What to Put in Your Writing Space (and What to Leave Out)

As one of the least tidy people, I’m not remotely qualified to tell you, but my wonderful writer friend Joni Rodgers knows exactly what a workspace needs and doesn’t need. It’s taken from a post she wrote called The Art of Upscale Downsizing, this is what she did. I hope it entertains and inspires you. 

Joni Rodgers, author

Earlier this month, the Griz and I moved into our new quasi-retirement digs (read Ageing Hippie Lakeside Love Grotto), between thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. As water continued to rise just a few hundred yards from our new place, the complex management sent out text messages warning residents to watch for snakes on the property, and in the spirit of encroaching apocalypse, I did something I’ve never done before: I made my office my first priority.

Typically, my office (or my cough “office” cough) has been the last room in the house to be finished. This time, my kids are grown, my life is my own, and the Griz is happy to share center stage with the work that keeps me happy and contributing to our solvency. I’m scheduled to dive into editing Orna Ross’s forthcoming historical novel about W.B. Yeats and his paramour Maud Gonne. It’s a beautiful, important book, and I wanted to be ready for it.

My new sun-room office in this one-bedroom apartment is just 8×10 feet–half the size of my upstairs office, with which I’d fought a major organizational/ housekeeping battle, in our old four-bedroom house. I was nervous about the drastic downsizing, but as I worked through the process, I made three simple rules, which turned out to be the three things I love most about my Woolfish “room of one’s own”:

1) Every object must earn its footprint. For me, that means everything in this room has to a) serve and purpose and b) make me happy. Utilitarian + Joy = worth it.

Making the cut: A Salvador Dali coffee table book doubles as a lap desk. A Dr. Seuss lunch-box that houses paperclips and pushpins. My great-grandma’s kitschy plaster cat, now in charge of pens and highlighters.

No longer happening: Furniture, wall art and tchotchkes that were nice to have and sometimes hard to let go of but didn’t pass a test of archival value (“Will my kids really want this after I’m dead?”) or serve a daily need.

Gorgeous thrift store china cabinet: no. Tiger oak chair rescued from a defunct VA hospital: yes. I could have made an argument for the usefulness of either one, but the chair earns that footprint. The cabinet served as a junk collector simply because it was there. No cabinet = no junk. Winning!

Joni's new workspace

2) Nothing but work happens in the workspace. It occurred to me that my most precious natural resources, time and space, are both limited, and my mindset for one naturally influences my mindset for the other. This small square footage is premium real estate, and it’s most valuable to me as clean, feng shui friendly floorspace. Cluttering it with plastic bins, file boxes and obsolete computer equipment detracts from the calm, creative vibe I’m striving for, and though a lot of that stuff is arguably work-related, it’s not the work I’m working on now, so it doesn’t earn a footprint in this space. 

Same goes for time clutter. A while back, I declared a “Facebook only while standing” policy, which immediately made me more mindful of the time I was wasting there. I try to justify social network activity as “platforming”, but in truth, 90% of that falls more accurately under “farting around”. So no more magazines or leisure books on the desk, and no more games or aimless net surfing on the office computer. (Isn’t that why God created smart phones?)

Old manuscripts, tax records, press archives, correspondence and keepsakes took up a huge amount of space in my old office and our over-spill storage unit. I invested in a NeatDesk scanner and opted into their whole system. I’m still working through the mass exodus of paper from the storage unit, but the bottom line is: everything that can be digital must be digital. And almost anything can be digital.

I’ll admit, I cried letting go of my kids’ school projects, which I’d been justifying as decor in my old office. I’m keeping a few framed pieces for the wall here, but everything else is being digitally archived. My plan is to compile a coffee table book for each kid, which will be equally feng shui friendly in their future homes.

3) I work at home; I do not live at work. In the past, when my office got out of control, I could close the door and keep the insanity to myself. My new sun-room office is open to the living room in our new apartment, so it has to jibe with the living room aesthetic, and that forced me to be more mindful of the way my work serves (or or doesn’t serve) the greater goal: a happy, healthy home life with this man I love. My work tends to take over at times, and I’ve learned that allowing work to hog all my time, space and waking thought actually makes me less productive in the long run, because I get fried and don’t allow myself to recharge.

While plotting books, I’ve always built out massive grids of sticky notes on the wall à la Beautiful Mind. I had stacks of books that were sent to me for reviews and blurbs. I tacked up Max Parish and Ansel Adams calendar art and scrawled notes on corkboards. The purpose of all that (in my head) was part organization, part inspiration, and it worked for me in that space, but it’s not what I want to look at when I’m sitting in my living room. Not working. (No, really, I’m not. Seriously! I really mean it this time!)

Going forward, I’ll be organizing writing and ghostwriting projects with Scrivener, which allows me to integrate research, character notes, and chapter material. (Try it! You’ll like it.) A Passion Planner satisfies my need to physically write things down and brilliantly brings all those random corkboards and creative impulses into an intelligent plan of daily, weekly and monthly actions that pragmatically serve my creative goals. Instead of keeping a file drawer for editing and ghostwriting clients, I’m streamlining editing and book doctor projects via a nifty online system called 17 Hats, which allows me to create typical work flows from first contact to client invoice.

Joni's snazzy wall art

So instead of a blizzard of flailing sticky notes, I now have one powerful, wall-wide work of art that genuinely does serve to inspire me and provides a super cool counterpoint to the more conventional living room art. I got this amazing canvas frame X-Men panel on Overstock.com for less than $100. (It’s actually a room divider.) It comes from “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, in which Jane Grey (now Phoenix) kicks the stone-cold keister of Emma Frost (aka the White Queen).

Her power is a song within her… a passion beyond human comprehension. She is more alive than she has ever been

Just the right vibe for a fiercely focused and beautifully functional creative workspace.

Crazy for Trying

You can find out more about Joni’s writing and other talents right here on her website.

 

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Payback Time for Fat Cats

Mishmish went into the basket happily enough, probably anticipating a drive to her weekend retreat.

cat in the basket

She wasn’t purring when half a mile later we parked outside the vet’s.

The waiting-room was full of red setter. Yep, just one of him, but he was bouncing around as if he’d eaten springs for breakfast.  

red setter

We installed ourselves in the corner next to a pooch with a rhinestone collar. An elderly dachshund waddled in, rolling from side to side like a cross-channel ferry. His owner had turned-out feet and a similar gait. She heaved herself onto the bench.

I know. I look like my cat too. For a start, I’m covered in orange fur. Unlike Mishmish, however, I had a streaming cold. People recoiled visibly from me and my tissues, or would have done had there been any room.

Last time we were here, it had been for a check-up with the vet nurse, an enormously fat woman who pronounced my cat to be overweight. She calculated her BMI and promptly recommended dietary modification.  I wanted to lock the nurse into a room and give her nothing but a lettuce leaf alternate days. Preferably an expensive lettuce leaf.

lettuce leaf

Today it was for annual jabs. The vet had a Littmann stethoscope. This is the king of stethoscopes, but it didn’t impress Mishmish. We had the obligatory chat about female ginger cats being unusual, seeing as they need two x chromosomes with the relevant gene to be ginger. It’s just like haemophilia, only more desirable.

The vet looked Mishmish over and said she was a big girl.

I blew my nose and pointed out that she was big-boned.

“Are you OK?” asked the vet, his syringe poised. I didn’t tell him about my raging sore throat for fear of getting penicillin, gentamicin and a £200 bill.

Mishmish duly immunised, I paid at the desk, but the visit wasn’t over yet. I still had to pick up the prescription cat food I’d ordered.

We waited by the reception desk behind a huge slab of a man, stubbled and tattooed, with an award-winning builder’s cleavage. He’d come to collect his dog after surgery, so I heard.

“What’s the animal’s name?” asked the receptionist.

“Twinkle.”

Twinkle, it turned out, was a bichon frisé with a bandaged paw.   If you’re not familiar with the breed, it makes toy poodles look impossibly butch.

Twinkle and Macho Man left, the receptionist took a few calls, and there we still were. “I’m waiting for my prescription cat food,” I told her again, not quite as patiently as the first time. My baby could starve!

empty cat bowl

She went to look but it hadn’t been delivered, apparently. “What kind is it?”

“It’s the metabolic diet,” I said.  

The waiting room nodded collectively. Pet owners know what metabolic diet means. It screams “SLAG! YOU LET YOUR PET GET FAT.”

The woman with the dachshund fixed me with a rheumy eye. 

I felt like blaming my husband. He gives her high calorie treats, I wanted to say. But then I’d have been castigated for not controlling him as well. There’s really no excuse now that there are special diets for flabby felines and activity centre toys to exercise lazy cats, not to mention various harnesses and contraptions to stop spouses dishing out treats.

leads, harnesses and restraints

They still couldn’t find the metabolic diet. Only ordinary cat food. We’d been here about 45 minutes by then. In her basket Mishmish was getting stressed, and I had distributed viruses evenly across the waiting room.

“We’re going away for a few days and I need the food. I did order it in plenty of time, you know.” But it was no good. The other owners had already judged me. I was the kind of idiot who feeds her kid burgers through the school fence.

Didn’t they know that junk food is much cheaper than the healthy stuff? I felt a twinge of sympathy for parents of tubby children.

The receptionist gave up and a vet nurse was summoned. She couldn’t find our order either.

Eventually the fat nurse from last time was called in and she quickly found what we needed, our 4kg bag of Advanced Weight Solution.  

Hill's Prescription Diet Feline Metabolic Diet advanced weight solution

I’m far better disposed towards her now. She can even have a lettuce leaf every day.

***

If you have space for a cat or dog in your life, please consider getting one from a charity like the Mayhew Animal Home in NW London.

Inside the Dragons’ Den

What happens when aspiring authors have to brave not one but four literary dragons in front of a live audience? 

The London Book Fair (LBF2015 to the cognoscenti) had a demob flavour on its final session of the afternoon, but not in Author HQ where for ten hopefuls the serious stuff was just cranking up.

Seen Dragon’s Den? That’s how The Write Stuff was organized. Ready to breathe fire on the ambitious writers were agents Mark Lucas, Toby Mundy and Lorella Belli, plus non-fiction publisher Alison Jones.

They didn’t look that fierce from where I was sitting. As we waited for the start, I couldn’t tell if Belli and Jones were discussing books, designer shoes, or their team’s chances for the next season, but it all seemed quite jolly.

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Then the real business began, with the contestants standing in front of the panel plus a packed Author HQ to sell themselves. Each had just one minute to say who they were, two minutes to pitch their book, and five minutes for questions and comments from the panel, who had already sampled their opening chapters.

This happened a few weeks ago now, but there were lessons that authors should remember for all time.

First up was Lucy Brydon, a young Scottish film-maker who presented a novel set in China where she had worked. While The Boy Who Died Comfortably was redolent of Chinese culture and highly filmic. Toby Mundy wasn’t so sure that, as a foreigner, the author had ‘a place to stand in this story.’

Toby Mundy

Agent Toby Mundy

Characters came under scrutiny when romance writer Catherine Miller pitched her novel Baby Number Two.  The panel was clearly impressed with her perfect title, as well as her blurb, her writing, and her Katie Fforde bursary. AND she’s a mother of twins.

Catherine Miller

Catherine Miller

They weren’t so keen on her characters’ motives, however. Alison Jones also felt she had shoehorned in too many topical subjects.

Caroline James also writes mainly for women. Coffee, Tea, the Caribbean and Me was aimed more at those in their fifties, and drew on her experience in the hospitality industry. ‘Highly relatable,’ thought Mark Lucas, relatable being the buzzword de nos jours.

agent Mark Lucas

Agent Mark Lucas

The authors received all the comments with good grace, though Olga Levancuka was a tad more combative.  There she stood in her full-length orange coat, looking every inch the Skinny Rich Coach (her alias). She responded feistily when the panel questioned her approach and her credentials.

Olga Levancuka, aka Skinny Rich Coach

Olga Levancuka aka Skinny Rich Coach

Mike Rothery had spent decades in the Navy, so no surprise his novel The Waiting-Pool involves an ocean voyage. And a jaunty hat.

Mike Rothery

Mike Rothery

It was a good thriller, thought the panel, but it took a bit too long to get started, and Alison Jones couldn’t bring herself to care that much about the characters. The protagonists had started life in another of Mike’s books, so getting the amount of back-story right may have been an issue. A tip here for anyone writing a series, I think.

Vittorio Vandelli

Vittorio Vandelli

Italian satirist Vittorio Vandelli presented a tub-thumping account of the dystopia of the Berlusconi period. What had happened in Italy was, he claimed, a dire warning to Western democracy everywhere. He soon digressed from his blurb and just gave us his tirade.  As entertaining as it all was, Vittorio and his book came on a little strong. Mark Lucas said he felt he was being smacked over the head with all the things he should be outraged about.

Caroline Mawer is a doctor, globe-trotter, photographer, and author of A Single Girl’s Guide to Modern Iran. The panel thought there wasn’t enough of herself in the work, and the title wasn’t faithful enough to the text.  Wouldn’t Skinny-Dipping in the Spring of Solomon have been more arresting? Maybe literally?

Caroline Mawer

Caroline Mawer

Up stepped Julia Suzuki. Her children’s book The Crystal Genie is, appropriately enough, all about dragons. The panel sat bolt upright. Was it about them? They all claimed to adore dragons. But it is no longer enough, apparently, for dragons to be green. Even the youngest readers must now have them in shades of grey. Alas, Suzuki’s characters were ‘a bit too black and white.’   

Julia Suzuki

Julia Suzuki

Lennox Morrison, an award-winning journalist from Aberdeen, offered a collection of short stories. Although she writes ‘like a dream,’ the consensus was that short stories are very difficult to sell on a grand scale.

The winner was another journalist, Sanjiv Rana, who pitched The Insignificance of Good Intentions. This first person novel is about a 33-year old virgin who’s sent to prison charged with rape. Sexual assault is a big problem in India, though, as the panel said, false accusations of rape aren’t usually the issue, so it’s an original angle. The panel agreed that Rana has a very original voice too. You think that stopped them comparing him to other writers? Think again. 

Sanjiv Rana receives his award

Sanjiv Rana and certificate

Rana won an appointment with Toby Mundy, and a framed certificate for slaying dragons. 

What did the other writers get out of it?  Olga landed herself an agent shortly afterwards, and Caroline Mawer did change the title of her book. Her thought-provoking take on The Write Stuff is well worth a read. It’s on Words With Jam right after my piece.

Meanwhile Catherine has completed her novel, and I for one am dying to read it.