16 September 2014

Rangitoto Island, etc.

It's Friday. I'm reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it's probably radioactive). I've got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It's my lunch break and I'm trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week's article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I've spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I've never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I'm commuting home. I'd love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I've tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: "Have you ever been inside a mental institution?" (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).

I'm one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I'm one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I'm surrounded by software developers -- a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist's field trip). In fact, I'm quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I'm going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It's like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn't write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there's a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren't many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the "voice" of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It's the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: "You are the voice of God."

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one's own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave -- I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn't obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can't escape in my "room where I write", however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I'll wedge in my "Bullets" (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I'll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island
Spotify, in case you don't know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I've created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled "Writing Background" and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation "atmospheres", to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don't own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors -- to do what, I don't really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like meditation. Actually, it is meditation -- a creative meditation. If I'm in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that's the way it is.

Be seeing you.



  1. This was great fun, Stephen! It's always interesting getting a guided tour of another writer's mind. Yours certainly did not disappoint.

  2. With that view, I'd never want to leave your lunch room!

  3. Stephen, thanks for allowing us into your world. I'm always interested in what other writers require to be free enough to get into the zone. My place to write is anywhere that no living person is talking "at me," as John Floyd recently mentioned. I prefer some background noise and sometimes it's as lively as Chuck Berry singing songs from my youth. I tend to work out plots and dream up characters while driving, but it must be driving alone.
    A friend sent me a wonderful picture book of the desks of famous writers. Their writing environments were as different as yours and mine. That might make a good project for SS--photos of our desks.

  4. I cannot believe I've never heard of Dom Casmurro before - it's going on my list. And I'm definitely going to check out Spotify. (I can't write with voices - singing or talking - going on around me.) The view from your window looks great! And thanks for the view into your mind!

  5. I too have a view of a lake (though no island nearby), wildlife, a large photo of Algonquin Park on the wall (from my Canada working days) and a large desk to write from but only nighttime and the glow of my computer monitor can allow me to focus on the task at hand without being distracted.

    I can appreciate very much, Stephen, the din surrounding you at work and how unconducive it is to creating suspense, as it were.

    I await in anticipation for your island story!

  6. Hey Stephen! This was first time visiting the site, and I loved the article. I also have troubles with noise and concentration on fiction writing, so I use a white noise app. It's a terrific alternative to music, especially if you get easily distracted.

  7. Janice, it's an excellent view. It's tempting to linger...

  8. Fran, that is an excellent idea -- a tour of our desks!

  9. Eve, I can't write listening to voices either... they get in the way of the voices already in my head.

  10. Bradley, the lake is small (good for a rowboat, but not a motorboat). The island story might be some time...

    Algonquin Park -- there's a coincidence. I first heard of that park just yesterday (someone I know through Facebook posted some photos from it). Looks wonderful!

  11. Hey Janie! Welcome! I'm kind of new here, too.

    That sounds like a good idea. I'll see if I can get a white noise app for my phone and try it out!

  12. Wonderful column, Stephen! "Noise Zealand?" I've lived in neighborhoods like that!

  13. An night, New Zealanders go inside to access the internet, reading blogs, reading crime blogs, I’m sure. Do they dare think think of that guy upstairs plotting murder?

    Stephen, I’m glad you classify my species as borderline insane, when we ourselves have doubts. I personally prefer the word ‘eccentric’, which my European colleagues uttered with a combination of fear and awe.

    I’ve had to work on manuals after writing software and I’ve hired tech writers, who were kind and forgiving. But the rules of good writing are recognizable: use active voice, keep language lean, avoid bizspeak.

    By the way, I’ve meant to mention I like the Nº 6 ref. Be seeing you.


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