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An extract from How to Write a Novel and Get It Published

Schedule your time and write down your goals

Once you know when you’ve got some time to focus on your writing, the best thing you can do is to follow these two pieces of advice given by almost every productivity expert: 1) schedule your time and 2) write down your goals.

Timetable your writing

Treat your writing like a job. It might be an ad hoc job, that you can only do on Wednesday and Thursday mornings while the kids are at Breakfast Club (for instance) but treat it like a job all the same. Get your diary and block out the time you’ve decided to write, or print out a timetable for the week with your writing time added in. Scheduling is a powerful technique that stops you doing anything else with that time (you can honestly say ‘sorry I have another commitment’) and that takes some of the mystique out of writing. It’s a job. You show up for it. You don’t wait for a muse to visit you anymore! (Bad news and good news: there is no muse, aside from you.)

Write down your writing goals

It does feel silly sometimes to do this at first, but no one else has to see. Write them down in a notebook. Try to make them specific and give yourself a realistic deadline. When I was younger, I used Jinny Ditzler’s book Your Best Year Yet to do this, and one of my goals was to finish my novel and get it published. The first step was to get accepted onto the writing course I wanted to do. A year after I finished that writing course, my first novel was published. Without that day spent planning my goals using Jinny’s book, I would never have even applied for the course. My self-esteem was too low. Writing down my goals was (psychologically) like giving myself an instruction list to follow. Write down your writing goal and break that down into smaller goals.

What to do during your writing time

You’re not going to sit down and ‘write a novel’. That’s way too huge a task. No-one, not even Tolstoy or Orwell or Woolf, ever ever ‘sat down and wrote a novel’. They sat down (or in Hemingway’s case stood up) and wrote 100 words or 500 words or 1000 words etc., and they did that over and over again.

So what do you do when you’ve got your focus time sorted and you sit down to write? First, I suggest you try freewriting. Freewriting is described by Peter Elbow in his book Writing with Power. Essentially, it’s writing without rules, without editing. The only thing you have to do is keep going. Write for one minute without stopping at first, and build up to 5, 10 and 15 minutes.

Secondly, I suggest you try close observation. Instead of waiting for an idea to strike, write what you see; get to the detail of what is right in front of you. The vocabulary here is biased towards the visual – about looking, seeing, watching, observing – whereas ‘close observation’ is actually about observing using the small details coming in from all of your senses. You can also deliberately put yourself in the way of interesting things by going out to write.

What next?

Practise. Make your writing regular. You can’t get proficient at anything without practice. Put aside some space and time to write. Block out some space in your diary. Turn up. Write anything at first. Write lists. Do short exercises. Write whatever comes into your head. Whatever you do to get going (short exercises, lists, free writing) can become a warm up activity once you start to write longer fiction. Margret Geraghty’s five-minute writer books are an excellent source of short exercises.

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