Writer, media inventor
Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m a writer and media inventor usually based in San Francisco, currently on the road. My first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux later this year, and in it, a few characters’ setups - some of them very unusual - play a pivotal role. Most of my public conversations happen on Twitter.
What hardware do you use?
I’ve been using an 11” MacBook Air for about a year. I used to have a big black Dell monitor, speakers, a scanner, plus other assorted add-ons - and a desk and a chair! - but I sold it all a few months ago. For now, while I’m traveling, it’s just the MacBook, my iPhone 4, a 1TB Western Digital hard drive and a Kindle.
The Kindle is a Keyboard 3G, which I use for both for reading and for international internet access. I’ve been places in Turkey and Greece where my shiny iPhone showed no bars but the quiet resourceful Kindle could reach Gmail without a hitch. Strange and miraculous.
When I was looking for a travel bag, I got a tip to buy a Filson Pullman and man it is super great. Tough, capacious and unassuming.
And what software?
My work migrates through a pretty small set of apps:
First, there’s the popular combination of Simplenote synced to Dropbox and accessed via Notational Velocity. (I might have learned about it from this site, actually.) I am a strong proponent of wanton notetaking - words, names, scraps, passages, whole articles, just dump it all in there - and I’d recommend this setup to anyone. It’s simple and reliable, and Notational Velocity’s super-fast search makes it easy to wonder, “Hmm, what do I have in here about… pirates?”
Many of these notes come in through my ears (and conversations either instigated or overheard) but there’s some software that helps round things up, too. Google Reader is my idea-sieve, though I’ve learned you have to play fast and loose with the “Mark all as read” button. There’s a solid OCR app for the iPhone called Prizmo that makes it easy to grab blocks of text from books and magazines. Amazon’s site for Kindle users is still all potential at this point, but I do use it to extract highlights from my Kindle books. They go into Simplenote along with everything else.
I spend a possibly-unusual amount of time simply scrolling back through old notes in Notational Velocity, remembering things that resonated months or years ago, recombining them with new fascinations. This is important work, even if it doesn’t have the easy clamor of, say, a crowded inbox.
Next, when I’m ready to start making something, I plop notes into TextMate. That’s where I sketch out long emails, blog posts, to-do lists and first drafts. I have a big folder full of these plain-text larvae, and for some reason I always title them as if I’m using an old mainframe. From the top of the folder today: PENUMBRA-WORK-CHECKLIST, BERLIN, ORPHEUS-DRAFT, THE-SETUP.
When something looks like it might grow into a bigger deal - whether it’s a story, a novel, or even something like an iOS story app (?!) - I’ll start a Scrivener project, usually by just pasting in a bunch of those notes and text files. I appreciate Scrivener’s ability to keep a lot of text organized without insisting on too much structure. For me, Scrivener is the cauldron: the ingredients meet there for the first time, and it’s there that they start to bubble and blend.
So those are the apps where words live. What about the apps that keep them flowing?
I have a two-tier strategy to fight the forces of internet procrastination.
First there’s the filter: I use Gasmask with a preset that cuts off access to Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and the New York Times but leaves Google, Apple’s developer site, Stack Overflow and the rest available. The ability to be sort of “halfway online” is important for me when I’m working with code. I imagine professional programmers as jumbo jets, capable of cruising smoothly and swiftly at altitude for hours, no internet needed; by contrast, I’m just a little hydrofoil kinda bumping along, held shakily aloft by the ground effect of online documentation, code snippets and tutorial blog posts.
Then there’s the kill switch: If my objective is really just to write words in order and that’s all - no code required - I’ll open Freedom and cut off access to everything for a couple of hours. I do this at least once a day and often more.
Most of the time, Rdio supplies my soundtrack, but when I go offline, I revert to a bunch of downloaded Steve Reich albums on repeat.
I manage my website using Jekyll and serve the static files from Cloudfront, Amazon’s cheap global CDN. This is pretty easy to set up, even for a hydrofoil-level programmer, and the result is rock solid and super fast. I edit the site on my MacBook, keep a backup in Dropbox, and rsync files to a tiny EC2 instance that hands them off in turn to mighty Cloudfront.
I use Mailchimp for my email list, and the messages are always just plain text. I think a long, thoughtful plain-text email is basically a hand-written letter at this point.
What would be your dream setup?
I’m waiting patiently for cheap, flexible displays that feel just like paper, in terms of both economics and user experience alike. I want to pull a web page or an iOS app or an e-book down into an 8.5 x 11 screen, then roll it up and stuff it into my back pocket. I want the screen to have all the richness of an iPad’s display, but I also want it to work in sunlight and cost next to nothing, just like paper. I want to write stories and make apps for that kind of material.