The New Writing Set-Up

I've made some recent changes and acquisitions with regards to my daily working environment which I thought it might be worthwhile detailing. The keys on my two and a half year old Macbook have been getting progressively spongier-feeling and less responsive, until finally the 's' key in particular became very nearly inoperative over the last several weeks. Other keys felt like they were starting to go the same way. I could have got the keyboard replaced for the equivalent of about £150, which is not an unreasonable amount to spend on fixing or upgrading the machine on which your livelihood rests, but a few browsing sessions for solutions and a few Twitter conversations, most particularly with Orin Thomas, author of innumerable computer manuals, led me to an alternative solution: a Roost keyboard stand, and an external keyboard.

That the keyboard should begin to fail in this way is, in all honesty, hardly surprising. According to Scrivener, the submitted draft of The Deeps, the sequel to Extinction Game, contains approximately three quarters of a million keystrokes. Add in all the previous drafts and notes, and you could easily double that to one and a half million. Add in Extinction Game itself, and most of Marauder as well, and that's a heck of a lot of pounding for a single laptop keyboard to take. And even that's not including innumerable Facebook and blog entries, tweets, Google queries, emails and so on.

Put it all together and that's upwards of maybe five million individual keystrokes over the last couple of years. No wonder it started feeling a bit mushy and unresponsive. Still, you live and you learn.

You can can see the new setup in all its glory in the photograph above. The Roost stand, I believe, was the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. It's supremely light, being made out of carbon fibre, very easy to use, very, very stable, and hopefully will reduce the crick in my neck that's been bothering me recently when I go out on long cycling expeditions in the hills and mountains around Taipei. I find from looking around the net that a lot of people have a similar set-up, and I think it very likely indeed that even once the current Macbook gets upgraded for something newer in a couple of years time, I'll continue with this set up. Apart from anything else, it isolates the Macbook from random desk-based threats, such as spilled liquids.

The external keyboard - also Apple, naturally - has the same wonderful responsiveness and lightness of touch that for me is one of the defining features of the Macbook experience. It's a genuine delight to write on, no exaggeration. I might add an external touch pad at some point in the future, but for now this combination works just fine.

Speaking of liquid spills, that big red mug to the right is a Mighty Mug. If you smack it on the side, it Does. Not. Fall. Over. It wobbles a bit, but sticks to the desk like it was glued there. The trick, apparently, is in the design of the material used in the base, which is, I believe, modelled after the same trick Gecko lizards use to stick to walls. In fact, you can do precisely that - stick it to a wall, so long as the surface is smooth and flat enough. To unstick it, you just lift it straight up, easy as that.

I also recently acquired a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard cover cheap off Ebay for my Ipad Air. I must admit, although the Ipad felt useful, I couldn't make up my mind whether or not it was in fact essential. The Logitech, however, is shifting my opinion away from the former and closer to the latter. It's also much smaller and lighter to carry them than the Macbook, which is a regular Macbook, and not one of the thin and light Air models.

Of course, you might say why not just buy a Macbook Air then? But the fact is I am a touch clumsy by nature, and all too aware of it. Buying something that light and fragile that's going to get used on a daily basis and have numerous novels banged out on it is really just asking for trouble. I think they're great for people doing a lot of travelling, but my Macbook is more in the nature of a semi-portable workstation.

But with the Ipad plugged into this keyboard, it's much easier to head for a local 7/11, grab a soft drink and work away at a window overlooking the park. Similarly, if I want to head into the centre of Taipei and eat and then find somewhere quiet and comfortable to work, I have something that satisfies the need for both a tablet computer and an ultra-portable laptop.

Finally, although the photograph doesn't quite make it clear enough, I have a stand that can hold both my Kindle Paperwhite and my Ipad sans case. It's a 'Magic Mobile Stand' I picked up in a shop in Songshan Creative and Cultural Park, and looks like a cross between a tiny Lego set and some Tetris pieces. You can configure it to hold a bunch of mobile devices, then slot it together into a little rectangle about the size of a matchbox you can throw in your bag and forget about. Very useful for me when, say, I'm out eating somewhere and I want to read something on my Kindle. And very fun, in a gadget-y sort of way. 


Cities of the Dead and NaNoWriMo

The Cemetery

Because it was Halloween I decided to visit a local graveyard. Actually, no, that's bullshit. I was going to go there anyway and it wasn't until I got home it occurred to me that hey, it's Halloween. 

Fudekeng Cemetery sprawls over a couple of hills to the south-east of Taipei. Having until recently only seen it from a distance, its tombs had previously looked to me like upmarket houses rather than a place you'd put dead people, which probably doesn't say much for my powers of observation. One of the curiously futuristic things about Taiwan  is that they build on pretty much anything: back in the UK, or at least in Scotland, look up a hill and you might see a couple of farmhouses. Here, you get high-rises soaring out of the jungle canopy. When Fergus Bannon came to visit, he took a look at Taipei from up on high, turned to me and said, 'essentially, this is Mega-City One.'

Well, I don't think it's quite there yet, but they do build big here.

You get to Fudekeng by cycling along a long, winding riverside bicycle path until you get to Taipei Zoo. Then you follow an equally long and increasingly steep road (fortunately overcast by trees, given the heat) that leads up to and through the cemetery. You get some great views of the hills and the city from up there. Then it's downhill for several miles back into the city and onto another cycle path that leads north, then west. I often do a complete circuit around Taipei that covers about forty miles and takes maybe three hours.

Here's some pictures I took on the way up the hill, and down the other side (remember you can click on them to see them at full size):

The Steep Approach to Fudekeng
Just before the main part of the cemetery 
Top of the hill
Lunch by the river

I've never done NaNoWriMo, but I'm certainly aware of it. If you want some advice on writing a novel by someone who's had very nearly ten of the things published, here's my advice. 

It's quite likely, if you're not used to writing, that coming up with up to fifty thousand words of fiction seems pretty daunting. Well, it can be. My first, unpublished novel was written in the summer of 1997 while I was signing on for six months prior to taking up a postgrad course. I'd had some short stories published in Interzone and one or two other paying markets over the preceding eight years and knew a novel was the next step. But to me it also appeared a daunting task. Most writers, regardless of how many books they've written, struggle to hold a complete novel in their heads at any one time in terms of its many interconnections and characters and conflicts and situations. That's one of the things that makes it hard. 

We are nonetheless as a species hardwired for telling stories, and that gives us some advantage. 

When I sat down to write that first novel, which has never seen the light of day, I had no idea how to do it. I decided that rather than procrastinate any further, so long as I wrote at least one single word per day, I could regard that as being a job done. The idea is to form a habit of starting up your computer (and remember, this is 1997), open your word processor, open that document, and type that word. So long as I at least did that much each day, fine. 

At first, I put down a few paragraphs here or there, a sentence or two, maybe even a couple of pages. Before long the story had gained a surprising momentum and within three months I had a hundred thousand word novel. That novel got me an agent, who got me a publisher for what would be my first published novel, Angel Stations, a good few years later.

One of the ways I got that first, practice novel finished was by giving myself permission to be shit.

See, a lot of the time when you're fretting over that NaNoWriMo work on the screen, you're probably thinking it's terrible. And here's the thing: most probably, it's just as terrible as you think it is. The trick is to not care and write it anyway, which is what I did. I had no idea whatsoever whether what I was writing was any good, and remained safe in the knowledge nobody else ever had to see it if I didn't want them to. 

The only way to find out if your book is any good or not is to just write it. What you're aiming for here in this first attempt is quantity rather than quality. What you're really learning to do is write fifty to a hundred thousand words of consecutive text, regardless of its inherent quality. 

That, if you're serious about writing, is a very important skill to learn. To plough through the bad bits as well as the good and not to let the voice of doubt stop you. After that, each time you repeat that process, writing a novel becomes more and more a normal, more quantifiable experience. 

Of course, as you write more and more, the quality of the writing - assuming you want it to be seen and enjoyed by others - does gain far greater importance. But not right now, if you're new to writing. Right now, your job is to have fun making something up that is entirely yours. 

Will it be publishable? In all probability, no. If that stops you writing, you're probably not cut out to be a writer. If you continue regardless,  your experience, at least at this early stage, will be identical to that of the vast majority of published novelists. 

I had an advantage, however, when I wrote that first novel: four prior short fiction sales (including a reprint). It doesn't take a genius to work out that if you can sell a three thousand word story for real money (my Interzone story got me £90), then you can maybe sell a hundred thousand word story for hopefully a good deal more. 

For that reason, you should keep in mind that there's a lot of value in writing short fiction as well as novels. It's an excellent training ground, it's not quite as much work as writing a full-length novel, and if you're lucky you can even get paid for it, particularly given the burgeoning market for paid online fiction. I meet a lot of would-be writers working on novels who've never written a short story, and while there's plenty of success stories involving people who never wrote short fiction, I do sometimes wish a few more would at least try their hand at it.