Category Archives: Novel writing

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.


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



Work spaces

A couple of weeks ago I moved house again, ten miles east to another leafy South London suburb. One of the first things I did was get my writing space set up. My new room is much larger than my previous one, which means I can keep the desk far less cluttered, something I’ve come to appreciate more and more.

Essentials include my laptop, pen-pot, note pad, scented candles, mug of fresh coffee and my dusty pup. The framed picture on the right is a relatively new addition – a postcard I picked up in the V&A museum shop that says ‘This is where the magic happens’.

New desk set-up

New desk set-up

I also have two bookcases in the room that hold all my books, reference materials and printed manuscripts.

Of the two available rooms in this house I picked this one as my bedroom because of the bay window and the morning sunlight to inspire me to get up and write. In doing so I passed on having the following view of the City of London. Hopefully that will prove to be a productive decision!

Looking north towards the City

Author Mary Carroll Moore wrote recently about the importance of workspaces to writers and artists. Her blog post links to some interesting photos of the workspaces of famous writers.

Ups and downs of editing my novel

Since January I’ve been getting up early before work to write. When this works it’s really successful. Not only do I get around an hour’s good writing done each day but, when I work on my novel first thing, it makes me think about it much more throughout the day. I’m more likely to continue to write whilst commuting and in the evening. It keeps it ticking over in my brain. Like a simmering cauldron.

And it gets easier and easier. The more you write – the more consecutive days you rack up – the easier it is to slip into that world and pick up the threads again. The excitement builds. It’s like solving a puzzle; the pieces fall into place.

Unfortunately getting up early can be derailed by all manner of things: a busy week at work with early starts; late nights out socially; or just generally not sleeping well. Last week I did it every day but one. The week before I didn’t manage it at all. Still, it seems to be getting more of a habit as time goes by and it’s something I look forward to each morning. Or that might just be the very strong cup of fresh coffee.

Inspired by Holly Lisle’s one pass manuscript revision, I’d planned to get my novel to around 95% complete after this first edit, so that only little tweaks would be needed to tidy it up. I’m finding that this is just too ambitious bearing in mind the state of the first draft.  While calling it Frankenstein’s novel might be a bit cruel (debatable) it was written in fits and starts over the last seven years and I’m finding I need to rewrite the vast majority of it, as well as still developing a lot of character back story and world building.

I was finding myself getting hung up on making everything perfect before progressing, and hence not getting beyond the first couple of chapters (a state in which I spent most of my twenties and which only the discovery of nanowrimo freed me from). For example, I’ve spent a lot of time (to date still unsuccessfully) trying to come up with a good succinct description of this mountain view, which features in the second paragraph of the novel.

Taurus Mountains, near Termessos, Turkey

Taurus Mountains, Turkey. Or is it the mountains of Narrabosz, just over the Oltuxcan border…?

So I’ve scaled back my ambitions and I’m now working to take the second draft to around 85% complete. Things are going much better and I’m getting through the chapters. I’ve written an ambitious schedule to complete a chapter a week which will take me to mid-November. So far we’re on track.

Hard-earned experience

I’ve recently been enjoying the Quebec-set crime fiction novels of Canadian writer Louise Penny. I came across this interview where she talks about her writing and was particularly struck by the following paragraph. When you’re struggling to wite, it’ s almost inevitable you’ll compare youself to the bright young things who publish at an early age and draw the conclusion that you have no innate talent and nothing of value to say.

You started writing novels rather later in life, so your writing career has been relatively short. Do you ever wish you had started writing fiction right at the beginning?

You know, I tried. Every decade of my life I attempted to write a novel. But I had nothing to say. I was far too self-absorbed, and now I realize I was writing for others, so that they’d applaud me, see my genius, tell me how wonderful I am, or be jealous of my success. One of my favourite lines of poetry is from Auden’s elegy to Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” I had to be hurt into writing. To be wounded enough. Humbled enough. I had to learn compassion. Had to learn what it felt like to hate, and to forgive and to love and be loved. And to lose people close to me. Had to feel deep loneliness and sorrow. And then I could write.