Blackbird was not written in one place, at one time, in one way. It came together in bits and pieces over the course of 17 years, on at least seven different computers that I can think of. The writing was spread out across four different states, in at least two dozen different places including various apartments and homes, bed and breakfasts and hotel rooms and airports. Parts of it were written in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, BBedit, Notepad++, Adobe InDesign, and Scrivener.
Things have gone a bit more smoothly for my more recent efforts. Owning a house has made it possible to establish a writing space that isn’t going to disappear in a couple of months, and all that experimentation over the years has made it possible to find a setup that works. Ironically, what’s worked for me was building a certain amount of flexibility in.
For the past five years or so, I’ve primarily worked off of a standing desk that I built myself, piecing together a regular “corner desk” from Office Depot and some bookshelves from Target that were just the right height. Together with a drafting chair from a local furniture store, this gives me the ability to transition from sitting to standing just by sliding my chair out of the way. It’s been a great help for my lower back and keeps me moving even while I’m in the middle of writing.
My main desk setup also involves two monitors, one being that of my laptop which I’ve got propped up to one side on a simple L-shaped wooden frame I made in the garage. The main monitor screen is where I keep my focus, and if there’s something I need to pay occasional attention to (like the Slack chat I write SwearTrek captions in, or the Writer’s Block Discord server), I can keep those windows off to one side for an occasional glance. If they get distracting I just dim the laptop screen to black.
I also have a second desk setup, this one being a treadmill walking desk with a PC laptop. You might think that it’s difficult to write while walking, and it admittedly takes a bit of practice, but once I found the right desk height it was actually pretty simple to figure out, and I can type at full speed even while walking up to 3 MPH. I have a similar two-monitor setup on this desk; technically it’s three, but here I keep the laptop out of sight off to one side since it doesn’t fit nicely on the desk.
Scrivener and Google Docs are the primary tools that made it feasible for me to actively swap between a PC and a Mac while I stand, sit, or walk as I desire at the time. I likewise swap between those tools depending on what I’m working on. If it’s something relatively short, or if I need to collaborate on something like a role-playing game with my partner-in-crime Jerry Grayson, I’ll use Google Drive so we can work on the same Docs and Sheets simultaneously if needed. If it’s a longer work, such as a novel, I’ll work exclusively in Scrivener whenever possible, since the documents transfer between Mac and PC rather seamlessly.
Scrivener was something I stumbled across rather late in the process of writing Blackbird; if I’d found it sooner, I might very well have finished the novel sooner. The way it acts like a binder full of notes and clippings, the way it lets me divide things into parts and chapters and scenes, the way I can store previous drafts and character bios and maps, the way I can view two chapters simultaneously next to one another… all of these are things that just clicked with the way I like to work. When it comes to layout and publishing, Scrivener docs necessarily need to be turned into Word Docs or raw text to pour into InDesign, but during the actual writing process, it’s been invaluable to me to just stick with Scrivener.
Another little tool that’s helped quite a lot is f.lux, which is a screen-dimmer that you can set to reduce the amount of blue light coming out of your monitors after sunset. As with Scrivener, it’s not a tool that I’d use while doing layout or any sort of design work, since it alters colors significantly. But while writing at night, which is when I do much of my writing nowadays, f.lux has helped reduce eye strain quite a lot, and it certainly seems to have helped me fall asleep faster, giving me more time to dream up new stories to work on.
The final piece of my writing puzzle is related to those dreams, in fact: the white boards that I have up in my office on ever available flat surface. While they’re also great for writing notes and brainstorming during the day, they’re also invaluable if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that just won’t wait. I can grab a marker, scribble down a note, then stumble back to bed. Usually I can decipher my own handwriting, too. White boards are one of those things that seem too expensive to acquire, but a great place to find them really cheap is at a local thrift store like Goodwill or Salvation Army. They’re usually kept over by the furniture, and more often than not you’ll find at least a couple of them selling for just a few dollars a piece.
With this basic setup in place, I was able to churn out the first drafts of three novels in just about 5 months last winter. With Blackbird wrapping up, I’m currently using this same setup to begin edits and rewrites on one of those novels–one that definitely won’t take 17 years to complete!
One Reply to “My Writing Setup”
Wow. I loved your detailed and straightforward description of your writing environment, Michael! I can’t say I can remember ever reading such a practical, nuts-and-bolts account of the physical process of writing. Well-done!
These days, I spend more and more time analyzing how to make writing easier on my body and eyes. I, too, use Flux. Now when I find myself on a normal screen, it seems glary. Also – how to keep my back limber and avoid repetition injuries. I switch hands for mouse-clicking, often wear protective yellow glasses, and make myself get up periodically to run around, stretch, and maybe grab a bite of fresh outside air. 😉
I’m enjoying BLACKBIRD. Reminds me somewhat of Dexter. A very original premise in an extremely crowded genre. I have to admit having medieval fantasies when dealing with what I consider to be dumb people. Congratulations on getting this book published! Please consider working harder on the marketing (this book deserves more exposure, imo!) and also how about a sequel (or, better yet, a series)?
Thanks again for taking the time to write the above (and for sticking with your novel through thick and thin!). You can find me at https://www.amazon.com/Lawrence-Ambrose/e/B00IHNSST2 or feel free to email me!
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