writing: the virtual environment

I run a proudly Microsoft-free and Mac-free household. No Windows, no iThings. I admire some of the design of the various iThings, but their "intuitive" interface drives me crazy. Whenever someone hands me a Mac product to use, they always have this gleam in their eye, because if they know me well enough to lend it to me they know that I work in software development and they know I'm a freak about user interfaces. They're always disappointed when I can't figure out how to work the damn thing half the time.

So instead my (Dell) laptop runs Ubuntu, which is a flavour of Linux. My phone also runs Linux, but that's not so unusual in phones — both Android and iOS are Linux flavours. More on how I use the phone to write in another post.

Linux has got a bad rap over the years for just being a nerd toy. Sure, it started out like that.... but then again, Steve Wozniak's first PC was an Altair, and look where he took things. I'd argue that Linux is actually more user-friendly now than the Big Two operating systems.

Plus it's free (at least the home & small office versions), so there's far fewer licence agreements, security keys, and other DRM crap to deal with. Ubuntu in particular installs all the common applications most users will need at the same time it installs itself, so you can spend half an hour installing it and then settle down to your word processor and spreadsheet immediately afterwards. And because Linux software developers know they're developing for a world where most computers don't run Linux, they tend to include features (like file converters) that let Linux users interact with the rest of the world, even if the rest of the world doesn't know it's interacting with Linux users.

So, this is what my virtual writing environment looks like:

Not a whole lot of clutter. To the left is a (hidden) toolbar which launches all the applications I use regularly. At the top are Tomboy notes, the mail/chat/Twitter menu, Bluetooth, wireless, sounds volume, calendar, and screen lock/logout. If I wanted to, I could save files to the desktop, but I try not to want to.

One thing Linux tends to have standard that other operating systems tend not to have is an extended desktop. I have mine set up to the Ubuntu standard four panes. This means I can set up application windows in logical groups on each of the four panes and flip between them as necessary. If you use more than one monitor, the pane will include the extra real estate on the monitor.

For writing, this is wonderful because you can open all your virtual Post-It notes in Tomboy on one pane and your word processor on another pane, and flip between them. If you want to change the arrangement, you can switch to the all-panes view and drag and drop the windows to where you want them, or use the window menu to change which pane a window shows up on.

The screen shot below also shows the left-hand toolbar that I usually keep on auto-hide (although you don't need to).



There's been a lot of talk lately about getting off the Net while you're trying to write. Ubuntu has an application (yes, a free one) called FocusWriter that blocks out your entire screen, including its own toolbar. All you see is what you're writing and whatever theme you've chosen for the background. If you mouse over the toolbar or status bar, you can check your word count or alter your formatting. I use it for Friday Flash and Tuesday Serial pieces a lot because it converts well to Blogger, but for longer works I just go straight to the Libre Office word processor.

It's comfy, it's simple, it's free, and it's easy to install. It also comes with all the basic tools a writer would want to use right away: a word processor, a note-maker, Twitter and e-mail connectivity. (Yeah, we're not supposed to want Twitter and e-mail connectivity, but let's face it, we do, especially for the communities I mentioned above.)

Somehow this wound up being a long post again. Next post about environments, I'll show how I use Tomboy Notes to keep longer works straight.

writing: the physical environment

Over the years I've read a lot of articles about where writers physically write. Alice P. Sheldon had three different desks: one for her non-fiction, one for her SF fiction written under the name James Tiptree Jr., and one for everything else. Ernest Hemingway had a standing desk. Stephen King has a large room with a skylight. And so on.

I went deskless in 2008. At the time it was to save space in my apartment, but now I have another reason: due to an injury caused by a hit-and-run drunk-driver accident three years ago, my upper back can only take so many hours a day of holding my head up. I can make it through the day job all right, but I'm better off in a semi-sitting position once I get home. I'm writing this with my head and back propped up on some giant pillows I sewed, and the laptop on my lap (or what would be my lap if I were sitting upright). Here's a photo of my usual spot at home, with the computer added in to show the entire physical environment.

Sometimes I go to a café or the local library for a change of scene, but typically that's only on long weekends or vacation time.

One thing I don't do, and stopped doing as soon as I got my first laptop, is write longhand. I have report cards going back to Grade 3 proving my handwriting has always been terrible, and I'm tired of apologising for it — especially since I've been proficient at touch typing since I was thirteen. It's just as well now that I have the spine issues, because typing is one thing I can do quite comfortably in this position.

The one thing desks are wonderful for is spreading out lots of pieces of paper and marking them up. This activity certainly has its merits, but from what I've been reading in the blogspace, it seems like more and more people are doing their editing onscreen these days than previously. Tony Noland's posts about using yWriter are illuminating on the subject (although it sounds like he edits from printouts too). So was E.D. Johnson's recent Friday Flash .org post about writing on a mobile device.

Everyone needs to find their own writing space, of course. I'm just offering mine up as an example because I've read too many advice articles saying that writers need a special room (when I live alone?) or a special desk setup (in this apartment? not going to happen).

Stay comfortable.

writing thoughts: sleep

I try to keep a civil tongue about most writing advice I disagree with. That is, I try not to say anything about it at all. There's one piece of advice I've decided to speak up about, though, and that's because it is possibly hazardous to your health.

That's the one about getting up one or two hours earlier than you usually do to write.

Now, if you usually clock eight or nine hours of sleep a day, enjoy regular relaxing evenings filled with family time and light chores (do the dishes, take out the garbage), then getting up an hour, or even a couple of hours early on weekdays is probably fine. I say "probably" because I'm only speaking from experience, not as a medical expert.

However, if you are not someone who usually gets that much sleep and/or has low-stress evenings, you might want to do a web search on the effects of chronic sleep deprivation first.

Sleep deprivation became a special interest of mine after I spent most of my twenties living on between three and five hours of sleep a night. Maybe I'd get six or seven on a random weekend night, but usually not. If you want to compare symptoms with that list of articles I linked to, I got to the point where:
  •  My craving for carbohydrates was insatiable — I'd eat a (large) lunch and if someone else was having a sandwich or a cake or something, I'd sit there and stare at them eating it, even if I was so full my stomach hurt.
  • I had to write down everything, because my memory was completely shot. Not only could I not remember what I needed to get at the grocery store, I'd get halfway down the street and not be able to remember which shop I was supposed to be going to. I had a calendar-style pocket diary in which I wrote down everything. Otherwise, I simply couldn't cope.
  • I was cold all the time.
  • My immune system worked at a sort of "bare minimum" level  — I always had minor infections that would get better or worse, but never go away entirely.
  • I had a tendency to repeat myself a lot, mostly because I couldn't keep good track of what I was saying.
  • Towards the end of the eight-year period I was going through this, I had a lot of visual and auditory hallucinations. At one point I was afraid to vacuum the lower-level stairwell in my apartment because of the "ghosts".
There's more, but you get the idea. At the time, even though I was always complaining about lack of sleep, people put it down to job stress, having too much of an imagination (!), and "aging". The symptoms started interfering with my life when I was about twenty-four, and someone overhearing me telling a friend about it interrupted and said, "Guess you're getting older, eh?". I was twenty-four.

And writing? It didn't happen. I still got ideas in my head, still imagined scenes, but they very rarely made it to paper. When they did, they never made any sense, and unfortunately not in the "oooh, that's so imagistic and surreal" way. Truth be told, I couldn't read very well at the time either — I had to read an entire chapter of a book at once, or else I couldn't remember where I was in the story at all.

I finally got control over my sleeping and living habits when I was a few months shy of turning thirty. That was twelve years ago, and there is still long-term health damage. I joke that my circadian rhythm runs like an experimental jazz piece. Mostly I put myself to bed and wake myself up by the clock. Mostly it works.

It doesn't take eight years for things to get bad. After just a few weeks of too little sleep (days if no sleep at all), you won't be able to write, because you won't be able to think.

Getting up early is one way to find some writing time, but there are other ways. If getting up early works for you, great, but please think twice before trumpeting to the world how wonderful it is. I've read precisely one article that admitted the "get up early" advice assumed you were already getting enough sleep.

The point is to write more and live better, not write less and live worse.

Take care of yourselves.

citizens of the dream, unite

Cary Tennis re-launched his web site last fall. As part of the re-launch, his book Citizens of the Dream was offered in electronic versions (yes, plural), and since he was smart enough to use non-proprietary formats, I bought it. (It's available in paper form too at the Cary Tennis site and in the Kindle format at Amazon.)

The book is a collection of Tennis's advice columns from Salon which deal specifically with how to be a better creative person. I read it quickly just after I bought it last November, but lately I feel like I need  to read it over again, more slowly, noting the parts that would be of particular help to me. Your own mileage may vary, but one thing I found interesting is that the most  personally useful advice often came from responses where the letter-writer's concerns didn't mirror my own at all. It was the concepts and scenarios considered in the response that got me thinking.

Tennis has a quiet, almost dreamy style of writing, much in contrast to the typical agony aunt who leads with quips and frames responses to jolt the reader (and supposedly the letter-writer). Having said that, there are a number of passages here that made me laugh out loud — like when Tennis advises someone to make themselves at home at the crossroads instead of worrying they don't know which way to turn once they get there.

There's also responses which are poignant, even sad. The passage about what it was like being a nine-year-old boy living in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis almost had me in tears.

My favourite piece of advice in the book: the suggestion that writers should have someone who checks up on them and makes sure they meet their deadlines and other writing goals. It has always seemed to me that there are too many well-intentioned people out there who are too quick to say, "There there, it's okay if you didn't work on your craft today, you're still a good person" when what the artist needs to hear is, "okay, so how can you get some work in tomorrow?".

There are loads of books out there about how to market your work and yourself, how to make pitches, how to get practical and turn your art into a business. There are also loads of books that take a self-help approach and give you tasks and methods to transform yourself and your art-making.

In my reading experience, there are far fewer books that acknowledge that there is more than one way to make art, and that a lot of the struggle with making art is trying to do so in a society that doesn't appreciate or give space to its artists as much as it should. Citizens of the Dream helps with that.

fiction from fiction

A short story of mine was accepted for publication in Descant magazine! It won't be published until Spring 2011, but it's my first publication and only my third submission, so I'm very pleased.

It's a ghost story, and it's based on a small cemetery near where I lived when I was in high school. I only ever had the guts to go in it once or twice — even in broad daylight, even though it has good sightlines and is on a major intersection, the place is creepy. The earth directly over each grave has sunk an inch or two lower than the rest of the ground, and is always of a squishy texture if the weather is above freezing, while the ground between the graves is always firm. It's a very disconcerting place to walk.

There was one headstone I vividly remembered from my high school years. It was white limestone, cut with block lettering, and dedicated to a woman who had died 1919-1920. She was the mother of several children who were all also listed on the tombstone. They had all died within months of each other.

At the time I thought it was odd that this had happened, since 1919 is relatively modern times. Then I learned about the Spanish flu pandemic and thought, "Aha! That's what happened!".

So yeah, my ghost story has to do with a farmer's graveyard and the Spanish flu pandemic.

Recently I made the drive back to Brampton to get some photos of the graveyard. Since I lived there, they've put up strip plazas both behind the graveyard and across 15 Sideroad  from it. The one behind the graveyard has a much lower elevation than the cemetery itself — there's a retaining wall about five feet high at the northern edge of the parking lot. Which means, yes, the most southerly graves are right beside a parking lot retaining wall (and some do go right to the southern edge of the cemetery)... and the tops of the coffins are slightly higher than the top of the parking lot pavement, assuming those sunken areas I mentioned earlier indicate the total amount of settling.

I lucked out with the light for the photos I took — it was about an hour before sunset. The sky was clear, so everything was washed in a warm gold colour. Take a look at the slide show below if you're interested.

The big surprise was.... my Spanish flu tombstone didn't exist. In its place (or at least, where I remember it being placed) was the red granite Campbell stone. It records a woman and two men, but as you can see from the ages, they weren't mother and children. Apparently my brain invented those. It was a good lesson about getting inspiration from real life sources — since the trip out there, I'm a lot less worried about "copying" things than I used to be.

Do you have any super-vivid memories of things that never existed (or existed, but not at all the way you remember them)?

how i found time to post this blog

Usually I hate it when someone gives time management advice, or evangelises about a time management system. Most of the ones I've come across aren't flexible enough to adapt to different work situations, involve spending as much time managing the thing as they do using it, and don't scale well.

I do even worse with the common suggestions for writing routines. Keeping a word count minimum and/or writing first thing in the morning have the opposite effect: I get so wound up about meeting the goals that I don't write at all. Deadlines can help — I've sucessfully completed NaNoWriMo more than once — but all this stuff about "goals" and "milestones" leaves me clammy.

Sure as I started out this blog post with the above paragraphs, I think I've found a method that works, at least for me. It's called the Pomodoro Technique, and it's been around for twenty years. But it's new to me, and it seems to be new to the people I've been evangelising to telling about it.

Instead of worrying about your word count, or letting the whole whatever-it-is at hand loom over you, you just concentrate on working steadily on one task, for twenty-five minutes straight, without interruption. When the twenty-five minutes are up, you take a five-minute break to do other things. Then you start the timer for twenty-five minutes again. Each twenty-five minute work period plus five-minute break is called a Pomodoro. The details of how to apply the technique are available for free from the Pomodoro web site.

Note: I have no idea how good or bad the stuff they're selling on the site is. My enthusiasm is strictly for the free book you can download. I also found a free timer for my cell phone that was made to manage Pomodoros. Apparently there are several out there for both phones and computers, although the book just recommends a regular kitchen timer.

What I like is that the technique gets rid of all the anxiety that was making me freeze up. I wrote five nights out of seven last week, and got 4,631 words completed — 369 short of the 1,000 words a day x 5 days a week I was aiming for previously (and failing miserably to obtain). I only wrote one Pomodoro per day, averaging 840 words per session. At two Pomodoros per day, someone could comfortably win NaNoWriMo writing at that rate.

Every technique has its pros and cons, of course. But if your current routine isn't working for you, Pomodoros are definitely worth trying.

kicks

I think it works like this.

Sometimes when I'm knitting in public, people will stop and say something like, "I wish I could do that, but I'd never have the patience." My standard response to this is, "a stitch only takes about .75 seconds to create — how much patience do you need?"

It's all about mindset. Sure, an average adult sweater has about 40,000 stitches in it, but if your satisfaction is at the stitch level, that means you just get a kick every .75 seconds about 40,000 times before you have to think about making something new. Talk about cheap thrills, right?

There's a another payoff level, though, and it's when you finish something. That kick can vary, depending on how difficult the execution was, how physically big the item is (very tiny and very large items have the biggest kicks), how desperately you need to finish the damn thing, and how valued it will be by the intended recipient.

A couple of Sundays ago I made this floor cushion:
Since I am nigh-phobic about machine sewing, this was a big accomplishment for me. I still pet the thing like a toddler with a new plush toy, and haven't actually placed it on the floor since I took this photo.

About a week after that I made this necklace and earring set:
It took all of a Monday evening, but I got to use construction methods I don't normally use. It felt pretty good to finish it all in one night.

Now, when I'm supposed to be working on my novel, I'm writing this blog. The blog's a nice quick hit of satisfaction — the template will make it look pretty on the web, I put two nice colourful photos in it, and I got to write something and call it done.

But it's a one-kick wonder. Once it's done, I don't get anything else out of it.

The novel, on the other hand, is sitting just shy of 20,000 words. I know by the time I finish rewrite #2 it will be real, actual novel-length. That's the plan, and although I still think it's a good plan, recently I've been frustrated because I want that "it's done! it's ready to pitch!" kick. But it's not ready for that yet, not nearly. I don't mean in a perfectionist-writer way. I mean in a gotta-finish-the-damn-story way.

In the meantime, I have to remind myself that I can get 500 decent words' worth of story-telling out in about half an hour. 500 decent words in 30 minutes is 16.67 words a minute. How much patience do I need?

if this is not an exercise, could it be a....

I'm still thinking about the act of reading, maybe because I spontaneously wrote a first draft to an illustrated children's book this week. I put all the snippets of text that are now waiting for illustrations into a numbered list for ease of reference ("the last sentence in #9 should be the first sentence in #10, don't you think?"), then ran the whole thing through a reading comprehension test to make sure I was writing for the right grade level.

It turned out I was writing at the right grade level, and it's all well and good, except... I'm not sure how all these numbers got in the way of reading.

Throughout my life I have been accused of both reading too quickly and reading too slowly, of skimming too much and of reading in too much detail. I know people who will not take a book seriously simply because it has a very low page count — or a very high one. When I tell acquaintances that I write (or knit, or bake, or sew) they always want to know what I call "baseball information": how many words do I write a day? how long does it take me to knit a pair of socks? how do I find the time to bake my own bread?

I call it "baseball information" because that sport is famous for being more statistically analysed than most others. It's also a reminder that writing, knitting, baking, sewing, and many other tasks are not baseball — they do not break down easily into statistics, and even if they did, the statistics won't tell the questioner what they want to know.

It doesn't matter how many words I write in a day. It matters whether the words, once written, are any damn good. It also matter if they are not good, but can be salvaged by editing. I find it fascinating that far more people want to know how many words I write a day than want to know how much time I spend editing them.

I have been knitting socks for almost twenty of my thirty years of knitting, and I still have no idea how long they take to make.

Since I stopped watching things as they baked in the oven when I was five, baking takes hardly any time at all.  In the case of bread, the human spends much less time working on the bread than the yeast do.

Even if I bothered to do a statistical analysis of these tasks, the numbers would not tell you: how good my writing is, why hand-made socks will always be better than mass-produced ones, how much fun it is to make bread. Numbers are certainly important —  they tell you how much yarn you need for a pair of socks and how long to bake the bread, for starters  — but they are not the whole story and were never meant to be.

Never mind how long the damn book is. It's good. The number of pages was important to the editor, the publisher, the book designer, the printer. Their only benefit to an end-user is if that end-user is a consumer, not a reader. There is a difference.

genius

I picked up a copy of You and the Pirates at the Small Press Book Fair this summer. I'm about 150 pages in and loving it, so it will probably show up in a later blog post, but for now, take a look at the book cover I bought from The Workhorsery (the publisher) at the same time:
It's cloth, it's sewn, and it has the publisher's logo silkscreened on the front. So even if you don't happen to be reading You and the Pirates or another Workhorsery publication at the time, you can still flash their logo. The cover fits a lot of the books I own, so I expect I'll be doing that a lot.

When you're not reading your book, the cover is held in place with a button and an attached piece of yarn. This keeps people who read on the subway until the last second (like me) from dog-earing their book when they jam it into their bag and run out the doors.
Here's my alarm clock propping up the book to show the built-in bookmark (and a bit of the lining fabric too).

I wish I'd bought another in the other colour they had on hand.

Back in the saddle

Last November, after three years of trying to get in the game, I participated and successfully completed my first NaNoWriMo. I admit I cheated a little — you're supposed to start a brand new novel on 1 November, and I continued work on one I had about 7,000 words done already. However, I really did finish just over 50,000 words during the month, bringing my total up to around 57,000 words.

Since then, things have been not so happening on the novel front. I've been getting short stories done regularly, and submitting, and I started these blogs, and, and, and... somehow, whenever novel-writing is involved, listing all the other accomplishments you've made, even within the same craft, just don't matter. You could have ended world hunger, created real and lasting global peace, and found a safe and inexpensive way to reverse global warming, but you know what? Your novel is still on the same chapter it was three months ago, and it's all your fault.

During my morning commute, it's too awkward to write on anything bigger than a paper notebook or my Nokia tablet (hence all the short story-writing that's getting done), but it gives me a chance to think, and what I've been thinking is that if I give myself a NaNoWriMo-style word count and deadline, I will probably be further ahead than if I just keep trying to wing it. One thing about the day job: it makes me very comfortable with project-driven work and with deadlines. Weirdly, in the past six months my most effective writing tool has been a spreadsheet.

I've decided to give myself until 30 June to get the second half of the novel done. I'm at 58,000 words or so, and I figure the first draft will come in around 120,000. That means an average of just under 1,000 words per day to keep on track. Heck, at the end of NaNoWriMo, I could run that off in an hour. I've known approximately what's going to happen for ages; I just need to bloody write it down.

1,000 words a day on average should be pretty good. It's less than NaNoWriMo, but I know that there will be other things happening (like my brother's wedding in June), so I'm bound to miss a few days and need to catch up.

There. I've told the world.

Stay tuned and watch the footer of this blog if you want to see how it goes.