23 January 2013

Keep your writing app open

There are many techniques and methodologies and goodness knows what else that claim to help you with your productivity. For writers, there is often a battle to get started, but the keeping going, that’s also tough, what with all those pesky distractions. This year, I’m trying a new approach to writing fiction and it goes against everything I’ve ever done. But it works.

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4 January 2013

#70: Writing setups and why we love them

I’m reunited with Myke for this, the first episode of the Write for Your Life podcast in 2013. We talk about writing setups, including why we like other people’s so much and what impact they have on our work. I also talk about my new writing setups series on the Write for Your Life blog and cover some of the writing apps I use. Make yourself a brew. Headphones on. Enjoy.

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1 January 2013

What to do with your unfinished manuscript in 2013

It’s a new year and everyone is making resolutions and predictions. When it comes to writing, there are three main options, especially if you’re halfway through a major project and wondering what will happen to it in the coming months.

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Quality over quantity when it comes to practising your writing

This episode came about after reading a nice article by the designer, Frank Chimero, where he talks about the need to write regularly as part of a practice routine.

I agree mostly, but I also think that quality is more important than quantity. For me, it’s about the bits inbetween periods of writing that are important. Because that’s where you get to analyse what you’ve done and make changes.

I first responded to Frank’s article over at my personal blog, Broomeshtick, which led to the wonderfully named ‘tugs’ leaving a comment that pointed me towards another article on a blog called Lynda Teaches Art. It’s about drawing, but the message is similar to mine.

Finally, another response got me pondering even more. It really is that quality of thought that helps us practise and improve as writers, and we can do that by analysing and giving feedback on the work of others, as well as our own.

So there you go – watch away and see what you think!

What this episode on Vimeo

28 September 2010

6 things you can stick in your ears to improve your writing

There are many things us writers can do to tinker with our writing environment. We can write at a different time of day or we can use a different piece of writing software. The options are endless.

But I like to stick things my ears. And I’ll tell you why.

I live in a small cottage that has exceptionally thick walls, but ludicrously thin ceilings. That means that when another person is doing something – whatever it is – you pretty much know about it.

Here’s a list of sounds that make it hard to concentrate: talking on the phone, talking to a person in real life, watching the television, watching Desperate Housewives on the television, using a sewing machine, singing while cooking.

These are all perfectly legitimate activities in one’s own home. But when you’re trying to write, the noise from elsewhere can be distracting.

So I stick things in my ears.

More than muffling

Now I know that opening gambit implies that the only reason to stick things in your ears is to shut yourself away from the world. And that’s fine. My list covers that.

But actually, there are things you can stick in your ears that can seriously improve your writing in other ways too. And for reasons you might not expect.

1. Earplugs

Pretty straightforward considering what I’ve said so far in this post. But there’s more to it than you’d think.

Earplugs cancel out sound, that much is correct. However, they also transport you to another world. The world inside your head. You can almost hear yourself think. It’s mental.

Wearing earplugs is like being underwater. You can hear the faintest of sounds in the distance, but you can’t make them out. And you don’t care what they are because you’re lost in the moment. You’re somewhere else.

And that’s good for writing. Sometimes, even if I’m on my own when I sit down to write, I still stick earplugs in my ears just to get that sensation. True story.

2. Headphones (music)

A lot of people listen to music when they are writing. They say it helps them relax and allows them to focus. Other writers say the exact opposite.

I’m somewhere inbetween. While I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write while listening to Megadeth or something else that’s suitably shouty, I’m quite capable of pumping out the words to a little Fionn Regan, Bon Iver or even The National.

If you’re not sure what you can handle, go with something ambient and instrumental, like Nightmares on Wax or Röyksopp. You can even pretend you like listening to classical music, if you like.

3. Headphones (audiobooks/podcasts)

You have to be a special kind of nutcase to be able to write effectively while listening to spoken word, but I believe it’s possible. Not by me, but certainly by some lunatics.

However, if you’re normal and can’t listen to words while writing them, you should still be listening to audiobooks and podcasts as a matter of course. Especially podcasts.

I can hugely recommend The Guardian’s range of writing-related podcasts, including the Books podcast, Front Row podcast and Digested Read. I also rather like the fiction podcast from the New Yorker. All very good.

In terms of podcasts from blogs, we have our very own right here on Write for Your Life, and I know Joanna Penn runs one on her site, The Creative Penn. Then there’s the Grammar Girl podcast too.

Writer Unboxed has some good tips if you’d like to create your own podcast.

4. Cotton Wool

You know that wonderful underwater sensation I described when i talked about sticking earplugs in your ears? Cotton wool is like that, only not quite as good.

It’s more children’s paddling pool than river glistening in the sun on a hot summer’s day. But still.

5. Your fingers

I know what you’re thinking. If you stick your fingers in your ears, you will not be able to hear the din from downstairs, but your ability to type might somewhat suffer too.

You’re absolutely right.

However, what if you didn’t need your fingers to type? What if you tried using some of this newfangled voice-to-text software that used to be absolutely useless but is now much, much better?

Then you could stick your fingers in your ears. You wouldn’t have to. But you could.

6. The sound of your own voice

You don’t have to be a complete egotistical maniac to be a good writer, but it helps.

Everyone talks about how you should read your work out loud to improve the rhythm of your writing and listen for problems. Heck, even I’ve suggested it for bloggers – although that was specifically reading to an audience.

Seriously though, how many of you actually record yourself doing it? Reading your writing, that is. It’s good to read out loud, but you’re effectively doing two things at once. Reading and listening.

Here’s a suggestion. Why not record your reading, then stick it in your ears and listen to it later? That will makes the whole process a whole lot easier, including the bit where you work out what could be improved.

What do you stick in your ears?

If you think post is a bit silly and rather tongue-in-cheek, you’re correctomundo. But the truth is, we’re hugely affected by our writing environment and it’s important that we experiment and get it spot on.

Come on, I must have missed a few things. What’s your writing environment? How do you block out the noise? What’s your favourite podcast? Let us know in the comments section below.

12 August 2010

Open your writing mind with the morning papers

Guest post by Helia Phoenix

Earlier this year, I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

The strapline for the book is “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self”, and it’s one of the best creative guides I’ve ever read (if you’re inclined to, you can buy copies of The Artist’s Way from Amazon for under a fiver – check for used copies, lots are in great condition).

I’d like to share one of the tools recommended by the book: the morning pages.

What are morning pages?

Morning pages (according to The Artist’s Way) are three pages of stream of consciousness writing that you do every morning. The intention is to clear your mind of all the annoying claptrap that buzzes around, getting in the way of your creativity.

The idea is to get it down on paper as a way of removing it from your mind. Here’s an example of the sort of rubbish that reverberates around my head on a daily basis, if it’s not shooed off with the morning pages.

Ooo! I need to: change the date the mortgage comes out/book my car to fix the bit that’s rusting off at the bottom/order more dog food/call mum/book time off for my birthday/pay in that cheque/do my accounts/book a haircut. Etc etc.

Though Cameron calls it the morning pages, it’s a practice that’s recommended in many other creativity guides, some that predate The Artist’s Way.

I did a Creative Writing Masters a few years ago and several tutors on the course recommended stream-of-consciousness journaling for at least an hour every morning before engaging in other creative work.

We need to get one thing clear though: the morning pages aren’t about journaling. Journaling implies creating a narrative, making sense of occurrences by putting them into words and threading them in words across the page.

Morning pages are intended to be jibberish. They jump from one thing to another like the random thoughts they are.

I’ve had days when I’ve been unable to think of anything to write, and just repeated the, phrase ‘I need to finish three pages / I need to finish three pages,’ until something else struck for me to write.

Morning pages include as much bitching and whining about anything and everything that you can muster. They are a useful way for you to exorcise any worries or problems before you embark on your journey through the day.

What about doing the morning pages in real life?

I’ve been doing the pages since January. It would be amazing to have the luxury of time to get up, sit around, sip a fresh ground coffee and let my consciousness fall on the page first thing in the morning, but unfortunately, I can’t function that way.

I prefer to stay in bed until the last possible second before I have to drag myself up and to work, so sometimes they get done at 8am, but sometimes at 11am, sometimes at 2pm, sometimes when I get home from work, and occasionally, just before I go to bed.

I’ve found it’s definitely better to do them in the morning if you’re planning to spend a day doing something creative, like focusing on your own creative writing.

And of course, it’s not practically possible to write them everyday. I got tonsillitis in March and was in bed for a week.

Obviously, during that time and for the recovery period, the pages weren’t top priority. I stopped doing them for about six weeks while I just concentrated on getting better.

The result? I got better – but was very, very crabby. Things got on top of me. I wanted to write, but had no ideas, no drive. For weeks. I started writing the pages again and things have been much better.

So be warned: once you start writing them, you might not be able to stop.

What if I can’t be bothered?

Athletes practice and exercise everyday. Runners might not run full marathons all the time, but they’ll certainly do stretches to prepare for those big events.

As a writer, your writing muscles need exercise too – and the more you write, the easier it will be to write good stuff – and the quicker those ‘a-ha’ moments will come.

The pages are like your stretching exercises. You may feel inspired to write them some days, and completely repulsed by writing them on other days.

Cameron says that the key is to keep writing, especially at those times when you feel least like it.

What can I expect to happen?

I can’t speak for everyone. I can only tell you what the pages have meant for me (through reading The Artist’s Way, my experience is fairly typical of the vast majority of people who work with morning pages).

I’ve emptied out my closet. I’ve overhauled my house and thrown away boxes and boxes of crap that was clogging up my closets that I don’t need anymore.

I’ve re-evaluated relationships. I’ve signed up for a sewing class and a carpentry class. I’ve made changes in my life over things that were bothering me that I got sick of whining about everyday in my pages.

Oh, sorry, you probably were more interested in what creative writing type stuff has happened.

How about this…

I’ve signed up to a literary agent. I’ve stopped working in the evenings and over weekends and started watching films and listening to music instead.

I set up a community art collective in Cardiff and we’re running a digital storytelling project collecting stories of people who live here. I’ve written a sketch for a kooky romantic comedy that’s probably going to end up as young adult fiction.

Not bad for a few months’ worth of writing jibberish, no?

Jennifer Blanchard wrote an interesting post on what she achieved during her two week experiment with the morning pages. I’m not sure I achieved as much as she did in two weeks, but it’s a great example of how the pages can motivate you to make changes.
Definitely worth a read.

Do I really have to write, longhand, in a notebook?

The Artist’s Way was first published in the 80s, when the core tools for a writer were notebook and pen (and occasionally typewriter), so she doesn’t tackle the issues raised by technology for the morning pages.

Personally I prefer pen and paper – something about the action of writing seems to encourage better stuff to come out than when I’m typing. But most of us can type faster than we can write longhand.

Plus there’s the added benefit of security with using online journaling resources – handy if you live in a house with nosey kids/spouses/housemates.

Online journals are also easier for most of us to access nearly all of the time. If I forget to take my notebook somewhere, chances are I won’t do my pages. I hate writing them on scrap bits of paper and then sticking them in later – it just doesn’t work for me.

If you work a desk job that means being attached to a computer for most of the day, why not dedicate the first 15 minutes of that day to clearing your mind?

If typing fits more with your daily schedule, then consider one of the following (free!) online resources. If you Google you’ll find there are many more, but the following have been recommended to me by users, which is why I’m recommending them to you.


A friend of mine recently started private online journalling in Penzu, and she absolutely swears by it. Penzu is a personal journal and online diary resource.

There’s a great page called Why Journal?, which lists the many (many!) benefits of keeping a diary or journal. If that doesn’t convince you to get started, I don’t know what will!

750 words

This website was created specifically in response to the morning pages from The Artist’s Way. It’s a secure website (no public publishing like a blog). You log in and aim to type 750 words per day (given that the average page holds 250 words, so three pages = 750 words).

The nifty thing about this website is the stats – you can see how many words you’ve written to date. A month’s worth of morning pages at this rate will give you 22,500 words.

That’s a lot of words! Suddenly achieving 50,000 words in a month for projects like NaNoWriMo doesn’t seem quite so intimidating, does it?

In conclusion then…

I’ve been working with and really getting a lot out of the morning pages since I started writing them. Do any of you write morning pages? Do you find them helpful for your writing, or for life generally?

If you don’t write morning pages but are a little intrigued, then consider this challenge.

Try them out, just for two weeks (like Jennifer Blanchard did). Set aside 15 minutes every morning to write stream of consciousness (try not to be late for work).

Two weeks isn’t a massive commitment. I’d be interested to hear your results/changes/achievements.

How to speed up your writing with AutoCorrect

The act of writing, as in the physical process of getting your work on to the screen, can be a tiresome business at times. Thankfully, there are plenty of really rather helpful writing software packages available to help you make things as painless as possible. These tailored writing programmes are fairly newfangled though, and I suspect that most of us still use more traditional word processors, like good old Microsoft Word.

And that’s fine, because they have some rather nifty features too, like the quite awesome AutoCorrect.

What is AutoCorrect?

I’ve included the official definition below, but basically, you know how when you type and you get the odd character back to front, then something happens and it magically rectifies itself?

Well, that’s AutoCorrect. Here’s the definition:

Its principal purpose is to correct common spelling or typing errors, saving time for the user. It is also used to automatically format text or insert special characters by recognising particular character usage, saving the user from having to use more tedious functions.

What does AutoCorrect do for writers?

AutoCorrect is great because it contains all those pre-defined misspellings and typos, tracks what you’re doing and puts them right for you.

What’s even more smashing is that you can add to this pre-defined list. This is great for writers, because it allows you to create shortcuts for all those made-up words that you use again and again.

You know, like your novel’s pesky characters and settings. Or that unwieldy technical term that pops all the time on your blog.

Give us an example

In practice, it means that you can replace words with shortcuts. One of the examples I use in the tutorial is ‘Papua New Guinea’, which is fine to write in full once or twice, but if that’s where your book is set, you’ll soon get fed up.

Using AutoCorrect, you cn create the shortcode ‘png’. This means that whenever you type ‘png’ and press space (or full stop etc) from then on, Word knows to replace the shortcode with the full term, Papua New Guinea.

Watch the tutorial and you’ll see how much quicker you can write otherwise time-consuming and awkward sentences.

Is this just a Microsoft Word thing?

Absolutely not! I don’t claim to know every word processing package out there, but I believe the AutoCorrect function is built into most of them. Even if it goes by a different name.

It’s definitely there in the free OpenOffice package and from this thread in the Apple forums, it seems you can also use AutoCorrect with Pages on a Mac.

Watch this episode on Vimeo

8 June 2009

Time management and prioritising your priorities

Prioritise your priorities. Not my words, but the words of Rachelle Gardner over at her blog about her life as a literary agent. But they could be my words, because that’s pretty much what I do when it comes to my writing.

As you may already know, I’ve had to do some writerly juggling over the past few years. I’ve written a novel (as part of a Masters course) while working full-time as a copywriter, with lots of side projects in between (you’re reading one now). And there have been times when it’s felt like I’ve had rather a lot on my plate.

But somehow, I’ve always got things done. And that’s because, over time, I’ve learnt to prioritise my priorities.

What not to do

Rachelle’s post really struck me. In particular, it was the line about the big secret to her time management being  the list of things she doesn’t do. Sounds odd doesn’t it? But it makes sense, when you think about it.

In case you don’t want to head over and read the full article (and you should), here’s what she says:

I’ve dispensed with a lot of non-necessary things in life… things I’d like to do if I could! But the path I’ve chosen means I’ve had to let go of some things.

Now, she goes on to list ‘things’ like keeping a scrapbook and growing a garden. Personally, I’d like to hang on to those parts of my life if possible (the courgettes are looking particularly good this summer), but in terms of my writing and related projects, there are things I’m prepared to let go.

For example, when I decided to set up Write for Your Life, I knew that I would probably have to give up Words Aloud, a project I’d been tied to and loved to bits for two years. I hadn’t the time for both, so one of them had to go.

Similarly, when it came to the crunch for completing my novel, I realised the only way was to pass up the chance of editing a second edition of Matter, a literary magazine I was involved with at the time.

And now, I find myself in the same position again.

After some exciting and Summer-changing news, I’m spending the next couple of months returning to my novel for a little editing and plenty of graft. And that means I have to prioritise my priorities and draw up a new list of things that I don’t do.

And why? Because when it comes down to it, my novel and my creative writing is what means the most to me. That’s my number one priority. Everyone should have one.

Panic ye not

Of course, you might be wondering if this is the end of Write for Your Life. Well, I’m pleased to say that no, it’s certainly not! I’ve enjoyed my blogging experience so far and have really, really appreciated all your kind thoughts and feedback.

No, instead there will be a new strategy in place to keep the blog going with plenty of new posts (possibly more!) being published while I’m beavering away. It’s going to be great, so don’t go anywhere!

More on that at a later date, but for now I implore you to read Rachelle’s post and have a think about your own writing priorities. And don’t just think about what you do do (feel free to snigger), but also the things that you don’t. Or the things that you’re prepared to give up when the time comes.

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