Friday, December 27, 2013

The end of shiny discs

You might not be able to tell. I still have shelves upon shelves of DVDs and for Christmas we got the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory, we got the complete A Very Peculiar Practice and we have the Crackerjack Silents. All on shiny disc.

(Just as an aside, The Big Bang Theory disc comes with Ultraviolet, which should let you get a download version of the series too. But instead Ultraviolet is the quite hilarious work of companies who don't like working with Apple's iTunes Store yet seemingly can't quite work with each other, either. And definitely don't like working for you or I. It's only hilarious in retrospect. Last year I spent an evening trying to get the fifth season Big Bang Theory's Ultraviolet to do anything. Eventually I emailed all the companies and asked them to please use a grown-up system in future. Clearly, I have influence.)

But last night, Angela fancied watching Groundhog Day – and I couldn't find it.

I've actually got it on DVD twice as some anniversary edition came out some time with some extras on it or something, and I couldn't find either of them. The film is on my Mac and it looks slappingly better on that 27in iMac screen than it ever did on our ancient TV, but that's in my office. I'm sure I've watched Groundhog Day on my iPad; I think I've even watched on our TV set via my iPad. I used to stream a lot from my Mac to my iPad and then over a cable to the really ancient TV set.

It's a CRT television. It may have been the last CRT television set ever sold in the world. I knew that salesman looked extra happy when we were leaving.

But I can't stream to it any more as the cable won't fit newer iPads.

So all the bits are in place to mean I never need to play a DVD again and yet they aren't all in the right place, aren't all in the right row, all the time. My once quite substantial DVD collection has been pruned away over the years but still there are times when I need the disc and so that's what I grab off the shelf.

Until last night.

We watched another movie we found during the hunt but it felt like the end of DVD for me. Which is a bigger deal than average because DVD became a very validating part of my career. Somewhere around 1999 I persuaded BBC Ceefax to take a column about weekly DVD releases and that became the most popular page in the entertainment section. I think I then did it for BBC News Online too or perhaps they just took those Ceefax pages. But for some years, that's where you'd see my byline every week: Ceefax and BBC News.

I enjoyed it so much that when I stopped working for them, I took the column away with me and made it into a podcast. I still remember the drive home from London to Birmingham in which I thought of it. I'd read an article about this newfangled podcasting lark by Andy Inhatkho and, sitting at Oxford Service Station, I thought I'll do that.

For five years and I don't know how many episodes, I wrote and presented and produced UK DVD Review on iTunes from 2005. Doubtlessly because I was one of the earliest podcasters, it charted. UK DVD Review was in the top ten of all podcasts, in all categories and genres, across the entire world.

It wasn't entirely a statistical chance of my being early. There really were listeners around the world. I actually was big in Japan. The second greatest time in each year was my Christmas special when I'd pick my top ten DVDs and then the next week would get everyone else's. At least ten listeners on the phone, on the show, it was an utter blast and the sole reason I stopped was because that blast took a hell of a lot of time to produce.

I've often thought about returning to it and I get a gorgeous shiver whenever someone asks me – the idea that they would even remember it after all these years, it's fantastic – but I've also been aware that it does take so much time. I couldn't guarantee to have that time every week and coming back only to fade away again didn't appeal.

Now, though, I think the choice has been taken from me because DVDs are going away. I know they've been declining for years, I know there is a very good argument that download movies lack extras like commentaries – and I love, utterly adoringly love a good commentary – and I know that Blu-ray is doing okay. But I've not bought a Blu-ray player. I'd have to get a newer TV set in order to physically connect one in.

And if I did that, I think I'd be far more likely to buy an Apple TV so that I could stream direct from my Mac again. So I could buy TV shows from iTunes directly on it. I don't think Apple TV is a fraction as useful here in the UK as it is in the States where you can get various and many channels on it, but it's far higher up my wish list than a Blu-ray player is.

I'll miss DVDs. But last night was the first time I actually missed having a specific DVD.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Eve Lagrange Point

There is this thing called a lagrange point. Usually when it’s mentioned it is specifically the one of these that lies between the Earth and its Moon. You know that the Earth is big and its Moon is comparatively quite small so one of them is hefting a bit of a gravity tug where the other, not so much.

But they do both tug and there is this one point between the two bodies where the big pull of the Earth is exactly and precisely matched by the little pull of the Moon.

If you’re in that point, it’s as if there is no pull at all, not in either direction. And I imagine this to be a peaceful place. Floating. All the pressures and all the gravity and all the worries and problems are still there, every last one of them, but you are somehow at peace.

Welcome to my ideal Christmas Eve.

I don’t know why I like Christmas Eve better than Christmas, I don’t know how I can call it a peaceful time and somehow associate that with not working when I am of course working. But I do like it best and I do call it a peaceful time.

I do call it a lagrange point.

And I hope you get these too.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

We used to do all this with pencils

I had the greatest time meeting up with an old friend the other day – hadn’t seen him in perhaps twenty years – and while we chatted, he gave me a pencil. It’s a gorgeous thing, a company pencil, all sleek and modern and I didn’t know how to switch it on.

Then yesterday I saw a photo of a page from Charles Dickens’s draft of Our Mutual Friend. The man wrote in ink, can you believe that? (Interestingly, he specifically wrote in blue ink because, at the time, that dried faster than black or any other colour available. So he could write and not smudge. There were writers’ lifehack tricks even then.)

So I accept that I may have a problem here. I might be a little software-dependent. I really don’t see myself as a computer kind of person, I’m a writer, but I did once count and discover that I used about twenty applications on the average day. And I use them hard. My entire writing life – and that really means my entire life these days – goes through my office 27in iMac, my iPad Air and my iPhone. And I don’t see any of those machines because they just work, they just stay out of my way and I am instead deep into the job.

Which means deep into software. Inspired by Laura Cousins’s recent list of music apps she relies on and by the latest of Federico Viticci’s annual My Must-Have Mac Apps, I want to tell you what software gets me through the day so well that it all makes me want to tell you about it.

You’ll need a biscuit here.

Writing software

This used to be so easy: I wrote everything in Microsoft Word. It’s easy and even fashionable now to criticise Word, so let’s. I used to find that it was fantastic at recovering documents that it lost. If they’d put just a pixel’s worth of the effort into not losing the documents in the first place, I’d have been happier.

Microsoft has spent more than a billion dollars developing Word over the years but right at its core, its very DNA, there are decisions that were made by people who don’t write. Each paragraph in Word is really its own entity with details in it for where it goes in your document. It’s a remarkably intricate idea but it has exactly no benefits for writers and intricacy is always delicate. Word gets confused very easily and it confuses us even more easily when you’re trying to figure out just why the formatting in this section went so very strange because you sneezed.

Word is powerful. So powerful that there is an online book called Bend Word to Your Will and I used to enjoy using its advice to get things done. Until one day I just thought bugger this, I’d rather be writing my own books. And I’m amused to see when I went to find that link for you that the fella who wrote it appears to have given up. Haven’t we all? Microsoft changed the format of Word documents from .doc to .docx in 2007 and still I find I have to send files to editors in the old version. A significant number of professional publishers, editors and writers whose entire careers depend on this software, have not upgraded it in seven years.

The OS X Mavericks operating system for Macs came out earlier this year – and for comparison ten percent of all Macs in the world upgraded to it within ten days – and when I tried to put it on my MacBook, it found a problem. My hard drive was knackered and the easiest, quickest thing to do was backup everything, get Mavericks to reformat the drive and install itself, then pop back on everything I needed.

A month later, someone emailed me a Word document to work on and I realised that I hadn’t popped Word back on to my MacBook. A month. And I still haven’t: I just edited that document in Pages and sent it back to them in Word format.

So after five paragraphs about Word, that’s my recommendation: use Pages instead.

The newest version of Pages is free, which I think extraordinarily under-values the software but it ain’t half handy when you’re on a budget. That’s Pages for Mac but Pages for iOS is now free too and they all work the same, the Mac, iPhone and iPad versions. Some people don’t like that: the Mac one shed a lot of features as Apple worked to make them all compatible with each other and they have a point but I don’t know what the features were. So they’re not ones that are important to me. And reportedly they’re coming back in fits and starts.

Here’s when I knew I was Pages-dependent. I was on a bus when I had an idea for a book. Because I had my iPad with me, because it had Pages on it, I wrote down some ideas. They turned into the first thousand words of The Blank Screen (UK link, US link).

Some people buy iPads that can email out wherever they are, that are really mobile phones if only for data, and I’ve never done that. I’ve always bought wifi-only ones and spent the money I save on things like getting greater capacity. I liked how I couldn’t go online unless I was at a wifi spot and it was terribly relaxing to be able to read a book on my iPad or watch a film and know that I couldn’t be doing any work. Now, though, with two taps or so I can tether my iPad to my iPhone and have it use the phone’s data connection. My peaceful reading time is no more. But it meant I could email those thousand words to Angela as I stepped off the bus.

And it means she could email back a few minutes later with praise and encouragement that warmed me, that made certain I would write the entire book, and with enough proof-reader’s critique that I believed the praise. If you’ve been on one of my workshops about productivity for creative writers, and if you enjoyed it, you owe it to Pages, iPad, tethering and Angela.

If I start a new piece of writing now, it is likely to be Pages that I use. I’ll still often have to deliver in Word so I do keep a copy of that on my office iMac, but I don’t like thinking about what application to use when, I like thinking of what I’m writing and just reach for the thing that’s nearest.

Weirdly, though, all this year I’ve been finding that this the nearest and natural thing to reach for is not a word processor. It’s Evernote.

It’s just an application for making some notes in. There must be eleventy-billion such apps. And okay, you can also pop PDFs in there. Images. You can make a clipping from a web site and drag that in to Evernote. Okay.

But I was in a meeting, right, and suddenly needed a contract that had nothing to do with that day’s work. “Oh, yeah, that one,” I said and then called it up on my iPad exactly as if I’d been a soothsayer and known to bring it with me.

That worked and made me look very good because whatever you put in Evernote, you can get out of Evernote – wherever you are. I enter a gigantic number of notes in Evernote for iPhone and Evernote for iPad but I also use the Mac one a lot and I’ve used the PC version on occasion. I’ve been waiting in someone’s office and I’ve used their computer to open the Evernote website. And in each case, wherever I am, whatever I’m using, every single note I’ve ever made is right there.

So many ideas start as a quick paragraph and I’ll jot them down into Evernote because it’s there, wherever I am, and because it somehow feels unwieldy to start a whole word processor document for a paragraph. And once I’ve written a paragraph, I tend to write a couple more. Sometimes I find I’ve done the whole thing in Evernote.

Can’t tell you why, can’t tell you when I do that and when I go to Pages, but I can tell you that my Evernote has about three thousand notes in it and the place is a mess. Yet I can find anything instantly. I cook from Nigella’s recipe books sometimes and for speed and handiness I’ve taken a photo of some pages and Evernote finds them. Finds the text in the photo. Type ‘ragu’ and there’s my slightly off-centre blurry photo snap of her page for Rapid Ragu. The photo. It feels crazy.

I’d like to let me then copy out the text, but.

I do most of the cooking for us, by volume, but the quick summary is that if it’s a meal you’d enjoy, Angela made it. I do the steady, yellow and brown, boring stuff that gets you through the day. But I am improving and I’m finding I have more time to improve so I am using Nigella books but I’m now also becoming slowly, steadily, addicted to Paprika for iPad. It’s a recipe manager with the most gorgeous ability to browse to a food website and nab a recipe. Not just take the text or an image or a PDF, but parse the information so that it slots the ingredients into one list, the detailed instructions into another, and here’s the photo too. You can then get it to send the shopping list of ingredients to Apple’s Reminders.


I never use Apple’s Reminders.

Except I use it all the time.

Because it lurks there in the background and the To Do software that I do use, that I am obsessed with, nabs anything any app sends to Reminders. I use Siri on my iPhone a lot. Seriously, a lot. Whenever I’m driving, I’ll think of a dozen things I need to do and I will tell Siri to remind me. OmniFocus picks up the lot.

OmniFocus is a To Do app but that’s a bit like saying War and Peace is a stack of paper with some ink on it. I’ve raved about it before and odds to onions I will again. But for now, let me caution you that it solely works on Apple gear so if you’re on a PC, you’re out of luck. Seriously out of luck this time, I think. I just told you that I now have time to cook: it’s because of OmniFocus. I’ve fallen off the wagon with it a few times, but I get back on and I know what I’m doing, I know where everything is and what I can do to move things along. I know when I’m done for the day. That’s an alien feeling. I guiltily like it.

OmniFocus is also more expensive than most To Do apps. The best version of OmniFocus is the iPad one which costs £27.99 ($39.99 US) and once you have that, you will cave and buy the iPhone and the Mac ones. I think I spent about £80 in total but the price today is nearer £100. And I have said many times that I would pay that again and happily and immediately because the three OmniFocuses are so good and so valuable to me. And now I’m going to put my money where my claim is.

Because all three versions are getting updates that will not be your typical free ones.

The iPhone version has already been updated and I did already buy it immediately. In fact, it needs iOS 7 so I installed iOS 7 and then immediately bought OmniFocus 2 for iPhone. As handy and good as the first version was, this one is better and I use it more. I didn’t think that was possible, but I do.

I don’t know when the iPad one will be updated and that makes me hesitate over recommending it to you. But even if The Omni Group updates it an hour after you bought the current version, you’d still have got a superb app, so.

The Mac one is another question. Man, but it’s confusing. It also looks very old. I’ve worked at it and now very much enjoy the power it brings, but it’s a slog. And I realise, saying this to you now, that I’ve forgotten how it works. A beta version of OmniFocus 2 for Mac was released earlier in 2013 and I got on the programme to use the program. It wasn’t finished and it had all the issues that any beta does, but still I liked it enough that I happily carried on using it after the beta trial ended. Unfortunately, the beta ended in part because Apple announced new features for iOS and for OS X and the Omni Group hit pause on the Mac one in order to get the iPhone version done.

Can’t and don’t fault them for that. But it means that when OS X Mavericks came, the beta for OmniFocus 2 for Mac didn’t play nice and isn’t going to be updated – it’s only a beta, after all – so I had to go back to OmniFocus 1. It’s actually a chore to use that now. And I find I don’t. Hardly ever, anyway. So I’m missing out on some features but I live in the iPad and iPhone versions happily.

So let me recommend the iPad one, even though it’s going to be updated soon to soonish, and not recommend the Mac one because it’s going to be updated at some point.

We could actually stop here

Give me Pages, Evernote and OmniFocus and I’m good to go. Throw in Paprika too. Also Dropbox. Couldn’t work without Dropbox. And iTunes, iBooks, iBooks Author, Numbers, Keynote, Excel, Aperture, Adobe InDesign, Calendar, Mail, iMessages, Skype, FaceTime, Reeder, OmniOutliner, 1Password, TextExpander and Pocket. Then I’m good to go.

Let me pick out one of those that’s new to me and that I’m surprised I like so much. OmniOutliner. It is from the same firm that makes OmniFocus and I did look at it solely because of that: I like and rely on OmniFocus so much that I did check out what else the company does. They do a lot. This was about the only one I could afford or at least justify spending the cash on.

And I did that despite a so-far lifelong aversion to outlines. I will write a treatment for a Doctor Who story before doing the script but that’s because if I don’t, I don’t get the commission to write the script. Fair enough.

I’m still the kind of writer who likes exploring on the page and I am fine with the fact that this means I routinely throw away pages of script or thousands upon thousands of words of prose.

But I had a particularly complex book to do and I outlined it in OmniOutliner. Currently I’m pitching ideas to a particular project and it needs a lot of ideas, each needs a lot of detail, and I’m trying to do it quickly in order to fit it in around other work. I’m finding that I can jot down scenes in OmniOutliner and before I really know it, I have the shape of the whole story and can see what’s missing, can see what’s thin. Writing treatments is never easy for me and it’s rarely fun, but there have been a few ideas lately that went so easily from OmniOutliner to full-blown Pages prose treatment that I’ve enjoyed it.

I need to do another of those ideas now. And by god you need more biscuits and tea. Can you slip some whisky in there? Just for medicinal purposes. You’re allowed. You earned it.

I used to do a podcast that had two episodes I especially, especially loved. One was where I’d say my top ten DVDs of the year (sometimes I’d do it in hexadecimal in order to have a top sixteen; what was I saying about not being a computer guy?) and the second was an utterly gorgeous sequel where you did the same. Your top ten DVDs of the year. So much fun.

I’d ask you now for the software that you rely on but, come on, who has time to write and read, say, 2,754 words about software?

Friday, December 13, 2013

You’re on your own and it’s necessary

It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone.
Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in My So-Called Life
pilot episode by Winnie Holzman

Maybe you were the class clown in school. If you run in to someone from there today, you still are. To them. You’re somewhat older and you’ve been through the wars but that doesn’t matter. You’re the clown, they’re the ones who were your best friends even though you now cannot see what you had in common with them. She’s the one you fancied and, god, if you aren’t still tongue-tied talking to her.

We are slotted into types and categories by everyone and we do it to them too. This is true, this has always been true, and it has always been interesting when you run into more than one set of friends at the same time. And it’s hugely more interesting now that we have Facebook and you can see the strata of your life reflected in those friends who knew you here, who knew you there.

But there is one result of all this that actually holds you back. That stops you doing things.

It’s this. Call five friends and tell them you’re moving to New York. You haven’t got a job there, it’s just something you’ve got to do and you hope to find somewhere cheap to stay at first. I hope that at least one of your friends will be excited for you but you know that at least four, probably all five, will try to talk you out of it.

They’d be right to. No job? Nowhere to stay? They’re looking out for you, they care for you. This would be why they are your five closest friends that you can call about this stuff.

There’s a part of them, too, that reckons New York is a long away and they’ll never see you again. You can’t object to that, that’s lovely.

Only, there is also this unconscious part of them that says you’re not the one who goes to New York. You’re not the one who starts a new business, you’re not the sort to do anything they haven’t already seen you do.

Consequently, unless they are very unusual people – and you hang on to them if they are – you will forever find them holding you back. Their concerns for your wellbeing coupled to this locked perception of what you are and what you do means your friends will invariably hold you back.

So you can’t take their advice. You just can’t. If you did, you’d never do anything. I sound like I’m criticising your friends but really the only thing I dislike is what they do afterwards. After you’ve moved to New York, after you’ve started your business. Then they tell you they always knew you could do it. Sometimes they take credit. That, I criticise.

But the rest of this is just practical: no advice from friends, just don’t do it.

If you want to do something, if you want to start something new and your friends cannot give you the advice or help that will get it going, then you’d think that you would turn to strangers.

Unfortunately, if you find a stranger who knows all about New York and starting businesses, the odds are that they sell relocations to New York and they sell services to new businesses. They don’t see you the way you were because they’ve never seen you before. But they also cannot be looking out for you as well as your friends are.

Which means, sorry, you’re on your own. It’s a horrible place to be because amongst everything else you are, you also always have a bit of a composite of your friends and these strangers in your soul: we all find reasons to stay where we are and we are all prone to falling for the perfect rosy answer.

Look for people who have done or who are doing what you want to do. Work with them. I believe now that this is why writers’ groups can be so useful: writing is an illness and nobody understands that more than other writers. I say I believe it now because I’ve only recently found a kind of group that works for me. Proper, traditional, meet-every-Friday groups have never done it for me: I’ve not fitted in or the group doesn’t want the same things I do. (Example: I’m a professional writer, I write to be read, but two groups I tried were more into the cathartic nature of writing for oneself, writing for pleasure. Fine, but not for me.)

Earlier this year I earned a place on Room 204, a programme run by Writing West Midlands. It’s a programme without an overt agenda: they even say there are no meetings and sessions, but there end up being meetings and sessions and they are terrific.

I come away from those enthused, fired up, certain that I can do whatever mad idea I currently have – and then I do it.

Thereafter, I’m the guy who does that thing.

I’m being fairly specific about Room 204 here when I wanted to talk in much vaguer generalisations. I’m talking about all of your friends and everything you do.

But I’m a kind of half cynic, half romantic fella. I think there is someone who wants what’s best for you and sees that it is this new mad idea you have to pursue, sees that it isn’t wrong or bad or strange but is in fact you. Once I knew that this was true and I also saw that she had brilliantly mad new ideas she had to pursue, when I saw that I might be able to help, when I saw it was her, I married Angela.

And it’s her birthday today so excuse me, we’re off to be mad together.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The night before the morning after

Today is the 179th day I’ve got up to write at 5am. I can tell you that it was the hardest and the easiest of every single one of the previous 178 days because I got it wrong.

The alarm went off, I stopped it, wished to all the sweet love in the world that I could please just turn over – and then found that it was 1am.

I triple-triple checked that.

It was 1am and moreover, there hadn’t been an alarm, I hadn’t switched anything off. I had entirely dreamt that whole thing.

Please picture me at 1:01am punching the air and being asleep again before my hand came down.

And four gorgeous hours of fraught nightmares later, it really is 5am and here I am talking to you. That made it easy: the four-hour lie-in was great, but the boon was the certainty that I’d be writing to you. I’m not going to go all Hallmark-Card-ish over our little chats, though secretly I do all the time, but it’s also the harsh practicality that I knew for certain this was the very first thing I would do today so I will do it very first thing and it will set my day off well.

To be clear, I say 5am but, you know, there is the business of the bathroom, the fastest shower in history and the mandatory giant mug of tea. I can get to my keyboard by around 5:15am at a push, and I do push, and it’s great to just start immediately. (It’s also great to be able to start immediately. If I had to wait while a PC switched on, I’d make breakfast as well as tea. This could be the big Windows advantage: as I’ve got a Mac, I postpone breakfast to around 8am or 9am. After a longer, proper-er shower.)

But the reason I wanted to say this to you today is that I’ve learnt getting up early is worthless if you don’t have something specific, really specific to get up to do.

For it is hard to get up this early and yet it is very easy to waste the time when you do. I wrote about this 5am start in my book, The Blank Screen, and it was meant to be an example of how you should search for the extra moments that you are able to write. You don’t need to get up at stupid o’clock, you do need to find when you work best. With utterly bitter bile, I found I happen to write best this early in the morning, even though that goes against every late-night-jazz bone in my head. So I don’t like getting up, I really don’t like going to bed, and I’m not very keen on how tired I get by the end of the day, but the work I do is better. And, face it, it’s also more. I do more work and it is better. What’s not to love?


But that’s about all the book said. I do talk in that about my particularly brutal way of making myself get up but that was as much about habit-forming and self-immolation as it was anything else.

And what I have really learnt since finishing the book is this business that you have to have something to do. Get up at 5am or whenever you like, but do not spend any time at all then planning what to do. Go to the keys and be writing immediately or you won’t do any writing.

It just occurs to me that this is a lot like people who lay out their clothes the night before. I have not once done that. Suddenly I see why they do it. I vow to you that I’m going to do that too, except I know I’m lying and, hey, I do enough with the making myself get up this early, enough already.
Maybe a better example is the type of novelist who ends the day by writing the first line of the next chapter. So in the morning, there’s line 1 already done. I can vividly understand that now.

It’s almost never that I’m lacking for a job to do. There was one time, back around the 150th day, that I’d finished a huge project and genuinely wasn’t sure what to get to next, genuinely wasn’t sure whether I shouldn’t instead breathe out for a bit. But usually there are plates spinning aplenty and it does take some figuring out to decide which is the most urgent or which is the most important. Fine. Just don’t do it at 5am.

There is almost always something you really want to do or that you really dread doing. The night before the morning after, write that down somewhere. That one thing. Don’t bother studying your To Do list and if your best writing time is 5am, you can probably ignore your calendar too because there’ll always be time for that after you’ve done your first writing. So just write down that one thing and when you get to the keys in the morning, start writing that one thing.

I do have several somethings I dread plus I also have a truncated day as friends are coming round and I’m noodling about what to cook them. Hmm. Noodles. That was easy. Thanks.

It’s 05:47. I’ll send this to you then I’ll check my calendar, I’ll whack through some emails that are on my mind, then I’ll take a gander through my OmniFocus list for the day.

And tonight when I go to bed, I will take just a moment to realise that it’s Friday and I can lie in tomorrow. A bit. But then on Sunday night, I’ll send a few moments figuring out the shape of Monday. So that I can go straight to the keys at 5am on day 180 and begin writing.

It doesn’t have to be some big project, it doesn’t have to be much at all, it just has to be something you need to do and when you do it, you’re igniting the rest of the day. That’s a bit Positive City Management Speak but while I’m half throwing the term around and half wondering how in the world it popped into my head, let me say thanks: you’re today’s ignition.

Now. Next crisis?