Scrivener or Ulysses? The absolutely, positively, final verdict. Really. UPDATED.

(Brief note: this article was written some time before the release, at long last, of Scrivener for iPad. You can read what I have to say about it here.)

In my mind, you're letting out a little silent groan: what, he's on about writing software again?

I swear, this is the last time.

A quick recap: last year, I wrote a post about different bits of software you could use to write books on a Mac, and it got the most hits of any single post I've written on my blog, ever. I wrote several follow-up posts here, here, and here. I was particularly interested in the ability to write on an iPad. Most of my writing takes place in a room where I sit, on my own, with a Macbook, but occasionally I like to venture out, perhaps to a cafe or the park; and, if the ability is there, it's nice to whip out the tablet while on the subway or waiting at the doctors and maybe read over what I wrote earlier that day and edit it a little.

You can't do that with Scrivener. There was talk of an iPad app last year, but they're back to not making any promises. If it comes out - if it ever comes out - I'll buy it. But I'm not holding my breath.

Why is it important? Because a lot of people want to be able to synch their writing across multiple platforms. A lot of people have iPads or similar, and want to be able to use them for writing, usually with a bluetooth keyboard.

Last year I bought Ulysses for both my iPad and Macbook (it's Mac-specific). It's a really terrific little piece of software that syncs very adequately and speedily between the two devices. In that respect, it's everything I'd been hoping to get from an iPad version of Scrivener.

But there are differences. Ulysses in its desktop incarnation is, relative to Scrivener, a much simpler program. Some people prefer Ulysses to Scrivener for that reason, since it lacks the bells and whistles of the latter. I never quite understood that myself, because over the years I've had many occasions (not necessarily out of choice) to use Microsoft Word for nothing more complicated than writing a letter or an invoice or perhaps following tracked edits from an editor, yet the fact it can do a whole bunch of  highly complicated things beyond just typing text doesn't fill me with fear. I simply don't use them.

It's the same with Scrivener. The program has functions I've never used because I can't see a need for them. That's not the same for everyone - non-fiction writers, in particular, would probably get a lot of use out of those functions.

Since I got Ulysses, I've used it for a variety of tasks: writing outlines for new books, averaging roughly ten thousand words each; writing reports on unpublished manuscripts for a manuscript agency; several short stories, and ideas for more stories as well.

But the one thing I haven't yet tried to use it for is writing a full-length book. Nearly all of my books have been written in Scrivener. Would I be able to write one in Ulysses? I knew writers who have and still do. I figured I could at least try and see how Ulysses worked out in that respect.

But I was barely three thousand words into Field of Bones before I exported the text and notes, and imported it all into a new Scrivener document.

So why did I give up on writing a novel in Ulysses so quickly? A book is a huge and complex project that requires constant reference to character lists, invented history (in a science fiction novel), an outline so events being written about can be related to events already written or soon to be written, and also notes of moment-of-inspiration ideas for the next draft. I need to be able to see as much of that as possible, all at once, so I can literally see both the forest and the tree in front of me at one and the same time. I can do that easily in Scrivener; in Ulysses, it's a more difficult and considerably less intuitive process. Ulysses lends itself to a much simpler form of writing, one that has little to do with the workaday reality of plot construction and character arcs.

Writing a novel, for me at least, is not simple. It's huge and messy and tangled and difficult. I wrote my last book, Survival Game (due in August) in Scrivener, before I bought Ulysses. I hadn't yet tried a whole novel in Ulysses, and Field of Bones was to be my first attempt.

Now that I've imported it into Scrivener, this is what I see when I'm working on it:

On the left, in Scrivener's main window, is some of the text from the rough first draft of the first chapter. On the right is a series of stacked windows I can rearrange and move about and change the colours of and essentially do whatever the hell I like with: there's a scratch pad in which I can write multiple on-the-fly rough notes, a 'quick reference' window that allows me to open up multiple other documents to float over or next to the text, and an 'inspector' that again allows me to access a synopsis, multiple project-wide notes, chapter-specific notes, keywords, external online references, and on, and on, and on. I can move it all around and rearrange and close it and reopen it and resize it all just about any damn way I like.

For a writer, being able to do and see all of this at once is hugely empowering. It's like being a pilot and having the ability to glance at the cockpit dashboard and see exactly the information you need with minimal effort. In this respect, trying to use Ulysses to write a book reminded me of just how powerful Scrivener really is. It's the Godzilla of word processors, the all-time heavyweight champion; sometimes a bit fugly, but brutally powerful and easily adaptable to a multitude of personal preferences and habits.

Try as I might - and I have tried -  I just can't do that with Ulysses, at least not with a novel. Ulysses is fine for shorter works, reports, short stories, ideas, outlines and all the rest of it: but as soon as I was ready to do something more ambitious, like a book, suddenly the only thing left to do was go back to Scrivener.

And that's despite its lack of an iPad app. Probably it helps that it's winter here in Taiwan right now, and it's chilly outside, so I'm more inclined to stay indoors and work at my desk. Maybe in a few months I'll yearn to work on the book outdoors. I could take the Macbook out, but it's heavy and the keys are buggered, necessitating a stand and an external keyboard. Or maybe I'll save those days for working on book reports, short stories and outlines with Ulysses.

So, then, let me offer my absolutely final, if personal verdict on Ulysses vs Scrivener, within the specific context of writing a novel. If you absolutely, positively, must have a writing program that syncs easily and smoothly with its desktop version, and you're okay with it being Mac-specific, Ulysses is a terrific little program.

But in all other respects, not to mention the fact it's available on multiple desktop OS's, I'm going to have to declare Scrivener the all-time champion for writing a novel. For the way I write, and for what it can do, it simply can't be beaten. Therefore if being able to write on the iPad isn't a major priority, buying Scrivener is the best thing you can do for your workflow as a working writer if what you're writing is a book. The end.

And I promise, no more posts on the subject. Ever. Err...probably.

*****UPDATE*****. Because putting an update in here is less embarrassing than actually writing another blog post on the subject when I promised no more blog posts on the subject.

Back when I started playing around with alternative word processors (as in, alternatives to Scrivener) like Ulysses, I also tried the iPad version of a program called Storyist and found it wanting.  Like Ulysses, it has both a desktop and a tablet version, but although I tried a demo of the desktop Storyist I only actually shelled out for the iPad version. I used it a few times, but that was it.

The one big change between now and then is that Storyist will now allow you to edit Scrivener projects. That is huge. It's not a perfect solution by any means, but it's a damn sight better than any of the other attempts at linking Scrivener on the desktop to other word processors on the iPad. Usually, when you use other programs to open a Scrivener project, you're faced with a bunch of randomly named files with no clue as to which is the chapter you were last working on.

Storyist doesn't do that. I gave it a quick test run the other day on my iPad and it syncs very well indeed over iCloud - I usually store my working files on Dropbox, which I prefer to iCloud, but opening a Scrivener project stored in Dropbox in iPad Storyist, while feasible, isn't nearly as smooth. This apparently is partly down to the way Dropbox works.

But what really matters - and what you should take away from this - is that while there may not be a Scrivener iPad app yet, opening Scrivener projects on an iPad using Storyist seems so far like a very acceptable halfway solution. This, of course, puts Scrivener even higher above the competition like Ulysses. 


Outlines and World Building

Back last year, I wrote a couple of outlines for new novels, one of which I started, very tentatively, in late November. I only got to work on it for a couple of days before I had to spend all of December working on the final, final edits on Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. At the same time, I had some freelance editing/book doctoring to do, so it's only in the last week I've managed to get back to that novel.

It's been just about bang on two years since I last started work on a book. This one's got the working title of 'Field of Bones'. It might just turn out to be the single most hard-sf book I've done yet, in that it's a science fiction novel featuring space travel of the non-FTL variety. Which isn't to say, of course, that it doesn't have some pretty far-out speculative ideas tucked in there as well.

I say 'working title', by the way, since although I actually quite like 'Field of Bones', it's not a title that suggests a science fiction novel. If anything, it sounds like a horror novel. But for now it'll do.

As usual, I wrote an outline of the novel first, and that took me about a month last summer. It's seven thousand words long.  Now, the outline describes the plot. But it doesn't completely explain why these things happen.

That's the difference between a plot (a sequence of events) and a story (why those events happen, and why the characters do what they do). Major background events are described in the lightest of detail - events that took place before the time at which the story will start. These events, even though they're likely only to be hinted at in the finished novel itself, are important because they provide motivation for the characters.

So what I'm doing at the moment is working out all that background detail in considerably more depth than I had time to last year, which is why I've spent the past week researching corporate black-ops. environmental tragedies, and the potential for toxic algal blooms to threaten the existence of humanity. Needless to say, I'm the kind of writer who likes to have as much of the story nailed down before I even begin writing.

(In the middle of all this, I learned that somewhere between fifty and seventy per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans. Anything happens to that phytoplankton,  we are seriously screwed. Kind of wish I'd known that back when I wrote Extinction Game...)

All this work is necessary, because even if all this detail doesn't end up appearing on the pages of the book itself, it explains why certain characters do the things they do, both before we meet them and after. Further, these events, and their relationship to them, help define what kind of people they are.

I should probably give Aeon Timeline a shout-out here. It's timeline software (obviously), and very good for figuring out who does what, where, and when, with a very fine degree of control. Right now I'm loading all the story details into Aeon to make sure the order of events makes logical sense. Including all the stuff that happens before the story begins.

Most of which you will never see.

A lot of unpublished writers don't realise their world building should mainly stay off the page. When I've got my book doctoring hat on, I often find the manuscripts I'm sent are filled with page after page of intricate detail regarding the customs, language and history of cultures and places that don't exist. Don't get me wrong - that kind of intricate world building is fun, but it's usually only of interest to the person who came up with it. Show it to anyone else, they're going to fall asleep from sheer boredom after five minutes.

So if you're writing a novel for the first time and doing a lot of world building, take my advice. Leave about 95% of it out of the final book.

People don't care about the six thousand year history of your invented magical city state. They do (hopefully) care about whether or not the apprentice wizard will get to save the princess from being poisoned by the evil Queen before she can take the throne and prevent a war that no one can win.  They don't want a seventeen-page essay on the history of the city gardens plunk in the middle of the action, just because you mentioned the princess likes to take an occasional rose cutting.

Sure, you have to have some idea of the setting and the background. But you know, you can say a lot in just a few words, and beyond that the reader's imagination takes over. In fact, the reader's own interpretation of the action and setting counts for a lot more than you think. You don't need to explain literally everything, down to the significance of the sigils etched into the apprentice wizard's coat buttons.  Unless, that is, it directly and significantly impinges on either our understanding of the characters or contributes to the plot in some significant way.

But if you can cut it out without affecting the story, then out it goes. So do as I do, and come up with a story background that makes your story plausible - but leave it off the page unless it definitely contributes to the story.

(And no, that example isn't drawn from one of the unpublished novels I get to edit. But it could be.)