Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Setting Up As A Writer

Few writers can really pinpoint the time at which they started writing. For many of us it's been a low-level part of our lives for years. But in every writer's life, there comes a sort of naissance, a time when we either realise that we have begun to take our writing seriously, or when we determine to do so.

This often, but not always, coincides with the start of a particular project. For many new writers, this will be their first novel. This is, I think, the most common scenario, and so this is the one I'm going to talk about.

So, you've been writing for a while, perhaps you've even had a couple of short stories accepted somewhere - or not - but the day has come when you have decided that you are going to write your first novel.

So, let's talk about setting up, because your setup is going to support your effort, so it's worth giving a little thought to it.

The way I see it, there are three variables in a project of this kind. Time, Space and Tools. I think that's pretty well the order of importance, too. Let's look at them one by one.


There are two aspects to any project resource:

1) How much of it do you have?
2) How are you using it?

With time, of course, we all have the same amount each day, and none of us knows how much we have left altogether. So that really isn't worth thinking about. But how much time do you have for writing?

Unless you've been in prison, or hospital, or something, you probably weren't spending hours of every day staring blankly at a wall, so whatever time you take for writing is going to have to be taken away from something else. There is no way around this. You're not Hermione Grainger with a nifty little device that lets you add hours to your day.

Now, there are things you cannot avoid. You didn't pop into the world brand new, so you already have a life. Perhaps you're employed, or you are the support person for your family and must maintain the residence and feed everyone. There will be other things that take up your time, For example, I've got three mornings a week largely taken up with church, dance class and my dog's hospital job. Those are scheduled things that I am not prepared to give up, and I'm sure you, too, will have things like that.

This is a good time to sit down and really have a think about where your time goes. Write it all down. What time you spend sleeping, going to the pub, whatever, in perhaps a week. A week's a handy unit to think in. Now, if it doesn't add up to pretty much the whole week (168 hours) then you have left something out, and if there's a significant shortfall, you may not be aware of where your time is going and may want to embark on a fact-finding mission. This is easy enough to do, although very tedious - you just carry a notebook around for a whole week and write down what you're doing ALL THE TIME. If you need some help with all this. there's a very good introductory course on Time Management for writers at The Writing Academy. I do recommend this, if you haven't been exposed to time management principles in your occupational life. It's a real game-changer.

Once you've analysed where your time is going, you can make your decisions about what time you can set aside for writing. This ought to be a solid appointment booked, otherwise you will find that all kinds of nibbles will keep getting taken out of it. You may have to make some sacrifices. Perhaps you'll get up an hour earlier, or ditch some pub time. Sometimes this hurts, but no gain without some pain.

At the end of this exercise, you should have a rough schedule. I find it's best to keep the working hours the same each day, but if you work outside the home, this may not be possible, so your basic schedule may be weekly rather than daily. I myself work five hours a day, four days a week, but when you're getting started, it's probably better to try to write every day. Later on you'll be more practised at getting yourself going again after a break, and then you may want to revise your plan to allow for days off.


If space is limited, even a corner can be enough

Now we come to the fun part - setting up your workspace. Depending on the constraints of your situation, you may not be able to dedicate a home office, although this is ideal. Be that as it may, do try to take a space for your writing. If you are working at your dining table and you have to keep putting everything away to serve dinner, it's all very difficult, and it doesn't foster that attitude of commitment and taking your work seriously that is so helpful. Even if a card table in the corner of your bedroom is all you can manage, try to set up something where you will not be having to keep moving it. Apart from the obvious convenience, entering such a space tells your brain that it's time to go to work. When you're a writer, you do not have a supervisor to keep you up to the mark, so you need to make everything work for you that you can.

If you have the luxury of an actual desk, there are several decisions to be made here. Phone or no phone? Internet or no? I have said yes to both these things, but there are also arguments against them. If your phone rings a lot, it may be a distraction - but it can be even more of a distraction if you must get up and leave the room every time it rings. Also, if you handle the call at your desk, there is your work staring reproachfully at you, and you're less likely to get sidetracked into a long analysis of Debbie's new hairstyle.

You'll want, at the minimum, whatever your means of writing is to be (we'll discuss that in a minute, under Tools), space for storing whatever materials you may have (reference books and so on) some stationery, a good light, and a comfortable temperature. Don't set up in the garage if it's unheated and you live in Minnesota or Norway or somewhere cold like that. An uncomfortable worker is not a productive worker.

You may also want some music. I prefer silence for any concentrated work, but there are many, many people who say they find it helpful to use background music. If you're one of these, you will want some kind of mechanism for that. What we are aiming for here is that once you sit down to work on your novel, you are not going to have to get up until you stop work.

This space should, especially at the beginning, be reserved only for your writing. If you use your workspace for other activities, such as dealing with mail, your workspace may become silted up with things that will be distracting to you. Making the space exclusive combines with making the time period exclusive, as we discussed supra, so that both things support each other.

Optional Extras

If you are lucky enough to have the space for it, nice touches are an extra futon or basket for your dog, a big bookcase, perhaps a whiteboard or corkboard. Don't get too carried away at this stage, When you've been writing for a few months, you'll have a better idea of what you really want.


Now we come to the really fun part. The tools you will need for writing can be separated into two categories - production and support.

Production Tools

Production tools are the things you need to write. This means at the very minimum some mechanism for getting words down. Most people nowadays use a computer, but this isn't mandatory. You can use a typewriter. You can use a notebook and pencil, or whatever. Some people use an ipad. You can get a little keyboard to plug into them, I believe. I myself use a computer, and I think this is not only standard but the best possible option, because in that one device you also have file storage and support tools and research capabilities.

Desktop or Laptop?

This is a very personal decision, and I'm not going to say a lot about it here. If you're one of those people who travels a lot, or if you find you work well with bustle going on around you and want to be all posy at sidewalk cafes, a laptop is the obvious choice. More importantly though, you need at this point to give some thought to backup capabilities. 


You can use removable media, cloud storage, even gmail - but you MUST have something, and the time to think about it is NOW, before anything goes wrong. There's OneDrive, Google, removable hard drives, sticks - any number of hardware and software tools to choose from. An exhaustive comparison of their relative merits is beyond the scope of this article. But you must choose something and set it up, and you must incorporate using it into your routine. There's nothing sadder than losing your work to a malfunction. It's a terrible, terrible thing to happen, and so easy to protect yourself from.

Specialised Writing Software

There are many software tools available to help you write your novel. There are pros and cons to these. Scrivener is one that's highly spoken of. I myself have made the decision to eschew these fancy tools. I don't need extra complication, and as an ex-computer geek, I certainly do not need the temptation to waste hours, or weeks, playing around with all the fancy features in my software. I stick to the Microsoft Suite because it's usually available everywhere, and the file formats are compatible with pretty well everything, and it's easy. 

If you do decide to get Scrivener, by the way, you can get 50% off the price by completing NaNo or Camp NaNo.

Support Tools

Support tools are those things that are not essential to the actual work of getting words down, but that contribute to your project. For example, a good dictionary is worth having. You'll also want some means of tracking your project. I use Microsoft Project, but that's expensive to buy, and it's rather overkill too, especially if you're working on a single novel and don't have multiple things going on. Excel or a comparable spreadsheet program is probably all you need, and you can get Open Source ones if you don't have the Microsoft Office suite. 

Another useful support tool can be a whiteboard, corkboard or both. Ideally these should be mounted on a wall, but if you're occupying a corner of a room whose principal purpose is something else, you probably won't want to do this. You can buy small corkboards that can be hung like a picture, and this could be worth considering, especially if you're a highly visual type who likes to have a lot of pictures organised to look at. 

Whiteboards are fantastic for planning a structure. A big whiteboard can be especially useful if your project is one of those huge family structures, or a book like George Martin's, with many plot threads interwoven. The big, free-standing ones are expensive, though, and take up a lot of space, and for most writers, I don't think these really pay for themselves. But you may find it worthwhile to get yourself, say, a spiral-backed sketchbook - the huge pages can be useful if you're doing any kind of graphic plan.

Your Filing Structure

This is a biggie. Once you've been working for a while, you may have files and versions of files all over the place. This can lead to some awful problems, like accidentally working on an old version. One client wasted weeks constantly sending me the wrong manuscript version for editing. 

There are two elements to a good filing system. One is your directory structure, and the other one is your naming conventions. Naming conventions are the system you use for naming your files. It's worth spending a bit of time on this at the outset, because if you decide to rationalise it all when you've been working for years, it's a terrble, terrible job. Ella Medler's book, The Author Organiser, gives you setup instructions for a filing system that works well and has the capacity to expand. You can find her book HERE. It's cheap as chips and well worth the download.

Portable tools

Even if you're setting up with a desktop machine, you may well find it helpful to have something that goes with you everywhere. When ideas pop into your head, or you see a name that's perfect for a character, or you observe some behaviour that will add a touch of humour or grittiness or whatever to your work, it's good to be able to get some notes down right away. My favourite means for this is a small (A5) spiral notebook and pencil. I have a miniature one, too. I carry one of these everywhere I go, and they are gold. 

You may prefer a more technological approach - there's the smartphone, of course. I don't use mine for this, because what with the predictive text and the little keyboard and all, I find I am slowed down below the speed where I can most effectively get my thoughts down. A notebook and pencil are so immediate. You whip it out and write. And you don't have to worry about your battery levels or anything, or whether you're on a plane/in a hospital/ somewhere its use is forbidden or even just rude, like church.

Now You're Sorted

I think I've covered all of the essentials. If you think I've left something out, do please message me or reply below.

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