Sticking to type

Earlier this week I needed to get a photograph of a keyboard for a colleague on a project. Easy, I said, do you want a shot of the two I carry in my bag or of the three on my desk?

Easy, they said right back, you’re scaring us now and we’re just going to be over here, phoning other writers and a few medical experts.


Look, I can make my keyboard obsession seem perfectly normal and healthy if you’ll just let me tell you two things. One is that, excuse me, plenty of writers through the years have fixated on their 2B pencils or expensive fountain pens, I’m just ahead of the technology curve.

Okay. That didn’t work. Fine. This will. I can make the keyboard stuff seem perfectly sensible by blowing it out of the water with something worse.

For by coincidence, someone else asked me two days ago what I write in. I like her so I should’ve just said “English” rather than being boring for an hour but, pretend to be shocked, I chose the boring option. For an hour I answered that I write in Microsoft Word. And Apple Pages. Scrivener. Ulysses, Final Draft. Evernote. Apple Notes. Drafts 4. OmniOutliner. DEVONthink.

I’ve weaned myself off also using Simplenote. I never quite got into Bear Notes, Typed, Vesper, BBEdit, MarsEdit or the various flavours of WordPress but there’s still time. Ooooh, also Slack.

What I don’t understand is how I use all of these apps every day and for whatever it is that I’m writing. Without thinking, I automatically know which one I’m going to work in. That’s a bit bleedin’ obvious when I’m writing scripts because that’s what Final Draft is for – except, mind you, Scrivener is good for scriptwriting and some places I write for are less fussed about formatting and more fussed that you must deliver in Word.

So, yeah, occasionally I can’t find a piece of work because I don’t remember which app I wrote it in, but that’s just normal, everyday sane first-world problems.

What I very much don’t understand, though, is how writing can physically feel so different in each of these apps, on each of my dozen current projects. In every case I’m typing on the same keyboards into the same machines, iPad, iPhone and Mac, but they feel different. Seriously. Also, when I’ve been writing in Ulysses for iPad using an external keyboard and then go to use Scrivener for Mac with a very similar external keyboard, my fingers react differently.

A pianist I know says she finds the same thing when she goes between a Church organ and a regular piano.

I can understand that for her yet can’t explain that great difference I find where there surely can’t be any. It’s as well that I’m not fussed about justifying it as I can’t. And you may have been looking at me funny for the last couple of minutes but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for years.

Which is why there is one thing that I do understand about my fussing over keyboards and about my constant search for the next thing to write in.

It’s because that’s a damn sight easier than searching for the next thing to write.

That’s what I should’ve told my what-do-you-write-in friend: I write in the tiny amounts of time between my having been able to successfully distract myself.

She was asking, incidentally, because she’s been using Word and knows there are alternatives. I showed her all the ones on the iPad I had with her and some appealed, some didn’t, but we talked about what she wanted and ended up agreeing that Word is fine for her. It’s fine enough and she knows it well so she’ll stick with that.

So apparently I can cut through the crap when it’s someone else’s writing, I can see clearly what they need and how they’re just postponing writing. I can see that just making any decision about an app or a keyboard is better for everybody.

Except me. I’ll definitely crack on with this collection of Time stories I’m writing, though I’ll just wait until the new update to OmniOutliner for iPad is out.

1) I’m wrong b) You’re right

I deeply like and relish and appreciate having my mind changed. It is exciting. It’s also fun because I’m a man so if someone, especially a woman, does this to me then you get to see them blinking. Did he really just say aloud and in public that he’s wrong and I’m right? Where’s my diary? Can I get this on video?

Only, I have a slight sticking point on one subject that I spend a foolish amount of time arguing both sides of. I don’t usually do this with you, this isn’t something I arm wrestle anyone about, but it’s something that I’ll sit here for an hour internally debating.

It’s this. In my heart, I am a writer who resists and even resents the entire notion of outlining. That’s something you have to do at school, it’s something you are required to do contractually when you’re scriptwriting, but it is wrong, it is just wrong.

There are writers who like planning out in this way and I’m not criticising those psycho nutters. It’s just that for me, outlines constrict instead of construct.

Except I chose that in-my-heart phrase carefully because my head has gone somewhere else and I don’t like it, except that I do. I swear that I remain religiously anti-outline but, hang on, let me check something, okay: the iPad I’m writing on now has near enough 300 outlines in it.

There’s only about a dozen that are stories, though. The rest are workshop plans, event notes, a lot of articles where the topic was complicated.

I’m surprised it’s only 300. Thinking about it, I did have a clear out about a year ago. So that’s 300 outlines in a year. Given that I wrote fewer than no outlines whatsoever between leaving school and starting Doctor Who, that’s surprising.

Except I’m not surprised. For its not that I’ve turned to a dark side, it’s not that I’ve fundamentally changed my views on writing and what works for me in that. You don’t need your diary yet.

It’s that a few years ago I was so enjoying the boon a To Do app called OmniFocus was making to my life that I looked to see what else that same app developer made. I liked OmniFocus so very much that I even downloaded a trial version of what’s called OmniOutliner. It’s an outlining app for God’s sake and it was also expensive. I mean, I’ll gladly spend a lot of cash on software if it helps me enough to be worth it, but I’m dabbling here, I’m only checking something out because it’s related to another app. I don’t need or want an outliner and as sure as eggs are eggs and Word will lose your work at a crucial point, I’m not paying a lot of money for an outlining app.

Before the first day of using this trial version was over, I bought the app.

And then never used it again.

But only because the morning after I’d bought OmniOutliner 3 for Mac, the company brought out OmniOutliner 4 and all recent buyers got the update for free.

I’m telling you this now because OmniOutliner 5 came out on Wednesday and it is very good. I’ve been using a pre-release version for a month or so and I’ve planned more events, I’ve sorted out things I need to do, I’ve written a dozen or more articles and pitches that at least used it a little.

But I’m also telling you this now because of one thing about one version of this software that came out. It’s called OmniOutliner Essentials and it’s only $10. (You’re best off buying it directly from the makers and they’re a US firm. I don’t know what the UK equivalent price is.) That is about a fifth of the price I paid before.

Now, it’s partly a fifth of the price because the company’s updated the app while also removing a lot of features but they weren’t ones I tended to use. Also, it’s a fifth of the price but you have to have a Mac. There’s no PC version and won’t be.

But nonetheless, this is a preposterously cheap price for something that changed my mind about outlining. It still hasn’t changed my heart but while I will continue to stride off into thousands of words of script or page just to see what happens, I doubt a day goes by that I don’t open OmniOutliner for something or other.

It’ll be that this something-or-other is complicated. Or that I know one thing I definitely want to do, to cover, to write about, and I’m really just making a note about that before I forget it. Then tomorrow I might come back and add another point that’s occurred to me. When I’ve got twenty or two hundred points like this, I’ve got an article or maybe I’ve even got a story. And away off I’ll go.

I said that I enjoy it when people blink at me. I want to make you blink now. Here I am recommending OmniOutliner Essentials to you but you will never under any circumstances catch me using it again.

For while this new version still hasn’t got my heart, it has got me mind, body and soul enough that I’ve upgraded to what’s called OmniOutliner Pro. It’s Essentials with a lot of bells on and they turn out to be bells that I like.

If you have a Mac, go get the trial of Essentials and then see if you can resist buying it, see if you can manage to not splash out that whole ten dollars. I am as certain that you’ll like it as I am that I can never explain why it’s great yet Word’s outlining feature is a whole kennel of dogs.

If you have an iPad and iPhone instead, you could buy OmniOutliner for those and have a very good time but there’s a version of Essentials coming for it at some point.

If you don’t have a Mac, iPad or iPhone, then write in your diary that I said outlining apps are all rubbish, okay?

Seeking treatment for outlines

To this day, one of the most exciting conversations I’ve had was at a university where a woman I was having cake with said one thing that totally changed everything. She said no.

Actually, she didn’t, but I was there on some gigantically contorted excuse solely to see her and I did strike out. But I’d already given up when we were talking about something that I felt strongly about and she disagreed with. She explained why, in a single sentence. That sounds rude but it was perfectly polite, fine, reasoned, it just only took a single sentence because it was something quite simple.

She was entirely right and I was entirely wrong. Up to that minute, I’d thought one thing, from that instant on it was impossible to not think the opposite.

God, but I loved that. That was exhilarating.

So could you please explain to me why I’ve been fighting something similar for pretty much my entire writing career?

This is what I have always believed and would like to continue believing and in my heart think I am about to betray a truth. You should write unplanned. Write to see where you go. Write to explore. And yes, you’ll write bollocks but that’s just the price you pay: if you have to throw away 90,000 words, what does it matter if the 10,000 left are great?

I’ve never said I couldn’t plan in advance, that I couldn’t outline. My first book contract required a detailed outline – and later I had to go through some hoops because I found material in my research that meant changing the outline drastically – and my second publisher needed to be able to estimate how much time a copy editor was going to need.

Doctor Who audio dramas go through various stages before you get to script and they’re all plans, all versions of outlines, effectively all treatments. Treatments are so dull. The only thing worse than reading a treatment is reading what James Cameron calls a “scriptment”. He says that’s half a treatment, half a script, and I swear to you it is all unbearable.

I once read a treatment by Alan Plater that was stunningly, shockingly boring – until the last line, where he’d written something like: “So can I go write the bloody thing now?”

I’ve done post-mortem outlines before. Written the script and then reverse-engineered an outline for producers who won’t read scripts. It was never worth it and I think because my scorn shone through the whole process.

Again, I’ve said this before and yet I’m fighting it. I have heard every argument in favour of outlining that there can be and I’ve found them all unconvincing. Except one.

I can’t remember now which producer it was who said this to me but it was the first completely undeniable argument I’d heard. I was right back in that cake shop with Claire because it is simple and I cannot disagree with it.

“You can’t have a blank screen on BBC1 on Tuesday night.”

That’s all.

I am deadline-oriented. Most of my work comes pre-loaded with deadlines and my way of exploring on the page while hitting those deadlines was just to work harder and for longer hours.

But there was always the possibility of failure: there’s no question that I would fail to deliver but there was every chance that I would fail to deliver anything worthwhile.

In television, that just can’t be allowed to happen. So television writers will plan and they will outline and if you want to work in that game, that’s what you’re going to do.

I’m not in that game. I got fired off the only TV drama I’ve worked on. But I do want to be in that game and the one-hour television drama is to me what the concept album or the three-minute pop song is to some. So a while ago I decided to try doing it their way.

Just take the characters that were obsessing me at the time and write the script in this planned, organised way. Full disclosure: I was highly impressed by the treatment for episode 1 of The Good Wife.

That is a nice piece of writing and it was written for no one but a few US TV network executives. They liked it too and because of that, three months later we got the script.

Writers Robert King and Michelle King did that. I only really know their work from this one series but I am agog at how great that show is so if they can it this way, I’ll give it a go.

Only, I’ve been a bit pressed for time. My seventh non-fiction book this year came out a couple of weeks ago. (None are very long books and five of them are compilations of non-fiction articles written over the last 20 months. Though four of those five became best-sellers in the States. What did I do wrong on the fifth?) So this is how it went:

2014 Thought of an idea called Alibis. Did nothing.
2015 Thought about the idea. Did nothing except change the title to Vows.
2016 February, got on a pitching workshop run by Liv Chapman at Writing West Midlands

You had to have a project to pitch or there was no point doing that workshop. So I puddled about with the idea, renamed it Vows, wrote a few thousand words of notes in order to create a pitch of about two minutes duration.

What I learned at that pitching workshop obviously helped me with pitching the idea but, as I’ll bet money Chapman knew all along, also helped me improve the idea that I was pitching.

Still, that was February.

Some time between then and April, I ignored my plan and ignored plans and wrote some script. I’ve never looked at it since.

In June I spent a day making notes on my favourite characters in the piece. Didn’t write script.

But then I’ve been involved in a project where at one point it looked like today was going to be the start of a thing. Literally today, as I write this. As it happens, it’s delayed but about a week ago I was sure it was happening and if it did, it would be the start of work that would be overwhelming for some time and I’d not get any chance to write this script.

So on Tuesday I wrote an outline. Some 3,000 words of every idea I had bubbling and every detail I had of these characters and the utter hell they’re heading for.

It was an outline, I can’t deny it. I even wrote it in an app called OmniOutliner. (Which is very good, by the way.)

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday I opened up Scrivener on my iPad and swiped to make it three-quarters of the screen with OmniOutliner in the fourth quarter. And I wrote 21 pages of script.

I was an unbearable puddle of exhaustion afterwards: you wouldn’t want to know me. I was also weirdly dehydrated but that’s another story. But I was also a bit smug: my previous record under deadline pressure was 20 pages of script per day.

On Thursday, yesterday, I wrote 28.

These were 12-hour writing days, 5am to 5pm, but in two days I’d written 49 pages of script and actually, that’s it. Complete.

Now, I’m going to hate that script tomorrow. But today – I just reread it – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. Obviously a first draft, obviously much further to go, and I don’t know when I can do that now, but because I had put years of thought into the characters and because I’d put another 12-hour day into the outline, the script poured out of me like I was transcribing it off the screen.

I thought I’d confine myself by writing out the story in advance like this but along the way, some characters stood up and told me off. No, they wouldn’t do this, they’d do that. And this one had to be the one who did this other thing because of course it is going to hurt them the most. Several times during the writing I said “Sorry” aloud and did what the characters told me.

That’s the kind of psychosis that you get when writing unplanned. So maybe it isn’t the unplanning, maybe it isn’t something you get from exploring on the page. Maybe I’m just nutty all round.

My heart still stays explore, my head says okay, maybe outlines have a point. Let’s split the difference and go with my gut: whatever works for you, works for you. Whatever gets it on the page, do that.