Joanna Penn’s short book is exactly what it says–a look at how to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to live the life of a writer, through new writer tribulations, on to actual publication and then dealing with what comes after (should you be so fortunate).
As such, there is little in here about how to write, but plenty of advice on how to deal with everything from self-doubt to overzealous fans, using a Problem/Antidote format. Penn’s style (seriously, a writer named Penn? The closest I get is someone calling me “pencil neck”) is open and friendly, and she provides excerpts from her private journal to illustrate points she is making, which is a nice way of building trust with the reader. The advice is practical and pretty common sense–you’re unlikely to slap your forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” but it’s still handy to have all of these ideas collected together and presented in a way that’s easy and entertaining to absorb.
It’s also just a nice change-up to read a book about writing that is not about, well, the actual writing part.
Recommended for new writers or those on the cusp of publishing.
Why is it I sometimes freeze when it comes to writing, even on this blog where I have repeatedly demonstrated I have no issue sharing half-baked thoughts, ill-formed ideas and otherwise questionable content. Is it because I know the internet can supply me with an endless stream of cat gifs to substitute for that content?
I think that’s it, actually. I don’t have a solution for this, only a vow to try harder the next time the freeze happens, and to resist posting cat gifs in place of my own words, doodlings or videos of interpretive dance.
P.S. That said, here’s one more cat gif because why the hell not at this point:
I am continuing on my unofficial second career as not a writer, but one who reads every book about writing instead. Then writes about them.
Welcome to the Writer’s Life succeeds on a couple of fronts. First, author Paulette Perhach has an entertaining voice and regularly drops funny little zingers in with her advice without ever making it feel like she’s trying really hard to make you laugh.
Second, the book tackles a few things that a lot of new writer books don’t cover or cover minimally. There are plenty of books that will cover the classic plot structures, character development and other things you need to know in order to tell a convincing story–whether it be through fiction or non-fiction. Perhach covers the other stuff in a writer’s life, relating her and the experiences of other writers in finding ways to nurture and grow your writing habits, covering everything from what to read (and how important reading is) to meditation to clear your mental decks (she claims to never suffer writer’s block because of her daily 15-minute meditation sessions), as well as touching on the business side of writing, along with thoughts on pursuing an MFA (spoiler: she doesn’t think it’s necessary).
It took me awhile to read through the book and though I enjoyed it, I found myself wondering why, and I believe it’s two things: I found the quotes from other writers largely unnecessary (fewer would have been fine) and there are sections where even Perhach’s writing style can’t lift the subject matter from feeling just a little dull. But I have read a lot of books on writing, so it’s just as likely that I am becoming a bit weary of the topic of writing itself.
Still, I think this is a good intro to the craft of writing for a new writer and have no problem recommending it alongside other more “nuts and bolts” book on the writing process itself.
I have opined before on the travails of getting the Windows version of Scrivener caught up to the Mac version. Then I found out that version 3 for Windows was released six days ago (March 23, 2021 to be exact). I am not even sure how to react.
Since I qualified for a discount on upgrading, I decided to spend the $34, even though I don’t use Scrivener anymore, to check it out.
I had used the beta off and on through its years of development (the original release date was projected to be 2018–see here for more), so I was broadly familiar with the update (and have used version 3 on the Mac). The upgrade and installation processes were both quick and painless, and the program looked much as it did when I used the last beta.
And it remains as inscrutable as ever. To be fair, the UI has been tidied up a bit, but large parts of it are unchanged and it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t utterly ignore the conventions of standard Windows software–or any other software, for that matter.
Unlike other writing programs like iA Writer or Ulysses or, uh, Notepad, Scrivener is more like Microsoft Word in that it presents a WYSIWYG environment. As such, you can adjust indentation, font sizes and all of that, making the document look as pretty as you’d like. In the end this doesn’t matter as much, as you can specify different options when actually exporting your project to PDF, ePub or some other format.
To adjust how the text will look when writing, you go to File > Options. Pretty clear so far. The keyboard shortcut is cheekily Ctrl + , (CTRL and the comma), which is the same combo used to invoke Preferences on a Mac. You then choose the Editing tab from the vast array of options presented. OK, this mostly makes sense, as you are changing what the editor will look like. Here you have three more tabs: Options (er), Formatting and Revisions. Formatting is what you want. Here you will finally see where you can adjust the settings. Strangely, the sample text is highlighted–it turns out the preview will not actually show your changes unless the text is highlighted when the changes are applied, so it has pre-highlighted the text for you.
You will also see a strip of formatting options, much like you’d see in a typical word processor. You can change font, size and style, paragraph type, indentation and more. It does pretty much what you’d expect. Now when you create a new project, it will use these settings. Yay, all done!
But what if you want to change the look of a current document? Well, you can do that by going to the Documents menu, choosing Convert and then Text to default formatting. You get to choose a few options, but strangely (see a trend here), if you had somehow selected bold for the text in some scenes (maybe your fingers slipped and hit Ctrl + B), there is no way to change this across multiple scenes (that I have found). You have to go into each individual scene, hit Ctrl + A, then uncheck Bold from the formatting bar.
There is, still, no way to select an entire document/project at once and apply settings globally, apart from the Convert method above, which doesn’t actually convert everything. It is odd. It’s not even wrong, per se, but Scrivener continues to chart its own course when it comes to interface.
I’m not sure how much I’ll use it, but the upgrade costs less than a single year of subscription to Ulysses, so I’ll at least tinker with it for a bit.
There are a couple of important things to remember when reading Bird by Bird. The first is that it was published in 1994, so it predates the internet. This means that the writing advice is not informed at all by the last 27 years of technological and social change. It makes a difference.
The second is that, while Anne Lamott is enthusiastic and funny, this is not anywhere close to a formal how-to on writing. Lamott covers some broad topics–writing every day, not worrying about the quality of first drafts, how publishing shouldn’t necessarily be looked on as an end goal–but does not get into any kind of nitty-gritty. The advice is more inspirational than nuts and bolts.
A lot of it is amusingly written. Lamott seemed a tad neurotic at the time but also rather self-deprecating, so a lot of the book consists of colorful recollections on how she dealt with various writing-related crises, and sometimes her advice translates to simply “don’t do the thing I did.”
I was glad to finally read Bird by Bird, but the passage of time, changing markets and new technologies have made some advice less relevant in 2021. Some fault may also undoubtedly lie with me–if this was one of the first books on writing I’d read, I probably would have found it hilarious rather than amusing, and found the tips more compelling. Still, it’s a quick read and a lot of the information it contains remains relevant today.
UPDATE, September 24, 2021: I have fixed a few egregious typos and such in this review. I always seem to commit the worst writing mistakes when reviewing books on writing.
I also think my take on the book is a bit glib–this is a well-loved classic and I think I was in an especially cynical place when I read it, and that colored my view of it. If you are just starting on your potential career in fiction writing, this is one of the books I highly recommend reading. There is a joyfulness in it (along with pain) that you don’t find in many books on writing.
Not only that, but walking around while talking to myself apparently enhances the effects:
You might have noticed, too, that self-talk is often intuitively performed while the person is moving or walking around. If you’ve ever paced back and forth in your room while trying to talk something out, you’ve used this technique intuitively. It’s no coincidence that we walk when we need to think: evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain.
Now I need to go stretch my legs and loudly think of my next blog post.
This is not a full review, as I’ve only had my 2020 M1-based MacBook Air for a day, but I can give a few impressions.
First, yes, I got a replacement for my 2016 MacBook Pro just a few weeks shy of its four-year free keyboard replacement offer ending.
After mulling over the differences between the equivalent MacBook Pro replacement and the Air, I opted to go with the Air because:
The Air costs a fair bit less, allowing me to increase the ram and storage without spending more
They have the exact same M1 chip, so general performance is pretty much identical
The Air only loses out on sustained performance, something my use case would rarely if ever hit
As a bonus to the above, the Air has no fan, so is completely silent
The Touch Bar still seems like a goofy, unnecessary idea
The extra battery life of the Pro is nice, but the Air is already way better than what I had before, so the improvement in the Pro is not worth the price premium
Setting up the Air was pretty straightforward. I have made a new rule this time, which I plan to strictly enforce (until I stop):
Only install programs I am actually using, not ones I might use or may eventually need to install. Slim (installs) is in. So far I have installed:
Edge (to have a Chromium-flavored browser handy)
And that’s it!
For Firefox, I started with the current non-native version, but it was just janky enough to drive me to use the 84.0a beta, which is M1 native. The two issues I encountered were crashes on quitting and searches not working. Annoying and I could have probably managed, but the beta has been stable and runs fast.
Ulysses is M1 native. Edge and OneDrive are running under Rosetta 2 translation, but they both seem fine. So software-wise, I haven’t had any major issues, or nothing that couldn’t be fixed fairly easily.
I set up Touch ID and it is fast. FAST. Pretty much instant. But having the system unlock with the Apple Watch is even better.
The system wakes up almost instantly, too.
Battery life so far seems very good, though I haven’t really used the Air enough to give it a proper workout.
I selected Silent Clicking for the trackpad, but can still hear it click. Maybe I need to reboot? Maybe silent means kind of silent.
Oh, and the keyboard. This feels much closer to the keyboard on my old 2013 MacBook Air. It is still clicky (and clicks notably with my caveman typing style), but the clicks are much softer, because there is actual travel now. It no longer feels like pounding your fingertips into hard, unyielding plastic. It’s what the 2016 keyboard should have been. Better late than never, I suppose.
I’ve ordered a dock for the Air and in a few days will ship off my Mac mini for trade-in, so the Air will be doubling both as my laptop (for the future days when people can take laptops outside their homes again) and as a desktop machine, where simply plugging one cable from the dock to a Thunderbolt port should be all I need to get it working with an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and all that stuff.
So far it seems pretty good. We’ll see how it holds up over the long term. My MacBook Pro still works, but I can’t say I ever enjoyed typing on it. Considering it was my primary writing tool for a few years, that was a bit of a problem. Hopefully the Air will be a better overall experience.
Update: Many people are still writing, while many others have met their 50,000 word goals or exceeded them.
I have continued to not write a novel and actually feel pretty good about it. In the past I’d argue that making the effort and stumbling was still worthwhile but…been there, done that. I’d rather write something to my own schedule now. I think I can do that now and NaNoWriMo is more a barrier than an aid at this point, because it forces you to write a story in a specific time frame, which is arbitrary and a little weird. It’s great if you’re just starting out, or desperately need some kind of external discipline to get you started.
But I no longer need those things, so maybe I won’t participate next year, or ever again.
Now I just need to prove how smart this decision is by, you know, writing and maybe even finishing a novel. It could happen!