Category Archives: For authors

writing desk

The room can write the book

A few weeks ago I took the plunge, and rented an external brain.

This is not the opening line of a science fiction story (though, hmm, maybe it could be…). My external brain is a studio: a corner of an industrial building, a partitioned space shared with eight artists. A bookshelf and a reading armchair, an office chair and writing desk, and a good long surface for laying out pages and making plans – plus a stretch of wall-space, so I can draw out structures and schedules on huge flip-chart sheets.

Reading chair
The reading chair

I first came across the notion of a room as an external brain in Vincent Deary’s How We Are. Early on in the book he recounts how, before he started to write, he organised his workroom: ‘collecting and ordering the books, papers and articles into one space. I mapped the shape of this book onto a wall chart … I filled a filing cabinet with files, one for each chapter …. I spent several years getting this book out of my mind, and then two months spreading it all over this little room.’ Now, he says, the room can write the book.

The room can write the book. What an appealing idea that is. I’ve been writing at home for a decade, decamping to libraries and coffee shops when cabin fever strikes. But with two all-encompassing writing projects on the go – a PhD and a novel rewrite – I needed the ‘cognitive prosthesis’ Deary talks about. I needed a space that was dedicated to reading and writing; somewhere I could make my thinking visible. I needed to be away from the easy distractions of radio, kettle, garden. Above all I needed to avoid the internet, with its seductive illusion of productivity (social media is promotion; aimless surfing is research). We’re all vulnerable to this: even big name writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen have to resort to extreme measures to keep themselves away from its temptations.

planning desk
The planning desk

Deary also talks about rooms as ‘spaces of embodied routines’; how repeatedly using a place in a certain way creates powerful behavioural cues. When I sit at my desk at home, it’s automatic to check email – but when I walk into the studio first thing in the morning, it’s automatic to flip open the laptop and begin work where I left off the previous day. And for me, sharing a studio with artists taps into older behavioural cues: having spent four formative years at art college, working in a creative visual environment somehow facilitates my own imaginative work in a completely different medium.

‘Without this room,’ says Deary, ‘I’m just a guy with a notion for a book. Equally, without me this room is, well, just weird. Together, the room and I can do stuff that alone would be impossible.’

Author event at Books Books Books, Lausanne

Tips for terrified authors

For many people, speaking in public is a genuinely frightening ordeal. Years ago, I studied on a course that was assessed partly on a presentation to my (small, friendly) student group; for months in the run-up to The Day, I existed in a state of anxiety, falling asleep each night to self-hypnosis tapes in an attempt to manage my fear.

Fifteen years on, I may still get a flutter of nerves before stepping in front of an audience, but that crippling fear seems like nothing so much as a bad dream. Over the last month, I’ve appeared on local TV; held three launches for my debut novel; performed a reading and Q&A at an author event in Switzerland; and taken part in an advice panel for postgraduate creative writers. There’s no way round it: if you’re an author, public speaking is increasingly part of the job.

So if the prospect makes your palms sweat and your heart skip – if you’re breathless right now at the thought of it – how can you learn to endure, and even enjoy, the experience? Here are five tips that helped me to feel confident in front of a crowd.

1) It’s not about you.
When I started teaching creative writing, this was my mantra. In those early days, remembering that the focus was not on me but on my students allowed me to feel comfortable in the classroom. But surely appearing at an author event means it is about you? I prefer to think it’s all about the book. The book wants to be read – and it’s my job to bring it to life for potential readers.

2) Be prepared.
Being thoroughly prepared for an event can help you feel more secure. Attend other author events to get a sense of the questions you might be asked; think about how you might respond, and jot down some notes. Practise reading aloud; record yourself, so you can fine-tune your performance to make sure it’s engaging. And if you always read your work aloud as part of the writing and editing process, you’re one step ahead – you’ve already put weeks of effort into making your prose sound great.

3) Keep it brief.
Short is always good when it comes to book readings. It can be reassuring to know that you just need to reach the end of the page without your voice going AWOL – and since it can be hard for listeners to stay focused on longer extracts, the audience will thank you too. Similarly, if you’re new to speaking in public and the idea of giving a five-minute reading makes you deeply anxious, try not to be persuaded too far and too quickly out of your comfort zone: an hour-long discussion about the themes of your novel, for instance, is something you might want to build up to gradually.

4) It’s normal to be scared.
Fear can be deeply physical: you may feel unsteady, light-headed, dry-mouthed … the list goes on. There are some practical things you may be able to do to conceal these physical signs of nervousness: sitting rather than standing, leaning on a lectern, using a mic, having water to hand. But really, so what if people notice your hand is shaking, or hear the wobble in your voice? We all know how hard it is to be the centre of attention: the audience is on your side, willing you to do well.

5) Get older.
An easy one, this! The fear of speaking in public is often tied up with insecurities about how others perceive us. But time is on your side, since one of the great liberations of growing older is caring less what people think. Perhaps one day you’ll face your audience wearing purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you.