Fascinating Rhythm: On Writing Comedy

I recently published a column in my weekly newsletter, The Study, on finding your rhythm when writing comedy:

You can tell when a joke will land. It’s in the way the audience laughs, whether you’ve had them from the beginning or you had to pull them to your side throughout a scene. I don’t have a live studio audience for my show, but I do have a gut feeling about how a joke will be received by the audience.

It took me six episodes, but I finally found The Shelf Life’s rhythm. I noticed it when I was editing laugh tracks in episode six. I’d left them in from episode five and watched as many of them lined up within a second or two of their previous locations from the last episode. My jokes were hitting in the same spots.

I’ve learned a lot while developing my podcast sitcom. If you’re interested in a little insight on writing comedy, maybe for your own project, give it a read.

And if you’d like to get these kinds of things delivered straight to your inbox every week, PLEASE SUBSCRIBE!

iPad for Writers: iPadOS 13 Review

I’ve never reviewed an operating system before. It’s daunting and there’s no way I’d be able to devote months of my life to discussing every little feature inside. Instead, this review was written with a very specific demographic in mind: writers. I’ve broken it down into sections based on my own use case and what I think would benefit any writers interested in switching from a PC or Mac to the iPad.

  1. Introduction
  2. Homescreen
  3. Multitasking
  4. Files and iCloud
  5. Shortcuts
  6. Safari
  7. Apple Pencil
  8. Text Editing and the Keyboard
  9. Fonts
  10. Dark Mode
  11. Conclusion

At this year’s WWDC, Apple unveiled the newest operating system to its already growing lineup. In addition to WatchOS, tvOS, MacOS, and iOS, we now have iPadOS, a dedicated platform disconnected from the iPhone’s own operating system.

As soon as the betas got relatively stable, I installed iPadOS on my iPad Pro to really see if it would be possible to migrate away from my MacBook Air and use the iPad as my primary computing machine.

I’m a writer. I used my MacBook Air for writing and research on Cabinet of Curiosities, and I wrote half a dozen novels and short stories in Scrivener on it. It was how I got work done for a long time, but the iPad lifestyle intrigued me. Writers like Federico Viticci and Matt Gemmell saw the possibilities of an iPad-only future early on, even before iPadOS offered such expanded functionality. They altered their workflows and made use of clever hacks to achieve their goals. I figured I’d give it a shot, too.

I love the iPad. It’s slim, light, and versatile. This review won’t go into detail on every feature and app enhancement iPadOS brings. For that, I suggest you take a deep dive into Federico’s review on MacStories. It’s enormous and thorough and incredibly thoughtful.

I’m tackling this review from the perspective of a writer, discussing the features and apps I use and determining whether other writers looking to make the switch can—and should.

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

iPad for Writers – Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

Before we get started, let me state right away that you can write a book in anything. Google Docs, Word, Drafts–it doesn’t matter. However, I’d argue that just because you can write in those programs doesn’t mean you should write in those programs. I can’t imagine writing a book in Word and the idea of trusting a browser app to hold 80,000 words gives me hives. But people do it and they are far braver than I will ever be.

There are dedicated applications designed for longform writing. One of them is called Ulysses. I know of several writers who swear by it, including authors Matt Gemmell and David Hewson. It’s available for Mac and iOS and it’s…fine. It seems to have a decent number of export options, including ePub, but it never sat well with me as a place to write something big like a novel or non-fiction book. I’ve tried it and I think of it more as a blog post editor. However, if you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to read Matt’s and David’s blogs, as well as this Macworld review.

For my fiction, I trust only the best and the best is and always has been Literature and Latte’s Scrivener, available on Mac, Windows, and iOS ($45 on Mac and Windows, $20 on iOS). Scrivener is the kitchen sink of word processors. It’s able to collect research, such as character bios, images, and webpages, it can export to all sorts of filetypes, including ePub and Kindle’s .mobi format, and moving scenes around is as simple and picking one up and dropping it where you need it to go.

On the desktop.

The iOS version, which I’ve been relying on more and more, does not share feature parity with its Mac counterpart. In some ways, that’s good. One of the biggest complaints about Scrivener is its high barrier to entry. Because it does so much, many writers find it to be overwhelming, choosing to rely on old standbys like Microsoft Word to do the job. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have that problem, since the developers stripped out a lot of the power user features to give writers a simpler, cleaner interface.

Fonts and styles are tucked away under a separate button, so there’s less to fiddle with and you can focus on writing, not debating between Times New Roman and Cochin.

On the flip side, not having all the features of the desktop app makes tracking versions more difficult. As I work through edits on my latest novel, I like to take a "snapshot" of a chapter as it exists now before I start to make changes. Those changes can then be reflected in different-colored text on the page. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have snapshots, so any edits I make can’t be tracked automatically.

I can still change text colors and highlight passages and make comments and footnotes, but all of that must be done manually.

Of course, the iOS version is still young and has a long way to go before it can be considered "complete." I’m hopeful features like Snapshots make it in soon.

The good news is many of the features I do use are present, such as Dropbox sync and the corkboard, which allows me to see each chapter displayed as an index card that can be shuffled around.

I can also see my progress as I write, including the word count for my current writing session, and I can set targets to hit each day if I hope to finish my first draft by a specific date.

For any writer who’s wanted to give Scrivener a try, but has been scared to dive into what they’ve believed is an expert-level program with a steep learning curve, I encourage them to take a look at the iOS version first. It provides a ton of features that can be explored at a steady pace, but without the clutter of the desktop versions.

In conjunction with Scrivener, I’ve also come to depend on Apple’s Pages app–a free download for iOS users. Pages has come a long way and what Apple has now is a capable word processor compatible with Microsoft Word. I recently hired a freelance editor to provide developmental edits for my novel, which he sent back as a .docx file. Since I work off an 11" iPad Pro, Word requires me to pay for a subscription to edit any documents and I already pay for way too many subscriptions.

Instead, I opened the edit document in Pages and was happily surprised to see all the tracking was still intact. The comments didn’t appear as little bubbles to the side like in Word. Instead, they popped up like little footnotes at the bottom of the window. Using the iPad’s split-window multitasking, I keep Pages on the left and Scrivener on the right at equal widths and edit my book side-by-side.

Also, a fun tip I learned from Jodi Hutchins on Twitter: adding "GOAT CHEESE" to your manuscript where you leave off in your edits makes it MUCH easier to find your way back to that spot later. This is especially true on the iPad, where apps are known to quit themselves and refresh spontaneously, stranding you at the top of your documents. Having to flick your way back to where you were near the bottom can take a while, so instead just conduct a search for any mentions of "GOAT CHEESE" and you’re right back where you stopped earlier. I add it to both the Scrivener draft and the edit doc just in case.

All of this is fine and dandy if you’re in the throes of editing, but what if you’re still drafting? Even on the Mac you can’t have multiple Scrivener windows open to the same project. If you need to stop writing to check your research folder for something, you need to bounce out of the active chapter, find what you’re looking for in the Research folder, then go back and pick up where you left off. It’s not a great system regardless of the platform.

On iOS, there are useful apps like Story Planner that can be flown in from the right side of the screen to give you quick access to character bios or research documents without taking you out of Scrivener. When you’re done, you can simply swipe them away and get back to drafting. I’ll be talking about Story Planner and other helpful utilities in a future article, but for more information on iOS multitasking, check out this helpful piece on iMore.

I’m not sure I ever would have written one novel, let alone six, had it not been for Scrivener. Its flexibility and robust feature set have made the act of writing not only easier, but also fun. But Scrivener, especially on iOS, is only the beginning. App choice is one half of the battle. The other half is in picking the right keyboard. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll discuss the different keyboard options available. You’re going to be using the keyboard more than anything else, so choose wisely.

Art in the Age of Entitlement

Carrie V Mullins for Electric Lit:

People have always felt a sort of ownership over art, and that’s actually good. It’s why you keep a book on your shelf and return to it, it’s why you hang a picture on your wall that speaks to you. But when this gets out of hand and you mistake access or a personal connection with your rights, as happens so often in our Internet age, it leads to a dangerous sense of entitlement.

I agree Amazon is not solely to blame for the meager earnings authors make these days. It’s not just about corporations and publishers racing to the bottom. It’s also about the entitlement of audiences who believe they are owed something simply because they want it. This is at the heart of the piracy debate.

Piracy websites (that includes movies, music, and television shows, as well as books) were visited over 300 billion times in 2017. Millions of those visits resulted in the illegal downloading of books written by authors who already earned a living below the poverty line. And yet, when confronted with their theft, pirates turn to the age old defenses:

“I can’t afford to buy new books.”
“It’s not really stealing because it’s not a physical copy.”
“I wasn’t going to buy it anyway, so it’s not really a lost sale.”

All of this is nonsense. It’s easier to deflect one’s indecency than to own up to just generally being a shitty person who did a shitty thing.

Maggie Stiefvater learned about piracy the hard way. Her books were New York Times #1 best-sellers and yet:

Stiefvater, author of the Shiver and Raven Cycle series, raised the issue after she was contacted on Twitter by a reader who told her: “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated.” On her website, Stiefvater later explained that, when ebook sales for the third book in the Raven Cycle – Blue Lily, Lily Blue – “dropped precipitously”, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors.

The Guardian – November 6, 2017

Piracy has consequences and the people who pay are not the publishers. The publishers will always get their money somehow. It might be in the form of lower advances, or lower royalties, or by publishing more garbage books by cable news pundits because that demographic isn’t known for pirating the way YA fantasy and sci-fi audiences are.

When a book is pirated, it IS a lost sale. It IS theft. It is taking money out of the pockets of authors who have spent years creating the art some people feel they are owed.

Author Alisha Kirpalani breaks down the numbers of a sobering reality:

1. Most writers receive 7.5 % to 10% of their book value. Do the maths and you will work out how much that figure is worth in the real world.

2. An average writer spends between 2 to 4 years on writing and getting his book published, if he/she is fortunate enough to find a publisher


3. A writer usually pays for book launches, travelling and all other marketing activities associated with selling his/her book. Before making a single sale, there is an investment that disappears into thin air.

The writer pays–for marketing, travel, research, and if they self-publish, they pay for everything, from cover design to formatting to ARCS for reviewers. Those costs add up and when people don’t pay for books, authors can’t afford to write more of them. It’s that simple.

The bottom line is this: artists need to be paid for their art. If you cannot afford a book, visit your local library. If they don’t have it, see if they’ll order it for you. You are not entitled to someone’s hard work simply because you want it. Authors need to eat. They need to pay their rent and feed their families. You don’t NEED to read their book.

It disgusts me that the average income for full-time writers is only $20,000 when MILLIONS of dollars that could be spent on debuts and mid-listers are poured into marketing known entities. James Patterson is worth $700 million. He doesn’t need a full-page ad in The New Yorker for his latest Alex Cross novel. It will sell regardless.

(My issue lies less with Patterson and more with the Publishing Industrial Complex that enables him. He awards yearly bonuses to hundreds of independent bookstore employees and helps aspiring authors break into the business. He actually pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I am a fan of the man himself.)

You know who could use that money? The mom who wrote her debut novel in 20-minute increments before her kids woke up for the day. The actual young adult who filled several three-ring binders with the world bible for her YA epic fantasy series. The cozy mystery author churning out a book a year while working a 9-5 job to pay the bills. People who didn’t just “write for themselves” (ugh), but who had hoped to turn the worlds inside their heads into lucrative careers.

We celebrate entrepreneurs who build apps and services and subscription cooking boxes. We throw money at them because what they’ve created make our lives better. How are authors any different? They pour years into building something for people to enjoy. Work that spawns pages of fan art and fanfic, yet we treat it as a commodity. Something that will always be there because it’s always been there.

Well, it won’t be. Not if we don’t pay for it. Amazon can be blamed for a lot of the mess publishing is in right now, but this? This dearth of money to spread to the people who need it the most? That’s on us.

Find Your People

I have a small group of writers I talk to every day. We have our own digital space to shoot the breeze, shitpost, and share our writing for feedback. I trust them implicitly with my words and their guidance is the most valuable resource I have for improving my writing.

Find people like that. People who will be honest and supportive. People you can trust. I always joke about how I hate everyone and prefer a life away from humanity, but in all honesty, if I didn’t have this group, I’d be lost. They’ve improved my life in immeasurable ways and I’m grateful to know them.

Cultivate those relationships. I’m glad I did.