This Writer’s Toolkit

It’s the Monday after the election. The hysteria has pretty much abated, or so I’m guessing. Either way, it’s time for the writers to get back to work and that means it’s the perfect time to perv over writing gear, in the guise of “getting in the mood”.

I don’t pretend to have any special insights into this stuff. I just know I love reading how other writers work and what tools they use. The stuff I’m recommending here WILL NOT make your writing any better but, if my own experience is anything to go by, sometimes a new bit of kit inspires you to WANT to write, and that can be useful. If I have one pro-tip, though, it’s not to get sucked into a time vortex with this stuff. I once spent an inordinate amount of time trying to source some pen that Joss Whedon had mentioned in an interview, in the hope that finding it and using it would somehow be like touching the hem of the master’s garment. At the end of this fruitless search I realised that Joss Whedon would almost certainly have spent the time I’d wasted writing.

Anyway, I’m going to structure this from idea to finished product and talk about the stuff I use along the way; that seems to be the sensible way to go. Before we get to the spark of an idea, though, we need the stuff that often creates that spark. For me, more often than not, that’s reading…

The first thing I do in the morning, if you don’t count coffee and nicotine, is to hit the internet and I often hit it as hard as I can. That means Twitter gets launched, Facebook gets launched, an RSS reader gets launched and a bunch of news tabs are opened in my browser. I’m on a Mac (caveat for this whole thing is that I’m on a Mac – some of the stuff I’m going to talk about may not work on a Windows machine) and I have this first-of-the-day process streamlined via an app called ALFRED. I boot the computer, hit Ctrl and the spacebar and type the word “morning” and all this stuff just magically happens.

I’m using TweetDeck for Twitter and Safari for Facebook and the news tabs (for details of what news tabs I use, check out this INFODUMP newsletter). For the RSS feeds, I’m using FEEDLY. Now, depending on the mood I’m in, what I have to do that day and how much time I have, I may only really skim this stuff. I want to know what people are talking about but I’m not really looking for current affairs because the latest Twitter storm or frenzy of political outrage is unlikely either to be relevant to work or to set me up in the right mood for the day. I am checking in with people, though, because I’ve essentially just arrived in the office and I want to say hi to my friends and colleagues online and get some feeling of being in touch with the world. Safari has a sidebar that will show me what links people are sharing on Twitter and it also has a reading list that I’ll start to fill up with articles that look like they might be interesting from my news tabs. I’ll also be scanning Feedly for things that might be interesting or useful.

The material I’m collating at this stage may or may not be useful for whatever I’m working on. Sometimes an article might spark an idea in six months time. Something else might contain a thought or idea that unexpectedly solves a problem I’m having in a script right now. That solution may well come from an article that doesn’t directly pertain to the subject I’m writing about, so I find it important to keep a really open mind to influences at this stage.

As I’m skimming through my reading list, I’m doing one of four things; I’m either reading or part-reading an article and then ditching it because it’s either no good or it’s not what I thought it was. This, as is the nature of things, goes for most of the stuff I’m reading. There will then be some things that look really interesting but they’re either super-long or I’m not in the mood for them right now. Those articles will get dropped into POCKET, which automatically syncs to my phone and iPad and allows me to read them offline at a later date. I love Pocket because it means that at any time when I’m on the tube or waiting for a meeting I have this great collection of stuff to read.

If a piece looks like it’s going to be useful for today, I’ll keep it in the reading list on Safari and I’ll also drop it into DEVONTHINK PRO (I’ll also drop anything into DevonThink that might be useful or interesting in the future). DevonThink is an amazing document database that you can literally throw anything into; the more stuff it has in it, the better it works. You can organise articles in any number of ways but the real genius of the software is the way it searches; type in a search term or a phrase or a quote and DevonThink will not just give you documents containing that search term but it’ll also give you documents that it thinks might be relevant to that search term. In other words, it makes connections for you. The science writer Steven Johnson explains this much better than I can HERE but in short, the system is connecting ideas together in a way that may not have occurred to you and some of those connections can be absolute gold. One of my favourite get-out-of-jail-free cards when I’m stuck is to plug a phrase into DevonThink and see what it throws up at me. But, as I say, it has to be loaded with material first and so this is what I’m doing as I go through my feeds.

The fourth action I might take with an interesting article is to share it. Enough of my ideas have come from articles others have shared online so I’m always keen to keep that flow of information going.

By now I probably have sufficient caffeine in my system to start doing some actual work (in reality, I’ll be dicking around on Facebook and Twitter for another few hours, but this is writer-porn, not a fucking documentary). I’m either going to be writing a pitch or a screenplay. There’s a good chance it’ll be a bit of both and these days I do try to get 5 pages of screenplay written each day, just to keep the work-rate up. This will happen alongside any pitches or meetings or anything else I have to do. The beauty of setting an achievable goal like this is that it allows for a LOT of dicking around. As long as I’m going to get those 5 pages done, I can be guilt-free about playing videogames or watching a movie or whatever. I used to spend a lot of time staring at a blinking cursor all day whilst experiencing self-loathing. That didn’t get any more pages written, but it was psychically damaging and meant my days were no fun. 5 pages a day means you’ve written a standard hour of BBC drama in about 14 days and that, it turns out, is a shitload faster than most writers work. At 5 pages a day, you can hit deadlines AND dick about, so it’s very much win-win. Some days I won’t even start into those pages until 6 or 7pm but then I’ll be done in an hour. The trick, as Hemingway (I think) had it, is not to write MORE than that. If you write until you run dry, you start the next day dry. If you force yourself to stop while it’s still flowing it’s an awful lot easier to get back into it tomorrow.

So where were we? Oh yeah, I was pretending that now is when I start working. That work starts with good old fashioned pen and paper for me. Music goes on, the internet goes off (in common with most writers I know, I use FREEDOM for Mac, which switches off your internet access for a set period of time). I use MIDORI MD NOTEBOOKS (which are the best I’ve ever found, just gorgeous to write in) and I have one portable A5 one which I carry around with me and use for random notes and ideas for projects as and when they occur to me. Once one of those ideas is sufficiently fully-formed to merit proper focus, it gets its own A4 notebook and that notebook will ONLY be used for that idea. The notebooks are all plain paper (ie unlined) and I write with a fountain pen because I’m a massive ponce and I want to pretend there’s some fucking olde worlde mystique to what I do (also because my writing is appalling and I find a fountain pen, for whatever reason, seems to make me take more care). I’ve tried the expensive pens but have recently come to realise that I much prefer a super cheap (for fountain pens) PILOT KAKUNO, which just fits my hand nicely and seems to be the right weight for me. I’ve also recently got into the even-cheaper PILOT V-PEN, which are disposable fountain pens. The red ink one is particularly great for making notes on script pages.

I tend to write notes on what I’m doing very much as a stream of consciousness. This is a relatively new approach for me but I’ve found that writing longhand and keeping it chatty, as if I’m maintaining a conversation with myself (complete with “no that’s a shit idea actually but what about…” and “if we can’t crack this in the next five minutes I’m going to go and do something else”) seems to let ideas through that I would otherwise have censored. Time and again I’ll be writing to myself in a sort of vague haze and an idea will pop out that I would have reasoned out of existence if I was being more ordered or disciplined with my notes. I’ll basically just sit at my desk for an hour, writing down these random thoughts about the scene or sequence or idea that I’m intending to work on later. It’s my favourite part of the process now, so I just let it go on for as long as it’s still fun. If I dry on one idea, I’ll just open another notebook and work on something else.

Because I’m not connected to the internet at this point, I’ll have a bog-standard lined notepad open nearby that I can jot down notes for anything I want to look up or check when I’m back online. I also use an app called DUNNO, which is on the Mac and also on the phone and iPad. Dunno is a brilliant notebook app into which you throw a search term and it’ll do the search and save the results for offline reading at a later date. I think it’s pretty new, but it’s become indispensable very quickly.

I also use EVERNOTE all the time, but I’m really struggling to explain how it fits into my workflow. I use it a lot if I’m out and have a brand new idea that I just want to store somewhere. I will then periodically trawl through those ideas and start connecting them up into something workable. I also SOMETIMES drop articles into it but there’s not much rhyme or reason as to which ones. I guess I try to use Evernote as a repository of stuff that I deliberately don’t look at for weeks on end, in the hope that when I finally do, this melange of ideas and information will spark something.

I’m presenting this as a linear work sequence, because that’s the easiest way to order it but, in reality, I’ll be jumping back and forth from the computer to the notepad and from screenplay to pitch. At all of these stages it’s possible to hit a bump in the road so there are a few things I use to get myself out of a hole at any part of the process.

The first of these is a set of role-playing game dice. I’ve talked in another blog HERE about how I’ve started to use these in character creation but I’ll also sometimes just assign a series of possible story option to a die and roll it to determine one. That one may not be the right way to go but it does at least force me to explore it and, hopefully, get the juices flowing again.

I also have a set of cards called THE STORYMATIC. I can’t remember where or how I heard about them but they’re intended to be used in some kind of ghastly parlour game wherein the players use the cards as prompts to make up stories. The box is divided into character cards and situations and if I get stuck I’ll sometimes just pull out some cards. Doing it now, I get “shoplifter”, “person who steals cats”, “the overheard remark”, “flood” and “cemetery at five in the morning”. It’s pretty hard to remain in a rut when you’ve been bombarding yourself with random bullshit like that for a few minutes.

If shit gets REALLY bad, I also have a set of Brian Eno’s OBLIQUE STRATEGIES cards which I can always turn to for sage, practical advice like “trust in the you of now”. Thanks Brian.

Lastly, we’re into the actual writing of a thing. If I’m writing prose (ie a pitch or a newsletter or a blogpost) my absolute go-to is IA WRITER, which has a brilliantly minimal interface and completely gets out of the way of writing. You can’t deliver to anyone from that, so I’ll write the text then copy-and-paste it into blogging software or Pages (which I went off for a long time but now really like again). For the more serious-minded prose-writer, MELLEL is very good.

If I’m writing a screenplay, I use FADE IN. Yes, I know Final Draft is the industry standard but I completely fucking hate it – it’s ugly, buggy, and insists on separate windows for everything which then get lost when you alt-tab to something else. It’s fucking horrible. I do have to use it for production revisions, unfortunately, because it IS the standard but hopefully that’ll start to change soon. Fade In is a beautifully put together, much more functional alternative that retails on the app store for about a fifth of the price of Final Draft and is relentlessly updated as writers feed back their needs and ideas to the guy who made it. I’ve used Fade In for every script I’ve written for the last three years and outputted .fdx files for Final Draft users straight from it with no problems at all.

That’s your lot, that’s ALL my writing secrets laid bare. But they change constantly. One of the ways I keep my interest up is by trying new techniques and software; my attention span is too short to keep doing this the same way day in day out. That’s partly why I wrote this, in the expectation that therte might be some people out there who likewise want to change their workflow up a bit. I hope some of this stuff has been useful. I’m at all the usual places online and always eager to hear any tips you might have to share.

I haven’t talked at all about screenwriting guides and manuals because I think there’s probably enough material there for another post and, frankly, I’ve taken up enough of your time already.

Now fuck off and write something.

Rolling Up Characters – let the random in.

So I’ve been thinking about henchmen recently. This came about because I was writing one. Or rather, I wasn’t writing one; I was typing the words “30s, well-built” into the pilot script of this strange 6-part crime drama I’m doing for the BBC. This was a guy standing guard over something for the antagonist (sorry, I can’t be more specific than that). I typed the words and was about to move on when I realised that, at some point, an actor would be cast to play this character and I would have to direct this actor and I’d probably need more up my sleeve than “he’s your age and he looks like you”.

This thought led me on to another which is that characters like this (and incidental boyfriends, bartenders, acquaintances of major characters, all the women in “True Detective”) are all too prevalent in screenwriting. They’re people who are necessary to the plot and so we write them as exactly what we need them to be and no more and we move on with the action and we rarely stop to realise how much better our stories would be if we wrote these characters differently.

Because we’re not meant to be writing plot, we’re meant to be writing story and story comes from character. It’s easy to forget that when we’re bombarded by screenwriting manuals that emphasise structure, and notes from the development people who’ve inhaled those manuals and are obsessed with act breaks and inciting incidents and whether characters are “likeable” (ugh).

But real people don’t fulfil functions in a story so easily. Real people are awkward but, if you let them be awkward, they’ll send your story in some interesting directions or, at the very least, make the damn thing a bit more textured.

I’ve lately been toying with a new way of generating these minor characters, a way that allows them to be born outside of the story and thereby forces the story to morph itself to accommodate them. This idea came from my recently renewed interest in table top role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Call Of Cthulhu etc – my own peculiar mid-life crisis). These games all begin with character creation and those characters’ attributes are largely defined by dice rolls. It turns out that those dice throw up some pretty interesting results.

So let’s take my heavy (30s, well-built). First up, let’s give him a name. I’m going with Duncan because… Because I am, there’s really no foolproof system for naming people. Now I’m grabbing percentile dice (that’s two ten-sided dice, one displaying tens, one displaying units – you can get them from games shops or online or you can use an online generator like THIS ONE, in which you can just roll a d100 to get percentages) . First up, let’s get Duncan’s real age. He’s a heavy, working for our bad guy, so he’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 60, I reckon. There might be some clever maths to determine how many dice of what kind you can roll to get a result within those parameters but I’m a writer, not Brian Cox, so I’m just going to roll the d10s (that’s ten-sided dice for those of you with a life) until I get a result between 20 and 60… And I roll a 56. Duncan is 56 years old. This is already interesting because he’s older than I imagined, but we’ll see where it leads…

Now let’s get some attributes. I’m going to go with the RPG stalwarts: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Intelligence, Appearance, Size and Education. These attributes vary between games, and there are always dice rolls for other things too, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want Duncan to be a fucking Chaotic-Evil Half-Elf so I’m going to tailor the possibilities to the world of this story.

So Strength: I roll a 50. Bear in mind these are all scores out of a hundred, so Duncan the heavy isn’t as strong as I would necessarily expect. He’s probably about as strong as I am and no one is hiring me to beat people up…

Dexterity gets a 55. He’s not that quick on his feet either. Right now, I fancy my chances against Duncan in a fight.

Intelligence: 65. Okay, interesting. So Duncan the heavy is not as good at fighting as I was expecting, but he is a little smarter than the average henchman…

The Constitution roll yields a 75. Duncan is pretty fit and healthy, way above average. This story has a rural setting so I’m thinking Duncan is an outdoors type; maybe as a younger man he did manual labour and maybe he’s not as strong as he was but he still likes the fresh air and the sun on his skin.

Appearance is 35. Oh Duncan, you ain’t pretty. But maybe that’s because you’ve been in more than your fair share of fights; a busted nose, some scarring, cauliflower ears. Maybe Duncan used to be stronger and faster than he is now. Maybe that intelligence score suggests that Duncan realised that fighting was a young man’s game and got out before it go the better of him.

Size gets a 70. Now it’s up to me to decide whether he’s tall or fat or both (if it was muscle, his strength score would have been higher). I’m going to go with tall because that goes better with him being fit and healthy and it fits nicely with the picture I’m building in my head of an outdoorsman.

The last attribute is Education. Duncan gets another 50 on this. That’s dead on average for a character roll, but it’s above average within the company he keeps in this story and it’s high for hired muscle. He didn’t go to university but he probably got an A-level or some kind of post-16 qualification. In the company that Duncan keeps, this makes him a  stone fucking genius. That’s interesting…

So my 30’s, well-built dude has become a relatively intelligent 56-year-old who got an education and who likes spending time outdoors, who was maybe a fighter when he was younger, and who is considered pretty smart by the people he works with. So Duncan wasn’t just hired for his muscle. Sure, he may be prepared to be brutal when required but maybe his advice is also sought on occasion? Maybe he actually has an opinion on what he’s asked to do. Maybe he even has a better idea sometimes… Perhaps he was a soldier once, or a cop… (Oh my God, he’s Mike from Breaking Bad, isn’t he?!)

And thus a character is born. There’s loads of room to flesh Duncan out, obviously, either by taking these numbers as a jumping-off point or by digging deeper into any particular role-playing game system to roll up more attributes and skills. This is only one way to do it and, even if you hate the idea of rolling dice, at least this points up the notion that these characters can and should be fleshed out. I wasn’t going to do very much with Duncan as a character before this but now I can see several other places in the story where he could function and even a couple of aspects of the story that he now changes just by being in them.

Implemented in more detail, the dice could throw up some really interesting possibilites; what if your lead investigator rolls up a crazy-low intelligence score? What if your hero is in a wheelchair, or can’t drive a car, or is brilliant at languages or origami?

What I like most about the dice is that they circumvent my natural instincts at character creation and force me to adapt my characters and stories to their random whims. I think most writers could benefit from changing things up a bit.

And now that I’m thinking about it, the hero in that movie idea I’m knocking around could maybe use a little dice-work…