Inspiration

  • Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique.
    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    Procrastination is a problem that besets most writers at some point. Why is it so hard to sit down and write? Why is it more tempting to rearrange your pencils, tidy your desk, check Twitter or another social media app? All of this has a massive impact on productivity. And since most writers don’t have the luxury of being full time, they have to fit their writing in around other activities, including nine-to-five jobs. This means they have to maximise their writing time. While there are numerous apps that can help with blocking social media distractions, in this post we will look at how you can boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique.

    Why do people procrastinate?

    But first things first – what is going on with procrastination? It’s a common problem that isn’t just confined to writers.

    One sad truth is that while most people dream of success – including writers – they don’t necessarily dream of the hard work that’s involved. It doesn’t help that you hear overnight success stories that don’t always show the long hard slog to get there. Writers are already gifted with imaginations – they can picture the book deal, the reading events, the signings. What they can’t or won’t picture so well is the more monotonous task of writing, rewriting, and editing. It’s solitary work that requires time away from others. And this connects with one of the two main human drives – the desire to avoid pain.

    Humans are primarily driven by two things – the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain. Dreams of success relate to pleasure. The hard work and delays relate to pain. Because the work involves sacrifice – you have to give up watching TV and browsing social media. You have to say no to that night out at the pub. It’s not that you can’t have any fun, but writing a book takes a lot of hard work, and the book doesn’t write itself while you’re chatting to people on Twitter.

    Success is scary

    That brings us to another problem that also commonly hits business owners and freelancers when they’re trying to get off the ground. Success can be desired, but it can also be feared. This is why there can be a lot of self-sabotage going on. You sometimes see writers panicking when their books are about to be published. It’s not that they’ve changed their minds, but as well as the possible success they are facing potential pain in the form of poor sales or bad reviews. They are now committed and there’s no way to back out. If they’re a newer author, it will be all the more intimidating.

    Perfectionism

    And part of this relates to perfectionism. Is the book good enough? Which in turn leads back to pain – will I get bad reviews? Perfectionism can really bog people down, leading to procrastination, never being quite ready, or finding ways to avoid the task. As a writer, you probably know that what you put on paper rarely lives up to what’s in your head. Certainly not in earlier drafts. The frustration of bridging that gap can lead to you putting off the work. You avoid the pain by looking for something more pleasurable instead – like dreaming about your story which is much easier than writing it.

    All of this, along with the usual social media distractions, gets in the way of productivity. And if you’re failing to get the writing done, you feel a loss of confidence, and perhaps a sense of failure. This is also counter-productive.

    It’s easy to get stuck in a negative loop of endless procrastination.

    But there’s another issue too – writing a book can seem like a huge endeavour. Especially when you add in rewriting and editing. To deal with procrastination and the massive overwhelm you might be facing, it’s worthwhile looking at the Pomodoro Technique of time management.

    Pomodoro – what is it?

    Actually, it’s a tomato. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. In the late 1980s, Italian student Francesco Cirillo developed a time-management technique involving a tomato-shaped timer. This technique breaks tasks down into 25 minute time intervals. Each interval is known as a pomodoro – after the timer Cirillo used. These intervals are broken by short breaks of three to five minutes. This makes work more manageable, less intimidating, and more achievable.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    Here’s an example for writing tasks:

    • Make sure you have a goal or set of goals you want to tackle in the work session
    • Decide on what you’re going to tackle – for example, a scene in your book or short story
    • Set the timer for 25 minutes – this can be any timer, or an Alexa app, or an online timer
    • Get to work (and turn off social media to avoid distractions)
    • Stop working when the timer goes off and if you’ve completed your task, tick it off
    • If you have fewer than four ticks, take a break of three to five minutes
    • This break is also timed with an alarm going off to mark the end of the break
    • Then you return to your task or the next one for another 25 minutes, before another break
    • You should aim for four 25 minute work periods with breaks in between
    • After that, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes before starting again

    Beware of the social media rabbit hole during breaks

    All of this depends on the overall writing time you have to play with. It might be tempting to go and check out Twitter during a break, but this can disrupt your concentration. Once you start checking emails and social media, even if you don’t check it for long, you might take a while to get your concentration back. A short break can lead to lost time that goes well beyond a few minutes. And then you’re staring at the word-processing screen again, frustrated that you can’t get back into your story. Beware of misusing your breaks, unless you are good at managing yourself.

    If you finish a task before the end of the 25 minutes, you can use the extra time to review or edit your work.

    Set goals, then rinse and repeat

    If you’re really stuck for time, you could just do two hours and repeat again the next day. Be sure to set out your goals before you start and check off whether you accomplish them. A rough draft of a scene is a good goal. Reworking dialogue or filling in some location details in a rewrite session is also a perfectly good goal. By breaking writing into chunks of time, the task becomes more manageable. Yes, you should have the longer goal of writing an entire book. But you also have the shorter goal of dealing with it bit by bit.

    Examples of a Pomodoro timer

    pomodoro.io is a website that offers a Pomodoro timer with the ability to list the tasks you want to tackle.

    You can also try out this YouTube Pomodoro timer – the channel has other timers you can check out.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    Other IndieCat posts you might find useful

    Social media blockers – how to block social media distractions that interfere with your writing.

    How to establish a writing routine – writing is like a muscle that needs to be built up over time.

    When is your novel done? Or, do you want to write and rewrite it forever?!

    When dialogue ruins your scenes – because it can you know! It can make or break scenes. Find out how.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit? Since developmental edits are not beta reads, this is a good question.

  • Location sketches – The French Chateau

    The French Chateau

    When you’re researching a novel location, and trying to familiarise yourself with your setting, immerse yourself in imagery/photos as well as textual information. Then try and do some location word sketches. Set time aside for this, dig deep into your location, write as much detail as you like, and keep it all in a file. Don’t write it directly into your novel. Just dip into the file when you need to flesh out your setting more.

    I tried this myself for a story set in a chateau. I came up with these random thoughts after reading The French Chateau by Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery and Jean-Bernard Naudin, Thames & Hudson.

    So many panelled walls, some painted grey-blue, some stencilled, or decorated with rich wallpapers. Centuries-old paintings hang in gilt frames, fading tapestries depict country pursuits, and baroque clocks sit on ornate mantelpieces. French windows stand open, revealing the lush green foliage of the park beyond.

    In the bedrooms are richly dressed testers, or beautiful ottoman beds in alcoves behind damask drapes. Sometimes the fabric is faded with age, other times it’s vibrant, full of colour. The bed linen is crisp and white, embroidered, and the flowered counterpanes are pale yellow or blue, or a rich red damask.

    In the linen room, huge presses are thrown open to reveal shelves of neatly folded fabric. On a large table, napkins are tied in bundles with pink ribbon.

    One inhabitant of a chateau remembers the linen room of his childhood, the “damp, steamy, oddly fragrant odour” and the “dance of the flat irons which the women stood right on the glowing coals in the hearth, then snatched up and held near their cheek to test the temperature.”

    On Saturdays, the linen was changed, and the same day, a clockmaker came to wind up all the clocks in the house. “Tracing a circle on the dial with his finger to start the hands moving, he would then set the pendulum swinging steadily, then the chimes which seemed to mark the breathing of time. He brought life back into the rooms as he passed through them….”

    On the dining room table there’s Venetian glass, silver gilt cutlery, and Sèvres porcelain plates, and there’s memories too of the great dinners of past years: “Cream soup, fish, a variety of poultry – turkey, guinea-fowl or chicken – followed by roasts with vegetables, then well-chosen sweets… The wines, chilled or at perfect room temperature, were served by the butler, who murmured the name and year of the vintage to each guest….”

    In the wine cellars bottles are covered in cobwebs, yellow labels peeling at the corners. In the grounds, statues rise up among the greenery, and topiary animals populate a garden zoo. Ornamental lakes reflect the stone and brick of a French Renaissance house, and water spouts from the mouth of a stone dolphin. At night, the chateau is lit up, golden in the darkness, chandeliers glittering through the windows. And in winter, while the Christmas preparations are underway, snow lies like icing sugar across the lawns, hedges, balustrades, and stone staircases.

    And everywhere in the house, in every room, flowers from the garden, fresh or dried, elaborately arranged on mantelpieces and tables. And walking sticks and shooting sticks stand in a corner of a hallway, and the library is stocked from floor to ceiling and the fire crackles in the hearth, and a labrador lies sleeping on the stairs, and the clocks tick on, tick on, down the years….

    Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? Check out my services page.

  • Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith – Andrew Wilson (2004)

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith - Andrew Wilson (2004)
    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2004)

    In Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, the Whitbread-shortlisted biography by Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith is shown to be a woman who never found true happiness. Condemned by her own psychology to seek out inappropriate and often unavailable women, she never had a relationship that lasted longer than a few years.

    An almost life-long alcoholic, Highsmith’s happiest moments came from writing. She was misanthropic, lonely, shy, often hiding behind her curtain of black hair.

    But she was a brilliant writer, unappreciated in her own country, the United States, where publishers were obsessed with the categorisation of fiction. Highsmith’s fiction, like the woman herself, defied categorisation.

     

    Highsmith’s childhood and college years

    As Andrew Wilson elegantly illustrates in Beautiful Shadow, the writer’s problems began early in life, in her family circumstances. Her biological father was almost unknown to her. She was raised by her mother and stepfather (who gave her the Highsmith name.)

    The Oedipal complex is given a twist here since the young girl had an intense love for her mother, and a desire to kill her stepfather. Highsmith’s difficult love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, lay at the root of her problems with women, as Highsmith herself recognised:

    “I am married to my mother I shall never wed another.”

    Her mother, meanwhile, could see the teenage Highsmith was not “normal” and at one point advised her to “straighten up and fly right.”

    Although her sexuality was not clear-cut, Highsmith on the whole preferred women. But she constantly engaged in fantasy relationships with unavailable heterosexual women, or became involved with difficult or controlling partners.

    Patricia Highsmith’s feelings about herself as a woman were complicated by the fact that she saw herself at times as having a male identity. Although very beautiful, she had a tendency to dress slightly butch, softening it with a necklace or lipstick.

    Her fellow students at the all-female Barnard College thought she seemed “dashing.” She was certainly promiscuous, successfully luring both straight and non-heterosexual women into her bed.

     

    Trying (and failing) to go straight

    For a time, during a relationship with a man she hoped to marry, she underwent analysis, in the hopes of turning herself heterosexual. Her biographer records this well, setting it within the context of psychoanalytic attitudes of the period. As Wilson points out, the therapist’s interpretation of Highsmith’s case was “laughably simplistic and over-dependent on Freudian theory.”

    Not only that, such practitioners failed to recognise that Freud did not believe in “curing” homosexuals, but instead in counselling them into accepting their sexuality. Pat’s therapist recommended group therapy alongside married women with latent homosexual tendencies. Writing in her diary, Highsmith mused:

    “Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.”

    Needless to say, the therapy proved useless.

     

    Highsmith the diarist

    Highsmith was a passionate diarist. She left countless “cahiers,” her notebook/diaries which Wilson had access to. These cahiers go back to her youth. Consequently, the biography is very detailed, and the reader gets the impression that Wilson’s book could have been double or triple the size.

    One of the frustrating things is the inability to go into greater detail about individual episodes. This is not Wilson’s fault though, because he’s dealing with a huge volume of information. But it would be fascinating to read more of Highsmith’s words directly and perhaps it might be possible in some other book in the future.

    On the other hand, because of the density of information, it would be possible to read this biography a second time and get even more out of it. Particularly if read in conjunction with her work, which Wilson analyses.

    Highsmith’s cahiers are a vital insight into her personal life, her psychology, and her mindset as a writer. From them, Wilson has been able to construct how Strangers on a Train came into being. And also where her most famous character, Ripley, came from.

    Something else that becomes obvious is the way she used her infatuations with women in her work.

     

    The Price of Salt (Carol)

    Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (now Carol) was inspired by a woman, Kathleen Senn, who walked into the toy department of Bloomingdale’s where the twenty-seven-year-old Highsmith was working temporarily. Highsmith was immediately smitten with Senn but never met her again.

    However, she later tracked the woman down to her address. There she saw her in a car as it backed out the driveway and headed towards her. Writing about it later in her diary, Highsmith said:

    “For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too, as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of gaining complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s attentions?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.”

    Kathleen Senn became the unsuspecting muse who inspired The Price of Salt, a book remarkable for its happy ending, something not previously seen in lesbian literature in the 1950s.

    In spite of the fact that Highsmith never had any contact with Senn, Wilson tracked down the woman’s surviving relatives. He brings out the other more poignant side of this brief encounter.

    What Highsmith never knew is that the glamorous, sophisticated Senn had a history of mental health problems. Sometime before the publication of The Price of Salt, Senn walked into her garage, closed the door, and switched on the engine of her car. She would never know the part she’d played in literary history.

     

    The women in her life

    Throughout her life, Highsmith would use the women around her, lovers or women admired from afar, as her muses.

    In spite of this, Highsmith was considered by some to be a misogynist.

    Andrew Wilson, though, shows the difficulties in such an easy reading of Highsmith’s character. The women in Pat’s life lived in the shadow of her mother. Highsmith was a shy, lonely character, and her behaviour at times could be misinterpreted.

    There’s no question she was a difficult human being to be around. But she had her admirers as well as her detractors.

     

    Highsmith’s politics

    Some people had a better understanding of her nature. She was a brutally honest person, which didn’t always serve her well, though some admired her for it. Her political opinions were hard to define. Some could be termed left-wing liberal. Whereas others veered to the right, and included anti-Semitic tendencies as well as a virulent hatred of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.

    Highsmith spent a great deal of her adulthood in Europe. In exile, she watched in horror as the U.S. went into various conflicts. Her visits back to America often served to confirm her opinion that the country had lost its way. She saw it as a modern-day Roman Empire, and her criticisms wove their way into her fiction.

    Highsmith wasn’t a popular writer in America during her lifetime. The irony is the way she’s been embraced there since her death.

    Wilson believes Highsmith was a writer ahead of her time. Her books, which some have seen as evil and immoral, don’t tread an easy path. She was more interested in psychopaths than do-gooders. These psychopaths were often the viewpoint characters, drawing the reader into their amoral worlds.

     

    Pacifist and animal lover

    In spite of this, she was a gentle person in real life and a pacifist. Generally, she preferred animals to people and had a life-long love of cats and snails. Wilson documents how Highsmith smuggled her pet snails into France under her breasts.

    Snails and cats are somehow fitting companions for this misanthropic woman. Her love of animals would take a comic dark turn in some of her short stories. There, animals got their revenge on humans, particularly in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder.

    For those wishing to track down her publications, especially the short story collections, there’s a list of her books at the beginning of the biography. Wilson does not ignore the significance of her short stories, summarising their plots and analysing them along with the novels.

    He’s also managed to get some quite revealing information from some of Highsmith’s lovers, as well as those who worked with her. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t set Highsmith within a heterosexist reading of human sexuality or gender. He clearly has enormous sympathy and respect for “Pat” even as he depicts her, warts and all.

    Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is an exceptionally well-written and researched book. Wilson has done a fine job in pulling together the strands of this remarkable woman’s life.

     

    This review was originally written in 2004.

  • How to establish a writing routine

    How to establish a writing routine
    How to establish a writing routine

    While some writers can finish a book in a fast sprint, for most of us it’s more of a marathon. A writing project can take months or even years to complete, requiring commitment, freedom from distraction, and, hopefully, a writing routine. It also helps if you can build up confidence and self-belief, not to mention setting reasonable goals. Self-sabotage is all too easy.

    First and foremost, before we even look at writing standards or quality, it’s necessary to talk about establishing a regular writing routine. Because this is how you build up writing stamina. Without that, finishing any longer work is going to be difficult. Certainly in the shorter term.

     

    Establishing a writing routine

    When you first start writing, it’s a bit like taking up exercise or learning to play a musical instrument. You need to keep at it. You need to establish a routine. And the reason is somewhat more complex than it first appears.

    First and foremost, there’s a neurological reason why you need to practice. It’s to do with neural pathways. Firing cells become more and more efficient over time. And it’s the reason why you have to concentrate more while learning a new skill – but at a later point, you can do it almost without thinking. In fact, once you have mastered a skill, the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering take over. This is the point where you are ‘in the zone’. Musicians, athletes, and others experience this.

    So, if you want to establish a writing routine, you need to work at it. But research also shows that building up a skill slowly works best. The ability to correct yourself when making a mistake, thereby refining your skills, is better achieved that way.

    Additionally, sleep plays an important part in strengthening the new pathways, with reverse firing or signaling during sleep. It’s therefore important to get a good sleep when you’re learning a new skill.

     

    Setting goals and boundaries

    Establishing a regular writing routine means a number of things. Firstly, you have to find time in your day and set aside all other tasks. Even the tasks other people think are more important. This could be housework, working in the garden, cooking, DIY, or just generally being at the beck and call of others.

    You have to make it clear that your writing time is yours. It’s quite possible, even likely, that you won’t have a lot of support for this. And if you are apologetic about wanting writing time, other people are less likely to take you seriously. You need to be clear about how important writing is to you. Then try negotiating time in a way that also supports the interests of those around you. Aim for some give and take.

     

    Start low. Aim high

    There’s no point telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words a day from the start, or even 500 words a day. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to write higher word counts early on when they’re still in the honeymoon period of writing on a regular basis. You’re fired up, eager, and you might write more than you expect.

    The trouble, though, is this period is unlikely to last.

    One technique for establishing a very long-term writing habit that worked for me came from two pages in a large ring-binder diary. These two pages had a calendar for the entire year. Six months on one page, six on the other. Three months on the top half of the page, three on the bottom. With the days of each month listed by name and date, and a brief line space next to each.

    So, I tried an experiment. Towards the end of that January, which is when I happened to start the trial, I recorded daily word counts in these short line spaces. I also noted editing, rewrite word counts, and general note-taking word counts.

    Then, I counted up the total word count for each month, each quarter, each half-year, and finally the entire year. The overall trajectory was upwards.

    I started in the honeymoon period, felt like I was getting the habit of daily writing. Then, at some point, it became a nuisance. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do that day. Maybe I didn’t have the time, etc, etc.

    But I knew I had to push through this phase. It was an interesting experience. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t something I did when I was in the mood. I was forcing myself to do it.

    This could mean writing less some days, but since I included small word counts as being just as legitimate, I didn’t become demoralised. In fact, I came to understand that the amount of time spent telling myself I didn’t have the time, was potential writing time! Maybe 30-100 words or more of writing time.

    And writing time included rewriting and making notes. Which also made things easier, not to mention more realistic. Because this is where most writing work takes place – the planning stage, the research, the editing and rewriting.

    Eventually, I broke through that “this is just annoying now” phase of having to write daily. On the other side lay the absolute need to write daily. I was no longer pushing myself. It came naturally. The day was incomplete without some writing.

    By the end of the first year, I had written around 120,000 in just over eleven months. In another couple of years, it was beyond 250,000 and continued to rise. Larger word counts came more easily as time went on. I think that makes sense. The process becomes more efficient.

    I also think aiming too high too early is a form of self-sabotage. If you don’t reach your goal, you feel like a failure, and you quit.

    But you’re not a failure. You just needed to set more reasonable goals.

    Go easy on light writing days. And when you have an established writing routine, it’s easier to skip a day or two without losing your momentum. It’s much easier to lose your momentum early on.

    To reiterate:

    • Establishing a writing routine is the number one priority
    • That means it doesn’t matter how much you write in any one day
    • This is because establishing a habit is harder than knocking off 1000 words every now and then
    • Establishing a habit means not slacking off on busy days – 30 words will do
    • Accepting that 30 words or 100 words is “good enough” takes away unreasonable expectations
    • Counting up the total word count at the end of each month allows you to see the bigger picture
    • Counting up the quarters, the half-year and the total annual count also means those smaller word counts contribute to the bigger picture
    • It’s also important to note down editing, rewriting or research activities

     

    Avoiding online distractions

    The next issue is how to find time when there are so many distractions around and the modern attention span is not what it used to be.

    I totally recommend either switching the internet off or using social media blockers. I’ve written about this in an earlier post. But to summarise, you need to identify the sites that are your biggest time wasters and block them. Or block the entire internet if necessary.

    Try something like Cold Turkey. You can set a timer. You might find yourself trying to check something online on instinct – remember those established neural pathways? It’s a difficult habit to break. So give yourself a hand with a social media blocker. Twitter or whatever will still be there when the time is up, but you’ll have some writing to show for your time offline.

    Also, don’t compete with other people when it comes to writing. Compete with yourself. That’s why the weekly/monthly/quarterly/half year/annual wordcounts are so useful. It doesn’t matter what other people in the Twitter writing community are doing. It only matters what you’re doing.

     

    Useful reading:

    Learning rewires the brain: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain

    Also recommended – Myelin Facilitation of Whole Brain Neuroplasticity: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/myelin-facilitation-of-whole-brain-neuroplasticity