Get thee behind me, cat!

Untitled 2 I love the Internet, and I love wasting time on the Internet – even though it sometimes ends up not being a waste of time. Claire Cameron

Many writers have habits and rituals. Some are sensible – like having set hours for working, always starting the day with a walk or never answering the phone during writing hours. Others are mildly eccentric such as only ever writing on yellow paper or always wearing a green cardigan. Then there are those that sound as mad as cheese. Truman Capote had to write lying down, Dan Brown hangs upside down at regular intervals (I’m saying nothing!) and Victor Hugo wrote bollock naked. Though there was a very sensible reason behind this last eccentricity.

There’s no should about it

We are all different. What suits one writer won’t work for another, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should do it a certain way. (On this subject I highly recommend Jon Winokur’s fabulous book – Writers on Writing.) There is no ’proper’ way to write. You need only do what works for you. That said, there’s a great deal of really helpful advice out there. Much of it on the Internet.

The devil incarnate

Ah! The Internet. The devil incarnate, were you to believe its critics. And there is no denying that it can be the most colossal, even destructive, time waster. If you let it. And it’s so easy to let it. There they are, just a click away, all those fascinating sites. Bringing you hours of entertainment involving cute cats, clever cats, grumpy cats, dogs rescued from burning buildings, dogs saving kittens from burning buildings, burning buildings… There’s no end to the fun you can have. And I haven’t even mentioned Social Media. Or email.

Cats and teacups

But you’re supposed to be working, right? And the Internet is a distraction, right? But remember what I said, it is if you let it. And I must admit, it does take a great deal of discipline not to click on a favourite site when you get stuck, or a bit bored. However, it would be much better and waste less time to go and make a cup of tea, do a quick set of exercises or go for a short walk. And before you say ‘but that would take too long’ consider this.

Making a cup of tea might take five minutes, the exercises five to ten, the walk, perhaps twenty. But once you click on that URL – you could be about to lose not just five, ten or twenty minutes but an entire hour, or more. All that said, the Internet can be a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Apart from the fun stuff, there are plenty of splendid blogs out there – on every subject under the sun. They not only inspire but can educate as well as entertain. The trick is to capitalise on this wonderful asset while not allowing it to distract you too much (it’s almost impossible not to be distracted at all.)

Tricks and treats

It’s easy enough to say ‘be disciplined’ but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s not impossible though. While, ultimately, it’s up to you, nevertheless there are quite a few tricks you can use like turning off the sound so you don’t hear the email notifications. Or getting into the habit of only doing your research at certain times of the day. Or allowing yourself fifteen minutes ‘fun’ browsing while having a coffee or tea break. The trick here is to set a time limit and stick to it. You could even set a timer. Or give yourself certain tasks and reward yourself with time on the net when you’ve completed them.

Overall, it’s question of habit and of not giving up. You’re going to fail. Accept it. The lure of those cats will overcome your good intentions. But if you keep trying, eventually you will form new habits. Good ones. And, regarding this blog post, don’t they say you teach what you need to learn!

Weird folks and writing rituals


Lipstick and green powder

We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s  need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.

A strange use for a fridge

Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.

What would Maxwell have to say?

I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.

Cheerful colours

So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.

Write on the left side of the paper only

I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.

Screen or paper or both?

But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)

Keeping track

Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.

P1000697What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)