Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 4: Spreadsheets? I Thought They Were For Accountants

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on plot development here. Today’s post continues on the topic of plot development and discusses how I use a spreadsheet to help map out the plot.

The last post in this series covered what I called ‘thickening the plot’ or using a process of slowly adding more detail to progress from your initial logline to a full outline for the plot of a novel. I also discussed why I believe having a plot outline is important and that it doesn’t constrict your creativity and rather provides a structure within which your creativity can shine. In my mind creativity is not the fanciful idea of a leaf floating on the breeze, blown any which way by the muse, creativity is more like a flooding river, you need to build structure around it to get it to flow in the right direction. The spreadsheet method, or plot grid as it is also known, is another tool I used in the writing of Alpha to help plan and construct the plot before beginning the first draft.

Firstly, to review what I covered last time the steps to move from logline of initial idea to full plot are:

  1. Take your one paragraph outline and expand it to about one page, including the key points about the story’s beginning, middle and end.
  2. Spend some time developing and documenting the back-story to your characters and world.
  3. Expand the one page outline to a five to ten page outline by adding more detail about each of the major scenes beginning to include subplots and important character moments.

By this stage you’ve got a decent outline for the skeleton of your story hitting what you consider all the major plot points. What you may find though, and this is something I certainly found when going through this process with Alpha, is that a big slab of text five to ten pages long makes it difficult to really analyse the flow of the plot, the ups and downs the characters experience and how the subplots fit together with the main plot. That’s where the spreadsheet comes in (see, not just for accountants after all).

I like structure. Perhaps it’s a virtue of being both an engineer as well as a writer, an odd combination I suppose although I do know some others and perhaps it’s more common in those writers who lean towards science fiction and fantasy, but I like laying the plan for a novel out in a way that allows me to work on the details of each scene while also allowing me to zoom out and examine the plot on a macro scale. I’ve found a spreadsheet to be the best way to get a clear picture of how the main plot and each of the subplots unfold across the chapters of the book.

A planning spreadsheet is simple to construct. I use Excel but it can just as easily be drawn up on a sheet of paper. The image below shows a snap shot of the plot grid for Alpha, I’ve hidden all the text to avoid any spoilers but it’s easy to see the structure. The columns represent plot points I want to track and the rows represent chapters.

  • The first column is simply the chapter number.
  • The second column is the POV character used for that chapter, this isn’t always necessary but in Alpha there are two viewpoint characters so I wanted to keep track of whose head we’ll be in.
  • The third column is where I track what’s happening in the main plot.
  • The remainder of the columns are the subplots, in the case of Alpha you can see that I’m tracking eight subplots.
  • In each cell of the spreadsheet I simply write the details of what occurs in that chapter related to the main plot and each of the subplots as I move across the columns.
The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

Although I’ve hidden the text one thing you can still note is that the main plot has something occurring in every chapter (you’d hope so otherwise what’s the reason for having the chapter huh?) but the subplots aren’t necessarily addressed in each chapter. The power of using this method to plan is that you can instantly see how the subplots unfold next to the main plot and over the length of the book, you can ensure that each is balanced so that one subplot doesn’t overshadow all the others and that each subplot has action occurring throughout the whole novel. You want to try and avoid too many long sparse patches in which you don’t have action around one of your subplots or the opposite where one subplot suddenly takes over and becomes the all-consuming spotlight hogging diva.

What you’re seeing here is only a small segment of the plot grid but the beauty is you can zoom in and flesh out details of the chapter, or zoom out (or take a step back if you’re rocking old school pen and paper) and see which subplots have action and how often. I’ve never really been into the whole colour-coding your grid according to character or type of action or what you had for breakfast or whatever but it seems to help some people so if that’s your thing then go nuts and make it all pretty.

As you translate your long form plot outline into this spreadsheet format you’ll quickly see if you need to move some scenes around or merge or split scenes so that not only does the main plot move in rising and falling action but that the subplots are spaced out throughout the book in a way that keeps each plot thread alive until the very end.

It was discussions I’d had with other writers in a writer’s group that prompted me to try out this method of planning and I’ve used it ever since. After I’d started using it I discovered this is the same method J.K. Rowling used to plan the Harry Potter novels. I’m not suggesting that planning this way is going to make you a billionaire but I found this image online showing part of her plot grid for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and thought it might be useful as another example.

If it's good enough for Harry...

If it's good enough for Harry...

As you can see the structure of Rowling’s plot grid is very similar to mine but she also includes a column to track the timeline of her story. As you can imagine the structure of your spreadsheet is clearly flexible and dependent on what you feel you need to track in that particular novel.

So now that my plot outline has been transferred to my spreadsheet and I’ve moved things around, adjusted things, and am reasonably happy with the way the plot unfolds it’s time to take a deep breath because next comes the hard part, time get to writing that first draft…gulp. We'll talk about that next time.

Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 3: Got Plot?

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on ideas here. Today’s post covers how I turn the initial idea into the first cut at a complete plot.

I’ve spoken before on my blog (in this post) about what I consider to be the single most important piece of writing advice and, to save you reading over that old post, it’s this:

'Having a plan doesn't block creativity, it gives it a framework in which to thrive.'

Many writers set out to write a novel without a plan content in the knowledge that their characters will mystically lead the way, and while there may be some people out there who can accomplish this, Stephen King springs to mind as he discusses this in his excellent book On Writing – although it’s important to recognise that someone like Stephen King has merely internalised the planning process after so much practise, the guy’s written like twelve libraries full of novels - for the vast majority of us though following our nose is not an effective way of moving forward from our initial idea. We just don’t have a good enough sense of smell yet.

I like to plan. I probably plan my novels in more detail than a lot of writers - I actually use two methods to plan out a book, effectively planning the novel twice, I’ll discuss that later – but I’m a firm believer that good novels with a tight, gripping plot and meaningful subplots are purposely planned and constructed. It’s much easier to get the plot (mostly) right prior to beginning the first draft than it is to try and beat plot into a plot-less jumble. An important point to understand is that having a plot mapped out before you begin to write your first draft does not constrict you, it gives you a structure within which to flex your creativity. When you already understand the way the plot will unfold that gives you the freedom to focus on the small details that bring each scene to life.

Having a plan laid out before you begin writing also allows you to discover any major plot holes and gives you a chance to fix them early and save yourself some major headaches when it comes to the process of rewriting.

The idea of having a plan ties directly into the name of this series of posts, ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block.’ It’s my belief that writer’s block occurs as a result of a writer having to think out too many details at once. When you need to try and think through the plot of the entire novel while simultaneously making the necessary choices about the finer details of each scene and remembering every detail of the complex interplay of relationships it’s no wonder you get jammed. A plan allows you to know what you’ll be writing about next, and you can grind your way forward, sometimes you know the scene you’re writing isn’t the best and will need further work during a rewrite but at least you keep moving, you always know what you need to write about next and so you avoid the fate of writer’s block.

So after digesting the reasons why I think having a planned out plot is important the question then becomes how exactly do I go from my initial idea to a plot for a novel? Well, it all begins with the logline I spoke about developing in the last post. Remember this logline is a single paragraph that outlines the core of the story, the characters and the central conflict they will face. The logline I came up with for Alpha was:

Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.

Now, as I mentioned previously when I plan out the plot for my novel I use two approaches, a slowly expanded written plot and a plot grid or spreadsheet. In this post I’ll cover the development of the written plot and we’ll discuss the plot grid in the next post.

The Slowly Expanding Plot, or How the Plot Thickens

I believe the easiest way to move from your initial logline to a full plot is to expand it with ever increasing detail, what I’ll cleverly call thickening the plot.

Step 1 – First take your one paragraph logline and expand the single paragraph to include the key points about:

·      How you will set up the story

·      Major plot points that occur along the way, and

·      The ending.

Basically you’re taking your logline and padding it out into the familiar beginning, middle and end.

The logline you created from your idea doubles as something of a marketing tool, the ten-second pitch, the thing you can tell people when they say, “Oh, so you’re writing a novel, what’s it about?” It gives the essence of the story but doesn’t reveal any major plot surprises. But now in this step you’re taking that logline and expanding it to include the plot points and ending you don’t want anyone to know yet. At this stage you’ve taken your one paragraph logline and expanded it out to maybe five or six paragraphs, each one hitting the main plot points of the story.

(The neat thing about developing your plot this way is, although it will likely change here and there and require a little adjustment, you’re currently writing the synopsis of your book, something that can become next to impossible when you try to condense your 100,000 word novel back the other way.)

Step 2 - Now that you’ve got the main plot points on a page in front of you this is the time when you can start tackling more detail about the world and the characters that inhabit your story. It may seem counter-intuitive to do this after you’ve already developed the key points of your plot but I actually find it more beneficial at this stage as you have a better understanding of the story you are going to tell. That said, although I’m presenting this as a step-by-step process, it’s actually somewhat iterative and you may circle back to change things in early stages as you gain a better understanding of the story you’re creating.

At this stage I will start to scribble down notes about each of the main characters and develop necessary back-story for the world-building that will take place in the novel. For Alpha I wrote a half page back-story for each of the ‘troubled teenagers’ I allude to in my logline. I also filled fifteen to twenty pages with world-building information, most notably I researched and wrote detailed information about the anatomy, psychology, language and communication of the alien race as well as a history of the events leading up to and following the arrival of the aliens on earth, ensuring I understood the technological, political and environmental consequences of the aliens arrival.

All in all this was several weeks work but it was time well spent developing a better understanding of the world, the characters and the increasingly complex relationships between the characters and the subplots that begin to emerge as a result of these relationships.

Step 3 – After the work done developing solid back-story the next step is expanding my one page synopsis of the novel out to a five to ten page plot outline. Once again, the plot thickens.

I start at the beginning of the story and work my way through chronologically, writing brief descriptions of what’s going to happen in each scene now including character names and important world-building information. This outline will probably not include every scene that will be in the final novel, and may include scenes that are ultimately cut, but it includes all the scenes I know of at the moment including all major plot points and starting to incorporate subplots based on my better understanding of character relationships and their relationship with the world around them.

You’ll find the time spent examining the characters in more detail begins to pay off here as you’ll start to have a better idea of their motivations and have them performing actions that fit with their character and intentions. A note about writing these scene descriptions, at this stage I refrain from including any character dialogue. I prefer to save dialogue for the first draft because by then you’ll have a better idea of each characters voice and won’t have fallen in love with any bits of dialogue you may have written in your outline but really just don’t fit with who the character has become.

This can be a challenging stage of planning as here you may find yourself wandering a little as you try and incorporate subplots and keep the ups and downs of the plot exciting. Don’t worry too much yet, just pad out the plot a little more, putting meat on the bones of the skeleton you already have. Dealing with the flow of the plot, keeping subplots moving along and keeping the level of action rising and falling is the reason I use the plot grid method of planning as well...and that's what we'll discuss next time.

Remember to enter your email in the subscription box to keep up with these posts and follow me on Twitter.

Ain't No Such Thing as Writer's Block, Part 2: Ideas ideas everywhere...

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post here. Today’s post covers the very first step in writing a novel, the idea.

Nearly every author I know hates the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Authors who frequent conventions or host regular question and answer sessions have probably developed a long list of witty answers like, from the Idea-of-the-Month-Club (Neil Gaiman), Poughkeepsie (Harlan Ellis), or, Schenectady. They have them in a store on Route 147 (Joe Hill).

The reason for using these retorts is simple, it’s sometimes hard to externalise the exact process of idea generation. Sometimes you can identify your source of inspiration, and sometimes you can’t. Ultimately though people already know the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas come from inside your head. More specifically, authors filter their experiences through their brain and ideas drop out, same as with anybody else. I suppose the difference between an author and someone else, if there is one, is a mindset maybe more receptive to ideas.


Ideas come from everywhere and they’re mostly a result of blatant thievery (inspiration - if that’s what you want to call it). Maybe you’re reading an article about an obscure 14th century painting and you get an idea for a thriller about an art theft. Maybe you overhear someone having an argument over the phone and it sparks an idea for a deep piece about the slow destruction of a marriage. Maybe you see a documentary about astronauts and think it would be a whole lot cooler if aliens ate their faces.

Everywhere around you there will be books you read, movies you watch and music you hear that will plant the seeds of ideas. So what do you do? You steal those ideas and run. This doesn’t mean plagiarise, this means mixing and matching the ideas you acquire and making them your own. You’re not going to rewrite Moby Dick word for word, but you might decide that your main character is a gruff old sea captain inspired, in part, by Captain Ahab. This is what people mean when they repeat the quote, which may or may not have been said by Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

I knew I wanted to write a Young Adult sci-fi novel for my next book. The first novel I wrote was aimed at young adult readers and I really enjoy writing for that audience. As adults we have read enough books and seen enough movies and watched enough TV to know the familiar tropes, to have seen most things before, but with young readers this is often not the case. There’s something wonderful in creating worlds for young readers to explore knowing that your book may take them somewhere entirely new and may be one of those stories they always remember as an experience of firsts. I think this enjoyment of writing YA stems from my time as a teacher, and perhaps my own love of reading that really hit its stride when I was in that age group. I read everything from Goosebumps novels to Stephen King, from Roald Dahl to Ray Bradbury, from Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings. I know from my own reading the depth and breadth that Young Adults read. I wanted to write a science-fiction book for younger readers that still had adult elements.

One book series I loved as a teenager, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of Australian children of my generation, was John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. If you don’t know the premise of the Tomorrow series it’s about a group of teenagers who go camping and when they return they find an unknown enemy has invaded Australia and the group find themselves mounting a guerrilla resistance against the occupiers. I had a couple of ideas for my next book but the idea I couldn’t shake, the idea that demanded it be the focus was thinking about the Tomorrow series but with the teenagers resisting not the invasion of a foreign nation but an alien invasion.

The idea of fighting against alien invaders is certainly nothing new, but it’s how I pictured the story unfolding, a story focused more on the teenagers as characters rather than the alien enemy, a story that is more adventure than action, a story close on a small group amidst a broader fight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; a single idea is not enough to sustain a novel-length piece of work. An idea needs other ideas to back it up.

An Idea Molecule...maybe.

An Idea Molecule...maybe.

Once you’ve had the initial idea you need to give it some time and space. You need to let the idea sit in your head for a while as other ideas float in and out. You’ll soon find that some of these other ideas stick to the first idea like an idea molecule attracting stray atoms to join with it. This way you not only build up a broader idea more capable of being the starting point for a novel but you create your own unique take on things by joining ideas in new and interesting ways.

I had my core idea of teens resisting aliens but as I let that idea cook in my mind other ideas started to join it. I thought about the ongoing issue of how Australia is treating refugees and thought, how would we treat another species if it came to our planet seeking asylum? I thought about how much we could learn from a more advanced race and would they would teach this new knowledge to us? I had some ideas for characters float through my mind, a troubled girl with a powerful secret and a boy who misuses his knowledge of computers. I spent some time mulling over an alien race, creating a species that was as grounded in reality as it could be.

The ideas started to come together and I found the story start to emerge, fragmented, with a lot of maybes, but the skeleton was coalescing from the constant bombardment of idea molecules. I felt I was ready to start fleshing it out.

But now that I’ve got an idea that seems layered enough to begin planning a story how do I know whether it’s any good? Whether an idea is good enough is somewhat subjective. I personally don’t think sparkly vampires who come out in the daytime is a good idea but apparently millions of people disagree with me. So we won’t talk about whether an idea is subjectively good but we can test to see if it’s ready.

In order for your core idea to be ready to start writing a novel you probably need several things, keep in mind that these don’t need to be anywhere near fully fleshed out yet but I think it’s helpful to have some ideas around each:

  • Characters – Do you have an idea of your protagonist, your antagonist, and your supporting cast?
  • The World – Where is the story set? If it’s fantasy or science fiction what do you know about the world you need to create?
  • Central conflict – Do you know what is it that the protagonist is trying to achieve and how that desire is being stopped?
  • How does it end? – People may disagree with me on this one but I think, even now, you should have an idea of how it will end. Is your protagonist going to be successful? If so, how? If not, why not and what does that mean for the story?
  • Audience – Who are you writing for?
  • Tone or style – What sort of book are you writing? By this I don’t mean genre, I mean what is the feel of the book? Is it light-hearted or heavy? Is it tense? Is it adventurous?
  • Are you itching to write it? – This might be the most important point of all. Is this the idea you want to write about because you’re going to be spending an awfully long time with it to turn it from this raw idea to an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.

So with my idea for Alpha it took maybe a year of the idea being just an idea in my head and a few notes on an alien race, some characters and a few things that might or might not happen before I felt it was fully formed enough to begin working on. This is what I had:

  • Characters - I had some characters, only two of the teenagers at this stage and I knew I would need to create more but I felt I had the two main characters ready.
  • The World – I knew the setting would be near future and that I had a basic understanding of the aliens but knew I would need to flesh this out some more.
  • Central Conflict - The conflict was to be between the aliens and the teenagers, but I knew the teenagers must be in a unique position to everyone else. My idea was they would begin a resistance because they learned a truth about the aliens the rest of the world didn’t know.
  • How does it end? – I have an idea of the ending but of course I’m not going to spoil that here!
  • Audience – As I’ve mentioned my audience is YA, specifically I’m aiming at the older end, 15 – 18 hopefully with crossover into adults.
  • Tone or style – I want the story to feel personal to the characters, to be a science fiction story that feels as if it could really happen right now, I want to invoke the fight to survive feeling of the Tomorrow series but doing so in a different way. I want it to be an adventure story about real kids in extraordinary circumstances.
  • Are you itching to write it? – You bet.

So, I’m ready to go right? Well, almost. Before I start a novel I like to solidify my idea, create a one paragraph synopsis of the story, something that will be the logline of the book. I highly recommend this as it becomes something to go back to again and again to ensure your story planning is in-line with the story you’re trying to write. This one paragraph also serves as the first step in how I plan the rest of the plot but we’ll save that for the next post.

For Alpha, after spending a few days tightening up the notes around my idea here is what I came up with, this is the book I’m going to be writing: 

Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.

So there it is, from the seed of an idea to a logline ready to move forward. In the next post I’ll talk about how I go from this single paragraph to the first outline of the novel’s plot. Remember, to keep up with the 'Ain’t No Such Thing As Writer’s Block' series and follow the development of Alpha enter your email in the email subscription box (I promise it’s spam free). You can also follow me on Twitter.

Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block, Part 1: Introduction

Now that my son is four weeks old and my household is gradually forming something resembling a routine (a jam-packed, sleepless, often unpredictable routine) I’m managing to find time to re-establish a consistent writing pattern and revisit my recently neglected blog.

Over the last few months I’ve started working on my fourth novel – a Young Adult sci-fi story called ‘Alpha,’ a story that’s been percolating through my brain filter for the last year or so.

Back in July last year I posted that I would use this blog to keep an honest account of writing, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, not just a blog of writing tips but something that tries to go a little deeper into the emotional and business sides of writing. It’s in that spirit that I’ve decided to start writing a series of blog posts following the writing of ‘Alpha’ from the absolute beginning with the shaping of the core idea through planning, first drafting, the editing process, submission and then to wherever this story may ultimately end up, hopefully published in one form or another.

I’ve decided to call this series of posts ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ because it echoes my own personal mantra about writing, perseverance. It’s one of the things I’d like people to take away from these posts. This series is about the day-to-day process that drives a novel forward from that first seed of an idea to the final product. Hopefully I’ll show that while there are certainly hurdles along the way, good writing days and bad, no matter how long it takes, if you keep grinding forward through the tough patches and you have a structure to your story and a routine to your writing, there really isn’t such a thing as writer’s block.

Along the way I’ll share some insights into my process, the techniques I’m using to plan the story and manage information, things I’m learning, things I’m struggling with. It’s probably inevitable that along the way I’ll share elements of the novel I’m writing but I won’t be sharing any large slabs of the book and the blog posts will certainly remain free of divulging any plot twists or important moments because ultimately I’m still writing this book with a view to publication and subsequent enjoyment by readers so I don’t want to spoil anything. In the end it would be excellent for someone who has followed this whole series of posts to pick up the book and read the final result knowing where it all came from.

Hopefully for readers you’ll find the journey and the writing process interesting, for writers you might learn a new technique or tool or be able to reflect on how your own work is progressing. Along the way I hope you’ll share your own thoughts in the comments.

The first post, up next week, will cover the germination of the idea for the book and how I source, combine and evaluate ideas as the basis of a novel.

Remember if you want to follow the whole series enter your email in the subscription box to the left and you can also follow me on Twitter. I’m looking forward to sharing my journey of crafting a new novel with you; it could be a long one.

Stories Influenced by Travel

People often describe travelling as a way to lose themselves, a vehicle through which they set about freeing themselves of themselves, a time in which they cast off the chains of the everyday and, at least for a time, they can be someone else. To these people travel is escape.

Others will say that through travel they will find themselves, as if the true essence of who they really are cannot be uncovered at home but in some other place, some strange, foreign place, they will open their eyes and suddenly discover what they’ve been missing this whole time. For these people travel is self-psychology.

For me travel is about discovery, not the discovery of myself but the discovery of others. When travelling I like to collect things, not physical things, although I am partial to a good souvenir baseball cap, I collect stories. I collect stories about people and places and events and times. Travelling, as a result of this story discovery provides incredible sources of inspiration and ideas for writing and I believe that travel, through the experiences it yields, is one of the most beneficial things a writer can do.

Why all this sudden talk about travel? Well, I’ve recently returned home from a month long adventure in the United States in which I found myself enthralled with the stories I found. I came to realise that while I have talked before about having a familiar writing space as a key to becoming successful in achieving regular writing output, it is perhaps away from our comfort zone that we are most inspired. As writers our tools are not necessarily the words on the page but the experiences that fuel the direction of those words and through exploring unfamiliar places we find unfamiliar experiences.

In San Francisco, as a cool night fell heavily over the bay, I walked over a gently bouncing gangplank and onto the shores of Alcatraz Island where the famous (perhaps better called infamous) prison loomed large and abandoned. Here was a place whose cold, echoing hallways were soaked in stories, stories of gangsters and murderers, stories of innocence and escape. Walking through the hallways it was easy to imagine the yelling, the banging of tin cups along steel bars, the despair, the anger, the fear. How many prisoners had been through this place? What had they done? As a prisoner is purported to have said, “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”

I sat in George's, a dark-as-Coca-Cola dive bar under an overpass in Baton Rouge. There were dollar bills stapled to the ceiling and even at two in the afternoon the room was lit more by neon beer signs than the lights on the ceiling. I wondered who frequented this place and what were their stories, families, truck drivers, college students, criminals? My brain began cooking up stories set in a bar like this.

New Orleans is a story in itself, a city supposedly built on an Indian burial ground, a city that many claim is cursed, a city with more dead buried amongst the swamps than living in the streets, a voodoo city, a party city. We walked the streets of the French Quarter listening intently to the creepiest stories of the multitude of ghosts and vampires that wander the gothic streets of America's most haunted place, stories of music and pirates and tragedy and perseverance. The Big Easy has a long history of stories influenced by the cultural melting pot it has always been.

Further up the Mississippi River along a highway paved with cotton and blues we stopped in Clarksdale, a small town where Robert Johnson stood at a midnight crossroads, sold his soul to the devil and Ol' Scratch tuned his guitar and taught him to play the blues.

Everywhere we went there were stories, famous stories and unknown stories, stories told a thousand times and stories never heard. I’ve brought some of those stories home with me now and hopefully, as I think is the goal of every writer, I will be able to sit at my desk in my familiar writing place, take all these new experiences and turn them into stories of my own, stories influenced by what I’ve seen and heard, stories influenced by travel. 

Why Writing is a Partnership.

In a previous post on the five reasons perseverance is the most important quality for a writer, I said that writing wasn’t finished until it was read, that having someone read your writing and draw meaning from it is the entire reason for writing in the first place. Someone on social media pointed out that writing can be a purely personal thing, that someone can enjoy the act of writing solely for themselves without another person ever laying eyes on their words. I suppose this is true in personal cases, like writing a journal, or even when you’re taking your first tentative steps into the waters of fiction writing.

However, I would argue that if you want to take your writing to the next level, if you want to have your writing published and find an audience who actually wants to read it, then you must forget the idea of writing as a self-imposed lock down in solitary confinement and instead consider writing as a partnership between the writer and the reader. Even though you may never meet the person who reads your words, at least for the duration of the story, you and that reader are a team. 

Writer and Reader.jpg

Consider this question: When you’re reading a story where does that story take place, the writer’s head or your own?

The answer is, of course, that it happens in your head. Writers like to talk about building worlds and bringing their characters to life but the truth is they don’t, the reader does. The author provides the scaffolding, the clues, the guidance, but it is within the reader’s imagination that characters walk and talk and the world is born. As writers our words are thought instructions, they are sensory and emotional cues for another person’s experience.

The Real Meaning Of Show Don’t Tell

‘Show don’t tell’ is probably the most well known piece of writing advice. We want our readers to feel as if they are discovering the world of the story on their own. It is at the heart of the reader/writer partnership. Readers enjoy stories the most when they experience them, when the carefully planned twist subtly sneaks up and hits them, when the actions of a character make them angry or sad or happy, when they discover the meaning of our work on their own.

A mistake writers make, I have been particularly guilty of this at times, is thinking that in order to draw a reader in they need to lace every scene with detail, paragraphs of description to paint a picture in readers minds. In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true. As writers we should pull back on description, reign in our desire to write about every article of clothing a character is wearing, the colour of their hair and eyes, the angle of every wrinkle on their face. Instead, detailed description should be deliberate and restrained.

Of course we don’t leave our writing bare of detail we are simply being smarter about where to add that detail leaving the reader’s imagination to work. There are three places we should add detail:

  • Detail for character – we describe details that are important for understanding a character, either physically or emotionally, or some aspect of them that will be important later.

  •  Detail for setting – we add enough detail that the reader knows where they are, that it feels familiar enough that their imagination can run on from our description but also they are aware we are taking them somewhere new.
  •  Detail for tension and tone - we add details when we want to add to the tension or tone of a scene. Perhaps when a killer is creeping down a hallway and our protagonist doesn’t know they’re coming we want to slow the perceived passage of time to draw out the suspense, we do this through adding detail.

What we have is a porridge problem, it’s important we be aware of what is described and what is left for the reader’s imagination, not too hot, not too cold but just right. Overuse of description removes power from the reader. That’s what I interpret as the real meaning of show don’t tell, you should be the guide, not the traveller. Don’t tell the reader someone is angry, show them why, but more importantly do your upmost to have the reader discover the anger on their own, to feel it as the character does.

How Your Language Generates Your Reader’s Thoughts

It’s not necessarily the language itself that determines good writing from bad but rather the emotional and intellectual response a reader has to that language. The writer’s job is to carefully control this transfer of meaning and emotion, to structure words so as to draw out the intended response. Essentially, during the act of writing we as writers are transferring our thoughts and emotions directly into the head of our reader.

I write both prose and comics. These are different mediums with different strengths and weaknesses. Both are great in their own way but I think prose has an advantage in the delivery of emotion over comics (or film and other forms of visual narrative) in that it is written directly in the language of thought.

Language shapes our thoughts; in fact it is language that allows us to think at all. There are two schools of thought in psychology about the interdependence of language and thought. Either we are born able to think before we develop language or we develop language and this allows us to think. Without going too deep into this the end result is ultimately the same. As we grow older, language becomes the way we conceptualise our thoughts, it is what allows us to imagine things and express ourselves. When you think you do it with language, this language generates emotion and understanding. So when storytelling is in its most pure form, that of spoken or written language, as writers we are directly shaping the thoughts of a reader.

So what does this tell us about the partnership between writer and reader? Well, it highlights the need to consider the reader from the get-go. When we set out to write a scene we should be mindful of the way we are trying to generate emotion. We include the reader in our writing process by:

  • Beginning with an imaginary reader in mind - from the start of the writing process consider a target audience or even a specific person you're writing for.

  • Being aware of what we’re trying to convey - in every scene ensure you understand the actions, emotions and motivations of your characters, without this understanding it's difficult to be clear in what the reader should experience.

  • Writing for our reader to experience this  - attempt to write in a way that generates the emotions of our characters not just in ourselves but in our imaginary reader who doesn’t have our understanding of the story.

With every sentence we write we should be thinking about the reader. So next time you sit down at your desk ready for the solitary slog we call writing try and remember that you’re not alone. You’ve got a partner in this story, a tourist that’s relying on you to be thoughtful about how you guide them through this world you’re creating. Do them the favour of thinking about how they’re involved.

Don’t forget to subscribe to email updates of this blog using the email subscription box and follow me on Twitter: @Woollz.

The Write Space: How You Can Improve Your Writing By Improving Where You Write

When authors take us on light speed journeys through hyperspace and the stars melt away to streaks of white, when they send us deep into the dank, subterranean caverns of malevolent lizard-men, when they drag us through the dusty streets of a post-apocalyptic world where every man and woman must claw for survival, when they do this while wrapping us tightly in the belief that the characters we are reading about are living, breathing people who feel fear or bravery or love or malice it’s often hard to remember that an author sat somewhere in our world and brought that world to life.

Recently fellow Australian author Zena Shapter has been running a series of blog posts called ‘Where Writers Write’ in which she’s been posting photos and descriptions of the desks/writing spaces of a number of authors including Kate Forsyth, Michael Pryor, Terry Dowling, Greg Barron and many, many others.

I’ve found these posts interesting as there’s always something wonderful about peeking into the creative lives of others and seeing the small, white haired man that pulls the levers and presses the buttons despite the booming voice that tells you to: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

More than just some voyeuristic enjoyment though, Zena’s series of posts have got me thinking about the places we write and the effect these places have on the writing itself.

Here then is a photo of my writing space:

Pretty standard stuff really, desk, computer, books, in-progress manuscripts on the shelves, a half-deflated Spider-man, clutter that I wish would fit somewhere else in the house, but beyond that what’s important about this space is that it’s mine. No one else uses it and I don’t use it for anything other than writing. There’s something sacred in that, an altar of words existing solely for me to carry out this act of creation. However, I don’t think it’s as mystical as that sounds, I don’t pray to my deflated Spider-man idol for the God of Inspiration to enter my earthly dominion and deliver me my muse – it’s just the combination of two things, a physical space and a mental one.

The physical writing space is an often under-considered aspect of your ability to generate good writing, particularly by newer writers. Note the very important part of that last sentence, good writing. We can write anywhere and are often forced to, I’m proof of that, there’s many times I’ve written outside my sanctuary, on the train, in a café, on a plane, at my desk at work, on my phone while out for dinner with friends when the conversation sparks an idea that I just can’t shake. That’s all well and good, but in this post I’m not simply talking about getting words down, I’m talking about having the clarity of mind to dig deeper and get quality words down.

Good writing requires concentration. We want to achieve that feeling of being in the zone and writing well, the place you find yourself when the world sinks away behind you and disappears into oblivion so that the entirety of existence is you and your keyboard or notebook. In order to reach this level of concentration you need what I believe is the most important aspect of a writing space, isolation.

Isolation is the dominion of the writer. When you sit down to write you must exit reality for a time. You must give yourself permission to sink into that place where the rest of the world doesn’t exist. To accomplish this you need a place you can go and be uninterrupted, no phone calls, no children tugging at your pants for food or whatever else they need to continue their small human existence, no friends pinging you with chat messages on Facebook, no interruptions at all. In many of our lives this isn’t easy. If you’re a single parent or live in a busy house it’s understandably a challenge. If this is the case consider this, attempt to produce your isolation not just through space but also through time. Write early in the morning or late at night when the world, including your all-demanding family, is asleep.

When in your writing space you need to be safe in the knowledge that you will not be disturbed. The isolation you need as a writer is just as much a state of mind as a place and it’s difficult to let go of the world around you and sink down into your inner zone when you could be interrupted at anytime.

I don’t write at my best with anyone else in the room, and I suspect the same is true of most people. Isolation means being alone. Basically I’m just going to come straight out and say it: Don’t write in a coffee shop.

I know a few professional writers and numerous serious semi-professionals and none of them write in a cafe. None. I don't care what J.K. Rowling did. Go ahead and write in a cafe if you want but try and tell me you don't feel a little self-conscious after sitting at a table alone for an hour between each of your skinny lattes and I won't believe you. Cafes are loaded with distractions and you will be interrupted. Also there's this reason: 

Having an isolated space where you know you won’t be interrupted allows you to drop the walls we all keep up and sink into your work. It's like your instinctual need to be ready to fight off a bear (or bothersome coffee shop waiter) disappears.

Even within your space you should try and minimise distractions. You can see from the photo of my writing space that I have a pure white wall behind my desk, I don’t face the window and I sometimes even shut the blinds. This all helps to keep me focused. Blandness of surroundings makes what you are writing the focal point.

I hinted at this earlier when I said my desk is used for nothing but writing but it’s my firm belief that your space should be dedicated to writing. If that’s not possible at least use the same space each time, don’t write on the couch one morning, in bed the next and then at a desk the day after that. I talked about routine in a previous post on time management for writers but routine based around a physical space promotes the development of the mental space. Using the same space to write, at the same time each day assists us in dropping into the mental zone we aim to be in.

When you’re taking a break from your writing (perhaps you’re employing the Pomodoro Method as I talked about in my time management post) and you’re going to check your email or make a phone call or watch five minutes of Game of Thrones because you’re so absolutely obsessed you can't stand to be away from Daenerys Stormborn (What? Just me?), step away from your writing space and do it somewhere else. I like the concept Jack Cheng talks about of Habit Fields, the way we associate certain environments with certain activities. In particular I like the idea of the distraction chair. You reserve your desk solely for writing and then, when you’re going to do something else, even if it’s just for five minutes; you get up and move to your distraction chair, a place you associate with doing things other than writing keeping your writing space linked to productivity.

Having a writing space you can control allows you to control your state of mind. The benefit of creating a writing space as perfect as you can means you will practise falling into the right state of mind. As you continue to do this you’ll find that state of mind comes easier and easier even when you're away from your writing space. You can train yourself into having mental space so that like Joyce Carol Oates said, “If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.”

Sometimes you’ll succeed in writing in the coffee shop or under the table at your Aunt Martha’s birthday dinner, because you’ve found that mental space. The problem is you can't always find it. You should always have your writing space as the centre of your writing life, keep coming back to it and you'll find that when you're there your writing will be the best it can be. What you’re doing when you set up a dedicated, uninterrupted writing space is giving yourself ongoing permission to sink into the writing zone where you can build the hyperspace starship, the subterranean caverns, or the post-apocalyptic world where others can lose themselves too.

If you don’t get enough writing done or are continually complaining of being uninspired answer the question: Do you have a writing space where you give yourself permission to be inspired?

Let me know your experiences with writing spaces. Where do you write? Maybe you think I'm completely wrong. Leave a comment and let me know, and to stay up to date with my blog posts enter your email address in the email subscription box or follow me on Twitter: @Woollz.

5 Reasons Why Perseverance is the Most Important Quality for a Writer

I don't know why this man is pulling an anchor with his waist but I respect his perseverance.

I don't know why this man is pulling an anchor with his waist but I respect his perseverance.

There's a saying we've all heard that extolls the virtue of patience, 'good things come to those who wait,' but that's not precisely true is it? I mean patience is important, but patience implies an act of waiting, a passive approach, a course of action where we sit on the couch with our feet up waiting for these so-called 'good things' to arrive by courier at the front door. I think a more accurate sentiment would be good things come to those who persevere.

Perseverance conjures up a different feeling. It's not passive. It's the image of getting up off the couch, doing a bunch of push-ups and then going out, club in hand, to hunt down all the 'good things' despite the fact that we've failed to bring any home in our last fifty attempts. To persevere is to be doggedly persistent despite all the obstacles that stand in our way.

Writers must have many qualities, imagination, self-awareness, ego-mania, borderline schizophrenia, the ability to grow excellent beards (even if you're a woman), but chief among a writer's qualities must be that of perseverance, the determination to continue slamming up against a wall until those bricks start to crack, and here are the five reasons why I believe this to be so important:

1. You've got to finish things

Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing, I love having written." And boy was she right. Although I can hear people protesting that statement already:

"But writers should love to write. Why would you be a writer if you don't love it? Every time I write I find escape from the world. I only write for myself."

Well voices in my head (borderline schizophrenia), the only people who say those things are people who have never attempted to write a 90,000 word novel because believe me, it's sometimes like pulling teeth and then continuing to pull more even when you've already emptied your mouth. Incidentally it's my hypothesis that it's these people who don't dig for the deeper meaning in their writing, don't polish their thoughts, the people about whom Dorothy Parker was likely thinking when she also said this, "There's a hell of a difference between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply callisthenics with words." But my thoughts on digging deeper in our writing, of pulling teeth and polishing them is perhaps a topic for another time.

You'll never be a writer until you finish things. Short story, novel, poem, whatever it is, if you don't finish it then it will never be read, and in the end the act of writing is not complete until the work is experienced. Writing is meant to communicate, be it story or letter or sales report, the act of someone else reading your words is ultimately what gives them life and meaning. Reaching this end state is the first time you'll need perseverance.

Personally, I fundamentally disagree with the existence of writer's block, but I know the wall when I hit it, when the words or ideas don't come easily. It is at these times when it becomes all too easy to quit, to put this work down and start on that other burning idea you have. You need the determination to keep going, to push through until the end - focus on this more than any other trait and the rest will follow.

2. You've got to edit things

A bit like pineapple on pizza, some people love editing and some people loathe it. There seems to be a spectrum here, at one end there's the writers who enjoy writing on the fresh page but aren't as keen on the polishing, and at the other there are those who agonise and bleed to get the first-draft out but then rejoice when the red pen comes out. Regardless of where you fall the fact is writing is rewriting. So when it comes time to murder your darlings you better wield that knife with perseverance.

I find the risk in the editing phase of the process is almost the opposite of that in the writing phase. Instead of struggling to get it finished writers can be too hasty to call it done. You've completed the first-draft of a novel right? Whether it's your first or twenty-first, it's done, you're spent, you've got no teeth left, you just want it to be read. It's time to send it out to publishers and wait, patiently, on the courier with your million dollar advance cheque. Well hold up. You know you've got to edit that manuscript don't you? 'Cause right now it sucks. 

If you're one of the writers who finds editing a struggle then now is the time to flex your perseverance muscle (that sounds kind of gross). Slow yourself down and edit that manuscript, polish it up, then do it again. Stop yourself sending it off so you can edit it again. Put it aside and leave it for a few weeks and then guess what? Rewrite it again.

Perseverance at the editing stage means getting your manuscript to be the best it possibly can be before it leaves you, even when you're sick of the sight of it.

3. Rejection

"I love my rejection slips. They show me I try." - Sylvia Plath

If there's one time you need perseverance it's after rejection, face-slapping, I-don't-want-to-go-on-a-date-with-you, you-don't-get-the-job type of rejection. It will happen, and it will happen a lot.

Once you're through with writing and editing it's time to send your masterpiece out. You send it to an agent or publisher, you cross your fingers and wait. You wait. You wait and wait and wait. You're still waiting and then, with the ding of your email inbox, you get a thanks but no thanks and your soul is wrenched usunder.

Here's where I think you need a certain type of perseverance because there's two ways to react to that news. The first is to hit the delete button, mumble about them not knowing a good manuscript if it jumped up and karate kicked them in the teeth, and send it out to someone else. Then there's the second way you can react, you can see if they've given you any feedback, and if they haven't you can ask for it. Then you can take that feedback and see if you think it could make your work better. I think this second approach is the most important way an author can take rejection. Maybe after one or two rejections it's true that you just haven't found the right editor yet, maybe even after four or five, but as they continue to roll in you need to think that maybe you're getting rejections because your manuscript isn't good enough yet. This is where real perseverance is necessary, the perseverance to continue to improve, to take your rejections as opportunities to learn.

This is why I don't think it's a good idea for authors to jump straight into self-publishing their first novel. Often self-publishing smacks of an author's inability to persevere. They scream and yell about their disdain for the 'gatekeepers' of publishing and that the world has changed and authors should rise up against these robotic overlords. What they're really saying is they're not willing to stick it out beyond the third or fourth knock back.

4. Because practise isn't just for musicians

Which leads nicely into this, practise. 

 Let's say you decide you're going to be a musician, maybe the lead guitarist in a band, you discover it's what you truly love, do you:

a) Practise everyday until your fingers bleed, continue this practise for years and years until you become a master of the guitar, or

b) Buy a guitar, spend a few months learning to strum, start a band and go around asking bars to let you play there and then lamenting them as 'gatekeepers' when they say no.

I think you'd choose door a. So why then do a large number of people insist on pursuing writing by heading through door b? Perhaps it's a side-effect of our modern culture of instant gratification. I've spoken about the willpower to delay gratification in an earlier blog post. People want everything now, writers want to be published now. Hell, I certainly know I'm guilty of it. I've become impatient at times, unwilling to bide my time and continue through the struggles of learning the craft. Each time the thought that focuses me back on improving and knowing I must persevere with my practise is that I want everything people read that has my name on it to be the best it can be and I know I'll only get there through practise. 

It's a commonly stated rule of thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of practise to master a skill, if that doesn't need perseverance I don't know what does.

5. It takes time to be an overnight success

Maybe you're the next Hemingway, Dickens, Vonnegut or Rowling, but even if you are it's going to take time for you to breakthrough. People like to quote how many times Harry Potter was rejected, how many times The Beatles were passed over, how Michael Jordan didn't make his high school basketball team. These things give us hope that we too can achieve greatness despite our setbacks. The key ingredient of course is the p word, no not pizza, though it helps with the crippling rejection, perseverance. Remember that through all those rejections J.K. Rowling didn't quit, she continued refining her manuscript and sending it out, The Beatles certainly didn't stop rehearsing and MJ spent every night shooting hops in his backyard.

When your book is suddenly number one on the New York Times Bestseller list and people are heralding you as an overnight success they don't seem to mention the four novels you'd already written, the two years of rewriting, the two years of trying to get the book sold and then all the editing and promoting you had to do. That's a lot of work for one night. 

Perseverance is the key to every stage of your writing. It will make your writing better, it will make your chances of having success better, it may even make you a better person. At the end of the day perseverance is the trait that separates writers from professional writers. 

If you want to keep up with my semi-regular blog posts, or hear about the good things that may come from my perseverance, enter your email address is the email subscription box on the left, or follow me on Twitter (@Woollz).

What do I have to add to this? Putting yourself in your writing.

The crack of a never opened spine, the yellowing pages of a well-loved classic, the endless words set in Garamond or Sabon or Times, there are so many things to love about bookshops. They are among my favourite places. The little independent with the personalised recommendation, the dusty second hand seller with the price penciled inside the cover, the giant chain with the smell of coffee from the onsite cafe, I can literally spend hours perusing any of them, looking at covers and blurbs and reading snippets of work from authors I've loved forever and authors I've never heard of.
There's also something about being in a bookshop that brings me down, and it's to do with being a writer, in particular one who is aspiring to have a novel on those shelves. I don't mean the self-doubt I think all authors suffer from, the feeling that maybe I'm never going to have a book in this shop. The doubt that someone will ever come in and browse and perhaps pick it up and read the blurb and have a flick through and after all that take it to the counter and shell out their hard earned, and even if I do get my books published and in stores and readers actually read them they might not like them and I'm not a real writer anyway, and on and on it goes. I think every author has these feelings and I think they should, they're good doubts to have, because they're motivating. These doubts push you to become a better writer. The question I'm actually referring to, the one that I often feel in a bookstore is, 'Do I really have something to add to all of this?'

The answer, though in the midst of the bookshop blues it's not always easy to see, is yes. Me, you, every writer has something to add to all the hundreds of thousands of books that are already out there and this is because of what I'll call the inner part of your writing. The part of your writing behind the words, the part of your writing that is actually you. 

The skills we focus on teaching writers are the mechanics of the art, like training a basketball player to jump higher and higher and then teaching him how to slam dunk. Sure he'll be able to do it but what we marvel at when we see Michael Jordan or Lebron James is that something else, the flair with which they do it. So too are there two halves to writing, the part you can learn from Strunk and White, the part that comes from outside yourself, but there's also the flair you put into your writing, the part that makes it uniquely yours, the aspect of your writing that no one can teach you but yourself, the inner part.

Discovering this inner part to yourself and your writing is far more difficult but also far more important. Sure, you can take a story you've got an idea for and read a book on how to create characters, then read a book on writing good description, then read a book about how to squeeze it into a well-defined (and far too overused) story structure like The Hero's Journey, but what are you trying to say? What will make people finish the book and not just forget it forever?

We all care about different things, we all love and hate and are indifferent to differing parts of the world around us, religion, politics, social issues, football teams and fashion, we all have opinions. You have experiences to share and insights to provide, together story and language give you the vehicle with which to do that.

One of the most common pieces of writing advice is 'write what you know.' To me this doesn't mean if you're a lawyer you should solely write courtroom dramas, (if that were the case where would we get the great works of science fiction and fantasy?) it means you should tap into your life experiences and draw from them your own unique perspective on universal human qualities such as fear and love. How does the protagonist in your epic space opera overcome his fear of flying in space? Maybe it's the same way you overcame your fear of flying. As an author you can, scratch that, you should make us feel what you felt in times of great pain, or joy, or fear. Draw on your experiences to connect with your reader.

What is it that you enjoy about your favourite works of fiction? Great characters, sure. Terrific plot, absolutely. Beautiful prose, of course. But if you step back from these more technical aspects of the book and really examine it, what is the effect of all this? I'd be surprised if you didn't say something about how that book made you feel, some emotional connection to it. There's something in that book that you consider a truth about life, a truth that author has helped you find. The writing of that author has allowed you to experience life through someone else.  

"I'm just writing something to entertain people."

This is a statement I've heard writers make when they wish to dismiss discussions of theme or message in their work. At best this is being naive to the deeper power of language, at worst this is insulting to their possible readers. Of course we want to entertain, people would not read fiction if it wasn't entertaining but there's a misunderstanding here about what it is that entertains us. Sure the motorcycle chase up the back ramp of the taking-off cargo plane in that thriller you're reading was pretty awesome but the subtle scene in the kitchen where the mother realises her children have been kidnapped, that's what moved you emotionally. That's what made you feel what she felt.

I'm not suggesting what we set out to write is purely 'high literature', whatever that is, this is true of any genre. What elevates the best science fiction and fantasy is the way that fantastic world turns a mirror to our own world, the way the characters are still human (even when they're not) and the way they can show us their life lessons and we can apply them to ourselves. 

This may all sound like a bit of arm waving black magic hocus-pocus, but it's not. It's simply acknowledging the ability of story to generate emotion and understanding, after all that's the whole point isn't it? As you set out to write, be it novel, short-story, screenplay or poetry, think about what you're trying to share with your reader beyond simple entertainment. What will they feel and discover when your words are in their head? You can label it theme if you'd like, but consider the inner part of your work. You may not even be aware of what you're trying to say until you've written the first draft, but then when you embark on re-writing, before you consider reshaping dialogue and tightening prose consider the emotional story you're trying to convey, what's the point of the whole thing? If you can find what you're saying in the work and shape this just as much as you do the characters or plot your work will be more satisfying to you and certainly more satisfying to your reader.

By honestly sharing your view of the world you will ensure your writing adds to everything that is already out there. You can walk through the smell of fresh books and the quiet contemplation of a book shop safe in the knowledge that there is always space for more.

Slave to the Clock: Time Management for Writers

1_524 Classic Shelf Clock Gold White.jpg

It's 4:55 in the afternoon, the overcast sky outside and the gentle pattering of rain on the window makes it dark in the office and it feels much later. Five minutes until it's time to leave. The clock ticks. I want to get home. I want my time to be mine again.

It's 9:29 in the morning, boarding for my plane closes in one minute. I dodge through people who aren't quite aware of the desperate nature of my rush. The clock ticks. My small suitcase rides up on one wheel as I make a sharp turn. I'm a luggage stunt driver as I rush to make my flight.

It's 7:13 at night. The cursor on my screen blinks, mocking me amid the completely white electronic page. Seven minutes until we have to leave for a friend's birthday dinner. The clock ticks. I haven't written anything. I don't want to leave until I have.

Ah time, you unrelenting harpy, we're all slave to the ticking of your minutes and the passing of your days, and who feels this passing of time worse than those striving to achieving something that demands so much of it? As they say: Ars longa, vita brevis – Art is long, life is short.

Writing is an art that requires many long hours of solitude. To write a novel, unless you're some kind of prodigy, will likely require several hundred hours of this seclusion. Now writing should not be considered a race, it's not something you want to rush, but if you're writing a novel you do want to finish it within a reasonable amount of time. A sense of urgency is often useful to keep you moving towards your goal and though I sometimes wish they would, books don't write themselves. As writers then, particularly those balancing jobs, friends, families and other commitments, time is a resource as precious as any.

So in this weeks entry in my blog focusing on writing but not the writing itself, I want to share some techniques I've found useful for managing my time while writing.


The first thing is not so much a technique but an attitude. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "I just don't have time…" but then they'll happily jump into a discussion about whatever mind-numbing reality show was on television the night before. I'm not saying don't have some veg-out time after a long day. I'm just saying when this attitude becomes a rule, or an excuse for not writing at all it's time to re-evaluate. The first step in making the time to write is having the discipline to do it.

For an interesting look at self-discipline check out this short TED talk. The hypothesis is that the most important factor in success is having the ability to delay gratification. This was proposed following a study in which children were told that if they could resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes they would be given another. In a follow-up study one hundred percent of the children who didn't eat the marshmallow were found to be successful. Not only is this informative about our behaviour it's also quite hilarious.

To me delaying gratification means having the willpower to put off something easy and enjoyable, such as watching your favourite television program, to put effort in to writing, especially when it seems like the last thing you want to do. While the act of writing is often enjoyable in and of itself, it sometimes isn't and it's times like these you need to knuckle down and get it done because one day you'll be happy you did.

Having the discipline to be regular with our writing is important in time management for obvious reasons, we need to take advantage of the time we have. The good thing is much of what we might think of as self-discipline is learned. Roy Baumeister, an expert in the field, believes that willpower is like a muscle, pushing yourself to work hard and continuing to come back to difficult problems strengthens our willpower and discipline and makes it easier to do the same in the future. Anyone who's managed to establish themselves in a regular exercise routine knows how true this is. Which leads nicely to the next point.

Establishing a Routine

Discipline is best friends with routine, they're like BFFs or something. Finding the time to write is immensely aided by developing a routine. How can you adjust your daily routine to make room for writing in a regular pattern? Do you work better in the morning or at night? Is there space in your lunch break at work or when your child is napping? Think through what will work best for you but whatever you decide be intentional about shifting your routine and sticking to it. Twenty one days is the generally accepted amount of time it takes to form a habit. Set your routine and try it out for twenty one days, if it doesn't work out you can always change it. You should feel free to tweak your routine over time.

I used to write at night after dinner. I could sit down and write for several hours often pushing on until after midnight or later and still manage to get up for work in the morning. Lately I've been finding that more difficult. It's no longer a sustainable routine for me as I'm finding myself more tired during the day and less able to concentrate during my writing sessions. So I've recently switched my routine and I'm a week into trying out twenty one days of getting up at 4:45, exercising 5 - 5:30 and then writing for two hours until I get ready to head to work.

There's discipline involved in establishing your routine but once you've got it your routine helps keep you disciplined.

Don't Underestimate Small Chunks of Time

So you're not fortunate enough to be able to devote a large slab of time each day to writing, or you feel like you want to be doing more but there's no time left. Don't underestimate how valuable it is to steal back some small chunks of time, half an hour here, an hour there, hell even ten minutes to scribble down some words.

Many writers are slow in producing work or think they don't have enough time to write when they don't take advantage of these chunks of time. You don't necessarily need a four hour block of time. Even if you can only knock out a hundred words in the time you're sitting on the train to work, that's a hundred words you wouldn't have if you used that time to play Candy Crush or Angry Birds or stare out the window at the passing graffiti covered fences and unmowed grass.

Work to Daily Word Counts

I've found writing to a daily word count a very beneficial technique. Saying you've written for your allocated two hours prior to going to work doesn't mean anything if what you've actually done is write twelve words. Instead, setting yourself a daily word goal of say 500 or 1000 words means you'll push yourself to reach that goal. Instead of using writing time as the measure of your daily success use something that is actually a measure of the outcome you're trying to achieve, words on the page.

Pick a word count you can achieve within your established routine. Be realistic but don't make it too easy, you still want high expectations of yourself. That word count doesn't have to be big to see great gains. Think of it this way. If you write 500 words a day, which is actually ridiculously easy I mean this post is already 1267 words long, you'll have written 90,000 words in 180 days, that's six months. Having something close to a first draft of a novel in six months is nothing to sneeze at.

My current daily word goal is 1000 words. If I get there in the two hours I have in the morning I start the day feeling like I've achieved what I need to and it's easy street. If I don't I look for those small chunks of time where I can add to that word count and hopefully I'll reach it over the rest of the day.

If you don't reach your daily word goal don't beat yourself up about it, tomorrow's a new day so you can have another go at it then. Whatever you do don't roll your word count over so that if your aim is 1000 words and you only do 600 don't make your goal 1400 the next day because as that goal gets bigger and bigger it will become unrealistic and you'll feel like you're failing. Instead, just set it at 1000 words again.

Some of you might be thinking, why push for a word count if what you're writing is rubbish? Simple really, you can't rewrite something that hasn't been written.

The Pomodoro Technique

My last tip is a time management technique to use while you're actually in the act of writing. This technique alone has increased my productivity and focus immensely and I use it every time I sit down to do a lengthy writing session. I've shared this with other writers, some of whom are full time professionals, and they've all told me they've found it useful.

It's called The Pomodoro Technique and was developed by Francesco Cirillo. It's named after a pomodoro (tomato) kitchen timer that would run for 25 minutes and at its heart the technique seems almost too simple. There are five steps:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work uninterrupted until the timer rings, this means no Facebook, no email, no web surfing, use that discipling you've built up to avoid it.
  4. Take a 5 minute break
  5. Every four "pomodori" (25 minute working sessions) take a longer break of 15–30 minutes.

And that's it. Dead simple right, but implement it effectively and you'll find your focus on writing increasing enormously. One thing I'd stress is that when the timer rings at the end of the 25 minute working period stop what you're doing immediately. That means stop mid-sentence, mid-word, whatever you're doing just stop and have your break. This sounds counter-intuitive but what it means is that each time you come back to start writing again you'll re-read what you've previously written, your mind will remember how you were going to finish that sentence and your flow comes straight back from there. This saves you from spending the beginning of your next session thinking about where you were going to go, you just find yourself writing again.

So that's it, some of my thoughts around everybody's cruel master Father Time and how you can manage him. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts or let me know of any techniques you find especially useful, perhaps give some of this a go and fill me in on your experiences.

One Piece of Writing Advice

I was recently asked a question in a writer's group:

"If you could only give one piece of writing advice to another writer what would it be?"

Now I'm not normally one who gives out writing advice. There's a simple reason for this; I don't feel like I'm in any position to give out advice. I'm still learning this game and there's plenty of advice out there from better players than me. I've got exciting news on the horizon sure (which I'm looking forward to talking about when I'm allowed), but I'm yet to secure my first novel sale, and more importantly you're yet to read it, which means I don't feel like I have much credibility to be dispensing writerly wisdom.

However, I thought I'd share my answer to that one-piece-of-advice question because I think it's an interesting one. I think it's interesting because it forces you to trim writing down to a single aspect you consider most important, a single statement you think has moved your writing forward more than any other, and that's a huge challenge.

In the years I've been writing I've heard some great advice and I've had some brilliantly bright moments of epiphany, however, my answer was this:

'Having a plan doesn't block creativity, it gives it a framework in which to thrive.' 

I think an understanding of planning is a consideration that is oft-overlooked and is something new writers seem to be afraid of, like writing a plan somehow constricts your creativity. I've often heard other writers say they can't or don't plan because "the characters just go wherever they want to go." Writing is a personal journey, of that there's no doubt, every writer is different, but when I get my house built I don't want to hear the builder say, "I just let the wooden support beams go wherever they want to go." That's what we're talking about here, building a support for your story.

Planning, plotting, outlining, whatever you want to call it, figuring out your story before you write allows you to find the holes and problems (at least some of them) before you put the first draft down on paper (or screen). It allows you to experiment, and change things easily, resulting in what you think is the best story before you begin. It allows you to get to know your characters, and if you don't write any dialogue during your outline (which I recommend) your characters will be bursting to speak by the time you start writing your first draft and their voice will burst out with them. Most importantly perhaps, you'll know what to write next and you shouldn't ever get blocked.

This point of knowing what to write next is why some people think planning is constricting. They think that if you have a plot outline you are just going through the motions of writing what comes next like you're on autopilot, but that just isn't true. Human creativity needs a framework. That's why people get writer's block. When there are infinite possibilities for your story, you need to choose one of these infinite paths for your characters to go as well as making the necessary decisions about the details of a scene. All these options are often too much, you don't know where to go (and I hate to break it to you but neither do your characters).

Knowing the scene you're writing next and knowing where your characters are going means your creativity is free to focus on how the scene unfolds, what are the details that will bring the scene to life, what do you bring forward from the background, the red drapes of the palour, the wear on the thousand-year-old stone steps, the tone of voice, the smell of smoke. When you're free to focus on the scene with a sense of purpose already established your creativity will shine.

Don't get me wrong, after I've said all this your first draft will still need a lot of work, but at least it will resemble a story and your creativity will have been flexed in the right place, your character's moments. Even the world's best builder needs a blueprint.

My Top Five Books On Writing

I recently had a discussion about books on writing with some esteemed colleagues (as opposed to steamed colleagues which is a whole different story about an unfortunate sauna experience that I won’t go into now). I’m in two minds about books on writing:

 1.     They can be invaluable tools for learning the trade of storytelling and word-smithing, particularly for people who have not had a creative writing “education”; and

2.     Stop reading them and start writing.

I think the second point is the bigger key for development as a writer. I’ve been involved in quite a few different writer’s groups and meetings of assorted creative types over the last few years and there’s only been two or three that I’ve found useful. That’s because most writer’s groups are full of people who love to talk about writing, think about writing and talk about themselves as writers, what they never do is shut up and write. I’m a terrible cook, I’ll happily admit that, but I’m also well aware that my cooking is not going to improve if I sit in the kitchen and talk to the oven about the finer points of the culinary process.

So, if we put aside the understanding that to improve your writing you must write, let’s come back to the books. There is certainly a place for books on writing and they can be instrumental in helping you refine your writing chops. The problem is that there is half an Amazon worth of paper dedicated to books of this type, not to mention the flood of ebooks on the topic, so how do you pick the trees worth pulping, or the billions of electrons that should be horribly inconvenienced to serve time as your writing aid? 

I thought, after the conversations I’ve had lately, that this addition to the Good Stuff blog could be dedicated to my top five books on writing. These books are the ones I have found myself going back to repeatedly and provide real guidance on various aspects of writing.

5. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale


Sin and Syntax, as it proudly declares, is ‘for writers who need more spunk than Strunk.’ We all know that language evolves, and today it seems to be evolving at an ever quickening pace, this book serves as your grammar guide updated for the 21st century, so you can forget dusting off your old copy of Strunk and White, as influential as that book obviously was it doesn’t really know LOL from ROFL.

With Sin and Syntax Hale has created a book of syntax that is both extremely valuable from a nuts and bolts grammar perspective as well as discussing the way we can break the rules to good effect, from discussions on the much-over-used-but-still-great hyphenated description to how you’re gonna use casual words in differing contexts. 

The big winning point for me though is that this book is a grammar guide that I enjoyed reading, it is also relatively simple while still providing all the necessary guidelines of grammar.

4. On Writing by Stephen King


Part biography, part reflection and part instruction I’ve included Stephen King’s On Writing in my top books on writing because it is inspiration and guidance packaged up and delivered from one of the world’s most successful authors. King spends time discussing his writing method, one that involves little planning – a concept that I am terrified of and could never see myself adapting - but he is very open in indicating that every writer is different and that is just what works for him. 

Where this book shines is in the tiny details, the little nuggets of writing gold that King shares. Reading this book feels like you’ve won the chance to sit down and chat with Stephen King over a beer as he dispenses the lessons he has learned along the writing path.

The autobiographical sections of the book are hugely enjoyable in their own right as King tells the story of his brush with death when he was struck by a van, his battle with drugs and alcohol and his journey from struggling writer to household name.

3. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark


Number three on the list goes to Roy Peter Clark’s book of short ‘factoids’ for writers. I had heard many good things about this book (just look at the reviews on Amazon for an indication of the hype it gets) so I decided to pick it up and have a read. At first I was unsure of the value of a book full of short dots points on writing, I mean I was looking for real hard-hitting discussion of the art of writing not ‘The Little Writer’s Book of Fun Facts’ but once I started reading the book it turned around and smacked me over the head with the cricket bat of value again and again, 50 times in fact.

From the very beginning Roy Peter Clark sells writing to the reader as a craft that can be learned, ‘tools not rules’ is what Roy Peter Clark says he will give, and he delivers. Each of the 50 strategies presented in sections ranging from ‘Nuts and Bolt’ to ‘Useful Habits’ are strong and concise. Some of the points Roy Peter Clark discusses are probably well known to you but it is always good to get hit over the head again every now and then.

2. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler


The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is a book that strips story back to its very core. It is a discussion of mythic structure, the fundamental story stages and archetypes that have existed ever since men started making things up and telling each other. It will show you why Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has the same fundamental elements as Star Wars, why Beowulf is like Casablanca, why stories from mythology and movies are so similar.

Christopher Vogler’s work is heavily based on the Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell. It is a book about story structure that delves deep into not only how you can structure stories but why certain story elements hit the very heart of what it is to be human. For me this book required two readings, almost straight after each other, to grasp just how massive the role of story is within the human spirit. This book goes a long way to helping you learn how to harness the elements necessary to create stories that are equal parts refreshing and timeless.

1. Story by Robert McKee 


And in at numero uno, taking top spot in my five favourite books on writing is Robert McKee’s Story. For those of you who have read this book I’m sure it’s no surprise. It is the reigning, undisputed, heavyweight champion of books on story structure. Of all the books I’ve discussed in this list, this is the one that gets opened again and again. If I hit a snag with my story’s structure or with my characters I often open this book and start reading.

This is a book on screenwriting, that’s what it will tell you on the cover, and while McKee is a screenwriter and the book discusses story in terms of film and uses films as examples it really is a book applicable to any form of story, be it film, novels, plays, comics or interpretive dance (perhaps). McKee’s book is insight after insight on story. If you’re a novelist you can ignore the screenwriting references and this book will still teach you more about story than any other book out there. When you read this book you realise, quite simply, that Robert McKee knows more than you.

Not only does Robert McKee know story, he knows how to explain it in an engaging and informative way. This book does not, like so many books on writing, discuss story on a wishy-washy level as if they don’t actually want to give the secrets away: plot occurs because of conflict, characters should be active, show don’t tell, kill your pumpkins…whatever. McKee instead explains what this MEANS in practice. His discussion on story being ‘in the gap’ is still the best piece of story advice I have read. Characters set out to achieve something, they take an action they think will achieve that goal but a gap opens between their expectation and the result, it is in that gap that character is born, that conflict is born, that STORY is born.

This book is the bible of storytelling for a reason.

So that’s my top five books on the craft of writing that sit, dog-eared and worn, on the shelf beside my writing desk. If you’re interested in improving your writing go and read them, absorb them with your giant brain sponge and then stop talking to the oven and start tapping that keyboard.