I once heard a story about a friend of the crime writer Val McDermid. This friend wished to call up her pal Val and find out how she was, only she was worried about interrupting the highly successful writer at work. The friend finally summoned the courage and picked up the phone, praying she wasn’t going to put Val off her stride and disrupt the creative flow.
‘Are you writing at the moment?’ the friend tentatively enquired.
‘Good God, no,’ came the reply. ‘I’m bleaching my tea spoons. I noticed how filthy they were.’
All writers, whether professional, or just starting out, will no doubt recognise this cleaning of one’s cutlery example as one of the many mundane displacement activities that appear to fill that day we have set aside aside for writing. These urgent tasks cry out to us from every area of our home and I don’t know a writer who has grown immune to the feeble cries of the washing up bowl, the form that needs filling out, the socks that need pairing up.
When J.K. Rowling was writing The Deathly Hallows, a book, I think it’s fair to say, with a fair amount of pressure around it in the form of her millions of fans, Rowling found that she was struggling to get the words down in her home office in Edinburgh. She promptly booked herself into the rather luxurious, one thousand pounds a night, five-star Balmoral hotel, not actually that far from where she lived. She ended up staying much longer than she intended and finishing the book there.
This grand gesture, change of environment, major financial investment plus no socks to ball, kind of a getaway can be just the thing to help a writer jump into the required mindset to work intensely on their writing project. It can spark energy and motivation whilst providing a clear head for thinking through the tricker problems of a novel.
This summer, along with working on a new book, I am writing my MA dissertation which consists of a creative component and an essay. When I bumped into my good friend Ced after a lecture last week and casually asked him how his dissertation was going, he turned to me with a look of horror in his eyes and told me he only had a thousand words. ‘Well, that’s a good start,’ I said, helpfully. Ced shook his head then told me that the following week he was going away alone to some rainy and remote corner of Wales to get the dissertation written. He’d done this last year, when another assignment was due, and it had worked well for him.
Well, I thought – the grand gesture that worked for J.K. appears to be working for Ced, too.
So am I suggesting you spend a lot of money on a remote or luxurious getaway in order to writer? Actually, I guess I kind of am. If you feel it might work for you. Of course you don’t need to spend a thousand pounds a night, although if you do, please send me an inspiring snap of your champagne chilling in the bath. But it might be worth making such a gesture to yourself, telling yourself that you and your work are worth it. You could even combine the break with a course, such as those run by Arvon.
Okay, but what if you can’t just up and leave right now? You’ve got a job, a family, people who need you to be there for them, or perhaps you’re just not fond of greenness and solitude, or hotel shampoo.
Fair enough. I can’t remember the last time I went away to write either. But then we return to the problem of desperately needing to bleach our tea spoons.
I find what works for me is having a writing routine. I try to write every morning, or at least most mornings, unless I am away or have to be out of the house at some unearthly hour. I am fortunate now, that I am writing and mentoring full time but I did used to write around a day job. This isn’t at all uncommon. Most writers do, and always have done. Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope used to write everyday from five thirty to eight thirty with his watch in front of him, until it was time for him to trot off to his day job at the postal service. He wrote around two and half thousand words every morning. Two and a half thousand! That’s quite a lot of words before work. And I wonder when he took his shower, had breakfast etc. I suppose the Victorians didn’t shower often. And I imagine using a wristwatch as opposed to a phone or laptop to keep an eye on the time meant Trollope couldn’t be distracted by the pinging of his inbox. Perhaps the old wristwatch, quill and candle approach might also be worth a try. Or you could turn off the wifi.
Graham Green also wrote most mornings, but around three hundred words (much more realistic, methinks). He used to say he could write a book a year that way and still have his afternoons free for engagements, although Greene’s novels, compared to Trollope’s, are relatively slim.
I know I’ve harped on about this before, but I really feel, that whether you can write two thousand, or two hundred, words each day, the important thing is to work most days. And, try and work around the same time. This way, you’re training your mind, getting it into the habit of showing up for work. Hey there mind/muse/inner creative genius – this is our 45 minutes where we sit, bum on chair, and write those 300 words. I’m here so you’d better be too…
Giving yourself a regular time to write and an achievable goal such as forty-five minutes of writing time or 300 words, really does help when it comes to telling all those distractions shouting at you from various corners of the house to shut up for now because this is your writing time. At no point during this forty-five minutes are you going to check your email, Twitter feed or get up to bleach your tea spoons. You sit down with your coffee/tea/gin and get to work. If you struggle to jump straight into the writing, I recommend you read a page of a book written by an author you admire or look over the last few hundred words you wrote in order to get yourself back into your story.
If you carry on beyond the forty-five minutes/300 words/whatever limit you have set yourself, then great. If you come back to the book after you’ve picked the kids up/returned home from work/had dinner or breakfast then that’s great too. But at least you’ll have done something.
Your novel will grow a little more each day and your tea spoons will still be shiny.