Category Archives: Tips on Writing

Tagging #3: My Tagging System

The following are some of the tags I’ve evolved to help me organize and retrieve my writing notes.

I rely on two sorts of tags, those relating to GTD or workflows, and those relating to story notes.

The story note tags are quite straightforward, here they are:

5alien, 5atmosphere, 5bio, 5character, 5colour, 5ek, 5place, 5plotlet, 5scene, 5structure, 5tech

In case you’re wondering, an ek is an eyeball kick:

Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Attr. Rudy Rucker)

I write SF so the alien tag should be no surprise. As my story worlds are all tagged, I can easily search for 5aliens in the 3recursion universe.

Possibly of more interest are my workflow tags.

I started out following GTD, labelling all my notes TODO NEXT or DONE. That worked out pretty well in my daily life, but not in my writing life. Over the years I’ve settled on the following

conceit -> idea -> story -> developing -> next/working -> staged -> published/used -> archived

What’s the difference between a conceit, an idea and a story?

The first two are explained in the Turkey City Lexicon. Here’s my thinking on the process by which a conceit becomes a story.

I get lots of ideas – I think most writers would say the same – however most of them are never used. Looking back through my notes I can see ideas that I’ve not had time to use, ideas that don’t go anywhere, ideas that just don’t seem that interesting now. Some ideas I don’t even remember what I was thinking when I wrote them down. But occasionally I will see an idea that joins with another idea and sparks something. When enough ideas join themselves together they become a story.

What’s the difference between next and working?

This is something I think many writers will experience. A story marked next is something that has to be done to a deadline, that’s why I’ve applied GTD to it. Something tagged as working is something that I’m ermmm… working on. I tend to work on stories over periods of months or even years so this tag indicates something I will keep coming back to. When inspiration fails, or when I’m looking for a next project, or simply because I want to move on, I bring up all the things I’m working on and decide what to concentrate on next.

When a story is completed it will be staged, ready to be submitted.  Hopefully I will someday  be able to tag it as published.

More on Tagging

How Writers Write: Anne Charnock

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I met Anne in a bar in Helsinki at Worldcon 75.  We got chatting right away…

What do you use to write?

I handwrite only when I’m limbering up. As a first stab at a new writing project, I take a sheet of A2 paper and draw bubbles of characters/themes/plot. Next, I open a new hardback notebook and jot down my initial ideas, pose questions to myself so that I hone the central premise and my overall aims. At this early stage, I consider the connections between characters, draw approximate timelines and so on. None of this preliminary work is detailed. My outlines are minimal.

Before I draft a chapter, I dash off a few handwritten notes to set the scene. But I’m as likely to ignore these notes as I am to adhere to them.

As for hardware, I work with a MacBook Air linked to a widescreen monitor and a full-size keyboard. I’ve used Macs since they were first launched and I’m not going to switch now!

I draft my novels in Scrivener, which is especially helpful for a story based on masses of research. Scrivener allows me to assemble my research into a set of folders. While I’m drafting my story, I can dip into the research material without opening other applications. Scrivener is also ideal for novels with a complex structure. I can re-order the chapters by click and drag, or temporarily reorder the chapters to check the flow of a particular storyline or character arc.

Once I begin the first draft, I create two Excel spreadsheets. (I love a good spreadsheet, with lots of colour coding). One is a simple log: dates in the left column and chapter titles in the top row. This allows me to record whether each working day is a drafting or editing day and which chapter I’m working on. If it’s a drafting day, I record my daily word count.

The second spreadsheet is more complex and this is the reason I have a widescreen monitor. It’s an on-the-go summary of the developing novel. I set up columns from left to right: chapter number/title, character list, point-of-view character, tense, settings, main plot points in that chapter, and a column in which I note how the chapter connects with the story’s overall themes, and finally a column for the chapter’s word count. In the midst of writing, if I suddenly realise that an edit or addition is needed in an earlier chapter, I’ll add a note in green type to the spreadsheet. It’s always open on my computer desktop.

For my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I needed an additional monster spreadsheet to record, chapter-by-chapter, the occurrence of repeating motifs and themes. The printout stretched the length of my kitchen.

When I’m ready to send a manuscript to beta-readers, I ‘compile’ my Scrivener chapters as a Word document. From that point on, through to final draft, development edit and copy edit, I work in Word.

When do you write?

With my first novel, A Calculated Life, I wrote whenever I had time — over a period of several years. It was frustrating; I had to set aside the manuscript for as long as six months at a time. You know how it is, life intervenes. So I had no idea how long that novel took to write in terms of days/weeks/months. That’s why I now keep a daily log.

I’m fortunate that I’m writing full time and when I’m in a writing phase it’s pretty full on, especially if there’s a deadline. I’m definitely not an early morning person. I’m content to start about 9.30 or 10 am and work through until 6-ish with breaks for tea/coffee/lunch/tea and cake. Sometimes I’ll set a stopwatch and do a writing sprint for twenty five minutes, for variety! However, I do find that when I write quickly, I spend more time re-writing and editing. So I don’t beat myself up if my word count looks meagre.

Where do you write?

I kinda work in a white cube. White walls, white semi-transparent blinds (invariably closed) and a desk with a near-white formica top. The desk is a lovely 1950s Hans Gugelot desk, my pride and joy. This small room is built onto the end of our garage. It’s brilliant to have this space separate from the house. I’m not disturbed by anyone knocking on the door, or by unsolicited phone calls.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I look beyond literature. I go to exhibitions, take a cycle ride, travel to new places. Or I walk around the local playing field to catch the sunset. I’m not sure I’m ‘looking’ for inspiration. Basically, I’m switching off my writer’s brain and opening up to new experiences or living in the moment, as with travel and cycle rides. I try to get away with my husband in our campervan for a change of scene. Sometimes I write while we’re away — I sit under the van’s awning, write in the shade.

How do you write?

No music. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music in the background. Each to their own! I live in a rural area but that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful — raucous birdsong (magpies are the worst), hedge cutters, chainsaws. I keep noise-cancelling headphones on my desk, and I wear them by default.

First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

For my first novel, I wrote in third person limited (free indirect style) and past tense except for two epilogues, which I wrote in present tense. I’m not sure how many readers noticed the change in tense, but I believe it shifted the tone, the atmosphere. Third person limited was essential for this novel because I wanted the reader to see the world through only the main character’s eyes — to witness the world from her limited, almost innocent, perspective.

I now prefer present tense and I think this preference reflects the fact that I don’t outline my chapters in any detail. Therefore I’m discovering the story alongside my characters. It feels more natural. I dislike the contrivance of an omniscient narrator. I don’t think I could attempt that.

My latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, comprises 19 chapters and each has a single POV character: 19 chapters, 16 points of view in total, 16 chapters in third person, 3 in first person. A series of linked vignettes, if you like.

I’ve developed a real liking for first person. But the story always determines my choice. So, for my novella The Enclave I felt two different points of view would be perfect, each written in first person, giving room for the reader to make inferences concerning the gaps between the two characters’ stories.

Follow the plot or the character or just go with it?

Characters come first for me. I often discover their personalities in the process of writing their dialogue.

When the first draft is done…

After working for many years in journalism, I can’t bring myself to blast through a first draft. I edit as I go along — editing as I draft a paragraph, editing the previous day’s work, editing at the end of a chapter, re-editing several chapters at the end of a section, and so on. As a result, the first draft represents an almost-complete novel. I feel I’m almost there. Of course, I may well decide to add a chapter, move a scene, refine a character’s voice, etc. I address all the notes/reminders I’ve made in green text on my summary spreadsheet. Then I embark on the line-edits, fact checking and proofing.

For my latest novel I corralled five beta-readers: three family members and two writers. I’m fortunate that my family readers are pretty damn good, each in his own way (Yes, my family readers are all men!)

For me, it’s hard to let go of a manuscript. I like to be involved up until to the last moment, until the pages are printed.

Lastly, self promotion:

I describe myself as a writer of near-future science fiction or speculative fiction. To be honest that doesn’t feel complete because I’ve also incorporated historical and contemporary fiction in my work. I haven’t totally abandoned my fine art practice — I’m exhibiting a piece of text-art this autumn in a public installation curated by Andrew Bracey. I still gravitate towards journalistic and non-fiction opportunities. For example, I’ve had a feature published this summer on the UK feminist website, The F-Word — Time to Cut the Cord with The Stone Age? — and I’ve been given the somewhat splendid title of ‘interviewer in residence’ for a collaboration between The Arthur C Clarke Award and Ada Lovelace Day. To date the main result of this collaboration is the “Ada Lovelace Conversations” with women science fiction writers. Quick links on my bio page on my website. More conversations are in the pipeline. These have been immense fun and a great learning experience in terms of discovering other writers’ approach to their craft.

I’m currently developing two writing projects, one is underway, the other is still in outline. I can’t talk about either; it’s simply too early.

Links

 

 

Tagging #2:  Applications that use Tagging

Here are few applications where I use tagging.

Simplenote

Tagging is straightforward on Simplenote.  Add your tags on the tag bar, keep track of them using the tag dropdown.  You can edit and delete tags using the phone or desktop app.

Click on a tag to search for it, or use the following syntax in the search bar to find all notes tagged with knife

tag:knife

Find notes tagged spoon and/or knife as follows

tag:spoon tag:knife

You can use the following trick on the webapp to find all the notes which haven’t been tagged.

tag:untagged

Evernote

Evernote has a very flexible tagging system with an excellent search facility. Searching for a single tag is a matter of simply clicking on the tag.

You can do more complex tag searches by using the following syntax:

Search for headings tagged spoon and knife

tag:spoon tag:knife

Search for headings tagged spoon but not knife

tag:spoon -tag:knife

Find all untagged notes

-tag:*

Evernote also allows you to save frequently used searches.

Evernote’s search features are very powerful. Find out more by following this link.

Emacs

Emacs Org mode has a sophisticated tagging system.

Add tags to headings using

C-c C-q

You can filter tags using the built in agenda views as follows:

Search for headings tagged spoon and knife

C-c a m +spoon+knife

Search for headings tagged spoon but not knife

C-c a m +spoon-knife

Search for headings tagged spoon or knife

C-c a m spoon|knife

Find out more about Emacs on My Emacs Writing Setup

Tagspaces

Tagspaces is a completely different way of organising your resources based entirely on tagging. You can find out more here: https://www.tagspaces.org/

More on Tagging

 

 

Tagging #1

  • Are you a writer?
  • Do you keep notes? (I can’t believe there is writer who doesn’t keep notes.)
  • Do you keep your notes on a computer?
  • Do you tag your notes?

If you only answered yes to the first three questions, then I’m about to change your writing life for the better.

Tags have been around for years, they’re very simple to use, and yet few people seem to bother. I think this is mainly because many people don’t understand the power of tags.

The following series of posts attempt to explain how to use tags to organise your life. This post will give an overview of tags. The next post will give examples of applications you can use for tagging such as Evernote, Simplenote, Emacs and Tagspaces. Finally, there will be a post describing my personal tag system.

Tagging v Folders

Most people store their notes in folders. This is no surprise. When computers first rose in popularity, the folder was an easy to grasp analogy. Put all your stories in one folder, all your submission letters in another, all your personal letters in another. Folders are easy to use and easy to navigate. You want to find that fantasy story you wrote, go to the folder marked story and look in there for the fantasy folder.

There’s one problem with folders, however: a story can only be stored in one location. Suppose you have written a story that mixes fantasy and horror. Do you store it in the fantasy folder, or the horror folder? Or do you make a new folder marked fantasy horror?

Tagging solves this problem.  Rather than thinking in terms of folders, you tag your stories #fantasy, #sf, #horror. If you write a story that mixes fantasy and horror you simply use two tags: #fantasy and #horror.  When objects have more than one tag, they can appear in more than one place, a big advantage over folders.

Tagging is not difficult, people hashtag on Twitter all the time. There is, however, an understandable wariness about taking your carefully filed stories out of their folders and putting them in a big tagged pile. What if the tags were to get lost?

Well, tags don’t get lost any more than folders get mixed up. Even so, there’s nothing to stop you using both tags and folders while you get used to things.

A Simplified Tag System

It’s possible to spend more time thinking of tags to apply to a note than it takes to write the note in the first place. One way around this is to adopt a standard system (there are many of these listed on the internet). I use a 1,2,3,4 system as follows:

  1. What area of my life does the note refer to: Personal, Writing, Work, Tech ?
  2. What’s the form of the note: idea, letter, reference, blog, interview ?
  3. What project does the note relate to: novel, how writers write, 99 java problems, emacs, six tips ?
  4. What’s the note’s GTD status: TODO, NEXT, DONE, WORKING ?

To give an example, the note this blog post is based on is tagged as follows

1tech, 1writing, 2blog, 3onwriting, 3emacs, 4next

In other words, this note relates both to tech and writing, it’s for my blog, it’s to do with my onwriting and emacs projects, and it’s marked next according to GTD.

The following is the tag for a note regarding a panel I’m attending at an upcoming convention

1writing, 2panel, 3sf, 3helsinki, 4todo

You might be able to guess from the tags that the panel is regarding SF and the convention takes place in Helsinki

Note how each tag has a number at the front. Most tagging systems will filter your tags as you enter them, so when I type the number 1, only tags starting with 1 appear. Also, thinking 1,2,3,4 when I’m tagging my notes helps speed up the tagging process.

What’s the benefit of all this? This becomes apparent when you search your notes.

Suppose I want to find all the posts relating to my blog. I could search for

2blog

This would bring up all the posts regarding my writing blog, my tech blog and my personal blog.

I could refine this by searching as follows

1writing, 2blog

Now I will only see the posts relating to my writing blog. I could add a 4todo tag to see the posts I still have to write.

If I want to see the posts regarding Emacs that I’ve already published I could search as follows

2blog, 3emacs, 4published

Most tagging systems allow you to save searches. One saved search I often use is the following

1writing, 4next

In other words, the things I have to do next in my work as a writer.

Next

 

I Used to Worry About Finishing Stories…

I’d plan them in minute detail, I’d obsess over the twists, the climax, the ending.

And then I learned, as I’ve written in many other places, to just turn off my mind and to follow my characters. I learned to let my subconscious take over and to let the story go where it wanted.

But even though I’d learned this way of writing, I was still gripped by the worry that the story I was writing was going nowhere, that I would write myself into a corner, that the story would just crash. 80 000 words into a novel and I would have to abandon my work and start again on something else.

I was so gripped by this worry that I planned my first novel, Recursion, in quite a lot of detail. My second novel, Capacity, was also minutely plotted, but it veered off course halfway through. I took a deep breath and followed it and, hey, it worked.

Twisted Metal started off as one novel; it ended up being split into two when one character, Kavan, broke free and refused to do what I wanted him to. By the time I started Blood and Iron, my fifth novel, plotting beyond the bare minimum had gone out of the window.

Even so, I worried if the thing would end properly. I’ve written most of my short stories without plotting, but there’s less risk there, only 5000 words stand to be lost if things go wrong.

When I started on my most recent novel, I still worried about the ending, but yet again, everything worked.

This time, however, I realised whilst I was writing that it always will. I know it will.

Because if you’re following your characters and letting them be themselves then the story will resolve itself – maybe not how you want it, but there will be an ending. After all, that’s the way it works in real life.

The trouble comes when you try and force your characters to be what they’re not. When you twist them and make them act in arbitrary fashions to satisfy your plot. That’s when the contradictions build up and the story crashes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t plot. I still write structured outlines, particularly after I’ve written the first draft. That way I can see how to make the story better.

What I am saying is that, in my experience, problems with stories come with too much plotting, not too little.

Six Tips on Writing Speech

Or more precisely, a conversation in six sentences.

A pupil recently asked me about writing speech in stories.

“Do I need to put he said, she said after every sentence?”  he asked.

“No.” I replied.  “If you look at a story in a book, you’ll notice that they very rarely indicate who has spoken.”

“Really?”  He picked up a book, read a few sentences. “Oh yes,  I see what you mean!”

“There you go.  You have to learn to trust the reader; they’re cleverer than beginner writers give them credit for.  The reader can recognise who’s speaking when people are taking turns in a conversation.”

“So you only have to indicate the names at the start?”

“Well,” I said, “You might want to occasionally remind them who’s speaking.”

See Also

MyKitaab Podcast

The mission of the MyKitaab podcast series is to help answer the question “I have written a book, how do I get it published in India?”

Here, host Amar Vyas talks to me about writing, blogging and Open Source software, especially  Emacs!

You can access the podcast as follows:

Or listen to it here:

Six Reasons why Maintaining a Blog will make You a Better Writer

  • It will make you write regularly
  • It will make you finish something – you’re not a writer if you’re only producing half finished stories
  • It will make you publish something – no more constantly rewriting, trying to get something perfect
  • It will mean your stuff will be read by somebody else – no more stories silently gathering dust in the drawer
  • It will make you engage with feedback and criticism
  • It will let you move on – time to start something new … and better

See Also

How Writers Write: Chaz Brenchley

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I’ve bumped into Chaz in a number of places, but never had a chance to have a proper chat.  A real shame, as this article reveals…

How would you describe yourself? Writer, author, novelist, SF, Fantasy, Horror?

People used to say my mystery novels were really horror, my horror was really fantasy, and my fantasies were essentially a mystery recast. So, yeah: I’m a genre writer, but I mostly inhabit the murky areas where one genre blends into another.

What do you use to write?

20160609_085053I was a kid in the sixties, and learned to write with pencils and then biros and then fountain pens, all for values of “learned to write” that encompass so much awkwardness of process and ugliness of result that people kept asking me if I was a suppressed left-hander, and would I perhaps find it easier to do it backwards and upside down? Nope, and nope: I just have no gift for making marks on paper in any way that conveys or retains meaning.

catboxNevertheless: always and always, I meant to be a writer. And I loved stationery, despite my awful handwriting. In my early teens I filled notebooks and journals and exercise books and looseleaf binders with stories and poems and unfinished novels – and then blessedly my big sister wanted to learn to type. She borrowed a heavy office typewriter from one of our mother’s friends, and bought a teach-yourself manual. I am not sure if she ever did actually learn to type, but I did. I spent an Easter holiday when I was fourteen working through that manual, page by page. A schoolfriend hauled another discarded office machine home from the dump and refurbished it, simply as an engineering challenge, and thus I had a typewriter of my very own; and since then, I have typed everything I conceivably could. My handwriting has deteriorated further, for lack of use, and frankly I’m delighted to see it go. That was always an embarrassment, and typing is a delight. I have chronic RSI in hands, arms, shoulders, neck; people suggest dictation software, but they’re missing the point. I am very short of physical skills, and typing is something I excel at. (These days so do most of my friends because computers, programming, Silicon Valley, yadda yadda, but that’s okay: I’m not competitive about it. I don’t need to be best, I just need to be good.)

So, in succession: office typewriter, portable typewriter (when I started selling stories, when I was eighteen: my first paycheque, £36 for a teen romance in ’77, proved to be just enough for an Olivetti in a carrying case), electric typewriter (bought from a town-centre business that was closing down), electronic typewriter (bought with my first-ever bank loan: £625, which was a monstrous amount of money, but half price, and hence a bargain; and it had a one-line screen so you could see what you had typed before it hit the paper!), and then my first PC in the mid-eighties. Oh, how I loved PCs, in those early glory days! I was a DOS power-user; the command line was my proper home.

And then mouse-and-icon GUIs took over, and we’ve never had the same relationship since, my computers and I. We get along just fine, but the romance is gone. Windows made an idiot out of me, and I never recaptured that fiery splendour. Geoff Ryman nudged me towards Linux sometime in the ’90s, and I have repudiated Microsoft ever since – but even so. I can’t get up to speed again with a command-line interface, I lost too much through the bad years.

pcStill, I do what I can. The desktop runs Ubuntu, and I work in Textmaker, a word processing package from those nice German folk at Softmaker. In my DOS days I was a WordPerfect fan, like so many of us writers. When I worked in Windows I used Word, and hated it, and it kept crashing on me; then I fled to Linux and looked around and tried various word processors and didn’t love any of them until I found Textmaker in the early ’00s. It’s lightning-fast, and rock-solid (has it ever actually crashed on me, in fifteen years or so? Not that I remember), and brilliantly compatible with the industry-standard Word formats. I tested it once, with the same long text file on the same dual-boot machine: Word running in Windows took thirty seconds to open itself and then the file. Textmaker in Linux just did it, too fast to measure.

I’m not much of a planner. I always think I ought to be, at the start of major new projects; I’ll buy new stationery for taking notes, or set up a wiki for keeping track of the worldbuilding, or experiment with Scrivener to keep all my ducks in a row. But then the notes never actually get taken, because writing things down is such a pain and I never look back at them anyway; and the wiki grows dusty from disuse; and Scrivener crashes on me twice through the tutorial process and I abandon it because who wants to risk that when the project’s live? So I revert to old habits, and occasionally I’ll scribble something down on the back of an envelope but mostly I won’t, I’ll just hope to remember it; and when I don’t remember it I’ll think of something else. I’ve been working this way for forty years; it’s not ideal, but it seems to be good enough.

Except that I’m going to be working with Ken Scholes on a shared project, and my individual private brain really isn’t going to be enough, so we’ll have to find some way of notetaking that works for both of us. I suggested that wiki again, but I was on a panel this weekend about collaboration, and someone spoke in favour of Evernote, which had simply never occurred to me. Evernote is for shopping-lists, right…?

goes off to research other ways of using Evernote

When do you write?

Every day, every week, from January to March, whenever I can…

Pretty much all the time, if we can stipulate that “I am writing; I’m just not typing” is a valid mind-state. There are always stories, snatches of dialogue, betrayals and revelations going on in the back of my head. Used to be I’d work on one thing at once, but that is no longer the case. Sometimes I’m trying to keep half a dozen half-finished pieces live in my head at the same time. It’s awkward.

20160609_085042When it comes to actually getting those pieces written, I have a history of working very intensively for eight or ten or twelve weeks, and then slackening off until the next cycle. That doesn’t work so well now that I’m married and so forth, because I need to shape my life around priorities other than the work. Even so: I write every day through the week, and one or two days at weekends.

What history teaches us is that I’m good in the morning, slack water in the afternoons and good again in the evening. I used to work through the night and then sleep till noon, but that was long ago and again not conducive to conubial bliss. These days, somewhere between six and seven o’clock, I abandon the study for the kitchen and see about dinner; and I no longer work after dinner.

I’m trying to learn to be flexible and responsive, to grab ten minutes’ worktime here or there if that’s all there is available, but I’m not good at that. I like to have a long session ahead of me, at least a couple of hours if I can’t have all the day; I take time to settle into the creative mindspace. Also, these days, there is the damned internet. Used to be, when I sat down at the keyboard I was automatically in working mode, because that was all the keyboard offered. This is no longer the case, and I am as prone to displacement activity as the next guy, shock horror.

Where do you write?

Desk, coffee shop, wherever I lay my hat…

officeHere’s the desk with slightly fewer books on it, one step closer to the Platonic ideal of deskhood (which it does actually occasionally achieve, down to lemon-oil polish and everything; I’m good at projects, just really really bad at maintenance). Also, art on the walls: one Klimt vulture by Ursula Vernon, and my favourite picture of all time, Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer by Hippolyte Flandrin. I used to have a print of this in every room of my old house in England. When I moved here to California, K had this study all set up and ready for me, complete with required viewing. I also still have a copy of every book I’ve ever seen with it on the cover. Tragically, I didn’t realise the original was in the Louvre till we were passing through the gift shop on our way out. Hey-ho: just have to go back to Paris, then, sigh…

keyboardHabits change with circumstance. For twenty years at least, probably closer to thirty, I wrote at my desk at home, because that’s where the keyboard was. Demonstrably, I do still have a traditional desktop computer, on the traditional desk; and I do still work here. My evening writing happens here, and most of my internet engagement, so most of my actual typing. I’ve used ergonomic keyboards for the last fifteen years or so, but just a few months back I was seduced by the Das: it’s a lovely old-fashioned clicky keyboard with a solid aluminium plate and, as you can see, no letters on the keycaps. Pure anonymous unadulterated black. I love it.

laptopBut, back in the early ’00s, I fell in love with a laptop. Not that I needed a laptop, because I was not one of those writers who worked in coffee shops, no sirree. But this was the most beautiful machine-for-writing I’d ever seen: carbon-fibre, light as a feather, gorgeous matt black all over. I have it still, though it sits in the back of a drawer now. I spent more than I could afford, and thus it became my Laptop of Heavenly Perfection, and I had to justify that by actually, y’know, using it. Which meant actually, y’know, working outside the house.

It was like a revelation. Library? Tick! Coffee shop? Tick! Pub? Double tick – work and beer! Train? Tick! Airport? Tick!

Etc, etc. Apparently I am after all one of those writers who can work pretty much anywhere (though too much noise makes me grumpy, and other people seem to be inveterately noisy), and most of my actual new fiction writing now happens outside the house. Back home I had my regular desk in the Silence Room of a private library; I still miss that space. Here I have the window seat of my favourite coffee shop, those few times it’s available; apparently I don’t mind visual distraction at all, it’s just noise that bothers me. I guess I can look and think at the same time, I just can’t listen and think. And there’s always a seat in the public library, but they don’t have a Silence Room and their Quiet Areas are not policed and hence not quiet by any definition I’d accept. I am considering noise-cancelling headphones (though wearing headphones for the sake of not listening to anything has a kind of perversity about it).

20160608_151638In the afternoons, there’s always the temptation of the wine bar. Two till five is happy hour, because there’s never anybody in. Cold beer and quiet, what could be nicer on a hot afternoon? And I’ll get a hell of a lot more work done than if I kick around at home. Spending money is a great incentive; so is the lack of wifi. I do that as rarely as I can, because money, alcohol, yadda yadda. But sometimes you’ll find me there.

Inspiration isn’t a place, it’s a process; if I need to think, I’ll go for a walk. Usually with an end in view; back in Newcastle I used to walk laps around the city, because I couldn’t think when I was sitting still, but these days I tend to be going somewhere. With the laptop in the backpack. We’re up to the second edition of techno-heaven, the Laptop of Utterable Delights, even slimmer and lighter than the last, tho’ I don’t love the form factor quite so much. (I’m getting used to widescreen, necessarily, but like US letter paper, it’s not right…)

How do you write?

Much of this I seem to have said already, but I like silence or at least quiet when I’m working, or else consistent background murmur that I can tune out. I envy my friends who can work to music, and I’m intrigued by those who construct separate playlists for separate projects – but I find music a distraction. So of course is the internet; those times I can avoid it, I do better. Probably I should investigate wifi-disabling software, but – like those headphones that cut off sound rather than supplying it – it seems strange to step backwards, away from something so useful.

As above, I don’t have notes to work from; I don’t plan or outline or plot ahead in any way. A book is a journey, and I think it works best when it’s as much a surprise to the author as to the reader; it’s a journey undertaken hand in hand, stepping into the dark. Someone once said that being asked to write a synopsis of a book he hadn’t written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country he hadn’t visited. Me, I like to start with a title, a first line and often a last line too, a sense of where we’re going; it’s a journey and I like to know the destination. How to get there and in what company, I sort out day to day

Questions of style

catThe narrative voice of a story depends utterly on the story, its character, the effects I’m after. Of course I have my own voice – and I am not a writer who believes he should be invisible to the reader; I don’t do transparent prose, I like a strong sense of a narrator, authorial presence – and you can mostly spot a Brenchley by the rhythms, not the words. Nevertheless: each story is an individual artefact. First or third person, I’ll use either, depending. Present tense I mostly keep for shock value, because it tends to read artificial at full length – though there are no rules, and I did just finish a short story that is present-tense throughout.

Other people’s process is always weird, almost by definition, but I really don’t understand those writers who say they’re plot-driven. Plot is just what people do; for me, everything comes from the characters. Put a person in a situation, and plot will follow.

But honestly, I barely think about these things any more. I’ve been doing this so long, it’s pretty much second nature now. Title, first line, and I’m away. (I really, really like having the title first. If I know what it’s called, I know what it’s about, and I can write to that title from the get-go, so that it’s embedded. Finish a story without a title attached, and there are just so many options, and none of them will be truly rooted. I hate that.)

How many redrafts?

As few as possible. Growing up in the age of typewriters, where a new draft meant retyping every word, I learned to get it as right as possible as early as possible. Barring editorial interference, my first drafts are pretty much the story I end up with. I’ll fiddle endlessly with individual words and phrases, for I am all about the polish; but I rarely rewrite at any macro level unless required to. Having said which, I have a half-finished novel about Kipling on Mars which is so irretrievably broken I’m basically going to go back and write the whole damn thing again. I never do that.

How many readers?

I often say that I’m old-school, the last of those for whom writing really was a lonely business. We didn’t have creative-writing classes and MFAs and critiquing groups and beta-readers and such; before I was published, I barely met another writer. From choice, I still follow the ivory-tower model: I write a thing, and polish it, and send it direct to agent or editor. These days my wife does read everything at first-draft stage, but that’s okay; she tends to think better of my work than I do.

How easy is it to let go?

Letting go is easy; by the time a story’s been through edits and copy-edits and proofs on top of my own early rereading and polishing, I’m glad to see it gone. By then I’ve long been into the next thing, or the one after that. I don’t love them again until they’re actually in print.

Lastly, self promotion:

I have a Patreon! I am writing English girls’ boarding-school stories to the classic model, only set on Mars! I have also been writing grown-up stories in the same milieu. Basically the rubric is “If Mars were a province of the British Empire, so-and-so would so have gone there”, where “so-and-so” is a remarkable list of remarkable people: so far Oscar Wilde and T E Lawrence and more, and I’m working as I say on Rudyard Kipling. But I am a lifelong fan of the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer; and if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have had a sister-foundation there. So I’m writing it. “Three Twins at the Crater School” is half-finished, with a few short stories on the side, available to all my Patreon subscribers

But it’s not all Mars all the time, tho’ it can seem so on occasion. I just finished an SF bar-story for a David Bowie memorial anthology, and I have a space opera attack novel that I am totally failing to fend off (which is really Iain Banks fanfic, and why not?), and Ken Scholes and I are going to do great things together, and and and…

 

Links

http://chazbrenchley.com/

 

How Writers Write: Eric Brown

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

Eric Brown is my oldest SF writer friend.  When I met him in the year 2000 he was still coming to grips with the twentieth century.  Let’s find out how he’s dealing with the twenty first…

What tools do you use?

IMG_0681I work on Word on a Dell computer, a twelve year old machine that Keith Brooke gave me. It serves its purpose as a word processor. I’m not into technology: I’m not interested in tech and gadgets. I don’t have a mobile phone or whatever they’re called now. I don’t even have a watch. I carry a sundial around in my backpack.

I plot a novel – in as much as I plot anything – and make random notes freehand in an old jotter. These days I don’t do much planning, just some notes on characters and an idea or two, then I get going. It works for me. In my notebook, which I keep to the left of me when I’m writing, I scribble down anything from a list of phrases that people spoke in the nineteen-fifties (for the series of crime novels I’m writing set then), to a line of dialogue, to a detailed day-by-day breakdown of how may words I’ve written. (I’m anal like that).


IMG_0719When I’m working on a project, novels, stories or whatever, I work five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I might work on a Saturday and Sunday if my wife and daughter are off doing things. I walk the hound in the morning at eight-thirty, and get to my desk at nine-fifteen, work for two and a half hours. In that time I write two thousand words, or a couple of hundred under or over. Around eleven forty-five I knock off, take the dog for another gallop, have a green tea and a sandwich for lunch (yeast extract, peanut butter and beetroot, since you asked, or less occasionally Stilton cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, or sometimes Vegemite, tahini and cucumber, or probably once a month cheddar and hot lime pickle), then get to the desk again around one and work till around three-thirty, knocking out another couple of thousand words. Before I married, fifteen years ago, I’d work in the evening too, so that I could produce over six thousand words a day – and I worked at the weekends.


This meant that my early novels (From Meridian Days to New York Dreams) were written in around a fortnight, or just over. I’d stagger from my study a gibbering wreck and demand pints and pints of Timothy Taylor’s best bitter. Then, when I’d sobered up, I began the laborious task of rewriting the things.

IMG_0688(I walk the dog for two hours a day. He’s called Uther and he’s a red and white setter. He’s our first dog, and a life-changer. Having children is easy, a joy, compared to owning a dog. That said, he does exercise me. I wouldn’t get out otherwise, and while out walking the beautiful countryside of Berwickshire, around the village of Cockburnspath, I get lots of day-dreaming done. Uther was immortalised in Tony Ballantyne’s fine novel Dream Paris, in a scene which brilliantly encapsulates my relationship with the hound).

I write in my study surrounded by over three thousand tomes and air that smells of dog. I love books. I collect them. I collect SF, old and new, and fiction from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. I collect autobiographical books and biographies of writers. I collect the works of Rupert Croft-Cooke, G. K. Chesterton, Peter de Polnay, Miles Tripp, Elizabeth Ferrars, Michael Coney, Charles Bukowski, and many more. I don’t read on a Kindle, onscreen, or anything else like that. I detest Kindles etc. They’re just text, shorn of much of what a book is. A book is a beautiful object with its own history and associations. The abomination of Kindle renders every single book as a homogenised, soulless product – perfect for the homogenised, soulless world in which multinational companies and capitalist moguls would like us to exist.

Where do you write?

IMG_0667My computer sits on my ‘desk’, a nineteen-fifties Baird radiogram. I sit back in a armchair with the keyboard on my lap and tap away. My wife says that’s why I have backache. On my desk are bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years. Pens I love. A broken Wallace and Grommit mug. A tin rocket. A rock. A clay bee and a hippo my daughter Freya made. A hole-filled rock I found on Eastbourne beach while visiting James Lovegrove, which I use as a pen holder. Some reference books I hardly ever refer to. A statue of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. A Timothy Taylor beer mat. A clock. On the window sill behind my computer are some plastic dinosaurs, a couple of pigs, a robot salt- and pepper-pot (thanks, Becky), a BSFA award for a short tale, an ancient metal statue, probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, of a man holding his head in one hand and his penis in the other. He looks like how I often feel.

When do you write?

IMG_0670I only ever write in my study, but think about story all the time.

I like peace and quiet while I’m scribbling. I don’t like music when I’m writing. I don’t wait for inspiration. That way I’d never write a word.

I write by the seat of my pants. In the early days, forty years ago when I began writing, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to have detailed notes and plans and plots and lists of characters to shore up my under-confidence. Now I know how to write and I have no fear of writing. I have technique, and trust in that and in my subconscious. They get the job done. I often start with little knowledge of what I’ll be writing , but the old sub-con kicks in and dictates the words.

Questions of style

A novel or story dictates style, narrative viewpoint etc. I don’t much think about things like that beforehand, or about the actual prose style I’ll be using. I follow both characters and plot, whatever is dictated by my subconscious.

When the first draft is done I’m unutterably depressed for a while. Life seems pointless. The rush of creation is over, the endorphins run dry. Now comes the hard and dispiriting work of rewriting. While writing the first draft, I convince myself that the book or story is great, even exceptional. Then I finish and realise it isn’t – but it has to be made better. That’s bloody hard work. And I make lots of continuity errors and other ballsups which need fixing. Hey-ho.

How many redrafts?

Many.

How many readers?

Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.

How easy is it to let go?

IMG_0673It’s bloody fantastic to say au revoir to something I’ve been working on for months. I’m delighted to see the back of it.

At the moment I’ve just finished the first draft of Murder Take Three, the fourth book in the Langham and Dupré series of crime novels set in the fifties. So I’m at that depressed stage of creativity, the rush over. Plus my wife and daughter are away in Haworth visiting my mother-in-law so I’m rattling round the house with the dog, eating curry and sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself and staring balefully at the mound of the ms I’ve just printed out and shaking my fist at the bloody thing and threatening to rip into it with a red pen and cut it by nine thousand words and turn it from a sow’s lughole into a silken purse.

Also, the damned thing isn’t contracted for. I wrote it on spec, which I don’t normally do, as the idea came to me and I like the characters of Donald Langham and Maria Dupré and Ralph Ryland, the Cockney detective. I just hope Severn House want it.

Next, I’ll be rewriting the second half of Binary System, an action-adventure novel about a woman stranded on a very alien planet, and how she survives. The two halves of the novel will come out later this year from Solaris as e-books, and next year as a real paperback book which you can hold, fondle, smell, read and slip onto the shelf. Then I’ll be writing the fourth Telemass novella for PS Publishing, then a play for Big Finish, a few shorts stories, and later this year a big SF novel I’ve just sold to Solaris.

How would I describe myself?

Writer, curry addict, secularist, liberal, Leeds United fan, a man who increasingly finds the world a bewildering hell-hole, bracketed as we are by the bigoted Trump on one side and the religious fascists of Daesh on the other. No wonder I escape into my writing whenever possible.

My website is at: https://ericbrown.co.uk/

Cheers!