The Setup

Interview

What do people use to get stuff done?

Antony Johnston

Antony Johnston

Writer (Wasteland, Dead Space)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an author, primarily of graphic novels and videogames, and occasionally books. I'm best known for the epic post-apocalyptic comic series Wasteland, and the Dead Space videogame and comics. I'm on Twitter @antonyjohnston, and my website is the equally cunningly-titled antonyjohnston.com.

What hardware do you use?

I've been a Machead since 1988, when my high school got a Mac Plus, and I fell in love. Also, I used to be a graphic designer, and still design some of my own books. So the following won't surprise you.

My main work machine is a 24" iMac (2009), with the Apple wired keyboard. I can't live without those extra keys, and it never leaves my desk, so wireless doesn't matter to me. I have a Logitech Laser mouse, also wired. I use a 1TB Western Digital Elements drive for Time Machine backup, and a Trust 10-port powered USB hub to connect everything to everything else. Finally, I have an old Canon scanner and Brother laser printer hooked up. Both are long obsolete, but they still work just fine and are good enough for my basic needs.

When travelling for work I take a 13" MacBook Air (late 2010). I like the 11", but it's a teensy bit too small for my software setup. And the 13" is hardly cumbersome, especially thanks to the SSD. It's pretty much my perfect laptop.

For talks and lectures, I use a Kensington remote + laser pointer -- one of the models where the USB receiver tucks away inside the remote itself when not in use. I was giving a talk at a games studio when my previous remote broken down, and they gave me one of these to use instead. Five seconds after finishing, I took a photo, searched for the model on Amazon and ordered one. Lovely little thing.

So those are my main writing machines. I also keep a good stock of cheap writing pads, Moleskine pocket notebooks for quick notes on the move, manila folders for filing, and pens. I love a good pen, but it has to be hard-wearing with flawless ink flow; right now I use Uniball Lacknock and PowerTank models, both of which are great. Oh, and lots of Sharpies, mainly for signing books. You can't go wrong with a Sharpie.

My desk is a horrible cheap thing from Argos (UK high street retailer), but the dimensions, drawers, cupboards etc are all exactly right for my study. If money were no object I'd get someone to build the exact same desk for me in a better quality. My chair, by contrast, is a lovely Humanscale Liberty. I'll never understand freelancers who refuse to buy a decent chair. If I sit on something for 8-10 hours every day of my life, you bet your ass (and mine, ho ho) that I'm going to get something good.

Inevitably, I have a bundle of Apple gadgets. An iPad 2, which I use everywhere I don't need to actually write; on the couch, on vacation, at conventions. I've never been able to write properly at cons, but I still had to take the lappy just to get online, skype back home, etc., so the iPad is a godsend. I also have an iPhone 4, for similar usage (sometimes even phone calls).

I have, um, three iPods -- an 80GB Classic, a 1st gen iPod Touch, and a Shuffle (2010 model) for the gym. I've passed on something like four previous iPods to relatives, mostly kids, and I suppose I should do the same with the Touch.

I'd have an Apple TV if it ran apps, but I already have a PS3 and Xbox 360 for gaming anyway (which I can legitimately count as work/research, envy me) and between them they do Blu-Ray and streaming perfectly well.

I also make music, but that's an incredibly cheap, bare bones setup; a Gibson Epiphone Special guitar, Boss HM-2 and Washburn Bad Dog distortion pedals, and budget Sennheiser headphones.

I could go on, frankly, but I don't think you want to know about my luggage bags (Red Oxx), razor (a Merkur), or DVR (Humax). If I have a general rule, it's that you should always buy the best you can afford -- because cheap crap will break, cause you stress, and ultimately cost you more when you have to keep replacing it. Don't skimp. Except on desks, apparently.

And what software?

I'm going to restrict myself to software that I use for work purposes, here. It'll still bore the pants off you.

My main writing tool is Scrivener. I write almost everything in Scrivener, from comics to prose pieces to videogame scripts. I really can't recommend it highly enough. I even helped design the comic script template for it, because I love it so much.

But Scriv is a drafting tool, not a word-processor or formatting app. So for final formatting and submission, I generally import from Scriv into Final Draft 8 -- great for industry-standard script format -- or MS Word. I loathe and despise Word, but sadly it's still what 99% of the world uses, and what most publishers expect you to turn in.

Some of the stuff I write gets quite complex, and I'm a list-making kind of guy, so my "support apps" include Aeon Timeline (still in beta, but a great little app), and Things for my to-do list. I love Things for its simplicity; I'm a long-time devotee of Merlin and 43Folders, but OmniFocus is simply way too much for me. I'd spend more time maintaining the bloody thing than actually getting stuff done.

Admin: my calendar is in BusyCal, which is what iCal should have been all along, and it syncs with iCloud. I use Numbers for my accounts spreadsheet, Soulver for quick calculations (my mental arithmetic is appalling), and 1Password for all my notes and passwords. 1Password changed my life; for someone with a terrible memory like me it's a lifesaver.

I also use many of the built-in Mac apps; TextEdit, Safari, iChat, Address Book, Preview, etc. They're all good enough for my purposes.

All my work goes in Dropbox, in addition to the external backup and the copy actually on my iMac. I also burn DVD backups every so often. I've only been hit by a disk failure disaster once, but it was enough to make me fairly paranoid about backup ever since. Don't think it can't happen to you, kids.

For design I use Adobe CS3 -- much like Word, I hate it, and wish I could get rid of it entirely, which is why I'm still stubbornly on CS3 -- and then for the web I do everything in Coda, from the lovely geniuses at Panic. Coda is brilliant, especially for someone like me at the "slightly-above-amateur web designer" level. I use MarsEdit to update my WordPress blog, and Twitterrific to keep track of which amusing cat videos my fellow comics writers are watching.

I mentioned music, and that's all GarageBand. I love GB so much, it makes composition so easy. I'm sure I'd be hopelessly lost in something like Logic, but GB is just right.

You may notice a trend in my favourite apps. Many of them are Mac-only; they're minimalist; and they make complex, laborious tasks simpler. That's my ideal software right there, and I'm willing to pay handsomely for that convenience. Like my issue with chairs, it's a debate I sometimes have with other freelancers -- our "product", aside from actual talent, is our time, and the ability to focus on a task. That's basically what we sell. Why wouldn't you pay a hundred bucks or whatever to have more of those resources at your disposal?

Anyway, two more important pieces of software before I wrap up:

LaunchBar. Which, again, simply saves me time. I used to be a Quicksilver user, and it was with great reluctance that I switched, but QS development fell off a cliff with no sign of climbing back up. There are still some things LB can't do as well as QS, but at least it's being actively developed.

And finally, iTunes. I know, I know, everyone hates it. I don't like the bloat, either. But I'm that rare beast of a writer who actually works better with music playing, and iTunes makes it so easy. A couple of clicks, and suddenly I have several weeks' worth of music on shuffle, without needing to touch it again, and I can control playback from LaunchBar. And love it or hate it, there's no better app for podcasts.

This is too long already, so I'm simply going to list the iOS stuff I like: Reeder, Wikipanion, Cloudreaders, GoodReader, Due, Simplenote, TripIt, Writing Kit, iA Writer, imo, Skype. Check 'em all out.

What would be your dream setup?

My dream setup involves a remote castle surrounded by forest, an antique study library, a very powerful laptop, and a dozen hounds happily snoozing nearby.

Failing that -- which I most certainly am -- I'd settle for being able to ditch the iMac and go all-laptop, but I can't do that until I cut the graphic design cord once and for all. So really, I suppose I'd just like a better desk. This one depresses me.

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