Writing Links

Super busy week at work, which means that I’m doing more overtime than I planned. This translates to less writing time, I’m afraid, but it is still better than nothing. The first sufferer will have to be this blog, because my fiction writing takes precedence over almost everything else these days.

I have finished the basics of my touch typing course and am now simply touch typing, improving my speed, and making sure not to fall into old habits (such as typing with only a few fingers, or glancing every now and then to my keyboard). I have learned to dislike QWERTY, but I’m not yet certain that I want to start learning Colemak at this point.

Anyway, here are a few interesting and useful links that I have gathered over the week:

One Paragraph, Three Drafts – author Diane Chamberlain goes over her (re)writing process using a single paragraph. I find it interesting to watch authors go through their revision process, especially since so few of them are willing to reveal it.

Why Your Attention Span is a Great Excuse for Someone Else’s Failure – a fresh look on some recent eBook (not) reading trends statistics.

Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing and Daily Creative Routine – short, powerful, succinct words of advice from the author of Tropic of Cancer.

Stephen King on How to Be A Great Writer – this article is this week’s gem. 22 bits of advice from Stephen King on how to become a better writer.

Good days and bad days

I had a super productive day today.

I managed to write double my daily word quota (I wrote 1,067 words today), figure out a problem I had with one of my characters (what is his motivation in a certain scene), complete my basic touch typing training, run my Friday errands, and go for an actual run.

Earlier this week things weren’t so great. I was stuck with one of my characters (what is his motivation in a certain scene?), and I had a very demanding week at work, which translated to me really, really struggling to complete my word quota on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Some days are better, some days are worse — it all evens out in the long run. I just need to remember during the rough patches that I am are running a marathon, not a sprint, and I will be alright.

On Learning to Touch Type

For the past two weeks I have been taking the time every day to learn to touch type.

I type a decent 36 words per minute today (sans touch typing), and I rarely look at the keyboard as is. So why make the effort to learn to touch type. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?

One thing was Clive Thompson’s talk on the importance of learning to type fast. I thought that I was a pretty decent typer until I took a typing speed test (here), and discovered that I was merely average. For someone who writes and spends most of my day working on my computer, “average” typing speed is just not good enough. I wanted to stop pausing my writing to scan my keyboard for the right key, and I wanted to stop having to go back and fix typing errors all the time.

The other thing was that my pride was a little hurt by the results of that test. If teenagers can learn to touch type in eight weeks (again, see Thompson’s video), then so can I. I had tried to learn to touch type in the past, but like many of my friends and colleagues I had quickly been discouraged.

So I searched online for a bit, and I found a few very useful, free resources that can help you learn to touch type:

Typing Club – this is the main site that I use. It is excellent, as it teaches you touch typing in small, manageable increments (I am now in lesson 22 for those interested).

Typing Study – another useful site that teaches touch typing in much larger chunks than Typing Club. It also has a speed test and games that help you practice your touch typing. I use it for extra drills, on top of what Typing Club provides.

Type Racer – a very popular touch typing racing game that helps you improve your typing speed.

Keybr.com – another popular touch typing teaching game. Gives you words with blanks in them and sets of keys to learn to touch type. Doesn’t teach by the conventional “home row first, then top row, the bottom row” method.

Typer Shark – here for nostalgia reasons only. A lot of people learned (or tried to learn) to touch type during this childhood using this game. It’s still here if you want to use it.

Typing speed test – another typing speed test site, one that doesn’t use capital letters and punctuation (I got 47 words with it, but it felt like cheating).

Typing tips on Reddit /r/MK wiki – a nice collection of useful typing tools and resources.

/r/BlurredFingers on reddit – a sub reddit devoted to fast typing.

What was really a revelation for me was that once you stick to it for a while, and practice, practice, practice, you notice that it isn’t that you are remembering where each key is, but rather that you are developing muscle memory to where every key is. It takes a few days of persisting, but once it starts happening it is quite stunning. Your mind is clearly no longer spending valuable “processor time” remembering where each key is, and you are free to focus on your writing and your writing only.

This post was touch typed, and took me a little longer to write at the moment, but was a valuable learning experience. We invest time, money and effort in things like finding the perfect notebook, pen or pencil, but hardly enough time in developing skills that are useful for the modern writer.

Biweekly Routine

Routines and rituals are important, and one of the signs of a craftsperson is their care for the tools they use. This is true for any kind of maker, whether your craft is storytelling or leatherwork. Every two weeks I try to go through this routine, to make sure that the things that I use when I write are there and in order when I sit down to do my writing.

Clean keyboard


Some computer keyboards harbour more harmful bacteria than a toilet seat, research has suggested. 

A BBC News report published the findings of a consumer group Which? on keyboard hygiene, and not surprisingly they were shocking.

Since your keyboard is one of your main, if not your main writing tool, taking 10-15 minutes every two weeks to clean it doesn’t seem excessive, yet few writers do so.

Here are the keyboard cleaning guides that I use:

PC World: How to Clean Your Keyboard – simple, informative, easy to follow advice on how to clean your keyboard.

Rispter Guide: Cleaning Keyboards – funny, and with plenty of pictures. Also, much more thorough than the PC world guide, and geared towards mechanical keyboard maintenance.

Check backups

You can read up here on how to backup your work. Once every two weeks go over your backups and check to see that everything is where you expect it to be.

Organize notes

Take a few minutes once every two weeks to go over your notes, file or throw away those that aren’t relevant anymore and make sure that you don’t have any loose notes scribbled on envelopes or post-it notes around the house.

Organize file names

If you for some reason work with Word and not with Scrivener (why?), and keep several versions of your work in different files, take a moment to make sure that your file names haven’t gotten out of hand, and you still know where everything is and what everything is. File names “My novel – old new new version 2” — I’m looking at you.

Check notebooks, pencils, pens

Check your notebooks, pencils, pens (fountain pens or not), to see what needs to be refilled soon, reinforced or replaced.

Update Scrivener project metadata

Take some time to fill in character names and short descriptions, places information, references etc. in your Scrivener project’s Characters, Places or Research folders. This information is important to keep on hand for long projects, and is especially useful to keep bundled together with your writing — mainly for search purposes (“where did I reference X character?”).

Backup, backup, backup

[Note: I use a Mac for all of my writing, so this post is geared towards Mac users. If you have a PC you need to find a replacement for Time Machine or SuperDuper  — Windows Backup does not work well and I haven’t found a good enough replacement — but otherwise the rest of my post is still relevant to you.]

It doesn’t matter what you are writing, whether it’s a paper, article, short story or novel, if you are typing into a computer, you need a backup system.

Start out by investing in an external hard drive, one that isn’t a portable 2.5’’ drive (those are less reliable over time), but a full sized drive from a reputable maker (Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, Tanscend, Lacie, etc). Buy the largest HD that you can afford (4-5 TB should have you covered), and make sure that it connects to your computer via USB 3.0.

Then setup Time Machine and/or SuperDuper (if you are on a Mac) to backup your entire hard drive regularly. I scheduled Time Machine to backup my HD once an hour to my external Lacie drive. Over the years I have had a chance to restore my entire computer from it when my cat decided to take a walk all over my keyboard, causing a kernel panic and somehow corrupting my filesystem. This is the backup that you will use when you accidentally spill juice over your laptop, or have a HD crash, etc.

A local backup of your entire computer is great, but it isn’t very useful if your house burned down, if you had a power surge, an earthquake, tornado, etc. That’s what online backup is for, and for this I use Backblaze. For $5 a month you get unlimited, unthrottled online storage, and a nifty and very simple to use piece of software that flushes all of your files to the Backblaze severs. This is not a bootable backup, but a backup of all of your data. It’s for the I-lost-my-house-and-everything-in-it kind of scenario, where you have to buy a new replacement computer, but still want all the data that you had on your old computer. As an added bonus, you can access your Backblaze files from anywhere, so if you just want to checkout a file or two, or flush your photo library between computers, Backblaze can help you with that too.

Dropbox is not a replacement for Backblaze, because it’s not geared towards online backup (not in pricing nor in its interface and options), but it is a good file sharing and syncing service. Use Dropbox coupled with Scrivener’s “Backup” and “Backup to…” to create up to date backups of your current project that you can access and update from anywhere.

Finally, remember — if your backup system relies on you to remember to back something up, the it’s not a backup system. 

How I find Time to Write

I work full time at a hi-tech job, which means that I also put in some overtime, although I carefully selected a workplace that has an 8 hour standard work day, in which work starts relatively early. I also run 2-3 times a week, and spend one afternoon a week drawing. Finding time to write when I was working on my thesis was gruelling, and this was the major reason why I eventually had to give up on it. When I decided that it was time to work on my own (fiction) writing, I knew that I had to do something about my schedule and my habits if I wanted to succeed.

I now write 500 words a day, with 200-400 word blog posts several times a week, and I haven’t quit my day job, or stopped running or drawing. I also haven’t given up on sleep, my family, turned into a social recluse, or completely cut off my leisure time. What I have done is made some small changes to my daily routine, replacing old unproductive habits with new, more productive ones.

1. Unwinding Time

I used to come home from work, and flick on the TV, and just veg out in front of it for an hour, and hour and a half. I was decompressing from work and transitioning into “home mode,” but I certainly didn’t need a full hour or more in front of the TV to do it.

TV has this affect on me, where I can zap around between channels, moving from one to another as soon as a show ends or a commercial break starts. I lose track of time quickly this way, and it is very difficult to tear myself away from it once I have turned it on.

I now don’t allow myself to come home from work and turn on the TV to decompress. I can do other things for the same effect — put a load of laundry in the washing machine, play with my cats, read the newspaper, read a few pages from a book.

The result is that I have now vastly downsized TV from my life, without actually “banning” TV.

2. Get Down to Writing as Soon as You Can

As soon as I’ve cleared my head a little, I sit down to write. No “I’ll just browse this website first,” or “let me just spend an hour or two on twitter”.

3. Eliminate friction

Have Scrivener open on your project at all times, and have it the main window on your computer. It should be the first thing that you see when you open your computer. Have all your notes out and next to your computer. If you write by hand, have your notebook open and a pen or pencil ready next to it.

Eliminating all this little points of friction have stopped me from finding silly excuses to not writing, such as “well I can’t be bothered to find all my notes now,” and from procrastinating on my way to do actual writing (“Oh Tweetbot is open. Let me just have a glimpse at my twitter feed before I open Scrivener. It won’t take more than a minute”. It never takes only a minute).

4. All dead time is writing time

If I have 15 minutes spare, then I can write at least 100-200 words in them, or even an entire blog post. 10 minutes spare is a great time to think about my next scene. If I’m doing housework, then I’m either thinking about my next scene, figuring out what to do with X or Y character, or listening to podcasts. 30 minutes is more than enough to get close to finishing my daily quota, or quick draft my next scene.

If you are waiting for a chunk of a few hours during your “peak productive” time of day, then you have a long wait ahead of you. By the time the stars align and you sit down and write, I have written thousands of words, and more importantly, built up my writing habit muscles.

5. Put a daily word quota on yourself

I started small, with 200 words a day for about two weeks, and then moved to 500 words a day. Use a word log to motivate yourself to persist, keep yourself accountable, and show progress over time. Habits build over weeks, so it is more important to set a goal that you know that you can handle every day, then be overly ambitious and then fall into an anxiety spiral.

6. Sit down and write. Don’t get up until you are done.

No browsing. No texting. No tweeting or catching up on Facebook. I just sit down and plough through my quota until I am done. If I’m in the zone, I keep on going. But until I am finished writing I stop for nobody. Starting back again after you paused for a break is just so much effort that I oftentimes fail to do it. Better to get it done in one go than to stop and start, stop and start. That way you can build momentum.

7. Make it easy to pick up where you left off

Don’t stop mid-sentence, but do stop in a logical place in your writing, and leave yourself a note (or better yet, quick draft) as to where you plan to go to next. Again, this is all about eliminating friction.

The Results

I have cut down my TV time to about 3-4 hours a week, and I have been consistently writing 500 words a day for over a month. Neither my work, family, friends nor my other hobbies have suffered for it. All I did was eliminate friction, remove dead time from my schedule, and teach myself that even 15 minutes of spare time is enough time to write in.

This post took 20 minutes to write, and is almost 1000 words long. What could you have written during that time?

Writing Links

A few interesting writing links for this week:

The Stupid Fast System | Medium

If you’ve only got 30 minutes to write, fine, write for those thirty minutes. If you’ve got a crying baby in the other room, don’t use that as an excuse not to write. (Although you should probably, you know, check on it first.) But make a little effort up front to clear what distractions you can. You want to set yourself up for success.

This article has some pretty solid advice on how to get more writing done with the time that you have. Apart from the “no writing when editing advice” I pretty much agree with everything said here.

On Pencils and Process | WritersDigest.com

Jason Kottke said that people’s love of pencils is “partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.

I use a pencils a lot in my writing – particularly when it comes to places in my narrative where I get “lost for words”. Pencils are my favourite tool for quickly trying out several options, as they are particularly helpful tools for this kind of thinking.

David Vann | Advice to Writers

I write every morning, seven days a week, and the momentum of writing every day is tremendously important to me, because I have no outline or plan and view writing as a transformation by the unconscious. I don’t know what will happen on the page each day, but there’s a shocking amount of pattern and structure that emerges, and I think this can happen only through a daily practice.

There’s a lot that Vann says in this interview that I disagree with, but it is still worth a few minutes of your time, if only for the list of authors that influenced him.

Kill Your Darlings: Five Writers on the Cutting Room Floor | The Millions

Five contemporary authors discussing the most painful thing that they had to cut out of their novels, and more importantly why.

Make three lists | Seth’s Blog

Very brief blog entry from Seth Godin about things to consider before embarking on a new project. Not aimed specifically at writers but certainly relevant to them.

“Type as quickly as you can, and always carry a pencil”

Clive Thompson in a fascinating, short (~10 min) talk about the benefits of writing with pencil  and typing, and when it’s best to use one or the other.

I used to write all my drafts longhand. Now I just quick draft, outline and try out things (i.e. “big thinking”) with a fountain pen or pencil, and type out my actual draft on my computer (using a “clicky” keyboard, which I highly recommend).

Give yourself a break – it’s a marathon, not a sprint

I’ve had a rough writing week this week and last. For the first time since I started writing I missed a few days of daily writing (four to be exact), and in two other days I didn’t hit my daily 500 words quota. I can try to chalk it up to rough days at work, but if I look at my word log I can see that the truth is it was due to social gatherings with friends or family. For the first time ever I got an insight into the mindset of all those authors who became social recluses 🙂

As the week progressed I started stressing out that I wouldn’t meet the deadline I had set to myself  — finishing another chapter by this Saturday. I also gave myself a hard time for not doubling down on the days that I did write, to make up for all that “wasted” time. This only served to make me write not great stuff (to say the least) earlier this week, and procrastinate when it came time to sit down and write.

Yesterday I sat down and reminded myself that this wasn’t a sprint, but a marathon. There are going to be good weeks and bad, and as long as I didn’t let non-writing days grow into a habit, everything would work out well in the end. I looked at the writing I did earlier this week, and spent my writing session quickly repairing what needed to be repaired for me to move on (no polishing, just necessary fixes). I finished that up today, and it went well enough to motivate me to write non-stop for about an hour after that. Nobody was more surprised than me to look at the screen and realize that I managed to polish off chapter 3 today.

For me these past two weeks were about realizing that I am allowed to have a social life without feeling guilty about it, and that as long as I don’t let my lizard brain take over and push me into a spiral of guilt, paralysis, and then more guilt, then I’ll be just fine.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Speaking of podcasts, Ira Glass, the talented host/reporter/producer/storyteller of This American Life, did an interview a while back on storytelling.

He talks about the basics of storytelling, what makes a good story a good story, and how you can ruin a good story with bad telling. He also expounds on how he got started in radio storytelling, what are some of the challenges a beginner has to overcome, how to get better at storytelling, how to find your voice, and how to cut yourself some slack when you are starting out.

Well worth your time, the interview can be found here:

An audio only version can be found here:

Ira Glass on Storytelling, Radio and Politics (part 1)

Ira Glass On Anxiety, Fame, and the Early Days of This American Life (part 2)