Making Creativity

You can’t make creativity, but you can make cake.

I have two days a week to write. Two glorious, empty, indulgent, frustrating days. Sometimes, the word count is high. My fingers are flying over the keys, I get to the end of it and bask in the glory of my beautiful sentences.

Other times, I write pretty much nothing, then hastily dash out a blog, or do some Tweedecking (like DJing, but way less cool) in a desperate attempt to have something to show for an eight-hour stretch.

The other week, things got even worse thanks to Snotgate, whereupon starting my day, I could barely breathe, had a drumming headache, and the most creative thought in my head was planning the shortest route to the supermarket to stock up on soup/decongestant/something to cheer me up.

I also had a birthday to prepare for. When I was younger, my mum would make the most delicious and elaborate cakes for us. Each year it was based on a different interest or hobby, with everything from a fairytale castle to a ski slope (it had a log cabin made out of chocolate fingers).

Lacking offspring, I’ve decided to carry this tradition on anyway, and set myself the task of creating an otter-themed lemon drizzle cake.

How I grunted and huffed at the thought of completing another chore. It was a rare evening without commitments, an opportunity to put pen to paper, to make up for Monday’s congested failure of a day.

Once I got going, all that fell away. My headache loosened its grip on my temples, the whiny little voice at the back of my head shut up, and I got completely lost in the task at hand.

Whisking, melting the drizzle, spreading the buttercream, missing together the different colours of fondant, rolling it out; basically creating a big lump of sweet food, where before there had just been a muddle of ingredients. Best of all, I fashioned two otters out of fondant. I’m not sure if it counts as a skill (can I put it on my CV?) but I seem to be a dab hand at creating cute animals out of marzipan and sugar paste. We all have our niche.

With my little creation finished off, I steeped myself (and my rattly chest) in a lovely warm bath, reading the National Geographic. Rested and with a real sense of accomplishment, I settled myself into bed.

And then something strange happened. Instead of my usual cataloguing of the day ahead, little nuggets of ideas started to germinate in my relaxed brain. I had to get up, find a pad and paper and scribble them down so they didn’t get washed away by sleep. After that, I was heading into my next writing day with a slew of ideas, notes, first steps, before I’d even begun.

So what made the difference? For one thing, apparently, being tired actually helps to boost creativity . That little filter in your brain that takes out the things you don’t need to worry about right now is switched off, so it allows all the weird and wonderful ideas out from behind your sensible fence.

While I’m sure that’s a factor, I reckon there’s something to be said for the cake (it looked pretty awesome in my opinion – see below). It was a also a physical activity. I was so focused on creating it that it blocked out all negativity. What’s more, it had a tangible outcome. All too often with writing, I might spend hours, days, even years, working on something, and not have anything that you can hold in your hands (and have even more editing to do). With a simple crafted thing (I’m sure it could work for knitting, colouring, sewing, drawing) I had something physical I could look at – a product of my efforts.

So, the next time I’m staring at the screen and the words simply won’t come, I’m going to step away from the desk. Go for a run, draw a picture, make some biscuits, anything that can allow my mind to readjust itself to a physical task with a tangible outcome.

Hopefully, it will relieve stress, boost creativity, and result in a whole lot of writing being done in 2017.

Plus, of course, there’ll also be more cake.

img_0893

Taking Time Out

December is upon us. While apparently the idea that time goes quicker as you get older is a myth (it’s just because you’ve seen more actual time, apparently) it still seems that the years are stacking up at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with. Every hour, day, week, month, I get to the end and sometimes it feels like all I have is a list of things I didn’t manage to do. People I didn’t see, projects I didn’t finish, marking I didn’t do, films I didn’t see, phone calls I didn’t make. It can be more than a little overwhelming.

Last weekend, I made a bold decision. I left the city. Abandoned my beautiful newly-bought flat (6 months and a lot of DIY) and headed out to the wilds of Surrey, to hang out with my Mum and Dad. While it hasn’t exactly ticked off a huge number of things on the List of Doom, it’s certainly offered a nice bit of perspective.

For starters, writing. I’m lucky enough to have two whole days a week that are scheduled for private writing time. While the mornings tend to be pretty productive (2,000 word average, I can live with that) the afternoons end up as so much faffing about. Washing, tidying, then I have guilt that I’m at home but not exercising, so I usually end up in the gym or going for a run. But that ends up being another day that I get to the end of and think – what did I do today?

So I cashed it all in. It was the last weekend before the end of the year that I actually had nothing on (sorry, Batala) and I decided to have a self-enforced writing retreat. The results? It’s bloody lovely.

While I can’t claim to have done no house-related things at all (I’m pretty sure cooking dinner is in order considering I’m getting free room and board) there was that wonderful freedom of not actually being able to do anything. Sure, I should probably have put another coat of paint on the wardrobes, or put a wash on, but I physically couldn’t. Funnily enough, my afternoons ended up far more productive than my mornings.

There were little annoying things I’d been meaning to do for ages, like making a spreadsheet of literary magazines to send out to (yes, the creative and the nerd go surprisingly well together) as well as catching up on my social media stuff. The word count was pretty good. I managed 10,000 words in 3 days, which is certainly an improvement, and I also found myself having random ideas for new stories, which is something that rarely happens to me.

But you know what, there was something else. Over and above the loveliness of simply being able to wander upstairs and write whenever I liked, there was something I don’t give myself nearly enough of. Time. I am a terrible ‘should’ person. Constantly barraging myself with guilt about something that didn’t get done, or something that seemed like a ‘waste’ of time. It’s the times that you stop, do nothing, that you remember what makes you smile. On Sunday afternoon, me and Mum sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ while doing a few bits in the kitchen. I grew up with that musical, with singing. It’s something I almost never do anymore.

But I digress. The thing that I really discovered last weekend? The power of time. That when you take yourself away from the treadmill of your life, you feel more relaxed, more calm, more productive, more creative, than you ever thought possible. I’m not a massive fan of resolutions, as they always seem to imply goals and charts and yet another way of disappointing my own expectations, but if there’s one thing I want to give myself next year, it’s the space to feel like this in my own home.

Thanks, Mum. xx

On Finishing a First Draft

It is done. I have typed the last word, finished the last scene, put my (relatively) new characters to bed. In celebration of this, I wanted to share some piece that I figured someone would have written about how great it was to have accomplished this. Alas, I was wrong. All of the posts I found revolved around what comes next. Where to go next, how to edit, all of that stuff that I was really hoping not to think about for a few weeks. I can understand the need to focus on improvement, but there should be something about the simple achievement of getting this far. So I thought I’d write one myself.

It’s the second novel I’ve written. A bit weird, compared to the first. While writing the first one, I had scheduled meetings with my tutor, a deadline for a certain number of words, I had to hand in the plot structure and have it assessed, all of that stuff. I wrote it on a Masters course at City University. Which was amazing. It gave me the structure and guidance I needed to make it through writing my first novel. It also allowed me to get over a lot of the pitfalls that I feel I would have had if I’d just gone ahead and written one. Especially seeing as, for the first one, I wrote a dual narrative. Who thought that was a good idea for a first novel?! Juggling two plots and voices, as well as tinkering between the two to create an interwoven narrative was not an easy task. This one, by comparison, is a more straightforward first-person story, which has been a little easier. It’s also been quite freeing. Away from the need to have anyone peruse my work, I’ve allowed myself to go wherever I wanted to with it. Like my imagination’s been let out for once.

And, you know what, other writers, it is easier. Every time we had a visiting author, we asked that hopeful question – does it get easier? Of course we did, we were all at the point where we thought every sentence we wrote was utter garbage and clearly we were never going to finish anything decent anyway. Every time, without fail, they all said that, no, of course not, writing a book was always hard. Needless to say, this did little to boost our morale.

I beg to differ. Of course I’ve only written a first draft, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, but it is still easier. If nothing else, having got to the end of an enormous piece of writing once, at least I know I can actually do it. That in itself makes the process less arduous. Not only that, you’ve already tripped yourself up over your own mistakes and failures for nigh on two (creeping towards three) years. So of course it’s not as hard. Perhaps as you write more it’s easy to forget that first one, the one that got you out of the blocks. Or maybe when you get so absorbed in your new project and it’s hard going it fools you into thinking that you are going through the same process again. Of course you are, to a certain extent, but experience changes you, and pretending otherwise just makes you sound pretentious.

What also doesn’t help, is all of the, ‘oh so-and-so wrote a book in three months/two weeks/a minute,’ talk. Of course, it makes for a more exciting, press release, but it’s also bollocks. What they mean is, they finished the first draft in a ridiculously short amount of time. After that, it would have gone through a huge number of edits, rewriting, proof reading, making the magical process not quite as magical, but a little more achievable for us mere mortals. Also, most people have to do other jobs, which makes it take a little longer! So yes, it took me 9 months. I still think that’s not bad.

But here I am, veering off the point. what I wanted to say is – it feels great. Under my own steam, with very little feedback, I have finished a story that I first had the idea for about a year ago. I researched it, I talked through my ideas with people, created a story, characters who I now feel are real people, and I got to the end. It’s not nearly often enough that we are told to just sit back and give ourselves a little pat on the back for a job well done. So the same goes for you too. Nice one, whatever it is you’re feeling proud of today.

In a world where we constantly seek for the next ‘target’ or ‘goal,’ let’s sit back and just enjoy the pleasure of having achieved something. Doesn’t that feel good?

Foraging for Ideas

In the last few months, I’ve found myself running around Hampstead Heath thinking ‘I need to find an idea for a short story.’ Thanks to sites like Creative Writing Ink, I’ve got a monthly alert of short story competitions and deadlines for magazine submissions, all laid out on my Google calendar. The problem is, I don’t have that much of a back catalogue yet, so for each one I need to come up with something new. And, funnily enough, simply trying to think of ‘a story idea’ doesn’t work. Trust me.

As far as non-fiction stuff is concerned, I find that much easier to spark ideas. Usually, the book(s) I’m currently reading give me more than enough scope to rattle on for a few hundred words. Either the ideas explored in the book, or the way it’s written, allows me to go off on a personal tangent into my other reading or writing experiences. Sometimes the same thing happens from a lesson I’ve taught, or an experience in the classroom, that also gives me a way in. Current news and events are always a good springboard, with my opinionated conversations often providing an article that has a good sense of personal voice. This has worked so well, it landed me a position as a guest blogger on the Huffington Post. You can read my first blog (about why modern women aren’t getting married) here. After all, we’re all passionate about something, so whatever it is, write about it, preferably linking to something else happening in the world at the moment.

Unfortunately, thinking of ideas for fiction (for me at least) is always a little trickier. It’s a bit like meditating. The harder you try to do it, the more difficult it is. Lucy Caldwell (tutor at City University) came up with a lovely phrase. She told us to ‘thin our skin’ when walking in the world. Open ourselves up to the little things we see on a daily basis, allow ourselves to drift into another person’s head, imagine what they’re thinking and seeing, and let the imagination take root.

Just last month, we looked out of the window of our flat and saw something in the tree. It looked like a canoe. From each angle, we looked and looked, but couldn’t figure out what it was. The next time I sat down to write, my protagonist was someone who became obsessed with something in the trees. You can read the story here. Thinking thin worked.

Images can also be incredibly powerful. While googling ‘story images’ tend to produce a rather flat set of images (fairytale castles, mountains) the strangest searches can also produce something you weren’t expecting. There’s a free writing competition (check it our here) that changes the image every two months, from which you’re encouraged to produce any piece of fiction. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great exercise in keeping your creative muscles going. The picture of a metallic rose led to my prize-winning short story (here) while a picture of some shoes sparked off a flash fiction piece about a first meeting and the changes that happen in relationships (read it here). Search for things like ‘feet,’ ‘doors’ or ‘keys,’ and ask yourself what they open, where they go, how they came to be there, and you’ll find your imagination will take you to unusual places.

Poetry is also a great resource. If you’ve got an idea around a specific theme or mood, try finding a poem that is based around the same set of ideas. Because the language is so condensed, it allows for a multitude of interpretations, that often lead you off on a tangent which might prove more unusual than the thing you began with.

Finally, go back to the things you love and the things that make you unleash a tirade at someone in the pub. If you’re that passionate about it, you’ll find that there’s a way to put it into your fiction. I’m currently grappling with an idea based on a woman who works in abortion clinic being treated like a witch (partly because I’ve been watching Once Upon a Time) and a re-imagining of the Adam and Eve story, where the monster that tempts them is not a snake. It’s possible that these ideas won’t go anywhere, but what’s important is that down the side of my Scrivener file marked ‘Stuff,’ there are a huge amount of titles, ideas, notes and words. Actively searching for inspiration in the world around you and acting on it will keep your fiction muscles toned. You wouldn’t expect a pianist to develop their craft without regular scales, so use the world around you as a way to hone those writing skills.

Good luck! Please post the things that help you find inspiration below.

Starting to Succeed

The very fact of this title was difficult to write. Acknowledging any form of success seems boastful, inappropriate. It’s a bit like singing. If you say you play the violin, the piano, it’s ok somehow, because the hours of practice are deemed part of it, you are a skilled technician, as well as an accomplished musician. Say you sing, and it’s a boast, a singling out. I am better than you because I can sing. You can substitute ‘writing’ for that. Probably because everyone (pretty much) can do it. Perhaps an email, a witty Tweet, whatever it is, we’ve all put pen to paper. So I didn’t want to call this post ‘success,’ because it sounded too presumptuous.

This summer I won a short story competition. It was fabulous. A cheque came in the post, a card, a beautiful picture of a waterfall; evidence that someone thought my writing was good. So far the money has had to go on bills, rather than the proper writing chair I promised myself, but this is what happens when you cut your hours in order to finish your first novel and get your writing out to a public in whatever way you can. But there it is, my name, next to the words ‘first prize.’

The second most thrilling bit was when they posted the judge’s comments on their website. Here, for the first time, someone who wasn’t my mother/friend/on my course saying something positive about my writing. Apparently I have ‘evocative poetic resonance.’ To be discussed in this abstract way, from someone I have never met, was a very special experience.

It feels like a start. A budding of something, no matter how small, that may yet flower into something bigger. And there are so many places to do it. Short story competitions (Try Creative Writing Ink for a huge list of those), Scriggler, Patreon (a very modern method of patronage), magazines, blogs, so many ways to take something you have created and share it with someone, anyone, who might find a spark of something hiding between your words. If you don’t do it, who will? Get your stuff out there, it’s worth it, trust me.

If you fancy a read of my story, it’s here.

The Enemy

The nugget of something
Is there
But in the act of putting it on the page
It disappears

No flare of wit or will
Nothing to separate
Me
From all the other people struggling to take bits of language and string them together in a way that is meaningful

Wavering in the face of the need to be
Decisive
Shadowed by all those
Names and Ideas and Prose that people
Praise

Writer’s block
Is simply the scorn of myself
Nothing that can’t be seen
In a mirror

The wall that rises up
Is my own self-doubt
Laughing at the preposterous notion
That I could ever be a writer

This is truly the enemy to my writing this week! Whatever you do, don’t let your own self-doubt or lack of belief hold you back. We all start somewhere.

Editing Backwards

I find myself in the glorious position of having completed the second draft of my novel. It feels infinitely more satisfying than the first. Then, I knew there was a mountain of work still to be done, endless shuffling about of scenes and ideas, and there was a long road ahead. Already, this one feels more polished and together, so although there’s still long way to go, it doesn’t seem quite as insurmountable. Thought I’d share a few thoughts on what worked for me.

1. Write it all again

Every single word has been typed afresh, from beginning to end. There is no substitute for having your words on a printout at the side of your computer, and your fingers tapping away onto a blank sheet (metaphorical). This has to come after you’ve read it through and made notes, but simple cutting and pasting and editing what’s already there just doesn’t allow you to appraise and consider each word. In order to get back in, they really have to earn their spot!

 

2. Break it up

I found that there were little ‘arcs’ to the novel that were between 20,000 and 30,000 words long. This way, I was only editing a short bit at a time, rather than doing the whole thing from beginning to end. What it also allowed was a second look through a small chunk, something that would have felt too daunting over the whole book. This allowed me to be far more thorough and detailed in my editing.

3. Use something physical to visualise your story

I love Scrivener. It’s brilliant. I can swap scenes about, put things in folders and label them, move bits aside for later, use the cork board to see all the scenes in a section of the book, and many other things that I did see in the initial setup programme which looked awesome but I can’t remember them now. But there is nothing like having it physically in your hands. I like mapping out timelines on A3 pages, either to do with characters or plots. The cue card system I put in place for the second draft was very successful. In some feedback from my first draft, it turned out that while I had described the scene, the actions, all fine, the problem was that the reader hadn’t actually found out what I wanted them to. So, in came my colour coded system (overlap from teacher-related stationery nerdery). Black was for what actually happened in the scene. Blue was for what I wanted the reader to find out or know by the time they got to the end of it. Green was for any hints I was including at this point which would build up tension and lead to something being revealed later. If it was a scene at the end of a chapter, red was for any hanging questions left open that would pull the reader through the book. As I’m writing a dual narrative, the pink was for any links between the two. There’s a picture at the bottom, if you can read my writing! Then I could swap things around, think about how they linked up, what would work better where (again in smaller chunks, rather than the whole book) which really helped fine tune the plot.

4. Edit backwards

This is absolute genius. My tutor suggested it to me, so I can’t take the credit! While I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting at the final page and working your way back, once you’ve separated your work out into chunks, choose maybe a scene or two, or a chapter, and work from end to beginning, page by page. All of a sudden, you stop concentrating on the story and start really looking at your sentences. You notice typos more easily, you pick up on clunky phrases, in a way that forwards reading just doesn’t produce. My plan is to extend this even further for the next draft. Because my brain was falling out of my ears by the time I got to the end of the novel (and the beginning always ends up with the bright-eyed, eager me) the back third of it is much more sloppy and rushed. So I’m going to edit the whole thing backwards. Start from the final chunk, then go back through it piece by piece, so I can give the rear end the love and care it deserves, rather than spending all my energies on the opening.

5. Be aware of your habits

I did a check for the word ‘seem’ and found 79. There were 35 ‘shuffles’ and 27 ‘nudges.’ We all have our go-to words and phrases that shuffle (see!) out more than others, so being aware of them will stop your reader from thinking you have the vocabulary of a stunted carp. I also massively overuse a main clause followed by an ‘ing’ clause. They’re everywhere! Noticing this stuff means I can pick them out easily on a first read and think of alternatives where possible.

6. Be ruthless

Now and again, I stumble across a sentence and think ‘ooooh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Not as often as I’d like, but it can happen. However, if it’s in a scene that just doesn’t belong, or is causing everything to be a bit, well, floppy, it has to go. In order to make myself feel slightly better, I have a whole section  in the ‘research’ section on Scrivener where I put of chunks of the book that I’ve taken out, so I can always go back and try and squeeze them in somewhere else, or if I decide, with a re-read, that the deleted scene is suddenly crucial. So cut it, but put it somewhere safe, just in case.

7. Set deadlines

I have the advantage of a course deadline, but I set myself the personal goal of finishing my second draft by the end of July, so I would have a whole five weeks (really doesn’t seem that long now) in order to go back over it one final time, until my final hand-in date. Of course, then I’ll have to do it again before I send it to agents, but… let’s not think about that right now. For me, it works. It’s the only way I went from wheezing through a ten-minute run to completing two marathons. I signed up for a run (the first was ten miles) so I would have to train. With that impending deadline, it forced me out of bed on a cold day to run around the park. And, seven years on, it’s still how I do running. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always do it sensibly. My writing deadlines invariably mean that I spend a good three weeks faffing about with a few thousand words, then look at the calendar, have a heart attack and spend the next two weeks writing and editing for hours at a time, with very little sleep, in a bid to make it. But here I am, at the start of August, with a lovely printed copy of my second draft sat on my table (no I haven’t read it yet) so I can start the process all over again!

There aren’t any shortcuts, but hopefully this helps to chart a path through the chaos and trauma that is editing. I think it’s been my biggest lesson, understanding just how many times you have to back over something again, and again, and again, until it’s ready. So only, like, eight drafts to go, right?

My lovely colour-coded card system:

IMG_2405

Encouraging Thunder

img_0657-0

 

Blogging sometimes feels like throwing a pebble into a tunnel/cave (insert metaphor of something large and dark). You tap away, have a flurry of excitement each time you put something up. Dutifully read by friends and family of course, but you’re never entirely sure that it’s reaching anyone else. However, it would appear that the little rock I chucked in has indeed bounced off a train (not sure about this now) as the wonderful Annika Perry has nominated me for this award. You can find her blog here, a plethora of posts including poetry, short stories and reviews, all helping her to hone her skills on the way to, like me, completing her first novel. She’s won short story awards and you should go and check out why – a fantastic writer.

So a little bit more about the award:

‘Thunder creates a powerful addition to the blog as an awesome blog award. Raymond, encouraginglife.co founder, was bestowed upon a thunder medallion by the great nature so he can create a powerful spell Encouraging Thunder to grant powerful protection to other bloggers. It’s a special spell that only bloggers who has true purpose in their life can master it.’

‘As other bloggers are granted the power of thunder, he or she has the permission to post the power of thunder on their blogs as well as sharing the award with other bloggers.’

With the Encourage Thunder award you can

  • Post it on your blog
  • Grant other blogs

The dos and donts of the award are:

Do not

  • Abuse or misuse the logo
  • Claim that it is your own handmade logo

Do

  • Enjoy the award
  • At least give thanks via comments and likes and or mentioning the blogger who gives the award.

 

Which is all pretty splendid. Just yesterday I found out that I didn’t make the shortlist for the award that is part of my Masters programme. I can’t deny the competition is bloody impressive, and I would find it very hard if I were in the position of the agents, as there are so many persistently talented writers on my course. And of course, it’s a subjective opinion, it’s only based on a snippet of the novel, and lots of things that I’ve been repeating to myself in the last 24 hours to try and cheer myself up.

But the truth is, it’s a judgement. Someone, somewhere, compared my writing with someone else’s and decided theirs was better, or at least better suited to their purposes. Which is pretty tough to take. You only have to do a tiny search online to see just how many bloggers, writers, journalists, vloggists (is that a word?) that are all trying to make their voices heard and turn their passion and creativity into something that can be shared with others. So I have to maintain the faith that there will be other agents (my tutor reminded me there are 58 other agencies in London alone) that will share my passion and enthusiasm for my work, and want to support me enough to take me on.

Until then, people like Annika remind me that there are many ways to be appreciated and rewarded for doing something that is ultimately, incredibly personal and emotionally risky. Thanks.

And to that end, I nominate the following blogs:

Riley: rileyreedauthor.wordpress.com

Assia: https://assiashahin.wordpress.com

Writing Onward: https://writingonward.wordpress.com

Alysha: https://alyshakaye.wordpress.com

You all give me inspiration, I love the stuff you write and more than anything it helps to know we’re all in this together. Keep rumbling.

 

Wasting Time

Sometimes it feels like the more time I have, the less I get done. I’ve had an erratic work schedule for almost two years now, doing everything from paternity leave in a school which took up five days a week, to doing nothing but evening and weekend tutoring to make ends meet while I write a book and complete my Masters. It’s a strange sensation, not having fixed work hours, a fixed income, a steady schedule to take you through each day. It also ups the pressure at the time I’ve allowed myself to write. With sometimes just a few hours, sometimes a whole day, suddenly I have a word count to get to, deadlines to fill and a blog to write. I set myself deadlines to help motivate myself and encourage me to work, but the problem is that I’m asking my creativity to appear at the drop of a hat. There are days I get 2,000 new words written in a couple of hours, and other days where I have an entire day just to edit and I only get 600 done. I’ve been experimenting with the way I spend my interim time, in order to find out which tends to result in a more creative and productive process.

One of the problems is, I’m not exactly a relaxed person with my time. In between completing my MA, I set myself the target of blogging once a week, entering short story competitions, running three times (at least) a week and spending at least fifteen minutes a day learning French. Once you add in the boring ‘life admin’ of washing, cleaning, gardening, cooking and shopping, that doesn’t really leave a lot to experiment with. Still, I look at things like time spent eating (yes, I don’t like to waste even that), evening pursuits and the odd half an hour in between all this other crap. Of all of the things I’ve filled this time with, I’ve split it into roughly ‘intellectual,’ ‘enjoyable’ and ‘wasted,’ and had a think about the effects each of them had on me.

Intellectual

I decided that this was anything that actually taught me something while I was filling time in between other things. This could be while eating lunch, stretching after a run, having a break, chilling in the evening, that sort of thing. My time filling here included TED talks, radio podcasts about interesting things, reading informative books and articles, and watching documentaries.

I felt so smart. Every day I could give some little anecdote about something I had learned on TED, or I could approach my writing with a sense of purpose as I knew something more about the theory behind it, or I just had a little ‘ooh’ moment when something piqued my interest. The main problem was, it didn’t really feel like a break. Watching a TED talk or two while eating lunch made me feel like I needed another break afterwards so my brain had time to reshuffle things.

Enjoyable

The criteria for this category was anything that I was genuinely looking forward to doing. This could include watching a film or an episode on Netflix, reading a novel (rather than anything informative per se) or going drumming. These worked as a great incentive. Giving myself something to aim for if I managed to finish my word target for that day, or I’d managed to sort a plotting problem out, so I was allowed to sit and do something fun, really meant that I wanted to work hard in order to earn them. I suppose the possible problem with this one was that if it was too enjoyable, I spent too much time actually doing that than the thing I was supposed to be working on, so ended up lowering my productivity. It also sometimes lead to a simple ‘word drop’ because I wanted to get to a certain goal, which I then had to edit, rather than anything decent.

Wasted

This was all the stuff that I consider to be useless. That includes Facebook, Buzzfeed, looking at funny videos, all the stuff that can start off as a minor distraction and end up taking hours of your life. The problems here are obvious. They ‘waste’ your time twice, because you’re not doing anything productive, but neither are you doing anything necessarily enjoyable, and you’re not learning anything (usually). However, it turns out that this mindless time might actually be a good thing. Research has shown that these short, mindless activities often allow for your brain to tick over more important things in the background, so you might end up solving that problem more quickly than if you had used that time in a meaningful way.

The results? A bit tricky to say. It was much harder to stick to the intellectual things, and I think I went less than a week of a TED talk a day. Maybe if I slowed these things down to once or twice a week they might become more meaningful and less of a chore I’ve inflicted on myself. The enjoyable ones worked as a good motivational tool, while the wasted ones could potentially improve my productivity, although they are the most dangerous at spiralling out of time control.

What I did notice is that I never do nothing. I started looking at Facbeook and Twitter while I was stretching after a run so it wouldn’t feel like ‘time wasted.’ If I spend more than half an hour on lunch I get grumpy with myself and can end up spoiling my whole day. Even when I go and experience the lovely nearby parks, I’m doing it by running through them, not by walking through them or sitting, without a book, without my phone. This is the problem with working freelance and trying to be a writer. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. I schedule blog post writing on the train, I take photos to go on my Twitter feed on the bus, my brain never shuts off.

This is where the change is really needed. I was on holiday the other week. A whole ten days in a very quiet area of France, milling about, eating food, having a chat, doing not much of anything. All of a sudden, I had an inspiration for a short story. I grabbed a pen and paper in the car, scribbled down some notes, and wrote pretty much the whole thing on the Eurostar on the way home. That never happens to me. I’ll have a short story competition deadline coming up and I will literally stare at the world, thinking ‘I need an idea for a story,’ for hours, with nothing appearing in my brain. Interesting that when I actually just stopped, inspiration struck.

So I think what I need to add to my schedule is some big chunks of nothing. Time where I don’t saturate my brain with anything at all, but just sit back and watch the world go by. If I can fit it in…