10 Quick-draw tips for time-pinched writers

Time-pressed writers – those whose creative work is compressed into short periods, need special techniques. Not for us the lovely luxury of whole days waiting to be filled with words; we’re the ones who through choice, necessity or devotion to something or someone else, have to squeeze our writing around time-gobbling commitments. There are lots of us. And we’re feisty.
My own problem is that when chunks of writing time arrive, it takes frustratingly long to get back inside the story and the characters’ heads. Hours I can’t spare can be wasted tinkering around, re-reading and generally fidgeting before I can settle. It’s unproductive, this re-entry process, so I wondered how to avoid it.
My sister is a life coach who works with writers and other creative people, so I asked her advice (I paid in dinners​) and we came up with a list. I’m experimenting and the ideas seem to work.
Give it a try, hard-pressed author-types and let me know what you think. You might be able to add some tips of your own.
1 Steal tiny gobbets of time.
Don’t accept too easily that you can only work on the book in big several-hour chunks; try using spare bits of downtime time too. Even if you can’t actually write, you can devote, say, part of your commute or unavoidable waiting time to Keeping In Touch with the Novel (an extremely important activity hereinafter referred to as KITNO). The point of KITNO is that when you do actually have time to sit down and write, you can spring to the keys with your fingers dancing, instead of having to make the long mental trek across the barren wastelands of Now Where Was I?P1050207
2 Turn off the noise.
The friendly life coach has successfully recommended to people that they turn off their car radios/put away their iPhones or whatever, on the way to work. Emptying the head of noise is a good first step to KITNO. So is exercise. Walking works, but no earphones.
3 Ask ONE question.
Set yourself a single KITNO challenge to focus on. When you finish a writing stint, don’t pack up until you have singled out a plot knot that needs to be untangled or a character begging to be knocked into shape. Make that particular issue the one you play around with in the little spare moments you have before the next bigger block of writing time. It can help to write the question on a piece of paper and display it. This forces you to whittle it down to a few words. Family members may be puzzled by a post-it saying “Pavel’s connection with Ira Marciano??” on the bathroom mirror, but they’ll get used to it – if you’re lucky, they may even come up with some useful suggestions.
4 Night Work
Some wise life coaches suggest taking a little focused question about your book, like the one above, to bed and reading it immediately before you go to sleep so that you drift off with it on the mental To Do list. The idea is that it then goes into the brain’s night processing schedule and you wake up with an answer waiting. I’ve tried this and it works, but in a hilarious subconscious-mind-having-a-laugh sort of way. Nobody says the answers will be sensible, but they might be…stimulating!
5 Harness the tech.
Gadgets might help with KITNO. One author I know emails her manuscript to her Kindle and carries it at all times. She can read it, but she can’t edit or be diverted by tinkering with details. Others use dictation apps or voice recorders to mull things over out loud. I love a gadget, but it wouldn’t work for me. I use the writing coach’s best ever advice…
6 …Storyboarding
With no time to write, it’s often oddly possible to draw. Not proper drawings, of course, I mean the scribbly kind you could never show, but which sidestep the part of the brain that slams on the creative brakes sometimes. Ten minutes doodling in my tiny storyboard Moleskine always, always helps. It easily fits in a pocket or briefcase and it has the sober look of something that might be Proper Work, so if you need to look busy in your workplace, you might get away with scribbling in it when you should be doing what they’re paying you for (I imagine).P1050210-0
7 ​The 5 minute rule (an extension of #1 above, useful in situations of extreme writing-time poverty)
Even when you can’t find any time at all to write in, you can still give yourself 5 minutes here and there to think about a particular character or plot line. Then, when you go back to your non-writing work, your brain will continue to ponder your writing question and when you least expect it, leaning over the frozen veg in the supermarket, or sitting in a budget control meeting, a solution will pop up. The trick then is to get the bare bones of it down (smart phones are a great way of doing this) but truthfully, the really good stuff needs little recording because it’s so good, you can’t forget it.
8 Work out your minimum writing needs and how to get them
Work out what you need to write well. It will be different for all of us. If you can only write on a clear surface, make sure you either keep your desk tidy, or have a clear surface somewhere else. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes of your precious writing time tidying your desk. (20 minutes? Who am I kidding? A couple of days would be be more like it in my case!) I use alternate surfaces. I have used an ironing board before now – it works!
If you need certain music, have it ready in a playlist; if you need a particular brand of coffee, get some in!
Set the bar low. I’d quite like a daybed overlooking the beach on a Caribbean island too, but I’ll settle for any old corner, as long as I have a working keyboard and can’t see any other paperwork or bills.
9 Don’t forget to feed the outer woman or man
Your minimum writing requirements probably extend to food. So it’s good to plan your writing-time food stocks too. At certain points in the writing process it’s very easy to scoff any food that can’t actually walk away, and the main craving seems to be for sugar and transfats. If you want to live long enough to publish a nice, fat Complete Works in several decades’ time, it’s probably better to stock the freezer with home-cooked healthy dinners and/or beg/bribe someone to cook your meals for you. Eat and drink after the writing, unless you really are Ernest Hemingway.
Once everything’s in place, you know you can just sit and write, write, write!
Oh, and 10 Remember, it’s meant to be enjoyable!
Writing is hard work, but it’s Elective Hard Work and that should be very satisfying indeed, if not actual fun. No-one is holding a gun to your head. If it’s not, in the end, rewarding, do something else!


The thrill of readers & handwritten reviews

One of the pleasures of this odd book-writing habit is being contacted by readers who go to the trouble of seeking you out and telling you what they thought. They send comments and reviews, they share news, they ask how the sequel is coming on. It is really a delight to have a sense of real, live readers out there, going about their lives and genuinely enjoying what you have written. I write comedy, so I have the lovely thought that I might cheer them up and give them a little laugh here and there as well.

It’s a strange transition when your characters move from your imagination to someone else’s. People you haven’t met before can talk about one of your characters as if they knew them. The first few times it happens you think – how do you know? – and have to remind yourself, oh yes, I wrote it down, other people know about Sister B, or Alphonsus Dunn, or whoever it happened to be. It’s like someone else talking about your secret invisible friend.

Then there are the special category readers. I was ridiculously pleased when someone who had been a nun wrote to say that she had loved the book (it’s about a little convent trying to survive against the odds) and was going to send it to her friends the Carmelites, who would identify with the characters’ struggles. And there is another lovely reader who knows Peru and another who buys ten copies at a time and sends them all over the world.

Writers complain sometimes about how isolating writing can be. I have a sociable day job and solitude for writing is a luxury, so that doesn’t worry me, but it’s a tremendous bonus to have the sense of a patient and receptive audience gently waiting.


I’m including below a couple of hand-written reviews that were sent by readers who don’t usually write them, and aren’t users of Amazon or Goodreads, but who wanted me to know what they thought. I’m very grateful to them for taking the trouble. (I edited a bit. They’re long and thoughtful, but I didn’t change the gist.)

…To me, yes, unputdownable. The epistolary form, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ of my schooldays, led me on, and temptingly on, to read one more letter, or chapter, and one more…
I congratulate Fran Smith on this, on its originality and delightfulness as we meet Sister Boniface and touch finger-tips with the much-travelled and adventurous Emelda. When I came, speedily but reluctantly, to the last page, I felt that the tale couldn’t end there. Hurry up, Fran, with Volume Two. Don’t disappoint the millions* of us out here.
And Jennie Rawlings – I just loved the cover.

I loved it – delightfully light touch. Elegant prose. Brought a smile. Beautifully wrought characters.

…liked how it was written – quaint, naive, commonsense; dealt with realistic current situations; well put together. Congratulations on the cover, it just catches the spirit.

* (I love the dear reader’s optimism here!)

Granny writes WHOPPING plots

Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.

I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.

George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.

My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.

Wish me luck!

PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.

*NB For the purposes of this blog you are a Granny. Everyone is. We practice extreme inclusivity. If you don’t like the title, you can be a Refusenik (RK for short), and you are welcome too.IMG_0949.JPG

It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…

Flash Fiction: Pollinators*


The discharge payment and the compensation meant she could afford to buy a place, a tiny city apartment or a small suburban house. She made herself visit a few, standing in empty rooms, trying to look interested as sharply-dressed salespeople enthused over the view or the closet space. So many dead; it was hard to care. ‘Depression,’ said her sister-in-law, ‘post-traumatic stress’, as if a label from somewhere on the internet could somehow contain the whole thing.

Then one day driving the hills she saw a For Sale sign and for no good reason turned off and investigated. A small house, needing a few repairs, in a big empty garden.They told her it was an acre.

When, a few weeks later, the truck drove away and left her alone with her few bits of furniture, she sat in the garden as the light faded and listened. Country silence; here and there an owl or the rustle of a tiny creature in the grass, the creak of a tree in the surrounding woodland, but in between something she gradually realised was the gentle, neutral silence of peace. Six months out of a war zone, it felt like a miracle. She still woke at night hearing shouts and missiles, but less often as time went by.

City-raised, she knew nothing at all about gardening, but her instinct was to let the land alone. Mostly it was just grass, bumpy for lack of mowing, but over on one side was an apple tree, the grass around it dotted with fallen fruit. The apples were large and pale, almost square. When she cooked them, they turned instantly to a delicate mush. The tree had a gash, a fallen branch had left a jagged split in the bark of the trunk. This began to worry her. Should she intervene? Cut it away? Paint it with something?

In the window of the hardware store where she bought her paint she saw a poster for an Apple Day. Bring your apples for identification. It was at a specialist tree nursery, Runcie’s. Who knew there were specialist tree nurseries? So she went, with her pockets full of the pale apples. There in a marquee filled with their sweet scent, she found old Benjamin Runcie standing behind a table covered in neat rows of apples, each different, each labelled. Mr Runcie liked apples a lot more than he liked people. The Apple Day was not his idea, but he had to admit it brought the customers in. They came from all over. He took her apple and adjusting his glasses, inspected it, turning it over in his hand. ‘Lord Lambourne,’ he said, eventually. ‘Good for sauce. Won’t store, though.’
‘The tree’s split. A branch came off. What should I do?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her, he was still examining the apple, taking his time.
‘They can look after themselves. Just tidy it up. They fruit best if there’s another apple nearby. If you have the space, that is.’
‘I have space, but how can I choose which variety?’ There were hundreds spread out there in front of them.
‘A Melrose or a Jewett Red. It doesn’t much matter, it’s for pollination.’ He looked at her for the first time. ‘We can deliver, if you want to order. Are you from round here?’
‘Kelsey,’ she said, ‘over beyond the river. I just bought a place over there.’
He focused on her properly now. This was home territory. ‘That wouldn’t be the old Hovey place, north of town?’
‘How’d you know?’
‘Not many places sold round here lately. I heard it was a veteran bought that place. Military man, invalided out.’
‘Well, that was half right. I just left the service myself.’
He looked at her steadily, then handed back her apple. ‘I believe we have a lot to thank you for,’ he said.
He came round the table, leaving a line of people to wonder who would identify their apples, and gestured to her, leading her from the tent out into the long lines of saplings of all sizes. He picked two pollinators, and handed them to her in their pots. ‘A housewarming,’ he said. ‘Just be sure to give them some water at first. They’ll be OK.’

They were skinny little things with just a few leaves. She planted them, by digging holes and stamping them in, apologising to them silently for not knowing any better. They grew anyway.

That was the beginning of the orchard. Whenever she passed Runcie’s she stopped in and bought another tree. By the time the nephew came, she already had fourteen of them, and more apples than she knew what do with.

The nephew was a bit of a revelation. He’d been a podgy baby and a whiney six-year-old. She wasn’t bad about birthday cards and so on, but they didn’t know each other. At seventeen the boy was tall and skinny. He arrived carrying a huge rucksack which mostly contained books: cookery books, on inspection.
‘Cookery books?’
‘I love to cook,’ he said, shrugging. ‘They want me to be a lawyer.’ They sat side by side outside her back door, drinking coffee. ‘I have a really good applecake recipe,’ he said.
‘Did you run away?’ she asked him. ‘Tell me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just a time out. They know where I am.’
‘And they agreed?’
‘They didn’t try to stop me, put it that way. Besides, they wanted a report on you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said.
‘They worry, I guess.’ He looked out in the darkness. ‘I thought, with all the apples and everything, you might need some help. I can cook with the apples. We might even sell some stuff. We could just try it for a few weeks. What do you say?’
She said yes.
* big debate in GWB household: pollinators or pollenators – Cambridge academic says ‘en’ – retro-educated hack writer says ‘in’ – take your pick!

This was written as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges: use the names of three apple varieties in a story of less than 1000 words.

21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors

My favourite is number 8.

Thought Catalog

A lot of people think they can write or paint or draw or sing or make movies or what-have-you, but having an artistic temperament doth not make one an artist.

Even the great writers of our time have tried and failed and failed some more. Vladimir Nabokov received a harsh rejection letter from Knopf upon submitting Lolita, which would later go on to sell fifty million copies. Sylvia Plath’s first rejection letter for The Bell Jar read, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Gertrude Stein received a cruel rejection letter that mocked her style. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way earned him a sprawling rejection letter regarding the reasons he should simply give up writing all together. Tim Burton’s first illustrated book, The Giant Zlig, got the thumbs down from Walt Disney Productions, and even Jack Kerouac’s perennial On the Road received a particularly blunt…

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Content marketing for Grannies (don’t worry this won’t hurt a bit).

Good morning from the shed. I recommend a shed.

Dear GWB-ers,
Many writers of all ages are aghast at the idea that not only do we have write a book, we also have to use social media to promote and sell it. Just when we thought we could sit down with a nice cup of tea, a biscuit, and possibly even the tiniest bit of self-congratulation, there turns out to be a whole new world to be conquered. And it’s a new world full of jargon, conventions and more tricky etiquette than the court of Louis XIV.

But I bring comfort. I have looked into this a little, and although you won’t hear many people say this, content marketing – it seems this is the term for using social media to promote your book/play/range of fetching teatowels – is a doddle, once you get the hang of it. (I’m not saying I have got the hang of it yet, but I’m doing what I recommend to all, I’m having a go.)

There is a natural progress that anyone born around the middle of the last century has to go through in order to see what I mean. It goes:
1 Ridicule and wry scepticism: What on earth do people want to do a thing like that for? Who cares what sort of coffee you like, or whether you are visiting an Inca monument or stuck on the 7.12 between Holburn and King’s Cross?
2 Grudging curiosity: You get a following of 50,000 people when all you seem to do is tweet pictures of your kittens, or your legs looking a bit like hot dogs? Why?
3 Outright cynicism: there will always be idiots in this world with nothing better to do than re-tweet pictures of people whose underwear misbehaves at a crucial moment; I am not one of them!
5 Defeatism: even if I fancied having a go, it’s all too techie and I could never get the hang of it.
6 Blundering into the deep end of technology: I have just spend three hours reading about search engine optimisation; I still don’t know what any of it means, but I’m pretty sure it means I’m not up to any of this.
7 Secretive experimentation: actually, I did tweet a picture of my newly-invented marrow and salmon lasagne last night, but my followers are mostly in Richmond, Ohio or New Delhi, so if I did it wrong, they’re not very likely to accost me in the queue in the Post Office.
8 Overt adoption blending into bossy evangelism: Oh come on, Celia, anyone can tweet their blog posts!

I’m closer to 8 now, thanks to a real, live, Californian e-marketing expert called Michael Newman. His blog is here, if you want a look. What Michael explained, in the consultation I shared with other authors, was this: if you can write, you are head and shoulders above the other poor saps who are trying to market their stuff on the internet. If you can write, you can put together a blog post, a tweet or a Facebook post, whichever you fancy, and it will have a decent chance of sounding right and attracting the right readers. If you can’t write for toffee, you’re going to find this lots harder.

His other tip was this: do what you feel like doing on the social media scene. Maybe you like Facebook, or hate Instagram or fancy a go at blogging. Try them all, but stick to what feels best for you and set to work properly on that. Experiment; take your time. You should aim to create an online presence (a platform, in the jargon) which truly represents you, your book and your take on things. It should do this so well that you like it, you are at home with it, it’s fun to add to it and you like the views of the people who share it. The best social media posts reflect one person’s view. They may be aiming to sell you something, but they’re entertaining or informing you at the same time, which feels like a fair deal.

“If it feels like selling, you’re not doing it right!” (Nick Cook, author of Cloud Riders, who has a big Twitter following)

Social media, I think, is difficult for generations who were brought up on the “Sunday best” philosophy. You had china and clothes and shoes that were only for best and when company was coming round, you were on your best behaviour. Quirkiness was not really encouraged. In social media it is. Forget your best behaviour; keep up your standards (check your spelling, keep an eye on that grammar, choose photos that look good), but it doesn’t have to be slick or over-professional, it just has to be interesting and in some way genuine. It shouldn’t feel like being inspected in your Sunday best; it should feel like playing with your friends.

Keep on writing!


Next time: How to get help (free help, obviously).


Flash Fiction Entry

I admire the blog called Terrible Minds by Chuck Wendig. His advice for writers is pithy, brilliant and rude (really rude – watch out if you don’t like a swearword). This is my entry for one of his flash fiction competitions, written when I should have been doing other things…The challenge was to include one of the following randomly generated sentences: “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.” “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” and “The criminal disappears after the inventor.” Extra points for using all three.

Summarize this passage in English.

She’s tried everything. Everything. Bribery is no good – all she can offer is an early end to the class, something forbidden by the course director stalking the corridors in silenced footwear. Threats make no impact – they just groan, or don’t understand, or care. Actually taking the damned things out of their hands, which she has resorted to once or twice, results in such a massive collective strop that any sort of co-operation is snuffed out, leaving a roomful of gorgon-glaring teenagers frozen in only-just-contained fury. In revenge they tick the frowny face on the end-of-course feedback form; very bad news to a teacher hoping to keep her job.

The day they market the mobile phone that can be embedded into the body is the day these young people present themselves at the implant clinic. Until then their beloved iPhones must always, always be within reach. Suck it up, Teach (or its equivalent in Mandarin).

It wouldn’t be so bad if the translation software were anything like decent. It’s not. It’s crap. But it’s still a million times easier, in your English lesson, if you’re Chinese and a teenager and you have spent sixteen of the previous 24 hours playing World of Warfare, or whatever, to pick it up, punch in the first Chinese word that comes into your head and write down whatever garbled rubbish the translator offers you.

Factor in misreadings and typing mistakes and you end up with a sentence on climate change in Scotland rendered as “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”

They are not just wrong, they are extreme wrong, don’t-know-where-to-start wrong, why-do-we-even-bother wrong, but sometimes, she had to admit, they are oddly haunting: “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” Now and then they even sound like the beginning of a short story,“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”

The teacher sighs and looks out of the window. The instructress respires and defenestrates.