- Unless we’re professional writers, we can’t always prioritise writing as much as we’d like to.
- Always have a current work in progress, even if you haven’t found time to work on it for a while.
- Critiquing and brainstorming ideas are ways of exercising the writing faculties that take less time or concentration than actually writing.
- Learn from the habits of famous writers, but don’t try to copy them unless you’re sure they will work for you.
No discussion of writing is complete without mentioning work habits, which isn’t straightforward because different people have to write around different priorities. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably like me in that you can’t make writing your first priority. I’m going to try to lay out how I’ve managed to stop my writing slipping so far down the priority list that nothing gets written, but as with most things, everybody needs to find their own solution.
Always know your work in progress
The phrase ‘write every day’ gets bandied around a lot. If you’ve just moved into a garret where you’re warmed only by your determination to make it as a professional writer, it’s excellent advice. It’s the only way you’re going to make it and you’d better get moving because whatever you’re living on, the money is bound to run out some time.
Most of us have to fit writing around work, study or family commitments a
nd can’t write as often as we’d like. If you’re putting in late nights because your boss neglected a project until a fortnight before the deadline or because the dissertation that decides the final grade is due, then fiction writing has to take second place. Sacrificing sleep for fiction writing is likely to lead to both the fiction and the project suffering in quality. It’s nice to keep significant relationships intact as well.
I’ve found it helps to always have a current work in progress, even if it’s a while since I’ve found time to work on it. That way, I know what I’ll be returning to when I find time to write fiction. The work in progress could be in the planning stage, it could be in the middle of the first draft, it could be in the midst of editing. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I know what I’m working on so I don’t ever let myself think I’ve stopped writing.
Keeping the writing muscles exercised
I find there’s not much point in sitting down to work on fiction if I haven’t got at least an hour. Like most people, I often go through periods when spare hours are scarce. The work in progress has to go into the cupboard until things calm down. Meanwhile, I need to keep the writerly part of my mind exercised. Critiquing short stories can be fitted into short gaps of time. It doesn’t take long to read and critique a 3-4,000 word story and it doesn’t all have to be done at once.
Another useful exercise is the quick brainstorm. I write out a list of what’s in my ideas swirl, categorised by character, setting and plot problem. Putting a few ideas together can be the genesis of a story I’ll come back to when I have time, but the main point is to keep the fiction engine ticking over when I can only grab 10 or 20 minutes to myself.
Beware of others’ habits
Most famous authors are asked about their work habits at some time or another, but their answers can be dangerous. A professional author can give their writing a priority the rest of us can only envy. We all have to put what pays the bills first. I suspect a lot of the answers the professionals give are a little misleading, if not obviously facetious. Nicholas Monsarrat, best known for The Cruel Sea and This is the Schoolroom, said he typed 300 words per day. That sounds like a recipe for a novel a year with time to spare, but only if it’s 300 perfect words. Most authors spend at least as long editing as writing, which is much harder to boil down to words per day. It’s a lot quicker to edit a passage that just needs a few corrections than a passage that needs heavy rewriting. So what did he really mean by his 300 words per day? It’s impossible to know.
Graham Greene, on the other hand, was asked in a television interview whether he had a nine-to-five working day. “Oh no,” replied Greene, “it’s more nine to quarter past ten”. One suspects more self-deprecation than accuracy.
So it can be dangerous to try to copy your favourite author’s work habits unless they have a day job as well, and are scrupulously honest in what they say. The best most of us can do is know what our current work in progress is and make sure that even when we can’t spend the time we’d like on it, the writing muscle is never allowed to atrophy.