Get Away

I’ve never been the type of writer who sets aside time every day, as I have a full-time job and other literary-related commitments.

However, the last seven days have been particularly productive for my poetry. I’ve written pieces inspired by such diverse sources as a convoluted train announcement and a Sorry You’re Leaving card.

The difference seems to be that I spent last week in Hove. This is on the south coast of England, more than eight hours away from Dundee by train. But once you’re there, it’s a pleasant walk into Brighton along the seafront, with plenty of tourist attractions along the way.

I must make it clear that this was a business trip, not a holiday. Yet after my shift finished at around 5:30pm, I had time spare with no washing to hang up or dishes to clear.

Unusually, I was put up in a hostel rather than a chain hotel because of where the office was located. I had a reasonably good experience there, but the bad reviews on TripAdvisor will probably inspire more poetry.

Despite the productivity I experienced, I’m still not of a mindset where I’d travel somewhere just for a holiday. I like to be somewhere for a purpose, else it feels like a waste of time.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to present workshops about National Novel Writing Month at a writing retreat called Chasing Time, run by three friends. They’re based in a large house in rural Angus.

Unfortunately, this particular workshop didn’t have enough subscribers to go ahead, but it would have suited me nicely to devote time to the other writers during the day, then work on my own project in the evenings. I’m pleased to report that their other workshops have all been successful.

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Almost Nearly Started and Just About Finished

There are times when it’s difficult to begin a new project or to add to an existing one. This entry is due to be published at 6pm on Tuesday 7 May, but I only wrote the first words at around 8:30pm the day before.

Rationally, I know I need to put something out by the deadline, but it was a struggle to think of a topic, plus I have another project I’m keen to start once this entry is written that doesn’t have a time pressure associated with it.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of addressing this procrastination within my final entry, thus creating a topic to discuss.

And it’s not only writing projects. I promised a friend I’d read her Star Wars fan fiction, but that’s been 13 months and I still haven’t touched a word of it.

As I write, I’ve looked up the link again and charged up my Kobo. At least if I transfer it to my device, I have a higher chance of looking at it before 2020. I can’t provide a link because I was sworn not to share it.

Another area where I’m trying to keep up to date is podcasts. There’s a local one called Creative Chit-Chat that I only began to listen to at episode 46 because I knew the interviewee. I’ve then made a concerted effort to go back and listen to them all in order; I currently have episode 35 queued up.

One aspect I love about catching up with a production is that it can compress a long period of time into a shorter period so you can see the changes that have occurred since then.

A prime example is The West Wing, where the fictional political landscape changed over its eight years on the air, influenced by what was happening in the news at the same time.

No doubt if I scrolled back through my entries on this blog, I would find a comparable pattern emerging. Heck, maybe one of my regular readers has already done this and can comment on what they found.

The Inverted Bell Curve

Last week, Creative Dundee invited me to speak at their last-ever Make / Share event, on the subject of Impostor Syndrome.

Each participant is allowed up to 7 minutes and five slides. At my first rehearsal, I hit seven minutes by the time I’d reached my second slide, so I had to cut it down substantially for the final performance, which was captured on camera:

There’s always a question and answer session at the end, during which I was quite happy to inform the audience on a number of topics.

Afterwards, I stayed behind to speak with the other participants. Someone brought up the subject of how our presentations were done. One already had it written for another event, and simply adapted it for this one; another left it until the last minute.

I began to think about how I tackle my own projects, and I realise it follows an inverted bell curve:

The left-hand side of the curve represents my keenness for a new project when I first become involved in it, while the right-hand side represents my keenness when the deadline has nearly arrived. It’s not that I necessarily lose interest in the project during the dip, but there isn’t the same flurry of activity.

Of course, no project is quite as simple as this, but it’s a good generalisation of how I operate.

Ellipsis

This week, I’ve had a conglomeration of events, most of which weren’t related to writing. Unfortunately, these have left me no time to construct a full entry, but nor do I want to throw together a substandard post.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to make use of the time you would have spent reading this entry. Perhaps edit a poem, perhaps plan your diary for the week, perhaps send that e-mail you’ve been drafting.

Whatever you do, make it productive, and I’ll catch you back here next week.

The One with the Problem

Last week, I made reference to an event called Make / Share, in which four people from different artistic disciplines were invited to talk on the subject of ‘Creativity and Self-Care’.

Each speaker gave biographical account of their practice and how each finds a balance between working and resting. Although each story was unique, they all had one factor in common: the artist had to suffer ‘burnout’ before striking this balance.

Mulling this point over afterwards, I was reminded of comments I made in the summer to some good friends that are believed we should be working longer hours in this country, as is common in places such as Japan and South Korea, and being more productive. My friends are great people, so while they thoroughly disagreed with my view, we didn’t fall out over the matter.

APO headquarters.jpg
A place called the Asian Productivity Foundation by Kwangyun.lee – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I apologised to them and retracted my comments in mid-November. Looking at said comments objectively, I realised they were right and that I’m the one with the problem. Over the last few months, I’ve read a few articles on workaholism and found I could answer ‘yes’ to many of the questions. I began reading the Helen Russell book The Year of Living Danishly and thought it sounded like a dystopian nightmare.

The trouble is that I don’t feel as though I have a problem. Here’s how I stand now:

As this writerly lark doesn’t pay very much, I also have a full-time office job. I have more than 26 hours flexitime credit, although I have reached the limit of 29 before, and the last time I took annual leave was in August, with no plans to take any more in the foreseeable future. I run a writing group that meets up every Tuesday and I was pleased to find out our venue is open on Boxing Day and 2 January so we wouldn’t need to take a break. I also have plans to continue writing my November novel and a potential sequel, as well as adapt a public-domain book into a screenplay. I have a target of sending 53 pieces to publishers each year, an average of one a week plus another for good measure. I’ve managed 43 thus far, so I’ll add the other 11 to the 2018 target.

Yet I’m far from burning out; I make a lot of time to see friends and I have a reasonable sleep most nights. It’s simply a case that I need to be working in some way, either in the office or outwith; it’s what keeps me sane. Even when I read a book or watch a film, it’s never entirely for enjoyment, but to comb it for structure and techniques.

Thanks in part to the Make / Share event, I now know the signs of burnout to look out for. Unless that happens, though, I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’m doing – even more if I can squeeze it in – because I’ve never been happier.

I’m Falling Behind

I’m falling behind with my writing. I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher; I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook.

Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place ...
Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place de Rennes side (now Place du 18 Juin 1940), Paris, France, 1895. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time, I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is a spin-off of the main November contest, but with your own flexible goal rather than a 50,000-word challenge. Since I lead the group, I should be setting an example and keeping up with my daily word count, yet I have around half as many words as I should.

On top of all this. I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018. I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010. And I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme; I can never seem to stick to one topic for any length of time.

I’ve even been struggling to catch up with my blog entries. Last Monday’s entry was still being edited at 2pm – three hours before it was due to be published. That might sound like a long time, but when you’re a writer who writes about writing, you need to make sure the spelling and grammar are correct, and that it’s structured in a coherent way.

Speaking of structure, I drafted this entry in a single 15-minute session starting at 11pm on Saturday night. It was more than 300 words long with no paragraph breaks, but some rather raw emotion. My initial plan was to leave it as a wall of text with the minimum of editing. On waking up Sunday morning, however, I elected to extract the best parts and construct a more user-friendly entry.

The main reason I’ve fallen behind is that I’ve moved house over the last couple of weeks. Yet I’ve completed the vast majority of the move now, so I need to pull my finger out and start the aforementioned tasks.

So I’m harnessing the power of peer pressure by posting my to-do list in a public place. By next week, I want to have looked at everything I’ve mentioned above and made a tiny fragment of progress on it, even if it’s only a sentence of two. I consider this an almost embarrassingly achievable goal.

If there’s one good thing that can come from falling behind, it’s the thought that there’s only one way to go from here: forward.

AMENDED Review of the Freewrite by Astrohaus.

Freewrite croppedImagine if a writer like Ernest Hemingway was reanimated and thrust into today’s world. Chances are that he would see a computer and recognise the QUERTY keyboard as it’s very similar to a typewriter, then figure out that the words appear on a TV screen instead of paper.

And like a typewriter, the Freewrite aims to do one task and do it well: to allow a writer to record words electronically without being distracted by the Internet or the many options of a word processing application.

I was an early backer of the project; as such, Astrohaus sent my unit last week. Having had time to evaluate its features, here are my conclusions.


The Freewrite is a sturdy beast weighing about 4lbs. There is no mouse, touchpad or touchscreen facility. Instead, you use the keyboard for almost every feature.

Unlike a modern laptop, the keys will last longer, being a chunky Cherry design reminscient of the BBC Microsystem. They make a satisfying clackety-clack, although this also makes it too loud to use in an average library. Like a typewriter, there are also no arrow keys, only a Backspace button, plus Pg Up and Pg Dn to view previous work without editing it. It’s ideal for the writer who wants to force him- or herself to write words without worrying about editing them.

Aside from the power key, there are two washing-machine-style switches: one controls the wi-fi – to back up only, not to surf the Web – and the other selects a folder so the writer can work on up to three documents concurrently. The screen is e-ink, the same technology used in a black-and-white Kindle. While a valuable battery-saver, it does take a little time to become accustomed to the inherent technical delay betwen pressing a key and seeing the character on-screen.

But the Freewrite does, in some ways, feel like a prototype that’s not quite ready for mass-production.

Consider the Send button, which instantly e-mails you a copy of what you’re writing. Nestled between Alt Gr and Special, it’s far too easy to hit it inadvertently and find multiple drafts in your inbox unexpectedly. The user also needs to press two buttons together to start a new note. Perhaps a similar approach to Send would save these accidental messages.

As I’m British, I chose the ISO keyboard, although an ANSI version is available. That might explain why the Alt Gr button acts so inconsistently. Hold it and type ‘abcdef’ and it should show ‘攢ðeđ’, but sometimes it shows nothing, and there’s no apparant explanation.

AMENDED CONTENT: In the first version of this entry, I said I was also baffled why it’s so difficult to use multiple cloud services simultaneously; the Freewrite currently supports Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive. I use them for different purposes: the former for local document backup, the latter for online-only or collaborative documents, and the other for short reminders. However, Astrohaus responded to me that in Advanced Settings, folders A, B and C can be mapped accordingly.

I’m also unable to edit any Evernote notes, as I’m told it’s ‘created in another application’. I’m aware this is the fault of Evernote, not Astrohaus.

It is possible to map individual folders through the online interface Postbox, but once it’s mapped – even in error – it’s apparantly impossible to disconnect the folder unless you delete it. Can’t someone be allowed to correct a potential mistake?

I would also care to see less overall reliance on Postbox; a basic setting such as font size, for starters, ought to be adjustable on the unit itself rather than through the Web. Every time the writer needs to use Postbox, it’s through a browser, and there’s a potential to be distracted – the very factor the Freewrite is trying to eliminate. It should only be neccessary to use a browser for retrieving backed-up files. The Special key is currently used only to scroll through display options. Any additional features could easily be accessed by using a Special+[button] combination.

There’s a further opportunity being wasted here as well: to bring the whole experience offline if the writer chooses. The Send button might be given a secondary function of sending a draft directly to a printer, and/or backing up onto a USB stick.

I’ve been struggling a little with the battery too. The Freewrite doesn’t seem to charge unless it’s switched off; other devices will charge while you’re using them, albeit more slowly. A percentage indicator showing the remaining power should be a given.


For all the negative points identified, I’m nonetheless convinced the Freewrite does the one thing it set out to do and does it well: provide a distraction-free writing experience. I’m typing this entry on the machine, and I’m finding it’s already forcing me to change my style. If I notice a mistake earlier on, I’ve been making a note in square brackets, eg, [two paras up, correct ‘sending’], then moving on.

It’s worth remembering that even large companies don’t always hit the mark with a new product. Early adopters of the iPhone will remember the major flaws that took a couple of versions to iron out. Similarly, the first Freewrite firmware update might solve some of the issues.

I’m confident the next generation will feel less like a proof of concept and more like a replacement laptop for the serious writer, but you can buy a good Windows PC for much less than the Freewrite’s $598 (£413) price-tag. The question is whether Astrohaus can capitalise on its unique selling point and convince writers that their flagship product is the better investment.