A quarter-century writing in cafes

cafe(友光軒) by voo34oov (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve spent twenty-five years writing in cafes. For a quarter of a century I’ve attempted to produce passable fiction within the thin caffeinated air of Bay Area coffeehouses. I’ve endured countless hours of crummy music blasted overhead by baristas with something to prove—coexisted with hundreds of cafe patrons as neighbors, each with differing notions of privacy and personal space—suffered wobbly cafe tables and seats as hard as steel—and consumed gallons upon gallons of coffee, steamed soy milk, and espresso shots—all in the name of writing books someone might want to read.

My first foray into the writers’ cafe subculture came in the mid-1990s with the purchase of a Fujitsu laptop computer. This machine freed me from writing on a desktop PC-compatible occupying an entire corner of my bedroom. This freedom gave me a way to find a neutral place to get writing done—a place neither the home nor the office.

Cafes back then were largely for drinking coffee and reading. Writing, when it was done at a cafe, was performed with pen and paper. The parallel advents of cheap personal notebooks and wireless Internet rewrote the cafe landscape in America, morphing the coffeehouse from a casual light-fare experience to a pseudo-shared office for the creative class.

Any writer will tell you, finding a good writing cafe is a cherished gift best kept close to the chest. Every move of address I’ve made since I started writing were always followed by long days of stumbling from one neighborhood cafe to another in search of the right one—the mother lode, the comfortable and welcoming writer’s cafe. Even when traveling abroad I make a point of finding a local cafe for writing. As such, I’ve written in so many bad cafes I cannot begin to categorize them—but I’ll try.

Where to begin? There are the noisy, crowded cafes, the cafes where the baristas play Dave Matthews so loud I cannot hear my own music, even when I pressed my headphones tight against my ears with my palms. There are the cafes I can never find a seat and must ask to share a table. Most creative types seem to find this burden distasteful and will invent an invisible friend joining them shortly, so, sorry, you’ll need to sit elsewhere.

There are the overpriced cafes. There are the cafes with rock-hard high stools seemingly designed by 1970s MacDonald’s interior decorators to get customers out the door within ten minutes of buying food. There are the cafes that are too hot, even in the winter. Here in San Francisco the opposite is largely the case, the cafes where the owner props the door wide open no matter how cold it is outside, allowing stiff breezes to charge inside at sporadic moments.

Clocking in years of cafe time taught me not to explain to anyone sniffing around that I’m writing a novel. Doing so only elicits all manner of unproductive responses, from snarky to nosy to rude. More than once I’ve had to pry myself away from a chatty cafe patron who, delighted at my endeavor, felt compelled to describe to me all their book ideas. (Sometimes they offered to let me write their book—”We’ll split the profits fifty-fifty.”) Once, in an otherwise wonderful cafe in Campbell, a regular got his tenterhooks so deep into my work I would find him crouched behind my chair peering over my shoulders to watch me write.

I’ve seen tip jars stuffed full of bills ripped from counters and the thief racing out the door with coins clanging across the floor in their wake. I’ve seen notebook computers swiped off tables and likewise run out the door. I’ve written in cafes decorated like giant doll houses, cafes decorated like discount clothing stores, and cafes so meticulously decorated I felt I’d entered a movie set. I’ve seen a darkened cafe in San Francisco arranged like a ziggurat with staggered levels of cafe patrons facing you as you enter, every one of them typing furiously on MacBooks. The uniform rows of the backlit Apple logo could only remind me of the 1984 Super Bowl commercial.

There are cafes that cap their electrical outlets to force laptop owners to run on battery power only. There are cafes that purchase exotic WiFi systems that only give you so much time online before you must buy another drink or pastry. Some cafes are too-brightly lit, making one snow-blind in the evening hours, and some cafes are so dim you cannot see your hands on the keyboard. There are the cafes that close early, limiting prime evening-hour writing spurts, and there are the cafes that aren’t open weekends for mysterious reasons.

I’ve been in cafes where the owner would assure me I could pay anytime before leaving—and then grouse I never paid for the first coffee when I returned to the counter for a refill. I’ve been in cafes where the owner relentlessly pushed their food on me. I’ve been in cafes with owners who grumbled under their breath about people not buying enough coffee or staying too long.

The Slate.com feature “My coffeehouse nightmare” is a prime example of this type of owner, one who served his coffee “on silver trays with a glass of water and a little chocolate cookie,” hired a Le Bernadin baker to produce specialty croissants, and thought the fast-track to coffeehouse profits was pulling Vienna roast espresso shots instead of Italian. In six months, his cafe was out of business. “The average coffee-to-stay customer nursed his mocha (i.e., his $5 ticket) for upward of 30 minutes. Don’t get me started on people with laptops.” By which, of course, he means people like me.

Cafes hold a unique position in American culture. They straddle commercial and social divides. As a cafe patron, you are engaging in commerce with the owner and her staff. On the other hand, you share a quiet, almost intimate, personal space with other patrons, perfect strangers often seated less than a foot away. Unlike a movie theater, where all are sharing a common experience, cafes are a collection of private moments (reading a book, engaging in conversation, outlining a novel) hosted within a shared public situation. At the risk of romanticizing it, successful cafes are places where both halves are well-balanced. Failure, I’ve always found, is where such balances are missing.

My personal code of cafe ethics? Always buy something. Don’t bring in outside food or drink. Tidy up the table before leaving. Don’t hog the electrical outlet. Voices down and cell phone calls outside. Please and thank you carry a lot of water in any situation, social or commercial.

What cafe do I recommend for writing? The one I’m sitting in right now. And, no, I’m not telling you its name.

Make your phone your next writing notebook

A smart phone and a writing notepad.
r. nial bradshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Last week I finished my fourth novel and I used my phone throughout the entire writing process: developing, researching, outlining, plotting, and revision, all the way to my final draft. For all purposes, my phone was my writing notebook for this novel.

I didn’t write the novel on my phone. I’ll probably never do that. When I’m writing I want the full typewriter experience, real keys designed for human hands, the tactile sense physical buttons offer, the whole shebang.

But planning and revising a novel on your phone is certainly possible, and my latest book is proof of that.

In the past I’ve relied on paper-and-ink writing notebooks. A writing notebook is a tool I evangelize to anyone who will listen, mostly because I believe it functions as a kind of “inspiration laboratory” for writers. However, towards the end of my last novel (Hagar’s Mother) I found myself turning to electronic note-taking tools during the final editing process.

In the final stretch of editing a novel a torrent of small details begin erupting. When the edits are coming hot and heavy I find removing my hands from the keyboard to be a distraction, so I began using a free note-taking software packaged with my MacBook Air, Apple Notes. Rather than reach for a pen and my trusty notebook, I would Alt+Tab to Notes and add a bullet point to a little checklist I kept. As I kept working I would periodically consult my checklist and be sure the appropriate changes were made.

Well, Apple Notes is also available on my iPhone. At all times my writing notes were synchronized between my computer and my phone. That meant I could review my checklist while at work, on the bus, even in bed. It also meant I could add more ideas at any time. Later, when I returned to my computer to resume writing, they were there waiting for me.

That’s the hard reality I faced, one I’m certain most writers face as well: While I sometimes leave the house without my writing notebook, I never leave without my phone. These little devices are simply invaluable to us (which is why I encourage writers to keep them in mind when writing their own fiction).

After Hagar’s Mother, I decided to try an experiment and use Notes as my primary writing notebook for my next novel. I told myself if I had the slightest of problems I would bail out and revert back to my old paper-and-ink notebook. It seemed a risk-free experiment.

Well, I finished my novel and I’m here to tell you: I’m sold. Yes, you can plan, write, and revise your next novel using your phone as a notebook. What’s more, you don’t need to spend an extra dime on additional software as long as you’re using a reasonably up-to-date computer and smart phone. The note-taking software already installed is probably good enough, and if it’s not, there are free alternatives available.

Ways of note-taking

Let me get this out of the way: I’m not a shill for Apple. I’m happy with Apple Notes and how cleanly it intersected with my creative process. That doesn’t mean you should use Notes if you don’t own Apple products or want to try something else. (I list some alternatives at the end of this page.)

Looking back over my notes, I see three “types” of pages I developed, each representing a period of time in the novel-writing process.

The earliest pages are scrapbooks of ideas, thoughts, and research. Random notions fill these pages alongside bits of dialogue, descriptions, even character names. (With my fiction I try on character names the way I would try on a pair of pants.) For every novel I will read up on related subject matter to ensure I’m getting basic facts and terminology correct. Using my phone’s Share button I could add any page—Wikipedia, a news article, even a word in my phone’s dictionary—to a note. Although the foundations of the book are laid here, much of this primordial stew didn’t wind up in the final draft.

Later in the writing process, the pages start becoming more organized and less free-form. Here I was thinking about scenes I was developing. Dialogue and descriptions on these pages often reached the final draft. I also began roughing out timelines in these pages, primarily fleshing out the backstory of the main character.

The last note pages are highly organized. The novel was gelling; the big ideas are down on the page and I was more concerned about the small details and tightening up the narrative. In this stage my note pages are mostly checklists of changes to be made. The pages are broken up into sections: Characters, Details, Terminology, Important, and so on. When I made the edit, I would check off the item.

This stage is where I wrote a final character list (to keep track of names and relationships) and lists of terminology and spelling (useful in a novel with imaginary technology). I also built a final master timeline which incorporated the chronology of the novel into the backstory—useful when a character is talking about an event as happening the day before when it actually occurred two days before.

A few points here. First, notice the pages are structureless because the process is structureless. Even the later page’s organization is more-or-less free-form. The notebook met whatever need I had at the moment and never imposed a system on me. Some writing software wants to “guide” you through steps or categories for organizing your work. I’m not sold on that idea. I could use the digital note pages for anything I wanted to preserve for later. Make your writing notebook a tabula rasa.

Likewise, avoid reminder or to-do style software. Yes, I use checklists in my writing notebook, but I also used it for so much more. Task software imposes organization on your creative output. (“Mark this task High, Medium, or Low?”) That’s not what you’re looking for with a writing notebook.

These notes did not happen in concerted bursts. They represent hundreds of points in time, some slivers of seconds to type out an idea. At any point in the novel’s progress I was adding notes on the bus, at work (shh), in my easy chair, even while in the gym sweating and madly tapping a thought that came to me on the treadmill. The phone was always there. Losing even a single story idea to the frailty of human memory and our shortening attention spans is a loss.

Before you start

If you’ve read this far, you might be excited to start using your phone for your next big writing project. There are downsides to keep in mind before you start.

First, be aware you’re entrusting your precious creative output with a third-party corporation. Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or whomever) could, at any time and with no warning, discontinue the software, discontinue their services, or even go out of business. Whatever software you work with, be sure you can export your data, even if it’s nothing more than printing out your notes or saving them as a PDF. You absolutely do not want to wind up in a situation where a corporation has your precious creative output locked up—or has deleted it.

Just as you protect your word processing files, make periodical backups of your notes in case of disaster. Most modern note-taking software has some method of doing this in such a way that the backups can be restored later if necessary.

Do a little research into your software’s data security practices. While you’re at it, make sure you’re using a strong password. No, I’m not worried about an author “stealing” my ideas, but I do worry about unknown persons accessing my notes without my consent. My writing notebook is a creative and freeing place. Part of that freedom rides on an expectation of privacy.

Recommendations

If you’re curious or excited to start using your phone as a writing notebook, your first step is choosing your software. My checklist for baseline features it should include are:

  • It should run on your phone and your writing computer. While you could turn to your phone while typing on your writing computer, I found it invaluable to be able to read and update my notes without leaving the screen. Being able to Alt+Tab to my notes and Alt+Tab back to my word processor was invaluable when the story was flowing and I couldn’t type fast enough.
  • Your notes should synchronize between every computer you use. In the 1990s synchronizing data between computers required specialized software and arcane cables. These days synchronizing should occur across the Internet, all-but-invisible to you.
  • Your notes should be available on the Web. It’s handy to be able to access your notes from anywhere. In the case of Apple, I can login to icloud.com. Your software should have this feature as well.

You’ll notice that the above three points revolve around a single convenience: access. The key to my success with note-taking software was that I could access it at any time. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. Recording and returning to inspiration is the entire reason for keeping a writing notebook.

(The reason I like being able to access my notes outside of a Web browser is simple: I turn off Wi-Fi when writing. Disabling Internet access is a great way to avoid temptation.)

Those are my top-tier must-haves for a digital writing notebook. Features I think are desirable include:

  • Checklists. It’s great to be able to add checkboxes next to the edits I need to make. It’s even better to check them off when they’re done.
  • Scrapbooking. Surprisingly, I found myself harvesting ideas from Web pages more often than I expected. Being able to store links, photos, dictionary definitions—even maps—was invaluable.
  • Folders & note organization. Eventually I would fill a page with so much raw material I needed to create a second page to continue, and subsequently a third. Organizing all these pages into distinct folders is a must.

Other features to look for:

  • Drawing or sketching. If you like to doodle in your writing notebook, you might seek out software that supports drawing. (Alternately, you could use a separate sketchpad app and add it to your notes.)
  • Audio notes. Some note-taking software can attach voice memos to a note. It’s not how I work, but it might be yours.
  • Searching. It’s surprising how many times I remembered a key word but could not find the exact note for it.
  • Collaboration. Some software allows you to share your notes with one or more people. If you’re collaborating on a novel with another writer (or illustrator, or editor), this might be a real need for you.

If you’re not an Apple user or seeking alternatives to Notes, there are other options you can investigate. I’ve not had a chance to use any of these but they seem promising:

Good luck!

The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle pub arguments, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in ways we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?