Make the most of your writing time

funny sleepy puppy

Franklyn has mastered the art of maximising his time

I was going to call this post ‘make your writing time last longer’ but I reconsidered, deciding that it was probably an outlandish claim seeing as most people juggle jobs, families, and generally hectic lives, as well as their writing.

Not everyone can stretch their time to incorporate more focused writing, but we can all make the most of the time we have available to generate ideas, edit current work and generally further our projects. (This applies to non writers too – as you read on, replace the writing references with whatever hobby/work tasks are relevant to you.)

Here are a few tactics that I rely on to get the most out of my day and maximise its potential.

Exercise first thing. I find this stimulates the body and mind and unclutters your brain. How long does it honestly take you to get going in a morning? Why not use that time to get the oxygen flowing round your body and benefit from the feel-good factor of having a great start to the day?

Many people choose to exercise with a friend because they find it motivating, but I recommend going alone if you can. You’l find your mind fresh and alert, rather than bogged down with gossip/problems – and it’s much easier to get started right away on your projects when you’re done exercising.

Choose wisely. Some writers leave their work with a sentence unfinished, so they’re itching to get started the next day. Personally, I like tasks to be ‘completed’ (read – finished to the best of my ability in that session) before stopping. If you know you only have fifteen minutes to write, and that that’s how long it takes you to get into your character’s mind to work on your current chapter, for instance, don’t set yourself up for failure. You’ll only feel irritated and short-changed when you have to stop. Choose something else that will move you forward.

For instance, is there a character’s name that doesn’t sit right? Research alternatives and mindmap ideas. Is your title not quite working? Play with that. How about redrafting a paragraph of a short story that’s been niggling at you? Maybe there’s a themed submission you’ve got your eye on but haven’t come up with anything yet? It’s time to play with ideas! As writers, the task we choose is vital to our sense of achievement.

sleep kittens cuddling up

As you can see, my cats also follow my advice.

Switch tasks. If you swap between tasks, you can honestly write for longer. It’s a great way of maximising your time. I find that by the time I’ve edited two chapters, my mind is straying from the task in hand and any subsequent chapter editing isn’t as focused. In other words, I need to walk away until the next day. However, I don’t need to walk away fro writing completely.

If I switch to a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or even my next blog post, I work completely refreshed. I find, however, that trying to plan too rigidly can get stressful because you feel like you can never do enough. Write a list of the writing goals you want to achieve that week, with your main WIP prioritised. Once you’ve achieved your main goal, work through the secondary list one by one. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish.

Notebooks & other devices. All writers talk about the ingenious notebook – that magical place where we can jot down overheard snippets of conversation, plot ideas, observations and interesting facts that may be useful later. But they’re not that ingenious if they’re sat on the desk at home, unopened. Get used to carrying your notebooks around – make it a habit, like picking up your keys or driving glasses.

If you prefer technology, or a multi-sensory approach, use an app on your phone like Evernote to record ideas and inspiration. I love Evernote because you can take snaps, record your thoughts via audio and make notes – all in the same spot. And if you sync them online, you can access them at any time from any computer. Genius, hey? There are various diary and note taking apps available – try some free downloads until you find one that you enjoy using. Then you have yet another handy tool for collecting ideas.

Create time. Ask anyone about their day, and they’re busy. Almost too busy to tell you about their day. You don’t get many people saying – well, I read a paper, walked the dog, then sat staring out of the window, enjoying the view for a few hours. We’re all busy all of the time, but look at how you’re spending your day and ask yourself – am I spending my time wisely?

People with incredible lives make them incredible. They make choices that give themselves more time to do the things they want to do. Are there things you could do smarter? For instance, could you combine tasks, such as walking the dog to buy your groceries? Do you really need to sit chatting during your lunch break, or could you fit in an extra half hour of writing? Even twice a week? Is it really necessary to spend that much time on Twitter? Which leads us perfectly to…

Internet off. Not forever, but while you’re writing. When you’re writing, that should be your sole focus. Otherwise, you’re in your world, not your character’s – and how is that going to be believable to your reader?

Then there’s the distraction of checking emails, chatting about your writing on twitter (otherwise known as procrastinating), sticking up some inspirational pictures on Pinterest – ooh, and then I wonder how THAT writer’s getting on over on Facebook. We’ve all done it. But there’s nothing that can’t wait until you’ve achieved that day’s goals. So while we’re at it…

franklyn puppy with toy collection

Internet, phones, TV off. No distraction here! I’m 100% focused.

Phones off. Voicemail is the answer. We’re used to being completely contactable 100% of the time, but is it necessary? When police are patrolling the streets, they can’t use their mobiles – and their nearest and dearest wouldn’t even consider trying to call them while on duty. Likewise for librarians, schoolteachers, shop assistants and anyone else when they’re working. And so be it for writers. Only you have to make it clear – and stick by it.

No TV. I know this isn’t ideal for everyone but if you don’t switch the TV on, you’re not distracted. If you don’t have a TV, there’s no ‘switching it on for background noise’ then ‘accidentally watching’. When people go on holiday, they’re amazed at how much they fit in. Often, it’s because they’re not sat watching TV for a section of their day.

That’s not to say TV is a bad thing, but if you want to maximise your time it’s a no go area – at least while you’re writing. A less drastic alternative (and a nicer compromise) is to set a writing task that you have to finish before you switch the TV on. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Wait. This is the one that many find hardest of all – especially in the early stages of a writing career – but waiting is actually beneficial. Letting your writing sit for a while before redrafting works wonders. Flaws are easier to spot, tongue-tied sentences stick out and if the idea hadn’t quite blossomed enough, the gaps are easier to identify. In short, the quality of work you produce is often much higher than if you tried to redraft it day after day for a week. If you don’t already wait, try it and see.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters, but these things work for me and I hope they work for you too. If you have any other tips on making writing time more effective, please let me know! I’m always looking for ways to keep the day productive, stress-free and enjoyable – while making the most of my writing time – so all suggestions are welcome!

How will you make the most of your writing time today?

Gone, but not forgotten…

collie pup rescue dog

Our new addition – Franklyn

I’m referring to you. Yes you.

January is a jam-packed month as I complete the final edits for my next book – a YA tale about the effects of alcoholism. As a result, I’m taking a short sabbatical from writing posts for the Green Fingered Writer blog.

It’s not because of New Year’s resolutions – we all know they get broken as quickly as they’re made. Like a car or electrical appliance, their value disintegrates the moment they’re bought.

The reason behind my retreat is that I need to free up as much time as possible. To edit the book, gather final bits of research and to get some space from my manuscript.

I need to breathe.

I’ve realized that one of my many failings is that I don’t let myself wind down enough. I live in a beautiful place and lead a very fulfilling life – but my time is so rigid, I sometimes forget to have fun along the way.

Only sometimes.

It’s that whole ‘get contacts before you’ve finished the book properly’ multi-tasking syndrome otherwise known as ambition. Does anyone else out there fall prey to this?

It’s when life becomes all about achieving when, in fact, the process is what’s important. I know that – I’m possibly the idea’s biggest ambassador – so why does my daily routine regularly forget?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some photos of the beautiful land and seascapes that surround me. Hopefully, they’ll delight or inspire you. Other than that, I’ll be in absentia until the end of January.

Sorry for the disappearing act and I hope you understand.

But know this – even though you’re out of sight, you won’t be out of mind and I look forward to catching up with you all before the month is up.

Wish me luck?

The writing marathon

When you tell people that you just ran a marathon, they don’t ask whether you won. So why is it when you tell people you’ve written a book, they ask – where is it published?

The excitement of National Novel Writing Month inspired this post – as well as a trip to Dublin last month which saw me caught up in the crowd of the Dublin Marathon.

On your marks…

Every year, millions of people undertake the challenge to write a book in 30 days. They’re charged up with ideas, advice, pep talks and caffeine, knowing that what’s ahead of them is a big undertaking, with no ‘reward’ other than the satisfaction of having done it. And they’re geared up to help each other along the way.

The Dublin Marathon is the same. I saw people fly over the finish line, like they’d just finished a 5k race. Others hobbled or limped, but got there with smiles. Some gave up.

One of the most amazing things I saw was a pair of runners nearing the finish line who backtracked to support a man – I assume it was a running buddy – who was too exhausted to run any more. They literally carried him over the finish line.

There was also a vibrant crowd cheering the runners on, competitors turning back after finishing to lend extra support, jubilant pace keepers and roadside drummers providing a bit of inspiration. Like Nano, it was an almost tribal atmosphere.

I’ve not yet run a marathon (watch this space) but I first tried NanoWrimo several years ago and succeeded. Since then I’ve taken that model and use it to write every first draft, though not necessarily during the month of November. (Note: I’m being kind to myself there…the result is more like a draft zero, a below-par initial draft, but I find it easier to work with a lump of words.) And that’s how my novels happen.

But even though the Nano model is my standard approach, there’s no denying it’s a challenge.

Like the Dublin Marathon runners, many NanoWrimo entrants succeed, but just as many, if not more, give up. Life gets in the way or lack of motivation interferes. Sometimes the uphill struggle to stay inspired gets too much. Fair play for trying, everyone but…

What’s the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t?

As far as I can tell, it’s pure determination. We keep going when the odds seem against us. We rely on sheer will power at times. We take the knocks and merely stumble, not fall. And we do it together because that tribal atmosphere – whatever your goals – really counts.

Let’s also consider the idea of measuring success. If you’ve run a marathon, it doesn’t mean you would expect to enter the Olympics – and no one else would expect it either. Likewise, just because you’ve written a book, you can’t expect it to get published right away. Writing a draft of a book is just the first step. In fact, writing several drafts of a book is still ‘early stages’ in any writing career. There’s a lot more practice, training and improvement to get through. And if this is the first book you’ve written, it probably won’t be good enough to secure you that elusive book deal.

So enjoy the process for what it is; an achievement in itself. You got there. You wrote 50,000 words in a month. You learned something. Even if you couldn’t complete the NanoWrimo challenge this time around, if you’re serious about writing, the experience will inform your writing in the future in some way.

But most importantly, once the challenge is over, try to keep in mind that sense of togetherness.

When another person asks you about your book or congratulates you on something you’ve written, when you run an extra half mile or finally get up that steep hill, when you get shortlisted or accepted for publication, or when you shave a few seconds off your running time – doesn’t it feel better when you have someone to share it with?

Next time you’re listening to someone talk about their goals – whatever they may be – take interest, ask a question. If you’re amazed or impressed, show it! This could be all that person needs to keep going and not give up.

How will you get a step closer to your goals today? And how will you help someone get closer to theirs?

The wolf we feed

A beautiful book of Native American wisdom

I’m not sure where my niece got this, but she posted it on Facebook last week and it struck a chord…

An old Cherokee told his grandson: “There is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil – it’s anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good – it’s joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness and truth.” The boy considered his grandpa’s words and asked, “Grandfather which wolf wins?” The old man replied “The one you feed.

I’m not one for moralistic tales usually, but this one resonated because I do believe that as people, we have power over our own futures. In most situations, our own outlook affects the outcome. External factors can place difficult obstacles in our way, but it’s up to us to make the decisions regarding how we react and how our life moves on from there.

You only have to watch or read about other people’s accomplishments and the outstanding things they’ve overcome to understand what I mean. Take the Olympics, Paralympics and Special Olympics. Consider Nobel Peace prize winners such as Tawakkol Karman and Liu Xiaobo. What about Seamus Heaney and Kenzaburo Oe, two personal favourites who have been recognised for their literary efforts with the Nobel Prize for Literature?

All amazing examples of incredible people doing incredible things – and they’re simply human like us. Now, not everyone is going to change the world, but I do think that we have a duty to take responsibility for ourselves and our own achievements. Our happiness and fulfillment is up to us. We need to make our time on earth the best it can possibly be for ourselves and, in turn, for others. As you read this, I bet you can think of a few outstanding friends or relatives straight away who do just that.

This is also true when it comes to writing – or any other vocation for that matter – because talent will only get you so far. You achieve success through dedication, determination and will power. How you maintain this is up to you, but a positive approach certainly helps. If you’re stuck or not getting as far as you’d like, it may mean you’re setting unrealistic goals and expecting too much too soon.

But could it be that your own attitude preventing you from getting any further on your work in progress?

Take the following scenario for instance: You were expecting to write for four hours, but a water pipe broke and you had to spend an hour cleaning up the mess, securing it as best as you could. Then another hour was spent finding and organising someone to come and fix it. The plumber’s on his way and it’s going to take time to sort. You’re left with an hour of that writing time. How do react? Which of the following sounds most like you?

  1. I’ve only got an hour so there’s no point writing now.
  2. I’ve got an hour – it’s not much but at least I can jot some ideas down.
  3. What can I do in an hour? Better ask my twitter friends…
  4. I’m way too cross and distracted to write now.
  5. At least I’ve still got a whole hour for writing.

In short, the same situation can look different, depending on what attitude you adopt. Are you procrastinating and making excuses or are you writing?

Which wolf will you feed today?

Tortoises live longer than cheetahs

“Tortoises live longer than cheetahs”

This was the great advice given to me recently by @Nerin_, the lovely (and very energetic) brains behind krank.ie.

One of the major problems any writer trying to establish a writing career suffers from is impatience. I know because I suffer from it in abundance and have to fight on a daily basis to keep it in check. Yes, it may seem great to be sending out multiple submissions every month and to be completing a book or two a year, but only if it’s beneficial. Could all this activity be proving detrimental to your writing career?

I’m not suggesting that you don’t keep writing. That would be insane! Writers need to write, end of story. But take a look at what you’re churning out and answer me this question: Are you giving enough time for your writing to mature?

In the beginning, I certainly wasn’t. A few years ago, desperate to get published and to have my work seen, I was throwing out submissions all over the place. Now, I’d cringe to see some of them out there. It’s a bit like the first novel you write – the one that you should pack into a drawer and attach a chain and padlock to before storing in a vault somewhere. Whatever you write needs time to develop, mature and improve, but lets face it: some of what you write is going to be bad.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but some of those gems are mediocre. Disconnected. Unworkable. Beyond saving. You will have learned something by going through the process, but not everything you write is publishable. As writers, we need to learn to distinguish between what’s suitable for publication and what is simply a useful writing exercise that’s for personal use only. No matter how well you write, not everything you produce should be shared in the public domain. But this shouldn’t be seen as a negative issue: it’s part of the process that professional writers have to go through on their way to being…well, professional.

So, if you’re worrying about a lack of submissions, even though you’re writing every minute you can, stop being hard on yourself. It’s part of your chosen profession. Put your energies into writing as often as you can, make sure that your work is of a high standard, and enjoy the process. Don’t concern yourself with the result – simply enjoy what you do. Write for you, with high standards in mind. That way, you’ll eventually end up with a store of submittable pieces, without the added stress.

Remember: be a tortoise and don’t rush to submit your work. With a little space, you’re likely to spot a few areas of improvement, so be prepared and start your work early. Mark out competition deadlines early in the year and get a head start before letting your masterpiece sit for a while. Alternatively, if there’s a theme attached, look for one of your incomplete stories or poems to edit nearer the time. But take your time and make sure you’re 100% sure it’s your very best work before sending. You may end up with less submissions circulating, but…

Won’t you feel better if the work you’re showing to editors has had the time and attention it deserves?

(with thanks to @nerin_ for inspiring this post)

For the love of writing, keep going!

Rejected? Turn the page & start again.

Whenever you’re writing, no matter what stage of your career, it’s easy to become disheartened or start to question – what am I doing? After all, writing is a lonely occupation, full of uncertainty, self doubt and rejection. There are no guarantees that what you write will be good enough for publication or, if it is good enough for publication, that it will earn you any monetary gain.

But if publication and money are the only reasons you write, you might as well stop right now.

Remember, writing is a thing of joy – after all, isn’t that why we spend hours formulating ideas, reworking drafts, shaping words into the tales we want to tell? Of course there will be down sides – such as an editor telling you they liked your book but it doesn’t fit their current list – but these down sides are what make us better, stronger and more resilient. In short, the setbacks are what spur us on, so long as that’s the standpoint we adopt.

As @angelreadman recently tweeted to me: “Everytime I get rejected I feel down for an hour, then re-write the piece. I turn the disappointment into fuel.

Exactly! As writers, we have to take control of our writing careers in many ways; writing, marketing, evaluating and improving. But most of all, we have to keep going. No one else is going to write for us. And if we’re going to let every small criticism set us back, then we’ll stay static in our careers.

Writing is not like a standard nine to five job. You can’t have paid sick days. If you sit back and take it easy for an hour or two, you’re the only one that will suffer. You can’t hide behind a more confident colleague or let someone else make decisions for you.

Surely, that’s the brilliance of writing? As a writer, there’s freedom to schedule your own routine, to work on projects of your choice, to create just for you. You can mess up as much as you want; people will only see the draft that you want them to see. Everything else can be kept private and then turned into something positive. You just need to harness it as fuel for improvement.

But if you’re finding things difficult and are looking for inspiration, here’s a story that might put things in perspective for you…

Earlier this week, endurance swimmer and local hero Steve Redmond returned to Ballydehob, West Cork, after becoming the first person in history to achieve the Oceans Seven challenge.

Steve swimming round the dangerous Fastnet Rock

Returning from the Tsugaru Strait swim in Japan, the final leg of his record-breaking attempt, Steve said he was particularly delighted with the victory because at one stage, failure seemed imminent – and he had already failed this final leg three times.

But for Steve, failure was not an option. Like @angelreadman, he took the failed attempts and turned them into fuel for another try.

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming reported Steve saying:

I just can’t go home. Too many people have supported me… I cannot fail. This [Tsugaru] Channel will be the death of me. You just don’t know what this [failure] would do to me.”

As writers, we understand too well. So how did Steve put the past failures behind him and keep going?

Apparently, he concentrated on mantras from his children as well as focusing on the knowledge that he had his home village and county supporting him.

I use anything that gives me a mental edge. Marathon swimming is about as close as you can get to death while you are alive here on Earth. You lose all sense of perception while you are swimming in such difficult conditions.

As writers, we may not be facing life-threatening conditions, but we are facing a journey that risks failure. We’re putting our work out there – complete with passion, heart and soul – for others to reject and criticise (or hopefully enjoy and praise). Once we take the plunge and send off a submission, we can only hope that the reaction is a positive one.

But like Steve Redmond, we have to keep going. If we want to be career writers, we have to go against adversity and reach for our dreams, whatever it takes. This means writing from the heart, using every writing technique we know and learning as we go. We have to allow ourselves to fail and use setbacks to improve.

We’re human, so we’re often impatient and unrealistic, expecting everything to happen quickly. But it takes time and endurance to establish a career and success. It took Steve three years to accomplish what he set out to do – but I bet he would have kept going until completion, no matter how many attempts were required.

So, for the love of writing, keep going.

Read more about Steve Redmond’s incredible world record success here.

Write For You

Mine, all mine! (chocolates, Melbourne)

When you write, when you create your poems, stories or novels, who are you writing for?

As writers, most of us feel compelled to put ink to paper; it’s in our blood and acts as sustenance. It keeps our every day lives sane and bright. But as writers, we’re also slaves to ambition and dreams, and the biggest desire of all is to get published.

When it comes to content, there are two schools of thought; write what you know and write what you don’t know! As contradictory as this may sound, it’s all about sparking an idea that leads to brilliant, engaging, exciting writing.

Whatever you write, it’s generally acknowledged that you have to make sure it’s the best possible piece you can manage. Now, a piece of work might seem polished, but leave it for a while (weeks, months, maybe even years) and you’ll probably find many glaring mistakes and necessary changes.

But does everything you write have to be polished? Does every poem, story or novel have to begin with the aim of being perfect or getting published? What happened to experimentation?

As Rebecca Woodhead advised in the June 2012 edition of Writing Magazine, “stop being a constipated writer…Find your voice, and you will find readers.

At the start of this year, I made a pact with myself to send out more submissions as well as complete a new book. This was a direct reaction to the fact that I’d spent one solid year working solely on a Middle Grade fantasy novel and had written myself into a corner. So, for sanity and creativity’s sake, I marked out a multitude of competition and submission deadlines and plunged in, full steam ahead.

Now, half way through the year, I’m re-evaluating this idea. Yes, I had some shortlisting and publishing success, but I’ve found that while my ambition has been tamed, in some ways, my creativity has suffered. I’ve found myself adopting a severe, business-like approach, which has sometimes made writing seem like work.

It’s not that I’m saying writing should easy; we all know the amount of energy, effort, determination and tears that go into a great piece of writing. But surely we write full time for the love of it? As far as I’m concerned, we should be motivated to write well and efficiently, but still have time to play.

Of course, deadlines will loom and ambition will still snap at our ankles. So what’s the answer?

Instead of aiming for a masterpiece, let yourself go. It’s OK to experiment. No – it’s good to experiment! How can we improve as writers if we don’t try new things?

I’m talking about trying to write something in a different genre, a new voice or writing in second person instead of first. If you always write fiction, try adapting an idea from personal experience or vice versa. Don’t even complete a piece; list great first lines or titles, play with metaphors and sentence structure. Just have fun and you never know, it might turn out brilliant. But don’t let this be your aim; allow yourself to write just for you.

And it seems I’m not the only one considering this route. In an interview on writing.ie, Irish literary super-agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor advises writers…

“…You have to say to yourself: why am I writing? Am I writing to get a publishing deal or am I writing because I just have to express something? I think if it’s the former, that’s a difficult place to be. But if you’re writing from a pure place, I think eventually someone will connect with your work. I always say, ‘write because you have something to say’. Remember, we all love good stories.”

When was the last time you wrote something without any publication aim in mind? Is it time to take stock and reclaim the enjoyment of writing?

Back to Basics (Part I)

Get it right & you might be surprised!

Moving from a city to a rural Irish village has been at once rewarding, demanding, surprising, tiring, energising and lots of fun. Inspired by a collection of blog posts by @derekF03 on what songs can teach writers (see end of blog post), I thought I’d take a look at what my new environment has been showing me over the last year and a half. 

What has country living shown me that might be of use to others? (This is written in the context of writers, but would be relevant to any vocation.)

Conditions need to be right – Countryside living has demonstrated that if conditions aren’t right, nothing will grow – that’s true for lambs, cattle, vegetables and it’s also true for your work. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; if you’re exhausted, hungry, cold, if you don’t have the right equipment or right working space, it will affect your writing. I’m not talking about creating perfection – otherwise you’d never get any writing done! – but about making sure that your environment/writing conditions suit you is the best move you can make. I’ve been experimenting with my timetable since moving here and still haven’t found the perfect balance; but I have figured that I’m better off getting up at 6am to do a few hours of writing before tackling anything else than I am trying to leave it until the end of the day.

Sometimes nature needs a helping hand too.

Timing is crucial – We’re planting vegetables on a much larger scale this year and we’ve carefully worked out how to stagger the produce so that we’ll have a plentiful supply for as long as possible. A similar approach is needed for writing. As writers, we need to be setting ourselves clear deadlines to make sure that we are working at an optimum level; especially if we’re working on multiple projects. This doesn’t mean fitting as much in as possible (though I’m sure that’s something we all do) but we need to manage our time effectively so that we can give our work the dedication, focus and time required.

External factors arise – With my courgettes, it was unexpected gales; but with writing, it may be that a character suddenly doesn’t work and you have to rewrite them from the beginning. Maybe a story you were going to enter into a competition needs to be longer than the specified wordcount? In that instance, you need to decide whether to shorten it, switch to another piece or not submit. External factors could be ill health, exciting news, a sudden move; but guaranteed, something will always arise unexpectedly. But it’s your approach to these factors that will affect your work. Tackle them head on and adjust accordingly – and if it means delays, or a change of direction, don’t worry.

What can your environment teach you?

(Huge thanks to @derekF03 for inspiring these posts. You can read Derek’s blog here.)