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An Interview with Keith Blount, Creator of Scrivener
An interview with Keith Blount, the founder, director and lead developer of Literature & Latte.
Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Keith Blount, the founder, director and lead developer of Literature & Latte. We build apps for writers, the most well-known being Scrivener.
How did you get interested in that?
I’ve always been interested in writing, and I’ve always been interested in computers, despite my humanities background. When I was working on long texts some time ago - an MA dissertation, then an unfinished PhD thesis and an unfinished novel - I found existing writing software cumbersome. Most of it was based on the idea that you start at page one and write until you’re finished, whereas my writing process wasn’t so sequential, and involved chapters or sections in different files, index cards with synopses that got moved around, and hand-written or spreadsheet-based outlines.
I went looking for software that integrated the different phases of writing a manuscript-length text - the outlining, the research, the writing, the restructuring - but found nothing that quite did what I wanted. So I figured, “Hey, I’ve dabbled in HTML, why not teach myself to code and write my own app?” So I wrote and sketched out a long design document, and that’s what I did. You might say it was the ultimate procrastination project: I decided I needed to build my own writing tool before I could finish my writing.
What tools & gear do you use? (Could be hardware, software, something else entirely.)
I do most of my coding on a Mac Studio, having recently upgraded from an iMac Pro. When I’m away from home, I use a MacBook Air (I’ve just bought one of the new midnight blue ones - the new silicon chips make development so much easier, so I was keen to upgrade to M2 - plus I’m a sucker for a new colour or design). I also use an iPad Pro for testing our iOS version, a couple of older MacBooks for testing backwards-compatibility, and a Dell XPS laptop for testing our Windows version (which I don’t code).
In terms of software, as is standard for macOS and iOS development, I use Xcode for coding. (Most of our code has been written using Objective-C, but for the past year or so I’ve been using Swift as our primary development language. It’s fairly easy to switch between the two.) I also use Affinity Photo, which has replaced Photoshop for me since the latter went subscription-only, for rough mockups that don't require our graphics designer to get involved.
I use Scrivener to keep track of future development notes and user suggestions, we use Lighthouse for bug tracking, and we have recently started using Basecamp for team communication and project management.
Besides the tools, what are the routines & habits that help you get your work done?
I work from home so I try to stay disciplined and keep regular work hours, although, as an owner of the company, I tend to obsess over what I’m doing and work long days: often twelve hours (it helps that I love the work). I take regular breaks throughout the day, though, and I rarely work weekends (something I used to do).
Because I have a job that involves sitting down all day and staring at a screen, I have built up a number of routines in an attempt to combat its inherent unhealthiness. I go to the gym three mornings a week, I take a break every day either to swim or walk two miles in the local countryside, and I don’t drink on weekdays. I’m naturally lazy and like beer, so it’s taken me years to develop these habits, but they have really helped with my energy levels, concentration and productivity. That said, I still stay up too late watching TV and reading.
You were a teacher before you started Literature & Latte. How did you transition from teaching to programming?
It happened fairly naturally. I lived in London from my early twenties to mid-thirties, and was a teacher in South East London for the last few years of that. I had the idea for Scrivener before I started teaching, and taught myself to code just before I started my teacher training. I built Scrivener in my spare time, although as a new teacher, there was very little of that. It started out as a pet project, something I built just for me, without any thought of selling it.
Then I figured I might as well release it as shareware (we called it “shareware” back then), thinking I might sell a few copies as a bit of spare change. By the end of the first year, Scrivener was making much more than my teacher’s salary (although given public sector pay in the UK that’s not saying all that much!).
I carried on coding Scrivener in my spare time, but with more and more customers it was getting difficult to balance both jobs, and preparation is crucial in teaching. Things resolved themselves when we decided to move to Cornwall to be closer to my wife’s family. Teaching jobs are sparse in Cornwall, so I risked going full time on coding Scrivener. Fortunately, the gamble paid off, and we now employ more than a dozen people.
Everyone approaches their novel – or other long work – in a different way, and Scrivener allows for that. How do you approach your personal writing? Do you do a lot of research, or do you just jump into it?
I tend to make a whole bunch of scattered notes or write snippets of scenes that come to me. These all go in various sections in Scrivener and then get moved around and organised into rough chapter folders. I do a little research, but mainly just looking up what was happening in a particular year, or information about a job a character has. Not that my way of working has many virtues - I’m still waiting to write the Great Novel and wow publishers into a bidding war.
The act of writing seems to be one of the few "solved" (used loosely) problems. How do you ideate ways to improve Scrivener?
Many improvements come simply from using it myself, or from members of our team using it and making suggestions. As you’re working, you notice a minor hole in the feature set or a way two features could be better integrated. And of course there’s an ongoing dialogue between us and our users. Users tell us what they want and we evaluate whether the suggestions fit with our vision of the software.
Ideas accumulate and after a while we have a build up of some big ideas and significant changes on the list for future improvements (a list kept in a Scrivener project). Typically I then discuss the list in detail with other members of the team and we bounce ideas around until we can see how they will all fit together, and a plan for a major new update starts to take shape.
People that write a lot tend to read a lot. What are some of your favorite books?
I have just read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 for - what? - maybe the fiftieth or hundredth time. It’s been one of my touchstones since I first read it when I was twenty.
My favourite writer is perhaps Jane Austen, although I would be hard-pressed to choose a favourite among her novels - probably Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, but then what about Northanger Abbey, or Emma (so basically all of them, with some reservations about Mansfield Park). The joy of Austen is in her long and sardonic sentences. (Actually the truth is that I have a soft spot for well-written romantic comedies - I enjoy the novels of David Nicholls, for instance.)
Then there’s Salinger - of course - although I haven’t re-read him in years, and Haruki Murakami. And I’ve recently discovered José Saramago (in particular The Double) and Shirley Jackson (in particular We Have Always Lived in the Castle).
If you ask me tomorrow, though, I’ll almost certainly give a different list. It’s the same with films.
How do you relax or take a break?
Reading, mostly, although I also enjoy a third-person action-adventure computer game, such as the Uncharted series. Right now we have new kittens, so most of my breaks are spent in “kitten stare”. As for a proper break, a holiday in the Balearics with some time on a boat and a glass of cava will do nicely.
Who or what inspires or motivates you; or, alternatively, that you admire?
In my professional life, I’m always coming across apps that I admire, usually for their aesthetics and design. And there a number of indie developers out there that are incredibly helpful, either personally or with the advice they share publicly, and I wish I did as much as they do.
As for motivation, though, I guess I’m just lucky in that I enjoy what I do: getting to sit at home all day, making my own hours, coding an app I love and which is used by others to create novels and screenplays and other stuff - what more motivation do I need?
What would be your dream setup?
I’m pretty happy with the setup that I have, so I can’t think of much I’d change. I guess the only thing I would add would be some sort of robot that could keep my desk and office tidy. (I’m a slob.)
Anything else you'd like to add?