It’s just a number

Listen, it’s my birthday so surely I am allowed to do anything I like –– and I’m 55, by which time I should surely be expected to do anything I like. I have no problems with the concept of birthdays, I’ve nothing against being an adult and making my own choices. I just have the single most enormous difficulty knowing what it is I like to do.

I mean, hello. I’ve been looking forward to nattering with you so that’s a huge tick in the Like column. Other than that… I’m about to have croissants and pain au chocolat in a late breakfast with Angela. That’s rather good, each word of that is pretty excellent. But it does remind me that I haven’t done today’s French lesson in Duolingo.

What do you do to relax?

I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve managed to make everything I’ve ever been interested in become part of my job, at least partly, at least tangentially, at least sometimes. But when I finished working last night, I shut down my Mac and stared at the screen for a bit, wondering what to do next.

Speaking of the Mac, I should say, a thing I definitely like doing has reached a little milestone of its own. I have this YouTube series called 58keys, which is for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads – ah, you know how YouTube loves a niche – and it recently crossed 500 subscribers. There’s a competition in this week’s edition which has now seen it cross 570 subscribers, so that’s also pretty enjoyable.

The competition, by the way, is to win a year’s subscription to Setapp. That’s a kind of Mac app equivalent of Netflix: you pay one monthly fee and get full use of 200 or more apps. I’ve written about it a lot, recommended it often, and the company agreed to let me give away two of their subscriptions. That’s been fun.

I know we’re friends but you are still allowed to enter because the two winners will be chosen randomly through some software thing. If you read this before midnight on Friday 27 November, 2020, off you pop and have a look.

Oh, grief. I just went to search for that link and one of the results that came back was “William Gallagher obituary”. Well.


So, that’s a YouTube link that I Googled and it’s about Mac apps. Even stepping away from the keys, this appears to be something I like. And I do: I cannot explain why, but I do find it engrossing and satisfying to use great software tools to make something. I think it’s the making, I find if I’m required to learn some app then it’s an impossible slog until I actually need it to make something and then I’m off, I’m flying.

It has been pointed out to me, gently but firmly, that I can spend more time fiddling with writing software than I do actually writing. Can’t argue with that. But I offer that writers are the people who do anything they can to avoid writing.

Plus I mentioned that this was my birthday and that I’d crossed 500 subscribers to that 58keys series. What I didn’t say is that this week’s special is the 58th I’ve made. It’s not the 58th you can watch, there were a good seven at the start that no one will ever be shown ever again, plus I’ve some Christmas ones ready to go. But on my 55th birthday, the 58th edition of 58keys crossed 500 subscribers.

It’s like I planned it. What I didn’t plan was that, I promise you, my writing has improved. I find I can write my own dialogue, I can write my voice, and I learned it from filming myself and wincing a lot.

I’m going back to work, aren’t I?

That’s what I’m going to do with my birthday. I’m going to work. But I will enjoy it, so. Let’s you and me have a tea and a croissant together first though, okay?

The second and third best writing tools

The first best writing tool is whatever you like. Even a pen. I’m not prejudiced. But I was planning to talk to you about what has become my second best, the thing that I rely on daily to get things done. And I was going to tell you about this specifically because it’s software that just got a major, major update.

It’s OmniFocus 3 for iOS and, actually, you can read my review of it on AppleInsider if you want details. That’s to say, if you want details plus a pixel of criticism amidst a near gush of adoration. This is a To Do app that I’ve become dependent on but whether as a someone who’s used previous versions for seven years or as someone who just appreciates great design, the new OmniFocus is remarkable.

What’s great is that it helps me clear out time to write, it makes me handle everything, spin every plate, and get me the gaps I need to work in.

This new version only works on iPads and iPhones. Later this year the Mac version will get this update too. And at some point there’ll be a version on the web. But there isn’t and seemingly won’t ever be an Android or PC version so for that reason, and only that reason, OmniFocus isn’t for everybody.

Whereas it’s occurred to me that the third best writing tool is. It is for everyone. Maybe not in the form I have it, but otherwise yes, it is.

By chance, three writers separately talked to me this week about not writing. It came in different forms as one finds she struggles with writing well to deadlines, another is annoyed at herself for not having written and the third is concerned that she won’t get a particular thing written in time for her deadline.

Let me add myself to the mix: I’m a writer concerned about getting several projects finished.

So it’s all of us. Including you.

And I think we should simultaneously lighten up and buckle down. I think, too, that a very small bit of perspective helps us: for instance, the way I heard from these other writers has helped me feel better about my own worries.

For I know that they’d each think the one who is annoyed with herself is actually doing well. They’d think that the one concerned about hitting a particular deadline is admirably doing something about it. And as for the one who is struggling to write well to deadlines, I’d give an arm to write how she does.

Actually, that last one is threatening to check in with me to see that I’ve worked on a particular project. That’s actively helping me.

It’s just that even the passive recognition that we’re all different yet we’re all the same and all inching forward is a reassurance.

We can and should lighten up in the sense of not beating ourselves around the head for believing we have failed to do something.

But the real reason to relax about that is not because it’s humane, it’s because you don’t have time. Forget what you haven’t done, sod the past, get writing now.

Lighten up and buckle down. I should make a poster.

For there was a fourth person this week. Someone I enjoyed talking with but is worried that writing is a lot of work.


There’s no getting around it. Which means my third best writing tool is my supremely battered Captain’s Chair.

What Writers Need

I was asked this in an interview yesterday: what what do writers need or perhaps what do you need to be a writer.

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I answered it very well. But 24 hours later, I’ve got it.

Writers need commissions.

It would’ve been smartarse of me to say that if only I’d been smart enough to think of it when asked, but it’s not as facetious as it sounds.

Okay, there’s the straight cash aspect. The only way I get to write better is to write more and the only way I can get the time to do that is when it’s paying enough that I don’t have to go do something else.

Only, the reason I want to think about this here with you is that I’ve long known one thing about it yet I’m just now forming a second and somewhat contradictory thought.

The thing I’ve long known is that commissions change you. I know that the saying is deadlines focus the mind and that is most absolutely true, but it’s at the other end where things first change. It’s the point when you’re commissioned.

The process of writing doesn’t change when you’re being paid but it feels as if it does, it feels as big a difference as if someone had gone back into your past and altered your timeline. Everything is now real. All of the thinking you do about writing, all of the opinions, everything. I was thinking that it’s like having someone say okay, then, prove it. Prove you can do this, if you’re hard enough.

But it’s worse than that. You’ve already convinced them you can or they wouldn’t be paying you anything. So really it’s someone expecting you to write well. Someone presuming you will. Someone unthinkingly assuming that this is your job. Because it is.

A lot of writing gets paid without a contract upfront but whenever you’re writing because you’ve been hired and you’ll be invoicing later, it becomes real in this way.

You’ll still hide from the job like only writers can and you’ll still find it hard to do, but playtime is over and you are part of something where you have to pull your weight.

So I’ve long known that a commission or anything where your writing is going to be paid for right away is essential for many reasons. Helping to keep a roof over your head is one, turning this from a hobby in the worst sense of that into a job in the best sense of that. The focus of reality can’t be beaten.

But it can also be a problem.

Today, for instance, I’ve got – bugger, let me count on my fingers for a sec. Right, if I bring in one client that I don’t really have to think about much for another few days, then today I’ve got eleven projects on. I reckon I’ve got to do some serious work on about seven of them right now and I can do some more over the weekend.

That’s all very nice: it’s a tiny bit daunting but I hadn’t counted until I wanted to tell you. And I’m a freelance writer, it is a relief to realise that I’ve got a lot of paying work on. Some of these eleven are big, none of them pay gigantically and I doubt I’ll see cash from many of them before May. But still, it’s work and you know that there are times when I’ve got nothing. At all.

Only, it’s obvious that when you’re busy with paid work you end up with no time to write things that aren’t going to pay now and that may well never contribute to your mortgage. When you are not busy with paid work, though, it’s even harder to do that kind of writing. Every moment you’re thinking about it, you’re feeling guilty for not looking for work.

I’ve always thought that this is how it works: you can’t write on these other projects, this other ideas, when you’re having trouble getting money in. But now I also think that when you do have paid writing work, it is far, far easier to go do that than these other things.

I can’t keep vaguely referring to other things. Let me give you the example that’s quite clearly pressing on my mind. I have accidentally written a book of short stories. For no reason other than it was in me and I had to get it out. I say accidentally because it’s only in the last six months when I realised that the best stories I’d written over twenty years had a common theme. It’s only in the last six months that I’ve consciously been rewriting those stories and writing more. All for me, all because at one point I was shaking as a particular tale came out of me.

Not only is no one waiting for any of this, not only will I never invoice anyone for anything to do with it, but nobody buys short story collections anyway. If you were setting out to write short stories for money, stop now.

Except you can say that about all writing. If you get money for writing, great. If you got into writing for the riches and the fame, I’ll give you a tip next time I see you working in McDonald’s.

I wasn’t kidding about having to get these stories out of me though. Now I’ve somehow got it written, I will work it like I do any other job and look for places to get it published, look for some way to get it out to people. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and my agent thinks yeah, whatever, short stories, soooooo exciting, please rush me a copy.

It’s easy when you are a paid freelance writer to say that every writer should aim to get commissioned. What’s harder, for me, is the realisation that as much as I need the reality of a contract, I’ve got to find time and space to write for myself.

So let’s decide this right now: today I don’t have eleven projects on, I’ve got twelve. God knows how I’m going to fit in time for working on these stories and actually I’ve no idea what I can do with them today, but I’m going to find out.

You do the same. We’ll help each other.

Don’t do this at home

Not that it matters, but today is the 401st day that I’ve got up to work at 5am. Now, possibly that seems normal to you, possibly it seems a lie-in but I can’t find a way to say it to you without a suggestion of a boast. Yet, I do it from a certain necessity, I vehemently don’t want you to do it, and anyway I’m rubbish at it.

The plan was that on a regular working week I would start at 5am. There had to be exceptions: if I had a speaking engagement late that night then forget 5am, my voice wouldn’t be working right. Similarly, if I had one the night before then forget 5am, I may not have wound down enough to sleep before 4am. Then a distressing number of times I’ve been ill with colds, I booked a holiday once. And there was an interlude where I’d done all the projects I had on my plate and I found myself up at 5am reading Facebook. Nuts to 5am for a while there.

I said this was the plan but I didn’t say when I planned it. All the reasons for getting up at 5am – the phone doesn’t ring for a good five hours, emails don’t come in for a while either and also I just unfortunately write better – came together for me on the night of Tuesday, 1 January 2013 and I started the next morning.

I know what you’re thinking. Wednesday, 2 January 2013 was 1,171 days ago and of course you’re right. But remember, this was about a pattern for the week’s work so that date is just 836 weekdays ago. That’s better.

It’s still rubbish: out of 836 days that I could’ve got up at 5am, I’ve done so 401 times. That’s about 50% If you’re being generous. I can tell you that there has never been a single day when I decided at 5am that I wasn’t getting up. There have been a few where I decided at 3am, but that’s still fine. If I mentally book a lie-in ahead of time, that’s in the rules.

Still, 50% is not brilliant. I’m driven to tell you that even on half the plan, it’s worked out for me enough that I feel I’ve little choice but to continue. Since Wednesday, 2 January 2013, I’ve had two short stories published, I’ve performed three, produced four events, written eight non-fiction books, produced 30 podcast radio shows, run 288 workshops or presentations and written something in the order of 3,000 articles.

All rubbish, obviously.

Logically, I would surely have done at least some of that even if I didn’t get up early. But no, I don’t think so. As well as writing better and writing faster in the horrible early hours, there’s a psychological benefit to it. I sit here screaming and wanting my pillow but also I get imbued with a sense of I’m up now and it was bloody hard so I’d better well get on with it, then.

Also, consider this a tip from the wounded: Apple Watch is a godsend. It silently tickles my wrist at 5am and I can’t ignore it but I’m the only person it disturbs.

Well, you’re looking pretty disturbed at me right now. And you’re also wondering what time I go to bed. After 400 goes at this, I am hopeful that tonight I’ll finally figure out a decent time to go to bed. Because yes, I struggle with this and there are times when I slump over the keyszzzzzzdjkjzfddwefd0493redsx.

Good things happen when you write

I mean this: good and sometimes great things happen when you write. Equally, if you don’t write, then good things don’t happen. Only, I don’t mean that if you write a wonderful script then it gets filmed or a great book and it gets published. I’m finding that there isn’t necessarily even a tiny connection between what you’re writing and what happens.

Yet I have patches where I’m rubbish and I don’t take the time to write. These lead into spirals where I write even less. They’re also tied into when I do and don’t get up at 5am to work but all that early rising does is get me some time to write. Then when I write, whatever time it is, good things happen.

Yesterday, for instance, I was asked to collaborate on a book. The request didn’t exactly come out of nowhere but it did near as dammit. I wasn’t expecting it and it’s got nothing to do with what else I’m working on, but it’s a great idea, I want to work with the person who asked me, ultimately I just really, really want to read the book. So we should write it and I hope we will.

In this case, I think I can point to specific things: the woman who asked me knows I write books because I’ve told her and she knew I’d be interested in the subject because she’s known me for more than seven seconds. She’s also fully aware of my tea and chocolate problems. Plus she knows of a years-long project that died on me a few weeks ago so she even knew I had some availability.

I need to tell you those specific things because I need specific things. I loathe that I’m about to say to you that you have a certain energy when you write but, well, here goes: you have a certain energy when you write. I think it’s just the same way that, I believe, we are all at our most vibrant and attractive when we’re working: we’re making things happen, we’re performing really, and, yes, there is an energy.

So on days when I’ve been writing and then I meet people, I seem to get work. On days when I’ve chosen to sleep in and I’ve not got much done, I don’t.

It’s very easy to not write. It’s especially easy when you’re under pressures: I’ve had many times over the years where I’ve found it fantastically, overwhelmingly hard to write up a story idea when the mortgage is due. Yet every single thing I am doing now to keep the roof over my head began as something I wrote on the side while doing some other job. In every sense, my entire career is based on my writing.

I’m not going to make any grand claims for my career, not when I’ve so much to do and I am so far behind, but I can tell you that it is the career I wanted and that I worked for. And I can tell you that writing this to you today is why I’m confident that I will bound into a workshop I’m running all day. I’ll bound in, I’ll cause a ruckus and I’ll bound out.

Stop listening to me and go write something, okay?

Just hang on a sec

I want to give you an example of something. On Wednesday, I was nattering with this guy in a pub in London. He mentioned a writing job he used to have that he had particularly enjoyed. The front of my head is fully in the conversation and enjoying the talk when the back of my head starts thinking.

I couldn’t do what he had done – for one thing, it’s his idea and for another it’s quite a while ago, the gig is gone – but there are elements that really particularly appealed to me. Take this element, change that, bring this, try the other, soon the back of my head is joining the front and I’m enthusing at him about what we could do now.

That’s Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, I knew exactly – I mean, exactly – every inch of the new idea and what to do plus who exactly – I mean, exactly – to pitch it to. And had pitched it. I can’t know if it will happen and I imagine it’s a year away if it does, but 25 hours after the idea, I’ve got a meeting.

This is how I like to work. Think of something and do it. I can’t tell you how satisfying I’ve found the last year: I’ve produced five events in 2014 and while that isn’t many, it is 100% more than I have ever produced before. To think of something and get it done, to eventually be sitting in the audience watching people you’ve chosen be everything you wanted them to be, it makes me giddy.

I like being giddy. I like being busy. I like rushing, I hate waiting around. It’s just that I feel I’ve wasted so much time and have done so little, I need to catch up and get on. If I’m not shaking with giddy exhaustion by the end of the day, I start shaking that I’ve burnt those hours away for nothing.


That does tend to be the only time I think of today. Usually my head is in next week or next year. I’ve had a stone in my stomach for the last month because I couldn’t get a guest speaker for an event I am especially keen to do well. My head’s been in the day of that event and in the days since I got the gig. Worrying about what I’ll do and worrying about what I could’ve done better or sooner or quicker. Not an awful lot of my head in the day today.

I’ve got the speaker now. She’s a mensch for doing it, I’m a bit of a mensch for asking her, but let’s not menschion that. Let’s just leap to how, now that I have got that sorted out, my giddy mind is looking forward to how that event will go. And my relaxed mind is half looking forward, half very nervous about an event next week where I’m performing myself. (I’m reading from my entry in a book of short stories. I love the story, I deeply loved how the book required me to meet various people before writing, I love how those people reacted to the story, I hate how sick with nerves I am before the launch.)


I have this fear that I’ve wasted so much time yet here I am arguably wasting every day. Always working on the next thing.


I went to a poetry event earlier this week, an evening about Next Generation Poets. Originally I was going on my own, just nipping in to see it, and it was a treat to then find that a friend was going and we could meet up beforehand. I don’t want to presume she had as good a time as I did, but I had a great time and was walking in to that show with her feeling very good and relaxed.

And by total chance, found myself seated precisely in the middle of seven friends I like and whose work I rate immensely.

It was terrible.

There they all were, great and talented people, every last bloody one of them better dressed than me.

None of them were performing, none of us were doing anything, we were just this tiny segment of the audience that happened to be sitting together. My body was in my seat and for once my head was in the room, in the time too. At that point I still had the stomach stone but it lightened. I forgot how far behind I had been feeling I was with everything.

I was just acutely, deeply and actually happily aware of the here and the now. Maybe I’m only reaching for the Ferris Bueller line “Life moves pretty fast… if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”.

But in the here and the now, the there and then, there was a buzz that wrapped around my shoulders and it came from these talented people.

Maybe even from me.

So you haven’t done it, so what?

This has come up a couple of times recently. I have a natter with someone – because they asked, come on, I don’t accost people in the street with productivity advice – and it seems to go well.

I think they get a good idea of what’s really on their plate and which of it matters to them. There’s usually a new project that they want to do and after a hour or so with me, they tend to have a plan. And most importantly, I think, that new project has turned from a nebulous, unwieldy thing that’s overwhelming them into something they can do. And will do. Talking it through invariably leaves you physically no further forward yet in every other way extremely far down the line. The intangible is at least well on its way to tanging.


What’s happened these couple of times is that armed with their own new plan and, I believe, fully enthused at what they’re going to do, they haven’t done it.

They tell me this with something approaching guilt and I feel terrible. I like people thinking of me as someone to account to if that is what helps them, I loathe it when they think I’m judging them, damning them.

So here’s the thing.

Bollocks to me and what you think I think of you. What I actually think has not changed at all: I think you had this great idea and it wasn’t working out but now you have a plan, now you know you can do it. Whether you do or not almost doesn’t matter.

I want you to do this thing: it is exciting and it’s you, only you can do this and I want to see how it turns out. But what I needed, if we’re to get all personal about this, was to help you go from this stage of it being a mountain ahead of you to your seeing the path you need to take.

I promise you that I will never think badly of you for not having started on your path yet. I’m struggling to think of a situation where I would think badly of you. Come on, it’s you. How could I think badly of you?

And here’s another thing.

That plan you came up with, that simple set of steps to get this project of yours started, it’s still there. You may have changed: your interest in it may vary, your ability to fit it in with everything else you’re doing may very well have varied, but the plan is true and you can start it any time.

Are you reassured there? Because I’d like you to be. I’d like you to feel better about not doing the things you wanted to do, I’d like you to bounce off and do them. And I would not like you to read on.

Because it would be great if you still thought I knew what I was doing – and that I was doing it. And unfortunately this prevarication has been happening to me, too. In one small and one big way.

The small is that this week I’ve fallen off the OmniFocus wagon: it’s been a week of racing around – almost literally, I’ve driven a couple of hundred miles since Monday – and more than the average number of meetings. Hang ing, lemme count this out. Say it’s been a week of short days, working just nine hours a day. Monday to this morning, that’s 36 hours. I spent 21 hours in meetings and getting on for 7 hours driving. Plus I’ve somehow watched 15 episodes of Community, but that was overnight, honest.

I feel better. I feel anoraksic for working this out and for being able to work it out, but the fact that I’ve officially had just 8 hours regular working time makes me feel a smidgeon better for not being on top of all my tasks in OmniFocus just at the moment. Hang on 2. Ulp. There are 26 tasks in my OmniFocus inbox, 43 overdue ones in my Forecast calendar. Hang on 3. Just at a quick glance, I can tell you that of those 69 tasks I’ve definitely done 38.

Blimey, you’re good for me today. I almost feel okay about the small way. Plus, I’ve only glanced now to count for you but I’ll fly through an OmniFocus review in a bit and be back on top of absolutely everything. It is a great place to be: you feel so much better when you do this.

But back to the big way. How good are you at helping me with this big one? There is a project I was first approached about around May 2013, I think. That was just a whisper of a possibility and I was in the middle of two books, so. But by at the latest August 2013, it was on. I was committed to it, I had plans, we had meetings, I’d created a shared Evernote notebook for us all and was chucking lots of research detail in there. And it’s not as if I then stopped, but I then stopped.

I will be telling you about the project when it happens – and it’s going to now, otherwise I might not be telling you even this much – but the kicker is that I dragged my feet for months and I don’t know why. It did seriously irritate the other people involved: their patience was tried and convicted.

I could point to problems we have to solve and there are things about the project that were terribly nebulous that I needed to focus on. To think about. Sometimes in the rush to be productive, I lose thinking time. It’s quite a hard thing: today I will Think About The Project.

All of this is post-rationalisation, it’s just bollocks: I dragged my feet and I failed to do the work because I was crap. Can’t find reasons, shouldn’t look for excuses. But yesterday a friend, the main other guy on the project, invited me round to his place for a mug of tea and a natter. There are other things we’re doing and have to discuss, it wasn’t anything like I was driving to my doom at the headmaster’s office. Plus I just like the guy and enjoy tea with him.


With that ahead of me, I got back on the wagon for this big thing.

I looked at what the next step I could take was. The next action that I could do before going to see him. It was a hard one for me: it was a phone call. Not just a call, a cold call. Not just a cold call, but a call to an organisation I didn’t know and could not determine who I needed to speak to. I find cold calls tough but the way I cope with them is being really clear in my head who I need to speak to, what it’s about and what my aim for the call is. This time it was all about the nebulous stuff and it was to this unknown possible person in this unknown possible department. It was going to take a good few goes to just find the right person.

Except he was the one who answered. The fella I needed picked up the phone, listened, and explained how he was the one I needed. He then un-nebuloused the idea, gave me answers that totally defined the project: we can do what we like but if we do this, we get support and if do that, we don’t. Hang on. My iPhone says I was on that call for 4’56”. By the end, I knew what I was doing.

One call got me back on the wagon. I still feel I’ve been letting down the others in this project, most specifically because I have, and I’m afraid of it happening again. Very much afraid, in fact. So as soon as we’re done here today, I’m getting on with it. Well, after I’ve driven out to a meeting about another thing.

Thanks. You’ve helped. And without my intending this to be about my taking my own advice, what I wrote up there for you about it being okay to have not started, it being fine because you can still start again whenever you like, it was very nearly okay that I hadn’t started and it is fine that I am starting again now.

Do you need tea now?