired me a while back. I don’t do crime reviews any more.’

And with that he returned to his meal.

Romeo and Juliet, Writing

A chat with Richard Armitage about Romeo & Juliet

Last October, when we were finalising the release of Romeo & Juliet: A NovelI was lucky enough to spend the best part of a day at the Audible HQ in Newark, New Jersey, alongside my formidable narrator/performer Richard Armitage. We recorded a long interview about the project, writing and performing.

You can now see it all and read a transcript here on Audible Range. I hope you find it enlightening about some of the many enjoyable challenges authors and actors face in projects like this. Unfortunately this happened the day after I flew out to New York and a sleepless night spent in the noisiest hotel in Murray Hill (last time you see me in the Shelburne that’s for sure). So I’m sure I am pretty inarticulate.

Richard, clean shaven for his role in Love, Love, Love, in which he managed to age from nineteen to his sixties, was as on the ball as ever. This is the last piece of supporting material we have to offer you from this unique project. Thanks for all the interest you’ve shown over the last few months — and particular thanks to Richard for lending his extraordinary talents to the finished version.


In search of Kopfkino: A few tips on how to write for audio

Romeo and Juliet: A Novel is the third project I’ve been involved with for Audible that was written specifically to be narrated or performed, not as a book.

Lots of people ask about the differences between writing for the page and writing for the ear. There are quite a few and I think they’re important. I also believe that writing for audio provides lots of lessons for the novelist too.

Audible kindly let me loose on their Range magazine today to talk about some of these issues. I hope this answers some of your questions… and thanks for all the kind feedback and great reviews for R&J since its launch three weeks ago.