The Writer’s Plan Step 3: What’s Stopping You?

Think of your writing place as a ‘portable shelter’ a kind of pop-up tent or den that you build using the resources to hand. This way we can write when we can, where we can.

Hello Writers and welcome to Step 3. How did you get on unearthing your Writerly Desires? I hope it was fun. So now you know what you want let’s think about what’s stopping you from getting there?

This step is all about understanding why we stall and fall so that we can get up and get going again. Now there is a theory that we stop because we’re not working hard enough but that theory is based on the assumption that writing is an indulgence and not an act of resistance and survival. This assumption implies that writing is done instead of working or caring or earning. If we need to write (because we do) and earn and work and care we stop because we’re knackered. So this step is not going to be about flogging ourselves to work harder. (I’m assuming that you already know a lot about hard work.)

The thing about hard work is that it doesn’t actually change the limits we have to live within: it just breaks us.

When we do stop, in my experience, it’s usually because we feel overwhelmed by a pile up of practical and personal barriers. So first we’ll tidy up the pile then we’ll build a den.

Building A Writer’s Den

The most common practical reasons for not writing are time, space and money. This is the trinity of basic needs: you don’t have enough time to write because you need to make money or you’d like a place to write but don’t have the time to build it because you’re erm-well trying to make money. (Take a look at your Triangle of Writerly Desires the basic needs section is all about your writing place and time.) There are some limits we can’t change. We can’t make more time so the only sane thing we can do, until we sign that international book and film deal, is work within the limitations. Just so you know, I find it really hard too but we can’t keep working ourselves to burn-out as it damages not just the work but us and our relationships.

The way we need to think of our writing place and time is not that magical shed at the bottom of the garden where the pixies of wordybobs dance 2000 words a day on the keyboard.

Think of your writing place as a ‘portable shelter’ a kind of pop-up tent or den that you build using the resources to hand. This way we can write when we can, where we can.

When I took a job with a two hour commute both ways I decided to make that my writing time and wrote in my notebook everyday.

After having a baby I had to abandon paper and embrace tech. I keep my phone fully charged. I write on my phone when he sleeps and when I can’t sleep during night feeds at 4am. I’m writing this on my phone now. I’ve learned to save everything to the Cloud (I use OneDrive) and file my notes in ways that make sense (to me) so that when I can jump to the laptop I can access my work quickly.

I used to have writing rituals. Writing early in the morning watching the sunrise in my study on my perfectly comfy chair with tea (and hobnobs obvs). Relying on these props only made writing harder and gave me more excuses to stop or not start again or cry. I didn’t need any of that stuff to write. It was a trap. Ditch your rituals.

TASK 1 What Do You (Really) Need to Write?

We’re going to look at your writing habits to identify the most basic bare essentials you need to write, stripping away any faff.

• What tools do you use the most to write now?

• What are your writing props? Eg lovely notebook

• Where do you write?

Now look at your list and answer:

• What props can you ditch? Honestly!

If you’re working with a writing buddy, support one another to be honest about what you really need to write.

• Now list your bare essentials to go portable.

For example:

Notebook and pen / phone / laptop?

If you choose a digital solution like your phone, research the Apps that you will actually use. You will need to experiment with what works, don’t go App crazy.

I have an iPhone. I draft in Notes, polish in Word and save to OneDrive.

• How will you organise your work for easy accessibility?

E.g. numbering your notebook pages.

TIP – Leave yourself notes

Just as we pack essentials if we’re going for a day out we need to pack essentials to write any time and any where. Part of our kit needs to be our on going writing plan. This does not need to be a fully worked out, highlighted 4ft x 3ft plot map (unless you love that sort of thing) just remember to stop writing before you drain yourself and leave a note for yourself about what to do next. Then you can pick straight up again next time. Obviously Hemingway says this better:

I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. Ernest Hemingway

TASK 2 Mapping Time

As I said at the beginning – I bet you don’t know how hard you work but you still beat yourself up for not writing enough! So let’s find out.

Log everything you do every day for a week. This includes writing and all of those other tasks that keep yourself and others alive and happy like cooking, eating, sleeping, family time and (shamefully dips head) time on social media.

Don’t go all out with a spreadsheet. Just use your phone or diary to make a note.

At the end of the week just take look at it. Really look. Make a cup of tea and say well done for surviving your week.

If you’re working with a writing buddy you can celebrate together and check to ensure that you’ve both covered everything.

TASK 3 Build Your Den

Now you know what the minimum writer’s kit you need is, and how you spend your time it’s time to build your den.

Look at the opportunities in your week where you could make time to write. For example:

Commuting – Can you use it for writing / research

Screen time: Are you using it for writing? Research? Finding opportunities?

Sleep-in Saturdays: Can you write in bed in your pyjamas? Steven King is a big fan of writing in a half-waking state.

If you’re working with a writing buddy it really helps to have someone else see opportunities as we get so wedded to our routine it’s hard to imagine change.

Doing this I saw that I currently spend two hours cooking a day because of my own and my wee dude’s dietary requirements. I’m now batch cooking food to get at least four hours back.

There are real benefits to writing in this way. Writing in strange and different places outside of your habits has real benefits. Writing outside normal hours invites the mind to think in new ways.

Using your log as a basis write a rough weekly plan for when and where you will write and the bare essentials of what you need to do it.

If you have unpredictable commitments give yourself a daily time target eg 1 hour not a specific time. Setting a word count target can be self-sabotaging too as some days it flows others it doesn’t.

Writing buddies can really help here to write a realistic weekly plan that isn’t going to be unachievable.

Tip: Build in down-time! Everything you do takes energy – work, caring, cleaning and writing. There is a myth writing is its own reward that delivers an inner-glowy shimmer like expensive moisturiser. Hmmn. Nope. It’s rewarding in the same way running a 10K is. Afterwards we usually hurt. Like big physical exertion, writing has costs, especially if you’re diving for deep personal truths. If you are taking energy out, what are you doing to put it back in? So you can stop thinking of your post-writing activity as a treat but as recovery.

Testing out your portable writing shelter will take a bit of trial and error so once you’ve got your den worked out – when, how and where you’ll write – trial, adapt and adjust. Like any hand made thing it’s always being improved and repaired. Aim for 80% sticking to it. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t stick rigidly to it, it’s a creative shelter not a guilt machine.

Tip – Writing isn’t all Writing

To really use your writing time to the max expand your definition of what writing actually is because it’s not just word count:

There may be times that writing itself is difficult but you could:

• Read or listen to audio books / podcasts in the car

• Research, this is very worthy work

• Plan

• Work on character

• Take an idea for a walk – can you walk at lunch times?

• Have a creative break eg a family day out to an inspirational location

These are all valid writing jobs.

Remember that the part of us that creates doesn’t respond to bullying but to play.

Monster Proofing Your Den

Now when you go into your writer’s den you’re going to need to switch on your creative head quickly to get stuck in. You don’t want to waste time beating yourself up about how you’re not good enough, so you’ll need a kind threshold ritual. A take your shoes off before you go in sort of thing.

Why? Because the second we get ready to write, out jump all the demons telling us we can’t, shouldn’t, who do you think you are.

Here’s what Virginia Woolf did about her demon ‘The Angel in the House.’

Virginia Woolf from Professions for Women, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays:

when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page … Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “…Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” And she made as if to guide my pen. I I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.’

When I was writing How Saints Die, every day, when I came to write, I would start by reading Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese aloud. It gave me courage I didn’t have to write the way I needed to. Here are the lines I read the loudest:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,

TASK 4 Demon Beating

How are you going to ward off your demons?

Choose a thing to do / find a quote to read or write your own to help you get into the writing zone Demon free.

What’s your starting ritual?

The ritual needs to be quick and suit your personality. You might be more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than demon whisperer.

That’s it. You’ve got it – your den. Now in traditional style ensure you celebrate having done this task.

Kick-ass reading for Step 3 is Damien Le Bas’s Stopping Places, a story about learning to live on the road and so much more.

My final tuppence-worth about what stops us writing is the myth of perfection. There will never be the perfect time and place to write. What you write will never be perfect. Writing is scary, hard and it makes us feel vulnerable because no one has ever done what we are doing before. That’s why we do it. That’s why we love it. It’s a rush to bring something entirely new into the world. It will not arrive perfectly formed. It will no doubt be screaming and covered in goop. That’s ok. You can still love it.

Your final task is to accept what you write will not be perfect.

Next up is What you need to get there? to be released at the end of June.

This step will be about taking all we’ve done so far to explore need and translating it into an action plan, prioritising what you need to do now and reaching out for help.

Thanks for taking part, good luck and don’t forget to let me know how you get on. @Kalamene #thewplan

Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

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