NaNoWriMo – My Digital Tools

So far, my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) journey continues as we come to the middle of November. My note taking, outlining, and general scribbling continues with the analogue tools I wrote about last week. How has the actual writing (as well as a bit more planning) occurred? With a few digital tools, which I thought I would share below.

Planning and Outlining

Although I should no doubt use the technique more, I do find mind mapping incredibly useful. In the past I have used iThoughts, however for 6 months or so, it has been MindNode on iOS, and MindNode Pro on the Mac.

Specifically in relation to NaNoWriMo, MindNode has kept organised the general outline of the four overarching plot lines to the story, which I find particularly useful for referring back to in relation to names and relationships.

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The initial map itself was constructed just prior to beginning writing, however it is now largely an evolving document which develops alongside the story. I’ve found it extremely helpful when adding components, to then sit and review the story as a whole, as it is outlined on the map.

You will also see a timeline running across the top of the map which I have created on a separate node, which will most likely be split into a second node directly below the current one as the story proceeds and the timeline lengthens.

Why MindNode? It’s simplicity is the main drawcard.

Tapping a node allows the creation of child node by pressing the ‘+’ icon which appears, with a double tap to edit text. The nodes can be ‘folded’ down or expanded; detached to create another node, or attached to an existing node by tapping, holding and dragging. The same can be achieved through the contextual menus.

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Of course there are the usual style and formatting options for the background, text and nodes themselves, with a ‘smart layout’ toggle which, if on, will align nodes and branches uniformly throughout the map.

Although not it’s intended purpose, I’ve also created a ‘location map’ …map, if you will, which has been perfect for getting my head around where the characters have been, currently are, or are going to, geographically in the story.

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It does not have the advanced attachment options of say iThoughts, however I simply don’t require those. In organising my ideas, it is the content of what I get down, plain and simple. Oh, and I do love the outline view.

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Syncing is through iCloud Drive or Dropbox, with exporting options including Freemind and OPML file formats, along with text, PDF and image formatting.

Drafts 4
Although iOS only, I have been using Drafts for some time, recently upgrading to version 4.

For NaNoWriMo, it has been my go to app to use for quick notes, without needing to pull out my Field Notes and a pen. Syncing to my iPad mini provides some scope for expanding further on these notes on a larger screen if I need to, however I rarely do this.

Currently in my ‘NaNo Notes’, I have a few thoughts around the plot, a couple of character names I had thought of, and some ideas for an elevator pitch, which only recently came up after a friend asked what the book was about, and I found myself somewhat disjointed in my resulting explanation. A catchy (I think?) tag line rounds out the note.

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For those familiar with the Drafts app, there are virtually endless actions that can be applied to any note, with many more to be found on developer Agile Tortoise Drafts Action Directory.

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As you can see from the screenshots, for anyone wishing to produce longer pieces, there is also Markdown support (with specific keys in the additional keyboard row for this purpose). At the current time, my NaNoWriMo needs only require a robust, reliable note taking app, and Drafts fits the bill nicely.


Ulysses III
All the planning and outlining in the world won’t get you very far in this challenge unless you get the words down – and a good few at that. For this, I have used Ulyssess III for Mac, which is described thus by developer, The Soulmen:

Ulysses lets you focus when you need to concentrate. It keeps all your texts neatly stuffed in its intuitive library. With a few clicks, Ulysses can create beautiful documents from your manuscripts: PDFs, web pages, even iBooks-ready ePubs. With its simple, clutter-free interface, it will turn work hours into fun time. And mere thoughts into powerful stories. If you love to write, and write a lot, Ulysses is made for you.

Indeed I have found Ulysses III to be a great tool for getting the 25k+ words down I have managed to write so far.

So, with Scrivener already on my Mac, why Ulysses? To be fair, I have not really written anything of length as yet in Scrivener (a widely known and well-loved app for many an author – not that I consider myself one), so I cannot really compare the two.

Through a sponsorship of NaNoWriMo, Ulysses offered a 30 day free trial of the app, with some email encouragement throughout the month, and a free extract from author David Hewson’s book Writng a Novel with Ulysses III.

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Given the enormity of the NaNoWriMo challenge, I was looking for something with enough structure to keep things organised, yet the simplicity to allow me to just write – a lot. As far as I am aware, Scrivener may be a little more feature packed and powerful, however Ulysses has been spot on for what I have required, namely:

  • Chapter and scene separation through separate ‘sheets’
  • Highly intuitive organisation of folders, files and keyword tags
  • Focused, full screen writing
  • Usual grammar and spell checking
  • Statistics, including word count and reading time etc
  • Effective grouping of scenes with key words so individual plot lines can be worked on in isolation, despite being mixed throughout the book
  • Markdown support
  • Exporting to other MD supported apps and also as ePub / iBooks
  • Syncing through iCloud or Dropbox via the ‘Add External Source’ option

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I have also written both this post, and last week’s on Ulysses, to try out some of the features more specific to a blogging, which has also been a great success. Incidentally, the insertion of a web link via copying a URL to the clipboard, highlighting a word in the post, and simply pasting to finish the link is a little magical.

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Ulysses is indeed a fantastic app for writing, and my initial plan to purchase it as a reward for finishing NaNoWriMo looks on track so far. I encourage you to check it out.

A final word from David Hewson:

Writing’s hard. Software should make it less so. Ulysses really does.

Daedalus Touch
Daedalus is the iOS companion app to Ulysses, also by The Soulmen, who describe it as The World’s Sexiest Writing App, and Simple, Powerful and Flat Out Georgeous.

True? Well, it is strikingly minimal writing app, with an interface considerably different to many you will find on the market. The app is designed as a series of “paper stacks” rather than document lists, and, upon entering a stack, navigation is then by swiping from L to R, or the reverse between each page.

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Pages are not limited to a standard size, and will infinitely increase in length the more you write. To retreat back out of the stacks, a simple two finger pinch is all it takes. Daedalus has an additional, customisable extra keyboard row, containing a central area which, upon tapping, will scroll to the end of the sheet. A nice touch.

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Due to my insecurity with iCloud at the moment, setting up Dropbox syncing with Ulysses was a straight forward task, and has worked flawlessly since day one.

Having had Daedalus on my iPad and iPhone for some time, I guess I really just needed a reason to give it a good run, and I’ve been impressed so far. It has been the go to app for racking up 500–1000 words over my lunchtime coffee, or writing at the kitchen bench nearer my family, rather than being stuck at my desk.

Reviewing and Editing

As you’d expect, a good deal of editing occurs as I go along, however given the somewhat larger word count target than I am used to, there are times when I simply need to continue writing, and the editing and revision suffers a little.

I am a firm believer in the reviewing or re-reading work in a different format to that in which it was originally written, as I find this allows me to pick up errors or parts needing revision a little easier. For blog posts I find Marked 2 a great way to review what I have written.

For NaNoWriMo purposes, I have found that exporting the book from Ulysses (an extremely easy task) to iBooks, allows me to not only view what I have written in ‘book’ format, but more easily pick up such errors, and I have the ability to highlight and take notes in the margin, which are then tabulated in the contents section of the book, and it is a simple tap to jump back to the relevant section.

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Though I cannot edit the text directly as I read it, I have found it quite easy to edit on my Mac with my iPad in front of me showing the required revisions in iBooks.

The Hardware

There is not a great deal to say here, apart from mentioning the above Mac apps are used on a late 2012 Mac mini; the iOS apps on my iPad mini with retina display (now referred to as the iPad mini 2) or the iPhone 6, which have all performed flawlessly, and continue to do everything I ask of them. When writing on my iPad mini, I also more often than not use the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard mini.


So there you have it. My NaNoWriMo ‘digital tools’ both for Mac and iOS. You would have a strong argument in saying I was a little crazy when undertaking this challenge to try new apps as well, however I think it says a lot about the simplicity and functionality of MindNode, Ulysses III, and Daedalus, that things have run so smoothly.

In fact, I am now quite confident these tools will see me through the next 25,000 words to the end.

Lets just hope the creative side of my brain will do the same.

Just say no to iCloud Drive – for now

With the pending release of iOS 8 on September 17 and the subsequent availability of iCloud Drive as part of the upgrade, fair warning from some of the development and Apple press community.

You can go back and upgrade at any time, but unless you want a file-syncing nightmare on your hands, you’ll wait for Yosemite’s official release.

As iCloud drive requires iOS 8 (let’s assume you will be upgrading) soon to be available, and OS X Yosemite which is currently not available, Mac and iOS devices will not sync through iCloud Drive if you are running an iOS 8 and OS X Mavericks (or earlier) combination.

Therefore, when upgrading to iOS 8 – select the Not Now option when confronted with the iCloud Drive screen during the installation process (once Yosemite is on your Mac, iCloud Drive can then be activated on all your devices).

Don’t use iCloud or don’t own and sync with a Mac? – upgrade and embrace iCloud Drive until your heart’s content.

Read more from two developers here:

FAQ: iOS 8 & iCloud Drive
iCloud Changes in iOS 8

Quotebook 3 for iOS

The sign of a great app? It does what it sets out to do, does it reliably and efficiently, and looks great while doing it.

Icon SmallWhen news of a major update to the iOS app Quotebook appeared in my Twitter feed recently, it made me realise what a great app Quotebook is. Why? Because it fits all the above criteria, and made me immediately think “an update, that’s always most welcome, but it didn’t really need one”. Further, though I was happy to retweet this news noting it was one of my “favourite apps”, I could not recall specifically the last time I had used it. Oh, it will never be deleted, and contains some of my favourite quotes, however again the sign of a great app – it is there for a purpose, and there when I need it.

What initially drew me to Quotebook (probably a couple of years ago now) was the specificity of it’s purpose. Sure, I could have saved some quotes in a notebook or with a tag in Evernote; kept them as text files in Dropbox or Drafts; or even tabled them in a spreadsheet, which I have also done in the dim distant past. Quotebook seemed like the perfect solution to keep these pieces of text together with their author and source if necessary.

I admit, at times specificity in an app can be limiting, however in this case it is spot on. Look at what you need after all: the quote; the attribution for the author or speaker; the source; and tags to group quotes should you desire. Add a great looking interface and seamless syncing between my iPad and iPhone, and there you have it – a favourite app. Remember, that was before the update.

We now welcome Quotebook 3, which has been completely redesigned from the ground up, by developer Lickability:

Quotebook 3 is our biggest release ever. We’ve completely redesigned and rewritten the app, making it easier than ever to collect your favourite quotes and give them context and personality.

  • Fully rewritten iCloud syncing
  • Add images and descriptions to authors and sources
  • Information about your authors and sources is automatically downloaded from Wikipedia
  • Auto-complete authors, sources, and tags from within the app, your contacts, and your music library
  • Import quotes from your Tumblr posts and Facebook profile
  • Tap into any author or source from the quotes screen to see more quotes from them
  • Discover and save random quotes from the app’s main screen
  • Share quotes to Tweetbot, Tumblr, and Day One
  • Improved Auto-Detection of quotes on your clipboard (including from iBooks)
  • x-callback-url support for the Quotebook URL scheme so other apps can add quotes seamlessly
  • Simplified settings

As you can see from the above list, the update is indeed a big one. I must admit the most pleasing thing I have found in using Quotebook 3 in the couple of days since the update is the fact that it works equally as reliably and consistently as the previous version, but is faster, looks better, and I agree, has a little more personality, to quote the developer. Although I guess consistent and reliable only gets you so far, as (searches Quotebook):

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
— Oscar Wilde

See – there when I need it, just like I said.


Probably my favourite aspects of the update include the complete overhaul of the user interface, which is elegantly minimal; direct sharing to Tweetbot and Day One through the standard sharesheet; the ability to see information and other quotes from an author, or the information popover from the source (see screenshot below); also, the functionality of the clipboard auto-detection seems to have improved. A nice touch is also the ability to save random quotes now appearing on your main screen.


Quotebook 3 is a beautiful, yet highly functional app which appears to be in for the long haul. Lickability have added enough bells and whistles with the new update to please many a power user, however have repackaged and improved the robust and delightful features that worked elegantly and efficiently all along.


Developers say many things in press releases, however on this point from Lickability I most certainly concur:

Lickability has been and will always be concerned with all the small details that make apps great.

Must save that quote somewhere…


Also be sure to check out the review of Quotebook 3 by Federico Viticci at Macstories.

Quotebook 3 is available on the App Store for AUD$6.99, and is a universal app for both iPad and iPhone.

Analogue and digital: an equal partnership


I recently published a post on the merits of improving my handwriting or “penmanship”. This had the flow on effect of triggering some consideration about my note-taking in general, which commonly occurs in both digital and analogue (hand-written) forms.

Digital or Analogue – Why not just choose one?

Why not simply go all in with handwritten notebooks, a manual calendar or perhaps a Bullet Journal type system? I don’t believe this to be possible in the way I like to interact with my work, hobbies, thoughts, and just about everything I either enjoy, or am required to accomplish on a day-to-day basis. In reading that sentence over, more accurately, I choose not to work this way.

I’m sure if I wanted to, I could “go off the grid”, however I enjoy using my digital tools as much as I do my analogue ones, having put a good deal of effort into setting things up so they work well together, as I have seeking out great pens and notebooks. I believe the two can co-exist happily, complementing each other, rather than requiring isolation or resulting in duplication. Just the other day for example, working through a tutorial on the longer form writing Mac application Scrivener, it seemed appropriate to jot down the key points in my Field Notes Arts Edition.

If I am entirely honest, with so much more to learn, I would be pretty disappointed not to pursue greater integration and understanding of my technology, or ongoing expansion and evolution of my pen and paper collection.

Getting the Job Done

ShelterwoodFirst and foremost, the essence of any tool is that it does what you require of it. For note-taking, whether a list, outline, mindmap or draft blog post – it gets the job done with a minimum of friction. True, certain situations dictate only certain tools can be used. For example I cannot check the weather forecast or send a text message with pen and paper (or perhaps I can).

The first half of this very post was drafted on my iPad mini with Editorial, an app which constantly amazes me with its features and automation, though I probably use less than a quarter of them. The latter half of the post with pen on paper, upon which I had written:

…as I sit here in the pre-dawn lamp glow drafting this post in longhand, I cannot think of a more pleasant sound than the Pelikan nib gliding across this Rhodia paper.

Agreed. Probably a little more than simply getting the job done.

The Appeal?


Day One

Hardware design of both mobile devices and Macs is certainly important, however for most of us remains fairly stable over extended periods of time, and is something I probably take for granted. Thinking about why I enjoy my digital tools, it is generally in terms of the user interface and software features. The beautiful way Day One captures and presents moments in my life; the power of Drafts or nvALT in capturing and processing notes; the automation of Editorial; or elegant simplicity of Vesper.

My analogue tools? More deeply engrained in the senses. Sounds, textures, colours. The feel of blank paper and how this changes when full of words. The wear patterns of a Field Notes notebook by the time the last page rolls around. Once archived, the joy of page one in the next. The different weight and balance, finish or colour of a new pen. The sound of a pen across a page as it crafts a line with the purest ink.

Wrapping Up

The fundamental question for me, is whether or not there is joy, delight or inherent satisfaction in the way I interact with my surroundings or tools, be they analogue or digital.

In the tools I choose to use, the answer is yes, and applies equally to a powerful but beautifully designed iOS or Mac application, as it does an exquisitely honed fountain pen nib gliding across the finest paper.

Some have suggested with technology marching on (which I readily embrace), the death of the pen is nigh.

To those who know the truth? We just post the cap and write on. Smiling.

WWDC 2014 Keynote

It was about this time last year my interest in all things tech took an upward turn. Having just started ‘blogging’, I was keen to find ways of improving my writing workflow, and given my use of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, looked forward to hearing about the changes looming in iOS 7, which I would be viewing on these devices quite often from that point onwards. Overall, despite a few bugs and crashes, I have been happy with what iOS 7 brought us.

Expectations for the announcements at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year? To be honest, nothing specific other than a keen interest in what Apple has planned for the future. After buying a Mac late last year, my entire (personal) digital existence now lives within this ecosystem.

OS X – Yosemite

Having tuned in early this morning (Australian time) to the live stream of the Keynote presentation kicked of by Tim Cook, the main focus was on both consumer and developer updates to both the OS X and iOS platforms.

We saw the introduction of OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” (available as a free update later in the year), continuing the new naming convention after Mavericks was introduced last year. Featured were a redesigned interface (translucent background, new app icons and sidebars); updates to Safari, Mail, Calendar and Spotlight; a today view in an expanded Notification Center which now has support for widgets; the ability to make phone calls and SMS from your Mac, along with improved interaction with iOS devices. The improvements to iOS communication include having AirDrop now active between Macs and Mobile devices (finally), and iCloud drive with the ability to sync folders on the Mac to iOS and Windows (think Dropbox).

iOS 8

As far as iOS 8 is concerned, as expected, no great change to the interface itself, however some interesting updates were evident to text input, in the form of Quicktype predictive typing and the ability to add system wide third-party keyboards. Also seen were improvements to Spotlight search and Notifcation Center, in line with the changes in OS X; better gestures for Mail; new Message thread features; a Family Sharing feature (to include Apple IDs) and the integration of iCloud drive as note above. Other features that seem very promising include “Handoff” which allows you to pick up on your Mac exactly where you left off on your mobile device, and the “Extensions” feature, allowing developers better access to inter-app communications. Two other areas Apple were rumoured to be exploring were confirmed, with both HealthKit (Personal health and fitness monitoring) and HomeKit (home automation) also shown to developers.

The above is just a small sample of what was presented this morning however I’m looking forward to seeing how these changes might improve the way I do things on both platforms, in particular, how the new integration features will assist in communication between the mobile and desktop operating systems.

A great roundup of this mornings events can be found at the The Unofficial Apple Weblog, and I believe the boys on the Reckoner Podcast will be discussing what was unveiled further this evening.