GUEST POST by Eve Lynch
If the past few months have shown us anything, it’s that sometimes life is overwhelming. This can mean that writing projects take a back seat. Perhaps you’ve found it hard to concentrate, or you haven’t known where to start. Even when things are functioning as normal, maybe work gets in the way, or kids get in the way, or you read a wonderful novel and the voice in your head tells you not to bother.
It’s time to make a deal with yourself: to really give writing a go. These five healthy habits are all about counteracting distractions, maintaining motivation, and finding a way to balance writing with the rest of your life. Give them a try, and you might just start to inch forward with that book.
1. Protect the time and space in which you write
Protecting the time and space in which you write means keeping everybody away from it — including your loved ones. Whether it’s every evening from 8 until 10, or 6 hours on a Sunday, those moments you set aside for writing need to be non-negotiable. Guard them from distractions, like meetings or social engagements, and let writing be your priority.
A great time to schedule in uninterrupted writing is first thing in the morning. This healthy habit is undoubtedly hard to swallow, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. Ursula Le Guin would start writing at 7:15 and by noon, her work would be done. Even if writing isn’t your job, waking up earlier adds an hour or two to your day, or you can write on your morning commute. Not everyone’s a morning person — believe me, I get it — but try it out for a week and you might surprise yourself.
Where you write, of course, is just as important as when. Your “writing room” can be anywhere from an office with a closed door to a coffee shop where you won’t be disturbed. It can even be a park bench. Having a designated space doesn’t necessarily mean a physical room, as long as you signal to those around you that you don’t want to be disturbed. And make sure you’re comfortable. Capote was a self-declared “horizontal writer”: he couldn’t think unless he was stretched out in bed or on the couch. Just don’t fall asleep!
2. Disconnect from the internet
In today’s world, guarding your writing time and space must also mean working without the constant distraction of the internet. Luckily, nothing has been overlooked in this age of online living. From site blockers to apps that reward you with trees, there are countless ways to stay offline, limit the noise, and keep on track.
The simplest solution? Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. Leave your phone in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Stick your smartwatch in the fridge. Spending a few hours “unplugged” is something every writer should try. Not only is it one of the best things you can do for your writing, it’ll also make you a more focused, even-tempered person.
I know what you’re thinking: I can’t write without the internet because I need it for research! But in practice, the ability to answer any and all questions is more distracting than helpful. Work with all your notes and research on hand, or, if the temptation is too much, restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. When you come across something you want to check, just note it down and look it up later. You’ll be surprised by how little it matters, and by how much more productive you can be.
3. Procrastinate productively
You’re midway through writing a novel. You experience a moment of blood-curdling terror as you contemplate the drivel on the screen. You imagine beyond it to derisive book reviews, embarrassment, and a failing career… Don’t panic. In crises like these it’s okay to take a moment and collect yourself.
If you hit a writing wall, you might spend a little time researching publishing. Any writer who is taking the self-publishing route will benefit from learning about marketing, publicity or how to get book reviews. An author who has opted for the traditional route will need to invest some time looking into what makes a good query letter and how to find the right literary agent. You can even make a fun quiz about your characters to test yourself on your understanding of them. This is knowledge you’ll need down the road, so even if it’s a form of procrastination now, you’ll still be using your time in a productive way.
When I’m working on a big writing project, I do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Take a bath, listen to music, hang out the washing, make a pie. Whatever I do, I find that getting away from my desk is infinitely better than scowling at the problem. Some writers will find that taking a long walk creates space for lost words. Others like to sound things out to a friend or loved one. They find talking through a problem helps them recall what they were trying to achieve. Another great option is to stretch out your back and shoulders with some yoga for writers. Pain is distracting.
4. Be disciplined, but be kind to yourself
When you treat writing as a job, it’s easy to get a bit fixated on word count. Stephen King famously wrote 2,000 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch. Don’t get me wrong: the power of hitting daily goals cannot be overstated. Those little wins — spikes of dopamine — make us feel good about what we’re doing. But be kind to yourself.
When I’m writing, my goal is usually 500 words a day. Sometimes it’s easy to achieve, and sometimes it’s like getting blood from a stone. A little “hack” I’ve discovered is to fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every other line, and regard each new page as a small triumph. Of course, those pages might well be rubbish – they often are. But you can always return to them at a later date.
If you reach a point that is intimidating or unexciting, don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. A healthy habit is to begin each day without looking back; remove the pressure of picking up where you left off and leave uninspiring passages behind you. It’s helpful to remember that writing consistently isn’t necessarily about finishing a project — it’s about becoming a better writer. You can always take a prompt, a writing exercise or some idea that’s been floating around in your head, and spend an hour writing that. You might even kick-start your next book! Still lost or blocked when you return? Change the point of view. Change the tense. Change the opening line. There’s always another road to take.
5. Read outside your genre
Ted Hughes once gave Michael Morpurgo a piece of advice. He said to record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, sadnesses, bewilderments, and joys. By keeping his antennae out all the time, Morpurgo manages to keep his well of ideas full. However, when life is perhaps not quite as varied as you’d like, there’s one healthy habit that’ll never fail.
Read. Read like mad. Read everything you can lay your hands on. Something you might try, if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction or romance, is to stop reading everything in that genre and start reading everything else. And try to do it analytically. Finally, as funny as it sounds, long, meandering blockbusters can also be instructive. Visualising the radical cuts that would make for a better film is a great exercise in the art of storytelling.
The best thing about this advice is that you can continue to do the relaxing, enjoyable things you love while still making progress as a writer. As with all of these healthy habits, the goal is to find a way to succeed at writing without allowing it to become overwhelming or frustrating — even when you’ve got a lot on your plate, or you’re feeling uninspired. Just remember that even the most successful writers feel inadequate when they look upon their empurpled prose. So don’t give up on your book. I look forward to reading it!
Author Bio: Eve Lynch is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing resources and professionals. In her spare time, Eve enjoys travelling with friends and reading literary fiction, so she’s often on the lookout for scenic new places to sit down with a book – or maybe do a little writing of her own!