Getting Shit Done

My fascination with doing all the things is matched only by my fear of them, which means that I have approximately four hundred and sixty eight projects I’m giving the side eye to, and none of them are quite done.

They only person I know with a shorter attention span is my three year old nephew, but even he can sustain a life long obsession with wooden trains to the point of frequently completing an entire track and pushing trains around it for what feels like forever.

I want to complete my train track.

One of the more irritating things about the way my attention works is that it doesn’t actually like attention itself. It’s like an imperious cat who sits in the window rather than on your lap, no matter how many kissy-kitty sounds you make.

It goes back to being at school, when trying hard to do anything was deeply uncool. Because, I don’t know? Trying was equivalent to saying it mattered, and saying it mattered meant that failure was suddenly a very real and very frightening option.

To get around this, I have, over the years, designed productivity systems and schedules for myself so complex, they required expertise in fractal mathematics to figure them out. But most of them ended up collapsing under the insolvable nature of their constraint equations. And the ones that didn’t collapse consumed so much attention that they needed their own

But recently, I have started to treat my attention span like a feature, not a bug.

You want to work on five different projects a day? Fine. You want to draw, and write stories, and visualise data, and possibly figure out how to do all of those things inside the same project? Fine, let’s work with that.

So now, I do two things. I work on projects that range in size, from five minute sketches through to the deep space adventure novel I'm writing, so that even with a tiny amount of work, I can still get that little buzz of achievement that comes with completing something and sending it out into the world. And I set goals in small increments.

This is where I tell you how great #300wordpact* is. It’s about writing 300 words every day, on any project, and when you’re done, you’re done. Three hundred words a day? That’s totally achievable. Well, for me it was achievable on 42 days of the 50 days, or 84% of the time. (I kept a spreadsheet, obvs.)

It feels pretty good to look back and see how hitting that small daily task has built up to 10k new novel words and two short stories planned out.

Here’s to the next fifty days.

*shout out to the lovely Sara Saab and her Clarion 2015 class who came up with the idea which I happily adopted.

Stretches for Writers

And other desk workers, too. Stretching in the outdoors

Nearly 15 years of sitting hunched over a laptop gave me a bunch of long term companions I wanted rid of.  Aches in the lumbar region, spasms in the shoulders and upper arms, tendonitis in my wrists. Slowly, over the period of about a year, I’ve figured out a programme of stretches that I do that seem to alleviate most of the pain. Have I missed any good ones?

Neck and shoulder tension is pretty chronic in desk workers— this video goes over some stretches you can do (sitting down, about 3 minutes). The stretches I found most useful start at the 2 minute mark. There are others here, but I haven’t tried them. Time taken: two minutes.  Do: twice a day, while waiting for your tea or coffee to brew.

You might not feel the tension in your triceps, but trust me, it’s there, and it’s probably causing referred pain further down towards your hands. This is an easy stretch you can do every hour or two during the day to make sure you stay loose. Bonus points if you can look as excited as the guy in the video :) Time taken: one minute.  Do: every time you open Twitter/FB

Lower back issues are sometimes the result of hip tightness. These stretches require a mat, but are totes awesome. You can add the pigeon if you’re feeling brave, too. Time taken: six minutes. Do: when you get up, and before you go to bed.

For wrist and forearm pain relief, try these four stretches. Time taken: four minutes. Do: every time you get up from your desk.

Do I need a disclaimer? Enjoy it, but don’t overdo it. I found the most important thing is to keep doing these regularly. A couple of months of this and you'll feel like a different person. Possibly one that can hold their head at a natural angle for the first time in a while.

Writing Cafes in Saigon

Requirements for a good writing coffee shop:1. Great coffee. 2. A cozy atmosphere. Or maybe a fresh one? The kind of relaxing vibe where I don’t feel stressed or hurried. 3. Pretty things for my wandering mind. 4. Less than five minutes from home.

These entirely subjective criteria, and an even less objective evaluation leads me to a little list: My top three (ish) writing cafes in Ho Chi Minh City (in no particular order and verified by no-one).

1. La Rotonde (77B Ham Nghi, 2nd Floor, D1) A deliciously light and bright space that overlooks a busy intersection and street market. The Vietnamese coffee is smooth and silky, there is an excellent lunch buffet every day, and a special vegan option for those with eating requirements.

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2. 14 Thon That Dam, D1 This place is wonderfully different. Faded old Saigon meets the exuberance of young Ho Chi Minh City. A French colonial structure opposite the imposing National Bank, you enter through a grubby alley stuffed with motorbikes and climb a stairwell straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel. Don’t be put off: each floor holds little jewels of hope and modernity.

The first cafe you come to is Banksy’s. An ode to the British graffiti artist, decorated with intricate tiling and bold typography, it’s a design-lover’s dream. The americanos are tasty, there are plenty of art and design books for you to peruse and you can often watch young couples having their wedding photos taken here.

Alternatively, you can turn left in front of Banksy’s and follow the chalkboard pointing to Things. Cross a walkway between buildings and enter through a flapping yellow shutter. Adorably covered in Charlie Chaplin portraits and wall murals. It’s so relaxed, one of the seating areas is a double bed. This is a cafe to lounge in as long as you wish. I cannot vouch for the coffee, but it’s a beautiful place for your mind to drift.

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Up one floor is Dan Tran’s vintage shop. Find unique clothes, bags and shoes in this delightful space and get the added bonus of saying, ‘Where did I get this? A little retro shop in Saigon, dahling’ every time you wear your purchase out.

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Across the landing is the Other Person Cafe. A maid cafe where staff cosplay manga characters and frilly maids with pink hair. They address you as master/mistress. Maid cafes are wildly popular in Japan, and starting to catch on here in Vietnam. If you’ve never been to one, imagine walking into a cartoon where you take coffee in a giant cat bus, or sit at a table that’s built like an enormous cake. Weird and dissociating? Yes. But something you should definitely try.

Mockingbird Cafe

Make it to the top of the building, and Mockingbird rewards you with a breezy balcony and views of the water

3. Velo de Piste Cafe (10 Pasteur, D1) You can’t miss the bicycles hanging outside and the huge moustaches gratified on the walls around. Open 24 hours for those in constant need of mountain biking magazines. Go after dark and be charmed by the fairy lights and friendly service. Try the passion fruit juice for instant refreshment.

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You can find other great recommendations for Ho Chi Minh cafes at Nomadic Notes and The Hungry Suitcase.

Novel Writing & A Sense Of Achievement

The sense of achievement I gain from completing projects is huge. When I worked as an analyst, this was fairly easy to come by. My internal id monologue on a typical day in the office: Plan the thing, do the thing, (yay!) do the thing again, do it better! (double yay!) Didn't work? Don't worry, do the next thing. (Woohoo, new thing!)

But in writing a novel, there's not really the same sense of discrete tasks. There was a planning phase, for sure. But now I'm into the writing phase it's just a long, lonely race with myself until the end.

Mix that with the boredom threshold of a grasshopper with ADHD and it makes long projects somewhat challenging.

So I create way markers. Things that give me a sense of achievement even though they are purely arbitrary. Every day, a thousand words. Bing! Achievement unlocked.

But today was special.

Today my manuscript hit ten thousand words in total.

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Only ten more of those to go for this draft. And then only *mumblecough* drafts to go until submission. These things are the things that keep me focused.

(Yes, I do update a spreadsheet with my daily word count every day, that in turn updates this pie chart. I like spreadsheets. They're pretty and orderly, and they never want to give you an update on the gestational progress of the British royal lineage.)

Five Things I Learned At Clarion

Some of these things were discussed explicitly in class, or personal conferences, or in the full throttle banter that still couldn't quite disguise the bleak cafeteria food. Others simply became apparent through being exposed to so many different and wonderful viewpoints and experiences of writing and reading fiction. Thank you to all the students and tutors who helped me learn these things in one way or another.

1. Voice

The idea of authorial voice used to vex me. What is it really? Why does it matter?

The impact of voice is clear. When I read just a paragraph of text, I know without looking at the cover whether I'm reading Stephen King or Stephen Fry. It's voice that tells me that. Through some combination of word choice, cadence, tone, perspective, sentence length and a dozen other sub-conscious processes, Voice is created.

It's also what isn't said. Where the white space is on the page and what happens there.

The best way I can describe it is 'attitude'.

It's the way an author stands in the story. Do they slouch against the wall, chewing on the end of a rolled up cigarette, pointing out a dead body with just a flick of the eyes? Or do they stride toward  the body head on, showing you every blood smeared cobble and torn piece of clothing?

I used to worry. How do I know what I want my voice to be? How do I achieve that voice? Why is it that I can't sound like author X when I'd really, truly, love to be like them?

In our first class at Clarion, we critiqued 1000 word stories we'd prepared the week before. Jeff Ford had us read them aloud.

By the time the fourth person had read, I'd got it. Every single one sounded so different and unique to each of us, that no-one else in that room could have written it. We could have all described the same scene from the same character's perspective and they still would have sounded entirely distinct.

Suddenly, it was clear to me. Your voice--it's just the way you sound. And at that moment, I stopped worrying.

2. Characterisation through setting description

The elements of a setting that you describe (or your character notices) gives a reader insight into what a character wants, who they are, and what they're scared of. Don't waste it. This is the opportunity you have to show rather than tell.

This is one of those pieces of understanding that evolved gradually during Clarion. I knew it on an intellectual level beforehand. But reading so many stories so quickly brought my understanding to a deeper level.

To help me remember this lesson and be more successful in not just using what i would see in every scene, I came up with the following exercise*:

Level-Up Your Characterisation

(i) Imagine you're in a place that you know well. Write a paragraph of description about it. What do the things that you notice say about you or your mood?

(ii) Imagine you're in a place you've never been (or made up). What elements would you describe in order to evoke the characteristics and mood you identified in (i)

(iii) Put one of your characters in the same place as (i) and describe the scene again. What's different, why? What does this say about the character? What personality traits do you know about the character that aren't evoked by this description? How can you make them felt?

(iv) Put the character from (iii) in the setting from (ii). How can the description evoke the mood you built in (iii)?

You get the idea. Repeat until your character's perspective is so deeply absorbed by the text, that it is impossible any other person would see that place in the same way.

One day, I imagine I'll be proficient enough at this not to have to go through such a drawn out process with each new character.

*I think I came up with this, but I may have unwittingly stolen it from somewhere. If you think that is the case, please let me know who I should credit.

3. I can make people feel things with my words

To hear a room full of people respond with passion to something I wrote was astounding. Listening to them say, 'I loved it when…', 'this broke my heart', or 'Jeez, that woman's a stone cold bitch…'

A little piece of my heart was living inside them.

It made me giddy with joy.

4. Theme 

My realisation concerning theme came through reading so many first drafts that were good, but hadn't got it quite right. Most of us tried to bundle two or three stories in to one piece of text. It made me think of 3-D pictures. The ones that were the next-hot-thing for forty-five seconds somewhere in the depths of the 90s. A jumble of fuzzy dots until your eyes crossed over to a certain point, then bang, it was a unicorn eating a burger...or something.

The components of theme only became visible to me through listening to Delia and the rest of the class unpick these from each other. Gradually, I felt like I'd internalised all the elements that worked together to create a successful theme.

The theme is the central question posed by a text.

That's it. Doesn't look much, does it? But for someone who has never taken a literature class, it was a big revelation. This was not an idea that was ever discussed in my epidemiology lectures. What is is the theme of a flu epidemic? Can human beings transcend their natural selfishness to help even those they don't love in a crisis? Is it possible for species with conflicting needs to occupy the same world?

Nope, these questions just never came up.

The power of a theme is in understanding what resolution makes sense for a story. To be really satisfying, an ending must not only resolve the surface problems set up by your plot, but also provide an answer to your thematic question. If it can do both in a surprising but inevitable way, then that's a *great* ending.

5. Writing doesn't have to be a lonely pursuit

My image of writing as a career--and of writers as people--was one of lonely endeavour, quiet contemplation and possibly, if energy allowed, bouts of fevered pacing. My discovery at Clarion was that although this is true in part, putting words on a page is just the culmination of a whole lot of mental processes, many of which can happen in concert with others.

The first personal conference I had at Clarion was with Jeff Ford. He asked us to bring some story ideas to discuss. I could barely squeeze the words out of my throat to tell him about my malformed little creatures. Ideas with no head or no heart, or possibly with their hearts on their head like a curiously fleshy hat. I was scared because I didn't have all the answers. I didn't know what they were or how to make them into the beautiful things they could be.

Jeff, with his unique brand of directness, said, 'Where's the story in that? Why's it interesting, What's she looking for?' He didn't care if I didn't have the 'right' answer. He asked enough questions to help me figure out which ideas were interesting and which were corpses before they'd even drawn breath. During the rest of Clarion I plucked up the courage to go through the same process with friends. I figured out that a five minute discussion could get me as far with an idea as hours or days of contemplation had previously.

An idea that Holly and Cassie introduced us to was micro plotting. Thrashing out the detailed blow-by-blow of a novel's story line with a group of friends (at least, they're friends at the beginning of the process) in a room for 2-3 days. It sounds painful, and apparently you have to turn off the internet and lock the doors, because the questions are hard, and under pressure we'll do anything to try and elide the details of a story.

'Why didn't she just call her mother and tell her what's going on?'

'Because then there wouldn't be a story?'

'Nope, sorry not good enough, think of something else…'

The benefit is that you can write the story much more quickly after this. You know what has to happen in every chapter, and your friends have already helped you iron out the gaping holes and saggy wrinkles. Thanks friends.

You need at least three writers to help in this endeavour. They (and you) have to be humble and give generously, and trust that you will do the same in return. It's a huge investment, and finding people who fit the bill isn't easy.

Luckily, Clarion hooked me up with more than enough qualified individuals. Amazing writers who I'm supremely grateful to call my friends.