One of my favourite internet distractions is seeing how other writers (proper writers. Professional writers. Oh wait, that’s me too!) set up their work space. The fallacy, of course, is the underlying idea that if I just use the same tools, I’ll get the same results. This is not so. It is well to remember that for most of recorded history, writers used feathers and bits of skin. So George R.R. Martin’s famous use of WordStar 4.0, or Iain Broome’s minimal approach, or whatever, are clearly helpful but not necessary for good writing. Nice to have, sure, but not having the latest kit (or the oldest, depending on your preferences) is no excuse. There are lots of writers who seem to manage with just a laptop in a coffee shop, but I just don’t find that conducive to good work myself. I like my books around me, and a very quiet environment. So what do I use?
My writing set-up is fantastic. Really, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, much of which should probably have gone on actually writing. The set-up is subordinate to the process, of course, so here’s the process first:
I either write directly in Scrivener (recommended to me by Neal Stephenson, whose name be praised ‘cos this program works!), or more commonly, I write up notes (after class, for instance) in a hard-back notebook, with a proper ink pen, and usually on a writing slope that I cobbled together when editing Veni Vadi Vici. Then I take a photo of the notes with my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy s2, bought in September 2012, a few months after the s3 came out, so really cheap for what it can do), which uploads the pics directly to Dropbox (which is a totally life-saving service. Automatic backing up and syncing across devices; literally everything I’m working on, and all my most commonly-used reference sources are stored there). So when I get home to my study (oh bliss, I have an actual study. A room for reading and writing only. Luxury times ten) my notes are there on the computer (a mid-2010 21.5” iMac). I can then write stuff up, with Scrivener on the right, and the notes on the left of the screen.
This is all made MUCH easier by being able to touch-type, which I learned thanks to a gentle teasing from M. Harold Page. This was so incredibly frustrating that I had to cobble together a standing desk (another of Neal’s tips) so I could squirm from foot to foot while forcing my rebellious fingers to find the right keys. I literally disassembled and nailed together an IKEA bookshelf, and stood it on a couple of filing cabinets: yes, I really should make a prettier one; but dammit, I have books to write! During this process of learning to type, before I had much time invested in Qwerty, I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout, and here’s why:
See the pattern of wear? Almost all on the home row, with some on the top row, and a little on the bottom? Proof if ever you needed it that Dvorak is way more efficient. (I was passing the study door one evening and noticed the light hit the keyboard, pulled out the phone at snapped a shot. Damn, having a decent camera in my pocket changes things.) I actually hacked up a Dvorak layout keyboard from a second Apple keyboard, because every now and then I need to see the keys, still. Especially for passwords and such. I hanker after but cannot yet justify one of these ergonomic beauties (in the Qwerty/Dvorak configuration, of course!).
I made the normal desk back in 2008, as a way of delaying writing The Medieval Longsword; these days the iMac sits on it, for times when I don’t feel like standing, or need the bigger screen. My wife also uses the iMac, and doesn’t care to work standing up, so there it is.
Now that my books are actually bringing in real income, I spent some of it on a Macbook Air, 13 inches of rocket ship. It’s fab. I can put it anywhere, such as here on the standing desk,
and I usually use a separate keyboard, not least for ergonomic reasons. I can support the laptop at a convenient height (this desk was made for the iMac, hence the dictionary under the laptop to bring the screen up), leaving my hands where they should be. I also stand on a pilates mat (one of my wife’s), which helps a lot with lower back pain, and leg fatigue. The mat brought me up enough that I took the leftover solander box from my Extraordinary Edition of I.33 and used it to bring up the keyboard to exactly the right height. (If you’re into ergonomics, you might enjoy this book on the perils of sitting: Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound.)
You may note that R2D2 and Yoda are both there, one for scolding, the other for sage advice, whenever I slack off or get stuck.
Note also the humidifier (the upside-down bottle on the left); it makes a big difference to long-term comfort when working, because Finnish houses are properly insulated and heated, and thus dry out during the winter. The baseball on a stick is a Blue Snowball mike for doing voiceovers on videos.
I was given a Roost stand for my birthday last year, by my friend Tina, which allows me to do this funky trick:
This is great for writing when on the move, or in the kitchen. The kitchen has a great view, and the best light, and sometimes a change of environment can unstick the stuck. The ergonomic benefits are huge, and really capitalise on my hard-won ability to not look at my hands when I type.
I also use my writing slave (no, not a typist, I wish!); this is a specialised bookshelf, with a slope for the current tome, and canted shelves so you can read the spines from next to it (so you don’t have to move out of position to find the right book).
The iPad 2 (from 2011) was a birthday present from my parents, and is really, really useful. It acts as a second screen when writing, especially for a primary source that I’m referring to, but most importantly, during the dreaded editing process, I export a pdf of the current draft from Scrivener, and edit it on the iPad making notes and corrections in PDF Expert using a stylus, which I can then apply to the draft. It is an efficient way to minimise the number of printed drafts I need to do. If I’m going to write much on it, I use the Origami keyboard case and stand.
I have the iPad safely ensconced in a bulky military-grade case, from Griffin; I drop stuff way too much to risk shattering that delicate screen. When travelling, I will take the Air if I intend to do real work, or just the iPad for emails and so on. On the rare occasions I do write properly on it, I use Simplenote for syncing with Scrivener (there is no Scrivener app for the iPad; not yet at least), but more usually PlainText for writing and automatically syncing with Dropbox. We have come a long way from feathers and bits of skin; but at times when I feel like going old-school, I have a proper dip pen and an antique writing slope (bought for 25 quid on Ebay!), and a pen holder and nibs, which I use with Winsor brand (naturally!) Indian ink. And of course, I would dearly love to write with a quill on parchment. It’s just better. One day…
Regarding layout; for writing that I am giving away free, I do it myself in Pages. For writing that I am selling, I pay my excellent designer, Bek Pickard of Zebedee Design. I trust the difference is obvious!
So, add this all together, and I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty sweet set-up, involving no less than three custom-made bits of furniture, two computers, two separate keyboards, and a tablet. The critical components are: for workflow: Pen and ink, Scrivener, Dropbox, PDF Expert, and my camera phone; for ergonomics: my standing desk, and the overall adjustability that comes from having movable screens and a separate keyboard.
Overall, I have a name for it: NO F*CKING EXCUSES.
So, what’s your ideal set-up, and why?
Also published on Medium.