Over the years, I’ve enjoyed — and I use that in the very loosest sense of the word — various forays into my brain by professionals, via MRI scanners and long, draining assessments. Finally a brain surgeon suggested that since I was currently managing to do what I wanted most to do (write novels), maybe I should stop trying to tinker around in there until it really needed doing.
But how, with the assorted issues clattering around my skull, have I managed to do it? Here are my most useful tips for the laziest, most chaotic, most distractible, most procrastinatory and most anxiety-ridden writing aspirants:
- A specific writing time:
No book ever got written purely by intention. It’s such a mean truth, like only exercise making one fitter, but ideas are sadly not enough. But! Most writers almost never need to (and indeed, can barely afford to) quit their jobs to write a book. Writing can be done in the snatched two hours before dawn, or before bed, or on a commute (do you remember commutes? No, me neither), or in Sunday morning chunks when you’ve made a collaborative deal with anyone to whom you have responsibilities. Set this time aside and let no one and nothing impinge upon it. It is sacred. But this only works, dear lazy, chaotic person, in combination with…
- The Pomodoro technique:
This, when I remember to use it, is like a magic wand. I tap the little tomato-esque icon on my phone (I use Focus Keeper), set the timer, and away I go. I also keep a large post-it note on my desk, so when those extra thoughts pop into my head (“Where is that coat I meant to wash? Have I signed the school trip letter? When is the next series of Succession? Why is Romancing the Stone so lauded when it’s a such a messy, misogynist bag of exhausted sighs?”) I just dash COAT / TRIP LETTER / SUCCESSION / RtS 🙁 on the post-it and continue with writing. Delightfully, the more Pomodoro sections I complete, the less I find these thoughts encroaching at all, or at least at a much lower volume.
- Rain playlists:
I can’t bear silence but I also can’t write to music, I’ve finally admitted. I now have a rain playlist that is hours and hours long, and means I can sit with my tomato-clock ticking away while my brain remains usefully trammelled. Experiment with which kind of white noise works best for you.
- A reward system:
I find a list of things I’ll reward myself with as goals are met is extremely effective — I work by 10k increments, mostly, but if you’re struggling to get going, just force yourself to do 1,000 words to get your first reward. The words don’t have to be good! They just have to be on the page! You can’t polish smoke, for god’s sake, so just get it down.
Mostly the rewards are tiny: a bath, a supermarket bunch of flowers, watching Spy for the 400th time, but it’s almost the smallness of them that makes them work. They’re small, therefore they’re achievable. I can finish this chapter, because the pressure of the reward isn’t enormous. (It’s usually a coffee from my favourite coffee shop and a radio play I’ve been saving on BBC Sounds.)
- Writing tics to keep you from stalling:
When I’m in full Pomodoro-flow, there’s no point stopping to remember the precise word I’m looking for when I’m half-way through a scene that’s already playing in my head at full speed. I’ll either write the word in capitals, so it’ll stick out when I read back, or I’ll lard it with ??????????? each side, so when I’m looking back over the whole document in the first stage of finessing, I can find those gaping abysses and attempt to fill them. (Similarly, when I need to skip from where I’m typing to search elsewhere in the text, I’ll type either ELEPHANT or GIRAFFE where I currently am, so I can hop straight back. I’m sure there are far more sophisticated methods than this, and I’m not sure why I can’t just pick one large mammal and stick with it, but there we are.)
- A willing reader:
It’s difficult to overstate how dazzlingly helpful this is. My screenwriter pal Hannah is my life-saver, politely observing that maybe that this vital family history might be useful to actually let the reader know about, rather than just knowing it in my own mind and assuming the reader can read it from there. She spots when I’ve changed characters’ names half-way through, when the months have inexplicably leapt backwards, and when a character’s action makes no sense whatsoever. Yes, agents and editors and assistant editors and proofreaders all do this, but the more eyes you have on it the better, particularly before there’s a pigeonhole for the book to sit in.
If you can’t think of anyone to ask or you’re too shy, please may I recommend reading your writing aloud as much as possible? It’s absolutely my most useful thing to do when writing, whether it’s novels or bus-side straplines, and often serves to scoop out the truly clanging repetitions and missed words.
Get going! And good luck.
The Kindness Project by Sam Binnie is OUT NOW in ebook!