PeterMBall

On Resistance and Roll-Top Desks

I inherited my father’s roll-top desk over a decade ago, after my parents renovated their study. It’s travelled with me from apartment to share-house to apartment, sitting in lounge rooms or the corner of my bedroom, frequently serving as a site for storage and the accumulation of junk rather than an actual work place. This is the tyranny of a modern workspace where a computer is prominently featured, and the desk was designed for an era where computers weren’t really a consideration. It was always easier to buy a small computer desk that sits in the corner work there when I needed an actual desk,, and spend the rest of my writing time on the couch or the bed.

This weekend my problems with the desk came up against another problem: the PhD needs space to spread out when I’m working, layout out research books and notepads and index cards with raw ideas so they can be absorbed and synthesised into the current work-in-progress document. Compact computer desks aren’t ideal for that, and my original plan of going to the university campus to get work done has shown itself to be a problem due to the sheer number of distracting people to catch up with on campus.The two spaces in my apartment capable of handling that kind of sprawl were the roll-top desk or my coffee table, and my shoulder was already hurting from too much time on the couch.

And so I spent some quality time cataloguing all my points of hesitation about using the desk as a workspace, addressing them one by one in order to eliminate my resistance towards using the desk as it’s intended instead of dumping bills and pulling the top down.

The computer issue is much less of an issue now, thanks to laptops, but the older design of the desk still left me with a couple  of other problems I’d never really noticed. For instance, it’s a particularly high desk – the desktop is about 82 cm off the ground – and the seat of my office chair was only 41 cm off the ground. This made typing at the desk profoundly awkward and unergonomic, until I ducked down to my local office works and acquired a new office chair that sat higher and positioned me at a comfortable typing/writing height.

That’s not the only change I’ve made. Other shifts include rearranging one of the draws – the desk has fantastically deep drawers for storage – so it is the repository of the blank notebook archive, and moving the stationary draw I never really used from the left side of the right so I don’t have to reach across my centre line to pick up a pen or an eraser with my dominant hand; I invested in a sleeker, nicer in/out tray so that I don’t have the option of letting things stack up so much.

All of these are little things, yes, but they were still a slight drag on my process the moment I even thought of working at the desk that contributed to the feeling that doing something else was preferable.

Over the weekend I did the bare amount of changing and testing to get me working at the space, in addition to setting up a long-list of things to try as I settle in to really fine-tune the process. For now, it seems to be working okay, and it has a distinct advantage in its ability to literally shut down my access to work when it’s finally time to settle and relax without feeling guilty.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

The white-boards are basically running my life at the moment, keeping me focused on shifting priorities. I’ve got an application going in Tuesday and my thesis synopsis going in Friday, but I also want to get some short fiction moving again. Top of the list is a rewrite of a story that kinda started out as a version of Hills Like White Elephants on Mars, took a left turn through Film Noir, and now seems to be heading somewhere else entire.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Abstract, the Netflix documentary series about design and designers. 40 minutes at a time, with an individual designer as the subject paired with a different documentary director, with results that range from the brilliant (the episodes of illustration, architecture, photography, and typography) to the interesting (the episode about Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield) to the blah (the episode about Chrysler and car design), but it’s always got something in the episode you can take away as a creative.

And, honestly, if you can watch the episode about Bjarke Ingels without wanting to move into his figure eight apartment complex (or, at least, write a story set there), you are doing far, far better than I am.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I’ve got two papers that need to be summarised for the PhD, which I’ve been putting off because they’re dense and complex and not as much fun as some of the other theory I’ve been reading. I really need to set aside a couple of hours to struggle with stuff that’s going to be much harder to understand and get it clear in my head.

Hornets Attack Your Best Friend Victor

Hornets Attack Your Best Friend Victor and Other Things We Called the Band is probably the longest title I’ve ever used for a short story, and it’s still shorter than the working title I used all through the first draft. The finished version is currently published at Speculate, the short-story series hosted by Evil Girlfriend Media.

The title for this one is a pretty direct homage to REM, who used the name Hornets Attack Victor Mature to book a secret gig in their home town back in the 80s. It’s the sort of thing one picks up when one is seventeen and obsessively reading band biographies, and it stuck in my head for twenty-two years before I finally started building a story out of it to justify the mental bandwidth it’s taken up over the years.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m sent a story out to beta last week and got comments back, so my main goals this week are revising the story draft and getting my thesis synopsis together ahead of a meeting with my supervisor this Friday (and submitting it for assessment a week after that).

What’s inspiring me this week?

Man, so much theory and critical work could get slot right now, but let’s go with John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture. I’m barely a third of the way through Thompson’s examination of the publishing industry, but his break-down of the types of capital at work in publishing immediately got me thinking about how useful it would have been two or three years ago when I wanted to try and explain those concepts in classes. There is a strong possibility there will be blog posts in the next few weeks based upon my reading.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Finally feel like I got a grip on everything over the last week, so I’m finally looking at the content of what I’m doing instead of my general need to be doing it in this section. In this case, I’ve got a short story revision that I’ve been doing for the last few days that hit a stall point when I realised that sitting down and revising it further would both be a) time-consumingly challenging to do, and b) increasingly likely to send it spiralling out past a usable word count where I can get the thing published. I’ve been reluctant to go back to it for about 48 hours now, and I’ll probably let it slide for much longer if I don’t actually think through those two problems.

Friday is a collection of small things

For the first time in a long time, Fridays are a day where I’m primarily writing and researching. Here are some things that have been on my mind this week.

  • Angela Slatter launched a Patreon this morning. It’s full of shiny options for supporting her career and getting cool things in return. You know what to do.
  • Cat Rambo is doing a re-read of a whole bunch of Doc Savage novels and making notes about her thoughts as she goes along. The first of them covers Doc Savage: Quest of Qui, and I’m largely flagging this here for my friend Chris who is my designated person-I-talk-to-when-I-talk-about-pulps.
  • Bloomberg has a guide to making incredible nachos that makes me excessively hungry and glad there’s a Guzmon and Gomez on campus.
  • Chris Hemsworth continues to be an adorable Thor, who is,in turn, a terrible flatmate.
  • Kat Mayo did an incredible piece on lazy journalism about feminism and romance fiction, to which I basically find myself nodding and going, yes, all of this, over and over.
  • Sending off a story to beta readers about six seconds after I hit publish on this post. This is the first in a long time, but I’m quietly hoping I can finish a second story before next Friday.
  • This weeks writing has primarily been done to the funkiest horn section in Metropolis.

Routines

My friend Allan has a useful theory about running weekly games when you’re in your all in your forties and people have lives: you don’t run the game for the people who aren’t there; you run the game for the people who show up. You don’t cancel because someone can’t attend, you game regardless and people will either start showing up or fall by the wayside.

It works incredibly well when you are the one who shows up every week, less effectively when the person running the game is the one most prone to flaking out.

Tonight, I’m running a session of my superhero campaign for the first time in about eight months. It fell off the weekly to-do list months ago, right about the time I started loosing grip on 2016, and by the time I was coherent enough to actually think about running sessions many of the players were doing other things with their Thursday nights.

I kept waiting for a clear spot in everyone’s schedule to restart, but no such spot exists. Even now, multiple people are going to disappear on holidays before the month is out. One of them will move house. We will spend the first few weeks working around absences.

Honestly, the only time February is good for is me, but…

Look, this week has been the first where I felt like I’m settling into a new normal. I’ve gotten things done for GenreCon; I’m writing regularly for the first time in months; I’ve answered my email and maintained my systems and I haven’t lived on pizza and chips and ungodly amounts of carbonated beverages.

This is the month where I add in habits that need maintaining, otherwise I the new normal calcifies and becomes the new routine until something comes along to break things up.

And so, tonight, we game.

Why I’m Using Scrivener as a Multi-Project Writing Workspace

I am surprisingly tolerant of cluttering in physical space. I take comfort in stacking books around me like a defensive wall, scatter notes across my coffee table along with errant mugs, and pile my laundry by the doorway leading from the bedroom to the balcony/laundry because I’ll remember to actually do it that way.

I’m far less tolerant of clutter in digital systems, to the point where I actually feel excessively uneasy and reluctant to work when my email, RSS feeds, or work folders start to get out of control. Talking to people who leave thousands of emails in their inbox make me break out in a cold sweat, and I will say nothing of tab junkies who just keep opening a new page on their browser every time they want to add something to their to-read list. Dealing with any kind of shared server within a company or organisation, where files are often layered seven folders deep via arcane and confusion logic, is enough to make me weep.

When it comes to writing, I used to maintain a pretty simple file architecture that looked a little like this:

The drafft archive – I never got around to fixing the typo – housed all the half-finished works that I wasn’t currently working on. The current folder housed anything I was currently working on, from story drafts to novels to blogs in progress to PhD applications, while finished drafts sat in the revision folder until they were ready to move on to submission.

It’s a system that served me pretty well for the last few years, but when I started examining my work processes for systems that were no longer pulling their weight, I realised the file architecture no longer suited my workflow. There were, for example, about twenty projects stacked up in the current projects folder. Starting some drafts in scrivener meant that some projects were half-written there, while others were sitting as word files in the draft archive. The revision folder simply fell off my radar a lot of the time, because my focus was now split between short stories, longer writing projects, blogging, essay writing, applications, GenreCon, and more.

The “recent files” feature in word went a little way towards mitigating the effects of clogged-up filing systems, allowing me quick access to anything I’d used recently, but it also showed had the potential to be an enormous source of distraction. My current project would be right there next to notes for my RPG campaign, or that recipe I’d downloaded and saved for my “Cook this, goddamnit” folder.

I spent the last month trying to figure out an alternative approach, but I couldn’t quite come up with an file system that worked for me. Everything involved too much segregation between work spaces (which meant things would get ignored, the same way I’d been ignoring the revision folder) or too much clutter (which meant too many options were present when I wanted to start work).

Then, last week, I remembered Michael Hyatt’s approach to Scrivener as an all-in-one workbench for projects. I’d previously used Scrivener for long-form narrative drafts and found it…well, a mixed bag. I really like it’s wordcount functions, I really disliked the cludginess whenever I needed to change paragraph indents or fonts. It’s ability to facilitate top-level planning isn’t really something I use a lot, outside of some very specific situations.

Ambivalent as I am about its abilities as a word processor, I do have to admit one thing: Scrivener kicks ass as a filing system. It’s what it was built to do, really well, and once you break past the idea of one scrivener file/one project it actually starts unveiling neat little functionalities. I started out replicating Hyatt’s set-up – a workbench for current files in use, and a filing cabinet where things are broken down by writing area – and it took about six seconds to realise that Scivener had one big advantage over ordinary file folders.

This is the view that greeted me every time I fired up my workspace this week, with every part of my writing broken down by category and the current deadlines/priorities listed right there on the front of the folder. I know exactly which files to move up to the Workbench before I start writing, can switch easily between projects without opening a new file, and can use scrivener’s features to quickly snapshot a version before I redraft.

Rearranging the top level cards lets me reorder the priority quickly and easily, which means I can drag Thesis/Uni tasks to the forefront when approaching critical deadlines and ensure I scan those priorities before I check short stories or novels. Keeping rough drafts and redrafts in the same system, marked using scriveners label function, means I can never pretend that the redrafts aren’t there waiting for me while I focus on new words. If I’m ignoring a project, it’s because I’m making an active decision that it is less important than other parts of my writing rather than simply forgetting it needs to be done.

It also eliminates any meaningful difference between the space where I plan work and the place that I write it, in much the same way that my bullet journal does when I’m working analog.

Most importantly, it does the three things I want from any system I set up, regardless of whether it’s a white board, notebook or digital tool:

  • Focuses my attention on what needs to be done
  • Provides necessary context when making decisions about what to do next
  • Decreases the resistance to starting on a project

The next couple of weeks will be spent testing this as a system before I finally bit the bullet and migrate the archives of unfinished work in, but it seems to be working okay as a means of making twenty-odd current projects comprehensible and achievable.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m working on short story that’s a slightly off-kilter portal fantasy where kids are sent to another world for the holidays. Having just made the very on-the-nose The Last Battle reference that will probably not survive to the final draft, I finally get to the bit where I get to engage in some fun secondary world hi-jinx.

What’s inspiring me this week?

So I wanted Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and– Nope. Can’t even finish that sentence as a joke. My dislike of Snyder films remains strong, even if I’m pretty sure I had a minor epiphany about putting together effective bad guys while comparing Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor to Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

What’s really interested me this week has been Riverdale TV series, based on the Archie comics. There’s been some incredibly weird re-interpretations of the Archie gang in the comics over the last few years, most of which have paid off really well, so it’s not really surprising this continues that trend. It’s high melodrama, as you’d expect, but the entire thing has been filtered through Twin Peaks and five years of internet commentary on intersectionality and representation.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

The portal fantasy is still more premise than plot, so I’ll need to figure out some deeper narrative issues to work through now that the introductory bits and voice are starting to come together. Still haven’t quite got my routine down either, what with everything getting rescheduled and shifted around last week, so I still need to really sit down and lock down a schedule for when writing will happen.

Transit

This was going to be a post about productivity systems and white boards, but I spent yesterday playing chess with my dad instead. Now I’m on a train, with the backpack that serves as my mobile office on my shoulder, pondering what the best use of the five hours a week that will now be spent on trains as I commute to and from uni or the QWC offices.

Right now, the optimal use of this time is writing a blog post, so I can erase that off the to-do list.

And, really, this is the point of productivity systems and white boards. They aren’t a magic trick that will make you especially awesome, even if the shiny allure that draws you in is the promise of being like yourself, but better. 

They’re a tool for cutting down resistance that talks you out of doing things – oh, I won’t blog on the train, the phone keyboard isn’t built for it – and makes you aware of everything you’re trying to do and the time you’ve got available to get it done.

It’s the latter that’s important. A to-do list gives you the former, but it doesn’t provide context. It doesn’t aknowledge the limitations of when things get done.

Today, and in most weekdays on the horizon, I have a half hour commute to and from.

That’s enough time to do things, if I stay aware of what can be done in those moments

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

Still working on the short story for last week, after getting distracted by PhD research through most of last week (it took about eight hours after getting library access for me to revert to a person who paces the length of the house, arguing with theorists and gesturing wildly). I did manage to pull the story draft and identify the major issues I was having during write-club last week, which means there are core problems that need to be solved in this week’s writing time.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I went to see the Amanda Palmer gig at the Brisbane Powerhouse last night. It was an incredibly uneven show compared to other Palmer shows I’ve seen, but what was inspiring about it was less the content and more the approach.

The show ended up being about three hours long, and swung from oh god, really to oh, this is fucking awesome along the way. Which actually makes it a pretty good microcosm of an artistic career, where the good stuff tends to come from doing less-good things and dedicating yourself to the long haul gives the really brilliant stuff a chance to show up.

Couple that with my general fascination with the way Palmer interacts with her fans, and it makes for a really interesting show.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Still struggling with what my schedule should look like now that I’m not working around a day-job. I haven’t really divided up writing and research elements of my uni project yet, which means it’s incredibly easy to suddenly find myself going down a rabbit hole of productive distraction from the task at hand.

This week is ostensibly a little more controlled than last week was, with a better understanding of what my schedule will look like, so I’m going to try assigning some dedicated writing and research blocks that will at least let me know how accurate my guesses are.