Writers write, don’t they?

seagulls and fishing

I took this action shot out fishing a couple of weeks ago. I get a real kick out of watching them feed as we gut the day’s catch and share our feed with some feathered friends

To be a writer you have to write, that is true, but I believe that you also have to live life to the fullest to be able to write well. That means looking after your health and mental health, stimulating your curiosity and experiencing new things. You also have to make sure you have enough time out to let the ideas, characters and stories in your brain settle. Like Helen Moorhouse wrote recently, perhaps you don’t need to be writing to write!

This is a concept that I’ve struggled to come to terms with. When I gave up my city job to pursue a writing career a couple of years ago, I thought I had to sit at my desk for eight hours every day, slogging away no matter what the outcome. True, some writers do work like this, but for me, it’s not productive.

It’s taken some time to figure out and lots of jiggling and reworking of schedules, but I’ve found that after a certain amount of time, my writing suffers and my ideas channel themselves down one dull, lonely path.

Like Niamh Boyce and many others, I’m an intuitive writer, so I write a ‘draft zero’ without any planning and see where the characters and story lead me. I often have a name or a feeling, a sense of what a character is experiencing in my mind, but other than that, it’s a free for all. And sitting there for eight hours in a day does not work if you write this way.

Sometimes I get a powerful writing bug and my bum-glue seems more adhesive than usual – I can certainly edit/redraft for long periods of time –  but when I’m starting a new project, I tend to write in bursts. An hour here, half hour there, two hours later. I split the writing up over the day (especially in winter when the nights are long) and let my brain unwind and tick over in between.

autumn in ireland

Sometimes I’ll be helping with hay bales, sometimes I’ll be taking walks and admiring the newly cut silage or painting big X’s on the wrapper to deter the crows.

I take walks, swim, garden, cook, read, watch films and documentaries, I go fishing or meet up with friends for tea, then start all over again. This means that each time I sit down, my brain is recharged, my body energised and it’s like I’m writing for the first time that day.

I do work as well – part time in a bookshop and part time with my own social media business – and these provide a good distraction, balancing out the hours spent alone at a computer. Work makes me appreciate all the free time I have to write, but I still dream of the day when I can just write.

I attempt to take days off from both writing and work to fully recharge, but I find this extremely difficult to do and if I don’t elope from the village for the day then I’ll find myself doing one or the other (usually both).

So what’s this post all about? I guess it’s two things. Firstly – it’s OK not to be writing sometimes and secondly – we all have to find a way to write that works for us.

I’m always interested in the writing process and how other writers handle their work/life balance, how they keep motivated and get the best possible results. Does any of the above sound familiar to you or do you work completely differently? Are you an eight hours a day person or a short bursts devotee? I’d love to hear all about it.

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Is your routine good enough?

Early to bed and early to rise,
Is the way to stay healthy, wealthy and wise… (Ben Franklin)

Unfortunately, the above saying doesn’t quite fit everybody’s lives, otherwise things might be a bit simpler. People change more frequently than the seasons, and so it’s important that we evaluate the things that matter to us on a regular basis. We need to take stock of our goals, our priorities and – perhaps even more importantly- take a look at whether our daily routine can make the magic happen.

How do you approach your day? Does it give you the best results? Does it leave you feeling satisfied?

Are you aiming for the sky?

Recently, I’ve found that my usual writing routine is no longer working. Using time like a sliding tile puzzle, I’ve been slotting set chunks of writing time around other daily demands. Writing is my main ‘job’ and my top priority, but increasingly, the day-to-day stuff has taken over.

This summer, for instance, around the usual requirements for writing novels, tending an acre of vegetables, helping on the farm and running my social media business, we’ve encountered runaway calves, freak weather, crop disasters, summer floods and especially crafty foxes.

Although I’m achieving my goals, I’m frustrated. I still write every day but it doesn’t feel as productive or high quality. In short, I’ve grown tired and irritable – and this is proving counterproductive.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It took a while to notice that my routine wasn’t serving its purpose any more. Work smarter, not harder has always been my motto, but somehow it’s slipped. I need a change and it has to be more rigid. This might seem obvious, but to be honest, I balk at the idea of doing anything rigidly. I usually find that I produce better quality work when I’m allowed to mix it up to fit with my mood that day. Until recently, that is.

So, what better way to get on the right track than by throwing my conundrum out on twitter?

Oh dear tweeps, I’ve realised something that makes me shudder: I need a routine. There, I said it. ROUTINE *quakes under pillow*… Would anyone like to share their routine to help me get back on track?

As you would expect, the replies varied, but each offered its own bit of wisdom:

@HazelGaynor Up at 6am. Make cuppa. Write. Feed & entertain kids (repeat ad nauseam). Hopefully eat. Put kids to bed. Pour wine. Write. Sleep.

This is a serious writer with a super-busy schedule who is using the best of her free time to make sure that writing still has priority. This is how I used to work when I had a demanding office job – and it’s what I’ve still been trying to maintain. But I don’t have kids, my day is my own and I’m free to write whenever. However, the rigid approach is key.

@angelreadman I go to desk every weekday morning with 1st cup of tea, every weekday (I don’t usually do weekends), if I don’t day takes over… it’s crucial. I go away for lunch, do other things, come back later for short bursts when I’ve recharged- weekends sun, allotment!

Wait – days off? No-one said that was allowed as writer! Angela is a genius!

In seriousness, I’ve maintained writing for hours every day and guess what – it may work for some but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve been burning out and then forcing more words which aren’t that great and need a lot of work. Hence the feeling of unrest – I’m not rested!

@mariam_kobras I get up around ten (yes, I know, late; but bear with me!), make coffee, read mails, check twitter and facebook, and write…
about 500 words until lunch. Then in the afternoon I write another 500 to 1500, and in the evening I work with the publisher…
who is in NY and hence in a different time zone, which is why I rarely go to sleep until after midnight…

Hang on a minute – we don’t have to be up with the larks? This makes complete sense. In the summertime, I’m often out working in the vegetable field until 10.30pm, but then I continue writing and go to bed around 2 or 3, still insisting on getting up at 7. One word comes to mind: pointless. Mariam continues with even more great advice:

The trick is to see writing as a job, in my case a full-time job. I have to finish this book by January, so I better get cracking… I’ve found that two hrs in the morning and two in the afternoon work just fine for me.

Another amazing insight: sometimes less is more. You cannot sustain good quality, gripping writing for as long as you think, so you’re better off writing for shorter, more focused sessions (see also a great post by Alison Wells on distance and immersion). Full time does not have to mean 9-5 every day for everyone. Like Mariam says, sectioning off hours without any interruptions is a productive approach.

@kenmooney I’m quite the opposite, I have to do it when it comes, even if it’s just putting on a text to myself on bus… Think that suits me though as I write at lunch in work, that kinda thing.

Although I approach my day more like Mariam and Hazel, Ken speaks sense. When I was commuting to work, I’d spend the journey jotting stuff down – title ideas, opening lines, observations. If you’re writing full time, scheduling your own working hours, you shouldn’t forget to grab those unexpected glimpses when they come.

@ProofreaderGill I found NaNoWriMo was good at forcing me into a routine, not sure I could do it for longer than a month though!…. Since writing, like housework and gardening, doesn’t pay me any money I pick and choose according to the weather.

…or lost in the fog?

I love Gill’s approach. Every time I write a new book, I write the ‘draft zero’ in one month. Then I spend another month redrafting it into what I consider the first draft. I find it more thrilling to work on a book when I have a chunk written. But Gill also highlights an important point: you have to live and if your writing is not bringing in any money, it may have to take second priority sometimes.

So how do you write full time, using a schedule to suit you, and still have enough time to make money/socialise/rest/withdraw/sleep etc?

I think Mariam got the answer spot on with this bit of advice:

‘Set yourself fixed times for writing, when you do nothing else. Schedule the rest of your life around those, not the other way.’

The fact is, I’d been letting other things filter in too often and they were frequently stealing my best working hours – the times when I’m most relaxed, creative, energetic and alert. Thankfully, I have a host of amazingly generous writerly friends who are willing to share their own approaches and help me out.

So, with all this in mind, I’ve established a new routine. Here goes:

07.00-08.00:   Automatic writing in notebook & tea
08.00-09.30:   Exercise and breakfast
09.30-12.30:    Writing
12.30-14.00:    Exercise, lunch, emails/twitter/facebook
14:00-16.00:    Writing
16:00-18.00:    Blogs, business

Today is day 1 – wish me luck!

If anything here sounded familiar, why not take a look at your current routine? Is it still working or is time for an overhaul?

I’d love to hear how you get on!