Writing – how, where, when?

Recently someone asked me about my writing process, wondering whether I stick to a regular routine or write on an ad hoc basis; do I aim for a certain number of words per day or let it flow organically?

It’s an interesting topic and I suspect every writer handles the issue differently according to their moods, preferences, available time/space and their own deadlines!

When I first started writing seriously I was in a group which met every month, imposing automatic deadlines on all the members. Each time we got together a task would be set in terms of having to write x number of words on a certain theme – so I’d have a specific target to meet. That tended to focus the mind but didn’t leave much scope for independent writing.

My self-discipline at this point was non existent. It wasn’t until I found out that two of my writing group friends were also starting novels – at the very point when I was developing the plot-line for Landsliding – that I found a framework. The three of us decided to meet weekly and set ourselves a target of writing 2000 words each to discuss and critique between us.

This was invaluable in terms of providing me with the necessary focus to get down to writing. I was determined not to let down my friends by failing to offer them consistent work to critique, and that incentive pushed my writing forward successfully.

At the time I was living in rural France in the huge house I’ve described before, and was lucky to have not only my own office but also a bespoke writing room in the garden. Having those spaces where I could retreat to get on with my writing made all the difference; for anyone who doesn’t realise the importance of this, just read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

View from my writing room

Having space and peace and quiet are all luxuries for a writer, although personally sometimes I like a bit of noise in the background. Radio 2 is a particular favourite. But not having to write in a communal space enables an author to delve into their own thoughts, to focus and concentrate in a totally different way.

I remember hearing how JK Rowling would retreat to her local cafe when she was first writing Harry Potter and was living in Porto. She had a young child at the time and I imagine opportunities for peace and quiet in her home environment were limited. Going out to do one’s writing is a possibility but I always find it more distracting than being at home.

JK Rowling’s cafe in Porto

Once I’d got on a roll with Landsliding, it wasn’t hard to find time to write, and some evenings were absorbed by it as well as many daytime hours. This didn’t sit well with my then husband who described me as ‘obsessed’ because he thought I spent too much time on the novel; I’ve heard this from other writers whose families resent time away from them.

One successful author told me she’d been offered a place at a writing retreat abroad but had to decline it as her husband didn’t want her to go. That balance between home life and writing can be a tricky path to negotiate – what you think is a fair amount of time to spend on writing may not tally with your family’s views. Conflict may end up an inevitability as you try to allocate your time fairly.

Certainly when I was proofreading the final version of Landsliding before it was published, I was locking myself away for a block of seven hours each time I proofed it – and I did it eight times over. That’s a lot of hours to be cloistered away from the family, needing peace and quiet and an understanding partner and/or children.

Now back in the UK and with a full time job, my time for writing is limited and I have to be more disciplined. Sometimes I wake up early, eager to start writing, while at other times I feel totally uninspired – but it’s surprising how forcing yourself to do it can lead to unexpected results. The mere act of sitting down at the desk can switch you into ‘writing mode’.

Other times you get success in the most unlikely circumstances. Nearing the end of writing my second novel The Fortnight, I recently reached an impasse with a difficult part I just couldn’t get right. I’d had several failed attempts and was starting to lose hope. As any writer knows, there are always sections of work in progress that are more challenging than others and until you reach them you can’t tell which ones they’ll be.

With this particular part of the novel, I was utterly fed up of trying. In a sort of blankness I sat in front of the TV – it was Who Wants to be a Millionaire – and half-heartedly started reworking the very difficult segment. To my delight, the words started flowing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it: sometimes it just works and other times it really doesn’t.

If one day you’ve got a block, the next day it may well have lifted. You just push through the dry times, making the most of those days when the words come easily and you’re amazed at how the sentences seem to form themselves without effort.

So I echo Virginia Woolf’s sentiment that you need a room of your own in which to write, but it also helps to have the following: an understanding family, a good supply of drinks and snacks, a great view out of the window (though this can be a distraction too) and lots of patience. Oh – and a steely determination not to give up!

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