Writing on an iPad: An Update

Earlier in the week I mentioned I was trying out writing on my iPad, using a bluetooth connected keyboard, and some of you were wondering how that had worked out for me — if indeed it worked out at all. Well, in fact I wrote an episode of my upcoming project The Human Division on the iPad (roughly 10,500 words), so here’s an update.

First, some technical notes: for this thing I used my newly purchased iPad (the 2012 iteration), the Apple keyboard that came with my Mac Mini (it has a bluetooth connection) and a cheap plastic plate stand we had lying around the house. I bought myself one of the Logitech iPad keyboard covers, which are well reviewed and looks like could be useful when I travel. But as I got it in white, it hasn’t shipped yet, and it will probably be a week or so before it does. In the meantime, this setup works well enough.

I tried various word processing options, including Google Docs, my current go-to writing tool for THD, before settling on using Pages from Apple’s iWork suite. I chose it because a) it’s the best-integrated word processor for iPad, as far as I can see, and b) it now saves to iCloud, Apple’s cloud storage option, which means I can write it on the iPad and then go up and write on it some more on my desktop, if I choose. I’m not hugely in love with Pages as a word processor in a general sense, but for what I need to do (i.e., type words with minimal formatting), it does well enough.

In terms of the iPad as a writing device, it’s sufficient but not great; basically you give up a lot of fine motor control in order to work on it. By this I mean that moving the typing cursor around on the screen with your finger is a lot less exact than you can achieve with a mouse or trackpad; likewise other editing options appeared to be constrained or more rudimentary on the iPad than on a standard computer. Even something as relatively simple on a standard computer as italicizing was a longer and more annoying process on the iPad. What I ended up doing was saving a lot of the formatting and editing for when I was working on the computer. This was annoying but not a deal breaker for me, and it did signal that writing anything on the iPad, for the moment at least, will go better if you still have access to a more standard computer along the way. And I do.

If I were a person at Apple, my suggestions would be to make iPages (or, really the whole iOS) have a standard interface emulator, so I could also hook up a trackpad and have finer control over the cursor. It possible this does exist and I just don’t know how to access it, of course. In which case, I’d be happy for someone to show me how to do it (and also how to make smart quotes function on the iPad iteration of Pages, since I couldn’t figure that out, which meant I had to go and find & replace them into the document when I was done).

Now the positives: Writing on the iPad does make it easier for me to ignore the Internet, which considering the deadline I have at the moment is a major plus. It’s also convenient for me to pick up and move about the house; I ended up getting out of my office and writing at the kitchen table, which was a nice change. Since the new iPad has screen resolution better than my 24-inch monitor (2048×1536 vs. 1920×1200) on much less real estate, my typing looks fantastic on the iPad and, well, less so on my previously awesome monitor (yes, I know, I can get a better monitor! Thank you for spending my money for me). And, you know. Writing on an iPad makes me feel like I’m living in the future.

That said, I’m not entirely convinced the iPad — from a UI point of view, not a processing guts point of view — is entirely ready to replace the laptop as the best mobile computing environment for people who actually have to do, you know, work. As I said, if I didn’t have a full computing environment to do formatting and editing in, I think I would find the iPad unsatisfactory. I have some travel in the next month and if my Logitech keyboard arrives on time I’ll give going without my laptop a shot and see how it works. But if it were serious travel, like the travel I did earlier in the summer, I’m pretty sure I would be bringing along the laptop.

The Big Idea: Malinda Lo

Birds have often been painted as harbingers of troubled times. In her new novel Adaptation, Malinda Lo might say “Friend, you have no idea.” She explains why below. Watch the skies!


The idea for my new novel, Adaptation, came to me in a dream.

I know, I know. Such a cliche, right? But I swear I’m not lying. Like many writers, I keep a journal, and the morning I woke up from the dream that became Adaptation, I ran to my desk and scribbled it down as fast as I could. Here is that journal entry in its entirety:

Saturday, Jan. 11, 2009

I had a dream that would make a great beginning to a postapocalyptic novel. I was on a plane that stopped for a layover in Texas. Outside the windows suddenly these spacecrafts started shooting into the sky—like UFOs, and then hundreds of birds started falling from the sky dead. We were all very scared. Eventually it stopped and the plane took off. On the news we were told it was just an antivirus thing—killing off cancer-causing animals. Even Bill Clinton was shown standing outside in the falling birds, unharmed. Wouldn’t it be great to send a group of high school kids on a school trip where they encounter this? And although the government says it’s OK, it’s really not.

In retrospect, a few things jumped out at me upon rereading this entry. First, it took three years and nine months to turn that dream into a finished book. I had that dream before my first novel, Ash, was published. I had forgotten that this idea had been in my head for so long.

Second, practically nothing survives from that dream except two things: starting in an airport, and birds falling dead from the sky. Sadly, I was not able to integrate Bill Clinton in a shower of dead birds into Adaptation.

Third, the last two lines of that journal entry were actually my first attempts at figuring out what a book inspired by this dream could be about. I was a little startled to realize that I haven’t strayed from that initial idea. Those last two lines are exactly what Adaptation is about.

Now, getting inspiration from a dream sounds well and good, but once you’ve gotten that inspiration, you have to figure out how to turn it into a story that makes sense. Dreams can be intense and immersive; they can be fantastic and frightening. But they don’t follow much of a narrative structure, and they have tons of gaping plot holes. After deciding to turn the dream into a book, I had to figure out what happened to make those birds do what they did — and fashion a plot structure to hold it all together.

I knew in my gut that I had the beginning of a potentially awesome story. I was particularly excited about it because it had so many shades of The X-Files, which was one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Clearly, Adaptation owes a lot to The X-Files — not only its spooky tone, but the fact that The X-Files helped bring conspiracy theories and UFO sightings into the mainstream. Let me tell you: The research I did for Adaptation was equal parts totally fun and incredibly paranoia-inducing.

For instance, dead birds really do fall from the sky. Mass animal die-offs are not actually unheard of; they’re just really creepy. Additionally, birds and airplanes have had a long, bumpy history. Airport runways have to be designed to avoid common bird flight paths, because birds don’t know when a plane is going to get in their way. Planes are actually built to withstand hitting birds, and you might remember that pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike. (Incidentally, that happened on January 15, 2009 — four days after my dream.)

Now it’s September 2012, and my book-that-began-as-a-dream is a reality. The idea that initially inspired it is still there. In fact, here are the first two sentences of the novel: “The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and limp. They struck the ground with such force that their bodies smashed into dark slicks on the concrete.”

The book’s main character, seventeen-year-old Reese Holloway, sees those birds out the window at Phoenix Airport, where she is waiting for a flight home to San Francisco after a disastrous showing at a debate tournament with her partner, David Li. (She also has a crush on him, but her crush goes in interesting directions. For those who have strong feelings about love triangles, pro or con, I will note that Adaptation does include one, as well as this: My love triangle ain’t like the others.)

It turns out that birds aren’t just falling dead from the sky. They’re also striking planes in large flocks, which are causing the planes to crash. Thousands are dead, and the government calls for a flight ban.

Of course, Reese and David want to get home. They decide to rent a car with their debate coach and risk the freeways instead of waiting at the airport. Just as I learned while I was wrangling the plot of Adaptation and its sequel (coming fall 2013!), Reese and David discover that the birds are just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that readers will want to find out the truth as much as I did.


Adaptation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.