How to find time for writing

I haven’t done much writing lately, because of various events – two conferences, family health problems, house guests from overseas – all coming together in the same few weeks. Some of these happenings are predominantly pleasant, others more stressful, but all of them have altered the usual rhythm of domestic life and taken time and energy away from writing. This has prompted me to revisit some principles from my life coaching days – simple basic advice, but so easy to neglect.

Prioritise what is important: Besides writing, there are various activities – for example exercise, social contact, some form of relaxation – which it is good to carry out every day to promote health and well-being. In contrast, anything which is being done out of habit or a sense of duty but is not really pleasurable or worthwhile, could perhaps be set aside.

Set personal boundaries: being able to devote adequate time to the important things may require setting boundaries against those of lesser importance. This means learning to say ‘No’ to unwelcome requests from other people, as discussed in a previous post, and perhaps also being firmer with yourself if you are prone to be distracted by trivia like checking for emails too often or staying too long in coffee shops. Focusing on one activity at once is more efficient than multi-tasking.

Organise your schedule: although some people prefer to write only when they feel inspired, or when conditions happen to be right, many serious writers find it best to set aside a regular time and place for their daily work. If you are disciplined about keeping to this schedule, family and friends will usually respect your commitment and understand that you do not wish to be disturbed.

Accept what cannot be changed: some events, difficulties and distractions are beyond personal control. It is a waste of energy to get frustrated and complain about them, but better to be flexible and accept them with a good grace. In the words of the ‘Serenity prayer’:

Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to deal with the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

After all, a temporary disruption to the writing schedule will probably not matter very much in the long term; and even unwanted experiences form part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and may provide material for a new piece of writing at some later date.

Incidentally – three of my ebooks are on a Smashwords promotion this week, 2-8 March, for just $1.50 USD each. Here’s the link.

Why write a bio?

Several people I know have recently written their life stories, and they all say it was a rewarding experience.

I would suggest that there are three main motives for writing an autobiography. First is to provide family and friends with a record of a life which, whether because of old age or serious illness, seems likely to be nearing its end. Some hospices offer programmes to help their patients with this, and there are commercial firms which provide a paid service. Such accounts may not be ‘well written’, or contain anything out of the ordinary, or hold much interest for anyone who did not know the writer. But they are usually much appreciated by the relatives for whom they are mainly intended – though some have the effect of reviving old conflicts, or exposing family secrets. These documents may also prove valuable to any social historians who happen to come across them in the future.

A second motive is to describe achievements or experiences of an unusual kind – surviving an ordeal such as abuse or serious illness, or becoming a celebrity in a certain field. Autobiographies of this type, some of which are ghostwritten, are more likely to be published and can sell very well. They often focus on just one period or aspect of the person’s life, rather than providing a complete chronological account. My late uncle’s book Geoffrey Guy’s War: Memoirs of a Spitfire Pilot 1941-46, which I had the privilege of editing after he died, comes into this category and I did eventually find a publisher for it. 

I don’t have any children myself, and have never done anything particularly remarkable, so none of the above would apply to me and if I ever did write my autobiography it would be from a third motive, which is to review my life in the hope of finding some meaning and purpose in it all. What have I learned from my experiences, including the mistakes I have made? What difference, for better or worse, have I made to the world? Are there any recurring patterns or themes weaving through the different threads?

At present I have no plans for such a book. I think it would be difficult to write, and the end result could seem embarrassing and pretentious. There would be some things – perhaps the most significant ones – which I would rather not put on record, whether for my own sake or that of other people. And, not having kept a regular diary all my life, there is a lot which I don’t remember – though friends tell me they were surprised to find how easily old memories did come back once they started to write.

Books in other genres, including fiction, are usually autobiographical to some extent whether their authors realise it or not. This is certainly true of my own forthcoming novel, in which the characters and events can fairly be called imaginary and yet were no doubt partly inspired by material from my own past.

Goal-setting for writers

Is it better to structure the process of writing a book by setting goals, timetables and routines – or to let yourself be spontaneously guided by opportunity and inspiration?

Many successful professional authors approach their work in a highly organised way. For example they might have a system of completing one new book each year, like the late Dick Francis who wrote over 40 best-selling thrillers set in the world of horse-racing. He began writing a new book every January, and finished it in May, ready for publication in September. Then after a summer holiday break he combined promotional events for the new book with planning and researching the next one, to be started the following  January. Some set themselves a rule of writing for a certain number of hours per day, often at the same time in the same place. Some like to produce a consistent daily word count, while others might be content to spend all morning revising a single paragraph.

The structured approach is suitable for those who like a regular lifestyle, who need to maintain a steady output of new material to earn their living, or who tend to procrastinate unless they discipline themselves. But goals, timetables and routines are tools to help with achieving your broader aims, rather than ends in themselves, and allowing yourself to be rigidly controlled by them can produce needless stress. Sometimes it pays to be flexible in response to variations in your own energy levels, or to external events. If circumstances prevent you from meeting a ‘deadline’ this can seem most frustrating, however it may turn out that the delay was all for the best in the long term; perhaps it gives you time to polish your work, or for market conditions to improve, or for better ideas and opportunities to appear. Even if you never achieve the goal, this could be a blessing in disguise; looking back, I am glad that the manuscript of the novel which I once tried so desperately to get published was never accepted. As the Dalai Lama says ‘Sometimes not getting what you wanted can be a wonderful stroke of luck.’ Also, goals need to be reviewed from time to time to see if they are still appropriate. When I started this blog I resolved to write one post each week, but only for so long as I had plenty of ideas for topics, and then to space them out. This time is now coming so I shall be posting less often here, but more often on my other blogs Jennifer Barraclough Bach Flowers and Woman of Aquarius.

If you are passionately involved with your current writing project, there is no need for rules and routines. Intensive bursts of creative inspiration may only come once in a lifetime and it can be worth making the most of them, even if it means going short on sleep, exercise, and time with family and friends for a while. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie describes how she wrote Absent in the Spring, published under the pen-name Mary Westmacott. After an incubation period of several years, the story and characters suddenly fell into place in her mind and she wrote the entire book as a single draft ‘in a white heat’ over three days, determined to get it all down on paper without interruptions to break the flow. After it was finished she was exhausted, went to sleep for 24 hours and then ate an enormous dinner. This book, though not nearly so well known as her crime novels, is the only one which satisfied her completely. 

Why many writers don’t like marketing

Like most authors I know, I feel more comfortable with writing books than promoting them. But I realise that publishing a book, and then making little effort to market it, is a bit like giving birth to a baby and then failing to look after it properly. To continue this analogy, just as pregnant mothers need good nutrition to help protect their children’s future health, experts recommend that authors need to start marketing their books several months before publication.

Marketing is essential to make your own book stand out from all the many other competing titles, especially if it is self-published. So why do so many of us find the process daunting, or have negative perceptions towards it?  I think there are three main reasons:

1. You regard your work on the book as complete. After putting so much time and effort into writing and publishing it, you are (hopefully) proud of the finished result, but also perhaps feel rather tired of the whole thing. You would like to start on the next book, or to do something completely different from writing, rather than  focus on marketing. But in this situation it is not enough to visualise high sales and then ‘let go of the outcome’; you need to take practical action to get your book noticed and reviewed.

2, You feel diffident about putting your book forward. You may fear being rejected, criticised or ignored. If you were brought up to be modest about your achievements, you may feel there is something ‘not quite nice’ about marketing, that it smacks too much of self-promotion. It may help to think about the process as being about your book rather than about you as a person, and to remember that no readers will be able to enjoy or benefit from your writing unless they know of its existence.

3. You do not know how to do it. Many writers do not have a business background or any training in sales and marketing techniques. But there is a huge amount of free guidance online, as well as a variety of paid courses. These suggest many different methods of marketing, to suit different personalities. Some writers enjoy giving public talks or taking copies along to bookshops and meetings, whereas others would rather develop their websites and blogs or take advantage of easy-to-use platforms such as an Amazon author page – you can see mine here. There are professional agencies which will mount a campaign on your behalf, but my own single experience with this method proved an expensive failure, and so for my latest book Persons not Diseases I am tackling the marketing myself.

Writer’s block

Inspiration tends to come in bursts. There are times when writers are full of ideas, and other times when they have none. This is always frustrating, and for those who earn their living from writing or have publishing deadlines to meet it can be a major problem.

There may be an obvious reason for feeling blocked. I always find myself unable to engage with a new book immediately after finishing the last one, even though I am only really satisfied and happy when I have a writing project underway. I am going through one of these ‘fallow periods’ at present, following the challenge and stimulation of publishing my latest book on Amazon, and am making use of the time to organise and de-clutter the paperwork in my office and the files on my computer.

I have discussed some of the other causes for writer’s block in previous blog posts, for example striving too hard for perfection, being upset by having had your writing criticised or rejected or by adverse experiences in another sphere of life, having too much else to do because of never saying no.

Another possibility is depressed mood. Many writers and other creative people are prone to experience mood swings, due to having the normal variant of personality called ‘cyclothymia’ or less often the serious mental illness of bipolar disorder (formerly ‘manic depression’). During ‘high’ phases, new ideas flow faster than they can be written down; during ‘low’ ones the mind feels sluggish and blank and any thoughts are morbid ones.

Besides dealing with any remediable causes, there are various strategies for overcoming writer’s block. If circumstances permit it can be a good idea to take a complete break from writing and do something else for a day or two or maybe longer. Preferably this will involve activities, people and places which are completely different from those encountered in your usual routine and will provide new ideas. Other forms of creativity, such as painting or dancing, can be particularly helpful.

Or, discipline yourself to keep on writing for a set period each day, but again try doing it with a new approach. Clear the clutter from your desk to encourage a fresh start. Write a short and simple piece instead of attempting the major work on which you are ‘blocked’. Some authorities suggest inducing a relaxed state with deep breathing and slow music and then using your non-dominant hand to write something – anything – which even if it turns out to be nonsense may still stimulate the creative flow. Or try writing late at night or early in the morning, when you are half-asleep and more able to access the reservoir of images and memories in the subconscious  mind.

Getting started again often presents the biggest barrier, and if you can get past that it will usually be much easier to continue.

Bach flowers for finishing a novel

Browsing through the search terms which have been used to find this blog, I recently noticed the unusual one ‘Bach flowers for finishing a novel’.  The person who wrote it probably didn’t find much help from the information which was here at the time, but I was intrigued by the question and will have a go at answering it now. A large number of different remedies, only some of which are mentioned below, could be indicated; please visit the Bach Centre website for further details. Up to six flowers can be combined in one course of treatment and, as always, the choice depends on the personality and current emotional state of the individual concerned.

After months or years of working on your manuscript, becoming deeply involved with the characters and their story, the prospect of finishing the actual writing and moving on to the publication stage can seem quite daunting. The final product, which whether you realise it or not is bound to reveal some personal aspects of your self, is soon going to be launched into to the outside world. It may be met with criticism and rejection. You will have to tackle the practical demands of publishing and marketing, which may be unfamiliar or uncongenial. Are you anxious and fearful about certain aspects of the process (Mimulus)? Lacking confidence in your abilities (Larch)? Do you set yourself such high standards that you are continually revising your manuscript in a quest for perfection (Rock water)? Or do you keep making revisions because you are being over-influenced by others’ opinions rather than staying true to your own ‘inner voice’ (Cerato, Walnut)? Perhaps, rather like a devoted mother whose young adult child is preparing to leave home, you have anticipatory feelings of grief and loss (Star of Bethlehem), want to hold on to the former pattern of life (Honeysuckle) or do not know what to do next after finishing your novel (Wild Oat).

Many states of mind would tend to hinder progress on a personal project of any kind besides finishing a novel. For example: feeling overwhelmed by other responsibilities (Elm), being so willing to help other people that you do not have enough time for yourself (Centaury), mental lethargy in relation to getting started on a task (Hornbeam), the tendency to daydream about your ideas rather than taking practical action (Clematis), being distracted by outside influences (Walnut), feeling negative and discouraged after a setback (Gentian) or generally laid-back and apathetic (Wild Rose).

Or perhaps you are simply feeling tired of the book on which you have spent so much time and effort, and the best plan is to take a break from it before completing the final draft.

Whether a book ever can be considered perfectly finished is another question ….

A perfectly finished book?

WH Auden said: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned,” and the same applies to a book. Writers often get so closely involved with their manuscripts that they fail to notice imperfections which are only too obvious to other readers.

Novels are sometimes submitted with fatal flaws in the plot, or characters who have different names or different eye colours in various parts of the text. Nonfiction books may contain inaccurate or ambiguous factual statements, and those dealing with knowledge in a rapidly-advancing field will be out of date by the time they are published; this problem is largely unavoidable and may necessitate frequent revisions.

On the technical side, typos and formatting errors can creep in at any stage of the book production process, so it is important to check the text carefully several times. I should know all this by now, but being impatient to publish my latest book Persons not diseases on Amazon I missed a couple of tiny but important errors – a date printed as 19919 instead of 1919, one wrong digit in the ISBN – and had to resubmit the files.

It is a good idea to ask at least one other person to read through the penultimate draft of your manuscript, and leave it aside yourself while this is happening, so that you can check through later with fresh eyes before submitting it for publication. Even if you choose to ignore some of their criticisms or suggestions, they may well pick up important shortcomings which you have missed because of your own over-familiarity with the text.

As with most things, balance is important and is possible to make too many changes in the attempt to make your manuscript perfect, or to get it accepted by a publisher. The faded typescript of my own first completed novel has languished in a box file for 30 years – after getting a series of rejections, coupled with just enough encouragement to make me persevere, I carried out multiple revisions but eventually got so tired of the whole thing that I gave it up. Although there was certainly plenty of scope for improving the first version, I think that by being swayed too much by others’ opinions and trying to make it conform with a standard formula, I lost the freshness and originality of the first draft.

After all, many wise men and women have pointed out that nothing in this world is completely perfect, and that sometimes this does not matter or may even be for the best. From Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”


Writing with multiple identities

Over the years I have published under various names, as well as acquiring several blogs, websites and email addresses. For a writer, what are the pros and cons of having such multiple identities? I’ve been considering this question recently because I’m in the process of trying to streamline my internet presence, and deciding what material to update, archive or delete.

True multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder) is very rare. But most people do display different sub-personalities for different aspects of their life and work, and keep them apart whether by default or design. There are potential advantages to this. If your day job is in a field such as law or accountancy which requires a fairly conventional image, you may not want your clients and colleagues to know that you write steamy romances in your spare time. If you feel your novel reveals more about you than you want anyone else to know, you may prefer to publish it under a pen name. If you write both fiction and non-fiction you may choose separate identities for each; I recently met a man who writes one of his blogs under the alias of the female protagonist of his series of novels.  And if you do not like your real name, or think it is unsuitable for the genre of your book, you may decide to choose a ‘nom de plume’.  According to numerology, names have great metaphysical significance and exert an effect on personal destiny.

But maintaining multiple identities comes at a price. It takes time to run two or more blogs or websites. Using more than one name can have social, financial or legal complications. Most writers find it enough of a challenge to market their books under a single name, let alone more, and the commercial success of a book sometimes depends more on its author’s reputation than on the quality of its content. In one famous recent case, the crime novel The cuckoo’s calling by Robert Galbraith attracted excellent reviews when first published, but did not achieve best-seller status until ‘Robert Galbraith’ was unmasked as J K Rowling.

Because of being married twice I have had three different surnames over the years,  a choice which probably did not prove helpful for my career. I sometimes feel tempted to use yet another name for the novel I am writing … however I think it would be better to stay with my real one from now on.

Setting personal boundaries: or, writers who never say no


I had several writers as clients in my life coaching practice. They often raised questions about how to find enough time and energy for writing amid the other demands and distractions of life. They might have agreed to take on extra responsibilities and activities, whether work- or family-related, because they felt obliged to accept or did not know how to refuse without causing offence or risking disapproval. Many were women working from home,  and I could empathise when they described feeling tense and frustrated about having their creative flow interrupted when husband or children wanted something, a visitor came to call or it was time to get the dinner ready. Writing, more than most other activities, requires sustained periods of solitary concentration.

The answers sound simple in theory:  Reserve a dedicated space to write in, preferably a room which is not shared with anyone else. Close the door when you are working. Switch off the phone. Reserve set times for writing each day. If there is too much else happening during normal waking hours, consider getting up earlier or staying up later, though without losing too much sleep. Say no to unwelcome requests.

Before putting such new strategies into practice it is advisable to have a friendly conversation explaining them to other household members, and asking them to respect your privacy by not interrupting unnecessarily or making a lot of noise. If all goes well they may even suggest helping in other ways, perhaps by taking over some of your usual tasks at times.

Many people find it difficult to follow these recommendations because they have been taught always to put others before themselves, and never to refuse when asked to do something however unreasonable or inconvenient it may be.  As a result they may become overworked, tired and resentful, and are unable to pursue their own wishes or develop their full potential.  If they ever do decline a request, they feel guilty about it. But:

If you never say No, what is your Yes worth? Tony Neate

Overcoming this ‘people-pleasing’ mindset is not about going to the opposite extreme of ruthless selfishness, but finding a balance between the best interests of others and yourself.

Many of the Bach flower remedies, selected alone or in combination on an individual basis, can be helpful here. For example Centaury is for those who are over-eager to serve others, and Walnut for those who are being distracted from their chosen path by outside influences.  For details about these and other remedies please visit the Bach centre website.

Not all distractions from writing are external ones. If you are finding it hard to focus because of intrusive worries or wandering thoughts, or are continually being tempted to check your emails or get another cup of coffee, you need to set firmer boundaries for yourself.

Personality and writing

Do you write primarily for yourself, or for your readers? The answer may depend on your personality type. Of the many different personality classifications which have been proposed, almost all recognise the introvert-extravert dimension.

Introverts tend to write for personal fulfilment and satisfaction. They choose the subjects which interest them, rather than those which might appeal to the market. They are reserved and solitary by nature and, in extreme cases, may have little or no desire to have their writing published or read by other people.

Extraverts, in contrast, continually seek contact with the outside world and relationships with their readers are of prime importance. They want to broadcast their message, to be noticed and liked, or achieve good sales in a specified market. They love doing media presentations.

This is of course an oversimplification, because personality traits exist on a continuum. Introverts and extraverts are not distinct categories; most people display elements of both at different times and in different situations. Some tend towards one or other end of the spectrum, others lie in the middle (ambiversion).  And this combination is probably what works best in relation to developing a writing carer, as my own experience may illustrate.

Like most writers I naturally tend towards introversion, but have learned to develop my extravert side. As a child my favourite pastime was writing stories just for my own amusement. My first published book was written much later on, while I was studying for a postgraduate exam in medicine, and I started it as a way of understanding and memorising the material from my lecture notes. But then I showed the manuscript to a couple of colleagues, who suggested submitting it for publication, and it was accepted second time round. I had no idea that it would become established as a textbook for medical students and psychiatric trainees and, in commercial terms, prove more successful than anything I have written since.

My next few books were about psycho-oncology and, though again I began writing them mainly for my own interest and education, I was very mindful of their potential impact on others because they dealt with some sensitive issues and would be read by some patients and relatives, as well as by staff.  Authors only ever hear feedback from a small minority of their readers, but I had favourable responses and reviews (except from one oncologist vehemently opposed to complementary therapies) and I hope these books have helped with the prevention and management of the distress often associated with cancer, and highlighted the fact that there can be something positive in the experience of this and other illnesses.

Since I retired from academic and clinical medicine, and started writing self-help books for general readers, I have aimed to develop this theme of seeking the silver lining in sickness and adversity. When I was asked by an interviewer for three key words I chose ‘balance’, ‘positivity’ and ‘self-responsibility’.

I am now going back to what I most enjoyed doing as a child – writing fiction – and my new novella is almost finished. Although I do intend to publish it, I am not expecting high sales because I have ignored the golden rules of targeting a market niche and staying within a defined genre. It’s a mixture of mystery and romance with a paranormal flavour and I wrote it because I wanted to, in response to one of those vague inspirations which come from an unknown source.

So long as you write what you wish to write,
That is all that matters …

Virginia Woolf