Getting in the zone

My biggest concern when writing A Day of Faces wasn’t the planning stage. That point, at the start, is when I’m always most excited about a project. It’s once I begin the actual writing that I encounter productivity challenges. That’s why I’ve had novels floating around on my hard drive in various states for over a decade, without ever quite finishing them. It’s a depressing and shameful state of affairs, one which I’m sure is all too familiar to most non-professional writers.

A consequence of committing to on-going serialisation is that you have to be bold and unwavering in your dedication to the writing. If you miss even just one writing session, it’s going to kick off an avalanche of delays and stress and prevarication. You can’t afford to let those dominoes start falling.

It doesn’t matter if you’re ill. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a rubbish day at work. If the toddler refuses to go to sleep until 10pm that’s not an excuse. Going on holiday doesn’t mean you get time off from your book.

The whole point of determining your write/life balance up front is so that you don’t leave any room for excuses. If you get that balance right it should mean that you’re not inconveniencing anybody else in your family, or neglecting something else you ought be doing, or stressing yourself out. That time slot needs to become a religious thing. It’s sacred ground and nothing gets between you and the god of words.

This means that you need to carve out a space, both physically and mentally. You need a place you go to where you won’t be disturbed or distracted — writing in the middle of the living room while others are watching TV isn’t going to work. If you’ve got a study or an unused room, great — go there. If not, get some headphones which will shut out the world and hunker down. You might prefer to head out to a cafe or a park, where you’ll be surrounded by the quiet buzz of strangers.

I did my writing for A Day of Faces at night on Mondays, locked into my little computer study. I almost always had music playing on headphones, chosen to reflect the tone of the chapter. That’s just me, though — you might prefer total silence. Curiously, towards the end of writing ADoF I stopped listening to music while writing, as the whole process felt very natural and easy by that point — the story had its own rhythm by that point.

It can be super hard to stay focused on a single task — in this case, writing — in the era of always-on internet and smartphones. I strongly recommend switching the phone to silent for everything except emergency contact. Shut down any Twitter or Facebook feeds you have on your desktop, as you will end up checking them without even realising it and suddenly you’ve lost fifteen minutes to cat videos and Buzzfeed lists.

A lot of this is easier said than done. A technique I heard about a couple of years ago is called the Pomodoro Technique and if you’re the sort of person who finds it hard to get in the zone you might want to give it a shot.

When working to the Pomodoro Technique you break your tasks down into 25 minute chunks. You decide on a task, work on it solidly for 25 minutes, then take a built-in 5 minute break. You then start your next 25 minute task. Repeat that four times, then take a 15 minute break, and carry on. If you happen to complete a task before the 25 minutes are up, you use the remaining time to ‘overlearn’, which in the context of writing could be time dedicated to proofing and editing.

It’s very simple but can make a big difference. The trick is that by reducing each session down to a 25 minute intensive burst, it feels far more manageable, and makes it easier to block out those distractions. This can really help if you’re suffering from writer’s block — rather than having an entire evening of frustration ahead, all you have to do is get through the next 25 minutes. It’s remarkably easier to avoid checking social media if you know there’s a 5 minute break coming up soon which you can use specifically for that indulgence. It also diverts you away from taking biscuit and tea breaks, because you only pause when you complete a Pomodoro chunk.

Pomodoro is especially useful if you have lots of projects on, as it enables you to flick between multiple tasks while still giving each one your complete focus. I use it frequently at work for this reason.

There are super easy, free Pomodoro timers you can run in your browser. Check out tomato-timer.com.

By this point, if you’ve been following this guide, you should have your story planned out in a loose manner, you’ll have a time slot ready for writing, and you’ll be ready to roll. If you’re writing and publishing chapter-by-chapter, that means you’ll soon be ready to reveal your story to the world.

What techniques do you use to get in the zone?

Next up: The cover, title & blurb


Originally published on Wattpad.com