Public Lending Right

Around 12 months ago I registered my Structure novels for PLR (Public Lending Right – the royalty writers receive as a result of their work being borrowed from libraries). Since then I’ve earned £6.97. I can’t help but wish I’d done this in 2004 when The Affinity Trap was first published, and then for the subsequent books, instead of registering them 10 years later. Naively, I thought someone would do this for me – someone at the publisher, or my agent at the time perhaps. In retrospect I should have known better.

This is one of those little things no one tells you but which can make a difference. So if you’re a writer with books in libraries, register them for PLR. Do it now. It only takes a few minutes.

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ADDENDUM: Apparently registering with ALCS is a good idea, too. I hadn’t even heard of this one!

Standing Proud

Some time ago I became aware of standing desks, apparently the answer to something called “sitting disease”. While I wondered whether this was just another lifestyle trend from across the pond it was undeniable that I felt uncomfortable sitting all day. My natural desk posture when sitting at a desk is kind of hunched; when thinking or browsing I tend to twist to one side with my left elbow on the worktop, or with my left fist against my hip and my elbow cocked out to the side I’m a little teapot-stylee. These poor habits resulted in the need to visit Jean at the local health centre for back-fixing massages on a regular basis. This would do the trick for a while but after a few more weeks of poor posture the aches and pains would return – and not only while at the desk, but when sitting on the sofa, lying in bed, walking the dog… you get the picture. The discomfort would rise from my lower back all the way up either side of my spine, across my shoulders, into my neck and, at its worst, over my scalp into my forehead. I felt like a twisted wreck, ladies and gentlemen. Constantly.

As a result I looked further into standing desks. I read about how bad it is to sit down all day, with lower blood pressure, lower calorie consumption, your innards all squished up and everything, and while I did harbour some scepticism a lot of it made sense. The thing is, standing desks are expensive, and I don’t have the skills necessary to make one myself: I can just about chop wood into kindling for the fire, and my idea of Hell is the screws and nails aisle at Wickes. At the time other members of the family also used the computer at this desk, so any solution would have to offer sufficient versatility that anyone who didn’t want to stand could still make use of the machine. After some searching I came across Varidesk.

Hence the name…
Varidesk offers a variety of, well, variable desks. These enable your workspace to transform from a sitting to standing setup in a matter of seconds by simply grasping the levers on either side and giving a little push, whereupon the whole workstation elevates to a position appropriate for standing. This seemed to be just what I was looking for, so I ordered a Varidesk Pro Plus 30.

When the desk arrived there was very little to do in the way of setup, although there was a fair bit of heaving and cussing to get the thing upstairs – this is one heavy piece of kit. The packaging was extremely impressive – a complex collection of cut cardboard that presumably offers benefits of light weight, strength, recyclability and low cost. To some extent the Varidesk is a compromise all round. Certainly when in “sitting” profile it looks good, but my keyboard is too high and so is my monitor. Another factor to consider is items other than your keyboard, mouse and monitor. Got a lamp on your desk? A radio? You’ll need to make sure the cables are long enough to reach the plugs when the Varidesk is raised, otherwise they’re going to have to remain down there on your existing desk, which might not be ideal.

Depending on which model you choose you’re likely to lose a fair bit of space. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it reduces the amount of clutter your can accumulate in your workspace, but if you need to spread a lot of printed reference materials around as you work, or have to work on a printed manuscript, this might be a disadvantage, or you’ll need to buy one of the larger – and thus more expensive – variants. The Varidesk does encourage you to focus on work, however, raising only the essential components to standing level – in my case the Mac, keyboard and mouse, a lamp and a notepad pencil for those little jottings. There’s also room behind the Mac for a couple of backup drives.

When using the desk I did find some noise when typing, the sound being transmitted from my keyboard into the plastic structure. There was also a minor vibration from my Mac’s fan. I’m sensitive to unwanted noise so I used a combination of a typewriter pad beneath the keyboard and a leather desk pad underneath the Mac to dampen both sounds.

One somewhat disconcerting aspect of the Varidesk was that I found my Mac wobbled when I typed. Quite a lot. Maybe I’m a particularly heavy typist – I do also own a typewriter, after all – but looking online I see I’m not the only user to consider this wobble something of an issue. The wobbliness is not only distracting, it makes the whole shebang feel cheap, Mac and all.

I put up with this movement for a long time until it began to bug me to the extent that I made enquiries about how much it would cost to raise my existing desk to standing height, at which point I could sell the Varidesk. I gave the problem some thought, however, examined the rig to determine just why the Varidesk wobbled and came up with a solution, albeit a bit Heath Robinson.

The wobble seems to be transverse, a side-to-side movement resulting simply from hitting the keys. I determined that some kind of support beneath either side of the desk, just behind the keyboard platform, should do the trick. After a little pondering I cut a couple of pieces of the aforementioned packaging so that they fit between my desk’s surface and the underside of the Varidesk. Trimming these pieces of card to the appropriate length and sliding them into place transformed the unit, almost completely eliminating the wobble. The difference is considerable, with the entire platform feeling sturdier. The pieces of cardboard don’t look great but this is more than compensated for by the improvement they make to Varidesk use.

I also found my keyboard at the time – a Matias Quiet Pro – was slightly too wide to fit between the mounts that attach the keyboard tray to the desk. This was frustrating as it meant the keyboard had to be positioned closer to me than I preferred. This might seem a minor point but when you’re using a setup like this all day every day the slightest discomfort or irritation can become quite a major factor. I now have a Filco tenkeyless model which fits well, and although I’ve lost the number pad I like using this much more than the Matias anyway.

So how do you find standing, Martin?
I found the transition from sitting to standing easy. For a week or so I alternated regularly during the day but it wasn’t long before I was standing pretty much all the time. Now I rarely sit. I’ve found that when standing I don’t get as tired as I used to, and can now sit for only ten minutes or so at the desk before I become too uncomfortable and have to stand again. When standing I can move more easily, stretch and twist and walk away from the desk for a few minutes. When sitting I quickly start to feel drowsy, perhaps as my blood pressure drops and I become generally less active. For some reason I find I’m a less accurate typist when I’m standing. I’m not sure why this is but I certainly make a lot more mistaks than I used to.

Standing to work at a computer won’t be for everyone, and sitting somehow feels more writerly, but for my money the benefits of standing to work far outweigh any disadvantages. I can’t imagine sitting to work for long periods again by choice. In fact at some point I may well invest in a complete new standing desk set up, which offers more workspace, greater flexibility, no compromise and zero wobble.

Would I recommend a Varidesk? Yes, particularly if you’re not sure whether a standing desk would suit you, or you need the versatility to accommodate users with both sitting and standing preferences. If you’d like to buy a Varidesk the company is offering 20% off all models until 23 December 2015, with a free mat included. Go to the company’s website and enter the code XMAS15 at the checkout stage.

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FX: a blog in which I enthuse about BBC radio drama

I’ve been a fan of the BBC’s radio drama for a long time, but my enthusiasm has grown hugely in recent years. The output is diverse, and its quality outstanding. At the time of writing Radio 4 is broadcasting Dangerous Visions – a series of adaptations of classic science fiction works, including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man from Brian Sibley, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, adapted by Jonathan Holloway, and a 15-minute piece by Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Lauren Beukes1. Over the past few days I’ve also listened to several Afternoon Plays via the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as dramatisations of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Christopher Hampton, and Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by Mike Walker.

Radio 4’s Afternoon Play is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: unsurprisingly they’re often dramatic, but they can also be funny, unusual, and often moving. Sometimes the productions are straight-through dramas, such as Referee by Nick Perry, the story of corruption in the beautiful game, or Justin Hopper’s Dog Days – the poignant tale of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of independent greyhound racing. Others, such as Paul Cornell’s Something in the Water, use flashbacks or other interesting techniques to move the story along or give insight into character motivation and history.

One such play – the first to really make me sit up and think I want to write this stuff2 – is Déja Vu by French writer and actress Alexis Zegerman. Produced by the BBC in conjunction with the French Arté Radio, this play – which you can still listen to here! – uses some unusual, atmospheric sound effects and features a French linguaphone with issues. Pitched as a love story (although I’m not sure it is), Déja Vu also tackles issues of prejudice and race, and there’s a fascinating awkwardness between the lines of the characters’ relationship. I love the quirkiness in the way this play tells its story.

Linguaphone: My heart might explode. (whispers) All over this room.

“There’s nothing to spy except spiders”

I’ve become a particular fan of Katie Hims’ work. Hims’ plays often have an historical setting or connection. There’s a simplicity and disarming emotional connection that makes Hims’ plays immediately accessible and engaging. You know the people in her plays; very often you are the people in her plays.

Lost Property is a beautifully constructed 3-part story covering 70 years, interweaving lives and crossing continents as circumstances affecting evacuees in World War Two have a huge knock-on effect. Listening to the Dead: Four Sons is the story of baker’s wife Clara – a medium who finds herself unravelling as World War One looms: she knows her boys will go off to fight, and sees the fate that awaits them. Even the Prime Minister comes to hear of Clara’s “gift”.

Clara: I wish we had girls.
Narrator: But they didn’t. They didn’t have girls. They had four sons. A goalkeeper, a poet, a heartbreaker and a saint.

Not all Hims’ plays are tear-jerkers, though: Samson and Delilah features a matter-of-fact angel from oop north played by Sean Baker, who bursts into flames in order to return to heaven after informing Tracey – a hairdresser who’s desperate for a baby – that she’s finally going to have one – and all of the infant’s special requirements.

“She smelled of sulphur”

Productions in the Afternoon Play slot are also often humorous, such as Jeff Young’s The Exuberant, a story about rival meteorite hunters seeking a recent arrival. The HighLites: Wash and Blow series by Steve Chambers and Phil Nodding, recently broadcast in the 15-minute slot during Woman’s Hour, is set aboard a 5-day cruise around the fjords. The play takes place in one of the cabins, with the hum of the ship setting the scene, along with occasional announcements over the tannoy by the vessel’s captain, or references to various locations and events elsewhere on board. This really does, if you’ll excuse the pun, highlight (ahem) the importance of dialogue in this medium, with some wonderful wordplay throughout.

Bev: You need to face up to the harsh realities of life instead of burying your head in an ostrich, Nigel. It’s not too late to save your marriage.
Nigel: It’s over, Bev.
Bev: It’s not over ’til the fat baby sings.

“If the story changed, who would they be?”

For me as a writer and a genuine enthusiast of BBC radio drama, it’s exciting that the corporation actively seeks new talent3. Radio 4 recently broadcast 10 new plays under the heading of Original British Dramatists. The stand-out piece for me was The Cloistered Soul by Rachel Connor.

I connected with the The Cloistered Soul on many levels, but the space, gentle pace, acting performances and subtlety of production were all absolutely wonderful. As the story progressed I found myself thinking how has she done that? regarding Connor’s script, given the huge amount of space the dialogue enjoyed without slowing down the story. I’ve downloaded the script to read through when I listen again.

Dramas that delight and surprise

I can’t emphasise how much I love this stuff. The output is varied and challenging and often daring, giving opportunities for writers to really stretch themselves and tell stories in interesting ways. You won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It’s unique to us, and we’re very lucky to have material of this standard available. You can listen when you’re working, driving, walking the dog or ironing, or simply having a lazy morning in bed. Try a few of these plays out, and you might just find yourself converted.

I did.

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Listen out for

  • The Dangerous Visions season is being broadcast as I write. If you can’t listen live catch up on iPlayer.

  • Coming soon is Home Front, an epic 4-year project covering stories of people in Britain during World War One. With Katie Hims on the writing team and Jessica Dromgoole at the helm, this promises to be great.

  • To keep up with what’s happening in the world of BBC radio drama, subscribe to the Drama of the Week newsletter. You can also download scripts from the Writersroom site – an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in scriptwriting for any medium.

  • You can also download a wealth of material outside drama. Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights podcasts – a look at the nocturnal goings on in and around the UK, delivered in his distinctive style – are absolutely wonderful.

  1. “It’s pronounced like ‘mucus’ ”, she once told me. 

  2. I have a script on submission with a producer at this very moment. Will it be good enough? Only time will tell. 
  3. I use the word “talent” here to avoid a repetition of “writer”, rather than to imply that I might have any talent! 

Scrivener tip: editing auto-complete character list in scriptwriting mode

In scriptwriting mode, Scrivener automatically adds character names to the auto-complete list as you write. While this is for the most part convenient, it can prove to be a pain if you decide to change a character’s name, or accidentally type something formatted as Character & Dialogue instead of, for example, Technical Directions, as it will still be added to the list and appear in the options list every time.

If this happens, and you’re like me and want to keep things neat, you might feel the need to prune your auto-correct list. To do this, from the Menubar select Project/Auto-complete List, then in the pop-up window simply edit the list and click Save.


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