Searching for the Perfect Writing Spot

Emma at the desk

There is no such thing as the perfect writing spot. We all know that. Though, I must say, granddaughter Emma looks almost perfect right where she sits at my desk. And my son, Doug, looks pretty productive, too.

Doug at my desk

There are simply writers who sit down and write. Wait around for the perfect spot and you won’t be writing much. And yet … periodically, I disrupt our whole house as I attempt to fulfill this most illusory need.

Our cabin is somewhat unconventional. Right angles and doors are rare. Open concept is taken to the limit. Finding my perfect writing space has been a challenge that is as much about my personality as it is about the house. I like a change now and then. Over the years, I have had my desks in at least eight areas of this small cabin. I’m sorry to tell you that the first few set-ups predated our time with digital cameras, so words must suffice.

Rake window - uppermost loft

I started with a small desk in the uppermost loft. We had to hoist the desk over the railing from one loft to the other since it wouldn’t go up the narrow stairs. It was years before we had installed a rake window looking out over the garden in that area. Maybe I would have stayed put if I had waited for that window. Who knows?

 

Railing that overlooks the main floor

Next, I got a larger desk and moved to the big loft, against the railing that looks down into the living room. This railing  just got a major facelift so I decided to include a photo, though my desk in that location is long gone. I was near that railing for a while. I loved the vantage point but hated how the whole mess of computer cords and the piles of books on my desk looked from below.

Soon enough, I was on the move again. We converted the dining room section of our open concept main floor into a full-fledged office with built-in bookshelves that surrounded my desk. I do wish I had a photo of that set-up for you. It was really neat. I wrote many academic papers in that space. I was productive and for me and Bruce, the loss of the dining room was no big deal. We still had our kitchen eating space. But the repurposing brought multiple complaints from all visitors who had fond memories of the large table that previously occupied the dining room and could seat a dozen in a pinch.

We reclaimed the dining room as dining room, though in the photo below, we had long since lost that huge table.

Table in dining area

Upstairs, we had knocked a door through the middle loft, so all three lofts were connected. The area on the main floor that contained a closet and the narrow staircase to the highest loft became redundant. We created a library/office space for Bruce and removed all the desks and built-in shelving from the dining room to that area. Below, you can see this is a wonderful cosy spot.

Library office

Meanwhile, I moved down to Victoria for several years to attend university. In my apartment, I had the entire dining room converted to an office. I think we ate at a small table in the living room. A lot can be deduced about an individual from the amount of space they are willing to allocate to desks.

desks in victoria

I had satellite desks at the cabin for holidays and the summer months.

desk upstairs near big window     Desk in entry

When I returned full-time to the cabin, Bruce designed a built-in desk for me in the sloping corner of the big loft. I was upstairs again! I distinctly remember writing my methodology paper for my unfinished dissertation there. But after a while, looking into a dark corner made me feel stifled. Okay for research methodology but it wouldn’t work for novel writing. Time to move again.

upstairs corner desk     Upstairs desk

I couldn’t exactly haul the built-in desk around, so I simply moved my laptop to the kitchen. The table proved to be the most fruitful writing space I have ever had. I was so productive that more and more stuff followed me down to the table and before long we barely had a spot to eat. Well, over time, that became untenable.

working at the kitchen table

I moved to the dining room again … completely central to the rest of the cabin.

2 desks sticking into the living room

A space begging for interruption. I pined for the wide-open view of the lake from the kitchen table. Thus, the era of trying to have it all began. I moved one desk up to the kitchen.

Table and 1 desk

Again, much work occurred in front of that view of lake but there were downsides. I had become a two-desk person and one of them had to stay in the dining room. I felt fractured.

Fractured - 1 desk in living room

One day, Bruce said, “Why not take over the whole kitchen eating area for your office. We’ll move the table to the dining room.” I was in heaven. I had both my desks, huge windows, an easy chair. Perfection at last. And close to the coffee pot. What more could a writer ask?

Kitchen office

The howls from visitors began anew and my guilt at commandeering such a big slice of our square footage grew. When we had guests, we had to haul all the food for every meal down to the dining room and people missed eating up in the kitchen with those wonderful views. Compromise was called for. Back to only one desk in the kitchen plus table.

Fractured again, I tried both desks plus the table. Unbelievably crowded and even I was howling.

Table and 2 desks    Crowded kitchen

Through all our back and forth with desks from dining room to kitchen, we had kept our china cabinet in the dining area. The next move saw us drag that cabinet up to the kitchen and that meant both my desks could tuck into the dining room space much more effectively and the whole open concept main floor looked cozy and sleek. We loved having the spacious kitchen back and having the china cabinet where it should have been all along. Hopefully, we told ourselves, this was the end of moving desks.

Kitchen with table & china cabinet

But not so fast. The dining room is still central – it feels like grand central to me.

Latest office

I bemoaned the fact that I had neither walls nor door and considered the solution of Les Nessman from that old sit com, WKRP in Cincinnati. Maybe I could draw where the walls should go on the floor and chalk in the door. But in my heart I knew, that would not stop distraction. Then it came to me – like a bolt of lightning – we have an underutilized space with a door. Our dormer room upstairs – the middle loft. One of the few places in this cabin I have never attempted to work. The kids use it as a playroom when they visit. There are big windows and an interesting view.

I was resolved that this would be a different sort of move for me. I had no intention of converting the dormer to an office. I love my office space right where it is. What I envisioned was a work area only big enough for my laptop. Whenever I felt the need for isolation, I could cart my laptop to the dormer, shut the door and stay put in front of the keyboard. No interruptions and no distractions.

Sitting up in the dormer, Bruce and I threw some ideas around. We have a set of built-in shelves under the window, and we decided that something designed to fit on the shelf and jut into the room slightly would suffice. Bruce rounded up a package of leftover hardwood pine flooring that had been given to us by friends after they redid their bedroom floor. He constructed this lovely little work surface with a back that holds it tightly in place under the upper shelf.

IMG_5882

So now, here I sit. I am writing undisturbed, enjoying the sound of the rain on the dormer roof outside the window and loving the view of the trees, multiple shades of green all around me. It’s a bit like sitting in a tree fort.

New work surface in the dormer

Hopefully, all is well that ends well. I can never say this will be my last move, but I sure enjoy the way things are now. In closing, I dedicate this post to the one who has cheerfully, (for the most part) hauled my many desks from place to place. Thank you, Bruce. As always, your support is greatly appreciated. Here’s a great photo of what Bruce was up to the other day – time to clean out that composting toilet. I bet hauling around my desks is way more fun.

Compost Toilet Haul

Going Silent and Coming Back

Jar Room Wonder

Well, WordPress followers … if you’re still out there … I’ve gone silent since September 18th, 2018 with my Lady Ashburn Mustard Pickles post. What a post to go out on. By the way, those pickles are so delicious! Okay, all kidding aside, months can fly by when one is filling non-writing time with food preservation, road trips, holidays and sock knitting.

Happy feet

There are about a hundred good posts in the above activities, but this blog is supposed to be all about writing. If I come to a dry spell again, I might start an all about non-writing blog. Then again, not writing really meant not writing. I have been hard pressed to put something as short and simple as an email together.

Let’s talk writing blocks. Every author has them. Getting my last book (No Compass to Right) out in 2017 was a huge effort – faster than usual writing timeline for all stages, a rush to publication to meet certain promotion opportunities then blissful nothingness. Stepping back from the whirlwind was much needed.

Kayak & kid magic

My well-earned rest flowed right into summer at the lake, visitors and a bountiful garden to enjoy. Along comes fall and there is the imperative of fresh produce begging for preservation. Then immersion as a sideline cheerleader on our jar and freezer room project (check it out in the first pic on this post). More than satisfying to see that space completed! And suddenly it is time for a road trip. We get home, catch our breath and we are in the Christmas rush. Busy, busy, busy.

Brit, Fran and Emma at Crowsnest Pass in Alberta Nov3-2018 - bruce witzel photo

I’m not fooling any of the writers out there with my busyness excuses. When we need to write, nothing gets in the way and everything else still gets done – for the most part. Writers are efficient with their time.

Coming back is hard. I can’t deny it. The longer I stayed away from daily writing, the more of a brick wall went up. Deconstructing the wall takes time. My endurance for sustained writing is low. In the first fifteen minutes I fight down a constant stream of demanding thoughts. I need to get up for a snack, perhaps another cup of coffee, maybe I should check my email and on it goes. Then, without any fanfare, I fall into the zone and the next forty-five minutes whiz by.

In a rush of energy at the end of writing No Compass to Right, I created extensive notes for the next book. Last week, I started back to those notes and simply hanging out with the characters. Asking questions. What is on their minds, where do they want to go, what do they want to be doing in book five? And do those characters ever clamour for attention. They speak, oh man do they speak – some go so far as to yell and scream. The ideas come in front of the keyboard as I write and while I do my daily walk. I snapped this photo through the glass of our greenhouse the other day. Datura in full bloom with evergreen reflection.

January Greenhouse Datura

Once I am back to writing, the desire to send my thoughts out into the blogosphere returns. This has been my longest WordPress silence since I started blogging in 2012. Here’s to going silent and here’s to coming back. If anyone is still listening … here’s a couple of pics of me and Bruce at Emerald Lake in YoHo National Park.

Me and Bruce at Emerald Lake         Emerald Lake - Yo Ho National Park

Catching Up

Marigold magic

In bygone days when money was tight, we used to talk about getting ahead. No sooner would we feel like extra cash was on hand than an unexpected expense would loom on the horizon. We came to believe that anticipating the moment we would get ahead was a harbinger of disaster. Lately, the idea of catching up begins to feel somewhat the same.

I’ve been home for almost three weeks from a month of travel right after the regular busy summer schedule of visitors and gardening. And the summer did seem busy! With an ever-expanding garden, bears in the fruit trees, replacing our wood-burning stove, contemplating the purchase of a new vehicle and planning to reroof a section of the cabin – we were hopping.

Moving in the new stove

New roof

September is not usually a month I would choose for travelling. But with the garden produce at a steady trickle rather than a tidal wave due to cool weather and rain early in the season, I risked it. Of course, the garden took off the minute I was out the door. Bruce was kept busy with freezing blackberries and green beans and eating ten plus tomatoes a day.

Since my return, canning has been priority number one. Jars of dilly beans, stewed tomatoes, salsa, green tomato chutney, blackberry jam and relish have made their way to the pantry. And we have been enjoying the harvest with multiple veggie selections at every meal – green beans, squash, carrots, potatoes, the last of the cucumbers and zucchini as well as fresh parsley and basil.

Green cherry tomato pickles                    Salsa

Blackberry jam

We did manage a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey dinner here with guests from around the lake. A squash custard, green beans, carrots, fresh salad greens dotted with cherry tomatoes, newly dug potatoes, parsley in the dressing – all from the garden – competed for attention on a turkey laden table. And we got in a trip down Island to have our generator serviced. It was a gorgeous day and we took a lovely walk down at the spit in Campbell River.

Campbell River spit

A very dry September and the early part of October has meant a slow start to our micro-hydro system but what a bonus for the last of the garden produce. To say nothing of our local foraging for chanterelle mushrooms. They are coming in so crisp and bright!

Chanterelle bounty

So, lately I am not feeling like Francis Guenette, author of the Crater Lake Series. I’ve hardly had a moment to consider writing! That brings me to something I’ve learned over the course of the last five years of writing, self-publishing, marketing and just plain living. The living part matters. I can’t bring all that I am to the writing if all that I am is a writer.

MosaiCanada 150

This morning I woke up with an idea for how book five will end. That’s progress. Soon all the garden will be laid to rest with late fall storms, all that can be consumed will have made its way through the door, the lights will be bright with excess power and I will be writing again. The ebb and flow of life continues. I won’t be caught up but I begin to think that catching up is not an ideal I need to pursue.

Squirrel on the deck

What Sort of Writer are You?

Little hummer takes a break

Recurring theme – someone asked me a question the other day: What are you working on now? I just stared. With a definite uncomfortable squirm in my chair, I responded, “Nothing.”

In another era, I wanted to be one of those women who had specific days when they did household tasks. You know the type – geez, you might be the type! Bathrooms on Monday, floors on Tuesday, dusting on Wednesday. I was more the madly try to clean up everything on the same day because company was coming woman. I could be seen running around in a state, dusting with one hand and pushing a wet rag with my foot over the dirty floor. Hoping for the best – cleaning with a lick and prayer, so to speak.

When I’m confronted with the question of what I’m currently working on and the answer is – nothing – I get a similar feeling. I want to be one of those writers who writes consistently. Like Stephen Leacock out in his boathouse every single day from eight until noon without fail. But I’m not. I’m the write until I drop and then fall into the doldrums believing that I will never write again type.

At the beginning of my master’s program, I read a book about writing your thesis or dissertation in fifteen minutes a day. It sounded wise but it was something I knew in my heart I could never accomplish.

My grandma used to say – You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is truth to the belief that one thing can’t be another no matter the effort put into transformation. I can no more write on a consistent and specific daily schedule than I could clean that way or create a dissertation in fifteen-minute blocks. It simply isn’t me.

When I’m not feeling uncomfortable with this state of affairs, I celebrate it. This is the fallow time. This is the gathering time. This is the time when impressions, ideas and connections incubate and grow until they burst forth in writing fury.

But there is still a part of me that feels like the sow’s ear and not the silk purse. What do you think? How do you manage your writing? Is it a daily, disciplined endeavour or is it an all out writing fury? And let me know how your garden is growing? Ours is doing not too bad Smile 

How is your garden growing

Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

Home and Happy

Clematis in full bloom

Will you look at that clematis in full bloom right outside the kitchen door! Wow!

It’s been two weeks since I came home from my travels in southern Alberta. From the land of rolling fields of canola, rodeo broncs and shiny buckles, cowboy culture and prairie winds to my Vancouver Island, lakeside cabin. I had some wonderful time with kids and grandkids. Life is good.

Kristen and Me

Me and my lovely daughter, Kristen enjoying music in the park.

Canada Day Cuties

My Canada Day cuties – Emma and Brit.

High River rodeo

They’re wearing that Alberta look well – daughter – Kristen, son-in-law – Matt, and granddaughters – Emma and Brit.

So – enough of holiday antics. I thought I’d share a few highlights from the last couple of weeks at home.

Fresh Salad Greens

Fresh salad greens from the garden is a big treat! The lettuce, radishes, baby kale and chives make an attractive side dish.

Garden

Lots of work for the head gardener but it sure pays off.

Lower Garden

Vegetables aren’t the only thing in the garden these days.

Oh my, bear and Buddha

Bear and Buddha – east meets west Smile

Bear and apple tree cha, cha, cha Bear and apple tree – cha, cha, cha. For this dance the bear is definitely leading.

Bleeding Heart

The last of the Bleeding Heart in the woodland garden.

Bad Reviews – How do you handle them?

Misty morning spiderweb - Guenette photo

Okay – let’s be honest, folks …if you’ve ever written anything that you let loose in the public realm, you’ve found out first hand that not everyone loves what you have struggled to produce. It proves that old maxim – you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you sure can’t please all the people, all the time.

Check out any of your favourite authors on Amazon – I mean the big-name favourites. They will have more than a few stinker reviews. Bad reviews are like taxes and death – inevitable.

So, how do you handle the one and two star reviews that really sting? I know of what I speak. Consider these recent reader opinions of Disappearing in Plain Sight:

Quit reading. Drag-you-drama, vile adults, helpless and hopeless teenagers. Too depressing. No desire to finish this story or follow the series.

Or what about this:

This reads like a first draft by a complete amateur … I tried. I couldn’t … if you told me this book was a high school student’s creative writing homework, I’d believe it.

Ouch! I thought of titling this post – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – after that one!

I read all my reviews … of course, I do. I share the one and two star ones with close friends and family who almost always give me a pep talk that ends with – ignore that review, the person is obviously a troll. I know that assessment is not true but a bruised ego will take comfort where it is to be found.

What I never do is interact with the reader who has given a less than salutary review. A good maxim here is: never explain, never apologize. I proceed from the belief that every review is some reader’s legitimate opinion and thus deserves to be respected. There’s a lot of books available through Amazon and a reader chose mine. This someone read, reacted and recorded his or her thoughts. That’s what the review system is for.

Listen up, now, because this part is important – not all bad reviews are written by people with axes to grind. Don’t take it personally. The best thing to do is accept legitimate criticism seriously and leave the rest.

I do my job when I create a story, do the work of rewriting, editing and formatting to the best of my ability so I can offer my novel to the public. Readers do their job by reading and sometimes sharing their opinions. The system works best when writers and readers stick to their jobs.

Let me know what you think.

Misty morning flowers - Guenette photo