blog, writing process

Remove crutch words to make your prose stronger

muscles-lineart_OpenClipart-Vectors
OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay

When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.

When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.

Filler words in speech

• Well
• So
• Actually
• Honestly
• Really
• Definitely
• Anyway

In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.

A word frequency counter like this one  identifies which words appear most often in your writing. Try it with a piece of your writing from one or two years ago.

You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.

Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.

Overused words

• Certainly
• Probably
• Basically
• Virtually
• Slightly
• Rather
• Quite
• Very
• A bit
• Almost
• Just
• As though
• Somehow
• Seems/seemed
• Shrugged
• Smiled
• Laughed
• Looked
• Started to
• Began to

Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.

  • But
  • And

You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.

On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”

blog, writing process

Choosing the best

vegetable market_raggio5
raggio5 via pixabay

 

How do you choose a picture for a blog post?

We live in an age of abundance. We expect a wide range of choices in all areas of our lives, whether choosing a tomato or a house or a college course. But who has not stood in front of a supermarket shelf, tired and hungry, overwhelmed by the range of choices presented?

The ability to choose is finite, no matter the size of the choice. Following the example of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, we can cut down the number to make each day by wearing the same clothes, for example. This leaves more brainpower to spend on the hustle that is your real focus.

More is not always better

Researchers have shown that too many choices can lead to less satisfaction. They divided people into maximizers – who need to investigate all possible choices, or as many as possible
and satisficers – who make a choice that best fits their needs, then stop looking.

These two styles are incompatible when shopping. The maximizer always wants to try one more store because the perfect item is out there. The satisficer has a definite idea in mind, but will buy an item that comes close to their ideal. Perhaps you can recall a shopping trip where you are one type and your companion is the other. It can be a miserable experience.

Maximizers also tend to rely on external sources of validation. Their car meets their needs but it must also be validated by a car comparison website. In an age of internet searches and five star ratings, it has never been easier to search endlessly for the perfect deal.

Come off the fence

Finding a suitable photo for a blog post is vital. The choice on sites such as Pixabay and Unsplash is truly mind-boggling. But time is short.

The trick is to set parameters for your search, especially if you tend to be a maximizer.

  • search key words such as couple or beach
  • consider narrowing the colour choices
  • decide on a number of pages to search; these do not have to be sequential
  • go with your gut feeling; the right image may be on page one
  • have a time limit

The filters above applied to Pixabay results in 379 images spread over four pages. Searching more sites simply takes time that is better spent writing.

Not set in stone

Learning to choose effectively is a key time management skill. For writers that might be a name, a picture, or a title. In fact most of these choices are not final, yet they can derail a writing session. Pick something and move on. Don’t let maximizing hide your procrastination. Remember done is better than perfect.

 

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

The character talks back

but what if they don’t?

sculpture-couple_LisaRedfern
LisaRedfern via pixabay

Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.

You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.

Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 09.37.51
Louise Foerster via Medium

My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help.
“It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”

The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.

I was stuck.

Interview with the Bad Guy

Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”

He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.

I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.

“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.

Let the character speak

When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.

Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This is a way to coax it out of hiding.

There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters.
Hannah Kent

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Finding themes in your writing

and using them to drive creativity

shells-sand_pasja1000
pasja1000 via pixabay

I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.

It all started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read a short story of mine and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed two stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and just completed a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my IRL poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.

Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?

Theme in writing

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

Conversely, a story without a theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ And a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Discovering your values

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like

  • what makes me happy
  • is my life the result of luck or choice
  • what is the strongest emotion
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful
  • are rules made to be broken

Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Using theme to your advantage

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular destination, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the sea again

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

New directions

I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
Gail Sheehy

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Let theme inspire you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How important is setting in fiction?

does the sofa colour matter?

bedrck via pixabay

Every story needs a setting — but how much?

One of the first things we need to know on starting a story is its setting. As well as establishing protagonist and stakes, the place where events happen must be known. A story without a clear setting floats around and is difficult to enter fully. If your reader scratches her head and asks herself “where are they again?” she steps outside the fictive dream. You’ve lost her.

The main elements of setting

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Mood/atmosphere
  4. Climate and geography
  5. Politics/culture
  6. History

The amount of detail needed varies. A contemporary short story may establish setting with a few words, especially if it is familiar to the reader. A novel needs more, particularly for historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The reader needs more depth to ground themselves in a world distanced by time or imagination.

Setting can be a character in itself. Consider the bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Aliette de Bodard’s ancient, sinister Paris devastated by magic wars in The House of Shattered Wings; or the drowned Southern States of Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. In all these books place is not only evoked, it acts on the characters and forces them to make choices.

How much is too much?

SFF is my favourite genre to read and write. No doubt I will be accused of poor worldbuilding, but I fall into the camp of less is more. (Maybe it’s my poet’s ear, seeking economy of expression and spaces for interpretation.)

Talking to another writer recently, I was vocal in my dislike of huge prologues, maps on both endpapers, long lists of characters and noble houses and relationships…yawn. Just give me the story already.

She, however, loves all the details. And so do many other readers. They enjoy minute descriptions of magic systems, exactly imagined terrain, and a catalogue of interior furnishings.

Historical fiction relies on accurately depicting a lost time. Research is essential but on the page, in a long description of how a nineteenth century cotton mill works, it screams info dump.

Unless it’s relevant to the moment, leave it in backstory. Just as we don’t need to flesh out soldier number 6 who doesn’t speak, we don’t need to describe goblets and gizmos in detail. If setting is in the background, let’s leave it there. We can fill in using imagination, if we want.

Setting is important 

but in the end only two things matter:
what the characters are doing
and
what happened next.

Minimalist or maximalist; which camp do you fall in?

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What can you blog about every day?

You’ll need a plan

May18 blog challenge notes
my scrappy plan for blogging in May

In May 2018 I published every day on Medium (and my personal blog 2squarewriting.) I blogged about the results here.

Then Courtney Corboy reached out to ask, how did I choose what to write about? That sparked this post.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
D. Eisenhower

You must have a plan

As the picture shows, the plan did not survive intact, but I won the battle. That’s the only thing that matters. What to write depends on what kind of writer you are, and what you hope to achieve. When I did the same challenge last year, I had less time and energy. Simply finishing was the aim. This year I wanted to test out different content, and see how publishing in publications changed the results. I was confident I could finish, because I’d done it before.

Bullet journals and spreadsheets are great, but they don’t work for me. And that’s okay. Messy can work too.

You may have a theme that informs your posts, for example self development or parenting or living with an illness. You can find a niche within these umbrellas; single parenting, self development for retirees, or life with anxiety. Even so, you might run out of steam. The trick here is to write what interests you, seen through the lens of your theme. How does a single parent navigate dating? What does the latest political event mean for a person with anxiety?

Seen through your eyes

Everything has been said, over and over. There is no such thing as originality. But it hasn’t been said by you, with your unique experience and perspective.Especially when first blogging, there’s a lot to be said for using other writing as your springboard.

You can only find your voice by using it, and imitation is a great start. Even Picasso began by copying the great masters such as Rafael. The more you write, the better your skills. Let your personality come through. By sharing we create connection. What we are comfortable to share will vary by subject and individual. Readers want and appreciate honesty.

Catch your ideas before they escape

Whenever you have a question or an idea, capture it. You won’t remember it in five minutes or a day’s time. Notebooks are great, and lots of writers love their physical notebook and pen. The notes function on your phone is practical, and more importantly, usually at hand. Even if it’s just a title, grab it. One day when you’re out of ideas, you can look at notes and a few words can spark a whole piece.

But — what do you actually write about?

Ah yes, the original question. Anything at all. I please myself. I don’t have a huge following to service, and I want to gather people who like what I write. I write fiction and poetry, and I write about writing, and about life in general, sometimes as it pertains to writing.

But what I write is not just about me once I hit publish. So it must fill a need for someone else; inform, entertain, or problem solve. (Fiction can do all three, but that’s a post for another time.)

See what’s trending on Medium or Quora, and write your own take on it.

Look at the blogs of writers you admire, and see how they address their niche. Notice how their personalities come through, how much personal stuff they share. Think about where you’d like to be on the open — closed spectrum.

Keep your eyes open when you’re away from the screen. Turn the irritation of sitting in traffic into your thoughts on public transport, or electric cars, or how hard it is to meditate in real life.

Challenge yourself to come up with ideas every day. It gets easier with practice, like every skill.

It does not have to be big. Haikus are just seventeen syllables long, and usually fewer words. In this case the image I choose is very important, and must convey more than the words while complementing them.

My non fiction pieces are often short, from three hundred to a thousand words. I edit ruthlessly. That’s another skill I’ve improved upon.

You can re-use old content. Rewrite if needed, update facts, and you’re good to go. And edit!

picjumbo_com via pixabay

The nitty-gritty

  • Gather your ideas together, at least 5–10 to prime the pump.
  • Decide if you will have themes for days or weeks. I found this helpful, in my case poetry on weekends and short stories etc. on weekdays.
  • Write out the days and dates in a list or chart, digital or analogue, whatever suits. If a month is too much, try two weeks.
  • Pencil in the pieces you already have, scattered through the time period.
  • Consider what you need to write to fill the gaps.
  • Write something every day. Start drafts even if you can’t immediately finish. As little as 150 words daily adds up, and that has worked for me.
  • Spend a few minutes thinking up new ideas. Write everything down without censoring.
  • Try to be at least a couple of days ahead. This might mean writing more when you have more time. A buffer is a wondrous thing.
  • But if you miss a day, don’t sweat it. It’s not life or death. Begin again the next day, catch up if you can.
  • Write it, edit, let it go. Done is better than perfect.
  • Concentrate on your goal and don’t worry (too much) about claps. You can only control what you do, not how it is received.
  • When someone takes the time to comment, respond. This is what we all want; for our words to reach someone. Start a conversation and reciprocateGive what you hope to get.
  • Creativity is a remix. Ideas come from living, reading, and often from connecting with others, just like this piece. You just have to notice them.
  • Write as though no-one will read it. In the beginning, that’s true for all of us. By the time they’re listening, you’ll have honed your craft and your voice. You’ll have something to say.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Maya Angelou

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Where do you write?

anywhere, or one specific somewhere?

boy writing on a rock_StockSnap
StockSnap via pixabay

Where do you like to do your writing?

Images of beautifully curated writing spaces fill Pinterest and mock less organised writers at the top of equally beautiful articles. White walls enhance carefully chosen artefacts on the table, and there is always coffee with artistic foam.

JK Rowling started Harry Potter’s journey at The Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac met at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. Maya Angelou rented a room in a local hotel by the month. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw had sheds in their gardens.

A piece by Holly Isard in AnOther magazine delved into the many idiosyncratic places chosen by writers old and new.

The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in the most fruitful manner.
Robert Creeley

Creating a ritual

A space to write can form an essential part of the ritual of writing. The mind and body is primed for the coming activity, and overcomes the inertia of getting started. This is particularly important to evade writer’s block. Like a sports or crafts person, we need to show up and do the work. By having designated space and a list of things to follow, you can avoid the empty brain syndrome of not knowing what to do next.

However, one size does not fit all. Some like music, others, white noise, others natural sounds. Some must have silence, and others like activity around them while their peers shudder at the thought and close the door.

Routine is a prison

Most of us have busy lives. In order to write every day, or capture inspiration when it strikes, we must be able to write in different places. Life is rarely ideal for more than a moment, especially if writing is something you squeeze into a packed schedule rather than your sole activity.

Knowing your ideal writing space is one thing. Learning to block out the non-ideal will free you to write elsewhere. Before my last holiday I would have said it was too hot, too distracting and uncomfortable to write at the beach. In fact, writing by hand in a small notebook and observing people was a revelation. Dialogue fragments, poem ideas, and simple journaling poured on to the pages. The background sounds of the sea are very soothing for me, which helped.

Play on

Music can be the best companion, or the worst. I find lyrics distracting, as they compete against the words I’m trying to find. Instrumental music is good, especially familiar pieces that fade into the background. You can find lots of playlists on 8tracks designed for study or writing. There is a free option with ads, or you can pay a monthly fee to avoid ads and make your own playlists.

I tried a nature noise generator and found that rain is soothing but thunder distracts me. There are over one hundred and fifty noise generators available at myNoise.net. They are grouped by activity or need, such as focus, to mask tinnitus or external noise, or for relaxation and sleep. Each soundscape has several elements that can be customised to create your perfect mix.

Not only helping you to work better, the soundscapes can also keep you company while working alone.

woman sitting on concrete pillar
Photo by Sachin A on Pexels.com

Making anywhere your best place to write

Creating a ritual and finding a dedicated space is helpful to a solid writing habit. Being able to change things up, whether that means learning to write with noise or creating your own soundscape to block it out, will broaden your options. Routine should be your servant and not your master.

In the end, it is about creating different options for the situations you find yourself in. Then you will not be reliant on your lucky mug or favourite pen. When the idea strikes, you will be ready.

blog, writing process

31 day writing challenge – the results

close up photo of may graphing paper
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

In May 2018 I took part in the Ninja Writers challenge to post every day. I wrote about what I hoped to achieve from the daily challenge here. My stated aims were

Consistency
Community
Confidence

So how did it work out?

Consistency

I posted every day, using a mixture of some old posts remastered, new posts, and serialised fiction. The remastered posts were interesting to revisit. They showed that my blogging has improved: tighter writing, using pull quotes and bold text so readers can skim quickly. I can edit faster than two years ago.

I saw that some content is evergreen. Even two years later it is still relevant, as long as it is updated where needed.

Community

The Ninja Writers daily post group on Facebook had a new lease of life, with new members and more prepared to post links. This had dwindled to nothing. Occasionally I would be the only person to post in the thread, which was not encouraging. I read more, being sure to check out writers new to me in the thread, clapping and commenting. We all love acknowledgment; I made it a point to give more. And my own FB group were wonderful cheerleaders.

Confidence

This is how my stats looked for April 2018. I posted four times (one each Friday) and had 263 followers. Views varied between 2 and 122 per day.

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 23.08.13

And this is how they looked for May 2018. I posted 31 times and had 310 followers, a net gain of 47 (gained 51 and lost 4.) Views varied between 23 and 110 per day.

Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 23.07.55

Views                         +150%
Reads                         +145%
Fans                            +150%
Followers                   +18%
Number of posts       +775%

I increased visibility, partly from having more content published by publications such as The Creative Cafe, PS I love you, and The Writing Cooperative. All have large readerships.

I increased interaction by replying to or clapping on all my comments. This has led to conversations with like minded writers, and we check out each other’s work. It builds a fanbase.

I increased followers by 51, 165% of my target. And lost four along the way. But I didn’t win big with anything.

Conclusion

I met my goals, but

  • It was arduous, even with a plan and reusing old content.
  • The almost eight-fold work increase was not matched by the other metrics.
  • Short fiction was hardly read even when serialised, which was discouraging as I think this is my best work.
  • Having posted 10 new and 1 old poem, I can also call myself a poet, maybe.
  • I can’t keep up my quality and post daily.
  • I managed to let a piece go that I didn’t think was great, which was new and terrifying. On the other hand I’ve posted good pieces with less engagement.
  • I’m much better at seeing ideas for blog posts in everyday life.

The sweet spot probably lies around 2-4 posts weekly for me. I’ll try that from June onwards and hope to build on the momentum I’ve picked up. I’m still gaining followers, a few at a time.

When people post about this experiment, the numbers are always fabulously large. I guess for most of us the reality is more modest. We keep slogging away, and maybe the next post is the one that goes viral.

blog, writing process

Given but not taken

Why do we find it so hard to accept compliments?

 

daisy-gift_GLady
GLady via pixabay

Last night in my writing group, we critiqued each other’s work as usual. One piece sparkled with wonderful dialogue. It is one of the writer’s signature strengths, and I told her so. Her smile faltered and I could see her thinking no, that’s not me.

But, it really is.

Writers bemoan the lack of decent feedback. If the feedback is negative, we are wounded more or less deeply, but we hear it. If it is positive however, we tend to discount it. This is like turning your back on a gift. Worse still is when we immediately deny the truth of the compliment. This is like slapping the gift to the ground and stamping on it.

Who has not felt disappointed after giving a compliment that was rejected?

The Johari Window

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.33.49

(from toolshero.com )

The Johari window model was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 at UCLA. Designed as a tool for self awareness and analysing group dynamics, it is, like any good theory, applicable to many activities. (you can find more information here )

If we want to improve, we need to hear what others know about us that we don’t know about ourselves. Thus we seek feedback and act on it, to reduce the blind spot.

It’s like having someone tell me what the back of my head looks like.

Denial is a common response when faced with conflict between how we see the world and how the world sees us. When we internalise the observations of others (given in good faith) and adjust our behaviour accordingly, we move forward with greater self awareness. Our blind spot is smaller.

We are hardwired to notice threats in our environment, a legacy of the lizard brain that reacts quicker than thought to keep us safe. Hidden behind polite self-deprecation is fear.

Oh sh*t they’ve seen through me and now they know I’m an impostor. They want something, they don’t mean it, they’re trying to trick me.

Receive with grace

But, we’re better than our lizard brain and we can engage our big, beautiful cortex. You know, the bit of your brain that does the actual writing. We can feel the fear and defeat it.

Think of a compliment as a gift. Be polite, smile and say thank you like you were taught. The more you practise, the easier this becomes.

Doesn’t matter if you like it or not, that comes later. Give your cortex time to catch up to the instinctual response.

When you unwrap it later, in private, you might see that you’ve been given something precious after all.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Time, lost and found

how to find time for anything you want to do

blue anemone flower by Albenheim via pixabay
Albenheim via pixabay

 

How many people say “I wish I had time to write/paint/play sport” but do nothing about it?

How many people have said to me “I don’t know how you find the time to write as well as work?”

Quite a few over the years, is the answer. I’ve said it myself. What I am really saying is, I refuse to organise my life so that I can do the thing. I’m making excuses.

Time is precious, finite. It cannot be manufactured, but it can definitely be wasted. It is like holding sand in your fist, not noticing it slipping between your fingers but bemoaning the slow reduction in the pile. With a little effort you could find a way to contain it, as far as anyone can.

Everyone has the same 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8760 hours a year. Achieving something worthwhile, something that’s important to you, means making the best use of those hours. Whatever you want to do, whether it’s write a novel or train for a marathon, can only be done in small chunks. John Grisham wrote his hugely successful legal thriller The Firm in the time between hearings, while pulling the long hours of an attorney.

Write 250 words every day, and by the year’s end you’ll have 91,250 words. That’s a novel’s worth.

We underestimate the power of steady effort over time. It really does add up.

Free time + wasted time = enough time

Start with a chart

Yes, really. Start with a simple chart showing seven days with a slot for each hour. You can make one with a spreadsheet or find it on the web. Or you could draw your own.

  1. fill in essentials like sleep, work, travel, caring and domestic commitments
  2. add all the extras you currently do like exercise, entertainment, hobbies
  3. see where the gaps are

It’s important to be honest about what you do with your time. If you think all your evenings are full, consider how much time is spent on watching TV. Maybe even consider tracking actual hours watched for a week.

A 2015 survey showed that 31% of UK adults spent 11-20 hours per week watching TV. A further 39% watched more than 20 hours weekly.
The New York Times ran an article in 2016 showing that Americans watched on average five hours of TV daily, and 90% of that was live TV. We have DVRs and catch up TV, but we don’t necessarily use them.

TV is the thief of time

When I decided to start writing seriously again, I cut out mindless TV viewing and channel surfing. It wasn’t hard. There are a few programmes I like to watch, but I don’t follow soaps or serials (apart from NCIS, and even then, repeats are a real thing.) Working days were long and stressful, but I needed writing time. And reading time. And just plain old decompression time. I programmed in my writing time to suit my schedule. And I set the box to record anything I liked, to watch when I had time rather than when it aired. Let’s face it, Saturday night can be a lean time on the box if you don’t enjoy game shows and reality TV.

Listen to the sinking feeling

Did you sigh when you filled in some commitments? If they are optional, consider dropping them. If they are essential, be critical. Can you spend less time visiting a relative you see regularly? Could you listen to an audiobook on your commute? Do you look forward to catching up with that friend, or does she drain you? Pay attention and act. Limit time and energy drains, even if you can’t eliminate them. Your gut knows, even as your brain rationalises.

Night owl or lark?

All of us have circadian rhythms that mean we peak at certain times of the day. For many, that is first thing in the morning. Waking early might gain you the hour you need. But that might not suit you. You work shifts; you have small children who wake at five anyway and you cannot face waking before that; you’re narcoleptic before noon even with a double espresso. Maybe the later hours are your best time. If you can’t sleep, get up and write. It worked for me. I wrote this poem about insomnia during a sleepless, jet-lagged night.

Our time on earth is finite. In a year’s time we won’t remember the soap opera finale or the latest game show winner. But we can have an achievement to celebrate, which makes our lives meaningful. Be mindful with your most precious commodity.

Take control of your time and commit to the things you really want.