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Writing a novel on the iPad

When the iPad first came out, I dismissed it as a “toy” because it was clearly designed for the consumption of media, rather than creation. But more and more productivity apps were released, until I was forced to admit that it might actually be useful as well as pretty! Add in a battery life that was triple that of my laptop, and the iPad started to look like a practical device for writing.

The decisive moment, however, came with the availability of the Zaggmate bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Suddenly I could seriously see myself actually drafting a novel on the iPad, even if I needed the power of Scrivener for later revisions. So, I decided I would use the iPad as my main device for writing my work-in-progress, The Merchant of Dreams (sequel to The Alchemist of Souls).


In addition to the iPad itself and the keyboard, I’ve been using a number of key apps:


A plain text editor with the big advantage that it syncs easily with Scrivener via Dropbox (there’s a nice video tutorial to walk you through the process). You can sync just your Draft folder, or all the text documents in your project, and whilst Notebooks doesn’t allow subfolders within the Draft, each folder is transferred as a text document, so you can at least see where your chapter breaks fall (if you have them).
There are a few gotchas, principally that if you add formatting in Notebooks, the file is synced to Dropbox as HTML and then won’t import into Scrivener. On the plus side, any formatting changes you make in Scrivener are retained (in the Scrivener document) even though what you are syncing is plain text – which is pretty awesome!

Index Card

This is a corkboard emulator very similar in appearance to Scrivener’s corkboard, and it syncs with the synopsis fields in a Scrivener project. You can drag cards around, and they will be reordered in Scrivener after syncing. It has a few problems that make it less useful than Notebooks – it has no hierarchy at all, and it requires using a Collection in order to sync, which means that if you add new cards in Scrivener, you have to add them to the Collection as well before you can sync them to Index Card.

Carbon Fin Outliner

When I’m brainstorming a plot, I don’t necessarily want a one-to-one relationship between items in my outline and scene documents within Scrivener – a single plot point could require several scenes, or several plot minutiae might fit into a single scene. Hence I like to use simple notetaking tools for this stage. Outliner from Carbon Fin is very basic, but it does the job with the minimum of fuss.


I’ve only just bought this one, but it looks like an interesting alternative to Index Card and/or Outliner. Unlike Index Card, it allows freeform arrangement of cards on the corkboard, so I think it will be better for brainstorming.

With all this kit, I’ve found it surprisingly efficient to get writing done without a proper laptop. I still go back to my desktop regularly to sync Notebooks and keep a tally of my finished wordcount, but even that is far from essential, since I also have a copy of Numbers, the iWork spreadsheet app. I reckon the iPad can be considered a serious weapon in the writer’s arsenal.

Tech review: Zaggmate iPad keyboard

Regular readers will know that I’m something of a Mac geek and a recent convert to the joy of iPad ownership. However as a writer, one thing the iPad is definitely lacking is a decent keyboard. Sure, you can tap out an email or Tweet easily enough (actually, not that easily – the hash key is on the third screen of the virtual keyboard!), but what about serious typing? That’s where you need a hardware keyboard.

I happened to already own a Mac bluetooth keyboard, so I used that for a while, but it’s not exactly convenient to carry around and it has no stand for the iPad. So, when I saw a colleague using the Zaggmate keyboard at a meeting, I was instantly smitten with technolust. Not only is the Zaggmate a 90%-sized Mac keyboard, it also acts as a stand and a hardcase for the iPad. How cool is that!

Connecting the keyboard via Bluetooth is really easy – just pair the two devices, then whenever you want to use the keyboard, just turn it on and voila! After a moment’s pause, the iPad will detect it and use it instead of the software keyboard. If not used for a while, the keyboard goes to sleep. The battery lasts ages as well; I don’t know how long, as I haven’t stress-tested it, but I have yet to find it running out of power at an inconvenient moment, and I think I’ve only charged it twice since getting it out of the box.

As with all hardware keyboards, the Zaggmate can be set to use your preferred layout, which is brilliant news for those of us who have switched to Dvorak – hunting’n’pecking on the software keyboard is a thing of the past. You also have access to a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, where supported by the software: Cmd-C/V/X/Z for copy/paste/cut/undo all work normally.

The keyboard is, as stated, approximately 90% normal sized, which is fine for typing as long as your hands aren’t too big. I find the bottom righthand corner a bit fiddly – I tend to type “w” instead of “v” (the < and > keys in Qwerty), and the arrow buttons being arranged in an L-shape around the shift button causes a certain amount of frustration – but on the whole the experience is far superior to using the software keyboard.

With the stand folded down, the iPad fits snugly into the shell, face down on the keyboard, thus providing maximum protection for the screen. The case is cut away along the front edge to make typing more comfortable, though it does rise up at the corners (see photo), which is a minor tactile distraction at first, and may contribute to the awkwardness of using the arrow buttons. One could use it without any other protection, since the back of the iPad is pretty tough, but I’ve added a Belkin fabric sleeve simply to prevent scratches to the lovely aluminium finish – the iPad plus keyboard fits inside just as easily as an iPad alone.

One final point to be aware of is that the stand does not hold the iPad securely in place. It’s fine for working on a desk or other stable surface, but tip it towards yourself and you’re likely to end up (as I did) with bruised thumbs as the iPad topples over onto the keys! This is a minor quibble, but it does mean you have to be careful not to treat the combo like a real laptop.

Overall, though, I’m really very impressed with this kit – for only a tiny bit more than a regular Apple bluetooth keyboard you get a multifunction device that looks good (in a weirdly retro way that reminds me of 70s hardware). I strongly recommend it to any iPad owner, especially anyone looking to use the iPad as a laptop replacement.

iPad 2: in lust all over again

I’m a bit late with my blog post today, as I was hoping to have some news of my own to announce. So, you’ll have to make do with some from Steve Jobs instead.

Today Apple announced the iPad 2: thinner, lighter and faster than the original model, it begins shipping later this month. Now, obviously I don’t need a new iPad – I only got mine in autumn last year, after I grew disillusioned with the limitations* of the Sony eReader – but boy am I tempted. Apart from the general improvements, it will have a hardware rotation lock, just as the original iPad did until the software was changed to make it a mute button. This is a change I protested about, so it’s good to hear that Apple listened to its customers.

When the iPad first came out I was unconvinced. I liked my eInk reader and didn’t see the need for an oversized iPod Touch. As with the iPhone, it wasn’t until some killer apps came along that I changed my mind and bought one. I now use it extensively, for reading ebooks and manuscripts, checking email and Twitter, making notes and mindmaps and book outlines. I even use it for my day-job, at least on business trips, because of its lightness and superior battery life.

I still prefer my MacBook Air for work that needs substantial amounts of typing or a more sophisticated piece of software such as Scrivener, but the iPad serves me well for lighter tasks. And I’m not alone. I saw someone mention earlier this week that the iPad is now the tool of choice in the publishing industry, presumably for reading manuscripts and staying in touch on the move. No more worrying about WiFi hotspots; these babies can be bought with 3G, and ten quid a month buys you enough O2 bandwidth to pick up emails, etc, on those odd days when you’re away from a WiFi network.

The other thing I love about the iPad is the iBook app. It’s much slicker than its Kindle equivalent, which I only installed because a couple of books I wanted were only available in that format. It’s much faster than an eInk reader; I can skim through pages much faster, almost as fast as with a paper book. I can buy books within the app or import ePubs obtained elsewhere, whether bought from a website or made myself by exporting one of my own manuscripts from Scrivener. And unlike a paper book, I don’t need a bookmark, a reading light, or a magnifier.

This latter is a huge boon to those of us whose eyesight is not what it used to be. In fact I reckon it’s not the younger generation who are going to be flocking to ebooks, but the older one. The price of paper being what it is these days, the type size in mass market paperbacks seems to be getting smaller and smaller, to the point where I have to check inside a book before I decide to buy it. I put a copy of George R R Martin’s A Clash of Swords back on the shelf in Waterstones a few months ago, simply because I couldn’t read the text comfortably, even in a well-lit shop. Once readers discover the sheer convenience of being able to resize text at will and adjust the light level with equal ease, I hope they will realise that ebooks provide a superior reading experience, at least for novels, and are worth paying a sensible price for. Not hardback prices; those are ridiculously over-inflated. But certainly around the price of a paperback seems to me to be entirely realistic.

Now, if only HM Government would see sense and exempt ebooks from VAT…


* Like, what’s the point in having built-in PDF annotation if you then forget to put a hyphen on the software keyboard? WTF, Sony??

5 Cool New Features in Scrivener 2.0

I’ve been using Scrivener for my writing since 2007, and found it immensely useful. The ability to organise your work exactly the way you want it, then output it as a single manuscript in whatever format an editor prefers, is probably the most powerful feature.

Version 2.0 (now out for Mac) adds a whole slew of new features, but I want to focus on the ones that jumped out at me as a long-time user.

1. Export to ePub

This is the one that made me go “Wow!”. I wanted to take a copy of my manuscript away on a trip, and I wanted to only have to take my iPad with me. The obvious thing was to convert the book into ePub, which I knew I could do in Calibre (the library software I use for my ebook reader), but first I had to get the documents out of Scrivener. To my delight, not only were there options for outputting directly in ePub format, but I could add a cover image with a few clicks. About quarter of an hour later (most of which was spent knocking together a cover!), I had the book on my iBooks shelf, looking almost as professional as the real thing.

This feature will be an absolute boon to anyone planning on releasing their own ebooks – or just try it for the fun of seeing what your finished novel might look like! Caveat: you will probably want to play with the settings a bit, in order to get the right output. On my first attempt I had no chapter titles, which is fine if you’re going for the Terry Pratchett look, but not if you’re trying to produce a conventionally structured novel.

2. Coloured flags on keywords

This is one feature I really missed when I moved from Super Notecard to Scrivener – the ability to add multiple coloured flags to index cards for a quick overview of the story. Yes, there were always keywords, but I’m a very visual person and seldom use the Outliner view in Scrivener, so I found little use for keywords in the 1.x version. Now, however, each keyword is associated with a coloured swatch, which can optionally be displayed as a flag down the right-hand side of each index card.

I found this feature invaluable the other day, when I had to go through my outline assessing which scenes would need changing to meet my prospective publisher’s suggestions, how much needed changing, and what aspect of the story. Once all the keywords had been added, I was able to scan the Collection (see Cool Feature #4) of all documents and see that I only needed to work on half of them, and most of those only lightly.

Here you see the results. Note that I reduced the size of the cards to get a whole bunch on screen at once (and obscure the text, since there are spoilers!) whilst still being able to show the coloured flags:

3. Freeform Corkboard Order

I confess I haven’t played with this yet, as I’ve only been using 2.0 for a few days, but it looks awesome. I’ve always found it frustrating that the index cards fill the screen in a continuous grid, so being able to have uneven length rows will make my chapter planning so much easier in future!

4. Collections

One thing I like to be able to do is see all my index cards on the corkboard at once, even after I’ve separated them into chapter folders. Collections allow me to do that – perhaps not as slickly as the “Flatten Hierarchy” function in SuperNotecard, but good enough for most purposes. Just select all the cards and add them to a new Collection, and there you go!

And of course Collections are essential for…

5. Sync with Index Card for iPad

I left this one until last because it’s really only useful to iPad owners – but boy, is it useful! Index Card is a nifty little app inspired by Scrivener, which gives you a corkboard with index cards that can be moved around, just like in Scrivener. Best of all, you can use Dropbox to transfer the titles and synopses of your cards between the two programs – perfect for outlining on the move! Watch the tutorial

Alphasmarts and Snow Leopard

I got a nasty surprise this last day and a half, after an attempt to transfer my outline to the Alphasmart Neo failed midway and left the Neo unusable! Thankfully I was able to rectify the problem – eventually – so I can continue to carry my Neo around in case I get time to write at work.

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Upgrade, downgrade? iPhones and ebooks

It’s been over a year since I bought any new gadgets, and this geek girl is getting twitchy! Besides, I need a carrot to motivate me into finishing the current draft of my novel, because I’ve been working on it since December and my enthusiasm is, well, not flagging, but definitely worn ragged…

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Dvorak on the iPhone/iPad

If you’re at all interested in the iPhone (and even if you’re not), you’re no doubt aware that yesterday saw the launch of the new iPhone OS (version 4), just ahead of the iPhone 4. For the writers and Dvorak users amongst us, there’s some good news and some bad.

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iPad – huh! What is it good for?

Today, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the UK launch date of the much-anticipated Apple iPad. Now, I’m a Mac fan and a self-confessed gadget geek, so I’ve been following developments closely. Over the past decade, and particularly in the last three years, I’ve been seeking mobile computing nirvana, that perfect device that will make writing a breeze. Yeah, right.
Every time I buy a new toy, I’m disappointed; either the hardware is awkward to use or the software frustratingly limited. I don’t want to waste more money on a machine that’s not right for me, so this time I’m being cautious. Still, I want to look at the iPad with an open mind, and consider if it is of any use to a writer.

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Snow Leopard

I decided yesterday that it was about time I upgraded to Snow Leopard – plus my MacBook Air could do with a spring clean. Luckily my DH was in town so I got him to pick me up a copy of the upgrade pack from the Apple store, and I set about it…

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Ever since I got my iPhone, I’ve been looking for a mobile novel-outlining solution that can sync between my phone and my Mac. Unfortunately there are no plans to provide a Scrivener iPhone app, and sync-able outliners also seem to be thin on the ground.
I think I have a solution, however. TaskPaper is another hyper-simple application from Hog Bay Software, creators of WriteRoom. It’s not a complex hierarchical outliner, but with a bit of imagination it can be used to create a scene-by-scene outline where each scene can be dragged into a new place in the sequence without any messy cutting’n’pasting. I’m going to play with it a bit using my current outline, and if it works well, maybe I can use it for NaNoWriMo…