A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I use Evernote as an all-purpose notebook for storing random ideas. Several readers mentioned that it was the first time they had ever heard of it, and wondered what other tools I was using.
So, in the spirit of The Setup, I thought I’d give a breakdown of my daily work habits. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be asking other screenwriters to share their routines. I hope to make this a recurring feature.
Where and when do you write?
I work in an office built over my garage. Until she was four, my daughter didn’t realize that I was approximately 100 feet away when I went “off to work.” She finally caught on, but we’ve been able to set pretty firm guidelines about when she is and isn’t allowed to interrupt me.
I’m “in the office” from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., but I wander in and out of the house pretty freely.
For the past six months, I’ve been doing most of my “morning work” — reading and blog stuff, such as writing this post — while walking on the treadmill. I MacGyvered an old film festival lanyard to hold my iPad 2, and use an Apple bluetooth keyboard. I find I can think coherently up to about 3.2 miles per hour. (Beyond that speed, it’s genuine cardio and I can only listen to podcasts and such.)
When I’m really writing — that is, buckling down on a specific draft of a specific movie — I try to write five pages a day. Page counts tend to be a better measure of effort than time spent in front of the computer.
When I start a new screenplay, I generally go away for a few days. I find that barricading myself in a new hotel in a new city helps me break the back of a story. I hand-write pages, trying to plow through as much as possible; my record is 21 pages in a day. Writing by hand keeps me from editing and second-guessing. At the start, it’s crucial to generate a critical mass of pages.
Every morning, I send what I’ve written to my assistant to type up. I used to fax pages, but on this last trip I just photographed the pages with my iPad and uploaded them to a shared folder in Dropbox. It’s simple, and guaranteed backup.
If I’m writing something specific to a place, I’ll go there. For Preacher, I went to San Antonio. For Lovecraft, I went to Providence. I could sit in the exact spot Lovecraft wrote his stories. That’s a rare luxury.
Otherwise, I’ll go to Vegas. If you’re not drinking or gambling, Las Vegas is a surprisingly good city for writing: when you get stir crazy, you can walk somewhere new. There are lots of restaurants, and no one looks at you strangely for being alone.
I find I can generally get 40 decent pages out of a good barricading session. I won’t paste the scenes together until I’m more than halfway through a script.
What hardware do you use?
When writing by hand, I like a white, lined, letter-sized writing pad with a very stiff back. It should barely bend. I’ve been using some generic Staples brand.
My preferred pen is the black Pilot G2 (.38 size). It’s cheap; it writes consistently; I never worry about losing one. For proofreading, a colored felt-tip pen is key. I like the Papermate Flairs. Again, cheap and losable.
I alternate between index cards and whiteboards for mapping out stories. If you’re going to be working in television, get comfortable with the whiteboard, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time staring at one.
My main computer is a five-year old Mac Pro. It’s overkill for screenwriting, but I do a fair amount of video editing on it. I have an SSD for a boot drive, and big hard drives in the other three bays (including one for Time Machine). I’ll definitely get a new Mac Pro when the Thunderbolt version ships.
I love bare hard drives. They’re amazingly fast and cheap. The Voyager Q toaster-style dock works great for making drive clones for off-site backup.
Years ago, I had horrible carpal-tunnel problems, so I changed my setup significantly. I use the SafeType keyboard and an Evoluent vertical mouse. The keyboard is great, but command-key combos are a bear with it, so I’ve mapped a Logitech G13 gamepad to handle most of them. (I wrote in 2004 about my keyboard setup. It’s largely the same.)
I have a 30-inch monitor dating from 2004. I love it, but it’s easily overwhelmed with windows. I’m trying to use Mission Control on Lion to keep stuff sorted. I use Harman-Kardon SoundSticks for speakers. I still use the original iSight camera, the one that looks like a stainless steel film canister.
For travel and kitchen duty, I have a 13-inch Macbook Air. It’s as great as everyone says.
I used to talk on the phone a lot more, and found a Plantronics S12 headset essential. I still use it, but phone conversations are not nearly as important as they were just a few years ago.
I adore the ScanSnap S1500M scanner. It’s a monster that eats paper and makes pdfs. I’ve happily gotten rid of most of my physical files with it.
What software do you use?
I do most of my “real” screenwriting in Final Draft. I don’t love it. My greatest frustration is usually with its Smart Type Lists, which invariably want to insert extraneous bits of parenthetical detail after character names, so I end up having to type more letters just to get past its unhelpful suggestions.
I’ve also used Movie Magic Screenwriter, and found it to be approximately as frustrating in slightly different ways. So it’s a case of the devil you know.
In no way am I slamming these two apps; I’m grateful they exist and afraid they might go away. Over the years, I’ve tried out every new piece of screenwriting software that’s come along and found them lacking.
There are small but important details that you have to get right, such as handling dialogue across a page break.1 I’ve played around with two or three different applications built atop Adobe Air, all of which had unacceptable typing lag.
For the current screenplay I’m writing, I’m trying out Scrivener. It’s complex, but the underlying logic is consistent and smart and fits nicely with my workflow, since individual scenes can get stitched together quickly. I like that the developer keeps updating it.
On the other end of the complexity spectrum, Freedom is a dirt-simple shell script that blocks your internet connection for a set period of time. It’s a lifesaver.
Other than screenplays, I write almost everything in TextMate. Yes, I’m worried it’s going to break one day and the developer won’t be around to fix it. Yes, I’ve tried all the alternatives. I’m so accustomed to how it works — and have set up so many macros and snippets — that the switching costs would just be too high right now.
Dropbox seems like magic. In addition to storing my active projects, I keep a folder named Pending in the Dropbox with an alias on the desktop. Anything that would normally clutter up the desktop, I throw in Pending.
Evernote has become my all-purpose inbox. If I come across something interesting that pertains to something I’m writing — or think I might one day write — I’ll throw it in there. Some of my friends use Evernote for their to-do lists, but I’ve found it too unwieldy.
I’ve used a lot of GTD productivity apps over the years, including OmniFocus and Things. Right now I’m using Todo, which has really good integration between the desktop app and its iOS apps. Before I made the switch, I was using Listary for the iPhone, which is a smart and fast little app I never hear anyone talking about.
Because it’s included with system software, Preview doesn’t get the attention it deserves. You can easily rearrange or delete pages in a PDF with it, or combine multiple documents. It’s amazing and overlooked.
I use Mail, but recently switched my Gmail-hosted addresses over to Sparrow, which I like a lot. I use Google Calendar instead of iCal. I’ve found it works better for sharing.
What would you change about how you write?
When I first got started writing, I had a lot of bad habits. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped being so judgmental, so now I just call them “habits.”
The life of a screenwriter can be a lot like that of a college freshman. You screw around a lot, then burn the midnight oil to finish that assignment. You don’t necessarily outgrow that.
Ideally, of course, you work a set number of hours every day and deliver your best material. I’m at my happiest as a writer when I feel myself doing that — excited to sit down and write that next scene. But that doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t often happen. A lot of times, writing is just a slog.
I’ve fully accepted that it won’t get easier or more fun. But it can stay interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for interesting.
I’m trying to challenge myself to write projects outside of my comfort zone, either in terms of subject or form (e.g. the Big Fish musical). I find writing prose fiction exhausting, but rewarding, so I’ll probably do more.
And while I’ve resisted collaborating, I’m getting better at it. Once Big Fish hits the stage, I’ll probably try another TV show if I’m not directing a movie. Basically, there’s a lot I want to do. Prioritizing what to write is probably my biggest issue at this point.
- Dialogue should break at the end of a sentence. Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are the only applications I’ve seen get it right. ↩