Today I signed a book contract with Repeater Books. My book, with the working title Life Lived Remotely, is about how the internet has changed how we work. It’s based on my experiences of working remotely, and the experiences of other people doing it. It collates my thoughts from the past five years, since I took my first tentative steps to working remotely, to today, when I can’t conceive of doing otherwise. It’s a book about how the internet has changed our day-to-day experience of work, about the way that technology has become totally embedded in our lives, and the implications this has for our relationships with others, both online and offline, and with ourselves.
I’ve been doing some writing exercises to get myself going in the morning. I’m trying to write without too much direction, just to see what happens. Standard fare for writing teachers is the “first line” prompt. The aim of this exercise is to provide a first line that the writer then follows on from. I found a first line generator that generates first lines such as the following:
It would only be a fling – she wasn’t about to break up the happy home
She clung on to the piece of driftwood, praying for daylight
He knew he must keep very still while he waited
His voice had never sounded so cold
The aim of the writing exercise is to take the first line and just start writing. However, the first thing that come to mind are clichés – the first an affair, the second something like Castaway, the next someone hiding from pursuers, the final one a breakup. But, in the attempt to write about something not cliché I find myself getting into an unending cliché loop.
What’s wrong with cliché?
A cliché is a “is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”
Our minds are filled with clichés – we say them every day, we live them. I’m a cliché – I married my much older philosophy lecturer (see: Little Women). We say things like “the end of the day,” or “to be honest.” And, you know, clichés do have their place – they’re a shorthand way of getting across something that is culturally understood. I might want to convey that someone really is a stuffy old academic who wants to be cool by putting them in a jacket with elbow patches. I might signal a millennial by the constant pinging of their smartphone.
But in order to make something that isn’t just a rehash of shallow ideas that pervade society, it’s necessary to fight with cliché.
There has never been more clichés than there are today. The world is filled with image and clichés of every single kind. One cannot turn on the television without being faced with a cliché: show formats that are all the same, presenters that are carbon copies of one another, advertisements that have perfected appealing to the clichés inside us. Just going on Twitter you can see the proliferation of hashtags, mannerisms, and turns of phrase that circulate.
Fighting with Cliché
Our brains are packed full of clichés. When I to a page it is already filled with them. How do I avoid rehashing them? How to I write something that gets at the thing itself, without all the built-up shit? That’s what I haven’t figured out yet, and those first line exercises made me think of it this morning. I was going through each first line, as soon as I’d read it I’d have an idea and then think “ugh”.
Some thoughts I had on how to deal with it:
– write through the cliché and see what happens at the other side. There might be something of value, or it might be shit, or maybe the cliché will become something else
– don’t do writing exercises like that
– note down ideas on a list and if they are cliché strike them out
I am aware that all of this thinking ignores the fact that a writing exercise is what it says it is – an exercise, a way of exercising my writing, and I should probably just treat it as such. Maybe tomorrow.
A reader of some of my articles on Smashing Magazine emailled and asked if I had any advice on how he could get his business featured on a big website like Smashing Mag. I don’t hand out consultancy on improving your business’s visibility, but I’m happy to provide insight into how I choose who I feature. I thought that an extended version of that would be worth sharing:
- I often feature businesses or people who I’ve met online or offline – this is usually at WordCamps, but also people I chat with on Twitter or who show up in the various WordPress chat rooms. There’s a lot of people in WordPress and I try to keep as many people on my radar as possible – often the same people come to mind to approach about various aspects of WordPress.
- I like to find people who have a unique perspective or something interesting to say. I do a lot of research and interviews and the same answers appear again and again, so it’s quite refreshing when someone says something different or unexpected. I tend to go back to those people again and again.
- I do try to find people who I haven’t featured before – to do this I’ll do some research on the internet. I’ll contact someone on the basis of them doing something interesting, and having a professional website.
- Diversity is important. As a person who has the privilege of featuring people on Smashing Magazine it’s my responsibility to represent the WordPress community as the diverse place that it is. I’m pro-active in contacting people of different genders and from a wide range of countries. In the end, there are always factors that affect who actually makes it to the final article – who gets back to me for the deadline and the quality of the responses, for example.
- I often look for WordPress contributors to feature – these could be prominent contributors or those who keep a low profile. Contributors are great as they are normally very driven, care about WordPress, and know a lot about it.
- I like to ask people who aren’t always so vocal. Sometimes people are shy about putting themselves forward, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have something interesting to say. Often, when I contact people out of the blue they are surprised and flattered, which is a nice feeling.
- I never feature anyone who asks me specifically to. I’ve been offered money before to recommend people in my articles. If anyone ever asks me that then they’ll never be featured.
- I never contact anyone who violates the WordPress trademark.
Since I work with so many WordPress people, I do end up featuring my clients. After all, I know more about their businesses than others. But I always aim to be objective, normally reporting on the things that they say rather than the quality of their product or service. I don’t write reviews or comparisons between my clients and other businesses.
I guess that’s full disclosure!
Every morning I get up and I type out two pages of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It used to be Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, but every time I start a new version of my book I get a new book to type out. As soon as I am done typing up my two pages, I start to write. I have to write, as a minimum, the same number of words as I have typed of Faulkner. If I write more then great, but I’m never allowed to write less. I try very hard (and am 95% successful) to not check my email, Twitter, or Facebook until I’ve done it. Proust was great because I was writing about 900 words minimum a day, Faulkner is only around 600, although this is probably because the Benjy section is very dialogue heavy.
I spoke to D’s boss about this method of writing, and he was pretty fascinated by it, so I thought it might be worth putting down my reasons for it.
Obviously my book has a structure, but I want the act of writing itself to have a structure, and, for me, a specific number of words works. There is nothing more terrifying that sitting down in front of my computer to just write. All I can see is an endless stretch of white hopelessness. A blank page on a computer screen. It’s not even like writing on a notepad where there is a finite stack of paper. A word document goes on and on and on and on.
I type up Faulkner and I can say to myself “Okay, you’re writing 672 words today, keep going if you want, but really, 672 words is all that you have to do.” This gives me an easily achievable target, and also provides me with a definitive end point. So on the days where I’m feeling crappy or uninspired or pissed off, I can stop if I want. But usually while I’m writing I get inspired and I keep on going until I run out. It’s this type of structure that I need, a jump-start every morning, or I just stare at my computer, feeling sad and overwhelmed and hating writing.
Before anything else, I type up Faulkner, I do my writing. I make a cup of coffee, go down to my desk and start writing. It must be done before my brain starts to fill up with all of the things that happen during the day. I am of the YouTube generation, I have no attention span. I skip from thing to thing, a million different thoughts, wondering who’s said what on Twitter, what the comments are on my latest blog post, who has sent me an email.
Typing up another writer is an act of meditation. When I’m doing it (it only takes about 10 – 15 minutes), I am allowed to think of two things:
- what I am writing (i.e. currently The Sound and the Fury)
- my book
That’s it. And if I think about anything else I mentally bitch-slap myself into focusing. This process means that I am 100% focused on what I’m doing when I actually start my own writing. I can usually manage a few hours of decent, focused work before I start to feel the Gmail-twitch.
One of the things everyone tells you when you start to write is that you must do it every day. Unfortunately this is true. I hate writing, and wish I could just spend my days hanging out at Nandos or watching back-to-back episodes of America’s Next Top Model and The Bachelor.
However, wanting to achieve something as a writer means that I must do it every day. Just this exercise of typing up Faulkner and then writing the same number of words of my own book, means that every day I produce at least 600 words. This may not seem like very much, but over a six month period that is around 100,000 words, and that is a whole book. Yes, a shit book that ends up in the dump folder, but writing 100,000 words over 6 months can only make you a better writer.
Being Told What to Do
I need to be told what to do, I need rules and I need boundaries. Since I’m an adult now, this is usually just a matter of me setting up a fictive big Other and projecting a disapproving eye on to it. This was why I did an MA, and now I have an agent he can be the big O without even knowing about it.
But on a day-to-day basis I have William Faulkner to tell me what to do. Not that he says anything (being long dead and all that). I feel like, in typing up his book, I have made a commitment to my own book. The book sits on a book chair, on my desk, accusing me, disapproving, if I haven’t typed it up that morning, reminding me of my failings with regards to my own book.
You know that feeling that you get when you are reading a tough book that you really want to finish and you get about half way through it and you’re pretty proud of yourself. You can feel the weight and texture of what you’ve already achieved. You get that. Only when you reach the half way point you can look at the book that you’ve been typing up and think “my book is also that length (or longer! hehe).”
In many ways, typing up someone else’s book helps you to see your own as a finite object. Something that you will be able to pick up and read. You can feel the number of pages and think “Yes, that is also the thickness of my book.” You can see your book as a book, rather than just as a story in your head.
So that’s what I do, every morning. If I don’t get back to your email until after 12pm GMT that’s why. I’m hoping that by the time I’ve finished writing Faulkner I’ll have finished writing my book. And then I’ll have to worry about what I’m going to type up next.