Pssst. I’m having a bit of a downsize for a bit. And as it’s the essential one, I’m blogging at jamesholloway.org again for now. I’ll let you know when that changes.

A qualification

I wrote a thing about working from home the other day.

It came to my attention today that my saying working from home is brilliant might seem a little glib and insensitive to anyone I share an office with at the moment.

So, to qualify, I should add that if, like me, you ever have the chance to work with some of the smartest and most creative people in the world, working in the same space as them is a privilege, and you should make the most of doing that for as long as you possibly can. It’s much better than working from home.

But, working from home is better than working with idiots. I think a lot of people with a digital or creative background might be surprised at what offices in other industries can be like, what with the bullying, casual racism, sexism and general awfulness that can go on.

In any case, sorry about that.

Nintendo and gender roles

When a character is damseled and there’s no opportunity to play as or interact with the female character, there’s no opportunity to understand the female character as a subject, a person, an individual. She becomes a glorified fetch-quest.

I love computer games. I want my daughter to love computer games. I want her to be able to play them without having to absorb or overlook archaic gender roles.

So I’ve very grateful to Claire Hosking for writing Bound Women: Why Games are Better Without a Damsel To Save

I’ve had less time to play games since Alice came. But, in the beginning at least, she didn’t affect my choice of game. It was all abstract shapes and noises, I reasoned. It would take a more adult brain to resolve that confusion into the concept of violence.

But before long it was obvious she was paying attention, if not taking it in. So, to be safe, Nintendo. And in one way, that’s been great. When you’re pushed for time, it turns out the Nintendo filter is really useful. They may only put out a few games a year, but that’s enough, and they’re polished and generally enormously fun to play. This should not be taken for granted any more.

But then there are Nintendo’s gender roles. Despite being released 13 years into the 21st century, Super Mario 3D World still casts the player in the role of a man rescuing females. Not Peach, this time, but Sprixies. Their sex mightn’t be specifically defined, but they’re unmistakably female.

But with the release of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, there are signs that Nintendo is beginning to think a little harder about these things. Treasure Tracker is essentially an expansion of a 3D World mini-game which sees Toad explore one small contained cuboid level at a time – think Lego Minecraft for scale, if not colour scheme. They were easy, but extraordinary fun all the same, and I looked forward to playing a game which, from the point of view of violence at least, had little chance of making any impression on my daughter. Before long, we could play together, I hoped.

The brief description of the game has the usual spiel about rescuing Toadette. Sigh. However, Nintendo is playing with our expectations. “Can he really do it by himself?” teases that there may be more nuance to the game’s gender politics, and indeed, it turns out the player plays as Toadette for large sections of the game, “with the game’s two leads, Toadette and Toad, taking turns saving one another.”.

Not only that, it seems Toads are sexless, and choose their own gender characteristics.

I haven’t actually yet played the thing, but this is certainly better.

Things I’ve learned writing first drafts by hand

At some point you’re going to have to type it all up, so be brief.

You’re going to reword 90 percent of it, so write only the minimum you need to to be able to type without impediment.

It’s easier just to write most of it again than it is to move your eyes between your notes and the screen. So again, you’re going to rewrite it. There’s no need to actually write most of it down.

Things to write down are:

  • the point
  • an intro
  • an ending
  • a structure
  • any memorable words or lines you come up with

That might amount to only 10 percent of the words, but its almost all of the work. Typing is easy.

Drafting by hand is much easier than it used to be. So, if you’re stuck for words, go for a walk. Take a notebook.

This mainly applies to non-fictional prose. It applies in part to creative prose. It doesn’t work for poetry – write it all in full.

How to work from home

For most of my life as a freelancer, I’ve worked from home. When I tell people that, the usual response is “I couldn’t do that” or “I tried it for a day a week for a bit but it didn’t work”. But working from home full-time is a different beast, and it’s people going all-in I’m sort of thinking about here.

Some preamble

Except for the odd month or two of office-based consulting, I worked entirely from home from 2008 to 2013. And though for now I once again work amid desk partitions and confusing milk politics, I expect when that runs its course I’ll revert to working from home. It’s great.

I’m not really getting at putting yourself, or your career, in a position to work from home. Maybe I’ll write about that another time. This is more about what to do once you’re there.

Really, it’s just about getting into the mental zone of either being at work, or not being at work. I’m sorry if that sounds like wank. But it’s true.

1. Have a good long skive

Look. I know the lure of Countdown, the washing up, or, well, anything else only too well. Working from home now and again is hard because neither you nor your home is geared for it. That’s also true when you’re starting out for the long haul.

My solution, and admittedly, people do look at me oddly when I say it, is when you begin to work from home, do as little work as possible. Sort that cupboard out. Take that boxset out of its cellophane. Take a holiday and don’t tell anyone. Stare at the ceiling. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll very quickly realise that:

  1. you’re not earning any money
  2. you’re not enjoying yourself anywhere near as much as you could be

Well done. You had a monumental skive. It was good for you. It’s out of your system now. Time for the real fun to begin.

If you’re working from home as an employed member of staff, you may want to skip this stage lest you get the sack, or worse, hauled back to the office.

2. Have a dedicated workspace

Now this can be tricky if you’re short of space, but believe me I’ve lived in some pokey London flats and made this work. Have a place you use for work and nothing else. If you can manage the luxury of a whole room dedicated to work, do it. A study or office room is the easiest way to delineate where you work and where you don’t. When you’re there, you’re at work; when you’re not, you’re not. Easy.

I managed without a dedicated room by doing the next best thing. Put a desk in the corner of the room that is quietest during the day. Why does the choice of room matter? Because it’s still important that the room is yours for your working day. You may not be able to dedicate the whole space for work so far as furniture goes, but that room is still your Fortess of Solitude.

The last thing you need is other people blundering in and out of it, even if they are the people dearest to you in the whole wild world. And just as in the office, a pair of headphones is a great way to emit I’m-working signals.

The desk itself becomes a more compact version of your work cocoon. When you’re at it you’re fully geared to working (or as geared as you want to be). Have nothing there that isn’t somehow geared to work (obliquely inspirational doodads are fine), but don’t litter it with non-worky distractions like grocery shopping lists or credit card bills. And politely make clear to anyone you live with that if they move stuff on your desk, you’ll burn the house down.

Then, when you get up to move around, the thoughts of the outside world can come flooding in, and you can go to buy that milk, water those gazanias or install a fire blanket.

This is all made a little easier by point 9, which we’ll come to precisely 7 points from now.

3. Dress for work

You may be immune to this effect, and if that’s the case, I salute you. But I found that throwing on the nearest pair of jog bottoms and baggy t-shirt put me in completely the wrong frame of mind to work. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you should don the most formal attire in your wardrobe.

Dress to a level of smartness that works for you. For me, it’s exactly the same as I’d dress in a modern creative office environment. It doesn’t matter what you wear – the thing is to make a bit of an effort and feel a bit smart. It’ll put you in the mode to achieeeeeeve.

4. Walk to work

I think I nicked this one from Paul. You do get the odd askance look when you recommend this to others. After you’ve dressed for work, go out of your house and walk around your neighbourhood for a bit. Mentally walk yourself to work. A 2-minute walk will do, though a 10-minute walk is better. Walk for half an hour if you can make the time.

The idea is that before your walk you’re at home, and after your walk you’re at work, with all the mental compartment-switching that entails done en route. Also recommended, though less essential, is the “walk home”. Needless to say, it’s rather easier to fall out of the work headspace than it is to get into it.

5. Have a work computer

This can be tricky if you’re on a budget, but it’s extremely useful. Similar to the workspace idea, having a computer you use for work and nothing else is a good way to compartmentalise your day, and what goes on in your head over the course of it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t click that tempting Youtube video in your Twitter timeline, but it certainly helps to not work on your monstrously powerful gaming rig. Temptation abounds. Plus, it makes it much easier to manage work and personal email accounts, web browsers and what have you.

The corollary to this is the next time you need to hop onto eBay, or write a quick email to your Mum, you won’t be tempted to “just quickly check” work stuff when you can use your non-work computer instead. That way madness lies. (You could easily lose an hour or two, anyway.)

This might sound like a luxury, but increasingly, modest computers have more than enough power to do the things we need to get done, which often amounts to little more than typing. If you can, borrow a spare from a friend or relative, keep an eye on your local Freecycle community and Cash Converters-type places. Computers don’t have to cost a fortune these days, and if you’re lucky or persistent, they can be had (or borrowed) for nothing.

6. Embrace skiving – again

I assume you don’t need to be told to actually do some work, or indeed how to do it, so let’s move things along.

One thing that alarms me is that people who work from home, or people considering it, seem to count a bit of a skive as the ultimate sin. It’s almost as if skiving at home counts double to skiving in the workplace. Nonsense. Just work as joyfully, chaotically and inconsistently as you always have.

I’m not talking about defrauding your employer (who, if you’re freelance, is you anyway), but simply embracing those earned mental breaks between the graft.

My guilty pleasure wasn’t watching a Frasier repeat over my lunchtime corned beef sandwich; it was hanging around to watch the second episode immediately after. Looking back, I’m not sure why I felt taking a 45-minute lunch-break was such a crime. Of course, you don’t have to watch Frasier on your lunch hour. Bargain Hunt is good too.

I expect in the future I’ll write things about those bastard twins productivity and minimising distraction – those things are useful. But it isn’t a sin to take a break when you feel like it. Let’s be honest. We’re all apes.

7. Find your hours

When you start to work from home, the automatic temptation is to keep office hours? Why? Granted, some work may require you to be on deck at certain times of the day. For a while I worked as an editor that more or less tied me to my desk 9 till 5, five days a week. But otherwise, find the times that work for you.

I gradually found out I prefer a very early start, a mid-day break, then a shortish but intensive session in the afternoon. A longish work day might be 7am to 12pm, then 2pm to 4pm.

I know some people like to work in the evening or even at night. That sounds mad to me, but if that sounds like you, by all means plan your day around that. Just don’t forget to sleep.

The main thing is to work out when work feels least like a chore, and work then.

8. Leave and don’t come back

Talking to other freelancers, this is a biggie. One of the main problems that people who work from home face is work creeping into their personal and leisure time. Whether it’s that unfinished task scratching the back of your brain or the lure of the inbox, it can be all too easy to flip open your laptop to do a little more.

This is the surest way to set the touch paper to all the benefits working from home brings. Don’t do it. You’ll be happier and more productive doing something else. And your family will thank you.

Ultimately, you have to set yourself rules and stick to them.

9. Work less

I don’t mean do less work (though do do that if you possibly can). I mean embrace the fact that getting your work done is going to take less time at home than it will at work. There’ll be fewer distractions. People won’t ask you to do things unless they genuinely need to be done. You’ll be more productive than you’ve ever been simply by working as you always wanted to: on your own.

Maybe that means a 5-hour day or a 4-day week. Maybe more. Maybe less. And if you choose to put the time doing more work, excellent. As a writer, I find there’s only so much writing I can do in a day. If I need to pull in more work, I’ll spend the rest of my day pitching (I should, anyway, but then I am very lazy). If not I’ll go and do something else.

10. Reap the benefits

For me, the best thing about working from home was going outside for a walk whenever I felt like it. A nice long walk with my camera, finding a spot of lunch en route, was my favourite way to spend the time between my morning and afternoon work sessions. How long and far I walked depended on a number of things: how busy I was, how urgent things were, my mood, and the time of year. Sometimes I might pop out for 30 minutes, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t afternoons when I basically didn’t come back.

That said, much of the time I was working. A walk can be a fantastic way to remove a mental block, or solve a problem. And I do some of my best writing on foot: a headline, an introduction or conclusion. Sometimes those critical lines are enough to make the rest of the writing fall into place.

Whether you work from home by accident or design, it would be insane to not make the most of the main benefit of doing it: having more time for fun stuff. Admittedly, your thing might not be walking. But whatever your thing is, working from home should give you more time to do it. Which is great. But that’s probably why you’re doing it.

Perfect copy

A rather nice post on the Mistakes Writers Make blog: rererereading

I always raise my eyebrows when the writer of an article is berated for a typo or other small error. People really struggle to grasp that it isn’t the writer’s job to submit perfect copy. It really isn’t. It’s their job to submit good copy on spec and on time.

A writer should proofread their work and correct errors. No one wants to work with a writer who routinely submits error-strewn copy. But they shouldn’t be expected to pick up on every tiny mistake. Editors should prefer that their writers move on to the next thing.

Off the top of my head, here are some qualities editors should prefer in their writers to fastidiousness when it comes to typos:

  • curiosity
  • creativity
  • an analytical mind
  • a sense of humour
  • an eye for interesting detail
  • an ear for the poetic
  • a nose for bullshit at 80 yards

And as the post notes, editors are people too. Mistakes will happen. There’s more to editing than fixing typos too.

Merry Christmas, Uncle Jim

It’s nearly Christmas. We’re in Derry. It’s time to say hello to Uncle Jim.

My in-laws live on a hill with a view that takes in the north of the city. A new Christmas tradition is to take strolls in the evening, look at the neighbours’ Christmas lights, smelling the peat fires, and watching the city lights shimmer in the moist air below.

But it’s daytime now, and the air is as moist as it gets (what with the rain). But sunlight is beginning to puncture the stratocumulus hanging low over Derry, and behind us, out of the city, the sun shines brightly. The conditions are perfect, and, sure enough, Alice, 9 months, sees her first rainbow – and another, fainter, with it. They seemingly span the Foyle as the city’s fourth and fifth bridges.

We pull into the cemetery soon after, The rain’s let up, but as we make our way down to Jim, forlorn clouds gather between us and the setting sun. But when we get to the grave we see, in the other direction… is it… yes… a third rainbow. The main arc is the most vivid I’ve ever seen, shining brightly end to end. The second is almost complete, and just inside it, the unmistakable beginnings of a third.

Alice never knew Jim, and I only met him a few times. I knew him as a quiet man, but he was a talented painter, but who sadly painted less in later years. But everything you need to know about him can be told in the faces of those who knew him best – their faces when he came into the room, and their faces when they remember him. Lighting up is an understatement.

Much older and we’d have left Alice at home, but as she’s too young to truly grasp what’s going on, we have no hesitation in introducing her to Jim. “Say hello, Alice” we tell her, just as we do when she meets anyone.

She’s climbing now, and she recognises Jim’s headstone as a sturdy upright – something she can lean on. And as we fumble with the flowers we’ve brought, Alice reaches out for the headstone. And almost precisely at the moment she makes contact, it starts to hail, small painless hailstones which rattle harmlessly on the umbrella.

Merry Christmas, Uncle Jim. Merry Christmas, Alice.

Heroes

On a very early train into London yesterday, I wrote down this list of “writers”:–

Richard Pryor Victoria Wood
Clement Freud William Goldman
John Lennon Jim Abrahams & the Zuckers
Muhammad Ali Peter Cook
Sara Jones Robert Frost
Ze Frank Bruce Robinson
Jane Austen Mark Twain
Peter Ustinov Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bill Hicks Joan Rivers
Basho Clive James
Winston Churchill Steve Jobs

If you’d asked me the day before who my favourite writers were, I’d have thought of my favourite books and tried to name their authors. But that isn’t right at all.

This lot have something about them. It’s more than clarity. It’s a certain lucidity. As if their words emit light. (Put their characters or politics aside. It’s not that. And I realise in some case there were writers behind the “writers”.) At their best, they are or were impossible to ignore.

And I know: not nearly enough women. My bad.

No

2015, the year of no:

  • grumpiness
  • hangovers
  • compromises (creatively, not interpersonally)
  • lethargy
  • doubt

I won’t succeed, but it’s still worth a try.

I love parentheses

I love parentheses. (You know, these things.) I like to think of them as writing’s answer to the dramatic aside. By the rules of punctuation, you’re supposed to use them to put extra (but inessential) information into a sentence. The sentence should make sense with or without the insert.

In reality, I think readers pay way more attention to what’s inside them. They signal to the reader that something’s up. They play on our innate curiosity and suspicion. Like the dramatic aside. Like tuning out the person talking to you to listen in a conversation someone else is having (and may not expect you to hear). Like footnotes, they can be some of the best bits of novels.

A bad idea

The other day I had the incredible wheeze getting IFTTT to email me a photo every time someone local posted to Instagram. This is just a wee note to say this was an awful idea. Braintree has way more Instagrammers than I thought, and they’re mainly habitual selfy-takers. And because of the way that IFTTT filter works, I thought for a horrible moment someone had hacked my email. Unless you live in a village with Florian Ritter and nobody else, don’t do this.

This simply reiterates the age-old lesson, just cos you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Particularly on the internet.

Erudite vernacular

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequence of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.

This is from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. I know. These sorts of books are a guilty pleasure, I must admit.

Anyway. Great paper title. I must read it. “Low credibility”, yes. “Poor intelligence”? That seems harsh. However misguided, hiding the vagueness of your ideas behind highfaluting language is a real skill. I think more than anything it just shows a poor grip on the subject matter. There could be all kinds of reasons for that (hangover, lack of interest, bereavement). But perhaps the research bears out the intelligence thing.

Missing the point

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I do know that I have to pay attention to this:

Instagrammar: Why Adding Periods to Instagram Notifications Makes Users Feel “Sassed”

It’s tempting to use the ol’ “text is toneless” argument as justification for not caring about how what you write makes people feel. If someone takes offence, it’s their problem after all.

No. It’s our responsibility to do our very best. There are so many little things you can do. It depends on the medium, so maybe I’ll post more on this subject, but for now I’ll just say I’m not above emoji and their ilk.

Lazy surveillance

I’ve just spotted you can set up an IFTTT trigger for Instagram uploads from any user geotagged in a geographical area you define. I’ve unimaginatively set up a trigger for new photos in the town where I live to – get this – send me an email alert (albeit one that’ll redirect to an easily ignored folder of my determination).

But I can think of lots of nice uses for this. Most of them are nostalgic. A place where a loved one lives. Or you used to live. Or where you had a lovely holiday. But I bet there are loads of other things you could do, many of them useful – especially if you set the catchment area very local indeed.

Writing Principles

The GDS style guide is rightly held up as a useful resource for people who want to write clearly on the web.

But you know what? I think the GDS Design Principles are even more useful – or at least fundamental. Here’s the whole list. I’ve emboldened those which I think relate to writing every bit as well as they do design:

1 Start with needs* (*user needs not government needs)
2 Do less
3 Design with data
4 Do the hard work to make it simple
5 Iterate. Then iterate again
6 Build for inclusion
7 Understand context
8 Build digital services, not websites
9 Be consistent, not uniform
10 Make things open: it makes things better

That’s basically all of them. And you can make a case for 3.

So there you have it: principles for writers. Any others?

Creativity without the wankery

I think I saw this via Russell, if that’s a sentence. It’s absolutely brilliant. If you’re anything like me, you’re addicted to writings on writing, simplicity and creativity. And you’re frustrated that 99% of the writing on those subjects is abject. I think it’s something to do with the way lesser creatives (i.e. almost all of us) try to systematise these sorts of things. It’s much simpler than that. It’s just incredibly difficult. Do what you can to stoke the wildfire, and take it from there. Of course, genius helps, I imagine.

Anyway: The five lessons I learned from Ken Campbell by Bill Drummond

Forgive the long extract:

“You spent the budget on a phone?”

“Yes. Right now in the world, the phone is the most powerful tool you can have. Right now, I can contact anybody in the world of any importance with this phone. Anyone! In fact, you can help me. We need someone to play the role of an oriental woman in the play. Who should we get?”

I could not think of any oriental actresses so I said Yoko Ono. In my head, she was the most famous oriental woman in the world.

“OK, we will ask Yoko Ono.” Then he rings a number. Someone answers. He asks a question and writes down a number. He phones this number. Someone answers. He asks a question and writes down another number. He does this two or three more times – after which he is actually speaking to Yoko in New York. This was not more than 10 minutes after I had half-jokingly suggested her name.

As it happens, Yoko declined his offer to appear in the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s 12-hour production of Illuminatus!, as she had to look after her new baby boy.

Fifteen years later, when Jimmy Cauty and I were working on the KLF track Justified & Ancient, Jimmy said what it needed was a vocal by Tammy Wynette. Now Tammy Wynette was a genuine living legend, the First Lady of Country – and the record we were making was a sort of dance-pop record with weird bits. It was the last thing you’d expect the First Lady of Country to be singing on. While Jimmy got on with the track, I went into the office and picked up the phone. Ten minutes later, after three or four calls, I am actually talking to Tammy Wynette, just before she goes on stage in Chicago. We play her the track down the phone and she agrees there and then to record the vocals with us.

Time

Found myself moaning about the new commute yesterday. Already. What looks on paper like an hour-long train journey can become 2 hours door to door once you factor in the 15-minute walk to the station, the inevitable rail delays, and the 15-minute tube hop at the other. (People are rarely honest about the bookends of their journeys to work, even when they do say “door to door”).

This is all time away from family. And, I told myself, will only make it impossible to find time for the things I already don’t find time for:

  • reading
  • exercise (or, at the very least, walking)
  • undisturbed writing

HANG ON.

The walk to the station amounts to half an hour a day. That’s not going to turn me into Hercules but it’s a sight better than nowt – and if I walk at top speed, it’s nearly proper exercise (and, surprise surprise, I get there sooner when I do that).

An hour on the train is an hour’s writing, if I want it. I wrote more than 1,200 words on the way in yesterday, and that was writing for only some of the journey.

And frankly, an hour’s reading on the way home is a luxury I should be grateful for.

Okay, I can’t do much about this being time away from family, but if I make the rule that once I’m home that’s family time and nothing else, that’s probably better than an extra hour at home distracted by email, the internet and guilt about never reading or exercising.

In short, if you hear me moaning about commuting, toe punt me in the shins.

Preempting the long-form backlash

Quotables in Longform overload, a recent piece in the Colombia Journalism Review:

“At worst, the fetishization of story length is ‘a shortcut to respectability,’ wrote James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic.”

“There’s so much to read that’s so good, and that’s essentially free with ads, that we are irrelevant. Why would anyone pay?” – Glenn Fleishman, editor of The Magazine

“Deca, a collective of 10 freelance writers, split revenue; Epic allows film and TV studios options to buy story rights, and The Atavist sells use of its software platform, among other revenue streams.”

“Deep, contextual reporting paired with emotionally resonant writing will continue to be vital, but publications built to satiate the journalist’s desire to write, as opposed to a reader’s desire to learn, risk creating a vanity project without a clear audience. “If it’s not for the readers then it doesn’t matter,” said Shapiro. ‘If you’re not satisfying readers then there’s no point.’”

I blogged a bit about long-form (which, in my book of hyphenated things, is hyphenated) back in March: The cult of long-form.

I’m still not against long-form. I’m against needless length.

Sky blue pink

Purely coincidentally, Mo and I posted back to back pictures of the dawn sky on Twitter this morning. This was mine, snapped on my phone:

2014-12-09 07.43.46

There was also a bit of snippiness about tweets about the sun coming up again, but in jest I imagine. When you’re tired of beautiful weather and/or cloud formations, well you may as well go home.

A bit later Charlie Connelly got in on the act. He was smart, deploying preemptive sarcasm.