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Focusing the Writing Mind -- by Charlie Aylett

So it’s over. Once again Christmas has passed and we can all sit back, take the party hats off and breathe a sigh of relief. If your December was anything like mine you’ve barely had time to neck the aspirins, let alone sit down and finish that chapter you swore would be ready by the time the gift sack dropped down the chimney and you-know-who raided the festive port.

The problem with the winter holiday period, and the New Year promises we make while trying to capitalise on that surge of energy running up to and during Christmas, is that it tends to resemble your plot line: Peaks and troughs and, you guessed it, we are now in the trough.

With such little motivation to resume a project that’s so far in the background it’s beginning to look like an appealing shade of wallpaper, how do we climb our way back towards a peak?

For us struggling novelists, poets and short fictionists, our writing time is precious. In between work, family commitments and friends, the little allotted time we do put aside needs to be as productive as possible. But when you sit down to write and your brain is sluggish, the cogs not turning quite as slickly as they did just mere weeks ago, or maybe still bouncing all over the place as we try to adjust back from our holiday high and catch up with errands for the day ahead, a two hour session can easily slip by with little achieved. So I thought I would share some of the tactics I use to make my writing time work its hardest (though not necessarily all of these in the same session).

At the beginning of each working period, I try and incorporate at least ten minutes of ‘warming up’ time.



First and foremost is that I prioritise my writing. As I have an evening job, I write every weekday morning, unless I have planned in advance to take time out for going away, or appointments. By keeping to a faithful writing routine my mind is already partly primed to focus on my project. I don’t write on the weekends, and focus on family time. By the time Monday comes around again, I don’t feel burned out and am ready to give all my attention to my work.



No, don’t run away. Hear me out. I first looked into meditation when I was pregnant. I thought it would be a good exercise to relax me during labour, and until the epidural arrived. But I’ve since found that when beginning my writing sessions with a ten or twenty minute meditation routine, it really focuses my mind — more than caffeine ever has. All this really equates to doing is some breathing exercises. You can find tons of these on Youtube for free, but this one Concentration: complete exercise is my current favourite. It’s simple to learn, they go straight into the exercise with no lengthy intro like a lot of other YT posters, and you can pause the video at the end of each stage so you can practice it before moving onto the next. This is no. 1 on my list of focus exercises.



A lot of you are probably already familiar with this exercise. But for the uninitiated, Freewriting is where you pick a random word, set an egg timer to ten or fifteen minutes, and write all you know about that word without stopping until the timer goes off. That means constantly moving forward, no going back to correct your mistakes, and writing anything that comes into your head even if that means writing I’m stuck ten times over until something does come. You can meander down whatever tangents you like, even if it’s off topic. There’s no pressure to make perfect prose and the process unclutters your head, leaving you warmed up and ready to concentrate on the story.


Write to yourself

Yes, this is the next stage on from talking to yourself and could be all the evidence your loved ones need to finally have you sectioned. If, erm, they have ever contemplated such a thing! Much like Freewriting, the difference here is more to do with sifting through novel problems. Sometimes I find the reason my thoughts flutter about and can’t settle on any leaf of my story is because of plot or character issues that I am at a loss to sort out. By writing an email to myself explaining — as I might to a writer friend — what those problems are, I force myself to focus on them and often find the answers land on the page. You may need to play the role of both sides of the conversation in order to draw out the answers. Just make sure no one else can read your emails, and definitely not your boss!


Build yourself a picture.

When you sit down to write, start with the finer details. Forget about plot and character for a moment and just write yourself a setting. Begin by describing where an imaginary place in defined detail. What can you feel, smell, see, hear, touch? Is it warm, cold, wet, dry? Indoors or out? Try and think of tiny features of the surroundings which would normally go unnoticed.

If you find yourself skipping on the details, go back and really put that corner of the room/street/fill-in-the-blank under the microscope. I put a cat in one of these rooms and really had to concentrate on the softness of its fur for the full effect.

Once you feel you are truly surrounded by your new locale, go and find a (well described) door within said setting and open it. Describe doing that as closely as you can. When you pass through, is the landscape still the same? Has it changed? If so, what is different about it? Continue to describe this new location in the same manner as the last. Then contemplate, what is there about this new setting that is similar to the last — e.g. is it warm/cold, smells similar, there is a continuation of the same sounds, maybe a woman wearing a similar patterned dress to the wallpaper in the last place, etc. Now, what are you doing in this setting? Are there other people with you? Begin to expand the picture.

By now — hopefully — you are more focused and getting into the flow with an idea in your mind where you will go with it. Perhaps the new setting has become somewhere in your WIP, and you may wish to switch from first person to third. Sometimes this works to ground yourself in the scene. Sometimes it ends up as a separate story entirely, or just fluff for tucking away in a folder somewhere before you begin on your real project. This is all about writerly self-indulgence. Purple prose away!


Sit in a dark room.

And padded, you may say. What is this nutter on about?

Thinking time is just as important for your growing novel as the need to produce solid words. Again, back in the days of young children and what-not, my writing time was even slimmer, and head space was almost non-existent. But I found during the night-time feeds when all was quiet, there were no visual distractions, and I couldn’t get up and go anywhere because the baby was attached, my mind began to wonder over my story. I used a notebook and pen (and clip-on reading torch) to jot down ideas, and scraps of sentences. When I did get to write, I already had patches of a scene that just needed sewing together. It flowed a lot quicker as a result. So now, I sometimes start a session by darkening the room, sitting down and just thinking. It takes a few minutes to settle the mind, but that’s where those breathing exercise can again come in useful. Try it. In fact, go the whole hog and strap yourself to the chair!

(That was a joke. Don’t have a spare baby hanging around? Cuddle a cat!).


It may seem counterproductive to spend time doing these sorts of exercises, but I truly do find that a transitional period between real life and our imagined ones at the start of each session does help.


Anyone else with more ideas to go in the hat, please share!



Posted by Charlie Aylett 5 Jan 2015 at 10:47
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