Writing

  • 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

  • Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Novel

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online with the help of the internet. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.

    The first case that comes to mind is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.

    It’s a hugely ambitious novel, however, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    Even if you knew nothing about the writer, it’s clear from the outset she really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.

    But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.

    However, I’m not going to name the person because they live a little closer to home! (Cough.) Anyway, the second author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

    As it happened, I’d never visited the European city even though I’d done a ton of research on it, so I was disappointed by the lack of detail.

    I felt this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since there’s something called street lights, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

    I felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.

    Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book. Not secondary and background locations. Though it’s still possible to give a stronger sense of place even when it occupies fewer pages.

    But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

    In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something of the day to day life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

    If you’re of the Dan Brown school of novel writing, you might well want to include famous places a tourist would visit on a trip to Paris or Florence, etc. It even makes for an interactive experience since your reader can go off and visit the locations in the book – especially if your books are that famous!

    But if you’re after something more realistic and low key, you need to leave the tourist track behind. Because it’s what’s off the beaten track that captures the reality of a place. The side streets, the small cafes, the places far away from tourists. Especially if your characters aren’t tourists in the first place.

    I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there. To ignore it is a mistake. Especially if you’re the kind of writer who sees locations as characters in their own right.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar locations in the same novel, ensure they are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means location research.

    I’m not suggesting you write long descriptive passages about your locations. The modern reader’s attention span can sometimes struggle with novels from the 1990s let alone further back. No, readers don’t want to read a lot of descriptive passages, but they do appreciate a strong sense of place. After all, many read to escape to places they’ve never visited.

    Of course, in a lot of novels, location is somewhat less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar locations, try not to leave your reader feeling that one location is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.

  • Researching Your Novel’s Locations Online

    Research distant locations using online tools like Google Earth, Street View, Estate Agents, travel and genealogical sites.

    The chances are you already use some of these resources for location research, but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

    So, let’s imagine you live in the US, but you’re writing a novel set in Scotland, or partly set in Scotland. You’d love to fly over and check out your locations, but you can’t afford it or have too many other commitments.

    Even if your novel is historical, you can still use these resources. However, it goes without saying that a contemporary location is better researched using, say, Google Street View. Google Earth will tell you a lot about topography.

    Using Estate Agents/Realtors

    And of course, estate agent Sites (realtors), will let you see both the exterior and interior photos of buildings. If you’re writing an historical, many of these buildings will be too new, and others will be former townhouses and terraced houses redeveloped into a set of apartments. It’s worth checking out any details on this given by the estate agent site.

    If you’re looking for a fancy historic building in the Highlands, you should find something fairly easily. I’m not talking about castles, though you never know what’s up for sale.

    Check out any details regarding when the building was constructed or renovated. Check the exterior and interior photos – some buildings have a lot of old features still intact. If there’s a property prospectus, download it, and keep it on file.

    Check out the area on Google Street View. ‘Google drive’ around the area. Then have a look at the area from above using Google Maps – you can get an idea of where the area is located in relation to sea, lochs, mountains, etc.

    Of course, you could always take a building from one area, and, using it as a model for your location, move it to another, and add in your own fictional details.

    All of this applies to other locations in other countries. Have a novel partly set in Paris? Check out property sites, Google Street View and Google Maps there too.

    Don’t forget YouTube and photo sites

    This then brings me to YouTube and photo sites, where there is a wealth of visual information linked to different areas.

    If you want to set part of your story onboard a train running on Scotland’s West Highland Line (considered to be one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world), go over to YouTube and check out any videos posted by tourists and others.

    You can put together your own inspiration or location board – on Pinterest, for example.

    And, remember, Pinterest is a huge visual search engine, so if you’re looking for images for inspiration or research, that’s the best place to start.

    Genealogical records – a hidden resource

    If your novel is historical, it might be worth checking out the likes of census and parish records to get an idea of the people who lived in an area at a particular time, their occupations, how many people lived in the building, their relationships to one another, etc. This kind of information usually comes up during genealogical searches. And if you are interested in genealogy, Scotland’s People is the best site to check out. You can also check out old post office directories.

    Additionally, you might find local history groups or local historians you can contact – you might even find them on Twitter or Facebook.

    Check out local writers

    It’s also worth checking out writers and books from your location, to get an idea of how people speak. Some writing groups have websites, and YouTube can provide you with recorded videos of readings and poetry slams, etc.

    Then there’s local newspapers, and local radio, etc.

    In 2020, it’s easier than ever to research your novel’s locations online. Just be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of endlessly fascinating facts and places. Researching the background of a novel can be too addictive. Never lose sight of the end goal – a well-researched book with a strong sense of place.

    There’s another reason to research your novel’s locations online if you can’t visit in person. Here’s what can go wrong if you include locations you know well alongside places you hardly know at all. Check out this post!

  • Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

    How 365 photo projects aid writers. A daily photo can develop your writer’s eye, helping you see and describe things in new and different ways.

    Believe it or not, a daily photo project can help develop a writer’s eye for detail. Many years ago, I embarked on my first 365 photography project. At the time, I didn’t have my Nikon, just a digital camera with a less impressive megapixel count. I’d seen 365 projects on LiveJournal. So, I decided to do my own.

    Immediately, I began looking at the world in a different way, constantly attentive to small and previously overlooked details. Like beautiful old stonework with moss growing in the cracks. It reminded me of the knitting designer Kaffe Fassett who used walls as inspiration in his older work.

    Anything was a potential subject. Including the pot drawer in the kitchen. Late one night, needing to take my photo fast, I opened the pot drawer and snapped the pots in there.

    In a year where I took much better photos, which languish now on some old machine, this is one that stays in my mind. Shiny pots with annoying finger marks, the curving metal distorting my reflected face.

    So if pots ever appeared in a story, I could have a character who longs to erase every last one of those finger marks. Maybe they’re a perfectionist, or maybe they start polishing when they’re stressed. A small detail, but a quirk that helps flesh out a character.

    Writers need to be present in the world and notice the small details. And with mobile phone cameras, a regular photo project is easier than ever.

    If you’ve never engaged in a regular photo project, you don’t have to wait until the beginning of next year to start. Choose a starting date – the beginning of a month, or even your birthday – and work from there. If you want to give it a try, here are some suggestions:

    • Decide on a time period and stick to it – a year, 90 days, whatever.
    • Don’t fixate on taking the perfect photo – that’s not the point.
    • Don’t fixate on the best equipment – whatever fits in your pocket is best.
    • Be constantly attentive for a photo opportunity – study your surroundings.
    • Just about any object is a potential subject – including spilled refuse.
    • Don’t just look for attractive subjects.
    • Try taking your photo from an unusual angle.
    • Keep a file of your photos or post them somewhere.
    • Categorise them so you can find a subject easily – insects on flowers, etc.

    Ultimately, the point of this project is to get you to observe the world around you in ways that can be used in your writing. It’s not about writing long descriptive passages, but describing things in a more evocative or unusual way, even if it’s just a phrase here, or a sentence there.