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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scrivening in the CloudAge (with Scrivener)

Toward the end of last week I pointed out my writing tool of choice, Scrivener (by Literature & Latte), and noted that while they do not currently have an iPad version of their software there are a few different methods that an iPad-toting #CloudAgeAuthor can employ if they use Scrivener on their home computer. Today is the first of two blog entries revolving around CloudAgeAuthors who are using, or wish to use, Scrivener on their main computer and edit or create documents on their iPad to sync back to Scrivener, with a third follow-up blog on Scrivener for Mac generally.

First, a brief overview of Scrivener, since some readers may not be familiar with the platform, and then a discussion about syncing Scrivener projects to external folders. My next blog will cover using Scrivener with Simplenote, which is another option directly supported by Scrivener on the Mac.

Scrivener is not just an app on your Mac (or Windows PC) that allows you to write; indeed, it is what I refer to as a Writing Platform (similar to Storyist, for those who read last week's review). It is, at its heart, a non-linear editing and authoring system, permitting a writer to work on any of their writings in just about any way that seems best to them. It permits ad-hoc rearranging of scenes & chapters, stores research materials, permits the creating and customization of templates for both writing and research, and compiles writing into a wide variety of output formats, not only for print and PDF but also Word, RTF, ePub, LaTeX, Final Draft, and more. At $45.00 (for Mac, $40 for Windows, with educational pricing available), it's not nearly-free (though, still less expensive than Storyist, and offers way more that Storyist does to most writers, in my opinion). It is well worth the money, though.

If you already use Scrivener, or are thinking about buying it, I will let you know that Literature & Latte is currently developing an iOS version of Scrivener. It was originally slated to be released at the end of 2012, and has been delayed due to some family issues of their iOS developer but is now back on track with the hiring of a second iOS developer (as this L&L blog points out). As of now, the hope is that the iOS version of Scrivener will be available, at least in beta form, by #NaNoWriMo2013, but L&L is not giving a public target date just yet.

If you are using Scrivener and are looking to buy or recently bought an iPad, and want to work on those documents with your new device, there are a few options available to you. For today we'll discuss Scriveners "Sync with external folder option," which will allow you to use any folder as a drop-off point for files, permitting them to be edited (or created new) and then re-synced to your Scrivener project. To start this process, launch Scrivener and open the project you wish to sync. Select "File->Sync->With External Folder" and select the folder to sync, as shown:

For the purposes of this example, I'm going to leave the default options checked (the ones shown). The "Draft" folder refers to the folder containing your manuscript files, which is called "Manuscript" or "Short Story" in Novel or Short Story projects in the current versions of Scrivener that I have (I think "Draft" was the term formerly used for this folder, but that this dialog box text doesn't seem to have been updated to reflect the new naming convention).

Under the "Shared Folder" area, I've selected a Dropbox folder. Although I believe you could use SugarSync, Box, SkyDrive, or possibly the Google Drive for this, I haven't actually tested these (the Dropbox option works so well for me that I haven't yet tested the others!)

Note the options under Format, specifically "Format for external Draft files". The options listed here are RTF, Plain Text, Final Draft, and Fountain (what appears to be a markup language like Markdown, specifically for screenplays). For your iPad writing, if you are going to use a plain text editor, you want to select the Plain Text option, but with the RTF option selected you can use the CloudOn app, as well as a few others, to edit the documents and retain formatting. I like this option a lot, as an interim step before Scrivener for iOS comes out.

Whatever option you choose, when you go to your iPad you can open these files just like any RTF file; for example, opening the Dropbox app and selecting the file you wish to edit allows you to pick the app you want to use. Additionally, any of the editing apps that support Dropbox can open those files in the interface for that specific app (CloudOn, for example, has a "Home" button which takes you to the document root for CloudOn, permitting you to drill down on your Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, or Google Drive folders).

The reverse process is just about as painless. You've been out at your favorite coffee shop, park, or found yourself stuck at MVD getting a new driver's license, and edited a few files in your GreatAmericanNovel. You go home, get on your Mac, and pop open Scrivener, launching your novel's project. Go to File->Sync->With External Folder Now (this option only appears after you've set up an external folder with which to sync, as shown), and all your changes will propagate back into your project. When the sync is complete, your binder will display the collection "Updated Documents," so you can see which files were uploaded because they are new, or were edited.

One quick note: when you edit a document found inside the "Drafts" folder in your externally synced folder, do not edit the title of the document. It uses a system that Scrivener depends on to properly place, and sync, the file. When you create a new document, feel free to give it a descriptive name (this name will appear as the title of the document in the Scrivener project), but know that when you view this file after syncing it with Scrivener, Scrivener will add a few items to the document title (the internal numbering system Scrivener uses).

So, that's the quick-and-dirty of using External Sync and Dropbox to enable plain text or RTF text editing of files in a Scrivener project on your iPad. Our next blog entry will cover sync with Simplenote, another plain text option permitting the CloudAgeAuthor to use the power of Scivener at home and still write in the Cloud when needed.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Quick review of a few paid apps for iPad writing

When last I set about to help the #CloudAgeAuthor find their way in the sea of iPad apps for writing, I was about to look at a few of the apps that are not free (as in beer; that is, they cost money to download or cost money to use in a way that is useful for an iPad writer). As things go sometimes, I was wrapped up in some school work (finishing up my A. A. S. in Paramedicine) and trying to get my children's picture book published (alas, still a work in progress), and was not able to get around to putting out that blog entry. Without wasting any more time, however, here are some of the more common apps and my brief review of them.


Price: $0.99 (promotion currently running on iTunes Store, normally $4.99)
Kind: plain text editor

  • Pros: This app is very minimalistic, making it a great option for pulling into your local coffee shop or even just sitting in the park (with or without wifi or cell access), and typing. It is Universal, meaning that it will work on both the iPhone and the iPad (and, I believe, the iPod Touch) exactly the same, with the same access and input, permitting you to write even when you find yourself stuck in line at the MVD without your iPad. It has a "writing-only" mode (called "focus mode") that allows you to not only turn off the very minimal toolbar, but to also dim all but the two lines above your current insertion point, as well as the current line (again, determined by where the insertion point is). It makes it very easy to write without most of the distractions of other editors. It supports using Markdown, very minimally; I will go over Markdown in an endnote to this blog posting but for now understand that it's a non-RTF and non-HTML way to mark text to be bolded, italicized, underlined, and such. This makes it useful for basic markup, and can be imported as such into various other applications. It will save documents both in the iCloud or to Dropbox (but only Dropbox), making it useful if you also need to edit or access these documents on your iPhone or home computer. It offers a word count, which seems to be a rare feature, and also offers an estimated "time to read," where it makes some guesses about how long the average reader will need to read from the beginning of the current document to 1) the cursor, and 2) the end of the document (another feature some will find more useful than others).
  • Cons: As useful as the Markdown stuff might be, it's can be distracting to have to use different markup in your iPad writing when you compare it to your home computer; if, for example, you use most any RTF-enabled app on Mac or Windows, you likely use CMD-I or CTRL-I for italics, and switching to the Markdown method (using *italics* by typing the word or phrase in between single asterisks) can get in the way (other people may not find this as annoying as I do!). It doesn't sync to SugarSync, Box, SkyDrive, Google Drive, or any of the other Cloud options, which may limit its utility for some people. Will require an additional step to be useful in Word or many other applications on your home or laptop computer (Word, based on my understanding, does not know anything about Markdown, though there apparently is a plugin available on the Microsoft Developer Network that will allow MS Word to edit Markdown files). iaWriter is really just a writing app; if you need research or links or other features, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Verdict: for the promotional price of $0.99, it's an excellent way to just sit down and start writing, wherever you happen to find yourself. The addition of the Markdown syntax improves its utility a little, definitely more for certain writers than for others (I, for example, find it less useful than will many of you, and more than some!). If you 1) use Dropbox, 2) need to be able to pop open an app and write in like nothing flat in a 3) very non-distracting app, that 4) supports minimal formatting via Markdown, and 5) offers word counts (or, time-to-read), then this app is for you (and at less than a dollar plus any applicable taxes, is a right steal for many of the people in that group!). It is also recommended if you already have the iaWriter on your home Mac (currently at the promo price of $4.99, normally $9.99). Seriously, for a buck it's hard to go wrong, and I have it for the occasional "Heck, I have four minutes to spare and a gnawing need to put something down on paper ... " moment where it proves very handy.


Price: $9.99
Kind: Word Processor

Pages, a full-featured Word Processor from Apple (and part of the iWork family of applications, which also includes Numbers and Keynote), is an actual, full-fledged, Honest-to-the-heavens word processing application. It supports all of the normal word processing features you would think (or, at least, most of them, and certainly all of the ones that I myself have needed so far), including spelling and grammar checking, formatted text, placing images, headers, footers, tables, charts, lines, shapes, and comes with a host of templates for various kinds of writings, including letters, proposals, cards, fliers, and so forth.

  • Pros: As a full-fledged word processor, it really has everything you'd need for just about any writing project, as long as you are comfortable with the linear writing style that nearly all writing and word processing apps force (most of us have adapted! LOL). It really is a monster of an app, but even then doesn't take very long to open up and get to the writing. As a WYSIWYG word processing app, you get to see and format your writing as you go. It syncs over iTunes and WebDAV.
  • Cons: As a WYSIWYG word processor, it may be just as distracting to some writers as are desktop/laptop word processing apps like Word, Pages, or Open/LibreOffice. If you find yourself distracted by the ability to make pretty colors and fonts and bullets and whatnot, this might not be for you. It does not directly sync to Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, Google Drive, or SkyDrive, and so will likely not be as useful as many other applications will be for many writers, but it can be made to work with these applications  It is not nearly-free, though $10 plus applicable taxes is not a lot of money to pay for the features it provides. It saves in a proprietary document format (.pages), though it can save output to both Word document (.doc) and PDF formats.
Verdict: Though a bit on the pricey side for an iPad app, Pages can really come in handy for the CloudAgeAuthor. Though it does not directly sync changes to Dropbox or most other forms of Cloud storage, through the ability of the iPad to register apps with "Open In..." it is fairly straightforward to go into the Dropbox app, select a .pages or .doc (or .docx) file, tell the iPad to "Open In" Pages, edit or otherwise work with the document, then Share->Open in Another App the document back to Dropbox (I also show Pages able to send these documents to Box, SugarSync, Google Drive, SkyDrive, Box, DocsToGo, Evernote, and several other applications). So, though you can't simply use Pages to directly open documents in your non-Apple Cloud storage, you can use it with those documents. I recommend this application to any CloudAgeAuthor when they have a spare $10 floating around, the ability to do WYSIWYG document editing can be invaluable.


Price: $9.99
Kind: Writing Platform

Storyist is a lot more than a simple editor, or even a word processor (which it is, kind of): it's a Writing Platform. It has a companion app on the Mac, and is really a writer's tool chest in addition to being a WYSIWYG rich text editor. As an example, it supports non-linear editing (meaning, you can parcel out your writing's scenes, or chapters, or whatever, into pieces, and edit them in whatever order), and you can easily re-arrange, add, insert, or delete writings, and keep track of things like your characters and locations, and other research, all in the same app.

  • Pros: Multiple view options for your work, including outline, page, and index card (which shows documents as movable index cards, which can have non-printing metadata as well as being able to be dragged around ad hoc to reorder your writing). Supports WYSIWYG text editing including fonts, bold/italic/underline, bulleted and numbered lists, defined styles (such as for Chapter Titles, section titles, etc.), and so forth. Instead of simply allowing "document editing," Storyist uses a project metaphor. What this means is that each novel, short story, screenplay, or what have you, is its own project, full of folders of text documents, images, character and location profiles, and etc. It allows you to do a lot more free-form organizing; if, for example, you prefer to write your novels as chapters with scenes in them, you can set aside a folder for each chapter and put each scene in its own "file" within the folder for that chapter. This permits huge freedom in how you write and edit, since you can work on each scene individually without having to also wade through the other six chapters that existed before it. You can do all of these things with multiple documents in folders on your hard drive while writing in Word, or Pages, that is true; Storyist just does all the organizing for you, and permits you to switch back and forth from writing to planning to outlining to editing and back, in whatever order and fashion fits your style best, while staying within the app. Supports iTunes or Dropbox syncing.
  • Cons: more expensive than most other options. Not for everyone; if all you are doing with your iPad is occasionally editing a text or RTF document here and there, or capturing your occasional writing as-the-mood-strikes while out in the world, this app would be to your writing as a bazooka would be for killing flies. Doesn't support Box, SugarSync, SkyDrive, Google Drive, or other Cloud storage options other than the two listed under Pros. Stores documents in proprietary format.
Verdict: I like the concept of Storyist a lot, and if you are already using Storyist on your Mac ($59.99, not an insignificant investment for many of us!) then this is kind of a no-brainer. If you are thinking about shifting your writing from Word, Pages, or Open/LibreOffice on your home computer to this kind of a system, I would hold off for the release of Scrivener for the iPad. The Scrivener app for both Mac and Windows is less expensive, and more full-featured, than that of Storyist, and the iOS version is likely to be not much more expensive (if any) than Storyist, and probably will offer at least as much as, and likely much more than, Storyist does. However, the iOS version of Scrivener does not yet exist (though, it is in development). So if you must have something now, Storyist will fill in this gap very nicely.

There are a few other apps for writing out there, which I have not reviewed mostly because I do not own them, and in the research I have been able to do they either are way more expensive than their equivalent from my list (WriteRoom, for example, is a rough equivalent for iaWriter, and is $4.99, so I don't see any reason to buy WriteRoom. Since WriteRoom appears to be a rough analogue of iaWriter, when iaWriter's price goes back up, they'll be a 50-50 so far as I can tell), or cost about the same and do about the same thing. Since I'm not made of money, I can't afford to go out and buy every single writing app on the App Store just to test them out.

Two additional things before I depart. First, is that promised endnote about Markdown. Markdown is essentially a shorthand way to mark text for special treatment, in a way that does not require learning a coding language (such as HTML). As you might recall, HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language (so, Markdown is labelled as a kind of an opposite of HTML), which is a standardized language for describing how documents should be displayed, including things like font colors, sizes, faces, bold, italic, underlining, and a whole host of other options. Markdown, on the other hand, uses a small set of symbols to describe how to change the characteristics of certain words or phrases in a text document. These symbols are not officially standardized, but do seem to have evolved some common characteristics. Commonly, the symbol set of *word* translates into word and **word** into word, but there are also symbol sets for lists, font sizes, and so forth. The implementation of Markdown is not widespread, however, and should not be the make-or-break for a CloudAgeAuthor, in my opinion. 

Second, I mentioned Scrivener in my review of Storyist. On my Mac, I own a copy of Scrivener (and, have for several years). It is a truly outstanding platform for writing; I have ghostwritten an e-book, written an academic paper for my paramedic program, and am working on several other projects at the same time. Storyist and Scrivener cover much of the same kind of ground, but my experience with Scrivener is that it's a more robust and much more feature-complete app, and is what I recommend for any writer on either Mac or Windows. I am hoping for an iOS version of this app, at least in a beta form, soon, so that I can sync my desktop writing directly with my iPad in Scrivener, and for me that will likely make much of the other apps that I use redundant.

Next blog entry will be a thorough review of Scrivener for Mac, including some CloudAgeAuthor-specific utility this Writing Platform already has even without an iOS version.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A response to today's bombings at the Boston Marathon

At the time that I write this, there have been varying reports about the number of wounded, ranging from 28 to hundreds, and a consistent report from NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, and ABC of two dead, from the bombings today at the Boston Marathon. I wanted to take a few moments to express myself, and to get a thought out of my head, regarding this event and the surrounding activity.

First, I'd like to express my deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed, or injured, in the bombing. No words of mine can really approach the deepest feelings of people, and the sense of loss, anger, and despair that must accompany these tragedies. All I can hope for is that the families and friends of those hurt today can express their emotions and be touched by the people closest to them, in order to validate and help heal their grief.

Second, allow me to take a moment and acknowledge those who were running toward, and not away from, the danger. Normal human instinct is to flee from the unknown; to be terrified of something, like an unexpected loud noise, and to run away from it, startled and afraid. That's how animals respond, and it's how most humans respond. But not all. There were soldiers, police officers, firefighters, EMS providers, media personnel, and bystanders who immediately overcame their fear, their instinct to get far, far away, and assess and help those who were most in danger. Some of them were people who had just run 26.2 miles, and were absolutely exhausted, dehydrated, and until that moment were likely thinking of nothing else but getting some water, getting off of their feet, and resting. They didn't rest, they reacted. They didn't drink water, they staunched bleeding and applied tourniquets and carted off the wounded in a scene that I imagine might have felt like it was written by Dante, Milton, or Virgil; a vision of Hell centuries old. In addition, a massive salute is in order to the staff of the various area hospitals, most of whom probably came into work this morning expecting a few extra patients, most related to the Marathon and the surrounding crowds, but nothing on this scale, or for this reason. Shifting gears from "normal" emergency department patients to clearing dozens of trauma rooms, activating MCI response teams, and preparing for horrific injuries is exhausting, and requires mental and emotional efforts that are difficult to comprehend. My hat goes off to them, as well.

Third, indulge me in some anger, if you will. I have not yet heard any claim of responsibility from any of the terror groups I might have expected to claim responsibility, and so all of the things I am about to say are contingent upon it being an act of organized terrorism (about which I have no doubt, but which is, still, conjecture by me).

To those who planned and executed this bombing, I ask: what do you expect will happen? Do you have some fantasy of the President of the United States to get on television, and beg for your organization to forgive America for being the most impressive font of freedom in human history? Is there some concept in your clearly undersized brain that permits you to imagine, for even a moment, that Americans give a flying fuck about your jihad, or your personal vendetta against America, or your crusade to demolish a relatively free-market capitalism because you think that Lenin, Mao, or Che "had it right"?

Allow me to point out what happens when you kill Americans, especially innocent Americans (we will return to the issue of innocence in a moment): You die. If you disbelieve me, ask your compatriots in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and various other places around the world. So far, two people are dead as a result of today's bombing (I assume they are Americans, because the mass of statistics would support the high probability of them being so, but it is possible that the two deceased are visitors, perhaps from your own nation). Is the death of a hundred of your fellows worth the two almost accidental murders you've committed today? Are you really naive enough to believe that Americans have grown distasteful of overseas military action, enough so that we will leave you and your compatriots alone and unharmed? If you are, then I pity you. I truly do. We will not leave you alone. We will not beg your forgiveness, we will not kowtow to your unreasonable demands nor to your unreasonable methods for expressing them. We will find out who you are, we will come to where you are, and we will unleash a justice upon you that you cannot possibly conceive.

Regarding innocence: there is a wide-spread and vociferous charge leveled by terrorists targeting the United States that no-one in the United States is innocent, that we all share in the bloody hands and corrupted values that you profess to oppose. In doing so, you also vilify American attacks, such as recent drone attacks in Afghanistan, which happened to have killed family members of the leaders of various groups targeting Americans while targeting those leaders themselves. Your duplicity is obvious, even to the most uneducated. If Americans cheering on their family members running in a marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, are not innocent of the crimes you level against the United States, then neither are the family members of your Taliban, Al Queda, and other organizations. You teach your children hatred, from the time they are born. You espouse violence, and anger, amongst your peers. You discuss your plans to kill Americans, by some of the most cowardly methods possible, with your wives and your daughters and your elders. They are not innocent: just as you believe that every single person in America has some kind of obligation to abide by your rules of law, justice, and penitence, so then does every single person in your circle of influence have the same obligations to Americans. As Americans, we do not put our soldiers behind children; we do not hide them amongst families and elders. Our soldiers fight as soldiers. If you want to, feel free to face them. I know you cannot, because you have no hope to survive the military onslaught of the United States.

You cannot win the battles between armies, because we are better trained, better equipped, and better fed than are you. You cannot win the battles of sympathy: when a drone accidentally kills a few children, America acknowledges the mistake and then continues to work to improve our ability to kill your leaders, and soldiers, one by one; but planting bombs that can never, ever target soldiers but must, of necessity, target families and children, can never be forgiven and emboldens even America's enemies against you. Simply put, you cannot win. Even the most fearless and confident soldiers that have ever lived know when a battle is hopelessly lost.

Finally, I part with this thought in my head: as Americans, we are truly siblings. Republicans and Democrats may tear at each other's throats, but they are Americans. Only I may beat up my brother; if you try to beat him up, I will unleash a fury of anger and destruction upon you that has never before been seen. Be careful with whom you pick fights.