It’s four pm. The dog wants his walk, the dishes still haven’t been done and I’ve given no thought to dinner. Soon everyone will be home, the house filled with noise, and people talking at me—even though I’ve clearly got my hands on the keyboard—and that pivotal Ashes to Ashes scene I was absolutely going to knock off today still isn’t finished. So much for that looming deadline.
Sound familiar? Your circumstances may be a little different, your writing time may be at the end of an exhausting work day, or your distractions may be more to do with social media than family, but whatever the issues the bottom line is that scene still isn’t finished.
My third book, Ashes to Ashes, is due in April. The story is great. The characters multi-dimensional with emotional arcs and the structure allows for plenty of suspense and pace with room for emotional gravitas. Some of the scenes need major re-writing, some need discarding and others just need a polish. It should be easy. I’ve done this twice before and have always managed to dig deep and focus when needed. This time I’m struggling.
It’s something that most writers face. I say ‘most’ because it’s apparent from their output that a handful of writers seem to have this problem beat. I’ve looked at these prolific authors with envy. They put out multiple books yearly, or have amassed a growing backlist in just a few years, and yet the work doesn’t suffer in quality, they have healthy sales and seem to have a bottomless dream pool from which to pluck fresh stories as soon as the current WIP goes off to the editor.
What do they know that I don’t?
I’m pretty good at focusing. Yes, being a publisher and a writer and a marketer means these tasks compete for attention, but without writing there is no product. Writing has to come first. And I LOVE the story I’m working on. So why, when I sit at my desk, do I find myself distracted? My routine is pretty solid. When I sit down to write, at roughly the same time every day, I’m already halfway into my character’s head, eager to slip back into her world. Yet the minute I put my hands on the keyboard my head fills with what I should be doing:
- that interview that needs formatting;
- those books that need reviewing;
- those memes and curated posts that need scheduling on SM;
- the desire to support others, on SM and in person;
- the need to exercise, to eat properly, to maintain relationships so that I don’t die prematurely and alone. And while I’m not one for chasing down dust bunnies or worrying about unmade beds and such, there is a certain level of housework maintenance required so I don’t poison anyone.
And beneath all that is the self-doubt, the certainty that no one will ever want to read this crap I’m writing and what is the point anyway?
Maybe all those things aren’t going through your head. The point here is that it’s necessary to focus, and those authors who finish one book and immediately move onto the next have clearly got focus nailed.
So what’s their productivity secret?
Well, according to Rachel Johns the key is writing sprints.
In a recent podcast interview with author Natasha Lester, Rachel explained:
I’ve got a little timer on my desk and I tell myself I’m going to do 45 minutes where I do not check my emails or social media. And I find that writing in chunks works.
Timed writing is something I had come across before and tried with little success. The Pomodoro method advocates breaking up tasks into blocks and then working in 25 minute sprints with a 5 minute break between each. Every forth sprint you can take a longer break. According to one blogger “This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines or constantly-refilling inboxes. With time it can even help improve your attention span and concentration.”
Pomodoro didn’t work for me.
I felt pressured, and when I took that 5 minute break, I felt guilty, like I was slacking off. To stop writing after 25 minutes was just too distracting. I stuck it out for a few weeks. My productivity dropped, my stress spiked, and I smashed that Pomodoro method like an over-ripe tomato. Upon reflection I probably hadn’t done a good enough job breaking the work into blocks. Perhaps, because it was designed for office productivity, it isn’t suitable to creativity. Whatever the reason, my efficiency, and joy in my work, dropped so dramatically I haven’t been too keen to try it again.
Yet something has to be done about my dwindling productivity. My deadline is hurtling toward me and my project management spreadsheet shows me just how little time I have left if I want to hit that target. So when I came across this idea of a longer sprint I thought it worth a try.
At this point I think it’s worth clarifying that I’m in that difficult space of re-working a manuscript. So I wasn’t sure how to quantify my goals for these sprints. Good old word count wasn’t going to be very meaningful. Then I realized I didn’t need to make my goals about output. It could be about input. For 45 minutes three times a day I would plant my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard and disappear into my novel. My only goal was to keep writing, just keep going past the self-doubt and worry, forget about the deadline, about chores that needed doing, and just keep doing whatever my story needed. After all, unless the dog is choking or the house is on fire, there is nothing that can’t wait 45 mins.
Timed sprints work
On a good day I usually average about 500 words an hour. My daily goal when writing the first draft is 2000 words as a minimum, but on that first day I managed an average of 1000 words an hour. Exhausted? You bet! But I was also elated. The second day my output slowed somewhat—partly because I stopped to check if my character’s Maserati did come in bright yellow and got sidetracked building my fantasy car, and partly because it was a stinking hot day and I was too stingy to put on the air-conditioner so kept nodding off.
It’s only been two weeks since I started this new approach, but it’s certainly paying off.
I’ve even found my husband is more supportive of me disappearing to “write for 45 mins” rather than vanishing for the rest of the evening, which is what I usually do and then get frustrated by his interruptions. There are still external distractions, like lunch with a good friend, walking the beach or kayaking with my beautiful dog, Alfie. Life needs balance, too. Yet this approach seems to help me write and tick things off my to-do list. Yippee!
Why has this worked for me when Pomodoro did not?
I think it’s working for two reasons:
- Forty five minutes doesn’t seem that long. In the past I would often think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to leave for an appointment in an hour, that’s not enough time to write’. Now I look at that hour and think, ‘Great I can do a 45 min sprint. That’s not too hard’.
- The timer. Just knowing that sucker is ticking away is enough to keep me focused when my head tells me to have a break, or self-doubt steals my words. Writing through it is also the best way I’ve found to silence the inner critic. With the timer going and the possibility of stopping when it rings I seem to stay strong and focused when that voice starts telling me I’m crap.
Possibly there’s a third reason: the sheer fact that by doing it I’m committing to spending time writing, not on anything else. When I start thinking about a coffee break or book marketing or that washing I forgot to take out of the machine, those thoughts slip away. It’s only 45 mins. They can wait.
Give it a shot
If you are struggling to find time or are frustrated by slow output, give it a shot. Try one sprint per day or per week, if that’s all the time you can steal. At the very least it’s 45 mins just for you. To feed your creativity and your soul.
Rowena Holloway is a ‘reformed’ academic, now writing novels of suspense filled with fractured families and killer secrets. Her first novel Pieces of a Lie was long-listed in the 2015 Ned Kelly Crime Fiction award and an early version of her second novel All That’s Left Unsaid was a semi-finalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Rowena lives in South Australia with her seafarer husband and far too many pets.