Tuesday, July 21, 2015

June 21 2015. Writers have a tendency to be obsessive about their routines (which strikes some people as weird—though not other writers). We’re actually a surprisingly disciplined bunch and our routines are fundamental to our productivity.



More than a few people have the idea that they cannot really write to best advantage unless they are in the right mood. 

Between you, me, and the all-knowing gatepost, that is not the way it works.

Though it is entirely true that some days one tends to produce rather better work than on others—we humans being variable creatures for a whole host of different reasons—the underlying idea, if you are a professional writer, is to be able to write to the highest possible standard which you, the writer, are capable of—regardless of your mood.

The trick is not to wait for the mood in order to be able to write—but to train your mind so that that the very act of writing creates its own mood.

Hold that thought. It’s key.

If that sounds like magic, that is exactly what it is (even if you don’t believe in magic).

But can you train your mind?

Absolutely—and to a greater extent than most of us realize. In fact, we do it all the time when learning new things. One’s mind might seem confused, chaotic, and, apparently un-biddable (trust me—I know) but the reality is that even the most recalcitrant mind can be trained to be orderly, disciplined, and productive—in some areas. Whether one can tame one’s mind to behave across the board is another matter entirely. But, right now I’m not concerned with such a lofty goal. I’m focusing on writing.

You train your mind to write in a number of crucial ways.

  • READING. By reading a very great deal so that you not only learn how others do it, but you absorb these lessons subconsciously so that they become innate. Here, you want to read widely and well—throughout your life. And read outside your preferences and prejudices. The goal is not merely to learn, but be challenged. Go forth and explore. The world of the printed word is truly wondrous—and without end. It is rich in every way that matters—and either free, or very inexpensive to access.
  • OBSERVING. By learning to notice and describe your  surroundings and circumstances as you go about the daily business of living. Life obligingly provides the raw material for writing—but that material only becomes usable when you can transform it into written form. Fortunately, you can do that without actually having to write physically. You just observe and then describe what you see to yourself—and, over time, you will get better and better at it. Practice may not make perfect, but, with luck—and your particular perspective—it will end up being entertaining. All of that is a long way of saying that you need to learn to observe and record. I tend to think of it as ‘writing in my mind.’ But don’t move your lips or write out-loud, or people in white coats will come and lock you up.
  • THINKING. By thinking a great deal. Many of us seem to get through life—to considerable effect, it is only fair to say—by doing little more than focusing on our immediate needs and reacting to our circumstances. It is hard to knock such an approach—but it won’t serve you well if you are a writer. Writing is all about transforming thought into words—so it helps greatly if you have some original thoughts to transform in the first place. So activate your brain, and keep it active in every way possible. That requires effort, experience, intellectual curiosity, human interaction, a keen eye, a receptive and retentive ear—and a great deal of hard work. Writing is hard work personified—and can be totally exhausting—but  we writers keep going, not because we are a bunch of masochists (though sometimes I wonder) but because, once a writer gets the hang of things, all that slog becomes enjoyable hard work—and then, over time, gets better still. Enjoyable work isn’t work—as the term is generally understood. It remains hard, but it is something you want to do.
  • WALKING. You don’t have to walk to write—but it helps greatly. Firstly, your brain works better if you are physically fit—so it is a really good idea to exercise regularly. For all I know exercising in a gym may make you fitter faster—but I always recommend walking because not only is it a fairly effortless way to exercise, but you notice so much more when you walk (and everything you observe and ponder is raw material). In fact, I have made it a policy, where all my books are concerned, to walk the relevant terrain as much as possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t drive, helicopter, fly conventionally, hitch a lift in a tank, travel by rail, observe from a monorail, climb into a saddle, or otherwise get around—but more that once I’m at my chosen location, I primarily like to explore it on foot. All I can say is that it works wonders—and that many of my best experiences and insights have come from being foot-mobile rather than driving. These experiences have included finding a hanging body, getting shot at, being attacked by a group of Arabs armed with knives, sitting on a snake, having guns pointed at me in an unfriendly way, acquiring a girlfriend by walking into Swiss Interpol unheralded—and other happenings of the kind no good thriller-writer should be without.  So hear my call—and walk while you can. Others will carry you soon enough.
  • WRITING. In the final analysis, you learn to write by writing—more than is easy—every day (even if you can’t). The idea here is to so train your muscle memory that the mere sight of a writing implement—typically a keyboard these days—evokes a desire to write. Clearly, it is best to write something which has a modicum of value, but, if you are so desperate you can’t think of anything to write about, then write out your shopping-list, or copy something from a book. True, that may seem a little crazy, but the point is that what you are initially trying to do is to just get used to the physical act of writing—so that it almost becomes a reflex (and eventually a pleasurable one). Sheer boredom will then make you depart from your shopping-list—there is only so much sensual satisfaction to be gained from writing ‘asparagus’ a hundred times—so before long you’ll be into erotic fantasy—and, after a year, you may be ready to tackle the sequel to War & Peace. But, no matter how daunted you may feel at first—as you stare desperately at a blank screen—you should know that the good news is that writing provokes writing, so, if you persevere, the process will get easier—and you will get better (eventually). Allocate a decade or two to this warm-up period. I never said it was either quick or easy.  

One of the most confusing things about writing is that having stressed the value of gaining a wide variety of experiences—and otherwise being inspired to see the world with fresh eyes—we writers, certainly when actually physically writing, tend to prefer to be slaves to routine. We don’t want any new and fascinating experiences for that period. We shut down and focus all our energies on turning thought into words.

You would think that variety and routine would not go together—and they don’t (but they do).

Essentially, I tend to allocate substantial periods of time to do weird and wonderful things during which I gather raw material, balanced out by periods during which I focus on the actual writing itself—and when I like to follow a decidedly rigid routine.

You might think mixing the two might work—if only to relieve the pressure of writing intently day after day, week after week, month after month—but that is decidedly not my preference.

Once my research is done, I like to focus without deviation until a draft is finished. If I could take a pill at the end of every writing day—and then wake up next day refreshed (without the interruptions of normal life) that would be my preference during such times. The pressure to remain in the writing zone is near overwhelming. To step outside it is painful.  Reality is grossly over-rated.

Somehow, routine seems to help the intense focus required to write at one’s very best. In fact ‘help’ may understate the case.

The truth is that I find a routine essential when it comes to actually writing—and I know many other writers feel exactly the same way. It is our bastion against distraction. Within its confines, we feel safe, focused, intellectually energized, and resolute. The work will be done—no matter what!

It’s an extraordinarily intense feeling. Within the context of our writing routines, we are driven individuals. We have a profound sense of purpose and, in essence, our work is its own reward (and it is hard to imagine a better one).

I tend to think of writing as ‘joyous’ which somehow doesn’t quite go with the relentless seriousness of the process, yet certainly does convey my inner feelings. For instance, I find it near impossible to be depressed for any length of time when I’m writing.

Within short minutes of my fingers touching the keyboard, I’m feeling as good as it gets—and I tend to stay that way for as long as I’m working—and to retain the high for a considerable time afterwards. Actually, the feeling is less that of a high than that of the kind of inner peace that comes from accomplishment. Writing is immensely satisfying just in itself. Fame and fortune are fine things—and, of course we would like them—but the process of writing is the real reward.

Different writers have different routines—and I doubt that any one of them is right (except for the individual concerned. In short, I don’t think there is a best writing routine. What counts is what works for you.

ROUTINE. My routine revolves around.

  • A LONG WORKING DAY. Regular to long working hours. I think nothing of working 12 hours or more a day though I don’t spend all of that time doing creative writing. I also do ongoing research, have correspondence to handle—and so on.
  • SOLITUDE. I’m not anti-social, but can survive without much human contact, if I am writing, for weeks, or months, if necessary. In short, I am fairly self-contained and self-reliant, but like nothing more than dinner with friends.
  • PEACE & QUIET. Reasonable quiet. I’m not fanatic about this and can handle background traffic noise and so on. However, I prefer to avoid intrusive noise.
  • NO DISTRACTIONS OR INTERRUPTIONS. Here I include domestic chores, visitors, phone calls or texts—anything which breaks focus. Society, which clearly thinks mankind hasn’t enough to do, likes to fill our time with obligations. Such time-sinks are rarely compatible with writing. A writer’s primary obligation is to write. That is his, or her, purpose in life.
  • NO FOOD OR ALCOHOL UNTIL WRITING DONE. No food or alcohol until I have finished writing. Occasionally, I’ll have a bowl of soup or scrambled-eggs on toast for lunch, but mostly I don’t have anything—and don’t miss it too much while I’m actually writing. That said, such restraint is not easy. 
  • LOTS OF TEA. I drink tea with milk, Irish style, and Stevia (I avoid sugar like the plague) and find that assuages my hunger and keeps me hydrated. I regard cups as entirely inadequate and only use mugs. Sometimes, I switch to green tea, which I like, but it doesn’t have the comfort factor of conventional tea. 
  • FREQUENT MOBILITY. Moving around every 20 minutes or so. The one great physical disadvantage of writing is that it is sedentary—which is innately unhealthy. I’m planning to get some kind of an exercise machine. Writing and exercise go together.
  • WALKING. Walking for about two miles every day—normally in the evening..
  • SURROUNDINGS & TOOLS. Having the surroundings and tools I need to do the job.
  • A CONSISTENT OUTPUT OF ABOUT  2,000 WORDS A DAY. This means that, theoretically, I can write a full draft of a fairly big thriller in four months, or so—or, arguably, two such books a year. It doesn’t quite work out that way because life gets in the way, a book typically goes through multiple drafts, and I tend to take my time re-writing. 2,000 words a day doesn’t sound a lot but it adds up to about three-quarters of a million words a year—scarcely a trivial quantity. 

SURROUNDINGS & LIGHTING. Here, I like to be in a room, alone, with sufficiently thick walls, a door, and windows, to ameliorate external noise. That means I rather like solid doors and double-glazed windows—but I’m not that fussy.

I also don’t need a room with a view. Some writers crave that—and I probably wouldn’t turn down such an option if offered, but mostly I’m quite content with my desk or table facing a blank wall. The reason is that my mind supplies all the view I need. In fact, the real thing can be a distraction.

Since my eyesight is very far from perfect, lighting is very important to me and I devote considerable attention to getting it right. Typically, I like as much daylight as possible during the day—while avoiding glare. That isn’t always as easy as it seems—especially as not everyone (non-writers in particular) understands such subtleties.

Natural lighting apart, I find I get on best with simple desk-lamps with white shades as opposed to lamps that direct their energy to a small area. This has to do with my eyes preferring to avoid too much contrast. But, I try not to be too fanatic about this and just go with the flow in other people’s houses.


  • FLAT SURFACES. I am completely obsessed with flat surfaces and sometimes think that my writing life has been dominated by the search for these.

By ‘flat surfaces,’ I mean table or desk spaces to write on—together with shelf-space for my files and books. Such surfaces are rarer than you would think in this world of ours, and, where other people’s houses are concerned, those that are readily available—and kindly offered—are normally in the form of either the dining-room or kitchen tables—both of which tend to be in high demand for other uses, and are rarely in distraction-free zones.

The world, from this biased writer’s point of view, seems to be alarmingly short of tables—so I find myself subconsciously scanning for flat surfaces at every conceivable opportunity. 

I am reminded of that period of temporary insanity, shortly after I installed a wood-burning stove in my cottage in Ireland—when I couldn’t find burnable wood anywhere (though there were tree plantations all over the place). During that phase, every time I saw wood anywhere—regardless of what it was or who owned it—I  would mentally convert it into wood-stove length logs. Doors, cricket-bats, fine-furniture, beds, blanket-chests, and chairs—all were chopped, stacked, and burned in my imagination.

As it happens, I solved my problem in the classic Irish way in the end—by meeting a man in a pub who knew a man who could provide neatly chopped wood in exchange for modest money—providing I didn’t ask where the wood came from. The network that is the Irish pub system predates the internet—and is at least as efficient in its own idiosyncratic way.

As it happens, I wrote my first book on my deceased father-in-law’s sturdy kitchen table with an extra flat surface being provided by an unfinished coffin lid. This was in my thatched cottage in Ireland—where space was decidedly limited—and both served well.

You don’t, of course, need a great deal of space to actually write on if you are using a computer alone—or even a quill pen—but my writing routine involves rather more complexity than that, and consequently demands considerable flat real estate at a workable height. Recently, I had occasion to operate my computer while sitting on a conventional dining chair with the computer propped up on my bed—and God alone knows what damage I did to my limbs. The expression ‘workable height’ needs to be taken seriously.

My writing gear includes computers, a second monitor, a laser printer, two different kinds of label printer, a USB hub, two desk lamps, pen pots, a stapler, a two-hole punch, books, reference materials, ring-binders, innumerable files—and a radio.

Where would the world be without the BBC—or NPR in the U.S.! I don’t play the radio while I am working—focus means just that—but it is my companion and invaluable information source at other times 

Some writers get great satisfaction from working from an antique desk, or owning some table of particular significance or value. I felt much that way at one stage in my life. Now, I am entirely focused on the utility of my furniture and nothing more. As far as I am concerned, a folding plastic table is fine with me. What matters is not the table, but what I do on it—which is to write. I have become somewhat minimalist in relation to physical possessions as I have aged. Functionality is all. I haven’t lost my aesthetic sense—but I favor stuff that works.

  • CHAIR. If you spend as much time as I do sitting in a chair, then the comfort of that chair becomes decidedly important. For most of my writing life, I have enjoyed the ease of reasonably comfortable swivel chairs, but more recently—since I have not been at home—I have been making do with upright, straight-backed dining chairs. My bruised bottom apart—these things are lamentably short on padding—I have survived much better than I would have expected. Does this mean I don’t need a swivel chair? I don’t really know as yet—but I have come to the view that how you sit (your posture) is really important. It is also clear that even if we writers are discouraged from using long words—in the interests of clarity—we are wise if we know something about ergonomics

ERGONOMICS. 1. : an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely —called also biotechnology, human engineering, human factors.

  • LAPTOP COMPUTERS x 2 + MONITOR. I like to work with a laptop and a second monitor. Typically I keep my reference material on the second monitor—which is to my left—and write on the laptop. I value screen space and am giving serious consideration to adding a third screen.
  • LASER PRINTER. I like to print for a number of reasons. It is gratifying to see my own work printed out—there is something tangible to read and hold. I find it easier to spot errors on a printed page. I use the printed version of an article as a reminder—and so on. And I like to work with paper. It has played a major role in my life and I deeply appreciate its utility, flexibility, touch, and texture. For all that, I’m trying to wean myself off printing nearly as much as I used to. I have too many files for paper versions to be practical any more—they take up a considerable amount of space, are slow and expensive to maintain, and are costly to transport. Accordingly, I am trying to show restraint. I rather like the idea of the gear I need for writing being light and compact enough for me to travel with it just about anywhere. I haven’t got there yet, but that is where I am heading.

Have tools—will travel. There are few things better than travel to broaden the mind and inspire creativity. It is virtually guaranteed to drag a writer out of his comfort zone—and it is not in the nature of writers to be comfortable.


I would like to be able to write that decades of experience have now meant that my writing routine has been polished to consistent perfection—but nothing would be further from the truth.

True, I do naturally start writing with ease—and find it relatively effortless to focus—but, such fundamentals apart, I still find my writing routine is evolving with no end in sight. The villains here are my intellectual curiosity, my drive to do better, and the ever evolving world of computers and software.

Perfection remains an impossible dream—but we seek it nonetheless. It is our nature.



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