Suffering for one’s art

I’m writing a story at the moment which opens with a character catching a cold. It is vital to the story that this character has a cold, but it only lasts for the first chapter, then the character gets better. But we need to open in all his snot-filled glory.

I have been lucky enough to not have had a cold for nearly two years, but thought I had good enough recall to write the cold scenes realistically. I was wrong.

How do I know this? Out of the blue last weekend I got a terrible leave you in bed with pounding sinuses wondering if you will ever breathe again cold. Of course the first thing I did (after feeling sufficiently sorry for myself) was examine exactly how my body felt. The throbbing of my glands in my throat, well I missed that in the story. The way the sinus pain reaches down to the roots of your teeth, missed that too. The complete inability to get any kind of restful sleep, yep, overlooked that as well.

The truly weird thing… I was better by Monday morning. I skipped off to work with lizard scales around my nose and a frog in my throat, but for all intents and purposes I was well again.

It really makes me wonder; did I just get sick to enable me improve the verisimilitude of my story?

So now, along with taking my algae, oil and vitamins to ward off the various ills of winter, maybe I should also read the descriptions I wrote of last time I was ill to save me having to learn this lesson again?

I think maybe my next story should be about a character with boundless energy who jumps out of bed each morning with a spring in their step and a song in their heart. And I think I’ll set it in summer as well, I would like to remember what it feels like to be warm 😉

Footnotes in fiction

I recently read a book by a very popular writer who had been recommended to me numerous times. While his style and imagination were great, he had a very annoying habit of footnoting pieces with completely unrelated micro-stories.  

The thing that I found particularly strange was sometimes the author would add these little side comments bracketed within the text (with which I had no problem) but as soon as it was a footnote it bugged me*. Eventually I stopped reading them altogether, which I hated doing because I was sure the author had put a lot of thought into those footnotes, but they were ruining my enjoyment of the story.

The thing about footnotes is they very literally pull you out of the story, which I’ve always been taught is a big no-no. You might put your finger on the random footnote symbol which is placed somewhere in the body of the paragraph so that you can then go down and read the footnote. Or you might just abandon the main text, go down and read the footnote and then come back and end up scanning over several sentences you have already read to get to the point where you left off. Why would you do that to your reader?

In a non-fiction book I’m completely forgiving, not only do I tend to read these more slowly anyway, so don’t mind a bit of finger placing on the text or re-scanning, but usually the footnote just gives you more detail about a study or something so you can elect to not worry about reading (or wait until you get to the bottom of the page). You are never sure in fiction if it is safe to ignore the footnote, maybe that’s where I find out that Darth is Luke’s father?

I think footnotes can have a place in fiction, but only when used sparingly. If you are footnoting every second or third page then I really think you need to consider if you are really telling the story you want to tell**?

But I’m intrigued, am I alone in my dislike of the footnote in fiction, or do some people like this distraction?

* Have you lost your place in the text now if you came down to read this? I bet you did!
** Or following the character you want to follow. See, this would have read so much more clearly if I had just put this after the sentence I footnoted instead of putting it down here.


I think a large number of writers suffer exactly the same problem that I am often lamenting about in here, a lack of progress. We call it different things; procrastination, laziness, lack of motivation, lack of time, competing priorities and even writer’s block. All these things we know we need to take ownership of, but they all come down to one thing, willpower.

The non-fiction book I’m reading at the moment is Maximum Willpower by Kelly McGonigal, and even though I’m only half way through reading it, I would highly recommend you get your hands on a copy. For anyone who is not getting what they want to do done, or if you keep doing something you no longer want to do, this book can really help.

There are so many tips and hints, exercises and honest self-appraisals in here, but perhaps the one that has helped me the most (so far) is the suggestion that next time you want to ‘spoil’ yourself, act as if you will do that thing every time for the next week. So in my case, if I want to just sit in front of the TV and relax after work, I have to ask myself ‘would I commit to doing that every night for a week?’ Suddenly the impact of that action on my long term goal has a lot more weight. If you consider every sabotaging act in this same long-term-effect way, you suddenly find yourself working more toward your goals, and less in favour of treating yourself.

Obviously I’ve tried to express in one paragraph what Kelly McGonigal takes a whole chapter to get across, so if what I say doesn’t make sense to you then read the book. But seeing the impact on my writing productivity from doing the willpower exercises and being aware of my willpower lapses when they happen, just in this week, has made me realise how important willpower is to getting where you want to be. Goal setting alone is not enough.

Whether you want to write a novel, quit smoking, eat more healthily, progress in your career or simply stop watching so much TV, mastering your willpower will make all these things so much easier. By understanding how your brain works in these matters you can minimise the pain of making a change. Don’t believe me? Try it.

Kelly McGonigal Maximum Willpower

Writing tools

When setting yourself up as a writer there are many things you convince yourself that you need to be properly prepared to write. Some are actual needs, like a computer, some are more nice-to-have needs, like a room of one’s own. But there is one thing that I think many writers overlook; the ability to touch type.

I learned to touch type using a free tutorial that came with my computer back in 1995. It felt like a long, slow process, but after forcing myself to do it several times a week for about ten weeks I one day sat down at the computer and something just clicked. Suddenly my fingers knew where the keys were even when I didn’t. If I looked at the keyboard I got lost, but if I looked at the screen, or even out the window, the words came out just as I had thought them.

This has been invaluable for my creative process. When I hand-write my ideas my hand can never keep up, and I have been known to forget what the end of the sentence was going to be by the time my pen got there. But sit me at the computer and my fingers lag only marginally behind the sentence that forms in my head.

If you are serious about your writing I cannot highly enough encourage you to learn how to type without looking at the keys. I know a lot of you are probably pretty fast and think you are too old to learn new tricks, but the benefits far outweigh the effort in my experience, and even when you have long breaks away from the keyboard you never seem to forget how to type, you might just slow down.

Just as an aside, it has also been ridiculously useful at work, but that was entirely a by-product or my desire to write.

So use one of the many free online courses, sign up for adult education classes, or check out the software that came with your computer –whatever you think is going to work best for you. Touch typing is like any other skill you learn, it feels awkward when you start, but eventually you end up doing it without thinking.

Give it a try, your writing will thank you for it.