Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘notebooks

How I got over my writer’s block 2.0

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Recently, I had occasion to write another 10,000 words. This was in order for me to start querying literary agents. (I will let you know how I got on in a future post.)

I’ve written a 10,000-word sample before: over two months sequestered in a cosy hostel in Taipei, Taiwan in 2019. I then sent out the 10k sample, along with a synopsis, and chapter summaries, to a few agents, and received zero reply from a couple of them; one expression of interest; and one rejection (which contained feedback). That project failed.

This year, I had occasion to think up another book proposal, after I was selected to be on the inaugural HarperCollins Author Academy. This new book idea, for HarperCollins, kind of failed (it’s not yet 100% clear), so I went back to the drawing board to think of another.

I came up with a new idea. I queried an agent with only the idea (via Twitter), but she said she would make a decision only based on reading a sample. So I had to write a sample of this book.

And in the beginning, there was nothing

I started very slowly. It felt like swimming in mud, like trying to get off the bed when you have sleep paralysis.

Some quick sketches. A few sentences scribbled down on paper, or on my phone, hastily, when the thought-fox came.

Then I evolved to 100 or 150 words per day. Only a paragraph or so for an entire day.

Then 200 or 250; then 350…. 500!

Eventually, I was writing around an average of 700 to 1,100 words — every single day. It felt glorious.

This is where I like to be. Think about it: if you average 800 words a day, then 90 days will give you a book. That wouldn’t be bad going. But it took a little while to get started.

It’s like an engine. A train gathering speed. The cranks start moving, building up steam, before the momentum carries. I gathered a wonderful head of momentum and I finished my 10k sample in about 5 weeks or so.

What helped my mind chew through the huge amount of thoughts running through my head as I began to get moving on my writing…

A few things helped. First of all, I found a new running route near my home. This route, through some woods, which saw a crop of bluebells as spring finally sprung, before jetting out into space with green rolling fields around me, was enlivening. It stimulated the spirit and therefore the mind.

The tools that helped me connect to the words and the process

Secondly, I started using a fountain pen. My stepdad bought me a set of Cross pens some age ago, as a Christmas or birthday present, but the ink had long been used up. I went to WHSmiths and got a new pack of ink cartridges (£5!), and after cleaning and draining the dried-up gunk in the feed, I inserted the new cartridge and started using this fountain pen.

Writers write. But our tools are not the satisfying variety of paintbrushes and paints; or the fun tactility of woodcraft with their lathes, chisels, and whatnot. So writers are left with pens and stationery. But I have gotten deep into this.

I started to love writing with my fountain pen. I started to handwrite more, inking up my notebooks. I began to understand that I’d relied too much on my laptop, thinking that writing didn’t count unless it was typed up on the screen. How wrong!

And I found I could be extraordinarily productive handwriting. I could produce half a page in twenty minutes. After this, I could get up and go do something else. But eventually I would produce the other half. Then, eventually, I’d type this up — editing as I went.

I discovered the joy of handwriting again. My Cross fountain pen does very nicely. But I started looking into fountain pens. And I fell into a rabbit hole. I discovered there is an entire field of enthusiasts, hobbyists, and passionate pen collectors. There are blogs dedicated to pens. And I started consuming YouTube videos where people review fountain pens! Yes, I fell deep.

Now, I’ve promised myself that after reaching certain goals I’m going to reward myself with a nice new fancy fountain pen. I’ve discovered that the more serious pens cost over £100. Yes, a ton just for a pen. Why so much? These pens are made to a superior standard; use pistons, converters or vacuums (so you can use ink bottles) for their inkwell, and they are fitted with gold nibs. 14 karat, 18k, and 21 karat are the varieties. And it’s not just aesthetic. Gold nibs provide a different writing experience to steel nibs, typically offering more bounce or feel. You can also get different sized nibs, so fine, medium, or broad are common sizes, to give you different line sizes and writing feel.

I also bought a Rhodia notepad and that has been extremely nice to use as well. The paper is great quality. I’ve discovered that Moleskine notebooks, which I used for a long time, especially when I was living in Beijing, actually has paper that’s not the best. My fountain pen feathers when I write in my Moleskine (the ink bleeding and feathering the paper). But the paper in the Rhodia notepad and my Collins notebook are superior.

Of course, if you don’t care and you’re perfectly happy to write with a pencil or any old biro on legal pads then that’s fine. But enjoying the tactility of a proper writing instrument, and investing it all with a sense of ceremony is not a bad idea, I think.

Writing news

I received my first ever Writer’s Bursary. I got a grant to explore England’s third-largest national park and to develop my creative practice for the Shifting the Gaze initiative and in association with Writing Our Legacy and New Writing South. Full details here.

I had my second piece of creative nonfiction, called ‘We Are All Born In Water’, published by a literary journal. This time for Liminal Transit Review, which you can read here.

Next posts… I’ll be updating you all on what happened with the literary agents (it’s exciting stuff!) and whatever else is happening. Subscribe to receive these posts in your inbox. Just type in your email address and hit ‘Follow’ on the right-hand side of the webpage.

The Journalist’s Christmas Wishlist: 2014 Edition

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Beyerdyamic T51i: $299/ £246

They are compact, well built, include an in-line remote and microphone, and offer outstanding sound quality. These Beyerdynamic headphones are highly rated (if you don’t believe me, check here, here and here), and are quite possibly the world’s best portable headphones. If there’s one piece of tech that’s worth spending more on it’s headphones. Unlike smartphones, cameras and laptops; good headphones made 20 years ago will still be good headphones today.

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Wishlist: 4 gadgets I’d love to do journalism with

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1. iPhone 5S, £549 (32GB)

Why? Because it’s pretty much all you need to do journalism – it browses the internet, sends emails, makes calls, records audio, takes fantastic photos and records incredible video. It’s a media production machine. I’ve heard of at least one freelancer who wrote entire features for almost an entire year using just an iPhone (more on that in a future blog).

The best thing about it is the quality of the images it can make. More than that, it’s the ease and convenience of it that puts it head and shoulders above everything else.

iPhone photos have graced the likes of Time magazine (front cover!), New York Times and much else besides. Conflict photographer Ben Lowy uses it almost exclusively and he’s covered Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring.

Videojournalism? Guardian reporter Adam Gabbatt uses an iPhone to make short video reports which you can see here and here. The Guardian’s SE Asia correspondent Kate Hodal interviewed Suboi, Vietnam’s first mainstream female rapper: “I interviewed her and she gave me an exclusive freestyle, which I caught on my iPhone and then uploaded to our editors in London”.

If you are going to make a video report however, do invest in an external mic – that is extremely important. You want decent video and audio. Some sort of tripod/monopod for it would be very handy too.

2. Surface RT, £279 (with touch cover £319)

The Microsoft Surface RT is a great productivity tool for journalists. It is much lighter than most laptops, coming in at 676 grams (the Macbook Air in contrast weighs 1.3kg), and has a battery life of 8 hours. Why get this tablet rather than an iPad? Two words: Microsoft Office. Apart from being cheaper than an iPad, the Surface RT unlike all other tablets has Microsoft Word. You’ll want the optional touch/type covers – which click in magnetically – to do any serious typing work.

Yes it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of apps Apple and Android tablets have, but so what. They are distractions you don’t need. You have the internet, email and Word (plus a front-facing camera for Skype calls) – what more do you need as a journo? You have a smartphone anyway for those apps. Another benefit is that you can split the screen in half – so on one side you can browse the web, while the other is on Word for example.

There are two Surface machines. The RT, pictured above, is the cheaper, lighter and smaller version, and runs a custom RT operating system. The Surface Pro is much more powerful (on a par with high-end ultrabooks), much heavier and runs Windows 8, meaning you can install any/all programs you currently run on a normal laptop. Most gadget reviewers say get the Pro, but I prefer the simplicity of the RT and of course it’s a lot lighter and much less pricey.

UPDATE: The Surface 2, an update to the RT, is to be released later this month. It’ll feature an upgraded processor, screen, back and front cameras and a kickstand that is more adjustable. The Surface 2 will retail for £70 more than the RT, at £349 (for the 32GB version).

Panasonic GH3 – a much better choice than a Canon 5D Mk 3, especially for video.

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, £1299 (including 14-140mm lens)

This digital camera takes higher-quality videos than a Canon 5D Mk3. And it is well over £1000 cheaper. Here’s an excerpt from’s review of the camera: “The enthusiastic and largely unanticipated response to the GH2’s movie capabilities by working videographers (Google ‘GH2 video hack’ to get an idea for how keenly its capabilities are being exploited) has meant that Panasonic must now also consider that its camera is being integrated into professional video rigs”.

Needless to say it also produces great photos, and for video there is simply no equal. The sensor inside the camera will be much larger than most dedicated video cameras. And while it won’t quite be able to beat the Canon 5Ds for low-light capability, it does have better video features, frame-rate options and better detail at 1080p HD levels.

For the aspiring video journalist interested in producing films with professional-level picture quality, look no further.

4. Moleskine notebook, £9.41 (240 pages, 13x21cm)

Not exactly a gadget but for someone whose profession is the creation of words, the pleasure of putting pen on paper should still be paramount. I bought my first pocket-sized moleskine last year and I’ve loved the aesthetic, the pages are crisp and a joy to write in. The dimensions are perfect and the pocket in the back is great for storing business cards and cuttings. I recently purchased the larger moleskin (pictured) and I have to say I like it even more. A4-sized notebooks still have a place in my stationary, particularly for taking telephone and face-to-face interview notes, as well as for diagramming article structure plans. But for the simple pleasure of writing and jotting down ideas, the larger moleskin has perfect weight and dimensions.

As design critic and writer Stephen Bayley said in a 2012 article entitled ‘The joy of Moleskine notebooks’: “there aren’t many things you can buy for £10 that are the best of their kind. I buy them compulsively. It makes you think you are just about to write, for once, something brilliant.”