16 December 2015

From the shiny new desk of Robert Lopresti

Old writer at old desk
by Robert Lopresti

I am working mostly at home for the next few months, and my wife said: "We've  had this desk for thirty years.  Let's get you a better one."  I  thought that was a great idea and added a detail: let's make it a standup/sit down desk.

And that's what we wound up with.  You can see it in the pictures.  There are four pre-set buttons.  If I want to work standing up I press 3 and it floats to the proper height.  Press 4 and it sinks down again.  Terri touches 2 to get to her perfect standing position.

All of which is nice, but how exactly does it relate to the business of this blog: reading and writing mystery fiction?  Well, we'll get to that.

Back in October I mentioned that something happened at Bouchercon which I wasn't going to describe because I intended to turn into a short story.  A couple of weeks went by and that basic idea had refused to turn into a story plot.  Then I remembered a book I had picked up at Sasquan, the World Science Fiction Convention, I attended in August.
From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds is a little paperback by Ken Rand.  The title attracted me because I have a notebook containing a few hundred ideas that have never resolved into stories.  I wasn't expecting Mr. Rand to supply any miracles, and of course he doesn't.  Mostly he offers some interesting metaphors (although he describes himself as "metaphor challenged") and some exercises.

He spends a lot of time working on ways to get the Left Brain (the Editor) out of the way of the Right Brain (the Author).   "Why is your left brain such a jerk?" he asks.

Personally, I don't like the hemisphere stuff; it strikes me as biological reductionism (in normal people the two halves of the brain do communicate, after all).  I prefer to use the terms Miner and Jeweler.  But I do understand the importance of giving the Miner as much room as possible, and Rand has some useful thoughts about that.

For example: "The best drug ever prescribed, in my opinion, is placebo.  (Until recently.  I've switched to New, Improved Instant Placebo (R), in mint-flavored gel caps.)"  

In other words, when it comes to stoking creativity, whatever you think works, really does work.  And in that sense my new desk (remember my new desk?) can be seen as a placebo.  I know that I can't give the creative part of my brain orders but I can flatter or if you prefer bribe it by spending money.  Go to a conference.  Buy Ken Rand's book.  Get a new desk.

Old and cramped
Why does that work? I think in most people the creative part of the brain, the Miner, is lazy because it has been trained to be lazy.  You say that if you got a great idea you'd run like a cheetah straight to the keyboard, but when a light bulb does present itself you turn on  a Simpsons rerun instead.  Spending money and/or time convinces the Miner that you will take its work seriously.  (And of course, if you spend big bucks you will feel obligated to do something to justify it... see how it all comes around?)

 Of course, there's more to my desk than that.  It's a better work station and that helps with organization and writing.  Plus the stand-up aspect is great for my increasingly middle-aged back.

But lets get back to Rand.  How did his 90-seconds approach connect to my Bouchercon-inspired story idea?   Well, what follows combines his method with my own.

* I sat down with a pen and paper, far from my magical stand-up desk.  (Rand recommends separating the Author tasks from those of the Editor in as many physical ways as is practical.  Generally I Write analog and Edit digital.)
Old desk's moment of fame
* I wrote down my original idea.
* I wrote down in one sentence each the three unsatisfactory story plots I had hatched so far.  (Rand says: throw out the first few plots you get from an idea; those are the easy cliches.  In songwriting we say, when you start with a set of lyrics, throw out the first few tunes that come to mind.)
* With an eye on the clock I started writing down a new story structure, using pieces of those first three plots.

So, did I really come up with a satisfactory story plot in ninety seconds?

It only took seventy.  And, of course, I don't know whether I will really shape up into something publishable.  In a few years, we will find out I guess.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go back to my desk...


  1. Enjoy your new desk and lets hope the Muse enjoys it too.
    I remember when I got my big writing desk years ago- it really told me I was going to be a writer!

  2. I've used the same desk for 35+ years, hauling it around the country to at least ten different residences, including a move within the past few months. The only way it'll ever be a stand-up desk is with a car jack and some concrete blocks.

    It's a big office desk with a secretarial arm that was great back when I wrote everything on a Selectric. Now the secretarial arm holds a printer and miscellaneous other stuff.

    I don't know if changing my desk would do anything for my writing, but I do know that putting the same desk in a new location (even if it's simply a move within the same room) does provide a temporary boost.

    You'll have to let us know how standing up impacts your writing and/or your comfort when writing. Some of the rest of us are having the same back concerns as you.

  3. Feedback about how well writing works standing up, please!

    I've been using my current desk for about ten years, and I love it. My previous one was a door laid over two filing cabinets, which worked great until one day it didn't.

    My placebos? I have a set of nesting filing baskets above a milk crate full of miscellaneous stuff. Whenever I am truly stuck and can't go out for a walk (we're having a snowstorm right now), I start working my way through cleaning that up. Usually that helps. Some.

  4. Rob, nice desk.

    I find having some large drudgery task I have to do, improves my desire to write short stories instead. Also, having three short stories going at the same time means one of them will get finished. As for coming up with plots or story lines, I find rum and coke with a friend to bounce ideas off usually provides about a 10% return on workable material.

    So under these circumstances would the rum and coke be considered as the placebo or as the real thing?

  5. R.T. - I think yours is the real deal... :)

  6. I just reread this piece years later and thought I would add this: The story idea turned into "Taxonomy Lesson," which was published in Alfred Hitchcock's in September/October 2021. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2021/08/a-trend-anecdote-and-exhibit.html


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