Writing Resources

  • Is social media harming the writing community?

    Is social media harming the writing community?
    Social media is stealing your time and motivation

    Are you a writer or editor spending too much time on social media and feeling bad about it? Is it eating into your writing time, your editing time, your work hours, your free time, etc?

    Social media as slot machine

    Did you know that social media companies employ ‘attention engineers’ who use Las Vegas casino gambling techniques to keep you hooked? And all so they can make a profit at your expense.

    Dr. Cal Newport has described having social media as like having a slot machine on your phone. The companies have invested tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to keep you on their sites.

    If you look at their sites a lot, they track user minutes and it increases their stock value.

    Even something as seemingly innocent as the like button is a result of attention engineering. Let’s face it, people love getting ‘likes’ because it indicates social approval.

    And humans love social approval.

    Also, there’s a dopamine hit when you get liked, retweeted, and so on, and that can get addictive.

    Social media is designed to take up your attention – and as much of it as possible.

    Social media steals your life, motivations, and goals

    But what are you giving up when you spend hours on Facebook or Twitter?

    You are losing time you can’t get back. Time you could have spent on other things.

    Like writing a book, or finishing the book you’re currently working on. Or writing more books. Or going for walks, swimming, or cycling, or you could read more books.

    And at least as importantly, you could have spent more time with your family and other loved ones.

    And if you’ve spent a very long time on social media, that time wasted can clock up to years of your life.

    What else could you have been doing with that time? Do you still read as much as you used to, or watch as many films? Do you socialise with others in the real world as much as you once did?

    Social media destroys your focus

    On top of all that, social media is not just a massive time sink, it’s also destroying your ability to focus. If you want to write, or you’re editing, you need to concentrate and immerse yourself in that project.

    However, social media has trained users to become more fragmented in their attention. Notifications break your concentration as you rush to check what’s happening online.

    You might intend to only check in for a moment or two, but even if you resist the temptation to stay longer, it will take you longer to focus again on your project.

    So, you’ve actually lost even more time.

    Is social media harming the writing community?

    I often worry about the potential harm caused to writers by online writing communities on social media. Because even if the communities have helpful information, the platforms they use are designed to be addictive.

    Like a slot machine.

    We’re told that the Twitter writing community is helpful and supportive. Yet, someone going in to ask the community a quick question might find they’re still on Twitter an hour or so later.

    That’s time lost to writing, and even if you go back to focus on your work, it’s unlikely you can just immediately concentrate again.

    So, how much are these online communities actually draining writers of time, energy, and focus?

    How much are they actually preventing you from fulfilling your writing dream?

    So, is social media harming the writing community?

    It doesn’t help that social media provides people with an immediate writing identity. You can put anything in your profile. Once you’re part of the writing community, you get validated, even when you’re posting too much to actually write. You end up with an unearned identity. Which fits with the modern tendency to want things now. Actual writing success takes a long time. Certainly, if you want to have a sustainable career, it will take years.

    But on social media, you’ll find people claiming social media is necessary for writers.

    Is it?

    It might partly come down to how much you’re able to resist the worst temptations and regulate yourself. I cover useful apps further down this post.

    However, there’s another problem, and it’s a serious one…

    Toxic politics and censorship

    The online writing community can also be dangerously political and censorious. This can lead to self-censoring for fear of being attacked, which can tie your creativity up in knots. There’s far too much herding going on.

    Some writers also use their followers to attack rivals and to bombard reviewing sites with negative reviews. This is reputation destruction, and it’s usually presented as righteous and virtuous.

    But that’s how censors saw themselves in both left-wing and right-wing totalitarian regimes and theocracies. There were a lot of politically captured artists, writers, filmmakers, editors, and academics in these regimes. They used the prevailing ideology to climb the greasy pole. They took out rivals. Sometimes rivals were actually sent to the gulag or killed.

    Social media encourages censorship and extremist ideologies.

    Additionally, the algorithms thrive on conflict. But if you can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas without silencing rivals, there’s something wrong with your ideology.

    Minority writers living in fear

    And if you’re a minority writer who is now afraid to write fiction based on your own group, because your group is heavily policed by an arrogant and self-appointed activist class, social media is the last place you should be.

    I’m seeing minority writers genuinely afraid of these online tyrants. The so-called ‘allies’ (who belong to the traditional oppressor groups) drown out the voices of ordinary members of minorities – and this is by design. We can’t have minorities thinking for themselves or just being individuals.

    If you’re a writer or any kind of artist or thinker, you can’t let these people get inside your head and block your work.

    If you’re a member of a minority or other historically oppressed group – you are not a member of a Borg-like collective, and you are not obliged to write according to the expectations of a grifting middle-class activist class.

    The definition of freedom for minorities should include the definition to be yourself and not a footsoldier for the left, the right, or anyone else.

    I see a lot of fear in the online writing community – fear of the bullies currently running riot. I see fear in publishing because activists have got themselves into positions of power – deliberately too because this is how ideologues capture organisations. Writers have been cancelled while rivals gloat and industry professionals celebrate on the likes of Twitter.

    The more time you spend on social media, the more you’re likely to have these toxic activist voices in your head. They will block your ability to produce your best work. They will prevent you from writing your own truth.

    And meanwhile, you are likely anxious about what you post – going back to see if you’ve offended some complete stranger from thousands of miles away. This is another reason why people often break what they’re doing in the real world to check social media. And this leads to anxiety and being trapped on a neverending hamster wheel of social media posting and reading.

    Is Twitter worth it?

    I’ve blogged before on apps that are useful to help concentration and focus. But while social media’s attention engineering is hugely immoral, even impacting the human brain, the political aspect adds to the toxic mix. To be honest, I’m not sure a social media presence is all that worth it.

    I recently temporarily deleted my Twitter account. And I have to say, I didn’t miss it. I used to temp delete previous accounts every so often, until I wondered why I bothered reactivating them. I was no longer getting anything out of them.

    Twitter is particularly poor when it comes to engagement. The advice is to engage with other people’s posts – but this then circles back to the problem of how much time you’re willing to spend there.

    And even if you are getting engagement as a writer, is it delivering on sales or boosting your readership? Or is your readership primarily other writers who buy your book in exchange for you buying theirs?

    That sale might give you a dopamine hit, but how does too much social media actually help you grow readers who are not also writers?

    Useful apps that give you back control

    It’s not even that you necessarily have to give up social media completely. There may be platforms you find less time-consuming and also less stressful. You can also use apps to control your access.

    I recently looked at more apps I hadn’t tried before. I find some of them extremely useful.

    The most useful of all is a straight-out social media blocker like Cold Turkey which has both a free and a paid option. I’ve used the free one for years and it’s definitely worthwhile. There are others like Forest, which allows you to grow a virtual tree as an incentive to focus.

    There’s also Delayed Gratification. This allows you to customise a list of sites where you can set up a 10-second or 20-second delay before you can access them. So, with Twitter, you could give yourself a 20-second delay that prevents you from immediately getting into the site. When you make things harder for yourself, it helps to break the habit.

    There’s also UnDistracted which allows you to control your use of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Netflix. There is the option to block each of these sites, but you can also control whether you see the feed, the trending topics, recommended videos or followers, etc. With YouTube, you can force-direct to your subscriptions. Add in removal of the sidebar and recommended videos and you have fewer juicy videos to keep you distracted.

    There’s also Insight by Freedom which allows you to track your time on various sites. The bar graphs might truly shock you when you check where you’ve been spending time. Freedom also has a social media blocker, but it’s not free, apart from the trial. Insight by Freedom is free on the Google Play Store as a Chrome extension.

    There are many more useful apps. If you need to break your work time down into more manageable segments, you can use a Pomodoro timer.

    Will I reinstate Twitter?

    I was really in two minds about this. I felt better without it. I considered reinstating briefly and then temp deleting again since you only have up to 30 days before your account is gone forever.

    I’ve often had my account locked to exercise control – I prefer using Twitter as a personal space rather than a town square.

    But the noise of the town square is always there on my feed.

    In the end, I decided to reinstate Twitter (reluctantly) and use the apps above and a blocker. I use these blockers for hours, days, or even weeks. Cold Turkey can’t be switched off. So, I have to be careful which sites I decide to block.

    Unlike a lot of people, I don’t bother with social media on my phone. It’s only on my desktop that I have access. Mobile phones are a huge distraction for many people. Switch them off, remove social media from them, or put them in another room when you’re working.

    Since I temp deleted Twitter I have read a bunch of books, spent more time in the garden, and bought myself a swimming costume.

    However, I wanted to warn of one danger in blocking or deleting your worst sites – you will be tempted to scroll others instead. The real challenge is to take a step back from all scrolling and sites and start living more in the real world. And get more writing done too.

    If you want to know more…

    There are a lot of interesting videos on YouTube on the subject of ‘Why I quit social media‘.

    Of course, being on YouTube means scrolling yet another site!

    But you’ll see what people have to say about quitting for months or even a year or more. How their lives changed.

    You’ll also see, particularly in the comments below, that many people who quit FB, Twitter, and Instagram choose to stay on YouTube, even though it too is designed to be addictive.

    All I can say is, beware of YouTube. It’s another rabbit hole. I think it has a lot of amazing content, which is why so many people justify still using it. But it’s best to use it in a controlled fashion. I find it useful to access YouTube via my TV because then I treat it as an alternative to real television (which I have little to no interest in).

    I also recommend checking out any talks Dr. Cal Newport gives on social media addiction. There are also whistleblowers from social media companies who have spoken out about the problems.

    Otherwise, I have some openings in my developmental editing calendar. You can opt for an opening chapters edit, a manuscript critique, an advanced beta critique, or a full developmental edit.

    You can check my editing services page.

    More posts from the blog

    Pressing the reset button

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Social media blockers

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Historical fiction as a time machine - Vanderbilt mansion, Fifth Avenue, 1910
    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • How to establish a writing routine


    How to establish a writing routine

    While some writers can finish a book in a fast sprint, for most of us it’s more of a marathon. A writing project can take months or even years to complete, requiring commitment, freedom from distraction, and, hopefully, a writing routine. It also helps if you can build up confidence and self-belief, not to mention setting reasonable goals. Self-sabotage is all too easy.

    First and foremost, before we even look at writing standards or quality, it’s necessary to talk about establishing a regular writing routine. Because this is how you build up writing stamina. Without that, finishing any longer work is going to be difficult. Certainly in the shorter term.

     

    Establishing a writing routine

    When you first start writing, it’s a bit like taking up exercise or learning to play a musical instrument. You need to keep at it. You need to establish a routine. And the reason is somewhat more complex than it first appears.

    First and foremost, there’s a neurological reason why you need to practice. It’s to do with neural pathways. Firing cells become more and more efficient over time. And it’s the reason why you have to concentrate more while learning a new skill – but at a later point, you can do it almost without thinking. In fact, once you have mastered a skill, the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering take over. This is the point where you are ‘in the zone’. Musicians, athletes, and others experience this.

    So, if you want to establish a writing routine, you need to work at it. But research also shows that building up a skill slowly works best. The ability to correct yourself when making a mistake, thereby refining your skills, is better achieved that way.

    Additionally, sleep plays an important part in strengthening the new pathways, with reverse firing or signaling during sleep. It’s therefore important to get a good sleep when you’re learning a new skill.

     

    Setting goals and boundaries

    Establishing a regular writing routine means a number of things. Firstly, you have to find time in your day and set aside all other tasks. Even the tasks other people think are more important. This could be housework, working in the garden, cooking, DIY, or just generally being at the beck and call of others.

    You have to make it clear that your writing time is yours. It’s quite possible, even likely, that you won’t have a lot of support for this. And if you are apologetic about wanting writing time, other people are less likely to take you seriously. You need to be clear about how important writing is to you. Then try negotiating time in a way that also supports the interests of those around you. Aim for some give and take.

     

    Start low. Aim high

    There’s no point telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words a day from the start, or even 500 words a day. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to write higher word counts early on when they’re still in the honeymoon period of writing on a regular basis. You’re fired up, eager, and you might write more than you expect.

    The trouble, though, is this period is unlikely to last.

    One technique for establishing a very long-term writing habit that worked for me came from two pages in a large ring-binder diary. These two pages had a calendar for the entire year. Six months on one page, six on the other. Three months on the top half of the page, three on the bottom. With the days of each month listed by name and date, and a brief line space next to each.

    So, I tried an experiment. Towards the end of that January, which is when I happened to start the trial, I recorded daily word counts in these short line spaces. I also noted editing, rewrite word counts, and general note-taking word counts.

    Then, I counted up the total word count for each month, each quarter, each half-year, and finally the entire year. The overall trajectory was upwards.

    I started in the honeymoon period, felt like I was getting the habit of daily writing. Then, at some point, it became a nuisance. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do that day. Maybe I didn’t have the time, etc, etc.

    But I knew I had to push through this phase. It was an interesting experience. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t something I did when I was in the mood. I was forcing myself to do it.

    This could mean writing less some days, but since I included small word counts as being just as legitimate, I didn’t become demoralised. In fact, I came to understand that the amount of time spent telling myself I didn’t have the time, was potential writing time! Maybe 30-100 words or more of writing time.

    And writing time included rewriting and making notes. Which also made things easier, not to mention more realistic. Because this is where most writing work takes place – the planning stage, the research, the editing and rewriting.

    Eventually, I broke through that “this is just annoying now” phase of having to write daily. On the other side lay the absolute need to write daily. I was no longer pushing myself. It came naturally. The day was incomplete without some writing.

    By the end of the first year, I had written around 120,000 in just over eleven months. In another couple of years, it was beyond 250,000 and continued to rise. Larger word counts came more easily as time went on. I think that makes sense. The process becomes more efficient.

    I also think aiming too high too early is a form of self-sabotage. If you don’t reach your goal, you feel like a failure, and you quit.

    But you’re not a failure. You just needed to set more reasonable goals.

    Go easy on light writing days. And when you have an established writing routine, it’s easier to skip a day or two without losing your momentum. It’s much easier to lose your momentum early on.

    To reiterate:

    • Establishing a writing routine is the number one priority
    • That means it doesn’t matter how much you write in any one day
    • This is because establishing a habit is harder than knocking off 1000 words every now and then
    • Establishing a habit means not slacking off on busy days – 30 words will do
    • Accepting that 30 words or 100 words is “good enough” takes away unreasonable expectations
    • Counting up the total word count at the end of each month allows you to see the bigger picture
    • Counting up the quarters, the half-year and the total annual count also means those smaller word counts contribute to the bigger picture
    • It’s also important to note down editing, rewriting or research activities

     

    Avoiding online distractions

    The next issue is how to find time when there are so many distractions around and the modern attention span is not what it used to be.

    I totally recommend either switching the internet off or using social media blockers. I’ve written about this in an earlier post. But to summarise, you need to identify the sites that are your biggest time wasters and block them. Or block the entire internet if necessary.

    Try something like Cold Turkey. You can set a timer. You might find yourself trying to check something online on instinct – remember those established neural pathways? It’s a difficult habit to break. So give yourself a hand with a social media blocker. Twitter or whatever will still be there when the time is up, but you’ll have some writing to show for your time offline.

    Also, don’t compete with other people when it comes to writing. Compete with yourself. That’s why the weekly/monthly/quarterly/half year/annual wordcounts are so useful. It doesn’t matter what other people in the Twitter writing community are doing. It only matters what you’re doing.

     

    Useful reading:

    Learning rewires the brain: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain

    Also recommended – Myelin Facilitation of Whole Brain Neuroplasticity: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/myelin-facilitation-of-whole-brain-neuroplasticity

  • Avoid this location issue in your novel

    Avoid this location issue in your novel

    In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.

    One example is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.

    It’s a hugely ambitious novel and can sweep the reader up for days on end. However, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)

    Rice really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.

    But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.

    Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.

     

    A tale of three cities

    This second published author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

    The European capital was strangely lacking in detail compared to the other two. It felt like this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since street lights exist, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

    It felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.

    Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar settings in the same novel, it’s best to avoid this location issue. Therefore, you need to ensure your locations are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means research.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book.

    But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

    Research, research, research

    In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something about the daily life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

    I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there.

    Of course, in a lot of novels, location is less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar settings, try not to leave your reader feeling that one is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.