Responding to App Store reviews

At the start of the month, I wrote a post urging readers to go ahead and send happy support emails. Quite a few users took me up on the offer. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.

Emailing developers is a great way to let them know you like what they’re doing.

Leaving a review in the App Store helps pay it forward, letting potential buyers know that an app has fans. We get an alert in Slack whenever a new review is posted, and immediately take a look.

Here are the four most recent Highland reviews: three raves, and one disappointed user.

This afternoon, pdx-j wrote:

Of all the screenwriting apps I’ve tried, this is my favorite by far. Once you learn to write in Fountain (it’s really not that hard; I promise), writing in Highland becomes intuitive.

I hate having to tab through different screenplay aspects and becoming distracted by how your writing appears on the screen. It hampers the creative flow. Most of the other screenwriting apps out there are so busy and complicated, filled with cumbersome extras in order to make it appear it’s worth the high price.

With Highland, you can just write and write and then convert it all into screenplay format at the end of the day. Fantastic. And because you write in plain text, you can write in pretty much any word processor and easily paste it into Highland. I often write scenes in Evernote on my phone when I’m away from my computer, and then just paste it into Highland later. I’ve never had any problems with this process.

And that’s just the writing portion of this app. The ability to convert files between PDFs, Final Draft, and Fountain plain text is amazing. Thanks for making a great app!

An MBA might say that Highland has good “market fit” with pdx-j. We’re an app that works the way he wants us to work. Both sides are happy.

As we go through reviews and support emails, we find at least half of the negative ones are from users who were expecting a different kind of app. We’re unlikely to be able to make them happy. That’s why we make our Mac App Store screenshots clear and straightforward. It’s also why we have a standard email that walks users through the process of getting a refund from Apple.

On Friday, ngonzale3 wrote:

It really is like magic how Highland works out the formatting so that the writer can go on writing. I have Final Draft 8 and instead of upgrading to 9, I upgraded to Highland.

My only, constructive criticism is that it would be great to have the software remember some of the names that will repeat themselves somehow. This way we can save more time from setting up the names for Highland to format it properly.

Again this is a minor, spoiled-bratty request from a truly grateful writer. This software actually makes me believe that I am, strangely as that sounds, rather than a programer trying to write a screenplay, the way Final Draft can.

Auto-completing character names is a completely reasonable request. Other screenwriting apps do it, and it doesn’t violate the spirit of Fountain or Highland.

The challenge comes in designing an interface for dealing with the list of character names. Do you let users see the list? Edit it? Export it? Each “yes” adds complexity, so it needs to be worth it.

In May, David Witus wrote:

I really liked Highland for the first month or so that I used it. But then I started noticing two problems.

1) it would quit unexpectedly. This wasn’t a huge problem because it seemed like it could re-open easily enough without any lost (unsaved) work. That is, it seemed to just pick up right where it left off.

But 2) the PDF output would drop text at the bottom on assorted pages. This was a much bigger problem.

Dialogue that I knew did not follow other dialog appeared in the PDF saved version, but in the input version, it was there. I could not figure out why this was happening and noticed that if I added an action, it would go away. But it would come back up eventually somewhere else.

When you are talking about a 120-page screenplay, this is a huge problem. In fact, I registered a script that had this problem before I realized it and had to get the Copyright Office to reset the link so that I could upload a corrected version. I chose a different application for the second try, and have not used Highland again.

David encountered bugs that made him lose his trust in an app that he really liked.

Highland is a pretty mature app, so why does it have bugs at all? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. It’s dealing with a lot of files it didn’t create. While its native Fountain format is pretty much bulletproof, both PDF and Final Draft files can be incredibly strange. Importing and exporting these documents can be problematic. And each time a new app comes on the scene, its files may be weird in entirely new ways.

  2. Squashing bugs sometimes introduces new ones. When Nima gets a support email, he often asks for a sample file so he can reproduce the problem. Once he fixes the issue with that file, how can he be sure it won’t mess something up with another document? The best answer is probably to run the new build through a large corpus of known files and look for anomalies, so we’ve started to do exactly that. But…

  3. We’re never quite sure what people are trying to do. Because Highland is essentially a text editor, you can type anything into it. You can type a novel, a grocery list, or a 4,000 page manifesto with no white space. When you hit the preview button, it shouldn’t crash. But because the app is expecting Fountain format, it’s making guesses that may be very wrong. In the case of David’s screenplay, it sounds like Highland was miscounting page lines. Without seeing the file, Nima wouldn’t be able to figure out where the issue arose.

These are explanations, but not excuses. If I had David’s experience, I’d be frustrated too. Had he emailed us first, Nima might have been able to send him an interim build that fixed his issue. But I understand the instinct behind leaving the two-star review.

(As far as I know, David may still have Highland installed, so the most recent build may have already addressed his issues.)

On Wednesday, kencarell wrote:

Love this app. I was using Adobe Story for a while but it was clunky and hard to use.

It takes a little getting used to if you’re used to those auto-format screenwriting softwares but after some practice, it’s really easy to use. I like that you can switch the font you’re typing in around but it still shows up in Courier (or Courier New or Prime, depending on your settings) when you look at it in preview mode.

My only critique with it is I would like to see some more added to it in future versions. I know it’s not meant to be a whole production software but add something as simple as scene numbers would be nice.

A lock mode would be good too with revisions afterward (so it numbers pages with A/B, etc.). I know this is supposed to be very streamlined so it’s unlikely these things will be added but they would be a good bonus.

Otherwise though, love how clean and smooth this software runs. Great stuff John!

Highland actually already has scene numbers. Simply put the number surrounded by hashtags after the scene header.

INT. HOUSE – DAY #32#

In the preview, that number will move to both the left and right margins.

I use Highland every day — in fact, I’m writing this post in it. A lot of what the app is today and will become in the future is driven by my needs.

Upcoming versions of Highland will be adding some remarkably useful things, but we’re not looking to become a Final Draft or Fade In killer. Each of these apps does a credible job with locked pages and other production drudgery. It’s simply not that interesting for us to try to do it better.

Rather, we want to create apps that make writing slightly more delightful. All four of the reviews above feel like they came from our ideal users: writers who want an app that gets out of the way and lets them focus on the words. So our goal is to keep those people extremely happy.

You can find Highland and all of its reviews on the Mac App Store.


No one makes those movies anymore

Scriptnotes: Ep. 204
Play

Craig and John look at why certain genres of movies — mid-budget thrillers, adult dramas and romantic comedies — aren’t getting made, and whether there’s any way to get them back.

We also look at Apple Music, and what streaming means for screenwriters. Finally, we chart the screenwriter’s job from pitch to premiere, and how few of those steps are actually paid.

Big news: we have brand-new USB drives with the entire Scriptnotes catalog available at store.johnaugust.com. Quantities are limited, so don’t delay.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.


How to Get Staffed on a TV show

Gina Ippolito writes about how she got staffed on her first TV show:

I went to the meeting and basically just talked with three of the dudes who work on the show, including the creator. They asked me about myself and I talked about my love of geeky sci-fi shows, the stuff I do at UCB and iO, and the fact that I’ve been playing chess competitively since I was little. The creator was also a huge chess nerd. One of the other guys loved sci fi shows. We geeked out for a while. Basically I just hung out with them and I left the room feeling like it was a fun time. The next day they emailed me to say they’d like to staff me.

So that’s the story. No insane coincidences, no extreme nepotism, no “I saved the life of the president of Cartoon Network’s daughter from being hit by a car so they gave me a job!” All simple, straightforward, and something that anyone could accomplish, with the right tools.

Ippolito’s tools include persistence, collaboration, and being nice to everyone along the way. It’s classic advice, but also easy to forget.

You should also read her post on How to Get and Keep Writing Jobs.


Weekend Read: Featured Fridays

Every Friday this summer, we’ll be featuring exclusive scripts in Weekend Read. Some of these will be produced works, others just titles that caught the attention of readers.

Today’s collection includes:

  1. The final shooting script for National Treasure. Story by Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv & Charles Segars. Screenplay by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley.

  2. The outline, script and season one arcs for my 20th/ABC pilot Chosen.

  3. I Fucked James Bond by Josh Hallman, which won the “Fade To Black Award” sponsored by Franklin Leonard and The Black List at the 2014 Austin Film Festival.

You can find these Featured Fridays scripts in Weekend Read’s For Your Consideration section. Each Friday’s scripts are available for that weekend only, and only in the app.


Stack of Needles, and giving your characters too much of a good thing

Writers often create challenges for heroes by taking away something they desperately need or want. Billionaires go bankrupt. Children become orphans. Diamonds get dropped in the snow.

Faced with this setback, heroes must find new ways forward, often against staggering odds. In some cases, they’re searching of the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Like many of the cards in Writer Emergency Pack, Stack of Needles invites you to consider doing exactly the opposite.

card

At first glance, Stack of Needles feels like a plot device — potentially an arbitrary one. You’re changing the trajectory of the story by introducing new elements.

Look a little deeper and you realize Stack of Needles can be a terrific way to reveal character. By giving your hero the thing she said she wanted, you force her to confront her true motivations, her future goals, and the burden of abundance.

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
― Truman Capote

card

How much is too much?

In the second season of Silicon Valley, the small tech startup is frequently overwhelmed:

  • They raise too much VC money.
  • Hooli sends over hundreds of boxes of legal files, crowding them out of their living room.
  • Their dormant video feed suddenly goes viral, melting their servers.

In each of these cases, the heroes were challenged not by scarcity, but abundance. By getting what they wanted, they got screwed.

Stack of Needles Try This

The best consequences are the ones closely aligned with what the hero wants.

If your misanthropic baker wins the lottery, that’s not particularly special. But if his chocolate-horseradish muffins become a national obsession, that’s on-point and relevant. The thing he loves (baking) has brought him the thing he hates (people).

Sudden abundance forces characters to make choices they didn’t expect to make. When the pauper becomes a prince, will he bring his friends with him? When the zombie-outbreak survivors find a massive food cache, do they invite outsiders or close ranks?

Remember that nothing happens to just one character. Your hero’s success will affect everyone around her, for better or worse.

Using Stack of Needles

Like every card in Writer Emergency Pack, Stack of Needles can be used at both macro and micro levels of the story process.

Stack of Needles might be reflected in the main arc of your story. Does your hero struggle because of initial success? From Dreamgirls to Black Swan, many show-biz stories are built around this framework. Sequels often incorporate this idea as well, with the victorious heroes having to rediscover aspects of their earlier, simpler life.

On a sequence level, Stack of Needles works well as a mid-story twist. After finally discovering her real father’s name — Zebediah Obercampf — your hero will be frustrated to learn there are 100 men with that name living in the US.

Finally, Stack of Needles can be a great focus in a single scene. Your bank robber has just broken into the vault, but rather than one million dollars, he finds 100 million. Does he try to take it all? How will he get it out?

No matter how you use Stack of Needles, make the most of its much-ness. Give your hero more than he can handle, and watch what happens.


Stack of Needles is Card 12 of 26 in Writer Emergency Pack, which you can find in the Store and on Amazon.


Nobody Eats Four Marshmallows

Scriptnotes: Ep. 203
Play

John and Craig take an in-depth look at turnaround and reversion, and how screenwriters get their scripts back from a studio.

We also look at the latest developments in the Gravity saga, and answer a bunch of leftover questions from the live 200th episode.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-25-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.