Scottish novelist (action, thriller, adventure). Author of the KESTREL series.

Last updated Dec. 6, 2018, 9:20 p.m.

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Mechanical Keyboards

A month or two ago, I took delivery of something I’ve periodically had my eye on for several years now: a big, chunky mechanical keyboard. It’s the more modern and practical equivalent of a typewriter, and is absolutely an object of desire for writers (or programmers) of a certain vintage — so I had to have it.

Mechanical keyboard

It’s a WASD 88-key (tenkeyless) ISO layout, and I’ve customised it to my requirements: completely blank keys, Mac keycode setup, with purple keycaps for modifiers and special keys.

So what’s a mechanical keyboard? Aren’t virtually all keyboards mechanical? Certainly, but the term has a specific meaning: most contemporary computer keyboards, on desktop machines as well as laptops, are of the shallow, quiet variety. They have very little travel (the vertical distance the key moves when you press it down), don’t make much noise, and tend to be constructed as flat keys on a lever mechanism, which depress a dome switch on an underlying sandwich of electronics. They’re very thin and light, and are very attractive for those reasons. If you’ve got almost any modern laptop, or any Apple non-iOS device at all, you’ve got one of these dome switch keyboards — not a mechanical one.

Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, are beasts. There’s a physical switch under each keycap, and the keycaps themselves have loads of travel: several times that of dome switches. They’re percussive, positive in feedback, and are often very, very loud in comparison. If you’re hearing a CHOK CHOK CHOK, or a CLACK CLACK CLACK, it’s a mechanical keyboard… and you probably hate that particular colleague even though their keyboard sounds amazing.

As with any now-specialist interest, you can go as deep down the rabbit hole as you like. There are many different types of switches to choose from, each of which sounds and feels different. The most common type are those from the Cherry MX range, and the standard is to use colours to distinguish each one; if you pull a keycap off a mechanical keyboard, which you can pretty much always do without causing any damage, you’ll see that the central mechanism is physically painted in the corresponding colour.

Reds are linear, like pressing a spring smoothly down, and almost silent. Browns are very quiet too, but have a distinctive tactile ‘bump’ at their activation point, which is before you reach full travel. Blues have both a bump and a CLICK that echoes around the room. Blacks are stiffer versions of reds, greens are stiffer versions of blues, and so on and so on. Gamers love reds, and writers love blues or browns.

This particular writer loves blues. Here’s a video of my typing machine, and the gorgeous bloody racket it makes. Those are Cherry MX blues, and they’re actually slightly dampened with 0.2mm O-rings, if you can believe it, because my office is all hard wooden surfaces and very acoustically bright.

Fair enough, you say… but why? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an indulgent thing; a borderline eccentric acquisition. But dear reader, it’s the most delightful keyboard I’ve ever typed on.

Here in Scotland, we use profanity constantly — as an intensifier, or endearment, or insult, or almost anything else. When we want to say that something is substantial, and bold, and utterly (gloriously) without shame or self-consciousness, we have a certain phrase… and it’s absolutely the right one to use here:

This is a big fuck-off keyboard.

It’s not any tougher on the fingers or wrists, though, despite what you might expect; indeed, the blue switches activate at an intermediate point on the key’s travel just like the browns, so you don’t need to press them fully down as with dome switches (which is called bottoming out). I actually find the mechanical switches gentler on my hands. And regardless of how it may appear, the key spacing isn’t noticeably greater than on a Apple Magic Keyboard either.

So, no loss – except for portability and in my case a Bluetooth connection — but a huge emotional gain. Typing on this thing feels like writing. It feels like bashing out a story then yelling for the copy boy. It feels like anachronistic and hard-boiled tale-telling. It feels like Pulitzer journalism. It’s like a telegraph key, and an old movie, and Woodward and Bernstein. But it’s also mainframes and the IBM Model M, and the BASIC programming of my youth. Big keys that take a beating, and a keyboard that could deliver one if swung at a foolhardy burglar.

It’s pretentious and extravagant and intrusive, and those are all plus points for me. While a svelte Apple keyboard crouches stealthily on the desk’s surface, doing its best to vanish into the background of its own glittering technological utopia, there’s something cold about it; something ascetic and even vaguelly sinister. It looks like it could receive a prearranged remote signal and then suddenly transform into an aluminium and white plastic robot, taking flight to pursue its fleshy quarry with uncanny manoeuvrability and relentlessness.

By contrast, I’d only have to climb a small flight of stairs to evade my mechanical keyboard’s hypothetical homicidal rampage — not that I can imagine the least bit of enmity from something so resoundingly cheerful.

ROGER THAT, it says, in response to every keypress. GOT IT. KEEP ‘EM COMING.

I do have a typewriter, by the way: a gorgeous old Olivetti Lettera 22, made in Glasgow in the late 1950s. It’s big and heavy and rock solid; a thing of levers and cogs and inky ribbons. In use, it sounds like a librarian’s nightmare (or secret fantasy), and it has far, far more in common with a mechanical keyboard than with more 21st-Century typing devices. They’re both thunderous, and precisely engineered yet somehow gleefully unrefined, and they could each quite readily put a hole in the wall and then immediately be used to type an article entitled Why I Just Put a Hole in the Wall.

They’re pompous and tactile, but more importantly they’re intentional machines. They make a celebration, and a sensory experience, out of the thing that they’re designed to do. Modern keyboards try their best to let you type with as little sound or movement as possible; they reduce the experience almost to the non-physical. Virtual keyboards on touch-screen devices actually achieve that dubious goal, and occupy an uncanny valley of uncertainty and precariousness because of it. Typing isn’t a stationary action, and nor should it be. It’s not a silent activity. And writing certainly isn’t either of those things.

You can type using whatever you want, but isn’t there something minimising about the snick snick snick or the tak tak tak of modern keyboards? A certain leeching-away of colour, and feeling, and momentum? And, far worse, isn’t it almost soul-destroying to deliver the Return key’s coup de grâce of conclusion, but only being rewarded with something that sounds like… plik?

I’ll take my CHOK CHOK CHOK or my CLACK CLACK CLACK any day. Writing feels like doing something in the world, instead of just flicking slender characters into an electronic void. I wouldn’t give up the miracle of my iPad for almost anything, but please don’t also take away the artillery-barrage of the way we used to compose.

When I’m working on a fast-paced scene, I want the orchestra keeping up with me. When I hit Backspace, I want it to be punitive. And when I finish a paragraph, I want a one-gun salute for my efforts.

It does make a hell of a racket; no question about it. My wife has walked around to my side of the desk a couple of times to check I’m actually working, rather than hammering gibberish into a document in some kind of pantomime of productivity. When I speak to her via FaceTime while I’m writing, she winces and turns down the volume on her AirPods. I understand each of those reactions perfectly. I sympathise.

We’re an Apple household, both in product-purchasing choices and aesthetic preference. I do embrace minimalism whenever I can. My desk is an expanse of wood-veneered emptiness — as beautiful for me to post on Instagram as it is annoying for my followers to view — but not entirely so. One object is completely out of place.

Not the iPad Pro on its equally sleek aluminium stand. Not the mere millimetres-thick drinks coaster in brown leather. Not the faux pot plant in contemplative isolation in the rear-left corner. The other thing.

The thing you can hear from down the hall, even with the door closed. The thing that says WRITER AT WORK, and ROGER THAT, and KEEP ‘EM COMING. The thing that Apple will never again make or sell, because it would be just as out of place in their product photos as it is in my otherwise-zen home office.

I love the iPad, but it’s a love borne of respect and awe and admiration. An intellectual love. If you were to ask me what my favourite gadget is… well, I’d answer straight away.

My big fuck-off keyboard.


Comments? Talk to me on Twitter.


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2018-12-06T21:20:00Z
TOLL is out now!

I’m thrilled to announce that TOLL, the second book in the KESTREL action-technothriller series, is out now!

TOLL book cover

Elite EU special forces team KESTREL is back, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance once again. With fast-paced action, beautiful locations across Europe and beyond, and the series’ trademark blend of adventure, conspiracy, and fringe science, TOLL has already been gaining rave reviews:

“A masterclass in storytelling” — ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Vivid, harrowing and relentlessly taut” — ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Fast-paced action keeps you glued to the book” — ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“Riveting and thrilling” — ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

You can buy it right here, in the format/platform of your choice:

And plenty of other places too:

Here’s the description from the back cover:


THE PERFECT WEAPON LAY BURIED FOR 70 YEARS. NOW ITS DEADLY POWER HAS BEEN UNLEASHED.

The Norwegian Sea: a group of eco-activists disappear from their vessel. Only their dental fillings remain.

Owl Mountains, Poland: a wealthy environmentalist resurrects a secret experiment forgotten since the close of the Second World War, determined to heal our ravaged planet.

When a dossier finds its way to the desk of Dr. Neil Aldridge, the elite EU special forces team codenamed KESTREL is drawn into a dangerous pursuit across Europe and beyond, to prevent a cull of Earth’s greatest threat: humanity.

As the final countdown begins, Captain Jessica Greenwood faces the ultimate choice: fight to prevent the dark future ahead, or help make it happen…


To find out more, read a preview, or buy it (yay), go here immediately!


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2018-12-05T00:00:00Z
Beautiful ebook novels with Ulysses

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.


Within the next week, the second novel in my KESTREL thrillers series, entitled TOLL, will be released. I wrote it entirely in Ulysses, and I’d like to share my method for creating beautiful epub ebooks of novels using Ulysses itself.

I’ve created a Ulysses epub export style for this purpose, and it’s on the Ulysses Style Exchange entitled Gemmell Novel. Read on for info on how to set up your book project and formatting.

Ulysses ebook epub export popover

It’s important to note that this is strictly for novels (or books that are similar in conventional formatting, structure, and layout). It particularly won’t work well for books that require multiple levels of headings within the text, because I repurpose headings to create various other effects instead, as detailed below.

Since Ulysses uses Markdown as its writing format, there’s no built-in concept of various things we need to produce a typographically acceptable and aesthetically pleasing ebook novel, such as:

  • A title page, dedication, copyright notice, or epigraph;
  • Centred text, commonly for use in front matter;
  • Formatted front and back matter generally;
  • Scene breaks.

We can get around all of that by (mis-)using certain Markdown and HTML formatting to create those elements, though, and that’s what my epub export style does. Here’s how to use it.

Structuring your novel

With my export style, you’ll get a clean, readable, beautiful ebook — with justified text, indented paragraphs (except the first of a section), automatic section breaks for chapters and parts, and a generally pleasant experience for the reader.

There are just two rules to follow with your book’s main content:

  1. Use heading level 1 (h1, or a single “#” in Markdown) for chapter titles. Also use it for part titles, if your novel has parts.

  2. Use a horizontal rule (hr, or “----” in Markdown) for scene breaks. Put one at the end of every scene, except those which end a chapter.

The part and chapter headings will be shown in a larger font and in boldface, with some spacing above them. Each will begin a new page (section), which is what you want.

Apple Books ebook chapter heading page

Scene breaks will be shown as a fully blank line, with no ornamentation; this is the preferred style for a novel, and it looks excellent.

Apple Books ebook scene break

Two personal recommendations, which are entirely optional: keep each scene in its own sheet in Ulysses, and also keep each title (chapter or part heading) in its own sheet. This means you can easily reorder scenes, and move scenes between chapters.

Front matter (and back matter)

Books have front matter, which is stuff that comes before the actual story: it usually includes at least a copyright notice, title page, and perhaps a dedication. There might also be information about the author, the book’s series, an epigraph (a quote, poem, lyric or such which serves to set the mood for the story, or ties into it in some way), and even the book’s back-cover blurb.

Since ebooks have no back cover, I recommend putting the blurb (enticing summary or teaser description) in the front matter — sometimes readers buy your book but don’t start reading for a while, and it serves as a useful reminder.

The thing about front matter that’s tricky from a Markdown point of view is that it typically uses different formatting from the main story; for example, the copyright, dedication, and title pages all tend to be centred rather than left-aligned or fully justified. Similarly, while each front matter page has a conceptual title (like “Copyright” or such), those titles usually aren’t actually shown. We can deal with all of this.

For each front matter page, start the relevant sheet in Ulysses with an h2 heading (##), but put the title in an inline comment (++like this++). This gives you a title for the page in Ulysses, and a way for my epub style to format the page, but the title won’t actually be shown in the ebook. There are several examples below. Front matter pages use non-indented paragraphs with vertical spacing between, which is very likely what you want.

For your title page, use an h5 heading for the book’s title, and use an h6 heading for the author’s name (and also for the series name, if you have one). These will be shown in suitable sizes, without boldface, and centred.

Ulysses front matter title page

Here’s how it’ll look:

Apple Books ebook front matter title page and epigraph

For left-aligned front matter content, such as author biography, series information, or certain types of epigraphs, use an h3 heading for each paragraph.

Ulysses front matter author information

Here’s how it’ll look:

Apple Books ebook front matter series and author information

For centred front matter content, such as a copyright notice, dedication, and certain epigraphs such as perhaps poetry or such, use an h4 heading for each paragraph.

Ulysses front matter copyright page

Here’s how it’ll look:

Apple Books ebook front matter copyright and dedication

Yes, the raw Markdown in Ulysses for the front matter is slightly odd, but you’ll get a beautiful ebook out of it, and without resorting to raw code blocks and custom HTML or CSS.

Regarding back matter, its format is up to you — feel free to use the above conventions just as for your front matter. I tend to just let each section of back matter be formatted as a normal chapter, which works well for an afterword, acknowledgements section, and such like.

Closing thoughts

That’s about it. You can install my epub export style and try it out to see the results. The typeface shown in all screenshots is my beloved Palatino, which I also set my paperback novels in.

A brief aside: since I work on an iPad Pro, and have an Apple Pencil, one of the beneficial side-effects of being able to produce attractive epub files straight from Ulysses is that I can offer my readers autographed and personalised ebooks, with custom-inscribed covers. They’ve been very popular.

I hope this article has been useful to you. Again, you can find my Gemmell Novel epub export style on the Ulysses Style Exchange. Feel free to duplicate and modify it for your needs, if you have the Mac version of Ulysses. Similarly, you might be interested in my Gemmell Two theme, which provides a clean and readable environment for writing in Ulysses.

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

The book you’ve been seeing in the various screenshots within this piece is my own upcoming novel, TOLL, which is out on Wednesday 5th December 2018. If you’re interested in fast-paced technothrillers with a European focus and a hint of conspiracy and fringe science (or just want to say thanks for this article), 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.


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2018-11-30T13:03:00Z
Using the iPad for: autographed ebooks

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.


I recently wrote about how I’m offering autographed ebook versions of my novels, alongside autographed paperbacks and of course the regular retail editions in both print and digital formats. In this article, I’ll briefly describe my iPad-based workflow for making those bespoke ebooks.

Because I self-publish and thus generate the ebooks myself, I have full control of the process. My iPad Pro with Apple Pencil is the idea tool for not only inscribing and signing book covers in an efficient (and eco-friendly!) way, but also actually building and delivering the resulting beautiful personalised digital novel.

First, I have to do the actual signing. I use the Apple Pencil for this, and the regular Photos app. I have an album that contains just the clean cover art for each book, and when I get an order, I duplicate the relevant cover. Then I open the Markup interface to actually sign it. I like using the medium thickness of pen, since it’s a good approximation for my beloved Staedtler pigment liners (which I use to sign paper books) but is also thick enough to show up really well on e-reader apps and devices.

A huge bonus is that I don’t need to worry about accidentally bashing a paperback’s cover, or messing up an inscription or signature: I can just tap undo (or use the eraser) and try again.

Signing an ebook cover using the Markup feature in iPad's Photos app.

If I’m just signing a couple of covers I’ll lift the iPad into my lap, but if there are quite a few to sign then I set it up as an easel, with a Jetech stand. If you look along the bottom of the screen in this next photo, you can see all the covers queued up to be signed; once I’ve done one, I just swipe to the next and continue — much faster and easier than with paperbacks!

A cover open in Photos, with many more queued up along the bottom. The iPad is at a shallow angle like an easel or drawing board, on a small metal stand.

Next, I open the novel’s project in Ulysses, add the custom cover via importing it from Photos, and build the ebook. It gets saved to Dropbox, which is where I keep all my work.

Ulysses epub export popover, with custom book cover selected.

(It’s worth noting that I only wrote the second book in the KESTREL series, TOLL, in Ulysses — the first one, CHANGER, was written in Scrivener — so I do need to jump off to a Mac if the order is for a copy of CHANGER at the moment. I need to find time to import CHANGER into Ulysses at some point! Likewise, if the customer wants a Kindle ebook, I need to use Scrivener on the Mac; I’m not aware of any iOS-only way to produce Kindle mobi files right now, and I’d love to hear about it if you know otherwise.)

I then switch to Dropbox and export the ebook, triggering a shortcut I made in Apple’s Shortcuts app, which was previously called Workflow. I have the customer’s email address on my clipboard at this stage, and the shortcut just takes both the email address and the ebook file and makes a new email with suitable subject and content, addressed to the customer, and with the ebook attached.

Screenshot of Shortcuts, showing the steps of my ebook emailing action.

I tap Send, and I’m done!

Mail popover with pre-filled subject, text, and attached ebook file.

The end result is a beautiful and unique copy of a novel that’s in a convenient ebook format, but is still personalised with an inscription and a signature. I do every one of them by hand, including my signature every single time!

Large screenshot of custom cover rendered as a book in Apple Books.

When the bespoke ebook is loaded into an e-reader app or device, like Apple Books or a Kindle, the custom cover shows up right in the bookshelf. I think they look brilliant, and I love the idea of taking personalised and autographed books into the digital world. For me, the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil made this process not only possible, but also feasible for a one-man indie publisher and novelist.

Apple Books library showing a copy of TOLL with a custom signed cover.

If you’d like to get your own autographed digital version of either of my novels, I’d love to sign them for you. Here’s where to buy:

Thanks for reading.


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2018-11-23T11:53:00Z
Autographed ebooks

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.


The second book in my KESTREL action-thriller series, TOLL, will be released on 5th December. I think it’s a worthy sequel to CHANGER, and I very much hope you’ll read and enjoy it.

I’ve always offered autographed paperback copies of CHANGER, and you can now also pre-order autographed paperbacks of TOLL too, but lots of people prefer the convenience of ebooks these days — and we certainly love our Kindles here.

Since I self-publish my novels, and I work full-time on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil, I’m excited to announce that I can now offer the best of both worlds for those who want a personalised keepsake in digital format: autographed ebooks!

Autographed ebooks

So what exactly is an autographed ebook? Simply, it’s a digital copy of a novel (in the format of your choice — mobi for Kindle devices and apps, or epub for Apple Books, Kobo, Nook, or virtually any other e-reader app or device), with a custom cover including a hand-inscribed message for you, with your name and my signature. The cover will show up on your reader device or app, and it makes for a unique and unusual e-gift for yourself or anyone else.

This idea was suggested by Andy Nicolaides on Twitter, and it was so good that I just had to implement it immediately!

I inscribe each cover personally, and create a completely bespoke ebook just for you. iPad Pro makes the workflow pretty simple: I sign and inscribe a copy of the book’s cover artwork using Apple Pencil (via the Markup feature in the Photos app), and export the resulting custom cover. That cover is used with the original manuscript to generate an ebook that’s entirely yours. Delivery is via email, naturally.

The best part is that, since I’m fulfilling these myself, you can get TOLL not only personalised for you but also before the public release date — and CHANGER is available in this new format too! Here are the links:

I’m delighted with this new way to get my books to you quickly and efficiently but still with personalisation (and it’s presumably better for the environment, which might be a topic you’ll encounter in TOLL too…), using new technology to create something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

One of the things I love most about my iPad is how it endlessly transforms into new tools as I discover new uses for it. This venture went from the idea stage to availability in half a day, which is stunning to me. As an independent novelist and publisher, it’s critically important to find new ways to turn my passion for writing into a sustainable business. I think that this kind of agile creativity is something that’s very much at the centre of Apple’s vision for these devices.

I hope you’ll consider getting an autographed ebook of the new novel (and/or the first one!), and I look forward to sharing more news about TOLL with you in the coming weeks as we approach the release date.

Thanks for reading.


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2018-11-21T11:18:00Z
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