BUILDING A BETTER BATCAVE
(A long post about a VERY IMPORTANT issue. Sorry.)
What’s my worst enemy?
Backache? Stiff neck? Sore wrists? Stinging eyes?
If YOU have these, perhaps you have just come back from a night on the town, where you either arm-wrestled a crocodile or played video games with your mates until dawn…
You are a writer!
No, I don’t mean someone who scribbles an email from time to time, nor an office bee producing memos for office bee colleagues.
No. I’m talking about the word-zombies who sit in front of a keyboard for inhuman lengths of time pecking away at the keys as they brain-dump huge tracts of lies they call novels.
Hello. My name is Eric and I’m a writer. (Quotation from a recent WAnon meeting).
It’s hard for many readers to understand the physical hardships associated with producing the book they are reading. Many are content just to gripe about the difficulty of ‘turning the page’ using one finger when supporting their Kindle in one hand. Or that unspeakable, spine-breaking thing they do with paperbacks (usually borrowed) that leaves them scarred for life (the books, that is… initially… when I get my hands on the perpetrator, it’ll be something else).
Do they spare a thought for the crippling postures to which their favourite author submits themselves to create the fiction they love? No, they do not!
So, in the interest of Health, Science, and the Novelists’ Way of Life, let’s take a look at where and how we SHOULD write our masterpieces so we can continue to keep doing this for many years to come without succumbing to the sapping side effects listed above.
Take heart, fellow scribe. I wouldn’t do that to you…
Now, where was I? … oh yes… The Batcave.
Whilst waiting for Gotham to call the Caped Crusader into action, our hero has to spend considerable time twiddling his gloved thumbs and playing with his Batarang, so why not do this in an environment that isn’t trying to kill him or worse?
Hone your tools, fellow scribes!
Whether you are a laptop equilibrium specialist or a desktop devotee, take a step back (get out of your chair first – this is about health and safety after all, and we don’t want any accidents), step over the dog (note: all canine extremities are crossed – remember you should have taken your faithful foot-warmer for a walk an hour ago?) and take a good look at where you spend your writing life.
Now look again. When was the last time you ignored servicing your car for as long?
As you may know, I’ve spent over forty years beating people up in something they call the Martial Arts (Psychopaths please note – do this well and they’ll even pay you for it!) One of the side effects of wielding three-foot long razor blades for so many years is that I have exceptionally strong fingers and thick wrists (it’s all that lifting beer glasses after the dojo). If you haven’t pounded the tatami as much as me, but do play the piano (or drink a lot of beer), you probably know what I’m talking about. Now, one of the side effects of my side effects is that I destroy keyboards. I write a couple of 90,000-word novels per annum (plus attendant rewrites), plus blog posts, short stories for magazines, articles such as this for my friends and then there’s Twitter… there’s always Twitter… [sigh]. This means I tap my keyboard extensively with (perhaps) a smidgen more force than is strictly necessary (just a smidgen, mind you). Many smidgens later, the keyboards break… on average I get through two a year. It’s an expensive hobby this…
However, despite mistreating this essential element of communication between the ideas and fables tumbling around between my ears and the final electronic/written page you have in your hands, I do try to choose my kit as a professional golfer would choose his tees. (Tiger Woods steps out of his Merc at a gas station and a couple of plastic tees fall from his pocket. As he bends to pick them up, the attendant asks “What are those?” Tiger smiles, pockets the pegs and answers. “They’re called Tees. I rest my balls on them when I drive.” “Good God!” exclaims the attendant, “What will Mercedes think of next?”).
Sorry, had a mind wander for a moment. It comes with age…
The key element (no pun intended… or was it?) of a keyboard is the keystroke. When you are ‘in the zone’, as we writing types like to say, your mortal enemy is the typoglance. No, that wasn’t a typo. The typoglance is that furtive movement of the eyes from the finger-depressing keys to the screen that immediately focuses on half a dozen misspelt wiroods in the last paragraph. This momentous zone-breaker is only comparable with that other writing faux pas: typing with CAPS LOCK on for over fifteen minutes! (Go to Control Panel or equivalent and turn on Toggle Keys if you haven’t already done so). One way to avoid this terrible discovery is only to use a single finger and check the screen after each keystroke (‘War and Peace’ is still being written…). Another, slightly more sensible solution is to ensure you receive a solid, positive response when depressing a key. Technically this is known as biofeedback. It’s like Tiger hearing that sweet sharp click as he connects with his balls, or the shrill swish as the blade slices through flesh… (sorry, got taken by the moment.) Now you would be forgiven for thinking that keyboard designers hold this as a ‘MUST HAVE’ when engineering new input devices – you would be wrong! It’s only the top-of-the-range computers that take this into consideration, and then, not that often. In the trade-off between price and ergonomics, crappy membrane keyboards often win the day. And you have no concept of Hell until you’ve had to repair/replace a laptop keyboard. So stretch your budget a little and get a good mechanical keyboard – it will reduce the number of typos, allow you to type faster, reduce RSI (Repetitive Strain Injuries – look that up on WikiSpeaks) and will last much longer (as much as 50 million keystrokes – or a year, in my case. Sounds like a lot? The average 400-page novel is half a million key depressions, not counting rewrites etc). So even if you have just bought the latest Sunny Vapor laptop featuring a resounding keyboard click after each press, you might be better off investing in a separate, wireless mechanical keyboard for health reasons and to avoid the unbelievable expense of having to repair/replace the keyboard. Also beware bendy keyboards – if you’re fast, hitting a key centralised on the average laptop keyboard can cause such a depression of the surrounding area that following keystrokes don’t make effective contact, which results in even more typos. I’ve just read a professional review of a new (very expensive) carbon fibre laptop from a well-known manufacturer which suffers from just this ailment – not something to worry about for the odd email, but…
Simply put: BUY BIG. Or use your 60-inch TV as a substitute.
Many scribblers such as me use their screen’s acreage not just as a blank space to fill with tales of thrills and chills (and kisses and cuddles – See, romance writers, I’ve not forgotten you). Many have innumerable pages open containing research info, character details, plotting notes and myriad other gems the reader of the final product will never see. Yes I know there is some great software out there (like Scrivener™) that helps manage all this stuff effectively, yet the square inch of screen space is in high demand. Most laptop screens just don’t provide the real estate we need.
Screens should be placed with their upper edge level with your eyes too (your two eyes, that is… too). This helps eliminate neck pain. Try this now with your laptop. Gone on, I dare you! Even most desktop flat-screens don’t adjust sufficiently – I built a plinth for mine! So did Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder) when he came up with the idea in ancient Rome. “Laptopum lookum est!” quoth he.
Also, try to find the highest concentration of pixels you can comfortably work with on your device; your eyeballs will thank you (if they do, check to see just what was in that glass you just knocked back).
As we are getting more intimate now…
Postures, and how they matter
Sorry, Castle. Leaning back in a lounger, one foot on the edge of the desk, and your laptop balanced on your knee just doesn’t convince me. And you wonder why you can only write fifty words a day!
Most of our scribbling troubles (writer’s block, creative crumble, sloughing sales and review retch aside) stem from our posture. We sit too much! And badly at that! Once we have corrected the mechanical side (keyboard and screen), the rest of our aches and pains are down to our chair of choice.
Our derriere’s dumping ground is often given little thought. Remember, Castle can indulge in anatomical gymnastics (on a fictional TV show) as he (supposedly) knocks out bestseller after bestseller, but in the real world our heroes have recourse to Ibuprofen and Whisky (note the correct Scottish spelling please, Mr Connery).
So how should we sit as we clobber the keyboard? Feet first – the full length of these should be firmly floundering on the floor (or on a footrest if either the tabletop is taller than normal or we have a second job as an actor in Fantasy films and TV shows). The lower part of our upper legs (pause as reader’s mind works that one out) should be supported by the seat – if you can slip your fingers easily between the lower part of the upper legs and the upper part of the seat (why has the Marx Brothers just flipped into my mind?) then your seat is too low. Can’t adjust it? Throw it away and go buy a new one!
Look behind you!
That surface your back is resting upon; is it supporting your lumbar area and vertebral column in such a way that you are not mimicking a turtle? Just stretch upward a little… better? Then you need to throw out the new chair too if you can’t adjust the back. There is a cheaper solution though. There are some extremely good lumbar supports available that can turn your close relative of the Rack into a decent writer’s rear support.
The worst enemy of the writer is being ‘in the zone’. It’s that feeling that nothing exists in the World except the race to transfer the images and tales of the mind into a permanent record. The mental blocking out of the cries from the kids, the music in the background, the wife’s entreaties, the whimpering of the faithful foot-warmer, the…
only the word rules;
…fingers aren’t fast enough; the mind hurtles towards light speed harassed by the phantom of forgetfulness; the…
Well, you get the idea. Either you’ve been there, or you haven’t.
Every thirty minutes or so, get up. Scramble out of that ‘zone’, start breathing, and walk away from the WIP.
Rest is a weapon, my Sensei told me, and he is right.
How many breaks did I take while writing this?
Well, there was the Tea break (not at Five in the afternoon though), then the other Tea break (for most Brits, Tea is a plural noun), then the ‘let’s see if it’s stopped raining’ break, and the ‘relieve the faithful foot-warmer’s bladder’ break, and the ‘I forgot lunch break’, and the…
©2013 Eric J. Gates
Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers, cracking cryptographic codes under extreme pressure using only paper and pen and teaching Cyberwarfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall. He is an ex-International Management Consultant who has travelled extensively worldwide, speaks several languages, and has had articles and papers published in technical magazines in six different countries, as well as radio and TV spots. His specialty, Information Technology Security, has brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities on numerous occasions. He is also an expert martial artist, holding 14 black belt degrees in distinct disciplines. He has taught his skills to Police and Military personnel, as well as to the public. Eric is the author of several thriller novels and actively collaborates with other authors and Writer Networks.
Currently the first volume of his series ‘the CULL’ is on sale as a Halloween treat for all on Amazon Here Just 99 cents (or 99p in the UK) for 400 pages of thrilling suspense. You’ve never seen vampires like these! (Not for those expecting teen-romance, sorry. It’s been described as “James Patterson meets Dan Brown, while remaining entirely unique.” Leave the lights on! You’ve been warned!)