Using your travel time

It’s been a long time since I drove very much at all. There was a time where, for several years, I would drive from Birmingham to London and back on a day at least once a week. But that would be a three-hour drive in the morning, leaving around 5am, and a four-hour drive back in the evening.

Plus I’d do eight to ten hours work in the middle.

So that was, what, help me count here: up to 17 hours away from my home office. And all but a ten-minute lunch break of it spent working.

When I got my first book contract, it obviously came with a deadline and I could not afford to lose 17 hours on a London day each week. I also obviously couldn’t afford to walk away from the eight to ten hours paid work, even if I hadn’t enjoyed it. This was Radio Times, easily one of my favourite writing jobs in my career.

But I could reclaim at least some of the travel time. If I gave up driving and instead went by trains or coaches – very often coaches because, wow, the price of trains that early in the morning – I could write. Not all the time. Once or twice on a train coming back I’d take a look at the crowd with me and feel wee bit uncertain about getting out a couple of thousand pounds of computer equipment. And sometimes I’d just be too tired.

Quick aside? The train from London Euston to Birmingham New Street goes via Birmingham International where there is the airport and the National Exhibition Centre. Amongst very many other things, the NEC hosts rock concerts. One night, I fell asleep on the train and woke up with my face pressed against the window.

And on the other side of the glass were a group of AC/DC fans pressing back and grinning at me.


I forget how long this went on for but it was probably three months. The book was published in November 2012 – it’s BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and I am deeply proud of it, I feel honoured that I got to be the one to write about that – so this would be late 2011, maybe early 2012.

But what I remember with total clarity was that when it was done, when I had delivered the first draft and could go back to driving, I had saved slightly over a thousand pounds in petrol.

Now, that’s not an accurate figure for saving because it doesn’t account for all the money I spent on trains and coaches. But it was a shock of a figure. Shock enough that to this day I refuse to let myself think about all the months of petrol I’d paid up to then. At least ten years with at least once such drive per week. You add it up, I feel ill.

It was also shock enough that I could not go back to doing it again.

So from that day on, I stuck to trains and coaches for my London work. I sold the car, even.

We still have a car: Angela has one and I use it when necessary or when we’re both going somewhere, I will usually be the one who drives us. Gives her a break from all the driving she does in her work.

Today it was necessary. I dropped Angela off at a place this morning, drove to a couple of jobs, then to a Theatre Cuppa gathering in the early evening and back. Then Angela was off to a production meeting for her theatre work (you cannot believe how proud I am that I can say that to you, I just find the very words delicious) and I was off to a Writers’ Guild committee meeting.

My meeting was quite short but it then took me an hour and a half to get home by bus. I’d driven 170 miles in about six hours today, the last 10 miles were a 90-minute series of bus rides. And those bus rides had more adventure in them. I got to see stand up rows between passengers and drivers, I somehow got to see one woman passenger flash another one even as I actually couldn’t quite see why. The flasher was not complimenting the flashee.

But I missed a lot because I was writing. I wrote nothing all day except some notes at the various places I drove to so I was behind. But on these buses, while keeping an eye on timetable information through my various iOS travel apps, I got to write.

I didn’t enjoy that it was 90 minutes, I didn’t enjoy the drizzle as I got off the last bus. But I got things done and so instead of feeling knackered and pointless tonight, I feel I’ve got on with something and that I secretly deserve to watch the first episode of Community, Season Two, which the finest of fine people has just loaned me.

There are 24 episodes in this season. That’s my productivity destroyed for the rest of the week.

Eating the dog food

So I’m after telling you to work more, that you can work more. That you can create more time to write. I may rarely have been so annoying in my life. But, just because this has been an unusual day, I want to show you that I do this too.

You’re reading the fifth posting today on The Blank Screen and all five were written on buses or while waiting for buses. I can do this in part because I am in Birmingham which has a good transport system. (Didn’t stop me getting lost and late, but.)

And I can do it because I have my iPhone with me.

One of today’s stories, Coffee With(out) Me was borne of my own experience and an idea I had for a particular friend who has that problem. Once I knew I wanted you to have this solution too, it was a matter of writing it up.

I could’ve written in the WordPress iPhone app and without exception every one of the stories ended up there for posting. But I just more enjoy writing in the app Drafts. So I did. Drafts is comfortable and somehow relaxing so I write in that, then maybe tap a button.

If I tap a button, it is to squirt the text to somewhere specific like OmniFocus. But I just as often copy and paste the lot over into WordPress.

Once it gets there, I may edit but I really just set the tags and search keywords for when I might want to find a story again. Otherwise, it’s just copy and paste into WordPress, then, wallop, published.

Once published, the stories here get automatically promoted in various places but if I really like a piece, I’ll go promote it with love too.

That writing step, that publishing and that promotion are the same for every piece. The rest of today’s went through exactly that going from me to you. But they also had steps and apps before then

I read a lot of news on RSS through the app Reeder 2. I search around a lot as I think of areas of interest and that’s all done through Safari. Any time I find or I think of something that might be useful, it goes into Evernote. I have a notebook (actually a shared entire account) that I can email in to. That applies as much to the odd stray thought that I email in via Drafts as it does to whole websites in Safari or forwarding actual emails I receive.

I use Safari again when getting a link to a previous story of mine. I use Apple’s iTunes Link Maker website to get me links for apps that work internationally. One irritation is that Apple only shows you the price of an app before you buy it. If I buy a pile to test before recommending one to you, I can’t see its price. So I use the website which tracks these things.

And – full, whispered disclosure – I use Amazon Associates for links to books or DVDs. If you buy those or take a look and then buy something else, some pennies come my way. I reckon it’s better that I get them than Amazon does, but.

To get iTunes or Associates links like that, you have to log in to your account on those services and I do that repeatedly via 1Password.

So that’s, what? At today’s prices, I’m using:

Drafts: £2.49, $3.99
Evernote: free to try up to a generous limit
1Password (£12.99, $17.99 universal version)
WordPress for iOS: free
Reeder 2: (£2.99, $4.99)
Safari: free and preinstalled on iOS

As ever with these things, if you were to set out doing it today perhaps you wouldn’t rush to buy three apps and use them alongside three others. Put like that, it does sound like overkill.

But these things grow. And then when you are on buses all day, you’re glad they did. Except for finding all the links, that’s five-biscuit job.

I should also say that my iPhone battery would’ve died from all this I’d it weren’t that I have a gorgeous Mophie Juice Pack recharger plugged into it right now. I bought mine at the Apple Store in Grand Central station but I reckon you can get a cheaper deal here in the UK or there in the States.