10 gifts for writers – Christmas 2013

It’s nearing Christmas and in the Pigfender house that makes it a time for celebration. And what better way to celebrate than by buying stuff for the writer in your life… especially if the writer in your life is you! Like last year’s list, the aim is to include items that would be of interest to a writer, but which are perhaps a little less “direct”. I hope it inspires you to share a little love this holiday season.

In keeping with pigfender.com’s No Shenanigans ethos(A), I have (somewhat refreshingly for this kind of article) provided all ten items on a single page rather than make you click through a dozen pages and twice as many adverts just to find out what the number one gift is(B).

The basic selection criteria for the gifts has been that they must meet or enrich one of the basic needs of someone who enjoys writing. And, yes, from my discussions with others who enjoy the craft, procrastination is most definitely a basic need.

1) Fuel
Last year’s fuel gift was centred on that staple of content creators everywhere: caffeine. This year, I have devoted my attention to the other major legal stimulant: sugar.

I have given a lot of thought to the best possible candy treat for consumption while writing. Now obviously the finest candy in the world is the Curly Wurly (with honourable mentions going to the Milk Dud and the Toblerone bar), but chocolate and keyboards do not mix and in order to be selected for this category the treat needs to be both sugarful and suitable for grazing directly above a laptop when you’re up against a deadline. This pretty much rules out anything that gets your fingers sticky (like the aforementioned chocolate bars) or generates crumbs (such as cakes or Party Ring biscuits).

After great thought and scientific elimination I have settled upon the humble Fruit Pastille as the perfect writing sweet. Others may prefer something a little less chewy (you certainly don’t want something like a wine gum that sticks to your teeth and distracts you), in which case jelly beans or the mighty Skittle will work just as well.

For full on gift status: buy a really nice short vase (the far right one in this Ikea set looks about right), wash and dry thoroughly and fill with Skittles and/or Fruit Pastilles. Perfect.

2) Inspiration
As the 8Qs series is beginning to show, it’s a rare writer (or at least a rare successful one) that doesn’t treasure reading, and I suspect that each of us has a work or two of literature that they love enough to re-read on a semi-regular basis. Mine, by the way, is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. In order to help spruce up a writer’s workspace with inspiration, you could check out this company that does posters containing the full text of classic works of literature.

Very nice, but I must confess to preferring my inspiration a little smaller, and more portable. To this end, my suggestion is to head to one of the many sites on the interweb that can make you a mousemat (or perhaps a mug, which can be used for holding coffee or pencils) featuring the picture or design of your choice. The cover of a favourite novel is always good for inspiration, or if your writer’s ego is up to it, have a mock cover knocked up for your current Work In Progress and use that.

3) Content
Whilst more than happy to buy them for ourselves (as my bookshelf can testify), we writers can get a little “what are you trying to tell me?” if we receive a How-To-Write book. It’s the literary equivalent of walking in to the office one morning and finding a bottle of extra strength mouthwash waiting for you on your desk.

A safer alternative that still says “I want to get you something for your hobby” is a book that helps not with the craft, per se, but with the content. An excellent example here are the forensics for writers books by DP Lyle(C), which – while potentially not a perfect gift for a romance writer – would be a delight for anyone writing mysteries, thrillers or anything with, y’know, bodily harm. I can thoroughly recommend Forensics and Fiction which answers questions from “What are the symptoms and signs of bleeding to death?” through to “Could the ME determine that my character had been eaten by a werewolf?

4) Content #2
Mrs Pigfender loves holidays. She loves planning holidays, going on holidays and reading about places she can go on holiday at some point in the future. As such, we have acquired over the years quite a wide selection of travel books covering all sorts of exotic places. Sure, nothing beats getting on a plane to scout out the locations your characters might be visiting, but I find Mrs Pigfender’s collection to be an incredibly useful source of information on places I don’t have the time, the cash or the personal inclination to visit myself. They also provide all manner of inspiration for destinations and settings that I might not come up with if left with just the contents of my own head to play with.

So a decent travel book for wherever your writer is setting his current story / book / series is a nice idea, especially if they already live there themselves. It’s all too easy to be like Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, blissfully unaware of the lady calling ‘feed the birds’ on the steps of St. Paul’s, and a good travel guide can remind you what it’s like to view your hometown through the eyes of a tourist. Your protagonist might be a born and bred Londoner, but with any luck a large proportion of your readers won’t be.

There are lots of different guides to choose from. Lonely Planet, which always used to be a bit too ‘backpacker’ for my tastes, really seems to have changed to a good all-rounder covering most sensible price points for the city / region of your choice, and is Mrs Pigfender’s current go-to range. If you need a lot of pictures to go with the text then the DK Eyewitness collection is your best bet. Another series worth a look is the NFT (short for ‘Not For Tourists’) collection, which is great for giving you a breakdown of individual neighbourhoods, including restaurants, cafes, shops and other features your characters might run past while chased by an angry antagonist.

Of course, if London is your destination de jour, you can’t go wrong with the latest addition to Mrs Pigfender’s collection: the fabulous Paddington’s Guide to London, giving a bear’s eye view of the city and including lots of pictures of Paddington enjoying the very best that London has to offer.

5) Environment
My computer keyboard is immaculate. This is because it’s really Mrs Pigfender’s keyboard and she gets all Monica Geller(D) on me if I leave crumbs anywhere near it.

It might not be the most romantic present ever, but something to clean the keyboard with is a gift that will get used over and over again and bring both genuine awe and disgust the first time you use it. Throw in a screen wipe while you’re at it and – if it’s a gift for yourself – give the gift of time as well and spend half a day doing all the antivirus update, hard drive tidy and defrag, and system admin tasks that you’ve ignored all year.

6) Environment #2
While we’re on the subject of improving the writing environment, one thing that’s often overlooked is lighting. The combined impact of standard house lighting with the harshness of your monitor’s glow can be quite industrial, going to be stuck in that room for a while.

The people at Philips have done some of that R&D stuff and come up with an intelligent computer (or iPhone) controlled lighting system which changes both colour and intensity to meet your needs, either in response to a direct command or in response to specific triggers (the most obvious of which is a pre-set time). The idea is that you can use “light recipes” to create the perfect atmosphere for what you are trying to do and when you are trying to do it. It’s called Hue and you can check it out here. Alternatively, if computer timed re-wiring of your house lights is a little too Lawnmower Man for you, then they also have standalone LivingColor lamps with remote controls that can achieve the same pleasant soft lighting to meet your current chapter’s colour requirements.

7) Peace and quiet
Last year’s list included the excellent Quiet Comfort 3 headphones from Bose, which I still love immensely. However whilst they produce great quality sound, are incredibly comfortable and do a great job of reducing unwanted external noise, they are large on-ear headphones and as such I tend to use them only when I’m camped out in a single spot: at home, or long journeys by plane or train.

Bose have clearly thought of this, though, and have now released a set of in-ear noise cancellers called the Quiet Comfort 20 (available in a model with buttons for iPhone/iPod or in a different model for other phones). They ain’t cheap, but I do lust after them. They have funky looking technical parts for connecting themselves to your ears, though, so if you have a non-standard inner ear (like I do) then it’s probably best to try a pair for comfort and fit before you drop the required 250 English.

8) Tools
I’ll save my idea of a perfect writing machine for another time, but one aspect of the IT set-up that I will visit here is the monitor.

We really are spoiled by the quality of screens on laptops these days, with some offering truly amazing resolutions and great coverage of the colour gamut that make pixelated text and eye strain a thing of the past. So with our increasing reliance on the portable laptop (even when stationed in our own homes), the external monitor is increasingly labelled a luxury purchase.

But, there are several things about external monitors that make them well suited to the writer and therefore why I much prefer to use one when available. The first is size. Laptops are getting smaller and smaller, and while I can adapt over time to meet the shrinking keyboard sizes, key travel measured in microns, and the ever expanding reliance on the Fn modifier key for things like <Pg Up> and <Home>, I find a small screen is just not worth it if you’re doing any serious writing for any serious period of time. Let’s face it, the tiny wide-ratio screens that come with laptops these days are designed to turn your computer into a portable movie player not for any serious content creation.

The other major advantage of the external monitor is orientation. Think back to any format you’ve done any reading in over the course of your life and one thing will stand out: They are all portrait and not landscape(E). There is a reason for this. It’s less tiring on your eyes to just scan down a page instead of across a long line and then down. That is why it is ‘easier’ to read text that is in columns(F). Plus, as a writer, you can get a lot more text on the screen if it’s in portrait, whilst maintaining a sensible page width to give you a feel for the cadence of paragraph breaks in your text.

I’m not going to recommend a specific monitor, suffice to say they come in brands and qualities to suit every budget, and you should buy the best one you can afford. Just check it has a nice resolution for its screen size, has input options (eg HDMI) that match your writer’s laptop output, and that you can rotate the screen to have in portrait. Oh, and it must look pretty, too.

9) Procrastination
To be truly effective procrastination, an activity must satisfy the following criteria:
– It must be easy to do from your normal working environment;
– It must be fun;
– You must be able to rationalise that it is in some small way contributing to the creative process; and
– It must in reality provide an opportunity to completely rid your mind of your writing for a while.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the ultimate procrastination tool: A subscription to Netflix.

Normal working environment? You can access it right on the same computer you use to write.

Fun? It’s TV and Movies! Lots of them!

Rationalisation? Well, movies and TV shows are finely tuned examples of the story telling process. It provides your subconscious with material it needs to make your own works as audience-friendly as possible. Plus with a broad choice of genres, there are tons of immersive and inspiring movies you can check out.

Rid your mind of writing? Ooh, look! Red Dwarf!

10) Support
In his acknowledgements for the book American Assassin, Vince Flynn wrote: “Writing is by necessity a solitary process… Publishing on the other hand, has very little to do with solitude”. That solitary part of the process is important. It provides us with the freedom to experiment and be creative without fear; the freedom to put down half-formed thoughts that sound ridiculous but which we know have a funny joke in there somewhere, just waiting for 5 or 6 redrafts and polish to bring them out. It can also be a time for wildly fluctuating confidence, intense bouts of self-doubt and just plain disbelief in the material.

Sometimes we need a little encouragement. Stephen King threw Carrie in the bin before his wife pulled it out, read it, and convinced him it was worth another pass. A short while later he sold the rights to it for enough money to buy a house and quit his day job. One gift, therefore, that would be great to receive would be the gift of encouragement and support. Just send a greeting card with the following message in it:

I know you don’t like to share your writing until it’s ready, but I want you to know that when you do reach the stage where a fresh pair of eyes might be helpful, I’d love to read it. I promise to dedicate a whole day to nothing else but reading your book and providing helpful comments if I think of any. In the meantime, I have bought myself a copy of How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark which some guy on the internet recommended to me as the best book to read to help me provide constructive advice.

They may never take you up on your offer, but confidence is contagious and they’ll certainly appreciate the support.

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(A) – The core tenet of the No Shenanigans policy is that there are no adverts and I am not a sales affiliate (or similar) for any products or sites. In other words, this site is not monetised in anyway at all.

(B) – In fact the items on the list are in no particular order.

(C) – Shortly after deciding to include Doug’s book on this list I contacted him to see if he’d take part in the 8Qs questionnaire. He agreed! I’ll be uploading his responses in a day or two!

(D) – It’s been nearly ten years since F·R·I·E·N·D·S ended, so it’s probably time to start calling them Monica Bing, Phoebe Hannigan and Rachel Geller. Although with recent studies estimating that at around 40%-50% of marriages in the US end in something other than death, there’s a good chance that at least one of those three couples would have split up by now. Sorry.

(E) – With the possible exception of the PowerPoint presentation, but that’s because most people are doing PowerPoint WRONG.

(F) – Trust me, there are studies and everything.