Writing with a tomato

The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time-management many writers find useful. It was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Crillo originally used. (Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”.)

There’s a whole website devoted to it, but you really only need three items to get started:

  • A timer of some sort.
  • A pencil.
  • A piece of paper.

You can use a timing app on your computer or cellphone, but Crillo recommends a mechanical timer – the type you twist and set – because the physical action of doing so helps you focus on the task. (And personally, I find the quiet tick-tick-tick in the background a subtle prompt to keep going.)

A pomodoro is 25 minutes. It is absolutely indivisible! There’s not such thing as a half-pomodoro or three-fifths of one. If you don’t complete a pomodoro, it’s just not counted.

Here’s how to “pomodoro”:

  1. Decide on a task; writing, revising, editing, etc.
  2. Set the timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. When it rings, put a tick on the piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four ticks on the page, take a five-minute break then go back to step 2.
  6. If you’ve accumulated four ticks, put a line through them to cancel them out and take a 15-20 minute break. When you return, go back to step 1.

The advantage of working this way is that it breaks time up into manageable units and helps you keep focused. (“No, I won’t check my email till the timer rings.”) What’s more, the pomodoros don’t have to be contiguous. I know of one writer who makes her four-a-day by doing two in the morning before work, one at lunchtime, and one in the evening. Writer Kat Loterzo even credits it with helping her draft a book in just three weeks.

There are plenty of reasons for not writing, but surely you can fit in a pomodoro or two…?

 

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Check your popularity with n-grams

Y’all know about n-grams, right? Wikipedia nails ’em:

… an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

So there you go.

Hmm, right …

My introduction to n-grams came in the form of a question: which is used more, leaped or leapt (as in the past-participle of leap)? And the answer came back very quickly: both, depending on your market.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is the perfect tool for this sort of question. Simply input the two words separated by a comma, choose the years to search and corpus (the group of texts) you want to examine, and hit the Search Lots of Books button. Here’s my result for US English from 1800–2000:

And British English for the same period:

So two winners, depending on your market.

Often there’s only one clear winner. When it was first published in 2011, a couple friends thought the title of my book Too Many Zeros was misspelt. Surely it should be Too Many Zeroes? Not according to Ngram Viewer, for American …

… or for British English …

Of course, the answer you get will depend on the question you ask. The old GIGO principle — Garbage In, Garbage Out — applies. For example, if I add ones to my list of search terms, the book was hopelessly misnamed:

Not that I’d ever be fooled by that …

 

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Reasons for not writing #5: I meant to, but I got distracted

The problem: You’re looking at it!

In some ways, computers with word processors are the best writing invention ever. Until quite recently, writers wrote by hand. Imagine War and Peace, written out in longhand. Or A Tale of Two Cities. (You can still see some of Dickens’ original drafts and corrections here.) Now imagine being the printer, setting out each line of type, letter by letter, while trying to read some barely decipherable scrawl …

5-cities

A lot later, typewriters came along, which simplified the process to a degree. The scratching of a nib was replaced by a mechanical clackety-clack and the end of each line was prefaced by warning bell, at which point the writer hit a lever to advance the paper a few millimetres and physically throw the carriage back to its starting point. (The origin, by the way, of that obtuse term Carriage Return.)

5-carriage_return

There were still problems with typewriters. Making corrections was awkward. So was making copies. In the days before photocopiers, carbon paper was the only way to go; tissue-thin stuff that you interleaved between your pages. If you struck each key firmly enough, you could get three or even four copies simultaneously, although readability disappeared rapidly with depth and just handling the stuff left you looking like you’d been fingerprinted by the police.

Word processors emerged in the 1960s as an offshoot of the computer revolution. (The term “word processing” was one of the New York Times buzz words of 1971.) They really were a revolution. You could cut and paste paragraphs without a glue pot, move things around without having to renumber all your pages, and even search and replace text. What’s more, you always had a copy on file and could print out a pristine draft (on your dot-matrix printer) any time you liked.

There were still problems though. Screens were green and the only character set on them was monospace. While a whole range of fancy printout formats were available, before graphical user interfaces and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) displays, you had to add strings of arcane control characters to layouts, and the only way to check you had exactly what you wanted was to actually print the document.

5-dec_manual

In the early ‘90s, I was the project manager responsible for putting PCs in the Wellington City Council. We had a budget of just under a million dollars, and after we’d selected a vendor, set up the servers and sorted out an implementation and training regime, we selected a pilot group to see how things would go in real life. We chose the council secretaries, a dozen or so women who did all the typing (as it was called in those days) for senior managers and councillors. They were no slouches when it came to word processing. They’d been using 80-character wide DEC terminals for years – along with all those arcane character codes – but were new to GUI interfaces.

I sat at the back of the classroom, observing, while one of the trainers introduced them to Word, a screen image beamed on to a whiteboard so they could all see it in action. They were clearly impressed. Then one of them asked, ‘What about doing columns?’

‘No problem,’ the trainer said. ‘Just select some text, click here, click there and choose the number of columns you want.’

In an instant the text reformatted into three perfect columns and there were gasps of astonishment around the room. It was the first time I’d seen people left speechless by the way technology can turn a complex task into a trivial one.

And that pretty much brings us up to date. There have been some modest improvements since the first GUI word processors, and I really wouldn’t be without one, but the problem for writers is that computer word I mentioned earlier. They’re just another program on your computer, one of many, probably running simultaneously. If Dickens or Dostoevsky wanted to check the latest news or tomorrow’s weather, they’d have to send out for a copy of the newspaper. All we have to do is flick to another window. Easy. And horribly distracting!

Have you ever walked into a room intent on doing something, then forgotten what it was when you got there? It’s a common experience and apparently has an evolutionary explanation. To our brains, changing rooms is equivalent to a sudden change in our environment and it causes our attention to be reset. Are there any threats here? Food sources? Friends or foes? Our previous mental state is overridden – at least temporarily.

Now consider research dating back as far as 1927 that shows humans are rubbish at multi-tasking. Each time you swap tasks on your computer, your brain does a mini reset. Each reset might only take a fraction of a second, but it can add up to 40% loss of efficiency. At that’s just mundane office tasks, not the peculiar focus and concentration that creative writing seems to demand.

5-multitasking1

People who claim to be good at multi-tasking are really just fooling themselves. All they’re actually doing is several things at once, poorly.

5-multitasking2

Think about that next time your email program pings to say you’ve got a message or you flip over to check Facebook or text messages on your phone.

The solution: You know this already

Yep, it’s simple: shut it down or turn it off.

If you want to send and receive emails, fine, do that. Browse the web? Go right ahead. Play a quick game of Solitaire? No problem. But if you want to write, properly and well, shut everything off but your word processor. Hell, even disconnect from the internet if really can’t trust yourself not to take a peek at Twitter or Facebook. And shut off your mobile phone too. If you’re really so important that you absolutely have to be available 24/7, you should probably focus on that role and come back to writing later.

Seriously, will the world stop turning if you can’t be reached for an hour?

And shut off your word processor’s built-in distractions too – its grammar and its spell checker. You can do all that stuff later. It’s not writing! Get your story out first in all its rough glory. Only writing is writing.

But I see this all the time – hell, I do it myself! My brain goes, Would Victorians have used the term pickpocket? Look it up. It won’t take a second. So I do. Online Etymology shows the word dates back to the 1590s, became a verb in the 1670s, and was had its origins in the term “pick-purse” from the late fourteenth century. Fascinating stuff, but it’s not actually writing.

Remember, only writing is writing.

Now shut off your browser and get back to work!


 

I wrote the first draft of this novel in six weeks, starting from a blank screen. (Here’s where I’d got to after 30 days.) It was rough and needed a lot more work, but that was so much easier once I had the thing in front of me.


More reasons for not writing: #1, #2, #3, #4


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Reasons for not writing #4: I Don’t Feel Like It!

0014It’s Monday morning, you had a great weekend, but you’re a bit tired. You call your boss and say you won’t be in today.

‘Oh, why not?’ she asks.

‘I just don’t feel like it.’

‘Fair enough. Well, I hope you’ll feel like coming in again soon. Your job will always be here for when you do feel like,’ she says.

A likely scenario, right? How about this one …?

You arrive home from a grinding day at work, knowing you should put an hour in at the keyboard working on The Novel, but you just don’t feel like it. So you don’t.

That’s much more likely, yes? And chances are, you’ll tell yourself you’ll make it up tomorrow (which you won’t), or do a long stretch at the weekend when you’ll really feel like writing (which you most certainly won’t because it’s the weekend).

So what’s going on here?

The fact is, we often do things we don’t feel like doing, yet we do them anyway. Did you really feel like going into work today? (Really?) Do you really feel like going grocery shopping? Or going to the dentist?

How about brushing your teeth? This is a great analogy because it’s something we all do at least twice a day, but give very little thought to. We just do it. And that’s the state you want to get to with your writing. No excuses, not even any real forethought; you just sit down and do it.

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Isabelle Allende

The weird thing about writing – and I experience this almost every day – is that it takes 5-10 minutes for my brain to properly engage with whatever I’m working on. In that start-up time, it’s highly suggestible to doing anything that’s not writing. Another cup of tea. Checking email. Putting on the laundry. Even going out grocery shopping. But if I persist, it’s like it finally gives up and goes, “All right, damn it. If you insist …” and I’m away.

“… a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

E.B. White

I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened. In fact, I’ve come to welcome those not-feeling-like-writing times because they often turn out to be my most productive. At the end of an allocated hour, I’ll invariably carry on, sometimes way longer than planned, and finally have to tear myself away – which is also good because I’ll be keen to get back to it tomorrow.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

Octavia Butler

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually feel like writing this blog today. But I did it anyway.

Like they say in the shoe ad …

Jus do it!

This excuse not good enough for you? You might care for some other Reasons For Not Writing, here, here and here.

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Reasons for not writing #3: Never finishing

perfectThis reason’s a variation of Reason #2 (endlessly rewriting), but it’s a little more subtle.

By never quite finishing, you’re never in the invidious position of having a finished manuscript that you, or anyone else, can sit down and read and coolly assess. In some ways, finishing a manuscript is like a death in the family — or a lot of little deaths. You and your characters have spent a great deal of time together, you know each other intimately, you’re old friends — and now you have to say goodbye. What’s more, once they’re sent out into the world, your friends might be misjudged, disliked, even criticised. Better to keep them close where you can keep reliving and refining those lovely moments you’ve shared …

Here’s the solution

Get over yourself!

Finish up, type THE END, print it out, shove it in a drawer and start on something fresh. In a month or two’s time — when you’re well on the way to making new friends — take it out, settle in a quiet corner and read it through. At this point, you’ll almost certainly find a thousand little niggles that need unniggling, missing bits that need adding, fat that needs trimming and even whole segments that need re-ordering. Congratulations! This is the second part of being a writer: critically assessing your own work.

You might even decide it’ll take too much effort to fix. Fine. Put it down as a practice novel. Learn what you can from it and move on. Do you think Michelangelo carved David from a block of stone without spending years chipping away at countless other blocks, refining his technique? The mistakes ended up being turned into gravel paths while David ended up in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well.
This usually begins by reading good writing by other people,
and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Now, get on with your writing!

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Reasons for not writing #2: Rewriting

writer-200pxWhat do you mean by “writing”? It’s a serious question. Think about it for a moment.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours “writing”. (Notice the inverted commas.) In fact, I was actually rewriting – going over some stuff I’d done the day before, tightening it, improving it, adding a little here, pruning a little there. At the end of a two-hour session, the book that it will be a part of was the grand total of 179 words longer.

In the old days – which is to say, up until a few of months ago – I’d have called that “writing”. After all, isn’t it still part of the general process of creating fiction? Yes, it can be. But it can also be a fantastic excuse NOT TO WRITE.

These days, I take a more pragmatic approach to writing. (Notice the absence of inverted commas.) These days, what I call writing is simply the production of new words that move the story on.

So rewriting isn’t writing. Planning isn’t writing. Outlining isn’t writing. Drawing up character sheets, researching, plotting, preparation, grammar and spell checking … none of these things are writing because none of them add substantially to your story.

Oh, they may do so indirectly. May, in fact, be integral to your production of that story, but they are not writing!

For years, I’ve done all of the above – and more – and told myself I’m writing. Complete BS, of course. ‘Oh, I’m cruising the internet looking at common grammatical errors. It’s bound to help my work.’ Yeah, right!

So after I’d dithered and fussed and prettified yesterday, I realised I hadn’t actually written anything. I’m currently in what I call book mode, which is to say churning out the first draft of a new novel. (“Churning” is an appropriate term and my first drafts don’t even get a number. I call them all Draft 0. But more about that in later posts.) When I’m in book mode, I aim to write 1,500 words a day, five days a week. Yesterday, clearly, I stuffed up.

What to do?

Simple, actually. I reset my daily target, shut the fuck up, and got on with it. Here’s the result from the writing spreadsheet I keep:

 

Daily writing spreaksheet

 

In addition to the 179 extra words from the rewrite, I did another 1,564 words that day. My brain is slowly getting used to the idea that when I tell it I want 1,500 words, it’s simplest recourse is to comply.

(You might also notice I only managed 828 words on Monday, 15 August. Sometimes, external factors can’t be ignored, but I don’t let myself off. The following day I made up for it by writing more than two thousand words.)

The fact is that rewriting, editing and all the rest is a piece of cake compared to actually getting something down on paper. If writing was easy, everyone would do it. Instead, most people just talk about doing it. But as you now know, talking about writing isn’t writing either.

Try this

  • Books are read sequentially, but they don’t have to be written sequentially. If you’re stuck on a scene, move on somewhere else. You can always come back to it later.
  • Can’t remember a character detail or need to look something up on the net? Rather than break your flow, double-question mark the spot and carry on. (Eg. “Her blue?? eyes twinkled.”) Later, when you’re writing-but-not-writing, it’s easy to search out and correct all those double-question marks.
  • Consider taking part in Nanowrimo. It runs every November with the aim of writing 50,000 words in that month. That’s 1,667 words every day for 30 days. You can plot, outline and prepare beforehand, but November is really just about getting words on paper. It’s a tremendous challenge and requires a lot of discipline, but give it a shot. What’s the worse that could happen? You might fail and only write 40,000 words. Sheesh!

Now get writing!

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Reasons for not writing #1: I Don’t Have Time!

“An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many,
and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.”
— Juvenal (circa 100AD)

 

I have some bad news for you. If you want to write, no one is going to hand you a box of time. You’re going to have to make that time for yourself.

Here’s how …

Look at the numbers

Let’s break it down:

There are 168 hours in a week. You spend a third of them asleep (56 hours), which leaves 112 hours. If you’re working full-time, subtract 55 hours. (eight hours for work, plus one hour for lunch, plus one hour commuting to and one hour for commuting from work each day, five days a week)

That leaves 57 hours.

You’ve got to eat, of course. We’ve already accounted for five weekday lunches, so let’s add two more for weekends, plus seven days of lunches and breakfasts. Allow one hour for each. That’s another 16 hours.

(What, you only spend ten minutes on breakfast? Well, maybe you spend two hours preparing and eating dinner. Or maybe you get takeaways. These figures are only rough, I’m being general — and generous — here.)

So, 57 hours minus 16 for additional food prep and meals leaves 41 hours free for someone in full-time employment.

But you also need to do shopping, chores, relax, unwind, chill out and socialise. Let’s allow another three whole hours a day for that: 21 hours a week …

That still leaves 20 hours a week – free!

Yep, you’re right. You have absolutely no time to write.

Comment

The fact is, the average Westerner spends 25-30 hours a week watching TV, plus another 10-15 on the internet.

(Interesting but irrelevant fact: a typical TV ‘hour’ is really only 43 minutes. The rest is advertising. So the average person spends 7-8 hours watching ads each week.)

Try This

1: Keep a timesheet of how you spend your free time. Do it for a week. It doesn’t need to be down to the minute, just to the nearest quarter hour. Round up and down where necessary. But be honest. At the end of the week, total it up and see where your time goes. Most people are surprised/horrified.

2: Carve out a regular slot each day for writing. Aim for an hour and try to write 250 words in that time. (How much is 250 words? If you’ve got this far, you’ve just read about 350 words.)

250 words may sound a lot, but it’s only a whisker over four words a minute. That’s one word every 15 seconds. You can do that, surely? (Try speaking at the rate of one word every 15 seconds. Sheesh!)

And if you can’t do a full hour in a single sitting, break it down. Aim for 130 words in 30 minutes, 65 words in 15 minutes, or even 20 words in 5 minutes. Why? Because it’ll soon start to add up. Check out the maths …

 

250 words x 5 days a week = 1,250 words a week

1,250 words x 52 weeks = 65,000 words in a year

 

The average novella is 30-40,000 words. The average novel is 60-80,000 words. That’s two novellas or one novel in a year. In less time than you now spend watching ads on TV.

So get writing!

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Bad writing for beginners

Toby Litt on bad writing:

Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens. If I give you a 400 page manuscript of an unpublished novel – something that I consider to be badly written – you may read it to the end, but you will suffer as you do.

 

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

It’s worth reading that last — well written — sentence again …

Bad Writing Quote

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Five quotes on writing from Ian Rankin

IanRankin

  • I still think most writers are just kids who refuse to grow up. We’re still playing imaginary games, with our imaginary friends.
  • I don’t have many friends. It’s not because I’m a misanthrope. It’s because I’m reserved. I’m self-contained. I get all my adventures in my head when I’m writing my books.
  • I used to think that whenever I heard that someone had taken ten years to write a novel, I’d think it must be a big, serious book. Now I think, ‘No — it took you one year to write, and nine years to sit around eating Kit Kats.’
  • I am, of course, a frustrated rock star – I’d much rather be a rock star than a writer. Or own a record shop. Still, it’s not a bad life, is it? You just sit at a computer and make stuff up.
  • My first novel was turned down by half a dozen publishers. And even after having published five or six books, I wasn’t making enough money to live on, and was beginning to think I’d have to give up the dream of being a full-time writer.

Ian Rankin, author of 20 Inspector Rebus novels and around 20 others.

Photo by Tim Duncan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3588034

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5 English language myths

mythsBustedThe problem — and the delight — of the English language is that there is no such thing as Standard English. Plenty of other languages have language regulators, but there is no equivalent of France’s Académie Française for us.

Here’s five very common ones …

 

1 : Verbs with -iz suffixes are Americanisms

According to Oxford Dictionaries, “Many verbs that end in -ize can also end in -ise: both endings are correct in British English.” In fact, the -ize form has been around for over 400 years. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “organize” to around 1425. “Realize” dates from 1611. The first -ise version of it, “realise”, didn’t occur till 1755 — more than a century later!

Whichever version you use, just be consistent. Don’t chop and change. But note!

  • Some words don’t have -ize versions — like “advise”, “compromise” and “surprise”.
  • And the few that end in -yse in British English, such as …
analyse
breathalyse
catalyse
dialyse
electrolyse
hydrolyse
paralyse
psychoanalyse

… are all spelled with -yze in US English.

 

2 : Never begin a sentence with a conjunction

such as and, because, but, or, so or also.

‘And why not?’ you may ask. Because it’s just not done!

Apparently this is a childhood rule that no one tells us we can discard when we grow up. It’s much favoured by English teachers to prevent youngsters from writing in fragments — “And then I went home. And then I had some cake.” — but once we’re more proficient with the language, it can be ignored.

Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog notes; “The argument against using and or but to introduce a sentence is that such a sentence expresses an incomplete thought (or ‘fragment’) and is therefore incorrect. However, this is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical rule.”

 

3 : Never end a sentence with a preposition

Or to quote my favourite casting of this ‘rule’: “A preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.”

The idea apparently dates from the 17th century when a handful of writers tried to make English grammar fit more neatly with Latin grammar. Once again, it’s a personal preference, not a rule, and it’s hard to recast some sentences to avoid “breaking” it. Consider, for example;

  • He had no one to play with.
  • Please, come in!
  • But don’t let the cat out.
  • What sort of music are you interested in?
  • I hate being fussed over.

You could rephrase them “properly”, but you’d end up sounding awfully pompous. (“He had no one with whom to play.”)

 

4 : Never split an infinitive

Another nonsense ‘rule’ from trying to make English grammar fit in with Latin. The Grammarphobia blog notes;

Writers of English have been merrily “splitting” infinitives since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-nineteenth century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive.) This “rule” was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.

Grammarphobia also provide some delightful examples for you to try un-splitting:

  • Kiri’s landlord wanted to flatly forbid singing.
  • He threatened to more than double her rent.
  • The landlord is expected to strongly oppose weaker noise regulations.

Somehow “The landlord is expected to oppose strongly weaker noise regulations” doesn’t quite work for me …

 

5 : Never use “they” as a singular pronoun

This ‘rule’ reckons that because they is plural, it must have a plural antecedent. So the sentence “If anyone has an answer, they should tell me” is wrong because anyone is singular.

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with using they as a gender-neutral, non-sexist singular pronoun. Shakespeare and Austen used they, them and their in that context, and no one moans about their poor grammar!

As Geoffrey K. Pullum says on Language Log, “… we have a logically impeccable construction that expert users of the language regularly employ and experienced listeners unhesitatingly accept. I wonder what more one would need to take something to be grammatical.”

 

wondermark-434

 

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