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
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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
On Sunday we heard the sad news that Iain Banks had died. When he announced his terminal illness in April, I’d hoped we’d have him around at least until the autumn, but it wasn’t to be.
As a sci-fi geek (and in particular a lover of his Culture novels), I enjoyed this comment he made in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.
“An ex-neighbour of ours recalled (in an otherwise entirely kind and welcome comment) me telling him, years ago, that my SF novels effectively subsidised the mainstream works. I think he’s just misremembered, as this has never been the case. Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round.”
My grandmother died on the same day as Banks. She was 88 and had been in poor health for some time, so it was not unexpected, but it was a sad day nonetheless for the family. She moved to Australia when I was about ten but I was able to visit three times over the last decade, most recently two years ago, so I was able to get to know her a little as an adult.
She had been a successful business woman when she was younger, owning two clothing boutiques whilst raising four children. She loved painting and dabbled in a wide range of craft hobbies, a predilection we certainly share! From leather-work to teddy bears to embroidery – I often received handmade gifts for birthdays and Xmas.
With my grandmother and uncle, March 2011
Unless your narcissistic tendencies are extremely well-developed, all creative types will spend a greater or lesser amount of time wondering if what they’re producing is actually any good. With writers, there’s the tendency to compare your work to that of your favourite authors and come to the conclusion there’s no point even bothering.
I came across this quote yesterday that offers some encouragement.
“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”
Henry van Dyke
Bluebell wood at Coleton Fishacre, Devon, taken last month
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
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!
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.
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, 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.
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.
This week I heard the news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer and doesn’t expect to see out the year. Banks is one of my favourite authors and one of the very few whose books I buy in hardback as soon as they’re released. My own writing has undoubtedly been influenced by his over the years.
I actually cried at work when I first heard and read his personal statement. This caught me by surprise. I’m not particularly prone to displays of emotion about people I’ve never even met.
I suppose I should say that I’m really a fan of Iain M Banks. He is one of the rare breed of writers who happily inhabits both science fiction and mainstream genres. The appearance of his middle initial on the book cover lets the reader know there’s a higher than average chance space ships will make an appearance. His sci-fi novels are exuberant, unapologetic, energetically violent and witty. He is in love with the worlds and characters he creates and delights in exploring their darkest depths and brightest, most outlandish peaks.
Not so long ago I was finishing Banks’ latest sci-fi novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, and thinking we should have a good twenty more years of Culture novels to enjoy. Banks is 59. Now we know his soon to be published mainstream novel, The Quarry, will be his last.
Another reminder, if anyone should need one, that life is fleeting. Banks leaves us with the legacy of twenty-four published novels, of which any writer would be proud.