How to Write a Novel With Ulysses, Part II: Research, Editing, and Export

Cover of Matt Gemmell's novel TOLL

Matt Gemmell is a thriller writer from the city of Edinburgh in Scotland. He wrote his recent book, TOLL — which was published less than two weeks ago — using Ulysses. We invited him to share a few details of his writing process and how he uses several of the app’s features to help him. Last week, he covered his project structure, the manuscript’s organization, and the writing process; plus he explained his use of keywords and word count goals. In today’s post, Matt shares how he is going about reference and research related to his novel and treats the subjects of editing and export.

Reference and Research

When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t fully plan it out beforehand, and I ended up having to do an enormous rewrite after the first draft. It was a horrible process, and it dented my confidence (and motivation). I learned my lesson! For the second book, I fully outlined the entire novel before I started working on the first scene, and the writing process was much, much easier because of it.

I outline in an app called OmniOutliner, and when I’m ready to start work in Ulysses, I copy a section of my outline into the notes area of a sheet’s Attachments. This gives me something to work from, and as I cover each point in the outline, I delete it from the sheet’s notes. When I reach the end of a scene, I Split the sheet, which moves the notes into the new sheet too, and I continue.

Similarly, some scenes have research material associated with them in the form of an image: I add the image to the sheet’s Attachments, and I can then leave the pane open to refer to as I write. It’s easy to know which sheets have such an image, because a paperclip icon shows up in the sheets list.

Editing

While I’m writing, I use annotations to mark anything that needs to be revisited later. I do this for sections needing some research (for example, I’ll often just put something like HELICOPTER with an annotation, then later actually find out which kind of helicopter is suitable). I also use annotations when I’m feeling unsure about some part of the text, whether it’s the pacing, a plot element, wording, or anything else. It’s too easy to get hung up on those things while writing, and I find it much more productive to just make an annotation and move on, trusting my future self to come back to it with fresh eyes.

I create a filter group for each project which just lists scenes with annotations, which provides me with a ready-made (and always up to date) list of scenes that need attention. This removes the need to search through your manuscript for them, because they’re always available.

When it comes time for someone else to look at the book, such as an editor, proof-reader, beta reader or otherwise, I export the manuscript as a DOCX file which anyone can read and comment upon in Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, and many other apps. When I get changes back, I can view them side-by-side with Ulysses, and work through the manuscript again. Ulysses always serves as my own master copy, which keeps things simple for me.

Related Material

There’s more to a book than the planning and research materials, manuscript, and front or back matter. I keep a lot of ancillary material within the project itself too.

The jacket blurb (or enticing description of the book, commonly found on the back cover of a paperback) is something that takes shape while you’re writing, and can be one of the most difficult parts to write. I keep a sheet in my Ulysses project just for working on the blurb, and I edit it periodically as the book progresses. I keep multiple versions of the blurb at different lengths, suitable for different purposes.

I also keep the brief for my cover designer in Ulysses, and again I add notes to it while I’m writing the book, until I have a very strong idea of what I want. This also lets me ensure that the cover not only reflects the story and excites the potential reader, but also has various subtle references to the details of the tale which will be appreciated by those who do read it. When I receive the initial round of cover concept work, I write my feedback in Ulysses too, keeping it as a record of how the design project is evolving.

Lastly, whenever I get a review of the book that’s particularly positive or useful for marketing, I keep it as a sheet in a Reviews subgroup of my project. This gives me a central repository of quotes for the book’s back cover, the website, online stores, advertising and promotions, and just as a motivating record of people’s response to the story. If you use beta readers or advance readers, they can be a great source of these reviews.

Exporting Your Book

When it’s time to export the book either for advance readers or for publication, it’s very useful that Ulysses can generate most formats you’ll need without having to go through another app.

I created an ePub export style to create beautiful ebooks of novels, complete with front matter formatting for title pages, dedications, copyright notices, and so on. It’s called Gemmell Novel, and it’s on the Style Exchange — and you should probably also read my notes on how to best use it.

Writing books means being in the marketing business too, especially if you self-publish, and it’s important to seek ways to promote your work in interesting ways. Since I use Ulysses on an iPad Pro for all my work, I was able to create a new type of product for my readers: autographed ebooks! I use the iPad, Apple Pencil, and Ulysses with my ePub export style to create ebooks with custom-signed and inscribed covers for my readers, and they’ve been very popular. You can find out more about the process here, and you’re very welcome to use it for yourself.

Final Thoughts

I do all of my writing in Ulysses, from full-length novels to my site members’ weekly newsletter, and even this article itself. I find that it lets me stay focused on the words without any distraction, but also gives me enough extra features to help with organisation, reference, editing, and keeping track of how a project is going. It’s also a huge bonus that I can work on an iPad with all the same functionality as a Mac, and even get meaningful things done when I just have my iPhone with me.

Writing a novel is never easy, but with the right tools it can be much more manageable and enjoyable. I hope that some of the observations and ideas in this piece have been helpful to you, but please also remember the best advice I can offer: always feel free to ignore someone else’s advice about writing!


I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter, which is the best place to get in touch, and you can also email me. If you’re interested in my work, you might want to sign up for my occasional readers’ newsletter, which has bonus scenes from my books, articles about writing, previews of future projects, and more.

The book you’ve been seeing in the various screenshots within this piece is my own latest novel, TOLL, which is out now. If you’re interested in fast-paced technothrillers with a European focus and a hint of conspiracy and fringe science, here’s where you can find it:

I hope you’ll take a look, and best of luck with your own writing projects. Thanks for reading.

Rebekka Honeit

Blog-curating writing maniac and public relations person. Loves coffee, chocolate cookies and literature. Finds peace in tweaking press copy.