Ulysses for Writing Prose on Mac

I use Ulysses app for Mac OS X for all of my writing. When you write in Ulysses you’re working with plain text and you perform basic formatting with markdown syntax. What I love about Ulysses is how simple it is. Yet the application’s simplicity does not mean it’s trivial. In fact, it’s extremely powerful. I am writing this post to talk about how I use it to write.

What I’m not going to do is perform an exhaustive overview of Ulysses’ core features. You can visit the app’s homepage and forums for that. I just want to mentioned some of the conventions I follow.

Sheets

Ulysses organizes units of writing into sheets. For me, one sheet equals one scene in my book. Sheets are ordered so the order they appear in the editor is the order they will get stitched together when you export to PDF, ePub, docx, etc. Sheets can be “glued” together. I usually do this to glue together sheets in a chapter.

I dedicate an initial sheet to the title. All it has is # Title. I dedicate a small sheet for individual chapter numbers. The chapter numbers are simply sheets with # Chapter XX, where ## is “heading 2”.  I don’t glue these to the stories t hat follow. This is so I can move groups of sheets around in case I need to reorganize chapters.

Folders

I organize groups of chapters into folders. At the top-level I have “Book” and then I might have sub folders called “Act 1”, “Act 2”, and “Act 3”. When you click on a folder, you only see the sheets in that folder. This allows me to concentrate my editing and searching to that one part of the book.

Tags

I tag sheets with one of three kinds of tags. The first tag is what Act the sheet is in. This is redundant with the folder and I may remove it. Still, I’ll go into why I still use this soon when I speak about search folders. The second tag I use is the “sage” designation. As the book climaxes, many different characters are working independently and I do a lot of scene weaving to keep the action going. I tag all stories in a particular mini saga with the character’s name so I can refer to all sheets tagged that way linearly. I’ll go into that in a second. The third tag is the time of day. This is only important when it’s needed, but it can really help sequence things in your mind. I always use GMT so I can ensure the times are in correct sequence. I have a small sheet that has conversions to local times if I need to figure out if the sun is up or if it’s dark.

Searching

The main reason I use tags is so I can create search folders. Searches are like “Smart Playlists” in your favorite music player such as iTunes. You define criteria and all sheets that match that criteria appear in the search folder. I currently have these search folders:

  • Act 1 TODO – This search looks for the word TODO in my prose and only in Act 1 folder.
  • Act 2 TODO – Same as above, but for Act 2
  • Act 3 TODO – Same as above, but for Act 3
  • Mara’s Saga – All sheets tagged mara-saga
  • Mike’s Saga – All sheets tagged mike-saga
  • Sam’s Saga – All sheets tagged sam-saga

Using search folders I can prepare a draft for submission by easily finding all of the TODO’s in my prose. Or I can read a character’s saga linearly, outside of the scene weave.

Folders

My novel is linked at the top-level in Ulysses as an “external folder.” I could also use iCloud for storage. iCloud sheets have the advantage of being able to add side notes and images to the sheets. You can’t do this for sheets you store on your hard drive and link in Ulysses. The advantage to external folders is you can open the files in something like marked where you can do a wide variety of things to your sheets which are written in markdown. One common thing I do is a grammar preview. You cannot attach notes and images to sheets located in external folders.

More to come

In future posts, I’ll speak about how I use Marked. In a previous post, I’ve talked about how I use git to store my markdown files in a way that allows me to recall any draft of my book at any point in time.