writing

  • Does your desk look like a bombsite?

    Does your desk look like a bombsite?
    Does your desk look like a bombsite?

    Hey, editors and/or writers! Does your desk look like a bombsite? Welcome to my life. The situation is so bad, I’m not even going to cough up photographic evidence. You’re just going to have to take my word for it. And my word on this is gospel.

    There are papers all over the place, a style guide, a dictionary, some DVDs that have somehow migrated over here, a graphics tablet, notebooks, pens, a lamp.

    I was pondering this situation today when looking at my desk from a distance (from the warmth of the radiator across the room) and remembering a piece of advice from other editors. Get a second monitor.

    A-ha! Edit the manuscript on one monitor and use the other to look stuff up.

    A second monitor on my desk would:

    • Make the mess even worse
    • Block most of the lower window (though it’s a tall window)
    • Push a decorative lamp to the floor (appropriately a woman reading a book)

    But… but… the second monitor wouldn’t be a TV screen I roped in years ago when I first got my PC. A temporary measure that’s been going on for three years now. The second monitor would have a built-in camera, and I could finally attend the zoom conferences I always have an excuse to get out of. (Well, I could probably use my phone, but I prefer to ignore that option.)

    If I bought the second monitor, I could attend interactive webinars and stuff. But then I’d have to show my face and I hate cameras. I suppose I could wear one of the three cloth masks currently sitting among the clutter. One is floral, one tartan, and the other has a paisley pattern.

    So, for the time being I am not buying a second monitor, but I am thinking about it. Because sooner or later, I’ll have to replace the TV. (I don’t actually watch TV, which is why it was better off as a monitor.) I will also have to tidy up this desk. And I will no doubt choose the very right moment to do it – a moment when I should be doing something else. And then I will decide that since I’m tidying the desk, I might as well tidy the whole bloody room. (I realise this is what a normal person would do anyway.)

    I do tidy my desk periodically. It’s just that it seems to be a breeding ground for papers and books and notepads. Before I know it, stuff is piling up again. It seems to happen all by itself.

    Truthfully, I don’t need a second monitor for developmental editing. I am an Olympic Gold Medalist when it comes to keeping multiple windows open and flipping back and forth. I suppose it would save time for copyediting or proofreading, but while I look stuff up, I don’t have to do it quite as often.

    Anyway, I think there’s something to be said for creative chaos. When I’m in heavy writing periods, my writing space also looks a mess. I’m slightly suspicious of tidy writers and tidy editors. It’s almost as if they have a character defect. A screw loose.

    It’s not natural or healthy for writers to be tidy. I remember one of my editing courses in the past saying something about the importance of a tidy workspace. Clearly, it never made any impact on me.

    I am unrepentant. But you’re still not getting the photos. I shall now return to pondering my artfully arranged mess and wondering whether sorting it out means a few hours off what I should be doing. There’s always a bright side to everything.

  • Don’t take too long to start your novel

    Don't take too long to start your novel.
    Don’t take too long to start your novel

    So, you have a story you want to tell. You’ve been thinking about it for years. It would make a perfect novel. When you finally get round to putting it down on paper, you’ll know exactly what the characters are like, you’ll know how they interact, and you’ll already know how it ends.

    All that’s required is the time needed to sit down and write it. Plus motivation and lack of distractions.

    But is your novel really as well planned as you think? Are you sure you understand your characters, let alone how they interact with one another? Is that ending really credible? Have you ever thought about the structure of your story? Do you understand how story structure works? If you’ve never written a story, let alone a novel, you’re already in trouble.

    When you finally write your story, you might force your characters to do exactly what you’ve imagined all those years, forgetting that characters on the page must be organic. They must be natural and credible and as close to real people as it’s possible to get. If you turn them into puppets, performing at your will, readers will know, and they will lose interest.

    And those plot twists might not work out the way you thought. Perhaps they happen too early, or too late. And when you finally show your story to others, the ending doesn’t work at all. But if you’ve spent years imagining all the details in your head, the danger is you’re so attached to your unwritten ideal of a novel that you won’t make any compromises.

    The characters, the locations, and the plot must be just so. It’s what you’ve planned. You thought it out. You thought about it on your way to work, soaking in the bath, or lying in bed at night.

    And when you finally write your story, then show it to others, you might resist the best of advice.

    Because you have an ideal story in your head, which is ideal to you, which plays out like a film, except that you don’t really understand how films are structured either.

    Don’t take too long to start your novel

    It’s best not to spend too much time thinking about your story. The longer you leave it, the harder it can be to make the sacrifices necessary to bring it into the world in a decent shape.

    If you insist that the ending must be so because that’s what you planned all those years ago, you’ve already lost. Endings should be a natural consequence of the plot and characterisation, the final domino falling into place.

    With novels, things rarely go to plan. Those characters you thought would get on, only do so because you force them to. It’s perfectly clear to any reader that they’re incompatible and their relationship makes no sense.

    The ending comes out of the blue because you didn’t want your readers to guess the twist, and you never learned about foreshadowing. Meanwhile, your poor beta readers think the twist makes no sense.

    There’s no point creating the perfect novel in your head, that book you’ll write one day… you know, that day when you finally have the time. The longer you put it off, the harder it’s going to be. And that little ego voice that says you don’t need to learn about characterisation, structure, foreshadowing and so on… that little voice is not your friend.

    It’s time to bite the bullet. By all means start plotting it out on paper. Write up character studies. But don’t run the risk of spending too much time plotting on paper or your enthusiasm will be spent before you write a first draft.

    Don’t spend years dreaming about your novel. Don’t become so attached to all those characters and plans that you sabotage a good idea because you let it set in stone. And don’t spend too long plotting it out on paper. Learn your craft, be prepared for your characters to surprise you, and don’t count on that ending working. Always be open to new ideas, new characters, and new twists. Your novel should be an adventure for you as much as the reader.

    Don’t take too long to start your novel. Stop dreaming and start writing.

    Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? I’m a fully trained member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Check out my services page.

  • Location sketches – The French Chateau

    The French Chateau

    When you’re researching a novel location, and trying to familiarise yourself with your setting, immerse yourself in imagery/photos as well as textual information. Then try and do some location word sketches. Set time aside for this, dig deep into your location, write as much detail as you like, and keep it all in a file. Don’t write it directly into your novel. Just dip into the file when you need to flesh out your setting more.

    I tried this myself for a story set in a chateau. I came up with these random thoughts after reading The French Chateau by Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery and Jean-Bernard Naudin, Thames & Hudson.

    So many panelled walls, some painted grey-blue, some stencilled, or decorated with rich wallpapers. Centuries-old paintings hang in gilt frames, fading tapestries depict country pursuits, and baroque clocks sit on ornate mantelpieces. French windows stand open, revealing the lush green foliage of the park beyond.

    In the bedrooms are richly dressed testers, or beautiful ottoman beds in alcoves behind damask drapes. Sometimes the fabric is faded with age, other times it’s vibrant, full of colour. The bed linen is crisp and white, embroidered, and the flowered counterpanes are pale yellow or blue, or a rich red damask.

    In the linen room, huge presses are thrown open to reveal shelves of neatly folded fabric. On a large table, napkins are tied in bundles with pink ribbon.

    One inhabitant of a chateau remembers the linen room of his childhood, the “damp, steamy, oddly fragrant odour” and the “dance of the flat irons which the women stood right on the glowing coals in the hearth, then snatched up and held near their cheek to test the temperature.”

    On Saturdays, the linen was changed, and the same day, a clockmaker came to wind up all the clocks in the house. “Tracing a circle on the dial with his finger to start the hands moving, he would then set the pendulum swinging steadily, then the chimes which seemed to mark the breathing of time. He brought life back into the rooms as he passed through them….”

    On the dining room table there’s Venetian glass, silver gilt cutlery, and Sèvres porcelain plates, and there’s memories too of the great dinners of past years: “Cream soup, fish, a variety of poultry – turkey, guinea-fowl or chicken – followed by roasts with vegetables, then well-chosen sweets… The wines, chilled or at perfect room temperature, were served by the butler, who murmured the name and year of the vintage to each guest….”

    In the wine cellars bottles are covered in cobwebs, yellow labels peeling at the corners. In the grounds, statues rise up among the greenery, and topiary animals populate a garden zoo. Ornamental lakes reflect the stone and brick of a French Renaissance house, and water spouts from the mouth of a stone dolphin. At night, the chateau is lit up, golden in the darkness, chandeliers glittering through the windows. And in winter, while the Christmas preparations are underway, snow lies like icing sugar across the lawns, hedges, balustrades, and stone staircases.

    And everywhere in the house, in every room, flowers from the garden, fresh or dried, elaborately arranged on mantelpieces and tables. And walking sticks and shooting sticks stand in a corner of a hallway, and the library is stocked from floor to ceiling and the fire crackles in the hearth, and a labrador lies sleeping on the stairs, and the clocks tick on, tick on, down the years….

    Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? Check out my services page.

  • Social media blockers

    Social media blockers
    Social media blockers are a godsend for writers

    Social Media Blockers Provide a Quiet Room

    Spending too much time on Twitter or other social media? Checking the #writingcommunity and #amwriting threads there far too often? Come on, be honest!

    This is pretty much the modern equivalent of tidying your desk or playing with your pencils. If you really want to maximise your writing time, you need to get tough. You need a social media blocker.

    I know, I know … you have this really good reason to be on Twitter. You have this writing or plot problem and if you just put out a tweet about it, maybe someone will answer. A blocker would totally interfere with that.

    So, there you are on Twitter, or FB, or wherever you hang out, and while you’re waiting, a million other fascinating tweets/posts will appear. Before you know it, a couple of hours or more have gone by, and you’re running out of writing time.

    Another problem is that social media just fractures your concentration. The internet throws so much information at us, and for so long, that our attention spans have diminished. We’re chasing one shiny new piece of information or entertainment after another.

    Sometimes you just have to get tough. One way to do that is to use a social media blocker …

    Protect your writing time by using social media blockers.

    I use the free version of Cold Turkey, though there are others available.

    On Cold Turkey, you can make up custom lists of sites you want to block. My two worst time wasters are Twitter and YouTube, so I have that as my A-List. My B-list is just Twitter. So, um, Twitter is definitely my downfall, with YouTube a close second.

    For other people, it’s Facebook, Instagram, or some other place. It’s always worthwhile checking your browsing history to see just how long you spend on certain sites, going from one page to another.

    Virginia Woolf talked about the necessity of having a room of one’s own to write fiction. But the internet gives us a neverending window of passing traffic, entertainment and noise. It removes that quiet room needed to get some writing done.

    And that’s why it’s worth using a site blocker. Cold Turkey comes with a timer, and you have the option to add in a break time.

    There are other alternatives – including a number of Chrome add-ons. Pause, for example, literally pauses your access to a site by showing a calming green screen for five seconds (or longer, if you want to adjust the timer). You are encouraged to reflect on whether you really want to continue to the site or not. This add-on is produced by Freedom Labs and you’ll find it in the Chrome web store.

    Then there’s the ingenious Forest, which encourages you to ‘plant virtual trees’ instead of visiting your usual internet haunts. It’s more of a nudge app than a blocker. So if you don’t mind your trees dying when you leave the app, then you need something stronger. Forest works on iOs, Android and Chrome.

    Other blockers and nudgers are available, some free, some with paid options. For now, I’m happy with the free version of Cold Turkey.

    Personally, I find it a bit of a relief to have the block on. And if you really do have questions you want to ask others in the writing community, you can always jot them down and ask them when the timer is up. Social media will still be there.