Half-Term: Nearing the end of Kafka on the Shore

Half-term… How come doing nothing for days on end speeds up time? Makes me think of that character in Catch 22 who spends his time trying to be as bored as possible, so as to prolong the hours he has left alive.

Anyhoo. I’ve spend much of this week redesigning the graphic files for Scrivener. I’m no graphic designer, so the process has been tedious and time-consuming. I’ve also finished the design document for the redesigned 1.0, so as soon as these graphic files are finished, I’m ready to start stitching together all the code I have back into a better interface. Wish it was finished already – I just want to use the thing and get on with the writing.

In the meantime, I’ve finally registered a domain name to use to sell Scrivener. I played around with a lot of names, thinking that I needed some professional software company-sounding name like the competition (Blue Technologies, Bartas Technologies, Devon Technologies et al). But everything I came up with had either gone or was just plain awful. So in the end, I went with something that doesn’t sound like a software company at all – because I’m not a software company. When I was younger I always said I wanted to own a bookshop-cum-vegetarian-cafe (not with much conviction; it always sounded cool but way too much like hard work). The name of this putative cafe was going to be “Literature and Latte” – the name of this blog. So that is the domain I have chosen for Scrivener:


I think it reflects exactly what I want it to – a place to hang out where literature is the most important thing. Which is what Scrivener should be. The writing should come above the technology…

EDIT: I set up this blog a year ago and only posted to it once. Now that I read that one post back, I realise I said much the same back then as regards the explanation for the name. At least I’m living up to the Marcus Aurelius quote, I guess.

EDIT 2: Huh. And looking at that last post, I realise that I posted it five days before getting hit by a large, red, bendy London bus. Still, the scar gives me something to point to when reading Harry Potter to my class…

A brief history of Scrivener: Part 3 (This isn’t actually that brief, is it?)

I liked the idea of growing a tale so much that I was going to call my software BookTree, if I ever wrote it. BookTree also referred to the idea that you would use a tree view to organise your ideas – a “tree view” in Windows is what is known as an “outline view” in OS X. I got the idea for BookTree from a piece of PC software called NewNovelist. I looked at the screenshots and ordered it in the hope that it would be a decent organisational tool for my writing. Incidentally, I know a lot of people say that writing software is pointless – why can’t you just use a cork-board, some index cards and a notebook like everybody else? I’ve tried, believe me I’ve tried. But my desk gets snowed under, I can’t find anything, I end up rewriting index cards and synopses and spilling coffee and going mad and… Well, you get the idea. And is anybody saying that a real writer doesn’t need a word processor? No. No sane person, at least. Good software just virtualises a real-world process, it doesn’t try to force you into working in a way that you wouldn’t were you using real-world methods… Which brings me neatly back to NewNovelist. NewNovelist was a great disappointment. It was completely rigid. The outline list on the left of the text view could not be changed – it had twelve items and that was that. And each of these twelve items corresponded to Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Groan. Enough already. I don’t want to follow some pre-set plot, thank you very much.

But the more I looked at NewNovelist, the more I thought, “Now that would be great – what a missed opportunity. All you need is a completely free outline view on the left which controls which text you see on the right… How hard can it be?” So I started a search for software that could do what I wanted. And whilst I said in another post that writing organisational software is rife on the PC, most of it is clunky and not much fun to use. Most of it has been written in REALBasic or some other non-native, prototyping tool (sorry, I’m just not a big fan of REALBasic apps on any platform). And most of it really limited the structure you could use, too – some only allowed you to work in acts, chapters and scenes, and others limited the levels of hierarchy you could have in your outline.

Fine, I thought. I’ll write my own. I had tinkered with C for a few years and had written a couple of very sub-par programs using the Windows API, so I thought I’d have a crack at it. It soon became apparent, though, that the only chance I had of creating this thing was if I learned C++ and MFC (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry – they’re just what are used to create most Windows programs). So I bought a couple of books – and realised that I had better set aside the next five years of my life if I ever wanted to even start BookTree. Needless to say, I didn’t. This thing was supposed to be a means to an end (The Novel), not the end in itself. So I tossed aside the design document I had enthusiastically cobbled together and returned to Word and desperately trying to remember where I had scattered all my files in Windows Explorer.

And then, for one reason and another, I bought a Mac. I found a few decent writing applications (Ulysses and Copywrite being the forerunners; since then I have also discovered Avenir and Jer’s Novel Writer, both of which are wonderful), but none really did what I wanted. I soon discovered, though, that writing software for the Mac was relatively easy. It only took me two or three months to go through the required reading (Kochan and Hillegass) and then I was onto experimenting, trying to put together what was now going to be called Hemingway (after Hemingway’s famous declaration that “all first drafts are shit”). I banged together a decent attempt at what I wanted, but it was a complete mess code-wise. So I tore it apart and put it back together again, and this time I called it Scrivener. I like the name “Scrivener”. It tells you what it’s for straight away, even though the use of the word as meaning a writer of any kind is a little old fashioned, as it is mostly used nowadays to mean a legal notary (or some such). I quite like that old-fashioned-ness, to tell you the truth. It fits with the self-effacing embarrassment that most writers have about what they do. “What do you do?” “Er, well, I’m a bit of a scrivener, I guess.”

By October of 2005, I thought I had it cracked. I thought I was ready to release Scrivener 1.0 on the world and make my fortune (yeah, right). I figured I’d take my cue from the creator of Jerry’s Novel Writer and drum up some interest by releasing a beta-version to the folks doing National Novel Writing Month in November. And then the fun really began.

People actually started to use it. And as they started to use it, they made suggestions. At first I was mortified; it felt as though they were telling me that my child would be perfect if only his ears were a little smaller. You mean it isn’t perfect? But as I used it more and more, I saw that they were right: it was nowhere near perfect. For a start, it had four different modes – one for importing stuff, one for composing, one for outlining, one for storyboarding. It was like using four different programs that had been mashed together. A lot of people liked it and are still using the betas I released, but I saw that I could make it much better by integrating the modes. So I created a new interface based on a lot of other Tiger interfaces, and refactored and rewrote a lot of code. And then, after many months, I looked at what I had done, and I said… No, that isn’t quite right, either. A lot of users were waiting for the next beta version, so to keep them happy (very important) whilst Scrivener went through its third cycle of development hell, I released the old beta as freeware and called it Scrivener Gold. (Beware folks: if you use Scrivener Gold, stable as it is, it is just that: an old beta version.) And now I’m in that third cycle of development hell… But I’m happy, this time. I took all the user suggestions and incorporated the ones that fit into my design philosophy. I sat down and worked out exactly how the outlining should work, based on user feedback and my own needs, and what I like in outlining programs. I got brave, and I threw out anything that had kitchen-sink-syndrome. I simplified. And then I wrote it all down in a design document and I said: that’s it. No more features. Once everything in there is done, and it works, 1.0 is finished and it will be released. So now it’s onto putting it all together again. I am giving myself a deadline of September. Wish me luck.

A brief history of Scrivener: Part 2

About ten years ago I read some book or other that collected together a number of essays on writing by female writers. One of the essays was by Hilary Mantel, and it was called “Growing a Tale” – I liked it so much that I photocopied it. This is how Hilary Mantel describes her process of putting together a story:

“When you begin the work on a book – mentally, before anything goes down on paper – you have a lot of ideas, I find, that you know are something to do with the book, which don’t seem to relate to each other. You may find a location that seems of interest – or a name may pop into your head – or a phrase. It is important to capture these insights. I carry small notebooks, which I can easily tear pages from; or I carry 3 x 5 inch index cards. I try to put down every insight, every glimpse of what this book will be, even if it’s only a word.

“When I have a few of these cards I pin them up on a cork notice-board in the room where I work. You do not know at this stage what is important – that will emerge. You do not know the order of events – but you don’t need to know. Ideas build around these glimpses, these key phrases. Perhaps I write something else on one of my cards, just a few words; or perhaps the original idea begins to develop, and I am moved to write a paragraph or two. I pin that paragraph behind the card to which it relates.

“The little words breed – sometimes several hundred offspring. I keep them on the board, in any order, until one day I see a sequence, a logic, begin to emerge. Then I repin them, very approximately, very roughly, in the order in which I think the narrative will shape. A few weeks on, all these bits of paper – the original cards, and anything that has accumulated behind them – go into a ring-binder. With a ring-binder you can easily swap the papers around – you’re still not committing yourself to an order of events. You can add pages, transpose pages. But now you can begin to see how much of your book you have written. Some incidents, behind their original card, will be fully described, and some characters will be complete with their biographies, snatches of dialogue, their appearance and their way of talking. Other parts of the book will not have ‘written themselves’ at all – they await focused attention. But you know – indeed, you can see – how much work you have to do.

“This method is soothing. Its virtue is that you never write yourself into a cul-de-sac; you have flexibility. Until you sit down to write your first draft sequentially, you have not committed yourself to linear narrative. I am amazed at how easily ideas fall into place, how they multiply, if you give them a chance, and if you don’t close off their possibilities too early. This is really a method of growing a book, rather than writing one.”

(Isn’t that wonderful? If you can get hold of the book – I’ve just looked it up and it’s called The Agony and the Ego – go buy it; it’s full of other great stuff like that.)

That is what Scrivener does: it is the notebook, the index cards, the cork notice-board and the ring-binder. When you have your first draft, you export it to Word or Mellel or Nisus Writer or whatever and you hammer out the details, fine-tune and re-format. But until then, you’re not committed. You can shuffle, outline, storyboard, annotate and rewrite all you want. If you are one of those writers who sit down at your word processor, type “Chapter One” and keep going in a linear fashion until the end, then you will have no use for Scrivener or any of the other writing packages out there – and I envy you. But me, I have to grow my writing. Very slowly. And my fingers aren’t that green. It wilts occasionally. I’m not sure where else I can take this metaphor.

A brief history of Scrivener: Part 1

You know what gets my goat? When people accuse Scrivener – which hasn’t even reached version 1.0 yet – of being a rip-off of Ulysses. Let me get this straight: Ulysses is a wonderful application, but it is an original implementation and not an original idea. If you’ve been on a Mac for a while, you might remember a program called Z-Write. It had a list of documents on the left, and you clicked on one to select it and edit it in the text view on the right. It was around long before Ulysses, but it was nowhere near as sophisticated or beautiful. So in all fairness, if you are a long-time Mac user, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ulysses is the only software of its kind aimed specifically at writers. But I came to the Mac two years ago after being a long-time PC user, and the PC has been rife for some time with applications trying to do what Ulysses does so well: provide an organisational tool for writers. There is WriteWay Pro, WriteItNow!, NewNovelist, Liquid Story Binder and, by far the best in my opinion, RoughDraft, to name but a few. All of them have some form of list of contents next to a text view for editing a chapter or scene, and they all allow you to keep separate notes for each chunk of text. Sound familiar?

Oh, and you know what? You never hear anybody complain that Nisus Writer or Mellel are rip-offs of Microsoft Word.

But anyway. The thing about programs aimed at writers is that no one program is going to suit all writers, because all writers work in different ways. Had Ulysses or any of the other writing software programs out there suited the way I write, you can be sure that I would never have created Scrivener. What would be the point? It’s not like I’m ever going to make much money out of Scrivener; my only motivation for creating it is that I want software that suits me (more on that later). When I first bought my old iBook, I scoured the net for OS X writing applications, hoping to find the killer app that had eluded me on the PC. When I came across Ulysses, I thought I’d found it. The interface for me came to represent what I was beginning to love about OS X: simplicity and cool. The killer for me was that Ulysses is plain text, though: no formatting whatsoever. Now, I like being a little experimental in the appearance of my text. I’m a Vonnegut fan, so I may well want to put sketches or pictures into my text. (For a really good example of a work that plays with formatting, incidentally, read The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman. It’s all written in bullet points and lists, but it is tremendously moving.) I like the way Salinger adds emphasis to certain syllables of dialogue, so I often do the same, and I didn’t want to have to look at text that looks like this while editing: “//Per//fect,” he said, “That’s //just// what we need.” There was another killer for me, too: no hierarchical organisation in the list of documents. I wanted a bit more control in that area. And I know I’m not alone, because the Blue-Tec forums get about a dozen requests a week for italics and hierarchical folders. But Blue-Tec won’t do it, and good for them. Good for them, because they have a very strong design philosophy and they’re sticking to it. They have something that is beautiful and unique and a lot of users love it, and they shouldn’t try to change it into something it’s not for those of us who don’t work like that. But those of us who don’t work like that have to look elsewhere, and that is where Scrivener comes in.

Was Scrivener influenced by Ulysses? Most certainly. In particular, the full screen mode and the idea of being able to assign each document a label and status were lifted straight from Ulysses. There was no way I could make my perfect writing software without them. But did the whole idea for Scrivener come from Ulysses? Definitely not. The idea for Scrivener came to me back when I was using a PC. Back then it was going to be called BookTree and it was just a pipe dream; it wasn’t until I discovered the ease of coding applications for OS X that it became a reality.

Apple Pie

I don’t get it. What is it with Apple? Why does the brand inspire such religious zealoutry in its consumers? Let me start by saying, I love Mac OS X. Love it, love it, love it. I first bought an Apple machine a couple of years ago because, despite their reputation for making expensive machines, the iBook was, at the time, the cheapest laptop available that did not weigh about the same as a small off-shore tanker. I wanted small, I wanted light and I wanted portable, and the iBook was all that. And I fell in love. Actually, another reason I bought an Apple was that I figured:

1) You can’t customise them as easily, so I would no longer be continually tinkering with (and breaking) the inside of my computer.
2) The whole system was so alien to me that I wouldn’t be able mess around coding ugly programs instead of getting on with The Novel.

One out of two isn’t bad – little did I know that Apple actually provide their development tools (Xcode) for free with the operating system (Microsoft sell Visual Studio for another $1,000). Nor did I realise how easy programming for a Mac would be (and what great books there are out there to help you along the way, such as Stephen Kochan’s Programming in Objective-C or Aaron Hillegass’s Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X). So in actual fact, I ended up spending more time on programming, as I suddenly realised that I could actualise my writing software idea (which I was originally going to call BookTree, and then Hemingway, but is these days known as Scrivener).

Yeah, and I guess I also liked the idea of owning an Apple computer, mainly because of various Douglas Adams rants.

And my iBook really was/is a beautiful machine. I had nary a problem with it. I liked it so much that I’ve just bought its replacement, a white MacBook. It’s as hot as a summer in hell, but I like that, too.

But… Apple. They’re just a computer company that happen to make some stylish machines and a very solid operating system, right? That’s what I thought until I had cause to go into their Regent Street store, at least. You know I said I had “nary” a problem with my iBook? Well, the one problem I did have was with the power lead. Being a clumsy oaf myself, and having a toddler who follows in my unsteady steps, the power lead on my old iBook took quite a battering, and got bent all out of sorts after one-too-many-trips over the lead. And one day my boy decided to compound the problem by giving it a good wiggle, at which point the wire inside the connector snapped off and got well-and-truly-stuck inside the computer. (The new MacBooks have a magnetic connection to prevent problems just like this one, which is testament to some good designers who actually think about solutions to the problems of the old line.)

This necessitated a trip to the Regent Street store, which had fortunately sprung into being since I bought my iBook. I had high expectations: online folk from the US and Japan had raved about the Apple stores, the amazing customer service and the downright genius of the folk at the Apple “genius bars”. Of course, I should have known: this is London. They ain’t gonna give a toss.

After a while spent in the queue for the Genius Bar at the Regent Street store, I had a sneaking suspicion that I had accidentally walked into a church of Scientology. Everyone was bovine-calm and customers were staring at the machines much as a Catholic might a shrine to Mary mother of God. I’m sure I could hear an ethereal whispering of “Join us, join us!” somewhere beneath the babble of the crowds, and I didn’t feel entirely confident that I would be allowed to leave without promising to face in the direction of Cupertino and chant the name of Jobs thrice at least four times a day.

Anyway, get this: I had to queue for half an hour at the Genius Bar just to talk to a lady making appointments for the Genius Bar. In front of me were a gazillion poor folk with broken iPods. Those who had paid 200-or-however-much-it-is quid for AppleCare (whereby you pay Apple lots of money and in return they promise your product will work for a reasonable amount of time) got to leave their iPods with the rather grumpy and intractable lady for repair. Those who had not were given some address in Taiwan and told, “Apple don’t actually manufacture them so it’s nothing to do with us.” When I finally got to the front of the queue, my conversation with the intractable lady ran something like this:

Me: “My toddler snapped off the power-lead-wire-thingy so that it’s stuck inside the computer. I just need someone to remove it and to buy a new power lead.”

Intractable lady: “You’ll have to see one of the Apple geniuses.”

Me: “Okay.”

Intractable lady: “The first free appointment is at six o’clock.”

Me: “Er. That’s six hours away.”

Intractable lady: “…”

Me: “Can’t I just leave the iBook with you? It took me an hour to get here and I don’t want to have to go back home and then come back again. I know exactly what’s wrong. Somebody just needs to remove the wire that’s stuck.”

Intractable lady: “Our policy is that you have to see one of our Apple geniuses before you can leave any hardware with us.”

Me: “In six hours time.”

Intractable lady: “…”

Me: “But if I bring it in to an Apple genius, all he will say is that the wire is stuck in the computer and I need a new power lead. And then he’ll keep it in for repair.”

Intractable lady: “Probably.”

Needless to say, I ended up going back six hours later to see an Apple “genius” (is it just me, or does anybody else have the urge to ask anyone calling themselves a “genius” if they’ve come up with a unifying theory for quantum mechanics and general relativity yet? Nope? Just me then). Who, nice as he was, told me that the wire was stuck and I needed a new power lead, and that I better leave it in for repair. (He also told me that I could have booked the appointment online without having gone in, which the guy I phoned the day before completely failed to inform me about. Grr.)

But what really got my goat through all of this was the cow-like calm on everybody’s faces. (Did I mention the cow-like calm yet?) Why were there no Apple employees struggling with heads that had recently been inserted into cinema displays? I think it has to do with a curious form of double-think that they have mastered in-store. For whilst I was queuing up, turning lobster-red with anger and imagining swelling to the size of Chewbacca and running rampage through to the “dun-dun-derrrrn-dern” I’ve-just-got-angry-I-told-you-you-wouldn’t-like-it score from the Incredible Hulk, there was some guy giving a talk about Apple products to a small audience. I don’t know whether all Apple stores have the same set up, but at the Regent Street store they have a small auditorium area (well, a few rows of seats with a podium and screen at the front). Apple folk take it in turns to demonstrate to an audience of strays how to get more “productivity” from their Macs, and why Macs are so great. The audience generally consists of four distinct types: geeks who have got up at the crack of dawn especially to hike their PowerBooks down to the store just to learn how to choose more effective keywords for iPhoto; prospective customers or new Mac converts who have no idea even how to start the damn thing up; old folk from off the street who just fancy a sit down; and lost Scientologists. Now, I’m not sure how wise it is to situate your auditorium for showcasing “the power of the Mac” right next to a queue of angry customers with broken machines who have been waiting since Spring just to see a ruddy Apple “genius” (sorry, I physically can’t type the word without the quotation marks), but it clearly didn’t phase the younger-Steve-Jobs-lookalike giving the talk. Oh no, far from it. Throughout his talk, he continually pointed to the “Genius” Bar, stating that the “geniuses” were always on hand if you had any problem with your machine , and he looked right past the Russian-bread-queue-sized mob just trying to get to one of these “geniuses” without even the merest hint of embarrassment. Maybe it was this despite-overwhelming-evidence-to-the-contrary attitude that put me in mind of a relgion. Anyway. I wanted to jump up and down and scream “nooooooo!”, much in the manner of Luke Skywalker finding out that the guy who just sliced off his hand is actually his dad. But of course, I didn’t, because I wanted my iBook fixed.

Anyway, like I say, I don’t get it. How can anyone pretend that Apple is anything other than a company that make some good computer stuff but have s**t customer service just like everybody else? But I will say that Apple do have some fantastic software engineers. They actually hang around the development support lists (the Apple cocoa-dev lists) and give support to developers who don’t even have to pay to be there. I’ve had some first-class help from them in developing Scrivener. So don’t get me wrong – I’m not slagging off Apple here. And let me reiterate: I love OS X. Love it, love it, love it. But Apple isn’t a religion (and even if it were, I’m an atheist), it isn’t a lifestyle; it’s just a computer company. I think the writers of Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? got it right:

Mac junkies
“Oh, Macs are just so much better than PCs. The operating system is about 12 times faster and they’re just so much more efficient in, ooh… so many ways.”
Are they? Are they really? And how the fuck would you know, when all you use it for is copying CDs and looking at porn? What you really mean is: “They look nice.”
The Mac junkie will also crap on without end about how Microsoft is a big nasty corporation. No shit? And Apple’s what then – a workers’ co-op? No, it’s a smaller nasty corporation – which uses child labour and beats its workers, whom it pays in beans, with sticks (possibly).
Do you know what Apple employees call company chief Steve Jobs? I’ll tell you: Big Jobs. Or Shitty Jobby Job-head. And that’s true. Okay, it’s not.

That book made me laugh like a drain. I don’t actually know how to laugh like a drain, but that is what I did.

As you can probably tell, I’ve been wanting to get that off my chest for a while.

(It’s lucky this blog gets no hits, or I’d probably get some grief for this post. But then, if it got any hits, I wouldn’t have had the guts to post it. Hello nobody and that spider-bot that left my one and only comment about some dating site! Come to think of it, I hope it was a spider-bot, and not a real person who thought I was so sad that I must be in need of a dating site…)

Geek Joke of the Month

“There are only 10 kinds of programmers: those who know binary and those who don’t.”

I came across that in somebody’s signature on a forum. I know it makes me an irredeemable geek to find that funny, but I do. I do, I do.

If you really want to know about it…

It’s been about a year since I decided to learn how to program in Cocoa so that I could design and build my own application for writing in. I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on this process and on the reasons I decided to embark on this project for some time, so thought I’d start this ‘blog as a place for those, and other, more general, blatherings.

The last ‘blog I started (over on LiveJournal) died a death after only a few entries. It started with a rant on Why I Hate The Lord Of The Rings Films, and degenerated (which was quite a feat in itself) into an angry rant about how someone had stolen my son’s name. I’m hoping this one will fare better.

It’s probably safe to say that the reasons for my decision to build a writing application and for me deciding to start this ‘blog are one and the same: procrastination. It means I don’t have to face the fact that I’m not doing the one thing I should be doing: working on The Novel. It’s a strange doublethink: I want to work on The Novel, but I feel I can only ever look at it sideways, like the spaceship on the cricket pitch in So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. So I find a hundred other things to do to avoid facing it. One of my favourite quotes in this regard comes from the film Sliding Doors (otherwise complete tosh): when the writer boyfriend of Gwynneth Paltrow bursts into the pub announcing that he’s got amazing news, his best friend asks him if he’s finished his novel. The writer looks at him with contempt and snaps, “Of course not – I’m a writer, I’ll never finish the novel.” So at the moment I’m headed the Peter Camenzind route: forever collecting notes and writing down snippets, but never putting it all together.

There are some good ‘blogs out there too (and from here on in, as much as it pains me, I shall abandon the grammatically-correct apostrophe that prefixes ‘blog – blog, there we go, that… wasn’t… so… pain…ful), so I guess I also want to try my hand at this medium.

As for the name, Literature and LattĂ©, I always wanted to open up a coffee-cum-bookshop-cum-vegetarian-cafĂ© with that name. I’ve probably been beaten to it somewhere – certainly the phrase googles a few hits. But it kind of sets the sort of tone I want for myself here – general coffee-conversational waffle in a bookish setting. And the Marcus Aurelius quote is just there ‘cos it’s one of my favourites, but it may well prove to be very apt: trite babbling, and I’ll probably forget all about the blog after a few posts. God and Guatama, as I used to say when I didn’t know any better.

There, that’s as good a blog introduction as any. Or at least, ‘t’will do.