Recently there was a scene in the long running and highly successful television series, Supernatural, that contained the most direct and the most powerful guidance I have ever run into for dealing with Writer’s Block or just procrastination in general.
The scene doesn’t matter and I don’t want to spoil the identity of the two writers talking about the issue, but here is the, stand still and let me slap you in the face with a dead salmon bit of tough advice.
“You’re a writer. A writer who is not writing.
And when a writer is not writing they feel sad, and they feel lost.
And the writer asks themselves, “Why do I feel this way? Why am I so sad and lost?”
And what does all this navel gazing and hair pulling amount to in the end? Procrastination, distraction.
They’re among million things that a writer uses to avoid doing the one thing that is all but guaranteed to make the writer feel better.
This is easily the best and clearest analysis of what nonsense writers get up to with procrastination and writer’s block. Sure, it is a variation of the old “Just get off your ass and write!” advice.
But, once you think about it, the main character in the scene has it right. This is “all but guaranteed to work.”
It was a dry, dusty, sharply cold afternoon in Kabul.
The wind carried the faint reek of human excrement from the vegetable and melon fields a few kilometres away. Human waste is widely used in Afghanistan as fertilizer.
I was just about to give up on the rest of the day and call for my driver and head off to the closest foreigners’ market that sold scotch, when downstairs called and said I had two military officers who wanted a meeting.
Some activity that day was better than none so I told one of my people to go and get the officers.
As Communications Director for the United Nations Warlord Disarmament Programme, I was used to dealing with just about any requests from outsiders.
(The UN used a different name for the group and also my position but those communicated little to the outside world of what we and I did so I had arbitrarily renamed everything. It really irritated the bureaucrats when I did that.)
I met with most outsiders mainly because the true leaders of the place really had too high a view of their own importance, and quite frankly did not understand everything that they were supposed to.
Two officers walked in and unlike every other officer in Theatre (military speak terminology) at the time they were in full proper uniform. Working officers in the field, or in Theatre, all dressed in combat fatigues done up in a bewildering variety of camouflage styles according to what their home countries thought best.
Since at that time there were some 15 national armies in the Coalition trying to keep the country stable while a new and perhaps better government than the ousted Taliban flailed around trying to learn how to govern there were a lot of wild and varied camouflage uniforms around.
My deputy, who had gone to meet them at reception, introduced them as captains from the Army of South Korea.
At that I was a bit flummoxed. As far as I knew the South Koreans had shown no interest in being part of the international coalition holding the country together and they supplied none of the humanitarian aid that the country’s millions needed.
It didn’t take long to find out why they were in my office.
They wanted to buy my thousands of tanks, rockets, and other heavy weapons.
The Heavy Weapons Collection Programme was a country wide effort to collect the thousands of tanks, armed personnel carriers, rockets, anti-aircraft machine guns and other weaponry from the dozens of private armies and warlords throughout Afghanistan. Most were rusted junk but some of it could still level a city.
“But they are not mine.” I said. “They are part of the United Nations disarmament programme and technically they belong to the Government of Afghanistan.”
Broad smiles all around and knowing nods.
“Yes we know,” said one of the captains. “but we can help by getting them out of the country.”
“Why do you want to buy heavy weapons?” A question that I never got answered during the next half hour of increasingly opaque and twisted conversation.
My Afghan staff took it upon themselves to deliver coffee and tea along with trays of pistachios and Peek Frean cookies. I sighed when they started to bring that stuff in because it meant that I couldn’t just stand up and briskly wish them good luck and lead them out of the door. No, we had to sit there and talk.
Part of my problem with their visit was that I was not sure at all that these two were who they said they were. Kabul swarmed with intelligence people. Each nation in the coalition had their uniformed intelligence officers and an unknown number of civilian clothed operatives. The most obvious, in and out of uniform, were always the Americans. For some odd reason they all seemed to think that wearing a dark beard, elaborately pocketed vests, a pair of dark Ray-Bans or Oakleys, and an air of coiled violence made them invisible. True intelligence operatives, and I have known a lot, are as unnoticeable as true ghosts. American spies come across as the comic book Caspar, The Friendly Ghost.
The best invisible spooks were the British. They just seemed to drift aimlessly through the country without drawing attention to themselves. The funniest were the Bulgarian spooks. They all but walked around with a cloak covering their faces as they lurked around corners.
“If you don’t mind, Mr Rick,” said one of the officers. “How many tanks do you have.”
I repeated that they were not mine and I had no control over them but I didn’t press the point because they were unfailingly polite and smiling in their disbelief. “About ten thousand in compounds now and another few thousand on their way.”
“Any how many are operational?”
I could only repeat what my bosses had told me over and over but I had never believed what they said. “None. They have all been demobilized by removing their fuel pumps, coaxial machine guns, and making the breech blocks inoperable.”
“But they can be loaded on truck trailers, no?”
I guessed so. My ignorance of how heavy weapons were handled was vast.
“And the anti-aircraft weapons? The rockets? And so on?’
“Well, I’ve been told that they are also inoperable.” I had my doubts about that. And there was more than one story about how operable air to ground Stinger missles left over from the fight with the Soviets had quietly disappeared from the United Nations collection system and changed hands for huge amounts of money.
“We would very much like to buy as much of the material as we can. I imagine that there are various officials in the government and the United Nations that we would have to negotiate payment with. And of course, we would certainly compensate you well for your help.”
So there is was.
A bald bribe. I had no doubt whatsoever that they could easily cut a corrupt deal with whatever United Nations and Government of Afghanistan officials they had to, but I had seen the inside of the Pul-e-Charkhiprison not five kilometers away and I was far far too much of a coward to ever chance getting sent there.
I also knew the head of the Afghan Secret Police, a terrible alcoholic who I had drunk much scotch with and who had been more than a little too graphic in his description of how the Afghan methods of torture were so much more effective than what the effete Americans did with their silly water boarding and such.
It took some effort to get them out of my office gracefully but it had helped that I had been able to get them an interview with a cabinet minister in the government to discuss the matter.
I never heard any more about their weapons buying trip but I did hear an odd story about how some tanks and other heavy weapons had been pulled out of secure compounds at night and loaded on flat bed trucks for Pakistan, and presumably the ports.
Perhaps the value of scrap steel was that high, or perhaps the South Koreans, if they were even that and not, let’s say, North Koreans, had other plans.
I kept my speculations to myself and watched to see if any of the people I dealt with all of a sudden were able to afford six star hotels in Dubai and high end vacations.
I also didn’t mention my meeting with my bosses. When it comes to weapons and money it is best to keep one’s mouth shut.
Dateline:Kabul Afghanistan, during the early years of the occupation
This place has become as dull and boring a place as Wa’kaw Saskatchewan, or Ottawa, or any rainy Tuesday morning in Vancouver. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We still have the daily threats, the warnings, the alerts, and the roads are still full of menacing men whose beards are just a touch too long and too ragged for fashion’s taste and who drive Toyota Surf’s with every imaginable chrome gewgaw festooned front and back and of course, fully blacked-out windows.
There is the occasional explosion in the distance at night as some terrorist gets his red and white wires mixed up while working through the do-it-yourself bomb making kit, and most nights you can hear the high off scream of US Air Force jets plunging down on the mountains east of here as they continue the
bad guy hunt. So all of that is still here. But the trouble is, it has become normal, routine, unremarkable, and boring.
So, just as a story without a plot, or a sentence without a verb, is meaningless, so too has been any rationale I might have had for writing up a Boy’s Own Thrilling Tale of life in the Hindu Kush amid the Panshirs, surrounded by Pashtuns and Tajiks, menaced by Taliban, and bemused by a military bureaucracy which doesn’t seem to realize that there are real people with guns out there.
The other problem is that as this place becomes more psychologically routine, its reality appears increasingly normal to me. The whole lot of the rest of the world is becoming a rather insubstantial, drifting ghosts in another dimension who may or may not exist.
Metaphysics from Kabul, you say. Well, it goes with the territory. There is something about desert countries that triggers alternate views of reality, I cannot imagine the Quran, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or any of Thesiger’s works ever being conceived of, let alone being written, under the rain showers of the British Columbia coast, surrounded by the flames of a Quebec autumn leaf explosion, or beside the shores of a mountain tarn in the Pallisers. I think deserts, whether here or in the High Arctic, or wherever they may be, are a form of physical meditation. The mind travels to strange realms when freed of visual stimuli and that is what happens in Afghanistan.
If the things that go boom in the night are no longer of interest then what is?
The oddest things I assure you. One day last week there was a change in the weekly menu at the Global Guesthouse. The Afghan chef introduced scalloped potatoes instead of roasted potatoes to go with the under cooked fatty-tailed sheep. This resulted in equal amounts of violated conservative values from the ex-pat Brits and exuberance from the liberated food adventurers sick to death of roasted potatoes. The discussion went on for two days and we still haven’t restored peace at the table.
Fatty-Tailed Sheep, imitation scotch made in Pakistan and sold in bottles with misspelled labels, jars of Canadian ketchup (fiery chilli sauce only we five Canadians will touch), and cans of Pringles crushed flat in shipping are the highlights of our diets.
I believe that if we did not have access to the Canadian mess hall at Camp Warehouse we would all have come down with those ugly diseases that only ever seem to exist in the pages of medical textbooks, the books that feature photographs of long annelid creatures deep in the body, ugly flaking skin rashes, weeping sores, and refer the reader to the exhibits in the London School of Tropical Diseases Museum, Restricted Section, Special Admission Required.
The only food I have found here to rival the Canadian food is at Camp Souter, the British Camp just down the road by the airport. Most of the troops are Gurkhass but the food is cosmic international fine cuisine.
I’ve been told that the British Army used to serve food worse than the Germans, (I shudder at the thought), but over the past few years there has been a deliberate effort to improve the food and morale along with it. I would have thought that when Caesar was a young centurion this would have been an aged adage even then but apparently not and quite a number of nations serve their disgruntled troops crappy food. And at the head of that list have to be the unfortunate Germans and the even more unfortunate Americans whose Meals Ready to Eat, known better by their designation MRE, are out and out dogfood.
At Camp Souter there are always three hot meal choices. Each is displayed behind a Red, Yellow, or Green card. If you want the greasy unhealthy vitamin-less but great tasting choice you take it from the Red. If you have a conscience but cannot quite enter into holy orders about your food you can take the Yellow. And of course for the Vegan, dainty eater, k. d. laing, crowd there is the genetically perfect Green choice. And so it goes through the desserts and other food groups. It is amazingly good food no matter what color group you take it from.
Earlier I talked about increasing security problems in the Kabul area. It is getting a little Wild Westish but nothing like most of the other places I have been. Still, I hate having to drive a vehicle around that has NATO ISAF plates and markings on it because of all the attention it draws. We live downtown and the key to a quiet life when there are guys around who don’t like to shave is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Until recently this was not a problem because we simply removed the plates and stickers and only displayed the plates when we entered a camp.
But a directive has come down from some minion or other of Mars and we are forbidden to drive without the markings.
The answer of course is to get civilian vehicles and that is what is going to happen but it has been a long struggle to get approval, in fact it went right up to the Chief of Staff for ISAF. The COS (that’s mil-talk for the likes of you) is a pretty busy guy who really shouldn’t have to bother himself with the doings of people like us.
Anyway, after much to’ing and fro’ing during which I established that precedents had been set by allowing the Spooks (Intel guys — more mil-talk) to drive civilian vehicles, and allowing the Canadian military to take the plates and markings off their white 4×4’s, he changed his policy.
There has been a delay in delivering the three new vehicles because the Transportation Section forgot to order them. How one could forget an approval that came down from the stratospheric heights of the Chief of Staff is beyond me but when a military bureaucracy decides to be inefficient the absurdities can take your breath away.
So you see? It is all rather mundane these days, one sunny Afghan day drifting into another, the afternoons passing with their parade of wind djinns, the evenings sinking into a sick yellow blaze of sunset through the billows of dust,
the dawns starting like jewels then tarnishing as the smoke from cooking fires rises, and the mornings brisk and breathless as the temperatures climb astonishingly from below 0 to above 20 or 25.
If I get around to it I’ll get someone to take my picture as I wear my Massoud Tajik hat and with my djellaba across my face. I look quite menacing if I say so myself. All I need is a midnight black Toyota Surf with four extra hi beam headlights, a truck horn, and an arrogant insistence on the right to pass every car on the road on the wrong side and I will fit right in, talk about being unobtrusive.
An excerpt from The Disaster Tourist by Rick Grant (in production)
Thursday Sept 24/92 Wilson Airport, Nairobi
Wilson is said to be the second busiest airport in Africa after Johannesburg. It’s busy because of the profits to be made from the dying in the north, and profits in supplying the drug Khat to the living in the north.
It’s a small airport, the sort of place you’d find in any town of less than a hundred thousand anywhere else but the tarmac parking areas are crammed with Cessna 402’s, 185’s, Caravans, Twin Otters, DC-3’s, A Beech 18 and even an old C-119 Boxcar. When the wing heights allow they’re parked with wings overlapping. The scream of turbines and the rattling roar of pistons engines goes on continually from dawn to the quick setting of the Nairobi sun. The line-ups for the active runway would be more expected at Chicago or Toronto than mid-Africa. The waiting room of what was a small country airport is crammed with relief workers, drug traders, and Somali relatives waiting for those who have the hard currency to buy a flight out.
There are planes owned and operated by most of the relief agencies. Some like the Red Cross stand out across the heat shimmer of the distance, the Red Cross symbol standing fiery against the white of the fuselage. The letters UNICEF splashes down the length of a twin engine loading supplies. The UNHCR and other United Nations organizations has their planes, all painted dead white.
A great part of the United Nations’ air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992
Other agencies charter as they need it for the flights to Wajir, Bardera, Mogadishu, Baidoa, and a dozen more places noted for the depth of their tragedies.
The charter operators make a killing here. It costs about five thousand dollars to put an eight seat light twin into Mogadishu, a bare three hour flight. Some of the cost is the danger, but a lot is demand driven. There’s so much demand and so much money to be made that planes registered in the United States and Britain are here. They’re forbidden to operate on Kenyan routes but that doesn’t matter because the big money is in the land of death to the north. And they pay local officials huge amounts in bribes, and in cash at that.
The lottery winning amounts of the relief operations is nothing compared to the profits in the khat trade. Khat is a plant which produces a chemical which acts like amphetamine. Users strip the leaves from the stalks and chew them in a large wad inside the cheek. Those who use it become inattentive, reckless, and highly nervous. A taxi driver on khat is dangerous, a technical on khat is murderous.
Khat isn’t illegal so there’s no barrier other than transport.
It’s not used in Kenya.
It’s devoured in Somalia.
The planes from Wilson fly into Ethiopia where the crew cram the cabins with the best type known as myraa and fly it into Somalia. There it’s traded for American dollars. If there are people with the money they’re also crammed into the cabins now smelling strongly of fresh khat and flown to Kenya.
About one hundred thousand US dollars in profits flows into Wilson each day.
From there at first light the endless sky parade of khat planes takes off for Somalia. At any normal airport anywhere else in the world aircraft are cleared to taxi and take-off on a first come first served basis. But not at Wilson during the Somali crisis.
“You pay your money and you get to go.” The World’s Shortest King Air Pilot told me. “If you don’t pay, and none of the relief organizations will pay the bribes, then you wait and wait and wait some more until finally a bored controller lets you go.”
The Khat, people smuggling, arms dealing, aircraft race each other to Mogadishu West, a soft red dust airstrip 50 kilometres outside Mogadishu. It’s known as K50Moga and boasts the best security of any airport outside Israel.
K50moga is lined with heavily armed technicals belonging to the drug dealers and clan leaders. Each technical is equipped with at least one heavy 50 calibre machine gun mounted on a tripod welded to the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser, the most highly prized vehicle for use as a high speed mobile gun carrier.
With so much weaponry manned by highly agitated teenagers chewing on khat, things are always a slippery hair away from general slaughter. A person would have to be beyond clinically insane to start anything at the airstrip.
For several hours each morning the airstrip if enveloped in a billowing cloud of dust as aircraft after aircraft land, dump their cargo and load their money. There is no air traffic control and planes will touch down with dozens of feet behind newly arrived planes while others dart into the landing traffic and blast full throttle off the ground.
The road leading from K50moga to the highway in name only is lined with ancient British Bedford and Italian trucks, decades old. There are newer ones but they are carefully hidden from opposition clan members who would steal them.
Somalia was littered with these ancient and barely functioning trucks. They were the only things available to the relief agencies because the gangsters had all the new vehicles.
This is a daily scene and has to be. Khat does not last longer than a day or so before losing its effectiveness so there is no way to stockpile or control the supply and it has to be flown and delivered each day.
In the meantime the relief planes loaded with food, medicine, health professionals and relief workers head on to the main international airport in Mogadishu or one of the other cities in the country. And at every one of the landing spots there will be heavily armed Somalis waiting for their landing fees.
Today we are leaving Wilson Nairobi for the southern city of Bardera in southern Somalia.
It is a nasty violent place reeking with the stench of overripe decomposing bodies. The death toll is like something out of the European Plague Years. But, it is relatively calm compared to the hallucinogenic hell of Mogadishu and I am glad we are not going there.
Our well aged twin engine Rockwell Aero Commander is clean and I hope that is a sign of decent maintenance.
The Aero Commander has internal combustion engines like most cars do instead of the much more reliable and much faster turbine engines used by other relief groups. It will take us much longer to get to Bardera than I would care for.
Mount Kenya rises so slowly out of the clouds as we climb north from Nairobi that at first it looks only like a lumpier than normal cloud, but gradually its swelling erection pokes into the washed blue and it emerges from the cloaking clouds with its three peaks gleaming cream with snow.
It’s the second highest mountain in Africa. The highest is on Kenya’s southern border, the fabled Kilimanjaro.
On a later flight I will see it standing softly against the horizon. It and Mount Kenya are so tall that either can be seen on just about any flight near Nairobi.
Kilimanjaro looks nothing like the wonderful symmetrical pictures taken from across the Serengeti plain. Instead, it’s a lopsided double breast of a mountain.
Just about any day of the year there are many many tourists trudging away years of inactivity, cigarettes and booze on a three-day trek to the top. I wondered whether there are the frozen dried bodies of tourists on the eastern slope alongside Hemingway’s dried out snow leopards.
It’s a two-hour flight to Bardera over gradually opening scrub, the everlasting acacia thorn. The Acacia Tree must be the oldest tree in the world. Only something ancient before the times of evil could ever have survived in the dusty hell of northern Kenya and southern Somalia.
It is all long sharp thorns and unbreakable twigs and branches. It was designed in an evolutionary war to survive anything. But oddly, giraffes and camels can feast nicely on it without hurting themselves.
The strip at Bardera is dirt, now getting badly rutted from the impact and runout of military Hercules flying in from Nairobi with tonnes of food.
The so-called short rains are starting. If they start to come regularly the strip and the roads in this region will become impassable.
The landing approach is a slow steep left turn, first along the river, and then back toward the town. The strip is wide, long enough, and wet brown in the middle. A wet spot is seeping from the center through the ruts. It doesn’t look that bad but underneath there is no strength to the ground. It turns to a mush of sand and dust on impact.
Nice gentle touchdown, no bounce, but then suddenly the sickening sink of the left main wheel as it catches in a Hercules rut. A swerve, then a violent kick of rudder and we are straight. Sheets of sandy mud shoot along the sides of the little plane turning the passenger windows opaque.
“I thought we were going to buy it,” the pilot says with heat in his voice, “Somebody is going to get killed if they don’t fix this.”
That shocked me. As a pilot I have never heard, not once, any pilot ever admit out loud that they had been frightened. To do so in front of my colleagues who were not pilots and had no understanding was beyond belief.
The heat in the cabin rises. We scramble out of the low-slung cabin through the single door and come under the eyes and muzzles of a jeep full of technicals sporting loaded automatic weapons.
The strip is the only way in for food. No food convoy could make it over from the Kenyan border without being looted within miles of crossing. The same applies for any trucks trying to move into the southeast from Mogadishu.
Without the strip there can’t be any seeds and tools relief program either. It’s a British attempt to fly in enough seeds and enough hoes, mattocks and whatever to give the farmers a chance of putting in a crop for the coming season. Some still live on their land but there are many in places like Bardera that are condemned to the sub existence of the feeding centers and the camps unless they can be reequipped.
They’ve lost everything in the civil war and then the chaos of the clan wars, the outright genocide and murderous campaigns by warlords to establish their own fiefdoms.
While getting enough food has always been a problem throughout Somalia, war and clan violence has brought never ending famine.
Without war, there is almost never a chance for famine.
With a few weeks of food supplies, seed grain and the tools then the people can leave the camps and return to their land. And with their land the chance that they will be able to support not only their families but also turn out enough of a surplus to feed a few others. It’s the only real chance of easing the swarming crush of the refugee camps and it can only work if there is peace.
Farmers cannot work their land if there is fighting. All they can do is head off into the bush in the hope of saving themselves.
“There’s no problem getting people to fix the ruts,” says the Australian team leader to the still shaken pilot, “but they don’t have anything to fix them with. When this place was taken by Aideed’s forces in June the retreating Barre forces looted everything.”
“They didn’t leave a shovel, a hoe, or any hand tool behind.”
Without hand tools a farmer is under a sentence of death for he cannot plant and if he can’t plant then the only thing to do is start a foodless and waterless trek through the Somali desert to towns such as Bardera and Baidoa where the aid agencies have been able to get food in.
“Without hand tools there’s no way to fix the strip. It’d be half an hour’s work with a small grader, days with shovels and hoes, but it could be done.”
The self-styled general Aideed, the architect of Somali hell is here in town and we will meet him in what I am convinced is complete and utter waste of time. It also feels deeply mind dirty like contemplating a meeting with Hitler to talk about Jews. I have been in a state of disgust about this meeting since it was proposed, but I must go.
Shark Flight, the sequel to Cobra Flight is still in production and I am starting to think of marketing it.
With the demise of newspaper book reviewers along with newspapers themselves, and the fracturing of the media landscape, a writer has to take a much more direct role in the selling side of things.
A lot of writers really have a hard time with this. Many feel that production is somehow beneath them, something that a “trades” person should be doing, not a head in the heavens author.
That’s not how I see things at all.
The work of planning out the marketing campaign for a novel is part of the creation process as far as I am concerned. By trying to find things in the design of a book cover, an advertisement, or a video book trailer I am forced to keep the shape and events of my novel in the forefront. This is always to the good because it keeps the novel grounded in the story experience of the reader, and the listener of course because Shark Flight, like Cobra Flight, will also be an audiobook.
By examining what might appeal to a reader through the marketing campaign I am constantly reviewing and strengthening the book through the writing process.
So, in this spirit of marketing experimentation here is an early concept of what an advertisement on Amazon will look like.
I stress, that Shark Flight is not in fact available for sale yet. This advertisement is a mock-up.
There are some pretty specific techniques and practices you can pick up from the world of serious journalism, in particular, newspaper, magazine, and broadcast journalism, that will elevate your analytic and writing skills far above the average.
One of the most important is note-taking.
These note-taking techniques will work for any kind of writing you do, be it Fiction, Journalism, Non-Fiction, Plays, Daily Journals, whatever.
I am a product of the journalistic world, and I still use its tools and practices in my non-fiction and fiction worlds which have nothing to do with daily journalism.
They are founded on attitude, consistency, and simplicity.
They require little if any work on your part. But, they will, absolutely, improve everything in your writing life.
The first thing you have got to grasp is that you will forget some, part of, or all of a thought or observation you have unless you get it down in physical form.
Memory is as fleeting as summer lightning. It is all too common to forget the very fact that you had thought of something in the first place. You have no hope of hanging onto more than a few fragments of an idea if all you rely on is memory.
And be aware that the mind is far too quick to make up details, recreate false statements, and utterly mess up anything that has been in your head in an incomplete manner for more than a few minutes. There is a reason why police offices, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and many other detail oriented professionals get issued a notebook before anything else.
The second thing is that no note-taking system can be too simple. And the simplest is pen and paper.
If you need to stop what you are doing to open an app, or fish your phone out of your pocket and enter its security code, or stop to find your special pen, or fire up a voice recorder, your thought is in danger of disappearance. At best, your thought is subject to corruption as your mind tries to fill in details it does not have.
The third thing is, as much as possible try to use one system only.
Don’t use Evernote, One Note, Google Keep, Zoot, or any others indiscriminately and simultaneously. You will lose notes.
Here is my system. Others will have better and perhaps worse, but that’s okay as long as you pick something and stick to it, making no changes to it without long and hard thought.
One of the writers I greatly admire is James Rebanks (A Shepherd’s Life) who says he and his fellow shepherds in England’s Lake district are pathologically opposed to new ways of doing things. “If you have done something on your farm for generations the same way, and it works, then that is a good reason not to change.”
Now generally, I am not a follower of that philosophy. I am the type who is always the first kid on the block with the latest technology, the latest software, the latest gadget. But, when it comes to writing, and more specifically the recording of those ideas and other elements that go into writing, I am a purist.
So, pick something and use it without modification until you are unequivocally sure that a change will help.
I carry a softcover notebook of about 60 pages that fits into a hip pocket. It is with me all day, everyday. With it I also have a telescoping pen that also sits in the hip pocket. The Space Pen is the right size but there are others. You could also have a cut down pencil if that is your preference. But the point is that the notebook and the pen are always together and always on your person.
Date and time your thought.
Write it in one simple sentence, or a decent sentence fragment.
Only when those two things have been done, and it doesn’t matter how fragmentary your recorded note is, do you then tag on any context, color, or subsidiary thoughts.
Don’t worry about handwriting, in fact it is good practice not to even look at the paper while you are jotting. When you open your notebook, don’t try to find the next available page or section of page, just open it at random, give it a quick glance to make sure that you have a clear space to write, and then charge ahead. You can indeed write without looking at what you are doing.
You must always try to make sure that nothing gets between the still bubbling thought in your brain and the words on the paper.
The next step, and it can be done quite some time after the actual note taking, is to make a Table of Contents entry.
I number all the pages in my notebook. When the note is done I flip to the first page and on its own line I put down the random page number where I dumped the note. Then, I give it some sort of title so I can refer to it later. A primitive TOC will make finding and using your note a lot easier. Having to flip through dozens of pages looking for something or other is no a good use of your time.
It is really important to get these notes into a more formal record keeping system before they turn into cryptic messages from an alien underworld. So, as soon as you can it is best to put them into your favourite computerized data system, be it Evernote, Zoot, One Note or whatever. It really doesn’t matter what you use as long as you only use one. If you scatter notes across recording systems you will lose them.
For longer notes, or perhaps even full scenes in a book manuscript, you can use a portable voice recorder and then import them as text files using one of the Dragon Naturally Speaking editions that supports transcription, not all do.
Using a voice recorder is superb for describing a location you might want to use in a story, or to get down as much complicated detail that you think you will need.
A variation on that technique is to hit the video button on your phone and visually record your surroundings as you describe the scene.
A different system might be necessary when working right at your computer. It may be best to pop open your database program and type out a note, but be wary that you don’t get shunted down a rabbit hole. I keep my little notebook right next to my mouse, or I reach for the voice recorder.
Remember this at peril of losing your thought; your note taking system has to be one-step simple.
A lot of people have asked me about the idea of learning shorthand for note taking. My answer is, don’t bother.
I learned shorthand as a young reporter and use it still, but it is of limited use to the fiction writer. There are rather simple techniques outlined on the web and in instruction books for what is called Speed Writing and you could look into them if you are interested.
The main thing is, have a way of getting that thought out of your head as quickly as possible, with the least technical effort so you don’t run into this common scenario:
Menu, select Make New Note
At which point you forget what the hell your were going to say.
The world is asleep under the stars and what diamond hard stars they are too. As I drive back into the city from a day in Fort Rae they seem to outshine the headlights.
The road back from Rae is a hundred miles of twisting and turning gravel that leaps up and down through low hills choked with spruce, aspen, tamarack and a few fir. In the dark it becomes a terribly hostile place made more intense by the absence of traffic. An accident here or a breakdown would mean a night in the minus twenty weather hoping, praying for a traveller. It’s because of that, that there is a survival kit in the back seat and an arctic sleeping bag. We don’t take chances in this country. There is nothing between Rae and Yellowknife except a few wolves.
As I drive east toward midnight the stars glint hard through the windshield. I turn down the instrument panel lights and let the stars beat through the headlights. There’s Orion directly in front of me and just to the left the Big Dipper is making its slow wheel about the sky, tied always to the north star and I can’t help thinking about Manitou and Black Bear playing cards on the other side, past the sky. It’s funny how a child’s story takes on real life in this country. Perhaps he really does exist.
The road is frozen gravel so there’s no need to worry about sliding but where it goes through a curve the traffic has carved just one track. When it turns to the right the lane stays where it is supposed to but on a left turn the bare gravel is far to the left and that means any vehicle coming the other way would be met head on. It’s a game of chance and anxiety. Whether to stay on the hard pack snow and let any traffic slip past or stay on the gravel and keep the speed up on the gravel.Every curve is a guess. I pass one truck heading west from Yellowknife and see its headlights bounced off the trees well in advance so I relax. I know that I’ll have the warning to get back to my side of the road. The trees are coated in hoar frost and the headlights turn them into silver cutouts plastered against the stars. There’s magic here.
Halfway back now and there’s an odd light directly ahead. It seems like the glow of a city but I’m too far from Yellowknife for that and the air is too clear to allow any city to light up the air anyway. You can be a mile from Yellowknife and not know it because the city lights aren’t reflected the way they are in the south.
The glow is troubling. There’s a hardness to it that doesn’t seem right. Thoughts of flying saucers are easy here, it’s so lonely. If I was an explorer from Alpha Centauri sent to earth to spy on the human race what better way to gather data than to drop down on a lonely highway in the arctic and pick up the one vehicle for fifty miles in either direction.
There’s nothing on the radio, too far out. The heater is noisy and I turn it off to concentrate on the light. It’s growing too quickly for it to be stationary and it must be moving. Then darkness, as I slip down through a dark valley guarded by rock walls and up a long curve of the hill. No light. Then light.
The moon for God’s sake. It sits in the trees as it rises above the horizon. It’s huge. it seems to fill the width of the road and looms above the windshield of the car. The light is being refracted through the atmosphere I tell myself and the moon is being magnified but that doesn’t take anything away from the spectacle. Its light blasts down the highway at me and in a straight stretch I punch off the headlights. Hardly any difference. The moon has turned the highway to a twilight sliver. We rush on together, the car and me and the moon. The stars shine on still so bright I can see them when I look away from the moon. We’re a team the moon and me and we drive on and on under its light until the road curves into darkness and the headlights must come on because I never want to use the survival kit. Darkness envelopes the car and the loneliness is back but then the curve is finished and once more the moon is back.
Midnight is passing. I forget how far I have driven. I have no idea where Yellowknife might be and that troubles me. Must always know where you are in this country. The old habits built up in this very region from that silly little seaplane base down the road from the motel are coming back.
Know where you are all the time, goes the rule, then you will know where you are lost.
You get killed when you get lost in an unknown place.
Strange rule but it works. There’s a telephone in the car. Now that I am closer to Yellowknife I could use it if the car breaks down. But that wouldn’t help me much. What am I going to say? “Hello, uh I need a truck to pull me out of a snowbank. What’s that? Where am I? Uh, somewhere between Rae and Yellowknife. Just start driving and I’ll be on the road.” Christ it could take the rest of my life to find me.
The moon has dogs. They’ve come up either side of the mother. Pale little children riding coat-tail as if they were afraid of getting lost. What does this mean? I think to myself. Is this good luck, or bad, do they herald good weather or a snarling blizzard? God the weather knowledge I have lost over the years. Must relearn it.
A glint of light between the left dog and the moon. It’s the airport beacon sweeping away to the arctic sky. What nostalgia that brings back. It sweeps over me. The nights and nights I plowed my way back through some skag down the MacKenzie river overloaded with gear and fuel trying to land a 185 at the base, never really sure where the airport was and then suddenly seeing that white slash of light sweep across the sky and I knew I was home and the floats would be touching Back Bay in twenty minutes. Dangerous life and I don’t miss it but you always remember the good things about the past, never the bad, and that beacon is one of the good. The beacon is good to me too. I start to reenter the world. I start to see the moon and her dogs for what they are. The stars retreat to being stars and not silent watchers over the wilderness. The magic is leaking away and the car slips closer to Yellowknife.
I see some lights beaming from the top of the territorial government office tower and then the YK Tower and then the highrises. The airport and its snow wrapped bush planes waiting for break-up and the endless summer days goes past on the right and then I’m back. The city swallows me up and the north goes away. There’s sadness as I take the car back. I am giving up the treasure of a sensation and a life few would ever experience. I live within myself content and with the secret knowledge that the moon and her two children put on that show just for me. Somewhere I hear Black Bear’s grumbling chuckle and I love the world.
I was working as a spokesperson for CARE Canada and the team had rented this house not far from the border. The family that owned it was more than happy to move out and live in an underground shelter in exchange for hard currency, and they provided the meals.
Well, getting food in War Zones and Disaster Areas can be a problem and in Kukes, unless you had a lot of money you had to make do with what you could get your hands on.
In this case, it was chickens. Our landlords had a lot of chickens in their back garden and that is what the team ate. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day after day, for about a month, we ate baked chicken.
We could get other food but that would have meant buying off the black market, which was probably stolen relief food so that was out of the question. But we got lots of offers including many from a local hoodlum who was trying to move up in the ranks from sometime hitman to crime boss.
But beer was cheap and plentiful so all was good with life.