Note 1: No shed necessary. That's a promise!
Note 2: Those who came to the SAS Conference in Peterborough this year know all about this and know that it's called Stimulus Generalisation
Working well shouldn’t be difficult. Make a list of things to do; tell yourself that you will do a, b and c before lunch; apply posterior to chair; do a, b and c. But most of us know what actually happens: in the absence of a boss to enforce when and where we produce a piece of work, bad habits come into play and we (I) play Spider Solitaire, go on Twitter, answer social emails, pay bills, make more coffee, dust behind the fridge…
That was me, until May 2011. Years of self-employment and working from home had created appallingly chaotic working habits. I got the work done – never missed a deadline yet – but it felt unhappily ill-disciplined, ineffective, pathetic. Social, domestic and work tasks were mixed up; the hours spent at my desk were too long and ineffective; real writing seemed to come last, if at all. Work-life not so much balance as collapsed in a heap of tangled intentions.
In May that changed. Now, if I say “shed”, you’ll roll your eyes and want to switch off, but I promise this is not about getting a writing shed. It’s about stimulus generalisation, as I now realise, thanks to my clinical psychologist friend who nodded wisely when I told her how my working habits changed instantly, the day I got a shed. Stimulus generalisation is something psychologists harness when dealing with addictions and negative habits, she said. Hmmm, sounds like me. Does it sound like you?
I’ll briefly explain the relevant aspects of stimulus generalisation but then, more importantly, unpick the elements of what I accidentally did, in order to make suggestions that anyone can use to alter poor working habits, including internet addiction. (Disclosure: I’m not a trained psychologist, though some of my work involves a degree of understanding of how our brains work; I’m just making sense of what happened to me and what might help others.)
Stimulus generalisation is akin to a Pavlovian response, although reflexes are not necessarily involved. Behaviour (leading to habits) is conditioned subconsciously by stimuli around us. So, if you tend to have a glass of wine while cooking the evening meal, cooking the evening meal becomes part of the set of triggers to have a glass of wine. Aspects of cooking the evening meal are the general stimuli around you: the clock saying 7pm, the light falling, the sound of a partner coming home, your own body clock, the smells in the kitchen, all the cues to anticipation of a relaxing evening. Together, these stimuli subconsciously reinforce a habit; and breaking the habit will be very hard if you don’t break the stimuli. In theory, you could just say, “I won’t have a glass of wine,” but the stimuli play heavily on your desires and behaviours and you are pretty likely to have that glass of wine. Thus speaks the voice of experience.
So, let’s unpick what happened with my shed. Effectively, I had suddenly changed almost all the stimuli around me, in one go. This made my existing desire to change working habits much easier; it enabled an immediate fresh slate, allowing new stimuli to create new habits. In the same way, an addict is encouraged, as part of therapy, to remove all physical aspects of the situations in which previously he took the addictive substance. Move house; throw away posters, furniture, possessions; avoid the friends who accompanied the addictive behaviour; take up new activities; change as much about your life and environs as possible. Every repeated stimulus has a hold on the person, each one like a strand within a rope.
Let’s move away from the specific shed example and generalise the conditions which may make new behaviours possible, conditions which any of us could replicate if we wanted to break undesired working habits.
1. Desire to change. We need to know what we want to change, and to want it strongly enough that we will make effort and think positively about the outcome. Part of this may involve feeling sufficiently negative about the current situation.
2. Planning ahead. Making detailed advance decisions about the changes, and setting a date on which the changes will start, help prime the mind to activate those changes.
3. Investment. It makes sense that if we have invested time, money and/or effort in the changes, this will help motivation.
4. Rising anticipation. If we have to wait eagerly for the start date, this is likely to help.
5. Support from others. Support from partner, family or friends, and their own investment in your success, are likely to have a positive effect.
6. Out with the old and in with the new. The tendency of the brain towards stimulus generalisation means that the more physical surroundings you can change, the better. You may not be able to afford a whole new room, or to replace all the furniture in it, but the more you can alter the physical surroundings, the better.
7. The use of all the senses. Our brains learn best when several senses are used.
8. Blitzing it. I suspect that doing it all at once makes a greater impact.
Based on those principles, there follow some specific suggestions to help change working habits. Some are small and may seem trivial but your brain will notice more than you think. Some of the larger things won’t be practical for everyone and I’m not suggesting anyone does them all: pick a few that suit your situation; plan when to instigate the new regime; then do them all at once. Remember: once you have selected your new stimuli, make sure you apply them to your working hours, not your social or domestic hours. The point is to use a specific setting to teach your brain that it is supposed to be working, not doing social or domestic tasks. Or playing Spider Solitaire… The new environment will perform the role of a boss.
o Move your work-space to a different room.
o Rearrange the furniture in your work-space, including the position of your desk and your view.
o Redecorate with new colours, changing as much as possible.
o Choose new furniture, particularly chair and desk and whatever is in your range of sight while working.
o Create a time-table for arriving and leaving work; leave your office door open if just taking a break, but close it (lock it?) when your working day ends. Make sure you take everything you will need during the evening, just as if you worked away from home; use a briefcase?!
o Have a separate in-tray for domestic/social tasks, and only deal with them outside working hours.
o Even something small can help, such as using a specific mug during working hours, or a particular pen or notebook for “real” writing.
o Anything separate for “work” use will help: stationery, clothes, shelves, diary, etc. Make use of the visual element: eg if you use blue files for work docs, have only the blue files in front of you during work hours or in your work space.
o Use all the senses. The suggestions above are all about what you can see but consider the following: you might play music when working (or when not working); you might harness the sense of smell by lighting a scented candle when doing writing work, or enjoy the smell and taste of real coffee; and yes, you have my permission to eat chocolate to herald the start of a writing session… Anything that you can commit to doing every time you start what is supposed to be a proper working (or writing) session.
The more we can change, the more coherently we plan the changes and the more simultaneously we effect them all, the easier it is for our brain to break old habits and allow new behaviours.
But you’ve got to want to, as much as I wanted that shed, and you’ve got to keep wanting it. Old habits not only die hard, they can return. Be vigilant!
By the way, a new edition of my book, BLAME MY BRAIN - The Teenage Brain Revealed, is available from May, also with an ebook version.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called Ten Ways to Put Off Writing Before Breakfast
. Always one to push myself to achieve greater and advance further in my work, I’ve decided to revisit this idea. This time, with ten all-new procrastinatory suggestions, I’m taking the bold step of attempting to make it all the way to lunch
without doing a stitch of writing.
The following suggestions are all based on what I actually did on one morning, but can easily be adapted across a number of days, to suit your needs. So, as they say on the reality shows, in no particular order…
1. Play Angry Birds. This could be substituted for any mindless game on your phone, computer or other electronic device. If you don’t have any electronic devices handy, you can always resort to doing a crossword or your daily paper’s Sudoku puzzle if you have to. I have recently rediscovered Angry Birds after a long break, and it's a goodie. It’s beautifully addictive and can easily dispense with half an hour’s procrastination, liberally sprinkled across the morning.
|The beautifully addictive, and recently revamped, Angry Birds|
2. Walk the dog. For this one, it’s handy, but not essential, to own a dog. You can always borrow someone else’s dog if needed. Or just go for a walk on your own. If it’s a nice day, a leisurely walk along the beach, coast path, woods, countryside – or even just round the block a few times – is a great way to convince yourself that you’re clearing your mind ready for work and not actually procrastinating at all.
|Walkies. The perfect way to clear your mind ready for writing.|
3. Look at houses on Rightmove. Ohohohoho, boy, can this pass the time! Please note, you don’t have to be actively thinking about moving house for this. I adore my home and have no intention of moving house at all, but still managed to spend a good hour and a half looking at properties, whittling them down to the one I really liked, checking out all the pictures, the exact position on the map and imagining what it would be like to live there. You can also use the handy new facility that tells you exactly how much all the houses that have changed hands near to you recently have sold for. For property geeks and generally nosey people, this site is gold.
4. Eat an apple.* Yeah, this one doesn’t take all that much time, but for some reason I still managed to combine it with ten minutes of staring completely mindlessly into space.
|* Apple can be substituted for fruit of your choice|
5. Do some back exercises. I mentioned yoga in the previous blog, but you don’t have to be able to do yoga. I certainly can’t, to any standard that anyone who regularly does yoga would recognise as yoga anyway. But you can always do a few back stretches. This one, for me, is genuinely important and if I don’t do it a few times a day, my back feels like concrete the next day. Scatter these throughout the day and they can easily add up to half an hour’s genuine ‘It’s not writing but it supportsmy writing,’ time.
6. Phone John Lewis about a refund they owe you. OK, so this one sounds quite specific and you might think it doesn’t apply to you. But this is just one example of the many ways you can pass a good fifteen minutes waiting for someone at a call centre to answer the phone. Problems with your bank, electricity provider, mobile phone company, broadband etc etc. If none of those apply, you could always google plumbers in your area to find someone who can fix the dripping tap in your bathroom. There’s got to be something that needs doing in your house.
7. Pluck your eyebrows. We've all been there.** You are literally on the verge of actually doing some work and you just nip to the loo while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. (No one can reasonably be expected to start working without a fresh cuppa.) On your way to the toilet, you walk past the one mirror in the house that has great eyebrow-plucking visibility when the sun catches it in just the right way. Like it is doing now. You have to seize the moment (and the tweezers) don’t you?
** Guys, you’ll have to come up with your own equivalent for this one. Perhaps a beard trim?
|My current tweezers of choice. Have also doubled up to be used as a mini screwdriver for emergency tightening of tiny little screws on bathroom shelves that obviously needed tightening before doing any work.|
8. Go out and buy a TV magazine. Then go through the magazine with a highlighter pen, deciding on all the programmes and films you want to watch over the following week. A glorious half hour’s procrastination here. And it’s writing, isn’t it? Sort of. You're using a pen aren't you? ***
|***Please note, pic shows TV mag from December, which, due to being a Christmas and New Year special, can double the procrastination time for this activity.|
9. Phone a writer pal. If your procrastinating is going so well that you’re running out of morning, you can always combine this with point two by taking your phone and a pair of headphones on your walk with you. But if you’re nowhere near lunchtime and you’re down to the last two points, get the kettle on, make a brew and settle down for a good old moan, whinge and writerly chat. Again, a great one for the ‘It’s about writing so it counts as work, really,’ category.
10. Finally, if all else fails, go ahead and write a blog. It could be your own blog, a group one like this, or, if you have a new book coming out, you can really go to town and do a blog tour. This last idea can easily pass three whole days as you supply twelve guest posts for other people’s blogs. (Which, by the way, I’m in the middle of doing RIGHT NOW for my BRAND NEW BOOK, North of Nowhere
, which is, in fact, out today!!!)
|If you enjoyed this blog, please feel free to succumb to my shameless plugging and check out my guest posts on the other blogs on my tour :)|
And there we have it. A good morning’s (in)activity in a nutshell, at which point it’s surely time to break for lunch. My work is done.
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"What do you do when you’re not writing?" "What are you working on now that you’ve finished [insert book title here]?"
These are questions I get asked all the time (and I very much doubt I’m alone on this one). There seems to be a feeling among some people that when you are not in the middle of writing or editing a book, you’re sitting about twiddling your thumbs and achieving absolutely zip. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it took me a while to work that out. Being ‘between books’ can be a stressful and worrying place to be. But it doesn’t have to be.
I’m cooking at the moment.
It’s what I call that process when you’ve had the kernel of a really good story idea, but you can’t quite work out what the book is going to be. So you cook it in your head for a while and see if what comes out of the oven is a beautifully risen soufflé, or a sunken mass of sticky goo.
Everything else in my life is suffering at the moment because of my obsession with this idea. I’m inattentive at the best of times, but when I’m hacking through the jungle of ‘pick me!’ ideas to try and find my way to the Golden Temple of Story, I must be hell to live with. I wake at three or four in the morning, apologising as I turn on the light and fumble about for a notebook and pencil with which to scribble down the idea that my muse (who clearly keeps very unsociable hours) has decided to drop on me. Then I go back to sleep. Unfortunately, my wife rarely does.
Being a ‘pantser’ doesn’t help. I keep telling myself that if only I could plot; plan a route through the undergrowth before setting off on the journey, my life would be so much easier. But I’m not built like that. I have a sado-masochistic streak to me that forces me to make my writing life as difficult as possible. Not only am I a pantser, but I’m not a sharer. I shudder at the thought of telling anyone my idea, or asking someone to read the first part of a story to let me know what they think. I don’t even like letting my agent read early versions of my work. For me, getting an idea into something like a story, and a story into something like a book is an act of self-flagellation rivalled only by certain Filipino Catholics during the Penitensiya.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on index cards; Alexandre Dumas pere his non-fiction, fiction and poetry on different coloured paper (rose-pink, blue and yellow respectively). Edith Sitwell lay in a coffin before setting pen to paper; Colette prefaced writing by picking the fleas from her cat. Samuel Coleridge took opium, George Sand smoked cigars. Truman Capote only wrote on the sofa or in bed. John Cheever used to get up and into his only suit and take the lift down to the lobby with everyone else on their way to jobs in the office, then go to the basement, take off his suit again, and sit down in his underwear to write.
Superstition, habit, fetish, procrastination, ritual, magic, the muse. The Ancient Greeks burnt offerings on altars. Medieval poets had visions and fits. These modern stories (possibly apocryphal: writers make things up) of the lengths authors will go to harness their creativity are grist to the mill we keep turning out the myth of the writer as inspired, idiosyncratic genius.
|Colette: looking for fleas (by Jacques Humbert)|
But do these things really matter to writers, and to those wanting to know how to write, or are they a distraction? Surely what you need is rather more dull: to understand language, make up a story, and have the time and discipline to put that story into language. Do you really need a bizarre daily working habit, a superstition, a lucky charm, a (as people like to call it these days) ‘process’?
I need coffee; I need absinthe. I require music. I insist on silence. Special paper; my favourite pen. Only early mornings. It has to be late nights. It’s interesting that these superstitious rituals of inspiration are also generally means of repression, a way of fencing about the creative moment, defining its limits, at once trammelling and setting free. We dull our nerves with drugs so our neurons may fire, deafen our ears with music so as to hear our inner voice, confine our bodies to bed so our minds may travel far.
A friend of mine sums up his prerequisite to creativity in one word: boredom. I understand that. When you’ve gone past utter boredom’s mix of frustration and desperation, and reached the knowledge that there is nothing else to do, nothing else that is good enough; when you’re the blank fog, the empty slate, then it’s almost as though there is no choice
|George Sand, sans cigar (by Eugene Delacroix)|
I feel bad.
Bad as in unhappy but also as in base, blameworthy, conscience-stricken, deleterious, delinquent ... my thesaurus goes on and on, but you get the idea. Why do I feel this way? Because I've arrived on the wrong side of a deadline without achieving what I'd planned.
Does it matter that the deadline was self-imposed? Really rather ambitious? Actually not all that likely? Yes. It does. I'm serious about the book I'd hoped to have finished. Committed. Enthusiastic. Passionate, even. And yet, I am stopping working on this book because I need to be focusing on another (and, in case this other book should feel slighted, I'd like to put on record that I am serious, committed, enthusiastic and passionate about it too) - a book that also has a deadline - a deadline set by someone other than me.
Never missed one of those.*
Then I went looking for the origin of the term deadline. And found it in the American Civil War. A line was drawn in the dirt 15-20 feet inside the stockade of prison camps. Any prisoner who stepped over the line could be shot.
Those deadlines were definitely set by somebody else. Those deadlines you definitely would not want to be on the wrong side of.
Think I'll stop wasting time feeling bad and knuckle down ...
* touch wood
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By: Ruth Symes
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
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getting down to writing
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, Megan Rix
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On Friday morning I realised that at my current rate of writing, about 1000 words a day, I wasn't going to make the 21st of January deadline for my next novel. I like having deadlines, either from a publisher or self-imposed, as they help me to focus on what I need to get done but realising I couldn't make it produced: A) Panic - the sort of trapped by headlights and get nothing done panic B) Action - I emailed my publisher to ask for a few weeks extension. C) More action - during the weekend that's just gone, from 5pm on Friday until 5pm on Sunday, I wrote l0,140 words. I'd already planned out the story and had the thumbs up from my publisher so knew where I was going (roughly) with it - all I had to do was get words on paper.
|Picture by Marion Lindsay for Cat Magic|Were they the best, most considered words? Nope. Does that matter? Not a bit in a first, scribble, draft. Those 10,000 words can become polished and honed later - what I have got now is a much better knowledge of my characters (including one who had a minor part but is now a major player) and most of the crucial scenes written. Friday 10 am - stared at my book writing schedule calendar and realised that writing I,000 words a day would not get my next book finished by mid-January. 10.30 am - went downstairs and told husband, Eric, my concern. 11 am – nearby Travelodge booked for the weekend. 12 pm – Eric buys food and drink that only needs a kettle (at the most) to make. I pack some clothes and my work and make sure the dogs will be OK. 4pm – arrive at Travelodge and make ‘proper’ coffee using aeropress (more details of everything I used on my website.) Just make sure you screw the bottom on really well or you might end up with coffee everywhere like I did. 5pm – start writing by longhand using my Echo pen that can convert handwriting to text. 7.30pm – first 2000 words written.
Saturday and Sunday… Write! Write! Written! 4,000 words done each day.
Tips to make your writing weekend go smoothly:
1. No TV – I pulled the TV plug out and plugged my computer into the socket instead – the TV didn’t get turned on once (although I did watch a DVD on my computer about the subject I was writing on.) 2. Use the internet only to check emails and do absolutely necessary research. I was also in contact with my husband 3 or 4 times a day via Face Time. The dogs were also very interested in me chatting to them via the screen at first but soon got used to it. Loved how one of them kept tilting her head from side to side as she looked at the screen. (I did worry it was cruel initially but they got used to it pretty quick and made me laugh when one went and got a toy and brought it back.) 3. Be in the mind zone to write and pumped up to get on – this is exciting! Having nothing else to concentrate on besides writing meant I could write like the wind and I did.What writing in this speedy fashion meant is that now I can dip in and out of the book, secure that I like how it’s working and growing. It's a good feeling. Prior to taking this action I usually manage to write about l,000 words a day - so 4,000 a day was a bit of a jump!
Three other new things I’ve tried recently:
1. Not listening to other people’s opinions unless I want to: I used to get upset by the odd bad review but now find I’ve reached the stage where I can shrug them off. I even managed a smile at an email from an irate American reader recently who’d spotted a grammar mistake in my adult book, The Puppy that Came for Christmas' and wrote a back-handed compliment of: 'If a good writer like you can make a mistake like this what hope is there for the world.' Indeed.On the reverse side I had an email from one of my editor’s this week saying she’d been so busy reading my manuscript on the bus she’d missed her stop – a very nice compliment from a person whose opinion I value highly.
2. Being Vegan:
When I said I was going to take part in November's World Vegan mouth some people reacted with horror. ‘What are you going to eat?’ ‘How will you survive?’ I was asked. The truth is being vegan wasn't any hardship at all and in fact it was a pleasure. I got to try lots of yummy foods and made friends with some lovely new people and blogged about it here:
3. Re-visit from my first book:
I had my first book 'The Master of Secrets' published by Puffin in 1997 and a few years later I got a letter to say that it was going to be remaindered. It was a horrible sick feeling being told this - at first I couldn't believe it and bought up lots of copies. But the publisher did stop printing it and I went on to write other books and my first effort wasn't forgotten about (I often give a copy as a present to mycreative writing students saying I hope one day to read their first book) but I certainly didn't expect to hear much more about it. But in the past few weeks I've had first one email and then another and another from English language students in Argentina who are studying the book and it's been great. I'm so glad that there's life in the old book yet and it's being enjoyed again somewhere. One of the students even became my first newsletter subscriber. Megan’s book 'The Great Escape' has recently been shortlisted for the East Sussex Children’s Book Award. She writes as Megan Rix and Ruth Symes and her websites are www.ruthsymes.comand www.meganrix.com
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, growing up
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By: Stacy Dillon,
Julia Gillian is accomplished at many things including the art of papier mache mask making, spreading her gum across her top teeth, and knowing exactly what her dog Bigfoot is thinking. She is still trying to master the claw machine at her Minneapolis neighbourhood hardware store. She has been trying for 3 years to get the meerkat perched inside. Julia Gillian is also good at the Art of Knowing. For example, in the morning, she's knows exactly when her mother will butter her toast, and what plate she will put her toast on.
But this summer, her Art of Knowing is letting her in on the fact that things change. Her parents haven't been taking her for picnics, or really spending any time with her at all. They are busy taking double load grad school courses. And they keep sending her out for walks in the 9 block area she is allowed in her neighbourhood. That's not exactly fun. She still has her green book to finish and she is just certain that it is going to have a sad ending. She tries talking to her babysitter and neighbour Enzo about everything, but Enzo is a woman of few words. Thank goodness Julia Gillian can put on her raccoon mask when she needs a bit more courage to head out the door.
Alison McGhee has written a sweet "moment in time" story about Julia Gillian's summer. She is growing up, and fighting parts of it. Black and white illustrations by Drazen Kozjan perfectly compliment the story. Julia Gillian is a great read for fans of Ivy and Bean, Clementine, and those who have outgrown Amber Brown.
A while ago I mentioned that writers need time write - time away from other activities so they can really get on with something (we also need understanding families and friends who will allow them this time – that’s the subject of another post in itself…)
The other thing that’s needed is space. A little place in your house, garden or wherever, where you can settle down to write. I’ve heard writers tell of how they started off writing in a cupboard, under the stairs, in lofts and attics – even in garden sheds.
I’ve recently heard garden shed writers referred to as “the garden shed brigade” which I think makes it all sound delightfully subversive.
I started off writing at the dining room table and gradually moved up to the loft where I had a nice big desk and reference books close at hand. But as our three girls have grown older – now in their teens - they have begun to monopolise the home computer and have slowly but surely taken over the loft. I’ve found myself back at the dining room table. I miss my desk in the loft but at least downstairs I can open the doors and let in some fresh air.
Things never stay the same in our house though and it’s been decided that the girls need a room of their own. One of these rooms being the loft - so my desk and books need to come out to make room for a bed, wardrobe and one of our girls belongings.
I’m going to be moving into a shed – not the old one, but a nice new one where I’ll be able to put my desk and everything else. Until about a week ago I never dreamed that I’d be joining the garden shed brigade, but now that I am, I’m quite excited about it. A little space of my own to work. Will it improve my writing? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.
The only problem is that there is a lot of shifting, moving and decorating to be done inside the house to accommodate all the changes. And then there’s the garden to start on.
Cynics might think the whole “a place of your own to work” offer was just a dangling carrot intended to get me to redecorate the house from top to bottom – but not I.
New Year’s Eve. A time to reflect upon the year that’s gone; a day to hope for the year ahead. It’s only fitting that the final Awfully Big Blog Adventure entry of 2008 should be one which draws lessons from the events of the last twelve months; which looks at the highs and lows of the year in children’s books; which makes cautious but perceptive predictions about the future; and which concludes with wise wishes about where we might find ourselves on December 31st 2009.
Instead, you’ve got a bloke who’s excited about his new shed.
Well, I say ‘shed’; actually, it’s more like an extra room at the bottom of the garden (which, I suppose, is why the firm that supplied it is called Extra Rooms Ltd. A little plug there; but they deserve it). Really, it’s my new writing room, which I’ve been promising myself for ages - I first mentioned it on these pages back in August. And now it’s finally here! The long-awaited much-dreamed-of writing room is made flesh (well, wood actually. A shed made of flesh would be pretty yukky, don’t you think? Rather over-extended the metaphor there. Sorry).
Anyway, the point is that now I finally have my retreat, my little place all of my own where I can give my imagination free rein, uninterrupted by postmen and double-glazing cold callers, unable to distract myself with emails and the internet. Which means that this is where it gets scary.
You see, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll be a better writer when I have my writing room; that, free from distraction and able to truly concentrate, I’ll find the words pouring out and the ideas flowing. And, of course, when I’m in the house and sighing with exasperation at yet another phone call, or trudging down to the local library in search of that elusive corner of peace and quiet, it’s easy to tell myself that. But what if it isn’t true? What if the problem is actually me, and not my environment at all? What if I’ve just spent more than I earn from writing in the average year on something that will make no difference at all to my output? What if I am really just a very slow and lazy writer???
Pshaw! (Is that really how you spell that? It looks odd written down. Ah, well; no matter). Pshaw! I say again. Away with such negative and defeatist thoughts. Tomorrow dawns a new year and with it, for me, a new way of writing - or, at least, one with fewer excuses for not getting any writing done. I’ll let you know how it works out; but actually I’m quite hopeful. And excited. Which is just how it should be at the turn of the year.
Happy New Year, everyone; and to all the writers among us, old and young, rich and poor, published and unpublished: in 2009 may your imagination rise towards new horizons like the balloon of Oz, may your ideas multiply like the kin of Hazel, and may the words flow like the rivers of Narnia after the thaw.
As I write this (on Wednesday night), my eyes are bleary, my head is filled with jam and my bed seems like the most beautiful place in the world.
But, I can’t go there yet.
Because, you see, writing this blog entry is a Nicola MorganTM Work Avoidance Strategy. I am hours away from the end of a word marathon – Nanowrimo style. A rough draft of a novel in 31 days, to be precise.
It seemed like a ridiculous idea when Ally Kennen suggested it to me; find a group of writers willing to write 50,000 words in a month and log their progress in public (it’s actually a yahoo group, but still, your word count is there for people you’ve never met to see!). But, a group was duly found. And, for the last just-under-a-month, we’ve been hard at it. Some have dropped out, some will carry on after the month is up, some will hopefully hit 50,000 and be able to watch Eurovision guilt-free.
It’s been a really interesting experience. There were some people who thought it was a bad idea – the quality will be so bad it will depress you; real writers have to let the story come in its own time; you won’t have time to think through your choices properly.
All valid points.
Especially, the point about the quality, boy oh boy, that one’s true alright.
But I have learned a lot about myself as a writer.
First of all, writing has to come top of my to-do list for the day. No nonsense. It’s my job. Full stop.
Second, if it can’t come top of the to-do list, it can still be fitted in. Even on a really busy day, a fifteen minute burst can produce 500 words. Three of those in a day will move the novel on by one scene.
And, finally, I really like working with other people around me – even if they’re virtual people. I like the support. It feels a bit more like ‘going to the office’. I think it would be lovely if there were writer’s studios, in the same way as there are artist’s studios. With a water cooler. And a photocopier. And dress-down Fridays. And Christmas parties...
Oh dear, I must be more tired than I thought.
But, I can’t stop, I’m on 47,690 words and my MC is stranded in the desert, a nomad army surrounds him and the water's run out...and I’ve only ‘til the end of Thursday to rescue him.
Looking back: longtime readers of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure may recall that in the last post of 2008 I got all excited about my new shed; but I did admit to worrying that perhaps all it would do would be to rob me of excuses for being so thoroughly unproductive and inefficient. "I'll let you know how it works out," I said.
Well, we're more than 6 months in now, and so far my investment is, thankfully, looking pretty sound. Yes, it has pointed up a bit of a tendency to procrastinate - it's often as much as a couple of hours between getting the kids off to school and actually sitting down in the shed to write - but once I get down there it's like entering a different reality.
Really, that's only slightly hyperbolic. Let me give you this illustration: on Monday, I spent most of the working day trying to sort out a problem with my internet banking (which, by the way, is still not resolved, and if anyone from the Newcastle Building Society is reading this, I'd be grateful if you could get someone from the Knows What They're Talking About Department to make the phone call I was told would be coming on Tuesday. Thanks). At about 3:00pm I decided I ought to at least pretend to do some work, though I was pretty certain I was too wound up to get anything useful done. So I stomped bad-temperedly down to the shed, opened the door (huffing and tutting), stepped inside...
...and something changed. My shoulders unknotted - not completely, but noticeably - and some of the tension, at least, just lifted. My mind let go of the problem with the building society, and took hold of the story I'd come down to pretend to focus on.
I was At Work.
I could say an awful lot about the benefits of the shed - the Wordshed, as a friend of mine has named it - but I think this encapsulates what makes it special, what makes it My Writing Place, and why I was right to spend all that money on it. When I enter it, my mind knows why I've come, and just slips into that mystical Zone that writers sometimes talk about. All the stuff that gets in the way when I try to write in the house, all those other jobs I should be doing, just don't exist while I'm in the shed. When I'm there, I am A Writer, and Writing Is What I Do. And consequently, I do more writing.
Looking forwards: Hard to believe, I know, but An Awfully Big Blog Adventure will be one year old tomorrow! Hoorah! And we're having a party - a virtual party to which you're all invited. There'll be virtual cake and balloons, posts by some very special guests, and updates throughout the day - including some posts for which the comments will be the important part. So please drop by from time to time during the day, and remember: if you need a displacement activity on July 10th, An Awfully Big Blog Adventure is the place to come.
And finally, a plug: we're often quite reticent about plugging our new books here on ABBA, and perhaps we shouldn't be. So just in case anyone is interested, my latest, Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom, was published last Thursday. Do keep a look out for it - and if you'd like the chance of a signed copy, it'll be one of (at last count) 35 titles being offered as prizes in the great Awfully Big Blog Adventure Birthday Giveaway.
See you tomorrow!
At times it seems the only kind of writing that doesn’t get done is writing the book I want to write.
‘Can we have 100 words about when you were ten? Can we have a short biography for our website or a blurb for the event you are doing for us next year- we need it next week!’ Updating my website, or writing a blog, or a guest blog or emails, (I don’’t twitter… yet) but still the list is pretty much endless.
Writers are always being asked to write this or that, the day to day little bits of writing that we agree to because they don’t seem like huge tasks but eat into the creative writing time. When you are already feeling pressured to meet a deadline these little pieces that need to be right are enjoyable just because they are short, and often they are challenging also because they are short.
Personally I am sure it is often because despite being desperate to get down to writing the novel (or whatever it is I should be writing), and I do often wake up in the morning with ideas buzzing in my head, by the time I get to my desk I get distracted and before I know it an hour or two has vanished so it is time for another cup of coffee, to put the washing out and try once again to make it out to ‘Tuscany’, my shed, where I long to be.
I can imagine those who have a ‘day job’ wishing they had that freedom to choose but it is so much more difficult to drag myself away from my ‘house desk’ where all these distractions are, than to go straight out to Tuscany – however delightful that sounds.
Some months ago I joined in with some other SAS writers to try a Na No Wri Mo (ie write a novel or 50,000 words in a month) and I did find the challenge of putting up our word count on a specially designed site was good for making me start each day, or at least get to the shed each day. Because of other commitments I only managed to do it for just under three weeks, but the 30,000 words I wrote formed the basis for my new teenage novel which is coming in the spring of 2010, so it really did work.
So with renewed determination I am starting off with a challenge to myself, to get to Tuscany every day - BEFORE I do anything else – for the next three weeks. Starting tomorrow of course, because today… you see, I had this blog to write…
Find out more about Linda on her website www.lindastrachan.com
I’ve been very lucky with my writing career and had a number of books published. I now find myself in the position where people ask me questions about getting published, how to contact editors etc. etc. So much so that I’ve decided to run courses and one-to-one coaching sessions aimed at aspiring authors trying to break into the industry. A venue has been booked and I am beginning to advertise these courses.
It was for this reason I attended a local networking group. I gave my one-minute ‘elevator’ speech and sat down hoping I’d made the right impression and given the relevant details. When the meeting concluded a woman I know from a previous life came over to talk to me. She told me she had a close friend who had written a book but had not managed to get it published. “What should he do?” Without thinking I started with the “well he should research other books already published in the same genre, who had published them, why is his book different?” Then the little voice inside my head shouted, “STOP! Why are you here? Get this guy to come to your classes, don’t give away all your knowledge for free.”
At first I felt a little guilty that I wanted to gain financially and was asking aspiring authors to pay for my time and knowledge. However I attended my local monthly craft club just last week and met a new member. She is in the last year of her degree studies and is thinking about writing for a living. As we sat talking I found myself offering hints and tips on how to get started. At the end of the night we swapped cards and as she wrapped her scarf around her neck she said, “I should have paid for all the help you gave tonight, thank you.” So now I don’t feel so guilty.
It has taken me ten years to get to where I am today in my writing career. I’ve made many a mistake, been educated by some wonderful editors and paid to attend classes. So why do people assume I should give this knowledge away for free? If the car were playing up they’d take it to a garage and pay for the engineers expertise. If the boiler were making odd noises they’d call a plumber and pay them.
So although I’m more than happy to give away a few hints and tips, listen to how they’re making the same mistakes I did, sympathise with a lack of success etc. etc. I no longer feel guilty about selling the idea of attending one of my courses or one-to-one coaching sessions. You never know in ten years time they’ll be helping the next generation of authors in the same way and struggling with the idea of charging for their expertise and knowledge.
So now for the guiltless plug.
Interested? Then email me at email@example.com
Warning. This personal reflection contains Product Placement but unfortunately with no Financial Reward.
I’ve just come back from a weekend conference in Peterborough among some of the lovely people in the Scattered Authors Society, including Jacob Sager Weinstein and his amazing ticking red tomato.
The Conference was crammed with interesting sessions, including a talk by Uber-Librarian Joy Court. However, Jacob’s talk on “Increasing your Productivity” received some surprisingly alert attention.
This might be because it was the first item on Sunday morning after a late Saturday, when one has hopes of the week ahead. Or perhaps because we were far away from our over-loaded desks, Lists of Things to Do (now being broken down into small manageable tasks) it was possible to luxuriate in the fantasy that we might end up in control of our time, dreams and life.
Jacob is a young man and co-parent who, in desperation, studied how to Get Everything Done. I am not sure if he read Mark Fosters’ book of same name but he brought us a variety of useful time management techniques.
Jacob charmed us with tales of “tickler files”, set up for days, weeks or even months so we kenw when everythingh ad to be done by. I noted that he did not suggest tickler files for years or decades, which made me think he does not truly appreciate my personal level of procrastination.
He spoke of the need to break overwhelming tasks down into smaller manageable tasks. This is sometimes known as the“How Do you Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time!” concept although this is not a very vegetarian or ecologically sound image.
Jacob also addressed the problem of Procrastination by Proxy – that brief “five minutes” glancing at emails & FB & Twitter & blogs & websites & media . . . and on . . and on . . that begins around 9am and ends around 12..25, which is lunchtime, virtually and truly, and half the day gone.
Jacob suggested using the “Read Later” tool, which seemed as useful button to click (once I’ve found it) as well as various computer programmes that switched things off or hid them from sight and made lots of sense. I may not venture there. With my shallow IT knowledge, I could barricade my information highway forever. Hmm. Was that my email pinging? Think there was something about silencing such sounds too. Oh. Emails. Emails about FB. Oh. Yes.
Now, where was I?
The moment of definite buzz when Jacob showed his Pomodoro slide, that's where. For those who don’t know, the Pomodoro is a bright red plastic tomato-replica timer. As the big red fruit appeared on the screen came choral mutterings of “Where can you buy one?”
Wisely, Jacob ignored them but explained further. The Pomodoro
is a simple but effective procrastination-beating tool, especially when used by for writers.
Briefly, writer decides on the task, sets the Pomodoro for a shortish time such as 25 mins. Writer works fixedly for that time, resets the Pomodoro to give a 5 mins break for coffee, attending to the hun