How I prepare to write
I’ve already completed my first draft of the plan for me next crime novel, Haven’t They Grown, and will polish the plan while writing the next Poirot (I can plan one book while writing another, but I can’t write two at same time). Then I need to work on the project for Serial Box, still untitled, which I mentioned in my last newsletter. After that, I will launch into my first non-fiction project, which is very exciting and currently confidential. (Don’t worry – I will tell you about it as soon as I can!)
Anyway, the point is: a serious and prolonged writing phase starts very soon, so I’m currently immersed in trying to get myself/my life into the right condition to begin this phase.
All writers have superstitions, rituals, tips or things they want to improve; true and false ideas about their writing method and what they imagine is ideal practice. I did a quick Google search last night and found literally endless pages entitled ‘Top Writing Tips’, ‘Writing Hacks’, ‘How To Be More Productive’ or ‘How To Make Time To Write’. Some of the advice on these pages was sensible and some wasn’t – so I’ve decided to go through the myths about how to write sensibly and fruitfully, and assess which are helpful and which are silly … for me at least.
Here are the results – things that writers are advised to do over and over again and my views on them – in case others might find them useful:
1) Do your writing first thing in the morning.
Most of the ‘How To’ lists have this item very near the top: do the most important thing first. For writers, that is working on the book – so we are advised to save the admin for later. I’ve decided to reject this tip. I’ve never done it and don’t think I ever will. I like to wake up and immediately tackle the clearing of the admin decks: emails, messages on social media, finances, internet shopping – all the necessary things that are not writing. I spend about two hours on that, between 8 and 10 am. Then I walk the dog until 11, eat a late breakfast (or early lunch, depending on how you want to view it) and start writing by noon, until around 4 pm, when the kids return from school. That’s my ideal schedule and that’s what I’m going to aim for. There’s simply no point in forcing myself to get up and get immersed in book-writing first thing. I’d keep worrying that terrifying admin was lurking in the inbox. So, no. Number 1 is firmly rejected. Plus, the idea that I’m at my most fresh and bright in the morning is ludicrous. I’m usually feeling groggy and groaning!
2) Don’t procrastinate by suddenly tidying the house or deciding that the laundry absolutely has to be done.
Hmm. This one is tricky. Obviously it makes sense, and, yes, tidying the house can be procrastination for procrastination’s sake. But I can’t work if there’s disorder in my environment. I just can’t. I hate it. I used to feel guilty about this, but then I read a book by famous enlightened bloke Deepak Chopra, who said that tidiness is spiritually amazing and wonderful…and suddenly I felt validated. I might as well accept that I need a tidy and clutter-free house in order to work well, which means that I need to fit tidying into that 8-10am slot. Hmm. That should be just about doable. If not, maybe I’ll tidy after walking the dog, and start work at 1 pm instead of noon. Which means finishing at 5, not 4. Or just writing with total focus for 3 hours. That should be possible. But, anyway, tidying the house is very important to me, so I’m rejecting the advice that I should put up with a messy house.
3) Find an ideal time of day in which to write, and write then.
Reject, reject, reject! There is no ideal time. In the morning, I’m resentful about not being still asleep. In the afternoon, I fancy nothing more than a post-lunch nap. And in the evening, I’m too tired and, like all people of taste, I want to watch a gripping American drama about drug dealers shooting each other. So, I’m going to just accept that there is no ideal time to write, and I’m going to write at the only time that feels possible for me, which is the afternoon.
4) Set a daily word-count target.
Yes, I like this one – as long as it doesn’t lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviour. That would mean more time spent worrying about hitting your target or calculating your rate of words written per minute than actually writing. The target needn’t be words, though. For my third Poirot novel, I’m setting myself a chapter target: one chapter written per day for each day I work on the book. That feels reasonable. This one gets through my approval process and passes.
5) Be accountable.
I see this piece of advice for writers everywhere. It’s on most of the helpful lists. They encourage you to post on a forum somewhere that you’re going to write 2,000 words today and then return in the evening to berate yourself publicly if you fail. And then, I assume, the other people on the forum can chip in with comments like ‘You hopeless loser!’ Er…no thanks? Isn’t life hard enough? I don’t want to be accountable. If for some reason I fail to do any work on a particular day, I say loudly to myself, ‘Oh, well, who can blame you, really?’ and let myself off hook immediately. I fully intend to go on that way. If I wanted censure, I’d ask some of my old bosses to rehire me.
6) Don’t be a perfectionist – just get on and write.
I both accept and reject this one. Of course no writer should stop and panic each time she writes an imperfect sentence. You shouldn’t be a perfectionist every second of every day. And there’s an advantage to just getting on and writing a first draft, then coming back to improve it later. But you should be a perfectionist eventually, I think, and a lot of writers (including me) like to edit yesterday’s writing before starting today’s, so that you don’t feel as if you’re adding to a big mess, but rather to a shapely and honed work-in-progress. I feel a bit uncomfortable with the much-touted idea that you should just plough on and write a lot of rubbish that you can improve at some point in the future. Planning can help here – you can avoid writing a dreadful first draft as long as you’ve planned carefully. It’s not perfection writers should eschew. It’s neurosis: obsessing for too long and at the wrong time over the perfection of every word.
7) Write every day, to keep your writing muscles in practise.
No. Too rigid. Why make a rule like that? It’s much more sensible to write every day that feels possible or comfortable for you to write in. And if you write loads one day, it should be fine to have the next day off. You’re not going to forget how to write in 48 or even 72 hours. One day, you might have to spend all your time exciting gossip or going to the zoo, and that’s fine. Writers shouldn’t have their minds full of ‘Oh, no, I missed a writing day – now something bad might happen’ – that will not help anything or anyone.
8) Morning pages – get up at 4 am and write any old thing.
No way – as discussed above. If I can’t write a book without getting up at horrid o’clock, then I’d rather just read books instead.
9) Limit your social media usage.
YES. If the internet totally disappeared, I’d get five million more words written and have a frame of mind much better suited to writing. I need to have long no-internet periods. But I will never – I repeat, never – buy the much-praised Freedom software, which blocks your computer from accessing the internet for a specified period of time. The world is already quite bonkers enough, and it baffles me that so many intelligent grown-ups are willing to spend their hard-earned dosh on something they could just decide to do for free! I’m going to decide to do it for free…not because I have willpower but because I do have an abundance of impending-deadline-phobia.
10) Stop planning, start writing.
As you know, I love planning – but there comes a point when it stops being useful, and that point is when you’re no longer planning your book, but have instead started to plan when and how you’ll write your book. If you’re getting out the colour-coded timetables and the asterisked calendars, you’ve moved past that point. I spend roughly as long on such nonsense as I do on writing and I never stick to any of my writing schedules, so I’m giving up making them.
11) You need an ideal writing space.
Well, I haven’t currently got one – my daughter nicked it and turned it into her new bedroom, so I’ll have to make do with the dining room. It’s actually quite cool, and one of my favourite rooms in our house. Plus, as with all families and their dining rooms, we never actually eat in it! I don’t agree that writers need one sacrosanct space of their own. Surely it’s better to write each book in a new room when possible? That gives each one a sense of novelty and a new kind of energy.
12) Reward yourself.
Well – yes. But be careful. It’s easy to become a treat-junkie. I’ve been one: write a chapter, buy a Caribbean holiday … Treats can become distracting! A nice bath, or a brisk walk, or an evening of shooty-drug-dealer telly is fine and in proportion. Less fine and more worrying is, ‘Oh, God, I can’t bear writing! Right, three more words and then I’ll buy a yacht I can’t afford.’
13) Behave like you’re an office worker and be at your desk by 9 am.
No, no and thrice no! As a precaution, I’d even go so far as to avoid having a desk. Then no one can force you to sit at it at the quite random time of 9 am.
14) Other writers have better routines.
Jeffrey Archer starts at 6 am, did you know? With his writing pencils all neatly lined up? But that wouldn’t be better for me – I’d be miserable. 6 am is a time when no one should get up unless they’re a farmer or a postman. So instead of emulating or envying other writers, I’m going to learn to love my own more haphazard routine.
15) Don’t do so many interviews/newspaper columns/events. Say no more.
Definitely! I do need to start saying more ‘no’s. And I will. Except if I’m *offered* a Caribbean holiday, which is quite different from buying one myself….