Category: On writing

How to create an inviting writing space

By Midge Raymond,

When Forgetting English was reissued in April, I did a weeklong Virtual Book Tour, during which several stops focused on my writing space. Having moved into a new space just a few months before, it was interesting — and a little alarming — to see how quickly my nice, clear writing space became, shall we say, “lived in.”

Now, having had to replace a dying computer, I’ve once again spruced up my writing space — it’s now neat, organized, and clutter free. Why is it, though, that I only seem to clear my desk during a time of change, like moving or getting a new computer? The problem is, these changes happen only every few years, if that — and so I find myself living more often with a cluttered space than a neat one.

As an example, below are a couple of before-and-after photos of my desk, during my last move to a new house.

On moving day:


Shortly after moving day:

It’s not pretty, as you can see (though it is homey) — and the problem is, a lot goes on at this desk. This is not only my Writing Space, but it’s also where I read submissions, edit, email, chat with authors, and spend far too much time on Facebook. As a result, when I’m working on my own writing, I find that I’m looking for another spot altogether.

But it doesn’t have to be this way — and the writing must happen, no matter what sort of space we’ve got to work with. So here are few tips for all you writers who, like me, probably struggle with how to create an inviting writing space, i.e., one you can’t wait to get to and never want to leave:

Just do it. “Spring cleaning” should not happen only once a year, and this is especially true for your writing space. At least once a month, go through everything on your desk and see whether it needs to be there. If not, remove it. (I have many scratches from removing the cat, but it is nice to have a clutter-free space.)

– Allot a certain amount of time each day for writing, and stick to it. Even if your writing desk is the same desk at which you do your day job or pay your bills, set aside some time when you will do nothing but write. Set a timer if you have to; disconnect your computer from the Internet if you must. And move everything that’s not related to your writing project off the desk and out of sight. (This may sound like a bit of a hassle, but I’ve tried it, and it works. Out of sight, out of mind.)

– On the other hand, write any time the mood strikes you. Some writers work well with a fixed schedule; others fit in their work when they can. I do a little of both, and often it’ll depend on the project itself. So figure at where you are in your project and how you work best. Sometimes ideas need to simmer; sometimes plotting out a novel takes thinking, not typing. Allow yourself the freedom to write when you’re inspired rather than sit at the computer trying to force it; you’ll save time and avoid lots of frustration.

Do try another spot. While you want your own space to be inviting, it’s always inspiring and eye-opening to get out for a bit. Go to a cafe or library, or trade offices with a writing buddy — often you’ll be most efficient when you’re away from (your own) home and the distractions of pets, kids, partners, bills, the TV, etc.

Above all, clear a space. You don’t need a home office, a b0ok-lined library, a sound-proofed room — all you need is a small and uncluttered space that will allow you to focus on your writing, and nothing else.

Are you still reading this? Go. Write.


Create your own virtual writing retreat

By Midge Raymond,

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to everything else — so I decided that I would take a long weekend to create an unofficial writing retreat. “Unofficial” essentially means that I didn’t need to apply, travel, or formally do anything other than pledge to write — perfect for such a last-minute decision.

When I mentioned this to my friend Wendy Call, an alumna of Hedgebrook, she too was up for the idea; she’d already been part of a more formal virtual retreat, Hedgebrook Writes (a brilliant idea). So when Wendy got a few other writers on board for a virtual retreat via Facebook, and my unofficial writing retreat began to feel a little more official.

Writing time is precious and necessary, but let’s face it — we can’t always leave home; we can’t always plan ahead. Yet there is no reason we can’t create our own writing retreats at any time, for any length of time, whenever we need to. A few hours of retreat time is better than none at all — it’s just a question of making the time. And so I finally did just that.

It was a great weekend overall, and I learned a few things that will make my next one even better. So here are a few tips that I hope will help you create your own writing retreat…

Just do it. My retreat was completely last-minute and completely unplanned. I wasn’t even thinking about it until I found myself, while writing an email to Wendy, realizing that I absolutely had to spend some time writing that weekend. So I decided to do it, told her my plan, and I’m so grateful that she ran with it, giving me no excuse to flake out on myself. Which brings me to my next tip…

Gather your fellow writers together. You don’t necessarily need to gather in one place; what’s important is that you all agree to write during the duration of the retreat. This will ensure that you actually write (be accountable to yourself and others by keeping in touch, or by reporting your progress at the end), and it’ll also give you the inspiration you need if your energy or creativity begin flagging. And, of course, if you do live close to your writing buddies, by all means, do get together, whether for a few hours of freewriting or a weekend retreat at a nearby inn. The group dynamic helps immeasurably.

– Clear the decks. On the first day of my retreat, I decided I would just do “one little update” to my web site, and as you can imagine, one thing led to another and six hours passed with no writing getting done. By then I had a headache, so I went for a walk, which ended up being a three-mile hike (albeit lovely — and I saw my first wild turkey ever, so it was worth it). But basically I lost my entire first day because I thought I could take care of one little thing before getting started. Make sure you’ve taken care of all that you need to do before retreating, so you aren’t tempted to do anything else that could end up overtaking your writing time.

– Create your space. You may have a place in mind for your retreat — a fellow writer’s house, a quiet cafe, a library — but perhaps more likely you’ll be writing at home. If you have other family there with you, you’ll need to let them know that you’re On Retreat and can’t be disturbed. Make whatever arrangements you need, from child care to pet care to hanging a DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door. This is your time.

– Stay offline. I didn’t check email, Twitter, Facebook, or anything else all weekend. It felt so great. For me, it helped that this was a holiday weekend during which nothing was happening work-wise — try to plan your retreat at a time when you won’t feel compelled to stay connected. And do whatever you must to be sure you don’t interrupt yourself with the lure of the web.

Give yourself guidelines. Whether it’s a timeline (writing from 9 a.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday, for example) or project-related (finishing that first draft of your novel), give yourself clear parameters and stick with them. Figure out what works best for you (you may prefer a time-based schedule to avoid feeling pressured to finish a specific project; on the other hand, if you tend to procrastinate, setting a project-specific goal may be better). Then set your schedule and go.

Afterward, assess the pros and cons, the highs and lows. This will allow you to better plan your next retreat. Was being at home too distracting? Do you need to fit more reading time into a retreat weekend? Do you need to stay off the computer and write by hand? Figure out what can make your next retreat more productive and fun, and work it into the plan.

Schedule retreats often. I am already looking forward doing another D.I.Y. retreat over Labor Day weekend; I’ve decided that long holiday weekends are perfect occasions for me to carve out some writing time. But because waiting until September is too long a stretch to not be writing, I also plan to find a weekend to retreat sometime in August as well, even if it’s just a day, or a few hours. Plan ahead. You need and deserve this time.

And while creating your own, stay-at-home retreat is a beautiful thing, consider a more formal writing retreat as well — and if you do, check out these tips from Kelli Russell Agodon, an award-winning poet whose work is proof that writing retreats are necessary and magical.


If Gandhi had PowerPoint

By John Yunker,

Gandhi was a genius at communication. And many of his strategies are still widely emulated by activists today — from plain old leafleting to dramatic nonviolent protests and marches.

I sometimes wonder how Gandhi would have co-opted contemporary tools of communication to spread his message. I imagine he would have had a field day with YouTube and Facebook and Twitter.

And maybe even PowerPoint.

One of the quotes widely attributed to him fits PowerPoint perfectly:

And here are two more of his quotes.



Which makes me wonder who will be the Gandhi of the Twitter generation.


An eReader cheat sheet

By John Yunker,

It’s not easy keeping up with technology, as this Best Buy commercial humorously illustrates:

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Consider the eReader.

If you’re in the market for one, you have to navigate a wide range of devices — from the Kindle to the Nook to the iPad.

As publishers, we want our books to be available everywhere, which means across all major eReaders.

With this in mind, we created a “cheat sheet” of the readers we watch most closely. This PDF (which you can download), compares the three leading eReaders (Kindle, Nook, and iPad), as well as the Kobo.

If you’re in the market for an eReader, I would first recommend the Kindle. It’s hard to argue with the pricing, the wealth of books available, and the fact that you can read your Kindle books across a wide range of devices — computer, iPad, BlackBerry.

If you’re a writer and you can only get your book onto the Kindle, you’re in great shape.

Right now, the Kindle accounts for well over half of all eBook sales — possibly as high as 70%.

The iPad, despite its gorgeous full-color screen, does not offer the most extensive or user-friendly bookstore. As this article notes, the Apple iBookstore accounts for only about 10% of all eBook sales. However, if you’ve produced a full-color book, the iPad is an important device to target.

The Barnes & Noble Nook appears to be making positive inroads, particularly the full-color version. A recent NYT article reports that more than a million magazine subscriptions have been sold on the Nook over the past seven months.

And then there is the Kobo, which you might not have heard of. In the US, the Kobo was heavily promoted through the ill-fated Borders chain. But Kobo has recently received a healthy bit of investment and is now focused on expanding into Australia and New Zealand. So we’re keeping a close eye on it.

Given the pace of eReader evolution, this blog post will probably be outdated six months from now. But I still expect the Kindle to be the leader, with the iPad making inroads.

PS: Here’s a NYT review of the latest Nook and Kobo devices.


How writers write

By Midge Raymond,

I recently revisited this Wall St. Journal article about writers sharing their processes — and I found it just as inspiring as when I first encountered it. It’s a great article only for the insider’s view into some of our favorite writers’ practices but for the comfort of knowing that there’s no “right way” to do things, and that the work can sometimes be a struggle for even the most successful writers.

Take Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who “shuts himself in the bathroom and perches on the edge of the tub with his notebook when he’s tackling a knotty passage” — or Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who “often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 or 100 times.”

And then there’s British novelist Hilary Mantel, who writes in the morning, before before having even a sip of coffee (can you imagine?!). Russell Banks writes his novels in longhand, while Anne Rice writes on a computer in 14-point Courier.

Dan Chaon writes on color-coded note cards. Laura Lippman creates her mysteries using plot charts, index cards, sketchbook pages, colored ribbon, magic markers — and Edwidge Danticat begins her novels with collages of photos and images clipped from magazines.

And, like the rest of us, these writers don’t work without false starts. Kate Christensen was two years and 150 pages into her first novel before she started over; Junot Diaz tossed out about 600 pages before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally began to come together.

What about when they’re not writing? Mantel always carries a notebook to jot down ideas, while Margaret Atwood scribbles “on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers.”

Sometimes when I read about writers and their rituals, I can’t help but feel as though I’m doing something wrong. For example, my schedule is such that I have no daily set writing time; I take it when I can get it. I wouldn’t dream of committing words to paper in a pre-coffee state (I need some tea, at the very least). And sometimes I write on the computer, sometimes longhand, sometimes in my head. It just depends: on time and timing, on where I am and when, and the story and how it wants to arrive in the world.

This is why I love articles like this one, showing us all the myriad ways in which writers work — they’re good reminders that what matters is not how the writing gets done but the fact that it does.