Monday, March 19, 2007

The Starbucks writing academy

An interesting discussion arose from Sunday’s post – whether or not to write at Starbucks. It brings up the question: where do you write and why? For you non-writers, it brings up the question: why do you go to Starbucks at all when Dunkin Donuts has better coffee?

Usually I write with a partner and most of the time we dictate scripts to our assistant while I pace back and forth with a yoyo so a public coffee house is generally not the ideal workplace. It’s bad enough when the assistant says, “No, really? You really want me to put that in?” without total strangers chiming in the same thing. But when we’re just working through a story we’ll often meet at a Coffee Bean. Yes, there’s always that danger people will think we’re just posturing pretentious writers so we counter that by wearing priest collars.

But I’m less self-conscious than most writers. That stems from two years of going to Dodger Stadium and doing play-by-play into a tape recorder in the upper deck surrounded by drunk crazed mouth breathers. After you’ve heard “Hey, look at this idiot!”, “Keep your day job, moron.”, and “Whattaya think you are, fuckin’ Vin Scully?” seven thousand times you tend to develop thick skin.

I’ve seen partners huddled over a laptop at Starbucks and don’t really mind it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll have a big ugly fight. Those are always amusing. Plus, I always hope to one day eavesdrop on two porno writers. “So when the black guy takes her from behind I think we need a line…”

One time I saw two partners writing at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood. But they didn’t have a laptop. They had a big desktop iMac. And a printer! When they were finished they got out two huge boxes and spent ten minutes packing it all back up. I’m surprised they didn’t also have their own fax machine and microwave.

When I’m writing by myself I usually work at home but I don’t mind getting out in the world. As long it’s a fairly quiet environment. There’s a spot in Santa Monica called “The Office” that provides workstations and the internet and charges at least a hundred dollars a month. I go to the UCLA research library and get the same thing for free.

I also love writing on planes. It really makes those 13 hour Jet Blue tarmac delays really fly.

There’s a Coffee Bean near UCLA that’s always loaded with spectacular women. I will sometimes write there and bring my Emmy.

But you do find definite types writing in these java joints. There’s always Mr. Smug -- the guy who looks off into space, as if he’s contemplating deep concepts far to complex for you to understand. From time to time he will arch an eyebrow and type in four words. Then there’s Mr. P.O.C. (Piece Of Cake) – he can’t get down his brilliance fast enough. Furiously clacking away, he can bang out ten pages an hour. It’s a pretty safe bet his script will be a P.O.C. (piece of crap). And finally, Mr. Tortured. A good day is five pages or five people feeling sorry for him.

My guess is if you write in a Starbucks that is not in LA or near NYU you will be the only one working on a script. And if you write in a Winchell’s Donuts in LA you’ll be competition free too.

The only factor important in how and where you write is what makes YOU most comfortable and allows you to do your best work – whether it’s in a Starbucks, locked in your attic, in an intensive care ward, Bob’s Big Boy, the D train, or a diving bell. One of the beauties of being a writer is that you can do it anywhere. Take advantage of that.

But leave the pipe, sweater you wear around your neck, tweed jacket with patches, and iMac home. Thank you.


Unknown said...

Hopefully any Starbucks porn only gets written there, and not acted out on the table/chessboard.

I dislike pretending to speak Italian, so I do not go to Starbucks.

Saw AMERICAN MOVIE Sunday night and thought of Mark writing in his car at the airport when I saw this post and the ensuing discussion. He writes at the airport so he doesn't get distracted by deciding to make a pizza.

I've started writing more frequently and with better results since identifying and avoiding my main distractions.

Mary Stella said...

I envision your assistant using a court reporter's machine to get every word down.

We don't have any Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts in the Middle Keys. If I had a partner, we'd have to write at the Circle K convenience store. Maybe I can balance my laptop on the lottery machine or the bait freezer.

I have a perfectly nice office at home, but prefer to write at the dining room table with a view of the harbor. At least when I'm staring dumbly into space I can look at water and boats instead of a wall.

Anonymous said...

I've never been to the Office, but I definitely suggest that readers do not confuse this place with Father's Office. Trying to write in the latter, while amusing to onlookers, will not be comfortable and will most likely end up with your laptop ruined by a highly alcoholic beer.

Allen said...

That certainly trumps my 3rd grade t-ball trophy I carry around.

- Allen

Anonymous said...

My basic rule of thumb writing at a Starbucks is: Venti Frappucchino = about 1,000 to 1,150 words, or roughly 90 minutes of typing, by which time what's left of the drink has pretty much degraded into whip cream slush. Still a good sugar rush for getting through an evening session.

The two main problems at the Starbucks, where I am down in Texas, are: A.) Getting a table near a plug -- the office's G4 Power Mac is really lightweight, can make it through a session on battery and (of course) has a little more cache with the Starbucks crowd, while my HP laptop is heavier and dies like a dog after 50 minutes without a plug, but has my mp3 library on it; and B.) The fact that in some of the suburban Stabucks, instead of hipsters, you get the gatherings of young, married couples with kids in tow, almost all of whom tend to treat the place as a Chuck E. Cheese with cushions and cinnamon shakers.

So far, I've never seen any of the little urchins guzzle down a double shot, but they still run around wired enough on their own energy to make concentrating on what you're trying to write an ordeal (and as for asking the staff to get tough on the parents and their rowdy kids -- Hey, this is Starbucks; for the staff to get up the compunction to ask the parents to adjust their child's behavior would be against the company's lifestyle image and ethos).

Christina said...

Here is San Francisco, there is not so much screenwriting going on in the cafes, but rather a large amount of short story/novel writing. When the high-brow lit crew sees me writing screenplays, they consider me low-class and a sell-out, and I am left alone. I might as well be perusing a copy of the National Enquirer. Yes, I know, a beautiful situation.

Sometimes I write at Caffe Trieste in North Beach, where Coppola wrote the Godfather. I also write at a couple of Starbucks locations near the day gig - 12 miles south of San Francisco. They're mostly populated with high tech types who are writing marketing plans or developing software. No screenwriters. Sometimes, groups of high school students come in, but they're usually well behaved and studious.

I write in cafes after work because if I try to write at home, there are too many distractions. I focus well in a cafe.

When I'm in LA, I prefer Coffe Bean and Tea Leaf over Starbucks. Their chairs are a bit uncomfortable, but the coffee is yummier and I like the locations that are half outdoors, like the one on Westwood near Wilshire.

VP81955 said...

Oh, Ken, just in case you haven't heard, it's being reported in New York that WCBS-AM has extended the contracts of John Sterling (for those who haven't heard him, imagine blending Ted Baxter's pomposity with Kenny Bania's hackiness) and his partner in play-by-play crime, Suzyn Waldman (actually, Suzyn is only the analyst; John does every inning) to do Yankees games through 2011...we can only hope Harry Kalas and Vin Scully can hold on that long to balance things out.

Ian said...

The whole writing-on-a-laptop-at-Starbucks trend has given rise to a new phenomenon -- laptop envy.

Kenny said...

I used to hate assholes writing at Starbucks, but my procrastination skills have progressed to a point now where where working at home is virtually impossible. Now I can't write unless I go out.

I tried libraries for a while. On the plus side they are free but I don't like being cut off from drinks and being too far from bathrooms (I am paranoid about leaving my laptop behind so packing it up each time is an ordeal). Also the hours are not as good.

I don't mind a little noise, I think it helps me focus. When kids start running around it's pretty awful but usually doesn't last too long.

The Office is for morons. I was given a coupon once for a free hour, as if that was even worth the trip out there.

IQCrash said...

"There’s a Coffee Bean near UCLA that’s always loaded with spectacular women. I will sometimes write there and bring my Emmy."

Genius, sir. Pure genius.

As for me, I usually write in the tub with a glass of Chardonnay and a set of ovaries.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a laptop. So it's at home for me. Sometimes I'll jot stuff down on a napkin or in my phone if I come up with something when out and about.

I'm one of those P.O.C. writers, to tell the truth. However, I'm also a compulsive proofreader and I go back and change and tweak things a TON.

The Starbuckses(?) here in ATL have a ton of Apple laptop people, but they're all doing journalism, schoolwork, or real estate stuff. Not too many fiction writers.

Anonymous said...

That last post is actually me, and it is obviously very important that people know this. I somehow forgot to put my name in. As I said, I make many revisions.

JoeBlogs said...

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Name :
Age :
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Philosophy :

Sum up what your blog is about.
Why are you doing your blog?
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What is your writing style?
What do people commonly say about your site?
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing your blog?
Why should someone visit your site?
What did you learn from your first love?
Are there any blogs, you enjoy reading?
As an incredibly successful comedy writer, do you laugh at your own jokes?
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How much time do you commit to writing in a week?
Tell us about a good deed you have done recently.
Tell us a random funny story that comes to mind.
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What’s the most incredible thing that ever happened to you?
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(please include any picture at all that you want to add to the interview)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ken: Did it ever happen that while you and David were wearing your priest collars at Coffee Bean someone came up to you, knelt down and confessed: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned... I wrote POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL?"....

Anonymous said...

Nordstom's cafe. Starbucks is way too crowded and noisy. I like it because I can order what I want and go sit in a corner booth to write & not be bothered the whole time. It's an odd choice but it works for me.

Anonymous said...

I worked as Ken Levine's assistant for two years, and he only hit me once.

Allen Lulu said...

I still write by hand, in pencil, in notebooks. Depends on where I am in the city but, usually a coffee shop for the first drafts. Then the laptop comes out to enter the text. Then it gets printed and brought to either Swingers or Home Cafe or another coffee shop, re-written and re-entered.
Oh, this is not a script. These are individual chapters.
Only one a day, and only 2 or 3 days a week.

Anonymous said...

I tried to write at my office in assistant land for a while. Sadly, stopping every three to five minutes to answer the phone "John Smith's office" in my bestest sing-song turned out to be a hindrence to my work. P.O.C indeed. So now I hide in my hovel on the weekends clickity clacking away. It's cozy, quiet and the coffee is freeeeeee.

Anonymous said...

Where did you get that picture? That starbucks is in San Francisco and up here people mostly write code and found startups in coffee shops - although typically starbucks isn't cool enough for that (well, and because the wifi costs money).

The Curmudgeon said...

Dear Mr. Levine -- I've awarded you a "Thinking Blogger" award. You'll not be able to carry it into the Coffee Bean near UCLA... or, at least if you did, no one would notice, so what's the point?

See my post about it this morning. Not that you would -- but it would be interesting to see what you'd do with this meme disguised as an award.

Fox Cutter said...

I've put in many hours at Starbucks here in Seattle, and many more at Tully's (better coffee). I'm not writing scrips yet, just short stories and novels, and I found in about two hours I can get out 2,000 to 2,5000 words (some times 3k to 4k if I'm really going).

I don't mind all that much working at a coffee shop, there wasn't a lot of others there and a good amount of plugs. I also brought headphones and would usualy watch a movie as I was writing (still do). It worked out well.

Of course I've now moved into my kitchen, but with the same setup (sans whip cream). Just by being on my laptop is enough to remove quite a few distractions.

Dan Kelley said...

I actually do pretty good writing my blog at a local pub. Any facts or research I need for my posts are via free wireless...

Naturally, this means (sometimes) proof reading one's work later before hitting "publish"...

Murph said...

Leave the house? That's a great idea! Genius, Levine! Sheer genius! Look out, Panda Express!

Soyeun said...

Where did you get that picture from--it is of my husband and off of my private website. Please give us credit--Soyeun Choi for the picture and Tommy Hui for being in it--or remove it since it we have not allowed your use and besides, it's not his laptop and he's not writing.

(Although it is at a SF Starbucks and yes, otherwise, he'd be programming.)

Oh. It's Kristen Again. *sigh* said...

Starbucks coffee is ass. There are no Dunkin' Donuts in L.A., which I find to be a tragic flaw.

Anonymous said...

Schoi, he probably got it off of Google Image Search, which means it's readily available to anyone and everyone. I'm going to assume the file name for the picture has "Starbucks" in it? Might wanna change that before you decide to get anal about it.

daphmax said...


Just was about to say that since I've relocated to LA from Boston (2 weeks and counting) I've been craving the DD. But Kristen beat me to it.

Starbucks and CB&TL just aren't the same ...

If this screenwriting thing don't work out, clearly my mission will be to open a Dunkin franchise out here ... all the Massholes could hang out. :)

Anonymous said...

I never realized how narrowly I avoided making making a tragic career mistake.

I earned an invaluable Radio/TV/Film degree in college with the thought of pursuing a writing career. However, once I was out in the real world I quickly realized I had neither the passion or talent to actually write screen or teleplays.

Little did I know at the time I never stood a chance because I absolutely hate the taste of coffee and would have never been able to find a suitable place to get any work done.

Lucky for me I found another profession that doesn't require drinking coffee, a simple commitment to drinking 10 cans of Coke a day is sufficient.

I do occasionally sneak into Starbucks and order a hot chocolate just to see what all of the fuss is about. But, I still feel like an outcast because I don't get to list a litany of coffee specifications required in order to brew up the perfect cup of java for me.

Anonymous said...

I have to say as somebody who writes at Starbucks every morning I do it less out of showing people that I am a writer (take that Family Guy) and more out of necessity.

I have no overhead deal so my choices are home (free streaming porn via my neighbors wireless signal) or Starbucks (pay 19.95 for a T-Mobile wireless hook up and look over my shoulder nervously every time I search youtube for 'Boobs, springbreak, barnyard animals) If I had another place to go I really would.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the party, but I couldn't resist this quote I found today:

"Being in Los Angeles arouses the crazy-competitive-fearful side of my nature. I couldn't walk into [popular West Coast coffee chain] the Coffee Bean [and Tea Leaf] without noticing how many people had laptops with screenplays on the screen."

That's from some guy named David Koepp who wrote some little movies about angry lizards and aliens hunting Scientologists.

David said...

I only got to Dodger Stadium once - a doubleheader vs. the Reds in September 1987. Stunning park, gorgeous setting, perfect day. Lousy team.

I wonder if you were the guy who sat in my row and did the play-by-play, complete with a little kit that included scorecards, notes, etc. If that was you, you were pretty good. If it wasn't you, it was nice to have someone calling the game because I had no idea who the hell was down there.

I thought they'd won both, but they split. Thanks, Baseball Almanac!

Anonymous said...

So, my question is, has anything ever actually been finished and sold and/or produced from anything done by the Permanent Sophomore English Major Trust-Fund Babies you see playing Mr./Ms. Pretentious, "writing" in a cafe??

Trust me, folks, it didn't happen in Paris in the 20s, either, and they didn't have to worry about batteries.

Sitting around trying to write where you can be distracted is sitting around waiting to be distracted from you failure to write.

There's a reason why the rooms in the Writer's Building at Warner Brothers don't have good views.