Talking about the intersection of technology and writing.

For the Tech of It

Obsolete Information

For no particular reason at all, today I found myself thinking about the future. Specifically, about phone numbers.

I was looking at my daughter and imagining her several years hence, when she gets her first iPhone (or whatever gadget has replaced it by then). And I thought about how the persistence of memory in our gadgets and the rudimentary artificial intelligences that power them have made the knowing of certain bits of information an obsolete practice.

If you’re my age or older (do they get older???), then you probably still remember a few key phone numbers. I remember my mother’s (it hasn’t changed in more than thirty years) and — for some reason — the very first phone number I ever had. But I can’t remember my wife’s for the life of me, mainly because I never had to learn it. I entered it into my address book once and it populated across all of my devices. When I need to call her, I tap her name or tell Siri.

The same is true of email addresses. And Twitter handles. We know people by their names and our gadgets remember the rest for us.

“We know all of this, Barry,” you’re saying, rolling your eyes at my early onset senility. But, no — I told you that so that I could tell you this:

Right now, if you meet someone and want their contact information, you request it and they give it to you. You then dutifully enter it into a database1 and never think about it again.

This seems like an outrageously simple procedure, but why shouldn’t it be simpler?

Again, envisioning the future my daughter will live in: She’s ten years old and has just received her Apple Necklace, a stylish choker that — through Siri 10.0 — can respond to her subvocal commands and communicate to her and her alone via signals that travel up her neck and along her jawbone to vibrate her eardrums. There’s no interface — she doesn’t need an interface. She talks to it, and it responds.

She wants to be able to call or text her grandmother or send photos from the Bluetooth-linked eyepiece she’s getting for her birthday, so she needs to enter Gramma’s contact info.

Or does she?

Because the next time she’s in proximity to my mother, she can just tell Siri, “That’s my Gramma.” And Siri will link up with my mom’s gadgets and the two will quickly hand off information. In the blink of an eye, my daughter’s Necklace creates a contact — Gramma — and populates it with all of the contact info in my mom’s gadget.

When my daughter wants to talk or text or otherwise communicate with her grandmother, all she does is tell Siri, “Call Gramma” or “Tell Gramma I can’t wait to see her.”

The distinction between phone call and text and email is an artificial one that exists mostly because of the different evolutions of the technologies. As time and technology progress, though, there’s no need to think, “I want to contact Person X. What’s the best way to do that?” Let the tech handle it. The tech will figure out the best way to contact Person X at that particular time and just take it from there. And, furthermore, let the tech set up the contact info in the first place. It’s not a question of “In the future, will you remember anyone’s phone number?”

It’s more like, “In the future, will you ever know anyone’s phone number in the first place?”

 



  1. You may not think of it as a database, but that’s exactly what your contacts list is.

For the Tech of It: Clips

clips_iconLast year, I wrote about my various writing tech choices. Since then, I’ve made some adjustments/changes/upgrades, so For the Tech of It returns to fill you in!

Today, I want to talk about Clips, a really terrific app that goes a long way towards bridging an important gap in the iOS universe.

(Note: Clips works beautifully on both iPad and iPhone. My screenshots are from the iPad.)

One of the puzzling flaws of both the Mac and iOS is the clipboard’s inability to store more than a single copied/cut item. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the horror of cutting something important, then accidentally cutting something else before you pasted, thereby eliminating the original cut material from this particular quantum incarnation of the universe.

(In fact, I have a quite famous author friend who once cut an entire chapter, preparatory to moving it elsewhere in the document…and then goofed and copied a sentence from elsewhere. Oops. Chapter gone.)

If the clipboard could maintain more than a single item, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Apple has yet to see fit to incorporate this functionality.

On the Mac, I use a little app called CopyLess Lite, which stores my ten most recent copied/cut items. (You can upgrade to CopyLess for $4.99 and have 100 items, if you like.). CopyLess just runs in the background, jacked into the system clipboard, and intercepts whatever heads its way.

But on iOS, there’s no way to do such a thing.

Until now.

The clever folks at Clean Shaven Apps have come up with a workaround. It’s not quite as dead simple as CopyLess, but that’s not their fault.

Introducing… Clips.

Basically, Clips works like so: You copy or cut from any app as usual. Then, you quickly swipe down the Notification Center. In the Today view, you’ll see a section for Clips, showing whatever you just copied or cut in a dotted-line box.

To keep that material forever (or until you decide to discard it), simply tap it. The dotted line becomes solid. You can now return to your app.

The Clips widget.

The Clips widget. (Click to enlarge.)

It’s really that easy. For every bit of copied or cut material you want to keep, you just swipe down the Notification Center and tap on it. Now it’s stored in Clips for your use.1

If you find yourself wanting to paste in some text that you copied, say, ten copies back, just find that text in the widget and tap on it. Boom shakalaka! It is now placed on the clipboard and you can paste into any app.

Awesome.

Just about anyone could occasionally benefit from using Clips, but for writers, it’s particularly useful. Grabbing a bunch of research blurbs from a web page and don’t want to have to constantly switch between your browser and your research document? No problem. Moving around lots of text to different places in your current manuscript? You’re covered.

When you’re done with an item, you can leave it in Clips or delete it right from the widget. Rarely do you even need to open the Clips app.

Clips even has its own keyboard! Why do you need a clipboard keyboard, you ask? Well, check it out:

Clips keyboard

The Clips keyboard.

That’s right: The “keyboard” (invoked by pressing the little globe on the standard iOS keyboard) is really a scrolling list of everything you’ve stored in Clips. Need to paste in ten things quickly? Just switch over to the Clips keyboard and tap-tap-tap!2

Here’s some info from the developers:

Clips is free to download and use on your iPhone and iPad.

There are no limits for the first week of your use. After which, you can only save 5 clips.

If you find Clips useful, you can purchase an upgrade in-app to unlock unlimited clips and syncing between all your iOS devices.

You really can’t lose. Try Clips for free and see how easy it is. It will transform the way you work on your iOS device. I’ll wager you will, like me, find yourself paying the mere $1.99 (only a buck ninety-nine!) to upgrade to the full, unlimited version.



  1. Clips is more than just storage, BTW. It also has some cool shortcuts for formatting your text, especially text grabbed from web pages.
  2. Followed, of course, by seven more taps.

For the Tech of It: Software (Mobile)

After stepping through the hardware I use at home and while out, as well as the software I use at home, it’s time to wrap things up with a look at mobile software.

PagesFor the most part, the apps I use while traveling are designed to extend or mimic my desktop experience as much as possible. So, for example, I use the Pages app on my iPad for the same reasons I use it on my desktop. No need to get into that.1

One thing about mobile writing, of course, is that you want to easily and almost unthinkingly sync what you’ve done on the iPad with what you have on your computer. This used to involve a lot of manual shuttling around of different files using various cables, but with the use of services like Dropbox2 and Box, it’s become much, much easier. As long as you remember to save the file in the right place on your computer — and as long as you have Internet access on your iPad — you should have access to the latest version everywhere. Imagine your file as a field you can look at through many windows in your house. The computer is one window, the iPad another. Same field, different ways to see it.

On my iMac, my main writing is done in Scrivener. Sadly, there is no Scrivener for the iPad…yet. And there is no app on the iPad that can read Scrivener’s native file format.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround, and it’s not a bad one.

Scrivener can export your manuscript as a series of documents, with each chapter or scene as its own file. You stash these files in your Dropbox or Box and point an iOS app to it. Now you can open each chapter or scene separately or create new ones. Then, when you return to Scrivener, you just have it re-absorb those files into its structure once more, and you’re up-to-date. So, all you need on the iOS device is an app that can read the exported format.

You can export from Scrivener as plain text, Word, or RTF (rich text format). Word is useless to me because I’m not about to buy rent Office from Microsoft just to work on my iPad. Pages can open and save to Word, but doesn’t (currently) interface with Dropbox or Box.

There are a slew of iOS apps that read and save plain text, but I’m not interested in plain text. I like to see my formatting as I write, so I need something that can read and save RTF and work with my chosen cloud storage system.

Textilus (Microsoft Word Office Edition, PDF Notes and Scrivener)For a long time, there was nothing, and I had to make do with plain text (and then do the formatting later — ugh), but then I discovered Textilus.3

Textilus is, as best I can tell, the only iOS app that supports opening and creatingTextilus screenshot RTF documents, as well as opening from and saving to a cloud service like Dropbox. It can connect to your cloud service so that you can dip into that folder of Scrivener exports, allowing you to edit or create new Scrivener subdocuments on-the-go, which are then later synced back in. (Luckily, Scrivener allows you to automatically sync your documents on open and close, so as long as you remember to close your document on your Mac before you work on your iPad, you’re always in sync.)

Textilus has a bunch of other features — graphics importing, HTML compliance, etc. — but as with Scrivener, I use it for the basics.

In truth, the app is pretty darn great except that its syncing to the cloud is a little less clear than it could be. You have to really study the documentation for a couple of minutes and then take a tiny leap of faith…but it does work. If I had one request for the Textilus folks, it would be to fix the way you connect to Dropbox and Box…but I believe iOS 8 — due in a month or so — has system-wide support for such things, so the work would be moot. We’ll see in the fall.

Textilus Dropbox interfaceOf course, at some point there’ll be Scrivener for iOS. And I’ll most likely use it. But for the past couple of years, Textilus has been an excellent workaround. The app is updated regularly, with new features added on a frequent basis. And tech support has been generally helpful when I’ve needed it.

The combination of a cloud service and Textilus makes up about 90% of what I do on my iPad, writing-wise. But there are a few other apps I couldn’t live without:

NoteSuite - Notes, To-do Lists & PDF Annotation NotebookNoteSuite: As I mentioned before, Notesuite for iPadNoteSuite is an imperfect solution to my note-taking, note-keeping, note-storing needs, but it’s the only one — at present — that comes close to meeting those needs. I use the iPad version to sync with my iMac so that all of my notes can be in two places at once. The iPad app can do pretty much everything the Mac one can, including importing entire web pages of research.

Keynote: I probably should have mentioned this in the BLog on desktop software, but I neglected to. Mea culpa. I use Keynote to create presentations for my school visits. I don’t do horribly complicated presentations, but Keynote is certainly capable of doing so, if I were to decide to. I can make and edit presentations on my iMac or on my iPad or across the two of them. When I’m at a venue, I just plug in my iPad to the projector, and we’re off! (I always travel with my own Lightning-to-VGA adapter, as well as a VGA cable. You can never assume a venue will have the right cabling and adapters.)

A slideshow in Keynote for iPad.

A slideshow in Keynote for iPad.

If the projector is close at hand (or if the A/V set up allows), I can run the presentation right off my iPad. Which is great because I can look down and use the presenter display to see the next slide or my notes. But if the iPad has to be at a distance from me, I can still control the presentation by using Keynote on my iPhone. It’s the same app, so I can still see the next slide or my notes while also controlling the presentation. Pretty cool!

Controlling a Keynote presentation with Keynote for iPhone

Controlling a Keynote presentation with Keynote for iPhone

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The last little bit of mobile software I use is called Pomodoro TimerPomodoro Timer. Which, you may know, is Italian for tomato. I use Pomodoro on my iPhone, which is why it’s listed under mobile software, but I use it wherever and whenever I’m working.

Quite simply, Pomodoro is designed to time your work sessions for maximum efficiency. It relates to something called the Pomodoro Technique. I won’t go into the details — you can click the link for ’em — but basically, the Pomodoro Technique has you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, repeating this cycle for a couple of hours until you take a longer break…and then starting over again. For me, it’s terrifically productive, whether I’m writing, editing, revising, or proofing, and I use it constantly.

So, that’s a look at the mobile software I use to write. Anything cool I’m missing? Anything amazing you guys out there are using that I should try out?



  1. There’s also Pages for iPhone, which works just like the iPad and desktop version, but on a screen that — frankly — is too small for me. Still, it’s helpful when you’re on the run and need to check something or make a small edit quickly.
  2. That’s a referral link, BTW.
  3. There’s also a free tryout version of Textilus here.

For the Tech of It: Hardware (Mobile)

So we have discussed the desktop side of writing tech, both hard and soft, with a brief detour into backing up. Now, we turn to mobile.

Let’s face it — when most people think of authors these days, they think of laptops. And probably coffee shops.

I’m no stranger to the coffee shop grind1, but I haven’t used a laptop since 2010, when Sir Steven of Jobs bequeathed unto us the iPad.

As I watched the unveiling of the iPad (on a pirate video stream, natch), I was waiting for two bits of information. The first one came relatively quickly, when Jobs revealed that the iPad would run a version of Apple’s iWork suite, including the Pages word processor.

Okay, so that was one down — I would be able to compose on the iPad.

[Read more…]



  1. I’ll be here all week, folks! Don’t forget to tip your waitress!

For the Tech of it: Software (Desktop)

I use a lot of software, but very little of it is specifically aimed at my writing. I use Photoshop Elements and iMovie and Hype and Numbers on a semi-regular basis, for example, but not to create fiction. So I’m going to limit myself to those apps that I use specifically for writing when on my iMac. There are surprisingly few.

scrivener_iconScrivener: This is the big one, the app where most of my work gets done. If you’ve spent more than two or three minutes chatting with an author about “process” in the past few years, you’ve probably already heard about Scrivener. Originally developed as a Mac-only app by a guy who wanted a program to help him with his own novel, Scrivener now boasts a Windows version as well and has grown into a must-have for most authors’ toolkits.

Truthfully, I use probably 10% of Scrivener’s capabilities, and the same is, I suspect, true of most other authors. The thing is, we’re probably all using a different 10%. The program has a near infinity of features, including character sheets, multiple methods of organization, an index card board, linking within documents, inline annotation, a bewildering number of compiling/exporting options, templates for different kinds of publications, and probably — somewhere in a submenu — a feature that deletes porn from your hard drive before the NSA can find it.

All that said, I basically use Scrivener as a word processor, with a few crucial differences. For one thing, its compiling options made it incredibly simple for me to produce the files needed for my ebook, Unsoul’d.

FullscreenBut I don’t publish ebooks on my own all that often. Scrivener is most useful to me for its excellent “Compose mode,” which you can see to the right. (Click for a bigger version.) It’s sort of an amped-up full-screen mode, with controls to let you widen or narrow the “page” and blow up the text to whatever size you like. (You can also have a floating note pad on the screen at the same time, which is helpful, since you can’t see anything else while in Compose.)

Also useful is Scrivener’s organizational capacities. Take a look at the image to the left. That’s the document for Game, and Scrivener was helpful in a couple of ways. In the main pane, you can see that there are two documents open, with the screen bisected horizontally. This makes it easy to, say, refer to one chapter while working on another, without needing to flip back and forth or swap windows.

Fullscreen-1At the same time, look to the left of the screen. Unlike in a word processor, Scrivener lets you assign each chapter and scene to its own subdocument, organized as you please. Want to move a scene from later in the book to earlier? Cool — no need to cut-and-paste. Just drag it to the proper place in the hierarchy.

Best of all, you can color-code chapters and scenes, which I did for Game. Each POV character got his/her own color, so that as I worked, I could glance over and think, “Oh, it’s been a long time since we checked in with Connie. I should fix that.” Or “While this scene is happening, what’s going on with Billy? Let me find his latest scene…” For a novel of even modest organizational complexity, Scrivener is a godsend. For something like The Book That Will Kill Me, it forestalled my frustrated suicide attempts on a daily basis.

Scrivener also has the Snapshot feature, which lets you freeze all or part(s) of your document so that you can keep working and then — if you realize you’ve gone off the rails — easily roll back to where you were before. Nice.

pages-iconPages: Scrivener is great for writing and revising, but at some point, you have to hand the file over, and publishers don’t accept Scrivener documents. They want Word files because that’s what they’re set up to handle. Fortunately, Scrivener can compile your document and export it in Word format, so that’s fine.

But editors tend to send your Word file back to you, with comments and ideas embedded via Word’s Track Changes feature. And when the time comes for copyediting, your copyeditor will send a Word doc that is positively bleeding with Track Changes. You’ll need to go through and offer your own comments and accept or reject changes as is appropriate. Aha! So, you need Word after all, eh?

Game_MS_CEtoEdAuNope! Pages, Apple’s word processor, offers compatibility with Track Changes and can both open and save Word files. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than Word, less buggy, and not nearly as bloated with features you’ll never us.1

I’ve been running a Microsoft-free computer for more than ten years. So, basically for my entire writing career. I’ve never used Word and I can’t imagine why I’d have to.

I also use Pages for shorter works — like short stories and essays — that don’t need the firepower Scrivener brings to the table.

notesuite_iconNoteSuite: One of the biggest problems I face is organizing notes, ideas, and research. Ideally, I need a system that allows me to enter my own notes as well as to quickly grab information from the web. It needs a hierarchical system of organization, good search, and support for rich text (since I often take notes with bold or italics and need to be able to paste them into Scrivener or Pages). Last but not least, to be truly indispensable, it needs to sync between my iMac, my iPad, and my iPhone.

NoteSuite comes closer than anything else I’ve tried. In fact, it’s so close that it’s frustrating. It has clients for the Mac and iPad. While there’s no iPhone client, it does have a feature whereby you can email notes to its database, so that’s a decent workaround. It supports RTF, has folders and a great search function.

Unfortunately, it feels only partly complete. Things that are bog-standard on other apps just don’t work properly. You can’t drag-and-drop notes into folders, for example — you have to use a clumsy assignment dialog box. No drag-and-drop for text, either. Selection of text is wonky, too.

And that great email-a-note-to-your-database feature? Well, it’s glitchy as all hell, and despite notesuite_windowrepeated attempts to get NoteSuite’s tech support to look into it, I’m no closer to a solution.

Still, it’s at least close to what I need, and moving all of my notes into another program seems daunting right now. So I’m sticking with NoteSuite for now, hoping that iOS 8 in the fall will encourage some developer to add a couple of the functions I need to a pre-existing app.

And if you know of an app that meets my requirements, let me know in the comments! I’ve spent a lot of time looking, but I can’t look everywhere.

Next time: Mobile hardware. Being an author in a coffee shop no longer requires a laptop.



  1. To be sure, Pages is also missing some features you might want, but Apple is pretty good about adding stuff in as time goes by…and I can’t think of a single missing feature that rises above the level of annoyance to the level of mission-killer.