It’s that time of year again, when many of us dream of using our spare time to write a novel. Yet it’s a tricky path and many writers struggle to find the hundreds of hours needed. So is there a secret, a special habit, or a particular lifestyle that helps a writer to write? Here at The Prime Writers we asked how real writers find, and then defend, their creative hours.
The fact is that most writers start out with a day job and very few earn enough to ever leave it. Andrea Bennett worked around the needs of a family and job when she wrote ‘Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story’:
‘I would often write late in the evening once everyone had gone to bed, or on Sunday mornings. This worked well enough for ‘every-day’ writing: I was surprised by how much I could get done in an hour, even if I was tired and not in the mood when I initially sat down. Occasionally, I felt I needed a solid block of time to tackle the more thorny issues. For this, I would take a day off work (I was lucky enough to have access to annual leave and flexi leave) and sit in the local library with the laptop. The library for me was a good venue: quiet but not isolating, free to access, and lacking distractions.’
There is something of a myth that journalists can find time more easily than other occupations. Not always, says Dominic Utton: ‘My big problem is that, as a journalist, I’m writing pretty much all day, every day – so separating journalism writing from novel writing can be a struggle. For my first novel, ‘Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time’. I solved the problem by writing it on my commute from Oxford to London every day: an hour in the morning and another in the evening completely free from distraction meant I could focus entirely on the book. Now I’m freelance my latest solution is to finish any newspaper or magazine work by 5pm, and devote the last two hours of each working day solely to Novel Number Two.’
Also working while on the move is Fiona Cummins whose debut novel ‘Rattle’ will be published in early 2017: ‘With two young children and a sideline in freelance journalism, it’s sometimes tricky to free up time to write. But I’ve perfected the art of writing on the move. With family in Manchester, I often work on the long drive up there (only when my husband’s at the wheel!); during work trips to London I spend the train journey tapping out words on my phone, and I’ve even been known to finish a chapter at a kids’ party.’
Louise Beech, author of ‘How To Be Brave’, manages to save some day-time hours for writing: ‘I’m very, very lucky that my job in a theatre means I work lots of evenings and weekends so I do get a few days to devote to writing, though naturally this is also occupied by life’s other demands (ie family and my voluntary work.) For me the most important aspect is to make sure everything that urgently needs doing (ie laundry/shopping) is done so I’m not thinking about it. Then I turn off all social media, put on some music and go. I ignore the phone, only with the exception of my daughter’s school calling obviously. I write intensely then, without break, making the most of my time. I seem to respond well to this discipline.’
Clearly, self-discipline is the key to getting those words on the page. Focusing on a specific time and making a habit out of it seems to work for many writers. Yet, those patterns also need to be flexible. Alison Layland works as a freelance translator and en route to writing Someone Else’s Conflict had to adapt to write her own fiction: ‘When I first started writing my children were small and I used to write in the hour or two after they’d gone to bed, particularly on evenings when my husband was out. As they grew older, and their bedtimes got later and later, my precious writing time dwindled until I had to find another way. I solved it by getting up at 5 or 6 am every morning, which led to the amazing discovery in my late thirties that I’m actually an early bird, at my most creative in the mornings. Now I’m up with the lark even when on holiday. As the rest of my family are night owls, early mornings are ideal for finding that essential daily “me time”.’
For some writers the presence of family, or guilty reminders of domestic chores, mean they have to escape the home. Keith Mansfield, author of the Johnny Mackintosh series, says: ‘I leave the house and go somewhere without internet, making sure not to take the web with me. Yes you can survive a few hours offline. I choose cafes and give myself rewards such as a cake if I pen enough pages in a certain time.
Harriet Lane, the writer of ‘Alys Always’ and ‘Her’, also has to leave her home, even if it’s empty:
‘For me, the coffee-shop basement is the fast track to focus. I like the comforting conversational ebb and flow as dog walkers and Bugaboo warriors and other shifty fantasists with laptops come in and go out: nothing terribly interesting happens, and if it does I can simply type it straight into the work-in-progress. There, in the basement, I have nothing to do but GET ON WITH IT. The staff are very nice and don’t seem to mind that I can eke out a medium latte for four hours. On a good day I will write until my laptop battery expires, and then I pack up and go home, to the laundry.’
One problem is that however many hours you put aside, the pressure builds towards publication. Even writers who can work in office hours like Fleur Smithwick (‘How To Make A Friend’), need to grab more time when deadlines loom: ‘I see writing as my job, even though my editor said I shouldn’t. (And why not? So I won’t mind not making money, silly!) I don’t have any difficulty during the week but if I need to work at the weekend that is a different matter. I get up a couple of hours earlier than everyone else and then try and sneak off and grab the odd quarter hour. This weekend, as my deadline is next Friday (Aargh!), I’ve just announced that I’m working.’
Author of The Somershill Manor series of mediaeval mysteries, SD Sykes, sums up the self-imposed isolation needed to work steadily to a publishing deadlines. After making us laugh by relating a nightmare about a troublesome child interrupting a pitching meeting, she analysed it succinctly: ‘I have a massive problem defending my time – which might explain the ‘annoying kid’ who kept knocking at the door in my recent nightmare. I have told everyone that I’m working, even though I’m at home but this hasn’t stopped my lovely dad from phoning and phoning. The only answer has been to turn all phones off – but I do get sarcastic remarks about being ‘uncontactable.’ I feel bad, because we’re a close family. And it has caused problems when my agent can’t contact me. But, if you’re a writer – you’ve got to write!’
There it is – ‘If you’re a writer – you’ve got to write,’ and you need a strategy to isolate and protect yourself, whether at home, in a coffee shop or in a moving vehicle. Good luck!
Next week, in Part Two of Time To Write, we’re going to discuss the pitfalls of technology and using those non-writing hours to feed your novel.