Where the magic happens

I’ve been on a journey to find out just how typical my own writing space actually is. I thought it might be worthwhile to show others what my desk looks like, you know – where the magic happens; warts and all.


Come with me on a small tour around the space that could hold the answers to many of my dreams. In no particular order;

  • Max the Border Terrier – I just woke him up moving from my chair and he was in the middle of a particularly good stretch. He’s good company at night and keeps my feet warm in the winter.
  • Laptop is for work and is usually tucked away in the drawers to the side. If I’m working, then I’m not writing and vice versa.
  • The 32″ TV doubles as my main monitor when I’m writing at night, whilst the 20″ monitor is my main source of research as I use it to surf the Internet.
  • The lamp adds an element of mood lighting at night when I’m writing. I chose it because it looked very “Steampunk” to me.
  • Forgive the saucer and can / glass. I’d just finished my dinner and hadn’t gotten around to clearing the pots.
  • The book on the desk is an old university creative writing book that I’m working through at the moment. The box of pins / clips on top are there to allow me to mark the various pages that inspire me.
  • Finally, there is just half of a mini/personal Christmas tree in the top left of the picture. I’ve wrapped some tiny lights around it and I’ve kept it there so I can turn it on and experience my own little bit of Christmas whenever I choose.

***Bonus point if anyone spotted the remote control to the TV that is literally twelve inches away from the actual screen.  I know, I’m lazy!***

Back to the actual searching now though. I’ve found lots of resources that show where some of the more famous authors penned their works. One particular link is a section on The Guardian website called Writers’ room over here.

This gem of a section has some wonderful rooms dating back to around 2007 (the reports, not the desks). My own personal favourites are:

Anthony Browne – I just love the lighting in this room. I assume it’s intended as Anthony is an illustrator but it just feels so light and airy. Also, he’s not the first person to suggest working standing up is good for the back.

Joan Bakewell – I can picture myself there on a cold Winter’s night with that log fire burning away. Joan’s comments about the poster on her wall and how she wants “some of her stillness to transmit itself to me, help me settle down and find my focus,” I find extremely comforting.

Francesca Simon – I like the angles and the way the eye is drawn to that excellent window. Francesca also has trouble with music and lyrics when she’s writing, very similar to myself.  Ever been writing a short story whist listening to Bily Joel and find that one of your final lines is, “well, she’s always a woman to me!”

Virginia Woolf – what a view! Imagine that at dusk with a slight drizzle in the air and the water running down those windows. When you read the text that accompanies this picture, you get a truly remarkable insight into how much of an idyllic lifestyle it must have been. There’s a tinge of sadness with this image as it isn’t difficult to picture Leonard Woolf finding ‘that’ letter to him on this desk and to see him rush out from the room.

Helen Simpson – organised. My room is only ever this organised after my wife has cleaned it up and I’ve not been allowed back in it yet. I love the idea that Helen utilise trestle tables (I only ever see them when wall-papering or at car-boot sales).  I’m also fascinated about how much goes into the planning for a 2000 word short story (Note to myself: must try harder!). I also cracked a wry smile when Helen talks about the paint getting yellower towards the ceiling – it reminds of that old horror story – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman

Nicola Barker – dog.

Joshua Ferris – cat.

Al Kennedy – how do I get my chair to recline like that? I like the idea that Al keeps his travelling hat and bag on display to remind himself how he can just get up and go whenever he pleases, even though he knows he can’t. Similarly in my own writing space, I keep a large rucksack and some pamphlets on local walks that I’m always looking to get around to.

Hilary Mantel – not sure how I’d feel about living in an old Asylum. However, that’s until I read about this little space, “If I feel travel would broaden the mind, I take my laptop up a spiral staircase, to a little room under the asylum clock.” Really? a secret room under an old clock.

How do these compare against your own ideal writing space, real or otherwise?

Killing Your Darlings – Writing Excuses

What are your darlings?

The Writing Excuses podcast suggests that ‘your darlings’ are parts of your writing that you have a particular fondness of to the point that you begin to wrap your plot around them, even if it becomes detrimental to said plot.

The most obvious type of darling will be a particular character that, for whatever reason, resonates with you more than the others. Very often it isn’t the villain nor the hero either but a cast member that we find difficult to keep in the background.

Further examples discussed were particular first lines that had the power to drive an entire story before it was accepted that the line didn’t quite fit the plot after all. From a visual point of view, an image can also be fundamental to the creative process, it can be the catalyst for an idea that underpins a particular novel (after all, we do say a picture paints a thousand words!).

Many of these are common areas and I can see why, especially if we’re utilising our notebooks to scribble down particular phrases or images that set off a spark deep within our imagination.

This isn’t a bad thing for our writing when it is done well, but when they begin to take over it can be a problem.

How do you recognise your darlings?

Quite often it isn’t the writer himself that will recognise them. Chances are, you’re too close to your writing to see the effect that your darling is having on the rest of the novel. The discussion on the podcast all had a similar point in common; that is, nearly all darlings were pointed out by external influences. Advice or criticism from writing groups, editors, agents and friends were all examples where darlings were pointed out, often to the surprise of the writer.

If you, or your writing, doesn’t have the benefit of such an audience, then a good tip is that if you’re finding yourself writing the same conversation, the same scene, the same chapter over and over again without resolution then you’re probably trying too hard sub-consciously to keep a darling alive.

When should you kill them?

Many of us already know the benefits of writing the first draft with the internal editor locked tightly away. Whilst this does enable the first draft to be written relatively free of changes, it does mean that our retrospective view of things isn’t used until the re-writing process. It is here that we get to look over what we’ve written and are able to decide what works, and what doesn’t. Doing it in this part of the process enables you to have a lot more of the novel available to compare your darling against.

A wonderful quote about when you should become detached enough from your writing to kill your darlings is, “… start getting paid for it. Money brings a whole new level of detachment.”

Why should you kill them?

Similarly to recognising them, your darlings often hide from the writer and, the deeper they hide, the more damage they can do to your writing. Without knowing it, that joke you thought was funny and just had to be included may not be funny to anyone else. You could keep a scene in the novel because you think it is wonderful when, in truth, it could be an immersion-breaker for all other readers.

It will be tough to do it and you may not want to do it but, if there is the slightest chance that it makes your novel better, surely it’s worth at least trying?

The podcast discusses how some authors will purpose pad their writing out with more words / characters / scenes than is really necessary just so they can go through the cutting process without really hitting the areas that matter. This isn’t condoned in the podcast but does make you realise just how far some people will go to avoid killing their darlings.

There was some good news on the podcast though; Brandon suggests that the more books you end up writing, the easier this process becomes as you become less detached with your books as the numbers increase. I don’t think this is a professional thing, you just naturally end up spending less time on each book, and therefore don’t build up the same relationships.

Where do your darlings go when they die?

Well, that depends on you. From my own experience, one of the biggest darlings I killed off was an entire chapter around a particular event. I wrote that event as the first chapter of a novel and kept it there for months before I finally realised there was very little action in it and it contained quite a bit of exposition.

I knew something was wrong when I kept starting my re-writing process from chapter 2. In the end I didn’t quite kill it off, rather I chopped it up into pieces; some of it became a prologue, some of it was introduced throughout the novel and the rest was fed to the DELETE key.

Alternatively (and this is mentioned in the podcast) I keep an ‘ideas’ folder in Scrivener that almost all darlings are sent to. It’s a kind of literary limbo. Every now and then I scan through them all to see if anything can be used in my current writing project. If I find something, I use the godly power of the writer to resurrect it and the whole process can start again.

In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson is able to retain his deleted scenes / characters on his website and allow them to live on without them affecting the novel that they initially inhabited.

Interesting advice

It was suggested that this topic can be a significant issue for new writers, especially those who have spent a long time working on their first project. I can certainly understand what is being suggested; my own first novel is almost ten years in the making and I personally feel I just HAVE to get it out of the way before I can settle down and move on to newer things.

If you are in a similar position to me, then the advice can be quite shocking.

The advice is that you are probably already too detached to elements of this particular novel and, if you continue, you will find it very difficult to kill your darlings successfully.

The old saying of having to write a million words before you become a good writer is discussed to the point that it shouldn’t all be from the same book i.e. don’t keep trying to hammer out something when you may be better off just starting something different.

Personally, whilst I know I’ve invested quite some time into my own particular project, I don’t think I’m able to give up on it just yet. Whether that means I’m in for a rough time later on, I’ll just have to wait and see.

Writing Excuses Episode 3, Season 1 has a fifteen minute discussion about this.

Writing no longer buys a champagne lifestyle…

Writing no longer buys a champagne lifestyle

I’m sure the only surprise in this title is – did it ever?

After all, if it was easy to get published then we wouldn’t all be banging our heads against a brick wall grinding out novels one blood-soaked word at a time.  I once watched a TV programme about a man who wanted to give up his current job to become a writer.  The presenter showed the man a pile of telephone directories and said, “this is how many people write books each year”, he then picked up just two of the directories and said, “this is how many books are published each year. Finally, he ripped out a handful of pages from a single directory and said, “this is how many books pay enough for the author to write full-time.”

“..pay enough for the author to write full-time.” The first time around I missed that part.

In the second line of this post, I purposely talked about getting published rather than getting paid.  That’s because for many of us, me included, it’s the ‘getting published’ part that seems to be the initial hurdle, everything else in this uphill struggle seems irrelevant – if I’m running to catch the last train home and it’s about to leave the station, I’ll jump on it and worry about the ticket later. However, what that programme told me, and what the news story above seems to suggest, is that it may not be enough to just get published, even more than once, if your dream is to write full-time.

AJ Dalton talked in an interview recently stating that he still has to teach as it provides a source of income that his books simply don’t provide at the moment.   Furthermore, his book contract requires him to produce a book per year which only tightens the constraints further. He has to juggle writing part-time with holding down a full-time job (no debates on whether teaching counts as a full time job!!)

And he isn’t the only one. According to those figures in the ACLS survey, only 11.5% of professional writers earn their income solely from writing which is a drop from 40% in 2005.

In 2013, Patrick Wensink had a novel reach the top of an Amazon bestseller list, as well as a review in the New Yorker but it failed to rain money down on him.  In fact, he made a particularly apt quote;

It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession.

His post goes on to show that even a $100,000 advance, after taxes and expenses, leaves around half as actual money in the bank – I don’t know about you but I earn more than that now in my mundane IT job. In theory, if I can get a contract that pays me $100,000 a year writing, I’m probably still financially better off turning it down and keeping the job I have (but WHAT a choice that would be).

The news doesn’t get any better either. Whilst the link at the top of the post talks about authors earning an average of £11,000 (about $18,500), an older story by The Guardian suggests that most writers earn less than £600 (about $1000) as an annual income.  Back in 2012, when e-books and self-publishing were rising in popularity, Seth Godin went as far as to suggest that, in this age of downloadable movies and music, shouldn’t we as authors just be happy for someone to read our work rather than expecting to be paid for it?  Is it right to suggest that art shouldn’t have a price tag?

Taking a different stance, we have Lynn Shepherd asking the likes of JK Rowling to actually stop writing to give the rest of us a chance at stardom. Personally, I don’t see Manchester United losing matches on purpose, or Sebastian Vettel slowing down a bit so why should the likes of Rowling lay down her pen? Eventually, readers will look for something else, the market will adjust, and other authors will naturally get their chance.

So, where does this leave us as aspiring authors?  The world is changing at a fantastic pace, often quicker than many of us can react to; what we think we want now may not be the same thing we want in the future.  We all know getting published is a huge obstacle and to think that making a lot of money from our work is going to be any easier may just be naivety.

I suppose it depends on whether you are a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty type of person.  For some of us, the monetary value is of little concern and we would write if we were on a desert island with little chance of rescue and a box of ball-point pens.  For others, writing is less of an art and more of a job that must be reigned in and managed with professional accuracy; if it looks like we aren’t going to make money, then it’s onto the next big thing that will.

For me, I’ll just be happy to see my words in print and a smile on someone’s face as they read it.  If there’s enough money left in the pot to allow me to do it again, I’ll have a smile on my face as well.

Are we walking less?

Considering my post a few days ago about how walking can stir the creative juices, I was interested to find a post on the BBC website about how we may all be walking less and less these days.

Click the link to read more about it, but I’ve summarised a few interesting points below;

* Walking is considered a luxury in the West

* Wordsworth, Dickens and Woolf were all walkers

* In the UK, May is National Walking Month

* Prof.  Frederic Gros has written a book, A Philosophy of Walking 

* Nearly 25% of journeys are taken by foot, although only 17% are specifically for walking

* Geoff Nicholson has written a book, The Lost Art of Walking

* Los Angeles is notoriously car-focused.

* Kuala Lumpa has pavements that mysteriously end

* Merlin Coverley has written a book, The Art of Wandering: The Writer as a Walker

* Many people often text whilst walking

* Rebecca Solnit has written a book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

* Key tips include: walking further with no fixed route, go alone, walk mindfully

Authors asked to rally on behalf of local bookstores.

It seems that a call has gone out asking authors to do more to help out independent bookshops throughout the streets of Britain.

The suggestion being that your name (if you’re considered famous enough) will bring custom to the bookshop whilst copies of your book will be bought.  It sounds like a win-win situation.

However, there are a couple of issues with this;

1)      Authors are generally quiet, timid people who would probably prefer to spend that time at the keyboard writing rather than sitting at a desk in a bookshop.

2)      In Britain, many of us are a quite-reserved bunch and often our reaction to someone famous isn’t to go and talk to them. No, we point to them, hang around near them, and then tell our friends later that night who we ‘met’. Continue reading

Iain (M) Banks has told his readers that he has terminal cancer

This story about Iain Banks is a few weeks old now, but I kept it back to send out today for a particular reason.

This story struck a nerve with me.  Not because I’ve never read any of Iain Banks’ (or Iain M Banks’) novels, but more because why I haven’t.

Continue reading