skel

As you doubtless gathered from my recent Scrivener review, I’m a massive fan of the best Mac app I’ve ever used for creative writing. The TL;DR version is that I wouldn’t dream of attempting to write a novel in anything else. My only real grumble is that we’ve as yet seen no sign of the long-promised iPad version of the app.

I’ve used PlainText with a Dropbox sync as a way of working on Scrivener projects on my iPad, and that works well enough at the writing stage. At the planning, stage, though, I love the corkboard interface. I was thus really interested to see an iOS app that not only provides a very similar corkboard view, but which can export and import to and from Scrivener … 

Overview

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For those not familiar with the corkboard concept, what you have is a virtual board with a set of index cards. Each card can have a title and a synopsis of what happens in that section. Typically, when planning a novel or screenplay, each card will represent one scene.

In Scrivener, you can then double-click a card to open up a document to do your actual writing – and that’s the first thing to note about this app: it’s a pure planning tool. You get a corkboard, and you can title the cards and enter a synopsis, but that’s it: there’s no way to do any of your actual writing in the app. 

I’d ideally like to be able to double-tap on a card to open a document, just as I can in Scrivener, but then I guess what we’d have then is, well, the iPad version of Scrivener. There doesn’t, however, appear to be any limit on the amount of text you can have in the synopsis area of a card, so if you do get carried away and find dialogue springing immediately to mind, there’s nothing to stop you writing it in the synopsis area. You’d simply need to cut-and-paste it into the document once you export to Scrivener.

The app runs on both iPad and iPhone, but I suspect it may be rather cramped on an iPhone. I tested it on my iPad Air.

First impressions

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I have to say I’m not a fan of the aesthetics of the app. The developer has run with the ‘skeleton’ part of the name and tried to make the look & feel reflect that. So on the homepage of the app we get skeletal typography for the name, a skull icon and a color scheme largely comprising black and grey.

Tastes vary, of course, but personally I found this a bit oppressive in an app that’s all about fostering creativity. It also made for a rather unclear menu system, but more of this later.

Using the app

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When you tap New to create a new document, you’re asked for a title and then get a title page and one blank card. Tap in the title area of the card and you’re free to enter your own title, but you’re also prompted with a selection of preset ones. These are a pretty helpful way of ensuring that you cover off some of the essentials in your planning, and in providing a guideline structure.

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I accepted the hint of starting with Act 1 and an Inciting Incident, and was so pleased to see non-monochromatic colors that I chose to make this card yellow. I then set about planning the world’s most clichéd rom-com plot by writing a two-sentence synopsis for the scene.

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Once you’re ready for the next card, you just tap the plus icon and do the same thing again: either choose your own title or select one of the presets, then type your scene synopsis. Here I have three scenes. The first card is yellow as I selected that color, the second is grey – the default color for a card – and the third is white as that’s the currently-selected one.

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I was pleased to see a key feature borrowed from Scrivener: you can re-order cards both on the main corkboard view, and in the ‘list’ view (what Scrivener calls the Binder view). In either case, just tap-and-hold the card you want to move, then drag it to its new position.

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To insert a blank card, just tap on the card before it and then hit the plus icon: the new card is always created immediately after the selected card.

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To switch to the corkboard view, simply tap the obvious icon.

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This is the best place to get an overview of your story, and to restructure it by re-ordering cards. You can also insert new cards here by tapping the card you want it to follow. A plus sign and X appear at the bottom of the card: hit the plus sign to add a new card or the X to delete the card – all very intuitive.

This is not, unfortunately, true of the main menu, which you open by tapping the skull:

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My immediate impression was that I had two available buttons at the top – the left and right arrows, and three dimmed-out buttons. In fact, all are active buttons. The arrows are undo/redo – though as you lose the ability to undo your last edit if you switch between corkboard and binder view, I initially thought they were just prompts to swipe left and right through the cards. While iOS 7 has come in for complaints about buttons not always being obvious, this design scheme is far, far worse. This, in my view, needs an urgent fix.

Once you figure out that the three lower buttons are also active, the settings icon allows you to change the width of the binder column, change the text size and move the binder to the right (suggested for left-handed users). The home icon takes you back to the home screen, and the share icon allows you to export your plan in a range of formats.

Exporting your plan

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While I was critical of the usability of the main menu, there is a lovely touch here where touching any of the six file formats displays a brief summary of what the format is for and how to import it at the other end. Since I wanted to import into Scrivener, I selected .scriv as the format.

The first time you export, you’re prompted to enter your Dropbox credentials to authorise the app. That done, export is a very simple two-touch operation: touch the format you want, then touch the Send to Dropbox button and it’s done. (You can also email if you prefer.)

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Here again, though, we’re back into poor user-interface territory: the app does indeed save to Dropbox but doesn’t tell you where! Some googling was required to find that exports are sent to Dropbox > Apps > StorySkeleton > Exports. A simple mention of this in the confirmation message is all that is needed here.

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The app zips .scriv files, so you have to unzip first and then can simply double-click the file to open it in Scrivener.

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Once in Scrivener, you can then double-click a card in the usual way to write the scene.

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Importing from Scrivener

While exporting is done to the native .scriv format, StorySkeleton can’t import .scriv files as it has no way of processing the contents of any of the documents, only the card titles and synopses. For this reason, you have to export from Scrivener in the .opml format, which is a standard file format used by a lot of mind-mapping software. This is as simple as going to File > Export in Scrivener and selecting the OPML format.

Again, rather unintuitively, to import the .ompl file into StorySkeleton, you have to place it in Dropbox > Apps > StorySkeleton > Exports. You then open StorySkeleton and tap the Import button on the home screen.

That little niggle aside, both imports and exports worked flawlessly.

Conclusions

I found it quite hard to make my mind up about this one. I really dislike the color scheme, and the user-interface definitely falls a long way short of intuitive in a few areas.

But once you’re familiar with it, the app does exactly what it claims, and it does it well. I used it in real life to plan the next section of my novel during a journey across London, and it is definitely very handy being able to do that on an iPad rather than on my MacBook Air when hopping between different forms of transport where the form-factor and instant on/off of the iPad makes it king.

So here’s the bottom-line for me. If you’re not a Scrivener user, and just want AN Other planning app, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one. The color scheme and UI glitches make it a 5/10, and there are likely better options around.

But if, like me, you’re a hard-core Scrivener fan, I would say that for $9, this is a very worthwhile companion app. The overall corkboard interface will immediately be familiar, and the ability to very quickly and easily transfer your work back-and-forth between the two apps  is extremely handy. My complaints about the app still stand, but they are a relatively small price to pay for the increased productivity and convenience StorySkeleton delivers until the official Scrivener iPad app is released.

StorySkeleton costs $8.99 and is available on iTunes