Warren Ellis is a writer. You may know him from Transmetropolitan, his acclaimed cyberpunk comic book series about a gonzo journalist, or from his novels like Gun Machine. And then there are the television shows, film projects and magazine columns, many of which comment on our relationship with technology and the future.
Putting his imagination to work doesn’t seem to be a challenge for Mr Ellis, but how does he go about getting words on the page? We spoke with Warren to learn a little about what tools he uses, his writing habits, and how he works.
Location: Southend-on-Sea, south east England.
Current Gig: Writer, many kinds of things. My next two serialised graphic novels, INJECTION and TREES, begin publication in the middle of May. I write a monthly column on technology for Esquire.com.
One word that best describes how you work: Constantly.
Current mobile device: iPhone 6 regular just arrived, finally replacing the iPhone 5 I’ve thrashed to death. The 6 is experimentally living in an Anker battery case until I decide if adding more size to the already stupidly huge thing is worth it.
Current computer: Lenovo T440 touchscreen. Dell XPS 13, 2015 edition. Chromebook Pixel, original.
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without? Why?
My phone is always in reach. Always. I live on it.
- Field Notes notebooks and Pilot Frixion black pens. (And also the little Moleskine Volant notebooks, which fit better into my current EDC pack, which is a repurposed Handspring Visor leather slipcase.)
- Chrome and Gmail. Mailbox on my phone.
- Anker external batteries for the phone.
- Audacity, for my podcasting hobby.
- Dropbox and JungleDisk and four WD external drives.
- Notepad! Probably insanely, I write rough drafts and my newsletter, orbitaloperations.com, in Notepad, like an old man.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I spend the first hour or two of the day at a table in my back garden, under a sloping roof, either just with the phone or with the Dell, the Pixel or a notebook, depending on what kind of day it is. (Am awaiting a Textblade, which might make some things simpler, particularly when away from home.) The rest of the day is in a small room at the back of the house that I claimed as my office twenty years ago. I’m at the same old, heavy wooden desk I bought from a junk store twenty years ago. I’m not sending a picture because it is currently a bloody mess that makes me look like a hoarder because a bunch more junk got dumped in here a couple of months ago and it hasn’t been processed out yet.
I have a 21-inch ASUS screen on a riser behind my laptop. Personally, I would like about five more large screens, and a booster for the Wi-Fi — the router is downstairs, and this is an old house with thick walls that probably also contain metal and bones, so I don’t get great signal up here. The big screen is usually running either MetroTwit, a Twitter desktop app that has been “sunsetted” but is still the best Windows Twitter client if you read a lot of lists, or Grasswire, or Netflix or streaming TV news. When the Rev. Dan Catt gets Guardian Ambient Headline News running again, it will go up on the big screen. Sometimes I run the Google Trends visualiser on it. The screen is also there to help with the rewriting of books and TV scripts — I can throw the version with all the notes and comments on it up on the big screen while doing the rewriting on the laptop screen.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
The best thing I ever did, frankly, was to set up a “public” email address that I check once a day and a private work/personal email address. My morning inbox went from 200+ to less than 50 overnight, and has stayed that way.
Applying a combination of Mailstrom and Mailbox got my inbox under control for the first time ever.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I always have a notebook on my desk, with a pen clipped to it. I call it the Daybook, and that’s my to-do list. Though I am thinking about clearing a corner of the office and putting a whiteboard up. This year is shaping up to be a welter of short blocks of attention, rather than the long ocean cruise of writing a novel, and I need to manage time and memory better.
I never got the hang of using the phone as a to-do list device, oddly.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Probably my Kindle Paperwhite. I committed to digital books a few years ago, because I was filling the house with paper ones. It’s also how I handle “long reads” — the Send To Kindle button on my browser toolbar gets a lot of work.
What tools do you use to write?
Depends on the job.
I write books, articles and other long prose things in Microsoft Word. Sometimes they start in Google Docs — the Chromebook Pixel is a gorgeous machine for writing the first draft of a prose piece, but it always has to end up in Word for publishers’ workflow.
Similarly, I write television in Final Draft, because most networks and studios have workflows built around it. (AMC bought my first copy of Final Draft for me, precisely for that reason.)
I tend to write comics scripts in Open Office, with four macros I wrote for the purpose — I got into the habit of writing scripts in RTF years and years ago, because everyone was on different systems and RTF was guaranteed to open in all of them.
The two Windows machines are the hardware for that. The T440 lives on my desk, and the Dell travels with me — so thin and light it even goes into the back slot of a Maxpedition Jumbo Versipack shoulder bag. They’re synced through Dropbox.
And, as mentioned, a notebook and pen are always to hand. As noted, I sometimes also write rough drafts and dev documents in Notepad first.
Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what’s next?
Always working on something. There are always a few jobs circling. This isn’t always a bad thing: if I don’t have the mindset to work on one particular thing on any given day, then the chances are that I have it for another thing. So I’m always producing. Working in several different fields keeps me fresh and allows me to exercise different muscles. This morning, I have a comics script, a television pilot outline and an article on deck. If I start the comics script in five minutes, then I know I’ll run out of steam in about five hours. I can break for dinner and then go into the outline, break ground there, and then probably spend the last couple of hours of the day assembling the argument for the article. There will be a couple of twenty-minute breaks in there to write the emails that require more than one-line responses.
When I need to let my brain wander, I just blow a deadline. Haha. No. Don’t print that. Shit.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
Sleeping. I can sleep through anything. I can sleep longer than most cats. I can sleep at Olympic levels. I probably have a brain tumour.
What do you listen to while you work?
Usually ambient music of some flavour or other. Bandcamp pretty much owns my soul at this point. I even cull pieces from my shifting playlists of new music into a podcast called SPEKTRMODULE that I release every few weeks at spkmdl.libsyn.com. Drone Zone on Soma FM is incredibly useful too, as is Ambient Sleeping Pill, which I get to via the TuneIn radio app.
When I’m starting the day, I tend to do the more newsy podcasts — Economist Radio, Today, In Our Time, Start The Week and Analysis, Covert Contact. I use Downcast for podcasts, which syncs between the instances on my phone and on the iPad 2 which sits in a clamp stand on my desk as a second (third?) screen.
Right now, everything’s running through a small but powerful set of Altec Lansing inMotion speakers that I’m pretty sure they don’t even make any more. I need to update that.
Can’t and won’t work in silence.
What are you currently reading?
I only have around a hundred websites in Feedbin/Reeder right now. People are giving up on RSS and I feel like I’m bemoaning the passing of cave paintings or carrier pigeon messaging.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I did one of those online tests once, and it said I was an extrovert, but the only way I can do my job is to sit alone locked in a small room for sixteen hours a day, so who the hell knows.
How do you recharge?
Travel. Being on the road is always somehow restorative. Planes, trains and hotel room are my Walden: I get reflective, relax, get a lot of reading done
What’s your sleep routine like?
I bail out sometime before 3am, ideally, and I try to be up before noon. Using the awful, obnoxious “klaxon” alarm on the iPhone can help with that, because it is the only alarm I’ve found that I simply cannot sleep through.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Fred Armisen. I sat across from him on a plane once, and the sheer volume of work that guy processed in a two-hour flight (while wearing ear monitors) looked incredible. Amber Case, late of Geoloqi and Esri, now writing a book on “calm technology”. Rene Redzepi, the Danish chef.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Back when I was a kid, Paul Gravett told me that the hardest thing in the world was to communicate a story so clearly that everyone could understand it. Still trying.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
My weekly newsletter can be subscribed to at orbitaloperations.com, and it’s not always as boring as my answers to this interview. I try to write in public at morning.computer when it’s not too cold in the mornings to type. I am usually haunting Twitter as @warrenellis.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.