Friday, 17 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: How to make a document template for your writing

Love your laptop. Turn the lights low,
open some wine, put on some music...
This post series is the techie tricks to make your writing life so much easier, with all the nifty little things you can do on Word. You can read the first post here.

Once you've learnt how to set up the Styles for your writing, you realise you don't want to faddle about with that every time you start a new story. There must be an easier way. The whole history of computing boils down to "How can I make the computer do this for me?" And there is! Templates! You're going to open a new document, set up the styles and some other useful settings, and then save it as a template. Then every time you start typing up a new story, you create a new document from that template, and everything is already set up.

How to create a writing template

  1. Open a new document
  2. Set up your Normal and Normal_new styles - if you can't remember how, or haven't read the previous post, here's how. More practice!
  3. You could head Straight to Go, Collect £200 now, but how about a few other useful settings? Add some page numbers. On the Insert tab, click Page Number and then Bottom of Page, Center. (That's standard, you can put it wherever you want.)
  4. Good margins are always useful. Narrower text is easier to read plus agents and publishers want proper margins, none of this 2cm on each side malarkey. I recommend the original defaults: Top & Bottom margins of 2.54cm, Left and Right margins of 3.17cm. To set your margins, click the Menus tab,then the Page Setup button, and then select Margins from the dropdown list.

  5. If there's anything else you're always doing to your writing documents, now's the moment to do it! Once you're fully skilled up in my smartypants ways, you'll be adding field codes and macros and all sorts. But don't worry about those for now, you can always add them later.
  6. Save the document as a template: click the Office button, move down to Save As, and choose Word Template.
  7. The dialogue box will open for you to name and save your template. It should automatically save the template in the right place, with all the other templates. (We'll check in a moment that it has; if not, I'll tell you how to move it to the right place.) Give it a nice name and click "Save".
You've made your first template! Now you can go crazy and make templates for everything you do a lot - letters, poetry, recipes, whatever.

How to create a new document from your template

  1. Click on File, then choose New.
  2. In the options that appear, click on My templates. (In older versions of Word, the options will appear on the right hand side, and you need to click on On my computer... Also, for some versions, you might need to choose the option Personal templates.)
  3. A dialogue box will open of your templates - click on the one you want. In this case, Novel.
  4. A new document will open based on your template - so it has all the settings and the styles you created in your template. Result!
If it's all worked, you can scroll on down to tweaking your template's styles. If you can't find it, here's how to sort that out:

How do I find my template?

Your template should have automatically been saved in the right place. If it wasn't, then we need to find the right place and put it there. Every version of Windows / Mac, and apparently every version of Word, keeps the template in slightly different places, so the easiest way is just to search for it. These are instructions for PC users - any Mac users, feel free to shout instructions in the comments and I'll add them.

You're going to search for where templates live on your computer and open that folder, then search for your template and open that folder, then drag your template to the the proper template home.

  1. Open Windows Explorer.
  2. On the left, click on the C: drive (to search the whole computer)
  3. In the Search Box (top right, picture of a magnifying glass) type the name of the normal template and its extension: Normal.dotx (or for old versions of Word, and press Enter. Wait while it peruses all your files. This may take some time, so maybe make a cup of tea while you wait. (Normal is the standard Blank document template, so we know that'll be in the right place.)
  4. Once it's found it, click on it, right-click, and select Open file location. That'll open a new Windows Explorer window in the folder where it's stored. You should be able to see on the left and along the top where it's stored. Mine is in C:/Users/Megan Kerr/AppData/Roaming/Microsoft/Templates.
  5. Open a new Windows Explorer window, and search for your template - eg Novel.dotx. Again, once it's found it, click on it, right-click, and select Open file location.
  6. If your two windows are full-screen, click on the Restore-down button in the top right, next to the close button. Restore-down is the middle button:
  7. You should be able to see both your windows now. Drag your template from wherever it's hiding into the same window as the Normal template.
Your template's in the right place now, so you can scroll back up to create a new document from your template.

How to change styles and add new styles in your template

We already set up the styles in your template, but as time passes, your tastes might change - you want more line spacing, or a different heading font - or you might develop new styles you want in all your writing. Then you find you're modifying your styles every time you use your template... Noooo! That's what we wanted to leave behind! But we CAN leave it behind. There's another little trick, which consists simply of a tick:
  1. Add a new style or modify your style as usual. If you can't remember how, here's how.
  2. In the Modify Style window, once you've made your changes, look at the bottom left. You'll see a tick box for Add to template. Tick it.
  3. Click OK.
  4. When you save your document, it will ask you if you want to save the changes to the template as well:
    Click Yes.
You're done! It's so easy! This is just for styles, though - if you want to make changes to margins or anything else, you need to open your template.

How to change your template

First you need to find your template in Windows Explorer, so if you don't know how, scroll back up to How do I find my template? I've added my template folder to my libraries, so I can find them easily. (Once you've found it, right-click on the Template folder and choose Include in library.) Then...
  1. In Windows Explorer, right-click on your template.
  2. The right-click options will open up:
  3. Choose Open not New. New is in bold: that means it's the default option, so if you double-click on the file, it will create a New document based on that template. By right-clicking, you've brought up the Open option.
  4. The template itself will open. You can then make any changes you want to. When you're done, just click Save and close it.
Done! You're a template guru!

Read More »

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: Set up your styles to lay out your writing properly

Love your laptop and customise it!
This post series is the techie tricks to make your writing life so much easier, with all the nifty little things you can do on Word. You can read the first post here.

Once you've put proper headings in your document, you're already using the Styles and Formatting - and it has a ton of brilliant uses besides the headings and the document map. You can customise it so your headings look exactly how you want, and you can also set it so it does proper layout for you, without you having to press tab all the time. If you're not sure what story layout should look like, compare these two documents:

If your story or book looks like the one on the right, hurrah! You're using sections and paragraphs like a pro! If it looks like the one on the left, every paragraph flush with the margin and white space above it, you need to shoot off and read this post on layout, and spend some quality time flipping through the books on your shelves, saying "Ohhhh..."

Proper layout does all sorts of useful story-things, but all those indents mean a lot of enter-tab, enter-tab, when you'd rather be concentrating on the writing. So you set up your styles to do it for you! And you do that by customising your styles.

We'll start with customising your headings, to cover the basics, and then go through setting up proper layout. As before, if you feel nervous, use another document to play around.

The golden rule of Styles and Formatting

This is the golden rule of Styles and Formatting: except for italics within the writing, never make formatting changes to the text itself: change the Style instead. It's so important I'll put a box around it:
Change the Style not the text formatting.
Want a pretty font for your headings? Don't select the heading and change the font - change the heading style! Want your writing in Times New Roman instead of Cambria? Don't select the text and change the font - change the Normal style! Want indents and a special font for the text messages your characters send each other? Don't just change the formatting for that bit - create a new style!

Why? For a short story, doing formatting by hand doesn't cause you problems - it's only a few pages. And for the first 10,000 words of your novel, you won't notice any issues either, probably. By the time you finish your novel, though, it's probably at least 80,000 words. And then you've written it in Calibri point 11, because that's what you like, but the agent says "Times New Roman or Cambria only not Calibri, point 12" because they hate Calibri and want good-sized text. And then you have to change everything. But you can't just select everything and say "Times New Roman, point 12" because you also have those text messages, remember? And the headings. And that innovative stuff you did in the middle, to mimic Google search results. And then you're trawling through your whole document trying to fix it and change it, and it's not just a few pages, it's over 200. But if you're using Styles instead, you make a few quick clicks and - voilà!

How to customise your headings

The in-built headings are often ugly, a bit corporate, or just look too much like the documents you see at work. Make them your own!
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the style you want to change and choose Modify.
  2. A box will spring up in the middle
  3. Click Format to change the settings.
  4. Choose Font to change the heading's font, colour, size, whether it's underlined, small caps, all caps, etc:
    Then click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  5. Choose Paragraph to change the alignment, and the space above and below it. Don't use extra Enters to create space - use the Styles:
  6. On the second tab of the Paragraph box, you can tell it to start a new page automatically. If you want each chapter on a new page. Click Page break before.
    Then click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  7. Click OK in the Modify Style box.
Done! You can play around with your heading settings to your heart's content, use colour, have a font that matches your novel, anything you like. (And then before you submit it to a publisher, you can change it back to a sensible font by changing the style again.)

If you fancy losing yourself down a font rabbit hole, have a look at Dafont's collection. Most of them are free for personal use and you can just download them. Once they're downloaded, open the zip file, drag them onto your desktop, then drag them into C:/Windows/Fonts to install them. Hours of fabulous WAB! (Writing-Avoidance Behaviour.) Be careful with sites you don't know, though - I've had viruses bundled into font downloads before. Dafont is safe.

How to create your story layout styles

You're going to do the exact same thing, but with a few extra settings, for your story layout styles. You need two styles: Normal will be your paragraph style, indented, with no white space above. Normal_new will be for the start of a new section, not indented, with white space above.

Just like you did for the heading, modify the Normal style:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose Modify.
  2. A box will spring up in the middle
  3. Click Paragraph and change the Indentation to First Line - 0.63cm.
  4. I also change the Line spacing to Multiple - 1.15. I find that's easier on the eye than single-line spacing, but you still get a good amount of text on the screen.
  5. Click OK to get back to the Modify Style box.
  6. You can also change the font settings if you want, and when you're done, click OK all the way out.
NOTE: This might make all your headings indent as well! That's because all your styles are based on the Normal style. That's fine - just go into any headings you're using, modify their style, and set their indent to None. Yay! More practice!

Now you're going to create the Normal_new style, for new sections:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose New Style.
  2. The box will spring up in the middle:
  3. In the Name box, type Normal_new. (You can call it whatever you like.)
  4. Underneath the sample text, you'll see it says "Normal +". That means it's based on the Normal font, so has all those settings, plus whatever you're going to choose now.
  5. In Style for following paragraph, click the down arrow and choose Normal.
    This is genius. It means when you start a new section, and then press Enter, the next paragraph will automatically be the right style - a nice indented paragraph!
  6. Click on Format then Paragraph to open the paragraph settings. Change the Indentation to None and the Space Before to 12 pt:
  7. Click OK to confirm.
  8. In the Modify Styles box, look below the Preview section and you can see that your new style's settings are Normal + First line: 0cm; Space before 12pt. That means any other changes you make to Normal, except those two extra things, will also apply to this Style. So if you change Normal's font, this one's font will change too. Brilliant! That's because the style is based on Normal (as it says in the box).
  9. Click OK.
You now have your two headings set up! Whenever you start a new section, you click the style Normal_new, and it automatically adds the white space above it and goes flush with the margin. When you press enter at the end of that paragraph, the next paragraph will automatically be Normal, so it will be indented with no white space.

That's the essentials! If this has been a steep learning curve, I suggest you go away and play with this a bunch, then come back later once you feel it's properly under your belt. If you fancy delving a little more, read on...

Go wild with your styles!

Any time you need particular formatting, you can add a style to do that for you. You don't need to make a style for italics in the text, like this, but for most other stuff it's useful. For example, in my novel, I have two separate story strands with two separate fonts, so things set in the other world have the styles Otherworld and Otherworld_new. I also have styles for text messages, which are heavily indented, use a smaller point size, and use MS Sans Serif font. I have fonts for newspaper headings, because the novel has a bunch of those. You own your computer, you tell it what to do, you create your wonderful repertoire of styles however you want.

How to create character styles

Most styles you create will be Paragraph styles - ie they apply to the whole paragraph. Sometimes, though, you have a bit of text inside a paragraph that needs a special setting - so you want to change just those particular letters. ("Characters" means letters, here, not your imaginary people.) In Rope of Words, I had the "titles" the woman thought her story would have plus the words that had a physical existence in the story:

If I created a paragraph style, it would change the whole paragraph, not just those words. So you create a character style:
  1. On the Home tab, right-click the Normal style and choose New Style.
  2. The box will spring up in the middle.
  3. In the Style Type box, click the down arrow and select Character:
  4. Now, if you click Format, you only get options that apply to the characters, not the paragraph:
  5. Make any font settings you want. I made my "physical" words Book Antiqua, 12 pt, bold, with a shadow. Click OK all the way out.

Of course when you start your next book, you'll want some of the same styles, at least the Normal and Normal_new already set up. And if you're writing lots of short stories, then you'll be wanting new documents with those set up all the time. So we should probably look at templates, next! In the meantime, have a play with this, have fun, make things silly colours and crazy fonts, OWN the machine! Love your laptop!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Microsoft Word for Writers: How to manage your whole novel in one document

Love your laptop.
You absolutely don't need a specialist programme to write a novel. Word can do everything you need, it's almost infinitely customisable, you probably already have it, and at the end your document is in the format publishers and agents want it. They always want a .doc or .docx. Plus Word has a host of nifty little features and tricks perfectly suited to writing. Often, these aren't remotely complicated - you just need to know they exist and why they're useful for writers. So the next rash of posts will be some computery how-to on all the nifty things you can do, to make life and writing easier, so you love your laptop to bits instaed of fighting with the machine, and we're starting with the most absolutely crucial and basic thing:

Keep your novel in one single document

Every time I see a thesis or a novel in multiple documents, one for each chapter, I want to weep - not for me, but for the poor soul who's trying to work like that. There is zero reason to have separate documents for each chapter: text files are incredibly light. To put it into perspective: a single photo from your mobile is about 1000kb. (1 MB) An 80,000-word novel is about 750kb. Your entire novel uses less computer memory than one picture of your coffee. So trust me: put it all in one document. Your computer can cope.

The other reason people keep their novel chapters in separate docs is that they don't know about the document map / navigation pane. This lets you jump around your novel from chapter to chapter incredibly easily, plus you have a nifty overview of your chapter titles. If you've never used this, prepare... to be... amazed! More on how to use that below.

And here's why you should be keeping your novel in one document:
  • you can scroll / jump back up easily, to check minor details - eg a cameo character's name
  • you can change the font / formatting of the whole thing
  • you can do find-and-replace to the whole thing at once - if, for example, you change a character's name from Kristoff to Xavier, you don't need to open 20 documents to do it
  • you can spell-check the whole thing at once
  • you can manage different versions of the document much more easily
  • you can back it up to multiple places much more easily - it's just one file
  • you can print it out with proper page numbering and headers running through the whole thing
  • you can send it to the agent as a single file (and not look like a massive amateur by sending a file for each chapter!)
  • you can check for repetitions of particular words across the whole novel

To manage your novel in one doc easily, you need to know three things:
  1. How to Insert > File (if you already have a bunch of separate documents)
  2. How to use Styles & Formatting (to get your headings set up)
  3. How to use the Document Map / Navigation Pane (so you can jump around the doc easily)
If you're nervy with computers, I suggest you play around with some other documents to start with, so you don't feel like you're learning something new and handling your precious beloved novel at the same time. The more playful and game-like you can make the learning bit, the better!

1. How to Insert > File (if you already have a bunch of separate documents)

You could open each document in turn, then copy-and-paste it into a new document, but there's an easier way.
  1. Open a new document
  2. Click on the Insert tab
  3. In the Text group, click the arrow next to Object.
  4. Click Text from file.
  5. In the dialogue box that opens, navigate to the first chapter, and double-click that. It will be inserted into your document.
  6. Press Enter to start a new line (in case your doc didn't) and repeat from #2 with all the chapters, in order.
Ta-da! Your whole novel's in one document! I suggest you save it as Your Novel's Name v1. (v1 = version 1, useful thing to add for managing versions.) Next, we want to get your headings set up properly so you can use the Document Map / Navigation Pane to jump around easily.

2. How to use Styles & Formatting (to get your headings set up)

Styles and formatting are one of Word's superpowers and have a fabulous range of uses for writing - plus you can customise the styles however you want. Right now, though, we're just going to stick to headings and we'll use the default settings. The next blog post will look at how to customise them to your taste.

All text is “Normal” by default – that’s body text.
  1. Click within the paragraph or line you want to change, then choose the style from the Home tab. In this case, click on your chapter title and then click Heading 2. (If you want to save Heading 1 for the novel title.) You don't have to select the title: just put your cursor on that line, blinking away.

    You can repeat that for each chapter title. You can also copy the format instead:
  2. To copy a format from one paragraph to another, put your cursor in the paragraph whose formatting you want, and click the Format Painter button: 
    The next paragraph / line you click will get the same formatting.
    To paste the formatting in more than once place, double-click the Format Painter button. When you're finished, click it again to "put it down".
All your chapter headings are now set as Heading 2 - so now we can do the magic bit!

3. How to use the Document Map / Navigation Pane (so you can jump around the doc easily)

Once you have headings and sub-headings, you can use the navigation pane, also called the document map in some versions.
  1. Go to View and tick Navigation pane.  (Some versions might call it Document map.) The navigation pane appears on the left-hand side, showing all your document's headings. Now you have an overview of your whole novel, with all your chapter titles! Here's the navigation pane for my original document on how to do this:

  2. Click on any heading to jump to that place in the document. You can now leap from chapter to chapter in your novel at just a click, hurrah!
Some added handy features...
  • You can use headings lower down the hierarchy - Heading 3, Heading 4, Heading 5, etc - to mark key sections in your novel, especially ones you want to jump back to often. This is especially useful for pivotal scenes you want to refer back to a lot. Before you submit the novel, you can easily take out those extra headings. 
  • Each level of heading appears nested below its parent - in the example above, "Styles and formatting" is Heading 1, and the ones beneath it are Heading 2, indented. You can click the little arrow to show or hide those subheadings.
  • Whichever section you're in shows as selected in the navigation pane - usually as that warm yellow highlight. That's incredibly handy for some of the more avant-garde stuff we'll cover, like jumping through a document checking for repetitions.

Once you've got these basics of styles and formatting, you can start bending them to your will - changing the Heading font to something splendid and spiffy that suits your novel's theme, getting the paragraph settings all nicely done for how a novel should be laid out, and so forth, all of which we'll cover in the next post.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Write Around Your Cycle

Having a pronounced hormonal cycle isn’t often seen as an advantage – especially in a society that generally only recognises the PMT stage. Actually, a menstrual cycle which affects your moods a lot can be a massive boon. You can predict weeks in advance – even months, if you’re regular – how you’ll be feeling on a given day, regardless of the weather, work, and what else is happening. What’s more, you can harness those moods.

Any time you have a long-term project and you’re in control of your own work flow, you can map it around your cycle, so you’re doing the work that best suits your mood at each stage, never working against the grain. Suddenly, everything turns to magic: you’re brainstorming when you’re bursting with ideas, writing when the words flow, redrafting when you’re most objective, powering through admin and detail-checking when you’re most efficient. This isn’t just for writing; it works for any big project with a variety of stages. I started doing this in my Honours degree, for my dissertation and long essays, continued in my Masters, and now use it for both my writing and my daily life. If you’ve ever tried to write a cheerful scene when you have PMT and found all the characters just argued, you already know that your cycle affects your writing. Here’s how to turn to that to your advantage.

First off, we’ll go through a few details about your cycle’s timing, because the standard model isn’t one-size-fits-all. Next we’ll look at the broad-strokes picture of what’s happening with hormones and moods, and how we can refine that into eight stages, each with a core mood and superpower, both in general and for writing specifically. We’ll then look at each of those stages in more detail – what it’s like, its superpower and its other strengths for writing, and what’s happening hormonally.

Your cycle’s timing

First, you need a few basics about your cycle, including some info on common misconceptions. The average cycle is 28 days, but that’s only an average. Anything between 22 and 36 is “normal” and it can be less or more if you’re irregular. Day-counting begins with the start of your period as Day 0. Most people think ovulation is “Day 14”, but it isn’t necessarily. The one absolute constant in your cycle is the luteal stage: the time from ovulating to starting your period. This ranges from 11-14 days, so even if you have a 28-day cycle, you could be ovulating on Day 14, 15, 16, or 17. Your own luteal stage is absolutely constant, even if your cycle is irregular: if it’s 11 days, it’s always 11 days. When our cycles extend, we talk about stress “delaying our periods” – nope. Not possible. Once you’ve ovulated your period will come bang on time with your luteal stage (unless you’re pregnant). Stress delays ovulation – which is pretty thoughtful of our bodies, if you think about it. “Wow, things seem pretty crazy around here. Shall we get pregnant? Nah – let’s hold off on that.” PMT typically starts 2–5 days before your period, gradually intensifying, but again this varies: some can get it straight after ovulation, other lucky sods don’t get it at all. (They usually don’t have a pronounced cycle anyway, though.) It usually lifts when your period starts, but for some (including me) it can extend a day or two into your period.

Get to know your own cycle’s timings. If you’re using a cycle tracker app, make sure it lets you tell it your luteal stage. (I use My Calendar, which also lets you punch a kitten when your period starts.) If you don’t know your luteal stage, you can measure it exactly by taking your temperature each morning before you get out of bed: as soon as you ovulate, your temperature spikes or climbs rapidly. (Be aware that other things can also make your temperature jump: a fever, drinking the night before, being awake up to three hours before, getting up to go to the loo.) Toni Wechsler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility explains it all brilliantly. It’s great to know your luteal stage exactly, but not essential, unless you’re using the chart to get / not get pregnant. If you don’t know, you can chart your temperature at some point to find out, but you can also go by your moods, for now. As you get a feel for your own cycle’s timing, you can start harnessing it.

The eight stages of your cycle

Broadly speaking, after your period, you move through increasing optimism and “right-brain” creativity (that’s the yellow) until you hit Peak Awesome, and then turn increasingly focused and “left-brain” analytical (that’s purple) until you hit Peak PMT, then you have your period and start again. (Right-brain / left-brain is actually a myth, but I’m using it here for handy cultural shorthand.) This could be equally broadly described as oestrogen rising to a peak, then ovulation, then progesterone taking over until your period.

That’s a slightly simplistic description, though. Actually, the oestrogen has another much smaller peak in the luteal phase (between ovulating and your period). Those aren’t the only two hormones, either: you also have Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicular stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinising hormone. After your period, the GnRH tells your pituitary gland to release the FSH, which tells your ovaries to start developing follicles; the luteinising hormone gives that fabulous high just before you ovulate. With all this, there’s more to your cycle’s moods than just “normal – PMT – period” or even “normal – ovulation – normal – PMT – period”. When we put together the various effects of all those rising and falling hormones, we can actually divide the cycle into eight different stages of core moods: calm, happy, joyful, yay, focused, sharp, dark, retreat.

(Note: The length shown here for each one is a guide only. I’m basing this on a 28-day cycle with an 11-day luteal stage, 5-day PMT, and 4-day period – your own numbers will likely be different, so adjust for your own cycle accordingly. Also, most of the stages shift into each other, rather than having neat start-times and cut-offs, as shown by the colour blending.)

Looking at those core moods, you can immediately start seeing how you can harness each stage for the different activities of your work and throughout your life. Here are the general skills for each stage: organise, create, invent, fun, assess & adjust, fix, admin, rest.

You can use these for anything in your life. At university, I used it for my long essays: organise – plan my schedule, check deadlines, gather research materials; create – initial research, entering the ideas, learning new things; invent – make the big connections and leaps, rough out the first draft; fun – take a day off to party; assess & adjust – revise the first draft and rework it into solid second draft; fix – make smaller corrections and edit; admin – sort out references and proofread; rest – hand in the essay and curl up with a book and a hot water bottle. I use the same cycle in my daily life. I plan my month and meals in the organise stage. I do most of my cooking in the create and invent stages, freezing batches for later. Housework happens throughout, but I’m more likely to decorate in the first half and deep-clean in the second half. I socialise more in the first half – partly because that’s when I’m more in the mood; partly because my endometriosis pain is less then, so it’s easier to go out. I always want to go out on the fun day! I do my finances, tax, and decluttering in the fix and admin stages: my tax form’s always completed months in advance, because I can rely on a good bout of PMT to sort it out.

The same cycle of activity maps beautifully onto writing. While you can usually manage to do most things at most times, each stage has its superpowers, so why not use them? Here are the core superpowers for writing: : submissions, writing drafts, brainstorming, fun, redrafting, proofing, typing up, resting.

The eight stages in detail

Each stage has its core mood, its superpower, and a batch of skills. For the graphic, I’ve selected a particular thing as each stage’s writing “superpower” – that’s the activity I tend to save for that stage – but each also has a batch of other activities that suit it beautifully. For each stage, we’ll look at what it feels like, its writing superpowers, other writing activities it’s good for, and what’s happening hormonally. Although medics count from the start of your period, it makes more sense for us to start when the period’s over – that’s when we have the sense of a new month beginning. Remember, the number of days given here is a very general guide only. As I said, this is based on a 28-day cycle with an 11-day luteal stage, 5-day PMT, and 4-day period – your own numbers will likely be different, so adjust for your own cycle accordingly.

Stage 1: Calm (± 3 days)

Your period has just finished. This is a “white” state of calm orderliness. All is sane. No hormones are tugging you anywhere – hormones aren’t even a Thing. It feels almost prepubescent. It’s a lovely stage for rebalancing life: creating a tidy desk, drawing up meal plans, having an orderly schedule, and mapping the month ahead with measured, realistic plans. For writing, it’s an O-negative state: you can use it for pretty much anything you want, although if you need to brainstorm brand new ideas or write an exciting pitch, you might want to wait till the joyful stage. It’s also practical, factual, and objective, given to neither highs nor lows, and very capable.


  • writing covering letters and synopses
  • sending out submissions

Also good for

  • rereading a draft to identify what’s working, what needs cutting, what needs reworking
  • any other writing activities (except possibly brainstorming new ideas and writing exciting pitches)

What’s happening hormonally

Around PMT and during your period, both your oestrogen and progesterone levels plummeted. Now, things are balancing out. Your oestrogen levels are rising again, but only very slowly right now. The GnRH is giving the FSH its orders, but the oestrogen is inhibiting that a bit, because your womb isn’t ready yet. Meanwhile, the oestrogen is also starting to develop your womb lining (the endometrium). Nothing is at high levels, though, hence the sense of prepubescent calm.

Stage 2: Happy (± 5 days)

You’re starting to move towards fertility and ovulation, getting increasingly happy and optimistic. You’re getting more creative and more “right-brain”, less judgemental of emerging ideas and emerging work. You’re not yet in the full-blown optimism of fertility, though, so you’re well balanced between judgement and creativity, and generally cheerful.


  • writing first or second draft
  • reworking passages you identified in the calm or focused stages
  • generative research – the kind of information that will affect the story’s shape

Also good for

  • mapping plot trajectories
  • opening up new seams in a story

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen levels are continuing to rise gradually, bringing that steadily increasing sense of optimism.

Stage 3: Joyful (± 5 days)

By now you’re fully fertile, horny, and pretty damn rocking! If you’re not sure when you move from the previous stage to fertility, you can check your fertility by slipping a finger inside yourself to see what the fluids look like. The white opaque stuff, a bit like hand cream, is early fertile fluid. The slippery transparent stuff, a bit like eggwhite, is super-fertile fluid. As your fertility increases, so does your optimism and creativity. This is a brilliant time for BIG BOLD IDEAS. Whenever I need to launch into something completely new, this is the time I mark for it.


  • brainstorming new ideas
  • coming up with large-scale plot trajectories and major insights / connections
  • starting new stories or new seams within a story
  • writing uncritical first draft
  • writing exciting / challenging scenes fearlessly

Also good for

  • continuing with a first or second draft
  • reworking passages you identified in the calm or focused stages, especially longer or more challenging ones
  • writing sex scenes

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen levels are rising sharply to their peak. This peak of oestrogen will shortly release a wave of FSH (the follicle stimulating ones) and of luteinising hormone, which both make sure you ovulate, and will result in…

Stage 4: YAY! (± 1 day)

PURE GOLD! You’re a goddess! (Or a god.) Hedonism time. Life is amazing, everything’s brilliant, and you’re gorgeous! This is usually the day or two before your egg releases, when you’re just made of sumptuousness and sensuality, and you’re walking on air. You could have a marvellous writing day, but you probably don’t want to be in a room on your own all day – why waste all that fabulousness?! – so dress up! Go write in a park! Be fabulous! Or just run around drinking champagne and being amazing. The world is your damn oyster. Don’t bother editing or doing anything serious, you’re far too much fun for that.


  • drinking champagne (strictly speaking not a writing activity, but c’mon. It’s one day.)

Also good for

  • writing sex scenes
  • writing uncritical first draft (bearing in mind it will likely turn into sex scenes)

What’s happening hormonally

You’re surfing a massive wave of luteinising hormone, and the FSH is also spiking, which together make sure the egg’s released. Oestrogen is at its absolute peak (although about to drop).

Stage 5: Focused (± 5 days)

You’re getting calmer now, more focused, and more “left brain”. Your egg releases and the golden tide of fertility-vibe reduces, but you’re not yet approaching PMT. This stage is about as evenly balanced as the calm stage, but it doesn’t feel prepubescent. Your judgement of your existing work is in a superb Goldilocks spot between optimism and pessimism.


  • rereading a draft to identify what’s working, what needs cutting, what needs reworking
  • editing thoughtfully for better flow and for overall arc – anything that’s got too excitable or too dark in other stages can be trimmed and adjusted here

Also good for

  • continuing to write an existing story or seam within a story
  • research of the generative kind – the stuff that affects your story’s shape, rather than just minor details to get right, especially material that needs more focus and less distractibility

What’s happening hormonally

As soon as you ovulated, your oestrogen levels dropped sharply, and then plateaued. Your progesterone levels are starting to rise, but aren’t yet too high. (The luteinising hormone told your empty egg sac to start producing progesterone, after the egg’s release. The progesterone, in turn, tells the FSH to back down, so the ovaries won’t be maturing any more follicles until the next round.) The progesterone is rising slowly, though, and so far is about the same level as the plateaued oestrogen, so they’re fairly even balanced, hence the overall calm. As the progesterone continues to rise, the oestrogen also rises a little, so the two stay fairly balanced for now.

Stage 6: Sharp (± 2 days)

You’re increasingly left-brain now, sharp, analytical, and tending towards critical. All this, combined with increasing impatience, can make you superbly efficient and damn precise – mistakes irritate you, so you fix them; wasting time is annoying, so you work swiftly. You’re tilting towards PMT – the last day of this stage is actually the first day of PMT, for me, but it’s not the miserable kind yet, I just hit Peak Rightness: I am very very Right, about Everything, and everyone else, especially on the internet, is Wrong. I don’t count that with the Full PMT stage, because that hard confidence and authority is very useful and fits better with the other activities in this stage.


  • powering through writing-related admin

Also good for

  • research – moving more towards fact-checking now than generative research; it won’t necessarily affect the story shape if the protagonist gets 10cc or 20cc of x medicine, but it matters to get the details right
  • spotting and fixing inconsistencies
  • editing down heavily and cutting out chunks (though keep a weather eye on this, as explained below)
  • sorting and decluttering your writing papers (likewise, with a weather eye)

This is also a great stage for decluttering generally, but keep a weather eye on yourself. You might, in restless impatience, throw out things you really should be keeping, so if you’re unsure, put it in a Holding Pile to revisit another time – especially regarding handwritten novel notes. Similarly, in brisk ruthlessness, you may delete chunks that should actually stay in the story, so a) make sure you save a new version before editing, as always; and b) watch out for anger/impatience levels while you’re editing. If you move from ruthless efficiency to restless impatience, stop editing. You also need to watch for when you switch into the next stage. One moment you’re thinking, “This bloody vase?! We never use it! OUT, OUT, damned vase!" and a minute later you’re weeping over it: “I remember when we bought this... Oh god, we lived in that house with the cherry tree, and we went to the charity shop together... The air was golden with the dust of leaves... I had so much hope, then!" If that happens, you've passed into the next stage.

What’s happening hormonally

The Age of Oestrogen Is Over. The Age of Progesterone Has Begun. Your oestrogen is actually still rising slightly, but the progesterone is rising faster and rapidly taking over. The progesterone is responsible for the increasing irritability and is also developing your womb lining (the endometrial tissue), so a fertilised egg can settle in.

Stage 7: Dark (± 4 days)

PMT hits in full now. The range of feelings vary, but generally include a pick-and-mix of the following: irritability, anger, misery, low self-esteem, weepiness, pessimism, hypercriticism. Other fun side effects include bloating, water retention, and assorted toilet troubles. Don't edit, you'll just delete everything. Don't declutter. Look after yourself. You may want to take these days off, especially if your PMT is short-lived. That said, you can work very usefully during this time, provided it’s purely objective work, with zero subjectivity required, and that’s often a relief: somewhere practical to put your mind and a sense of usefulness can really help with PMT.

Eat chocolate, especially if you keep working. For years I didn't eat chocolate during PMT, because the book I was given on How To Be An Adolescent said a) don't make an awful bloody fussy about it, get over yourself already you silly little girl; and b) don't get into the habit of eating chocolate, you'll get fat and yuck, FATNESS, YUCK. It took me until I was 26 to stop listening to that best-forgotten book. During my Masters, on a rainy day in Oxford, pouring and dark and deep in November, when I was minorly suicidal and two inches tall, I bought and ate the chocolate. Almost immediately, I returned to normal size and normal life-desire, albeit still wet. I want chocolate precisely once a month and if my PMT isn't too bad, not even that. This is not, on reflection, an unhealthy relationship with chocolate. Eat the chocolate.

For all this stage is mostly bleak, it often includes one lovely lee in the storm: FEAST DAY! This is the day on which all you want to do is push food into your mouth, from eyes-open to eyes-closed. As with the chocolate, I used to resist the call of Feast Day. Now I celebrate it. If I celebrate this sudden unbounded appetite, especially for uncharacteristic things like random street food and vendor vans, but even more especially for the holy hash brown (the sacred food of Feast Day), then it's actually a delightful day. If we're on the Cowley Road, I go into every shop and buy a cross-cultural assortment. Sometimes I go to M&S and stock up on party / picnic nibbles, and then eat all of them by turns and wantonly. People say, "Oh, oh, it's the progesterone blocking your reward pathway, that's the only reason you don't feel full" – funny how people only want to admit progesterone side-effects when they're trying to control our behaviour back into culturally prescribed norms. Who cares? It's one day a month, if that. Eat. FEAST. It is the Feast Day. (Feast Day is now a recognised Thing in my household and many of my friends have adopted it.)


  • typing up work you’ve already written or typing up edits you’ve made by hand (make it cosy and comforting for yourself with blankets, non-weepy music, coffee / hot chocolate, etc)

Also good for

  • spell-checking
  • formatting the document properly
  • proofreading (not editing – just proofreading for punctuation and for misspelt words that a spell-checker misses)

What’s happening hormonally

Your progesterone peaks, with all its side-effects of mood-swings and misery, and then, presuming you aren’t pregnant, both your oestrogen and progesterone levels drop like a stone.

Stage 8/0: Retreat (± 3 days)

Your period starts and PMT eases, but the first day or two of your period can also include PMT, so take it easy: make no demands on yourself. You may still have PMT and now you’re menstruating and possibly cramping as well. Curl up with a book, film, or TV series and a hot water bottle. Eat more chocolate. Have a little weep. As your period continues, the PMT eases and you start to feel a bit happier again – but often still quite sore, so keep taking it easy. Take a day or two to recover; having PMT and then cramps on top of that is a hectic demand on your system, and you don’t have to leap back into the fray the instant you feel marginally less than awful. Enjoy some recovery; life isn’t a sprint. Everyone takes time off and the rest of the month is now fabulously productive, so it’s fine to take the time off when you need to. I get exceptionally bad cramps (because of endometriosis) so I usually retreat to the sofa and if I can work at all, I do purely objective work, as for PMT. The second and third days are usually the worst, for me; by the fourth day, I’m back up and about, and moving (mentally at least) back into Stage 1.


  • Blanket Forts

Also good for

  • typing up work you’ve already written or typing up edits you’ve made by hand (unless you’re too sore to sit at a desk – typing up while you’re on the sofa will give you a crick in the neck)
  • spell-checking
  • formatting the document properly
  • proofreading (not editing – just proofreading for punctuation and for misspelt words that a spell-checker misses)
  • any other completely “left-brain” writing work in your skillset – for me, Photoshopping graphics or working on my website’s CSS

What’s happening hormonally

Your oestrogen and progesterone levels have bottomed out. The other three hormones aren’t really in play yet. Your womb is shedding its lining (its endometrium), as it’s not needed this round for an egg to implant. As things start to lift, your various hormones creep back into play, and the cycle swings back round.

The full writing cycle

(click to enlarge)

Putting it into practice

That’s the theory – so how does this work in practice? I’ve been working and writing like this for 17 years (220 cycles, give or take) so I’m pretty au fait with the stages, by now. At first, in university, I drew out my cycle on the calendar and mapped out a precise plan of when to research, when to draft essay plans and structure, when to write up, when to edit, and when to proofread and file things. These days, I play it more loosely, because I’m used to rolling with this flow.

Not every month is equally pronounced: some months, I’ll continue writing first-draft or keep editing throughout and only notice the extremes – when my first draft turns to arguments during the dark stage, when I struggle to focus on meticulous editing during the joyful stage, when I’m struggling to start a new section during the dark stage and it feels like writer’s block. When that happens, I know why and I can change activities accordingly. Some months are very pronounced, and I shift around the activities like clockwork. When I plan my month in the calm stage, I check my cycle tracker and avoid scheduling writing days for the dark Peak PMT time, unless I have lots of typing up or proofreading to do. Depending on what my writing needs, I shift the bulk of my writing time to the first or second half of the month. (I always have some every week, though: it’s my sanity.) If I need to brainstorm for a Call For Submissions or a new seam of the story, I mark the golden joyful time for that, and in the meantime I can edit, research, continue writing something else, any of the dozens of other options as appropriate. If my writing day falls on an early-period day, I swap it around with a weekend day, so I can just rest and whimper when I need to. I’m often irregular, so I also play it by ear. If the part I’m currently writing isn’t “on schedule” for the next stage, I switch between parts of the novel: leap ahead to brainstorming or generative research, or edit / fact-check earlier parts. It all needs to happen; it all does happen.

It may seem disconcerting at first to consider writing like this – even inefficient. Surely a “serious” writer should just write all the time, every day? But for pity’s sake, think about who that advice comes from. Hemingway’s “write every morning”. Roald Dahl’s daily sessions with sharpened pencils. Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day, regardless. Stephen King’s ten pages a day. Khaled Housseni’s “You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.” Not one of them had or has a hormonal cycle. You wouldn’t follow their example on not using tampons, as if you didn’t have a cycle, so why follow their example on scheduling, as if you didn’t have a cycle? You do. They don’t. And none of them had or has the advantage of knowing exactly when they’d feel most creative and generative, or when would be best to edit dispassionately, or when it wouldn’t be a good writing day so best just to type up what’s already written. All of these things are part of writing; all of them need to happen. It’s not inefficient to shift your writing activities according to your cycle: doing each thing when you’re best suited to it is the most efficient way possible to work – and thanks to your cycle, you get to do that. Use your superpowers. Write around your cycle.

Incidentally, I wrote the rough draft of this post during the joyful stage, some time ago. I returned to it and pulled it together in the focused stage, then used the sharp stage to fact-check it and run it past people. During PMT I proofread it and added a few cross observations. When my period started, I was too sore to move around, so I spent much of the evenings and weekend building the graphics. I tried to add a bit more, but couldn’t get the words to flow, so just threw down some markers. I returned to it in the calm stage to give it a final once-over, add those extra bits, temper some of the cross bits, and evaluate it as a whole.


My very grateful thanks to Elizabeth Walker Harby, who explained in close detail exactly what was happening hormonally at each stage and how that related to the core moods I’d identified. I’m also forever grateful to Dr Fernando O Martinez Estrada, University of Oxford, for checking over my explanations and double-checking my facts, and then cleaning my house and mopping all the floors because I was too sore to! I have good taste in friends. Any remaining errors or inaccuracies are mine alone.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Tips for a perfect Summer of Writing

The Summer of Writing workshops have launched! Summer is a busy, social time, so in one sense an odd time for workshops - but it's also a creative time. We forget, sometimes, that we're animals. That like any animal, our energy levels rise with the warm weather, alongside our adventurousness, our sense of fun, our enthusiasm, our interest - which is all, in a sense, our creativity. The long winter months often get the credit for creative endeavour, what with staying indoors and not much to do, but creativity isn't a faut de mieux: it's our lifeblood. Our joy. And like the rest of our joy in life, it jumps up and down and does cartwheels in the summer. That's why I run workshops in the summertime, even though it's also such a busy time - it's the perfect time for adventure and discovery. So here are my tips to create yourself a glorious Summer of Writing.

As well as the workshops, book some time off for yourself to write, whether that means from work, from your family, or a pact with yourself. I suggest treating each workshop as a two-day block, so you're just as "booked off" from 10-4 on the Sunday as if you were at a workshop. (That means no other duties, no errands or chores, no family commitments, no arrangements to meet - just a clear space of time for you and your writing.) If you can, look at also booking a few weekdays or a week off from work, as writing time.

Be strict about your start time and protect the writing time like an angel with a flaming sword - but within that time, be free. You don't need to treat writing time like work and it's much better not to. It isn't work, it's a joy! And the more you enjoy it, the more you want to write. (Enjoying it doesn't mean it's always "easy" - we enjoy doing hard things, too. Just think of crosswords and Sudoku. Enjoying it means it's fun.) Don't set yourself up with a bunch of goals, either - throw all that "SMART" nonsense to the wind, forget about aims, wordcount, page counts, estimates, etc. A good writing day is a day spent writing. That is the only criterium. Protect the time, and within the time be free. There's a rock-solid evidence base behind this advice; you can read more about that here.

Write by hand, unless that's genuinely physically impossible for you. There's fantastic evidence that when we write by hand, we write more, for longer, and better quality. Your handwriting doesn't matter, as long as you can read it. A ballpoint pen will quickly tire your hand out though, because it relies on friction to drag out the ink. If you're right-handed, buy a fountain pen - you can get a Parker from WH Smiths for £20 and under, and their nibs are superb quality. (More expensive pens usually have more expensive casings, not better nibs.) Stock up on ink cartridges while you're at it and cache them everywhere, so you never run out. If you're left-handed, and can't use a fountain pen, try a fineliner or a gel pen. (Gel pens are lovely but run out very quickly.) With no friction, you can write happily for hours without getting a sore hand.

The best part about writing by hand, though, is that you can write anywhere. It's summer! You don't need a dim room to see the screen or a powerpoint nearby. Don't lock yourself in a room at a desk, telling yourself you have to "take this seriously" - go outside! Write in the garden, if you won't be interrupted. Leave the house and go adventuring! Find a coffee shop with a garden or one outdoors, like AMT on Cornmarket. Write in a pub garden (they serve coffee, too). Walk across Port Meadow and sit outdoors at the Perch, or try the lovely garden of the Gardener's Arms. Write in meadows, in parks. Take a packed lunch, a bottle of water, a flask of coffee, and off you go! There are heaps of wonderful places to write outdoors in Oxford. (Check for available loos, too - you'd be surprised; even University Parks has well-kept loos in the middle. And AMT is in emergency striking-distance from the refurbished loos by the Covered Market.) If it's drizzling, or chucking it down, find a covered garden - just being in the fresh air is enlivening and inspiring, and the smell of rain on soil contains a chemical which makes us happy. (More than once I've started writing in University Parks, then walked through a downpour to arrive grinning and drenched at the Jericho Tavern, and slowly steamdried in their covered garden. It's fine to get wet, just make sure the writing stays dry!) All the adventuring makes it much more fun and gives you a much wider range of stimulus and inspiration than you'd get at home at a table or a desk.

Once you start adventuring, you might want a Writing Bag: a sacred, adored bag, big enough to carry your notebook / an A4 pad and any assorted pens or notes you want with you, and waterproof. (This is England, to be fair, even in summer.) I have two, a slim one for just a few essentials, and a glorious great multi-pocketed beast for when I need the Full Monty with me and a packed lunch to boot. Both are leather; the first was a cast-off, many years ago; the beast was a £5 charity shop WIN. The writing lives in the writing bag, along with plenty of spare paper and ink / pens. Mine also has a tiny stapler (with eyes) and spare staples, plus assorted coloured pens. (Okay, 90 coloured pens.) Word to the wise: don't put your waterbottle or coffee flask in your writing bag.

You'll probably have your smartphone with you too, so here's an expert tip: put it on airplane mode. That's usually the only way the battery will last all day and still leave you enough for some texts or a phone call at the end of your writing. Plus, of course, it spares you that enemy of writing: internet distraction. If an idea is tricky, it's so easy to dive into the instant-affirmation of Facebook notifications instead; having it on airplane nudges you away from that. If you do want to look something up, or browse a bit while you're having a break, you can easily switch it back to normal mode, but the fragile battery life of a smartphone is excellent motivation to switch it back to airplane promptly.

Everyone's concentration span varies - mine is almost exactly an hour, and then I need to float back up for a bit, stare around me, eat some water mint, chat with a passing duck, order another coffee, whatever. Don't flog yourself beyond your concentration span; find your natural pace. (That's where having your phone on airplane really helps; it's easier to find your natural pace without distractions. Also, don't eat random plants unless you definitely know what they are; quite a few are poisonous.) After two or three hours like that, I usually need a longer break, which is generally a good moment to eat my lunch, have a wander, maybe change location, perhaps accept that it really is raining and wedging the umbrella handle into my cleavage isn't totally working. Most people can manage about five hours of sustained concentration total a day. That's hard to believe, given the hours most of us work, but nonetheless true. And writing, as well as being enormous fun, is very sustained concentration. Sometimes I spread those hours out, between 10 and 5, with breaks and lunch and walks; sometimes I do a solid block from 12 to 5:30, with only a few float-up breaks. I've learnt not to push it past the 5 hours, give or take. This is summer; this is life; enjoy the rest of the time for other things as well, like a long relaxing walk home, meeting up with friends for a sunny drink, cooking a meal slowly, whatever you enjoy. (Remember not to schedule any Duties, though, that steal the writing time. Duties are for other time.)

A summer of writing becomes an absolute gift to yourself. Suddenly, setting the time aside for writing isn't a chore, something that could otherwise be used for holiday, or meet-ups, or family time - it's a joy, a luxury, a secret delight. You fall asleep the night before excited to wake up, with your writing bag ready, anticipating the time as if it's a rendezvouz with a lover. You spend your writing days surrounded by beauty, gloating in the wonder of it, staring into your secret worlds. You push on into the autumn, layering on extra tights, scarves, and cardigans. You smile secretly in the winter, as you type up the summer's writing or keep on writing with freezing rain hammering the windows, and as you pass your spots. And you feel your excitement rise, as spring finally starts to warm again, at the thought of being back out there, completely free, completely yourself, writing.

This year's Summer of Writing workshops are The Creative Well, Expand your Repertoire, Magical Realism, Writing Dialogue, and Plot your Story. Read about the workshops and book your place here and have a glorious, joyous, summer of writing.

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