Monthly Archives: July 2009

When did you realise you were a geek?

I was talking with some friends the other day about when they realised they were geeks. And one of the friends in the conversation claimed – shock horror – that he wasn’t a geek. Ridiculous! I claimed, of course he was. He argued that he didn’t care that much about computers, but that isn’t actually the point – the point is that a geek is somebody that is obsessed with something. The kind of person who knows where the best shops to go for their particular obsession are, the kind of person who starts thinking about a small corner of their chosen subject and six hours later realises they have forgotten to do anything other than think about the problem. This is different than the nerd, the nerd is the person who is so absorbed by the subject that they can’t do anything else.

Imagine, to pick a neutral subject, that we were talking about cooking. A geek would be the kind of person who would love, no, need to spend time in the cookery section of the book shop, loves going to cookery accessory shops and picking things to own, might even have a wishlist of things to own. The geek loves cooking, loves experimenting and enjoys it. The nerd knows that the Mixifier 5000 is better than the Ingredalot 360 because the different attachments are far superior and are interchangable with the entire Emulsify range. They don’t ever use any of the things that they buy, they keep them in the original box and eat processed cheese on toast.

So I guess my friend realised he was a geek right then, when we were having the conversation, and maybe reading this you are recognising this in yourself. My question is this, when did you realise that you were a geek and what happened to let you know?

Visiting the doctor

Now I don’t think I know what I’m doing as I go through life, and I certainly don’t feel that I give the impression that I know what I’m doing in life. I mean, I’m the kind of person who spills fish and chips on themselves. But clearly some people think, upon seeing me, that I know what I’m doing. And the only possible reason is that I wear a collared shirt all of the time – even in bed – and when I’m out and about I am partial to wearing a jacket. And by jacket I do not mean bomber or leather, no I mean what is called in America a Sports Jacket. And what is called in England – a jacket.

This used to make me look like a toff (and to some it still will) but because people don’t wear those kinds of clothes anymore, and because I’m not over forty people seem to think that this means I work wherever I am standing, or that in some way I am in charge. It’s odd because often when this happens to me, I am actually scouting around quite vigorously* looking for somebody who works there or is in charge.

I’m asked directions a lot. No, I know, you’re asked directions from time to time too. I would say that it’s rare that I go two days without being asked directions. I was once, while lost in Italy, asked directions by an Italian in Italian – that’s how approachable I am.

Approachable used to be what I thought it was. I had that way about me, where people weren’t afraid to walk up and say, “excuse me, what time is the train to Basingstoke”? But there is something else, maybe people think I might know the answer, or maybe, as I’ve come to suspect, people think I might be in charge.

Yes, I think it’s the clothes, the shirt with a collar, the jacket with a collar, they make people think that I probably know what I’m doing. That I have some authority. I suspect this because of an incident that happened to me during a visit to the doctors. I was suffering from a blocked right ear and I decided that I needed my ears syringed. I suppose one is supposed to visit a doctor who refers you to the nurse who does this, but I clearly didn’t have time for such shilly-shalying around. I wanted to get this baby syringed. I phoned the surgery and they booked me in and I turned up. Now this is the first occasion that I have been to the doctors in 5 years*** and we’ve moved and so therefore has the doctor. So I haven’t been to this building before.

I find the place well enough and as I approach I realise that there are no obvious way into the building. Two entrances look viable but there is no sign.**** I approach with caution and then at the last moment make a bold play for the larger set of doors.

Once inside, I realise I have made the wrong choice. I could, of course, walk back through the door, admit defeat and enter the correct way. But that wouldn’t be the manly way to do things. I decide to stride on purposefully. I plan to edge towards the other entrance as well as I can given the internal geography of the building. After a few moments of panic this genuinely seems to have worked. I am now near the doctors surgery. I walk past the receptionists and I see that they are all facing into a room that I can’t see a way into. After a moment or two I realise there is a door but you can’t open it from this side only from the other side. Presumably I have come in the exit. I walk, no stride, back to the receptionists.

The three ladies are sitting in a long thin room with a desk in front of them with telephones, computers, blinking lights and a big glass window at the front of it to presumably stop the diseases from getting to them. But they have thankfully left the door to their room open, presumably because it is blinking hot and their office would essentially otherwise become a greenhouse. I am in the side alley, the side alley onto which their door opens.

I sidled up and said, “Erm, I have come…”, I make a gesture, “Ear Syringe”.

Now, I admit, that I could have used more words. I could have said, “to have my”. But that’s just not the way I speak. I leave out vast swathes of information, it’s my way.

I’m sure you’re well ahead of me, they gave me directions this time, and instead of thinking I was a patient, they clearly thought I was a doctor needing to visit the nurse to discuss her current case. They told me where to go. It sounded feasible that this was a secret way back into the waiting room.

I walked, I turned, I firmly opened the door… And discovered the nurse giving another patient the ear syringe operation.

“Ahh… Doctor…” she said.
“I’m not a Doctor,” I said.

I realised with alarm that she hadn’t stop syringing the poor blokes ear. He looked aghast at the news.

“What,” the nurse quite reasonably asked, “are you doing here then?”
“I think I’m your next patient. I think there might have been some mix up at the desk.”
“Yes there must have been.”
“I’ll…,” I said, “I’ll go.”
“Yes,” she said.

I went back, walked all the way around, back outside and into the reception the proper way and luckily the receptionist who had pointed me in the direction of the room earlier was on the phone. This time everything worked.

What I’m trying to say is, “don’t ask me for directions”.

* With my eyes only I don’t wield binoculars or put my hand above my eyebrows, as though putting your hands above your eyebrows suddenly makes you see further**

** Although I do of course do the hand / eyebrows thing from time to time just to check.

*** The previous time I went was the day after the 7th of July bombings in London. Imagine having your blood pressure taken while a) the 7th of July bombings had happened the day before, b) you have just had 2 pints of coffee, c) you are about to make your way into London, d) your mother is sitting outside in a cafe waiting for you so that we could all go into London, e) to meet some friends who had warned us not to be late for a busy restaurant with wall to wall reservations, and f) there had been a forty five minute delay seeing the doctor. It was a little high.

**** I later found the sign in a hedge.

Three lessons from writing

Right, one more post about writing before you all get bored (too late! – Ed.) and I go back to normal things.

While writing most recently, I think I have gleaned three lessons.

1) You can’t write a concerto because you can hum

You can hum, you can probably sing to some degree, you could even – if stretched – come up with a tune that you’re pretty sure is original. But you wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano and write a whole concerto without stopping and going back. You probably can’t even visualise which keys play which notes on the piano – I don’t remember. You have an idea of what the song is, but as you press the keys you are hearing a dum, dah, dam, blunk. And then you find the correct note and you go on. But you couldn’t expect to write a whole song like this. You couldn’t work it out at the piano as you went along. It would be much better to hum the tune into a tape recorder, then later work out what each of the notes you hummed were, and finally figure out how to play your tune. If you kept stopping all the time you’d lose all of your rhythm. So stop imagining that when you start writing what will come flowing out of you will be ready for print. Stop thinking that it’s a good idea to pause every five seconds and correct yourself. You have a creative brain and an ordered brain and they don’t work well at the same time. Write then edit. Don’t do both at the same time or you will be so discouraged you will stop.

2) What to do when you see all those rubbish books out there and think if they can do it, why can’t I?

They don’t know what good writing is – do they? Of course they don’t! So how did they get a novel published when you’ve been so sorely overlooked?

Well, for a start, they wrote one.

It’s actually easier if you don’t know what good writing is, because you aren’t constantly stopping yourself from writing a sentence, just because it might not be in the correct tense. Separating the writing from the editing is crucial. It is the law. Do it!

3) If it was fun, easy and didn’t take long it wouldn’t be something you’d want to do

The good news is that it’s really, really hard. I can’t imagine, or presume to know, how hard it is to do well. I’m not there – yet. It must be close to impossible.

And that’s great because a big part of wanting to do it, is because you want to be able to say you’ve done it. And the only reason you think it’s a good thing to say that you’ve done, is because it’s a rare and hard thing to do. The good news is, it is hard. Because otherwise, it wouldn’t be something worth doing.

4) I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a 4?

So start? Please. The most clich├ęd thing in the world is to say, “what’s your five-year plan for this”? People have a beer and talk to a friend, or they chat over dinner with their partners, and they talk about what it is they hope to be doing in five years’ time. But you know why those things are things you hope to happen in five years and not… like… tomorrow? It’s because you can’t do them in a single day. So if you don’t work on them during the five years, you won’t ever get there.

Ten years ago I wanted to be a novelist in five years. It was only nine years later that I started actually really working on my novel in a way that would mean I would ever finish it. If anything of this is ringing true – and you actually want to get to that place. Please, please, just start.

Draft one complete

So it is finally done. The first draft is complete. That was a bit of a slog in the end but it was certainly worth it.

I really need to thank all the people who motivated me all the way through. But I don’t want to do it yet because this isn’t over just yet!

I started this particular novel back in 2001 and a mere eight years later the first draft is complete. I ended up writing about a third of it over the first seven years, around a third during the week Katherine was in Turkey earlier in the year, and the final third was done in the last 30 days.

And I have to say that this most recent system was by far the best. Writing five thousand words in a day is fine (kinda) but it doesn’t leave much juice in the tank for the next day. But even that strategy was better than the first one of writing about 3,000 per year. That can get quite dispiriting after the first six or seven years I can tell you.

I decided to focus on pages earlier in the year and that really worked well for me. I think that on an average work day I can crank about one and a half pages of A4 on my commute. But that’s around 750 words.

My thinking was that if I set a target of 1,000 words I would most days miss my target (weekends obviously I can write more). But using the pages method I would be ahead of my daily target every other day. I wasn’t saying I wrote in a vaccum this many words today or this many pages. If I was three lines away from the end of a page I would get my new page count really early the next day and that was very encouraging.

So it was probably a trick but it was a really handy one. On one dark day in the process I looked at where I had got to on a page and said, “that’s the end of a chapter”. Inserted a page break and wrote “Chapter X”. And that was my page complete for the day. And for people confused by this, it was the previous page now being declared finished that bumped up my count.

Have some rules and stick to them. It worked well for me, but that’s probably a conversation for another post.

Only twice in the entire process was I ahead, but I never let it get too far behind. Here’s what the 30 days looked like in detail…

The weird thing is when you break it down by weekday… I did a lot of writing on Sundays but actually because of that I did well on Mondays. I would start the morning finishing a page which encouraged me all day. Other days I didn’t have a page to donate to tomorrow. Also skewing the results Katherine went out twice on Mondays, and also there was 1 more Monday and Sunday in the 30 days than any other day. I have to wonder if I’d have been able to make it without that luck of dates!

It’s finished, and that’s all that matters.