You Can Call Me Master

I should note here that I finished and passed my masters. I now have a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Or don’t exactly have yet, since I haven’t graduated. Technically I’m a graduand, not a graduate.

I’ll write more about the course later. I just wanted to put this out there.


Dissertation Submitted

Just an hour ago I submitted my dissertation for my creative writing MA.

This means my course is effectively over. The novel is far from complete, though: I have what I think will be about a quarter of it. So we press on. But for now, I’m taking to the hammock.


My phone just reminded me that my dissertation is due right now. Which wouldn’t have been a very useful reminder if I had been planning to submit today, but had somehow – incredibly! – forgotten.

Luckily I’ve got a two-week extension. I plan to actually submit in the next two or three days, though.


One Week Away

My dissertation is due in just under a week. I’m seeking an extension, because I’ve been a bit poorly and have lost a lot of work time over the last week, but I still hope to get it in on time.

But that will mean my course will be over. Which is a little bit saddening. I’ve enjoyed being a student again, even though this academic year’s particular situation has meant that the experience has been distinctly unlike a classic student one. Even, I’m sure, for Birkbeck, ‘London’s evening university.’

I have, for example, met none of my classmates in person. I’ve met exactly one member of staff, and that in the park in Gordon Square. I’ve never been in the department’s building. I’ve been into any Birkbeck building – the library – I think three times, maybe four.

Online classes have been fine, though. I wonder if creative writing, in its common workshopping format, works especially well over Teams or Zoom. Everyone takes turns to comment on the piece that’s being discussed, and there’s much less scope for interruptions, compared to in person. Of course the downside of that is that there’s less scope for conversation, for organic discussion. So we probably lost out in some ways, too.

Less, though, than students on other courses, and especially first year undergraduates. Like my daughter, who has done a year of uni and met practically no one on her course. It’s a strange state of affairs, to be sure.

But we move on. This novel extract isn’t going to dissert itself.


MA Latest

I realised the other day that it’s a year ago that I was applying for creative writing MAs, before being accepted on and choosing the one at Birkbeck.

Well that went fast.

2021 feels like it’s being disappearing even faster than 2020 did, which is strange. Or maybe not. The pandemic is far from over, of course, many things are still up in the air, and it could all change again in an instant.

But I’ve been lax in reporting on what’s been going on with the course . The summer term was all an optional lecture series, which largely consisted of members of staff interviewing writers, along with one or two pieces about the craft of writing. One on the structure of the novel, and one a session with some agents.

That last one probably had the most practical value – at least potentially – but they were all interesting.

Other than that, My dissertation is due in a month. Actually now just under four weeks. It consists of 15,000 words of creative writing (plus or minus 10%, so up to 16,500), plus a 3000-word preface (also plus or minus 10%). I have 23,000 words, of which I can’t use the first five or six thousand, because I already submitted them for an earlier assessment. So there’s plenty to work with.

It feels a little odd to have paused the forward flow – I intend this to be a novel, after all – to work on editing what I have so far. But it ought to be worthwhile for the novel, as well as being necessary for my dissertation. This period of working over what I’ve already done should give me a firmer base on which to build the rest.

I think I miss classes. I only had two a week for the first two terms, and a slightly more erratic schedule averaging to one a week for the third, but they provided structure, as well as a feeling of connection with others on the course. So I’m looking forward to an informal workshop session some of us have arranged for this week.

But beyond that, the future. What’s next?


Mark E Smith (Co-)Wrote a Screenplay

A screenplay by Mark E Smith, cowritten with Graham Duff? Sounds like it could have been great:

… Smith was an unexplored writer of strange fiction. Duff sums up the narrative of the film: “Essentially, the Fall are trying to record an EP at a studio on Pendle Hill, while the surrounding countryside is at the mercy of a satanic biker gang and a squad of Jacobites who have slipped through a wormhole in time.”

– John Doran, Satanic bikers, time portals and the Fall: the story of Mark E Smith’s secret screenplay

Never made, sadly, but it’s coming out as a book: The Otherwise: The Screenplay for a Horror Film That Never Was.


BSAG On Creativity

The mysterious long-time blogger known only as ‘But She’s A Girl’ has some wise thoughts on how her creative process is affected by deadlines:

What I need to remember is that it is always like this. Deadlines are a fact of life and I just have to deal with them when they come up, but the pressure they impose is temporarily disastrous for my creativity. This means that I need to have solved any problems relating to the task which require creative thought long before the suffocating fog of the deadline descends. It’s also why I sometimes go quiet on this blog for weeks at a time. It’s not that I don’t have time to write here, but more that I don’t have the mental space to play around with ideas.

– But She’s A Girl, Creativity


Winter’s Writing

David Mitchell (the novelist, not the comedian) on Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, which is a book I love:

I’ve never understood why writers who write on writing get charged with creative onanism when artists are allowed to paint themselves until the Rembrandts come home or a work like Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra - music about music, right? - is fine with everyone

– David Mitchell, Enter the maze

It’s a fair point. There’s nothing wrong with a writer writing about a writer. I think the practice gets criticised because it became so common in literary fiction as to be a cliche.

The article also contains the revelation that Cloud Atlas was at least partly inspired by Calvino’s novel.


How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.


End of Term 2

Here we are at the end of the second term of my masters. In fact, the end of the taught part of the whole thing. Teaching is finished. In the summer term, which starts a month today, We have a series of lectures from various writing teachers and people from the writing and publishing fields. But no more seminars, no workshops, unless we, the students, organise them ourselves.

I have two 5000-word pieces to submit in a month‘s time – one for the Creative Nonfiction module, and the other for the Writing Workshop. After that it‘s just solid writing and editing until I submit my dissertation in September.

That‘s not quite the whole story. I will also have two meetings with my dissertation supervisor. Or actually, supervisors, because we have been assigned two. The reasoning seems to be that more people seeing our work is a good thing. I can certainly see the sense of that. But at the same time I wonder whether we‘ll lose the advantage of continuity. What if the first one recommends some changes, I make them (or at least, integrate their suggestions with my own ideas), and then the second recommends their opposite?

Oh well, it probably won‘t happen, and I‘ll deal with it if it does.

As for the two pieces I‘m submitting in a month, right now I have the required number of words for both. So I have a month to manipulate them, structure them, and make sure they‘re the best words. A process we writers call ‘editing.‘


Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Books 2021, 2)

It took me quite a long while to read this. I enjoyed it whenever I read a section, and I read it in large chunks at a time; but between times I wasn’t particularly drawn back to it. I think that’s probably because it doesn’t have any significant plot.

Instead it’s a series of character explorations, looking at a series of Black women (and a few men) over several decades of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first.

Each story is compelling and enjoyable, and they’re all interlinked – almost too interlinked at times, you might say, because there’s an element of coincidence. But that doesn’t matter: coincidences happen, after all.

Perhaps the major downside is that you get interested and invested in a character, and their chapter ends and we move on to another one. So it’s like you’re always starting fresh. Or fresh-ish. That’s probably also part of why I had the experience I described at the start, of not being drawn back to it.

Because of my course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices writers make. So I was particularly aware of Evaristo’s unconventional choices regarding punctuation and capitalisation. Specifically, she capitalises proper nouns, but no other words. So sentences all start with lower-case letters. And she eschews almost all punctuation. Only the comma, the apostrophe, the question mark, and an occasional exclamation mark, are used.1 {.has-dropcap}

No full stops means – and I only consciously realised this when looking it over to write this – that every sentence starts a new paragraph, and comprises the whole of the paragraph. Even when a sentence does end with a question mark or exclamation mark, she has it end the paragraph.

All of which is fine. I found it noticeable, but not distracting. I just wonder what the intended effect is. Some people say they find things like quotes to delineate speech intrusive, and I’ve heard it said that leaving capitals off the start of sentences feels more informal. But I feel generally that most established conventions have good reasons for existing, and that the best approach is to keep to them, unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. I don’t think this novel would in any way be lessened if it were capitalised and punctuated conventionally.

And then I would be talking more about the content, not the form.


  1. There may be the odd colon or semicolon, but I couldn’t find any on looking it over just now. And there are probably a couple of dashes and brackets. ↩︎


Masters Update

We’re halfway through the first term of my Creative Writing masters course. Those five weeks went fast, but 2020 is The Year When Time Was Weird, for everyone. How is it going, you ask.1

Pretty well, thanks. At first glance, with only two actual sessions, the workload looked light. But as is common with postgraduate courses, you have a lot of work to do on your own. Add to that, it’s a writing course: we have to write, and you can’t do that while sitting in a class.

Or you could, for small exercises, and I think maybe they would be asking us to do that kind of thing if this were a conventional year and we were sitting in a seminar room in Bloomsbury. It is, however, the most unconventional of years, and we are sitting in our own homes on Microsoft Teams.

There are two modules. Everyone does the Writing and Reading Seminar, where we focus on short stories. Each week we read and discuss two or three assigned stories, with there being a theme or area of focus: Character, Voice, Territory, for example. Then we workshop pieces submitted by three members of the class. Everyone gets to submit a piece of up to 4000 words, twice this term.

For my first piece I decided to get out of my comfort zone (such as it is) and write a purely realist piece. No spaceships, no magic; no element of the fantastic whatsoever. I think it worked out pretty well.

Those pieces are not assessed, but in January we have to submit a 4000-word piece that will be. I only recently learned that this piece has to be a reworking of one of the two pieces we’ll have workshopped in class. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, but I would have liked to have known that sooner.

The second module I’m doing is called Contemporary Writing 2: Genre2, or just ‘Genre.’ We spend two weeks on each of these genres: crime, science fiction, historical fiction, and young adult fiction.3 There’s a novel assigned for each one. The first week has a two short, prerecorded lectures, and in the seminar we discuss those, and techniques, and the assigned novel.

For the second week we each write a 1000-word piece in the genre in question, and some of us have the pieces workshopped. We got to choose the genres in which we wanted to be workshopped. I chose SF and crime. Even those of us who aren’t being workshopped in a given week have our pieces discussed on the class forum.

So as you can see, there’s quite a lot of reading, analysis, and commenting, as well as actual writing.

I’m enjoying it a lot, but if you were to ask me what I’ve learned, I’m not sure I could specify that yet. However, the practice, the fact of looking at my own writing and that of others, professionally-published and not, in great detail: that alone is bound to improve my writing, I feel.

Right now it’s reading week. I don’t recall having such a thing back when I was an undergraduate, but maybe we did. They’re standard now, just like half-term breaks at school.4 So we have no classes, and some extra short stories to read, and time to catch up on the novels. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday, so I only have The Hate U Give to read for YA. Plenty of time to get some writing done.

Oh, and a couple of homework assignments, too. All work is homework, of course.


  1. I’m always confused about how you should punctuate that idiom. I’m asking a question: it needs a question mark. But neither of these look right:

    • How is it going? you ask.
    • How is it going, you ask?

    It should really be:

    • ‘How is it going?’ you ask.

    But that makes it too much like I’m writing dialogue in a a second-person narrative, and it doesn’t really fit with the overall feel of a blog post.

    The way I’ve written it above has no question mark at all, and that can’t be right. ↩︎

  2. I’ve yet to learn what ‘Contemporary Writing 1’ is, or was, or if there ever was one. ↩︎

  3. I’d argue that YA is a target market, not a genre, but never mind. ↩︎

  4. It was during my primary school years that Scotland introduced the week-long half-term break in October. ‘The October Week,’ as it was called, and it was definitely a new thing at the time. I was aware of it particularly because my Mum was a primary school teacher. I can’t find any evidence of it now, because there are so many other pages about half-term holiday dates and history projects for October half term. But if my memory is not totally faulty, that’s the truth of it. ↩︎


Writing About Writing About Typography

Robin Rendle writes about writing about typography, but he has lessons for all of us who want to write well.

Though I don’t entirely agree with his viewpoint about the particular sentence he criticises. Here it is:

A revival is based on historical models, made suitable for contemporary use, adapted to the typographical and technical needs of today, but nevertheless relies on a personal response to the historical style.

– The Rosart Project, The Rosart Project

The ‘revival’ it’s talking about involves recreating old typefaces, and/or building new versions of them. It’s from a site called The Rosart Project, set up by some students of typography.

Rendle’s essay at an improved version of that sentence is this:

Type designers will often look at letterforms that were made in the past and then redraw them for modern day use. This is called a “revival” by the type community but I like to think of it as a remix: a type designer will unavoidably apply their own style and harmonies, their own deviations and melodies to the song.

Every remix is different, every remix is important.

– Robin Rendle, Writing about Typography

Which is certainly brighter, has a bit more sparkle, and arguably is easier to understand. But I don’t think the original is that bad. Certainly not as bad as Rendle thinks. He says:

what does any of this mean? The words make sense but it’s written in a style that’s familiar to anyone that reads about the field of typography. It’s what’s known to folks outside the field as “academic writing” but it’s what I consider to simply be bad writing—it’s waffling and unclear.

– Robin Rendle, Writing about Typography

It’s what is often called dry, I’d say, certainly compared to the alternative. But I don’t think it deserves quite the fire he brings to it. Of course he’s only doing it – he says, and I believe him – because he loves the project, and wants to ‘see the whole typographic community break the shackles of this style of writing.’

Which is fair enough. I’d certainly rather read a piece in Rendle’s style than much academic writing. So I guess maybe I do agree with him after all. His final advice to the typographic community could apply just about anywhere where words are used:

write to swoon, to convince, to make a stranger fall in love. Abandon the academic style, because it’s making your beautiful work so very boring.

– Robin Rendle, Writing about Typography


How I'm Going To Master this Writing Lark

Announcing a big life change: I’m going to be starting a masters course in a couple of weeks. An MA in Creative Writing, at Birkbeck, University of London.

Nine Months in Slippers

“How did you get here, Martin?” I hear you ask. Let me take you back to November last year. I lost my job. The reasons are obscure and not that interesting, but I had been working at SPIKA for only six months, and suddenly I was out on the street.1

If that had happened a couple of months sooner, I might have been studying all this time. I had been vaguely musing on the idea of doing a masters in journalism. I love to write, and I sometimes think that I kind of missed a calling.

I was too late for 2019, all the university terms having already started. So I did a bit of job hunting, but mainly took a break till after Christmas.

When this year that we had no idea was going to be so terrible started, I started looking for jobs, but I also kept thinking about journalism. I started a distance-learning course. Learned a bit of shorthand, and read up on some of the other aspects of the craft. A journalism MA, starting this year, was still on the table.

Then Coronavirus arrived.

To be honest, the lockdown didn’t change things that much for me: I was at home all the time anyway. But the jobs market, as well as the rest of the world, was affected. It’s easy to work from home in software development, but recruitment was down. I had a few interviews, but no success.

Then somewhere in there I decided that journalism wasn’t for me after all. There are aspects of the profession that didn’t appeal to me: newsgathering and all that side of it, essentially. I’d like to be a columnist or maybe a feature writer, but not so much a reporter. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a terrible time for journalism, with newsrooms laying people off and cutting back.

I kept looking for jobs back in software development. But after a bit, Frances said, “Why don’t you do a masters in your own field?” It was a good idea: it would be intellectually stimulating, and possibly improve my employability. I started looking at courses.

Computer science itself (I’ve never formally studied it), or one of the various data science options? Both had their merits. Either would have been interesting and mentally challenging.

But they didn’t spark joy, to use a tidiness-related term that seems appropriate. I looked at the course outlines, and they were interesting enough, but I could tell I wouldn’t have loved doing them.

There were other subjects, though, and one kept prodding my mind; one that did offer the prospect of joy, the possibility that I would love it.

Like I said, I love to write.

Choosing

Quite a few institutions offer creative writing MAs, in various forms. I applied to all of them. All the ones in London, anyway, and a few others that offer distance learning. Each needed a personal statement and a sample of writing. Every single one had unique requirements of the sample, in terms of word length and type of piece. Royal Holloway, for example (who rejected me), wanted a short story extract and, uniquely, a piece of critical writing. Most just wanted the fiction.

There were differences in the course titles, too. London Met’s was ‘Creative, Digital, and Professional Writing.’ Westminster’s was ‘Creative Writing: Writing the City,’ though they had closed entry for this year.

City, University of London has several. But the plain ‘Creative Writing’ was showing a message to the effect of ‘Applications suspended.’ I emailed to ask if this meant that they were full for the year, and was told that no, they had suspended entry for 2020 because there wasn’t enough interest. So I applied for another one they have, ‘Creative Writing and Publishing.’ They got back to me after a few days and said the course was full. Seems to be a slight disconnect there, maybe?

I got offers from London Met, Kingston (by distance learning), and Birkbeck. Birkbeck were the only ones who interviewed me first (I still haven’t heard back from several, and Glasgow’s website was too broken to let me apply – and they didn’t reply to my query). And just today, Teeside, another distance learning one, offered me a place. Far, far too late. I shouldn’t criticise, though, since I was very late in applying.

For a variety of reasons I decided Birkbeck was the best of the offers, not least that I liked Julia Bell, the course leader, who interviewed me from her shed. Birkbeck is ‘London’s evening university.’ It was set up to provide adult education to people who are working. All the classes are in the evenings.

Why, and Why Now?

This is probably something I should have done thirty years ago, but we didn’t know about masterses back then. Well, I didn’t, anyway. And I don’t think creative writing masters courses existed at all.2 Anyway, as the saying more or less has it, the best time was then; the second-best time is now.

Will it help me be a better writer? I damn well hope so. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.

And Beyond…

What comes after this? In an ideal world I’ll make my living as a writer. I’m well aware how hard that is to achieve, though, so I might end up going back to programming. The best might be some sort of hybrid. We’ll see, but I’m not going to worry too much about it for the next year or so.

One thing I do plan to do is to blog about the course as I do it, so expect to see more here.


  1. Specifically Victoria Street, Westminster. It was a very convenient office for popping down to Parliament Square to protest illegal proroguing↩︎

  2. A little research tells me the famous UEA one started in 1970, so I’m wrong there. ↩︎


Writing News

I wrote a screenplay and submitted it to the BBC Writersroom (which they always present that way, probably to avoid having to decide where to put the apostrophe) “Interconnected” competition. The idea was to write a five-to-ten-minute piece with between two and four characters, communicating via videoconferencing app. Very now.

I only heard about it (from my friend Andrew on Facebook) six days ago. I don’t think I’ve ever written a finished piece so quickly.

They will, of course, get thousands of submissions, so mine stands little chance of being one of the chosen four, but it was very satisfying to get it done.


Na? No

I expect you’re all wondering what happened with my NaNoWriMo attempt this year. Sadly, after last year’s success, this year I failed.

As you’ll have seen if you clicked through to look at my stats, I averaged 595 words per day, for a total of 17,800. It’s not nothing, and it’s still a decent start on the new novel, but it’s nothing like last year.

Why did I fail? A better question is, why was I successful last year? This year’s result is comparable to other years when I’ve tried it. Last year’s success looks like the aberration.

The big difference between last year and any other was my commute. I’ve tended always to have a commute of about an hour — except when I worked at the bank in the City, when it was shorter. Last year I was working in Croydon, which took me an hour and a half or more to get to. The one good point was that, picking up the Overground from Dalston Junction, I nearly always got a seat within a few stops. And on the way back had one from the start (coming from West Croydon, which is the start of the line).

So I was able to get forty or fifty minutes of concentrated writing time in each direction. Add to that the fact that the office I was in was really horrible, so I didn’t want to spend my lunch hours in it. I mostly went out and wrote in cafes or at Boxpark Croydon. The one thing I miss about that job is the the places to eat, especially a little pizza place in Boxpark.

Whereas now, working at Imperial, I’m back to a one-hour commute, with much less guarantee of a seat. And I really like both job and office, so I’m quite happy to go back there after I’ve got my lunch.

One other point is that last year I had worked out how I was going to end the novel I had been working on for years, so I was running downhill towards that end. This year, starting a brand-new one — even though I’ve got a plan, it feels much more uphill.

Still, we press on, writers against procrastination, borne forward ceaselessly into the future.


Finished

I have finished my novel. Hooray!

Stats: 121,304 words. 44,107 of them since the 1st of November.

There is, of course, a great deal still to do before it will be ready for anyone else to see, but I’m going to put it away for a couple of months before starting rewrites.

There is one little downside: that 44,000 word figure, while by far the most I’ve ever written in a November (or any other month) does not quite reach the 50,000 required to “win” NaNoWriMo. Which doesn’t really matter, as the whole purpose of the thing is to encourage us to get the words down, get a first draft out onto the solid-state drive.

But I’ve come this far. It would be nice to hit the 50,000 mark. Luckily there is a solution.

The publisher Angry Robot has an open submissions period running until the end of December. That means they accept and will read manuscripts from writers, instead of requiring all submissions to be via agents as normal.

Now obviously I’m not thinking about the just-completed first draft for this. But the one I finished before is ready. Except for two things.

  1. I submitted it the last time Angry Robot had one of these.
  2. I’ve never been happy with the beginning.

Point 1 would bar me from resubmitting, except it wasn’t rejected the last time. I just never heard back from them. So I asked on their comments page, and they said I could assume it got lost, which allows me to resubmit.

Point 2 gives me the ideal thing to work on for the rest of the month: rewrite the beginning of the previous novel.

So it’s time to jump back into the world of The Accidental Upgrade (though I may try to think of a new title).


Look at that, I’ve crossed the line. I’m now above the NaNoWriMo average daily word count.

Screenshot of NaNoWriMo status page


In NanoLand. 462 words before getting out of bed this morning.


To Nano or Not?

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and I still haven’t quite decided whether to throw myself into it this year or not. I’ve taken part several times in previous years, but never completed the 50,000 words. And this year I still have the novel that I’ve been working on intermittently for about four years, that I’d like to finish off.

Maybe it would be better, and more in the Nano spirit, to start something new. But I think if I were to do that, I’d never finish this one, and it would sit there forever, haunting me. Maybe taunting me too, who knows.

I should have a better chance of getting the word count up this year, as I have a longer commute, and I usually get a seat at or near the start of the longest part (Dalston Junction to West Croydon, if you’re interested). So it should be entirely possible to get two free blocks of writing time each weekday. But I have found it to be strangely offputting to write in that environment, when there’s a person sitting on either side of me.

Sure, they’re probably not in the least interested in what I’ve got going on, but as Stephen King says in On Writing, you’ve got to write the first draft with the door closed.

Still, I have recently been looking at the novel again, and I think I’ve worked out how to end it. That has always been the problem for me: I don’t do a detailed plot, but I need to know how a story’s going to end if I’m going to have any chance of finishing it. If I just start writing with only an idea, maybe a setting and some characters, I tend to meander around all over the place and never get anywhere. Or at least, not to a sensible end.

I don’t have to know much about the route, but I need to know the destination, in other words. So as I now know the destination — or at least have a much clearer idea of it — I think it’s time to take one last run at this thing.

But this is me declaring that I’m throwing my hat in the Wrimo ring. I’ve signed up, and even given it a working title1 — by raiding that fount of quotes, The Tempest.


  1. Another problem has been and remains that I don’t have a title for it. Why are titles so hard? ↩︎


Setting Myself Free of the Bear (and Others)

If you work with plain text, as I prefer to, then you probably try out different text editors from time to time (or, you know, constantly). I recently tried out a nice one called Bear. It’s an attractive environment to write in, syncs well between Mac, iPhone, and iPad, has good previewing and exporting features, as well as a host of different themes to suit your preferences. All in all, it’s got a lot going for it. I used it exclusively for a while, and paid the first month of its subscription.

But I’m dropping it.

The reason why is simple: although it’s all about plain text notes, it doesn’t store your notes as plain text files. Instead, it keeps them all in some kind of database and syncs that via iCloud.

Using iCloud for syncing isn’t a problem, but locking my notes away in a form that’s not accessible to any other text editor definitely is.

Its export features are good, so it’s not that your notes are locked away irretrievably. But while you’re using Bear, you can only edit your notes — or view them, for that matter — in Bear. And that’s just not how I want to work.

It’s kind of antithetical to whole plain-text ethos, to my mind. You should be able to switch text editors without having to even think about it. Just open the file in the new editor and get on with it.

Next I tried the unimaginatively-named Notebooks. A similar setup with the syncing, but you can point it at a directory of files on the filesystem. It has its own strangenesses, though, in that it wants to keep tight control of the directory structure, and when you look at the directory in Finder or another text editor, you find it has been polluted with plist files, one for each plain-text file.

So I dumped that one, too.

And right now I’m trying Ulysses, which is very much of the moment, because it has just switched to subscription-based pricing, and caused much furore in doing so. I happen to also be trying out the SetApp service, which is interesting in itself, and which includes Ulysses as one of the apps it makes available.

It’s fine, but is also prone to dropping the odd plist file in my folder, I see.

In the end I’ll probably stick with nvAlt for short-form notes on the Mac, using a folder synced via Dropbox, and Editorial on iOS. Not forgetting Drafts on iOS, of course, but you only type things there to export them somewhere else, really. And then BBEdit or Sublime Text for longer pieces.

Those last two might become the subject of another piece, about how I don’t get what’s so great about BBEdit. But that’s for another time.


Whether You Want To Or Not

Note: If you've seen multiple copies of this post, it's because I had trouble with accidentally posting it in the wrong format, and then Wordpress refusing to let me change it. Hopefully be all right now.

“Write even when you don’t want to,” say some people encouraging us to write every day. That would be me right now. The “don’t want to” part, not the “encouraging” part. It’s late and I haven’t written anything yet and I’ve made this daily rod for my own back.

On the other hand, I do love to write, and I can’t deny that I’ve done more of it in this last couple of months.

Though, not, as I hoped I might, any more fiction. I’m still stalled in the middle of the novel which in idea, at least is nearly five years old. It’ll be starting school soon!

And I need to get round to submitting some of the other, finished, things I have. Because they’re no use just sitting here on my hard solid-state drive.


The Writing Process

In What Writers Really Do When They Write George Saunders gives a great insight into some parts of his working process.

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs.

Or “Writing is rewriting,” as someone once put it.1

It’s a good piece, and well worth reading. Oddly, in the printed edition (Saturday’s Guardian Review section) it was entitled “Master of the Universe.”


  1. Hard to find who, but it seems to have been Hemingway. Whose writing I don’t like, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong. ↩︎


All the Things in the World

Do you ever look around and think how amazing everything is? How it all got there? And I’m not talking about the grandeur of nature, the glory of the universe, and all that. I’m talking about all the human-made stuff.

I have often found myself in the middle of a city, or looking out of a train window at a bridge or power station, and thought, “Wow: people built this. Just ordinary people, like me, actually made all this.”

Look at ancient buildings and you realise that they used to do it without the help of modern machinery, too.

And then think about the infrastructure that’s carrying these words from where I’m typing them to where you’re reading them. Hundreds of miles of fibre and copper cables across the country. Thousands of miles of undersea cables. Satellites, and the rockets to launch them.

We’re pretty amazing sometimes, us humans.

Like I say, I’ve often thought about this kind of thing. But today, while not at work because I’m a bit under the weather 1 I had a slightly different version of it.

I had a sudden, overwhelming sense of how much cultural work we have created. Specifically stories and TV and films. Though in fact it was comics that really triggered it.

As I say, I’m not at my best, so I wanted something simple. I ended up reading a bunch of comics on Marvel Unlimited. And no matter how many I could read in a day, I could only make the tiniest of scratches in the surface.

And in TV, Netflix seem to have a new original series or two coming out every week.

It’s not all great, of course. But just think of all those people, writing away, acting, filming. Making things.


  1. I have a vague memory of someone in a film or TV programme mis-saying that as “beneath the weather,” but I can’t think who, or where. I kind of want it to be Josie in Twin Peaks, but I’m not sure. ↩︎


Some More Bitface Thoughts

Something I forgot to mention yesterday was that I thought the “bitface” term was useful not just to refer to people who manipulate bits for a living (or hobby) — programmers, like myself. It can also work to discuss anyone who makes digital content: websites, blogs, podcasts, videos, photos, and so on.

We’re all moving bits around. We’re all labourers at the bitface.