Some very bad advice for authors!

When I was starting out on my writing career, an agent who interviewed me gave me a piece of very bad advice – he said, ‘Treat writing like a job. Start at nine, work through till five and don’t get distracted.’

Well, maybe that wouldn’t be bad advice for all authors, but it turned out to be very bad advice for me, because it linked time in my mind with productivity, and that made me feel anxious. A whole day with nothing to show for it felt like a waste – and I seemed to have rather a lot of them.

What I had to discover for myself was…

 The amazing power of distraction!

Like many other authors, I find that going for a walk is a top distraction which almost invariably leads to little breakthroughs. I can leave the house with my brain striving to conquer a plot problem and stride along for a while, head down, unable to let it go, when suddenly something attracts my attention – a blackbird flying into the hedge, a fox in a field, a child at play. Then my mind lifts away from its plot-worrying completely, and stays that way for the rest of my walk. By the time I get home, a solution has magically appeared.

Switching between writing projects is another fruitful distraction for me. I’ve usually got at least three books at the planning stage, as well as writing new workshops and articles and personal scribblings. Setting my main work-in-progress aside and working on something different means I forget about it completely and then come back to it with new clarity and energy.

Reading articles, having a nap, doing a spot of weeding in the garden… All the things you generally can’t do in a nine to five job can make you more efficient in creative work. Some workplaces recognise this and have chill-out spaces and games rooms for workers to take unscheduled naps and play.

The key is to keep firmly in your mind that these are distractions – that is to say, short breaks from the main endeavour – or you could find yourself snoozing all afternoon or binge watching whole box sets, rather than taking forty winks or watching an episode of your favourite sitcom.

Keep looking away, but keep coming back.

Of course, everybody’s different, and so is every writer. Does nine to five work well for you on writing days, or do you like to harness the power of distraction too?

12 thoughts on “Some very bad advice for authors!”

  1. “because it linked time in my mind with productivity, and that made me feel anxious.”
    This really spoke to me. I’ve been being mentored this year and have written less than I have written in my whole life ever! Reason – I am believing my days should be productive and so I’ve gone brain dead. I really cannot think of what I want to write at all.
    A friend asked me what had happened to the project I’d been planning and I had to say I have done nothing for it because I feel like a rabbit in the headlights and know I should be running – to make the most of this mentoring time, and get my money’s worth from it – but there is nothing in my head. My friend has now got me writing daily prompts just so I’m writing. I’m managing to write them but …
    Ho hum! I need to find a way back to the project without procrastinating

    1. Hi Diane – could you perhaps try writing prompts loosely linked to your project? 10 minutes on your protagonist’s favourite clothing/food/holiday destinations… 10 minutes on some of your settings… Or linked to your writing process? 10 minutes on how you feel about your protagonist/theme/writing in general. Not with any sense of focused purpose, but to please yourself – that’s where the best insights lie! I’ve done a fair bit of that in the 2 or 3 years I’ve been planning/working towards the memoir I’m writing – it was a long run-up, but I’m finally about 10,000 words in. Some books take a lot more ponder time than others 🙂

  2. Dear Jenny, I agree wholeheartedly with this. I have been struggling to reach a satisfying conclusion to my novel for the best part of three months. I knew what I wanted to happen but not how to get there. I have just been out for a short walk to collect a prescription and by the time I came back I had my answer! This isn’t the first time this has happened either. I also find meeting up with friends for a coffee can have the same effect. I often come back with renewed energy and inspiration, ready to start writing again.

  3. I have just done something bigger and been to Vancouver Island for 2 weeks – given two talks on my grandfather’s round the world flight n 1924 and have had so much inspiration from people I engaged with who had other stories to tell about their relatives in the Canadian Air Force. So my mind is full again with lots of ideas for the biography and writing of short stories to offer magazines and whatever else!

  4. Oh, no! The 9-to-5 schedule reminds me too much of my corporate life! And, although I don’t believe in reincarnation, I do believe strongly in reinventing oneself so as to disappear into a new existence – which I’ve done quite successfully over the past decade, since being laid off from an engineering company. As much of a struggle as it’s been getting my freelance technical writing career going, I still enjoy the freedom that comes with setting my own schedule and pace. And I manage to squeeze in plenty of creative writing time.

    Indeed, writers need to take their craft seriously, if they want to succeed. But to treat it like a “job” instead of a passion is to undermine the joy or desire of writing. There will be plenty of work with editing and marketing. But a writer needs to be as comfortable as possible in order to produce their best work. And, in these cases, work should never be a chore.

    1. Yes – the joy of writing… That’s the other thing, besides the natural creative flow, that took a hit for a while when I was trying to treat it like the normal 9 to 5. So true, Alejandro!

  5. “Keep looking away, and keep coming back.” What wonderful advice, Jenny. For me, working those sort of set 9-5 hours would be deadly. Sometimes my WIP needs nonstop concentration, but more often a break is exactly what helps most. And feeling as if I can’t take a break is usually just a sign of anxiety getting the better of me… which means I really NEED a break!

    1. Yes, yes – absolutely, Amy! I hadn’t made that link, but on occasions when I don’t feel I ought to kick back my chair and put on my walking boots, that is indeed when I would probably benefit most from stepping away for a while.

  6. Well, as for me, it was treating writing like a nine-to-five that worked out well for me. I would get up as early as 7 am and write until five—sometimes six—in the evening. It started out rough, at first, but I soon adjusted mentally to challenge. It definitely improved my story telling ability to the point that once I get started, I can’t stop. Sometimes I have to force myself to stop writing or typing. I enjoyed the process so much that I ended up writing fifteen children’s books, and I am now in the process of illustrating the second book for publication.

    1. Hi Derrick – thank you for commenting, and giving a different viewpoint. I know a lot of writers work well with more structure – one of the most popular sessions at an authors’ conference I attended recently was about actually using a timer to ensure you stay at the desk for at least half an hour at a time, then take a 5 minute break and so on – and others like the incentive of working towards a word count goal each day. I guess the thing is we all have to find what works for us, and when we do, we can fly!

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