5 things I’ve learnt about productivity in writing

I’ve become a bit obsessed with productivity, specifically how it relates to writing fiction.  Like many people I work full-time, commute a couple of hours a day, and do a lot of social and sports activities so I’m always trying to work out how to squeeze in the most writing time. Or more specifically, how to stop being distracted when I’m supposed to be writing.

Blackwater Creek Ranch, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, 2007

Blackwater Creek Ranch, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, 2007

I’ve tried several different techniques over the last couple of years and here are five things I’ve learnt. Many of them seem rather counterintuitive to me.

  1. I’m often more productive when I have a small period of time to fill, e.g. 20 mins on a train commute, than a whole empty weekend ahead of me.  It’s like large blocks of time are too overwhelming. I read an interesting article in Scientific American recently about downtime that says that people can only engage in deliberate activity for an hour at a time and the highest performers rarely practice more than 4 hours a day. Perhaps I’ve been beating myself up unnecessarily about my failure to crank out 10-hour writing days at the weekends.
  2. Teh interwebs are bad.  I use an internet blocking software called Freedom, although I’m often rather reluctant to engage it. Goodbye a few hours…
  3. Being in a slightly busy place often helps my productivity, e.g. a cafe (with no internet), a busy commuter train squashed up against the door, tapping away on my iPhone etc. There’s something about things being so quiet and lacking distractions that I find very distracting. It’s like I need to fill it with something. That something is usually not writing. There’s even an app you can buy called Coffitivity that plays the low, background chatter of a coffee shop to aid productivity. An American friend was talking recently about renting a log cabin and finally writing that novel. I know that would be about the worst situation for me to actually produce anything.
  4. Setting goals doesn’t work. I’m gonna write 100 words a day. I’m gonna write 2 hours a day. I’m gonna finish one chapter a week.  All fail…. The only exception is Nanowrimo, which is an excellent goal-setting device (primarily because of the community and accountability aspect, I suspect) and one I can’t recommend highly enough.
  5. Getting up early to write does work.  This requires a bit of discipline to overcome the soft, dark siren song of sleep, but more importantly it requires a project you’re genuinely excited to work on that will get you out of bed before you really need to. I’ve never been a natural morning person so I’ve had to work on this (and I still regularly fail), but I’ve definitely found it an extremely productive time to write.  It also has a very important secondary benefit. When you start the day writing, your head is still in that space all day and you get much more thinking and little bits of writing done throughout the day. I would make getting up early my top tip.

Back to the war

I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to immerse myself back in the First World War, getting ready to present my novel at the ‘pitch it to a literary agent’ event I’m attending next weekend. I’ve been reading (Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 and Undertones of War, the poet Edmund Blunden’s war memoir), watching tv (like the excellent Wipers Times) and chatting to re-enactors. As we’re in the thick of remembrance season, it’s been a good time to be doing this, with plenty of documentaries on tv.

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

I’ve also been re-reading my WW1 novel and trying to get to the core of what it’s about. I’ve been mulling over my 60-second pitch (relatively straightforward) and trying to rewrite the first page of the first chapter – the bit the agents will read (very much not-straightforward).

I’ve worked on about four different versions – different people, different places and I’m still not happy with anything I’ve got. I’ve got an idea for something new to try tomorrow, but I’m fast running out of time.

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011

Nanowrimo 2013

November is rapidly approaching and with it Nanowrimo. Usually I’d be wittering on about nanowrimo long before now, discussing my novelling plans and preparation. The reason I haven’t is that I’ve decided not to do nanowrimo this year for the first time in 6 years.

The main reason is that I have too many half-finished novels that I’m trying to get into shape and at this point taking a month out of the year to add another to the pile is not the best use of my time. It also has to be said that my excitement for it has waned a little over the last couple of years so, if I take a year off, I may be able to recapture some of that next year.

I really value the focus nanowrimo provides though, so I’ve decided to do a variant on it as a personal challenge. Writing a 50,000 word novel in November takes me an average of two hours a day. This year I’m going to commit to carry out the equivalent of two hours a day on another writing project. 60 hours in total over the month. I’ll log my time on a chart in the same way I usually log my word count.

So what is the writing project?

Over the last couple of months I’ve been planning a big project that I aim to launch at the start of 2014. This 60 hours will contribute to the preparation of this.

I’ll write more about it in due course, but for now here’s a teaser picture…

The start of a new project

The start of a new project

Fieldtrips and re-enactors

Three years ago I bumped into a moderately well-known WW1 historian one afternoon in the car park at work. I mentioned that I was planning a trip to the Somme that summer and he recommended we come along to Beaumont Hammel just before 6am on 1st July where he and some historical re-enactors would be commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme.

It sounded like a good idea. A few months later, I duly dragged my friends out of their tent in the orchard of a Chateau before dawn and we drove across the quiet French countryside to the small village of Beaumont Hammel. There my map reading skills failed utterly and I was unable to find the road we needed that led to Sunken Lane where everyone was gathering. Some time after 6am, when the battle would have been well underway, we stumbled upon an almost deserted First World War English army camp.

The only person left in camp was the cook. We had an interesting chat. I asked to feel the weight of his Lee Enfield rifle. He said he ought to check it wasn’t loaded first. Okaayyy…. The rifle was mostly made of a lump of wood and was heavy.

Having got directions, we finally made our way down the road to Sunken Lane. The wheat was tall and green, dotted with poppies. It was hot and getting hotter. A platoon of British soldiers marched past, followed shortly thereafter by a solitary German soldier on a creaking bicycle.

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The experience made me think I ought to spend some time talking to historical re-enactors to get those little details right. I recently started doing some research and, as luck would have it, I found out that the Great War Society were appearing at the Tower of London this past weekend. This would give me a double whammy of First World War and medieval architecture.

I hustled over early on Saturday morning and first met up with this very helpful woman dressed as a VAD ambulance driver, the same profession as the main female character in my novel.

Re-enactor dressed as member of the  Voluntary Aid Detachement, WW1

Re-enactor dressed as member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, WW1

The men were also out, doing manly things.

Kit inspection

Kit inspection

Kit and bell tents

Kit and bell tents

I also spent some time wandering around the Tower itself. It hasn’t changed much since the last time I was here about 10 years ago. I guess that’s what happens when you’re getting on for 1,000 years old. Change happens s l o  w   l   y. . .    .     .        .

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Medieval writing desk

Medieval writing desk

Armour

Armour

Beside the seaside – part 3

This is the final post in this short series (part one, part two.)

These postcards date from 1967 – 1987. We’re firmly in the era of bright, saturated colours. Holiday destinations of choice are firnly located in the West Country.

Brixham, Devon, posted 1967

Brixham, Devon, posted 1967

Mousehole, posted 1970

Mousehole, posted 1970

This postcard from Mousehole is an interesting contrast to the more brooding, grainy image in part 2 – here. This card above was actually posted earlier in date, but it has a later feel to me.

North Devon, posted c.1976

North Devon, posted c.1976

This and the next postcard are the places I spent my holidays when I was growing up. It looked exactly like that.

Start Bay, posted 1987

Start Bay, posted 1987

My parents now live not far from Start Bay and below is a photo I took the last time I visited in  May.  It was taken from almost exactly the same position as the bottom left-hand image on the postcard above.

Start Point, May 2013

Start Point, May 2013

As it was a bit of an uninspiring, grey day, here’s the same image after a bit of 1980’s-style Photoshop jiggery pokery🙂

Start Point, edited image

Beside the seaside – part 2

The first part of this series can be found here.

Not actually so many seaside images in this batch. I’ve ordered these by how old I think the postcard images are, rather than when the card was posted.

Llanberis Pass, posted 1965

Llanberis Pass, posted 1965

“We have just arrived weather was very good all the way, had a nice chicken dinner and waiting for another meal now.”

Food and weather – ticks all the postcard boxes. This is an ‘artistically’ hand-coloured b/w image”

The Sussex Downs, posted 1971-3

The Sussex Downs, posted 1971-3

I particularly like this pastoral image of shire horses ploughing the Sussex Downs. There’s something very pleasing about the composition and subtle colours, even if the sender wasn’t quite so happy…

“Temperature soaring up to 30F, lying on the beach in 4 sweaters, 2 overcoats and wellington boots. Car broke down, food lousy. Having a wonderful time, see you soon.”

North Wales, posted 1964

North Wales, posted 1964

Another nice image from North Wales, showing Snowdon. A picturesque view and I like the subdued colours.

Southsea rock gardens

Southsea rock gardens

I remember playing at Southsea rock gardens as a child. There’s something about this image that makes me cringe – perhaps the era, the twee manufactured-ness of the gardens, the women sitting around – doing what?. I’ve never liked overly developed coastal towns. My idea of hell is somewhere like Brighton, with tall, brooding Victorian hotels butting up against a bland, stoney shore.

Mousehole, posted 1977

Mousehole, posted 1977

This image is much more my sort of thing – a quaint Cornish fishing village. I make my first appearance on this postcard, sent by my mother to her parents. I was a 2 and a half years old at the time.

“We are having a lovely holiday doing nothing much except bowing to Jenny’s every whim. As the weather has been fairly good we have been going down to the beach a lot, which Jenny loves.”

There are also some scribbly pencil lines on the back of the card – presumably my addition.

Beside the seaside – part 1

On a recent visit to my grandparents’ house, my grandfather showed me another box of old postcards and photos he had dug out the attic. What caught my eye were the holiday postcards, dating from the 1930s to the present day. I’ve split these into three blog posts and will kick off with the oldest, dating from 1931 to the 1950s. You can click on all of the images to make them larger.

Posted from Bognor Regis, 1931.

Posted from Bognor Regis, 1931.

In the photo you can just make out the name of the beach hut – Linga Longa. This was sent by my great grandmother to her husband.  She writes, “I went to see the lady yesterday she let me have it for a pound a week as we seem such nice people.”  Presumably she was writing about the rental of this hut.

St Osyth Beach, Essex, August 1939

St Osyth Beach, Essex, August 1939

This was sent to my great grandmother’s family by friends, less than a month before the start of the Second World War.  They were “having a lovely time here very little rain”. No British holiday postcard is complete without mention of the weather.

Lulworth Cove, posted between 1955

Lulworth Cove, posted 1955

This was sent by my great grandmother to her son, John (my great uncle). I didn’t find postcards from the 1940s in the box – presumably holidays were interrupted by the war. My great grandfather was too old to fight but their son – my grandfather – trained to be a fighter pilot in South Africa.

The Old Mill Camp, St Helens

The Old Mill Camp, St Helens

This postcard was never written on or posted. It looks to be from around the 1950s and kept as a souvenir of a holiday to St Helens.

The Luck, Gurnard, Isle of Wight

The Luck, Gurnard, Isle of Wight

Another postcard not written on or posted that looks from a similar era – the 1950s. My grandmother was a great cyclist and would regularly cycle from London, where the family lived, to the south coast and Isle of Wight for holidays. It would take a whole day to make the 80-mile trip.

The sailing beach, Hayling Island

The sailing beach, Hayling Island

After so many holidays spent on the south coast my grandfather eventually moved there after the Second World War to raise a family. My mother and I were both born less than 10 miles from the place on this postcard.

If you’re trying to date a posted postcard and can’t read the postmark, this is a good website listing the dates different stamps were used to help you pin it down.

The next blog post will look at colour postcards from the 1960s.