“I wouldn’t be able to do my job without it.” Author Charlie Stross On Scrivener – And How The iOS Version Fits In.

Scrivener for iOS presents a deceptively simple appearance: there are a lot of really nifty features that only show up if you experiment.

Even busy authors sometimes take time out to help us develop our software. Charlie Stross, author of six Hugo-nominated novels and winner of the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards for best novella, volunteered as a beta tester for Scrivener’s iOS version. A full-time science fiction writer, his work – featuring everything from vampire secret agents to knights on horseback with automatic weapons – has been translated into at least 12 languages, as well as winning many other awards. His latest novel has just hit the shelves…

Charlie Stross - Beta Tester.
You’ve just finished a novel and are about to go on a launch tour – why did you add to your workload by volunteering to test Scrivener’s iOS version?

Scrivener on OSX has been a vital part of my business of writing novels since 2008. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without it. However, carrying a MacBook around the whole time is a bit of a grind. Being able to quickly look up stuff in projects I’m working on using my iPhone, or work for a whole day on battery and away from wifi using an iPad was a very appealing prospect.

How did you find it?

Scrivener for iOS offers a surprisingly complete subset of the features of the full version of Scrivener for desktop environments. It makes writing new material (with a suitable keyboard!) and editing text easy. It doesn’t provide the full range of outlining and structure-tweaking capabilities of the desktop version due to limitations imposed by the underlying OS, but the flip side of this is that it’s a good distraction-free portable Scrivener environment: there’s little or no temptation to tweak the settings instead of working.

I’m still experimenting with my workflow on the iOS version, but its main use on my iPhone is to allow me to quickly look stuff up, fix minor glitches, and add notes; on the iPad it’s a lot more useful as a first-class creative tool.

You’ve been using Scrivener for iOS since April – do you think you’ve explored most of its features?

I’m still learning. Scrivener for iOS presents a deceptively simple appearance: there are a lot of really nifty features that only show up if you experiment with swiping (or pay close attention to the tutorial project). And like most folks, I usually only use a subset of Scrivener’s features—the 80/20 rule applies.

Which feature has made the most difference to your writing and editing?

The totally seamless Dropbox syncing between my desktop iMac and my iPhone and iPad is wonderful. No need to close a project on the desktop before opening it on a portable device; you just sync and work, then re-sync when you’ve finished. Scrivener for iOS keeps track and tells you whether there are changes that need updating (it’s under manual control, but takes a single tap to trigger). And in event of any confusion between versions on multiple machines, Scrivener keeps copies of conflicting files so that I get to decide which to keep.

I’m really pleased by the support for compiling projects to Markdown as well as Word .docx and PDF formats, too: in principle it makes it possible to set up workflows with external tools such as Editorial (a Python-enabled folding text editor for iOS) and support web publishing apps directly.

What are you running alongside it?

First and foremost is Dropbox. I live and die by Dropbox. It’s a vital tool for keeping my various computing devices synchronised and ensuring that I’ve always got access to my work, wherever I go. And Scrivener works seamlessly with it.

On the iPhone, I can’t live without the Swype gestural keyboard. (For my purposes it’s superior to SwiftKey because various punctuation marks that occur frequently in narrative fiction—quote marks, for example—are accessible by press-and-hold on letter keys rather than by loading an alternate key map.)

I’m also using Microsoft Word—I really don’t like Word at all, but I am forced to admit that the iOS version is an acceptable general-purpose word processor with Dropbox support. (And I think that Scrivener compares well against Word in terms of its relative complexity versus the desktop version.)

Finally, there’s GoodReader and Apple’s Pencil on the iPad Pro—because sometimes your publisher’s workflow requires you to run your eyeballs across 500 page images in PDF format, and the easiest way for you (and the typesetter) to mark up changes is to pretend you’re doing it on paper and dribble red ink onto a copy of the document before you email it back to them. I wish I was making this up, but corporate publishing production today is still geared to the most trailing-edge tech they can reasonably expect every author to be compatible with, and modelled on a staged workflow that a late-19th century novelist would have recognised. GoodReader is the best PDF viewer I’ve found for iOS so far, and lets me mark up proofs on the move on the iPad Pro with a minimum of fuss and no need to resort to a laser printer.

Any quick tips for anyone who’s picking up the iOS version for the first time?

Yes, just one: read the tutorial project! It’s crammed with useful tips and guaranteed to be worth your time.

A secondary consideration is that Scrivener for iOS might be the best place for beginners to start learning Scrivener; it focusses on the core features that every writer needs.

Finally, your latest novel The Nightmare Stacks has just been published – can you tell us what it’s all about?

Yes. I’m an SF writer; and among other things I’ve been writing a series—the Laundry Files—for the past decade, about a secret British government agency that defends us from extradimensional horrors out of the realm of H. P. Lovecraft. Magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and computers are machines that can be used to prove theorems and derive solutions really quick … so it follows that GCHQ (the British security organisation responsible for providing communications intelligence to the British government and armed forces) has a bastard sibling that trades in applied computational demonology. But of course this is the civil service, so there are a lot of meetings involved.

In The Nightmare Stacks, our protagonist Alex—a former investment banking IT dogsbody, until he poked his nose into the wrong algorithm and contracted a nasty case of vampirism—has been sent to Leeds, where the Laundry is in the process of moving its headquarters. Unfortunately he’s not the only person with an interest in ley lines, Leeds, and limestone pavements. An ancient threat from another universe has discovered a way into our world, and before the story is over questions will be asked in Parliament about Elven asylum seekers …

The Nightmare Stacks was published in the UK by Orbit on June 23rd, 2016 and in the USA by Ace on June 28th, 2016.

Charlie Stross - Beta Tester.

Who’d be a Beta Tester? Interview with Michael Marshall

You can start work immediately. Later you’ll realise how powerful it really is.

With the launch of Scrivener for iOS just around the corner, we thought you might like an insight into the world of some of our beta testers, all of who use Scrivener in different ways and have various stories to tell. 

Amongst them is suspense novelist Michael Marshall (who also writes as his horror and science fiction alter ego Michael Marshall Smith). His first novel, ‘Only Forward’, won both the August Derleth Award for Best Novel and the Philip K. Dick Award. Other accolades include the International Horror Guild Award, and the British Fantasy Award for best short story – which he has won more than any other author in history. On the screen, his book ‘The Intruders’ became the drama series ‘Intruders’ starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino, while ‘Unbelief’, a film based on his short story, has won 9 awards and 21 nominations to date.

Michael Marshall Smith

You’ve been a long-time user of Scrivener’s desktop version. How does the iOS version compare?

I’m amazed at how well all the essential features (and more) have been layered into an app that’s still straightforward to get around, and to use. You can’t do everything in iOS that you can in Mac OS, but that’s not surprising — and also, not what you want. Apps need to be appropriately pitched toward the platform on which they run. Keith’s done his usual masterful job of thinking about the practicalities of what writers need, and what’s feasible and dependable on a given device, and making that work smoothly.

Did it take you long to find your way around it?

No time at all. I was making and syncing notes within five minutes of installing the first beta. As always with Scrivener, however, there’s great value in experimenting, trying things, and reading the damned manual. I can’t count the number of times I’ve emailed Keith over the years with some cool new thing Scrivener could do, and had him patiently explain that it already can. The iOS version is the same.  You can start work immediately. Later you’ll realise how powerful it really is.

Which features proved most useful for your way of working?

The ability to faultlessly sync with the desktop version has to be the most useful. That for me is the game-changer. It’s actually sightly spooky to see quite a complex novel structure and 100,000 words perfectly mirrored onto your phone, to be able to make changes, and find it all back on the desktop, too. I love being able to share styles between the two. I really like the fact that meta changes you make on one — like the specific way in which you’re viewing and working with your structure — are mirrored onto the other platforms.

And to be honest, one of the very best features is reliability. The one thing that you cannot afford is losing work. During the beta I made a couple of suggestions which were considered but then gently rejected, on the grounds that — in some bizarre and unlikely combination of circumstances — there might be a risk. That’s what I need most – the reassurance that everything is safe.

How do you see yourself using the iOS version in future – tell us how you plan to use it alongside your desktop computer.

The iOS version has already changed the way I work. In the past, I’ve had to run separate apps for my current writing project (whatever I’m hammering out large quantities of words for), anything I’m planning (either sporadic notes, or large collections of files and reference material), and general jottings. Now I’ve switched to iOS Scrivener for all of those.

It’s reassuring and useful to have all that stuff with me, wherever I go, and several times I’ve sat outside a cafe and edited or even added new material to the current novel on my phone, which is something I never thought I’d do. After nearly thirty years of defaulting to Word for at least some of the writing process, I don’t think I’ve even opened it in months.

Michael Marshall Smith's Binder
What would you say to someone who might be nervous of giving Scrivener’s iOS version a go?

Just try it! I’ve long believed that Mac OS Scrivener is the writer’s best tool. Adding the iOS version makes it an absolute no-brainer. Suddenly your work — your real work, all of it, not some lite or compromised version — is with you, wherever you go. Whether you’re writing prose, planning a TV series, making notes, or putting together an eBook, it’s all there. The first beta was as feature-ful and solid as most people’s final release candidate. Now it’s like it’s already on version 2.4.

Your story The Seventeenth Kind has just reached the big screen – what are you working on now, and when might it be available?

Right at this moment I’m about there quarters of the way through a novel, which has been wholly written in Scrivener. I’m starting to plan out a feature script, and am tweaking a couple of TV  proposals. Out of habit I was originally maintaining a kind of “inbox” for each in their Scrivener files, to drop new ideas and edits into, but increasingly I’m working straight on the core material itself. It’s like having a teeny little Mac with me wherever I go… I’d been waiting a long time to be able to do this kind of thing: thank God it’s finally here.

Novel-in-a-Day

For anyone hoping they’ll get their book finished by this time next year, the concept of writing an entire Novel-in-a-Day is enough to prompt a swift lie-down in a darkened room. But on October 25th this year, that’s exactly what a bunch of L&L staff and forum members did – one novel, one day. Finished. Complete.

Of course, it’s not as insane as I’ve made it sound. Or quite as heroic – though it is still one heck of an achievement. Created back in 2011 by L&L forum regular Pigfender – known better in the outside world as Rog, Novel-in-a-Day (NiaD) is a yearly challenge to writers to do exactly what it says in the title. Each participant takes charge of a chapter of a book, writes like a demon, then submits the results to Rog who puts the whole lot together (using Scrivener, of course!) to create possibly the world’s fastest-ever completed novel.

This furious writing extravaganza is open to everyone, whether you’ve been published before or not, and takes place every October – though if you’re new to NiaD and haven’t posted on the L&L forums much before, you’ll need to send in something such as a blog post to prove you’re serious and can write to the required standard.

All the ideas behind the chapters and novels are Rog’s own, which is rather awe-inspiring for someone like me who has been trying to come up with a half decent idea for years now, and without much success. But that’s the beauty of NiaD – being handed the freedom to write without the usual panic over whether the foundations you’re basing your book on are in fact made of jelly.

The basic process goes like this: just after midnight on NiaD day (that’s CST – Cornwall Standard Time, otherwise known as UK time), all participants are emailed a brief description of where their character should start – for example, this year, mine consisted of two East End thugs sitting at the wheel of their van – a brief description of what needs to be covered, and where the chapter should end – again, in my case this was back in the van, but with two intelligence officers tied up in the rear. This gave plenty of scope for anything to happen in between, as long as at some point it involved a kidnapping. You’re also sent a character sheet or sheets, possibly some location details, and there also may or may not be some information about what has happened beforehand, depending on the need for continuity and/ or Rog’s whims.

This is another great part of the process – the mystery. Until the final book is published, nobody knows what happens in the story outside their chapter, or where this fits into the narrative. I didn’t have any information about what had gone before, which convinced me I was writing the opening chapter. Actually, it turned out to be chapter 15. As long as you follow the brief, it doesn’t matter what you write – for the first time, this year there were enough participants to run two novels simultaneously, so I could compare my chapter to my counterpart Chanel Blake’s contribution to see where we’d taken things. Two identical briefs equalled two completely different chapters for two totally different novels.

You don’t have to be too much of a master of speed – each chapter needs to be a minimum of around 1,500 words long, and it’s the quality that counts rather than the quantity. This year, mine turned in at 2400 words, though past submissions have stretched to 5,000 words. How that author found the time to write all that in a day I’ll never know. Everything has to be in at 8pm to give Rog a chance to provide any continuity feedback and start compiling the books – but if you’re really pressed, then the absolute deadline is a minute to midnight (it’s a Novel-in-a-Day, remember).

All the sections are designed to be fun to write – so you won’t get stuck with a compulsory detailed description of the inside of a recycling plant (though if that’s your thing and it could conceivably fit the brief then feel free…). You can also amuse yourself, procrastinate hugely, or fish for ideas by hanging out on L&L’s NiaD forum with the rest of the usual reprobates.

In all, it’s a bit stressful but great fun. Personally, by taking the huge obstacle of actually finding a decent plot away, it actually gave me the chance to just sit down and write. I didn’t know where the story had been, but I knew where it was going, and who was taking it there – if you really are an adrenaline addict, it’s a great warm-up for NaNoWriMo, too.

If you are curious but aren’t sure if you have the nerve, Rog has put together a great Q&A, designed to counter all your arguments against taking part (or something along those lines):

http://literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=28574&start=0#p181923

There’s also a growing library of the previous years’ attempts available for browsing: http://literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=28582

And there might even be a t-shirt:

http://literatureandlatte.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=29041&start=90#p187789

The forum post inviting writers to sign up usually goes live in August, and as we love the event and want everyone else to join in too, we’ll be making much more of a song and dance about it next year on our site, Facebook, Twitter and so forth, and expanding the number of books being written so that all those interested in joining in can find a place on a team. It’s also possible that we could run more than one story at the same time, provided there were enough people in the background to support this – though that would mean they’d have to step out of writing that year. Rog’s aim is to be able to accommodate entire writing groups or schools within a single novel, and to be able to produce non-English language versions of the books at some point. In short, the event has a lot of potential, and we’re all working hard to see where we can get it for 2015.

Anyway, if this has convinced you that you’d like to write a chapter next year, keep an eye out for more news around that time – and roll on next October. Here’s hoping to see some of you there…