The stuff that spits stories into the world

Introducing the setup I rely on to create fiction, sell books and have fun

My name is Don Bosco and I live in Singapore. For the past three years I’ve been writing speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers, and putting these out as ebooks and paperbacks through my publishing studio Super Cool Books. I’ve worked a lot of other jobs before this — journalist, TV writer, lecturer, etc — but not much these days. My time is now spent creating new stories and promoting my ebooks and paperbacks.

When I started out I made it a point to define my workflow as comprehensively as possible: capture new ideas, write and package stories, make graphics, interact with readers and collaborators, and track the essential moving parts so that I can make better decisions about my work. And of course, have fun. All this might seem like an ambitious and overwhelming undertaking, but often in such cases half the challenge is in finding the right set of tools and making these work together effortlessly. After that the rest is just turning up and applying yourself.

I have a room at home that’s the designated office and creative studio. It’s pretty bare because I don’t work too well with clutter, the inside of my head is filled with enough fascinating junk as it is. I have a big work table on wheels, a chair, a round stool, two low cabinets for files and a cosy armchair. Plus one small magnetic board, a lamp, and that’s it. The two other essential elements are the aircon unit (it can get uncomfortably warm and humid) and the wireless broadband equipment. I hide away in this space when I need to concentrate on paperwork and administrative tasks. Or sometimes I take a nap here in the afternoon. Otherwise I’m happy working on my fiction anywhere else inside or outside our house.

When you’re connected to the internet it seems like there’s so much happening all the time, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the new information and incoming requests. To stay sane I’ve created a “chew, spit, rinse” cycle for myself: I’ll work furiously on a particular project or task until it’s done, then I spit it out there (ie, pass it along, upload it, publish it, archive it, etc), after which I back up the files and remove all traces from my workspace and desktop so that I can focus on the next thing. This approach gives my environment a certain zen quality, and I can keep pursuing new ideas without feeling any mental drag. I enjoy having every morning feel like the start of Day One, it keeps the game fresh for me.

My main laptop is a refurbished 11-inch Macbook Air (1.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB 1067 MHz DDR3) that I bought close to three years ago. I use this for serious typing and some graphics work. Earlier this year I got myself an iPad Mini with Retina Display which is handy for working at cafes and on the train. It functions as a neat ebook reader too, all the digital magazines and PDFs look vivid and sharp. My current phone is a low end HTC Windows Phone 8X which I’m especially happy with. Because of its modest screen size and specs the battery tends not to run out too quickly. It’s easy to send out email and text messages with the bundled apps, but my favourite feature is the mobile version of the OneNote app by Microsoft. It lets me take notes and add photos when I’m out, and I later transfer these journals to my laptop. I’ve used many different smartphones over the years, and right now I find this one very handy and satisfying.

Sometimes I’ll need a huge screen to look at book cover designs, or proofread something, and for that I’ll take over the family computer, which is an old 27-inch iMac that we mostly use to show our kids science clips and music videos on YouTube.

Still, even with this collection of tech tools, I also love scribbling on all sorts of paper — recycled sheets, small notepads, large scrolls of Ikea Mala drawing paper, anything. I recently started using my kids’ Ikea Mala gel pens, and the ink looks surprisingly smooth and rich, great for plotting stories and sketching design ideas. If I come up with anything cool I’ll take a photo with my iPad and file it away for reference later.

I’m constantly jumping from one application to another, even across devices. Most of my writing happens in .txt documents in TextEdit, and I use this for to-do lists and project management too. I can have as many as fifteen windows open at once, sometimes more. I make notes for each project as I go, and when it looks ready I migrate it to either MS Word for editing, Gmail for sending it over to someone else, or sometimes Scrivener for further development. Scrivener is especially handy when I’m ready to work on a book and need quick access to the different draft versions.

I also use a simple (and free) word processor called Bean when I need to create a simple PDF. For images I use Photoshop Elements and a Chrome app called Pixlr Express, which has all sorts of grungy filters and cool effects. For enjoying music I use the free version of Spotify, and I’m constantly amazed at all the obscure vintage punk bands that are available on it. For video calls I use Skype. I also spend too much time messing around with drum loops and synth riffs on GarageBand, and recently I’ve started using the iPad version more because it’s such an addictive experience.

Also on the iPad, I found a text editor app called Daedalus Touch. I love the interface and the way it organises documents into separate stacks. This is especially great when I need to just sit somewhere and dump all my thoughts so that I can follow up on them later.

For news and feeds I seem to be using more Zite and Feedly, and much lessFlipboard. I haven’t figured out why.

Oh, and the free Preview application that comes with every Mac deserves a mention: it’s awesome for viewing PDFs and images as well as making simple edits and colour correction.

What would my dream setup be like? I thought about this ten years ago, and my wish was finally fulfilled when the 11-inch MacBook Air came out. This time around I’m looking forward to a machine that will handle thought recognition accurately, so I can compose my stories or make pictures in my head and with a bit of concentration see my work take shape on the screen. Also, can someone please invent an attachment that shaves my face while I clear my inbox, that would be much appreciated.

Your greatest creative tool should be your own brain. Take a walk and think hard before sitting down at the computer. I know that if I push my brain hard enough, it will always come up with a clear solution requiring just a few simple tools. And it’ll be great fun.

Don Bosco’s Sherlock Hong mystery series for middle grade readers is now available on Kindle, iBooks, Smashwords and other ebook platforms. Grab them quick — The Immortal Nightingale (#1), The Peranakan Princess (#2), The Scroll of Greatness (#3) — and enter the amazing world of Sherlock Hong, enthusiastic and overly imaginative new member of the International Order of Young Seekers. Order the paperbacks (Books 1 and 2) from Select Books (Singapore) or Kinokuniya.