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Writing Life

Story Lines: Some Instructions on Writing (and Life)*

Orla Mackinnon

Distractions. Procrastination. Fatigue. Getting the words down can often be a gruelling process. It’s also highly personal; no two writers go about it in the same way. We spoke to creatives about their writing habits and rituals, and what boundaries they experience as they endeavour to empty their minds onto the page.

From finding flow in the calm of a forest to seeking stimulation in bustling coffee shops, it seems that for the writers’ here, the rituals are as diverse (and inspiring for would-be writers) as the work they publish.

“I’m a shitty-first-draft writer, sploshing the words down ready for later making-right.” – Emma Darwin, author of The Mathematics of Love (2007)

“I procrastinate a lot in the morning, but once I get going, I disappear into the process completely, often forgetting to eat. I love that feeling of ‘flow’, of being totally absorbed. I have to be a lot stricter with myself now that I have the responsibility of family and children.” – Nathan Filer, author of the Costa Book of the Year for 2013, The Shock of the Fall

“Typically I go for a run in the woods, if and when the fog rolls in across my mind.” – Patrick Kinsella, Lonely Planet travel guide editor and author of Devon: 40 Coast and Country Walks (2016)

(Not so) social

“I use Twitter because it provides the illusion of not being isolated. I write in coffee shops a lot for this same reason, but it doesn’t stop me from going on Twitter.” – Hanna Jameson, author of the Sunday Times bestseller novel, The Last (2019)

“I no longer do social media but when I did, I needed to get off it to write anything decent. I tried a productivity app, but it felt too online, and the app kept wanting me to share my progress which was distracting. I now keep a paper system where I tick boxes or colour in a shape to mark my progress. This helps me put in effort even if I can’t yet see much shape in my writing yet. I write first thing in the morning before checking my emails.” – Xan Brooks, author of The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times (2017)

“Writing is often fitted around other things, so can take place pretty much anywhere. I don’t think I suit acres of empty time, so I find pockets of it instead and work with the metaphorical red light on. I also use the computer app Freedom pretty obsessively in order to shut down distractions.” – Sarah Franklin, author of Shelter (2017) and How to Belong (2020)

“I use Google sometimes, but nothing else apart from Microsoft word.” – Jack Underwood, poet and author of A Year in the New Life (2021)

The pen is mightier than…

“My writing habit is to pick up a pen and start writing. That’s it. I do find it keeps me emotionally healthy.” – Adam Dalton, author of Empire of the Saviours (2013)

‘‘I write the first draft in longhand – in a series of notebooks if I’m writing a short story or novel; on scraps of A4 if it’s a newspaper feature. For some reason writing in long-hand frees me up, allows me to think & feel closer to the material.

“I tend to work on a draft-by-draft basis, with pauses in between each draft. While I’m working on a draft, I try to work every day in whatever time is available around teaching or other work and childcare. I did the #100DaysOfWriting challenge last year to create a very rough first draft of a novel.” – Liz Flanagan, author of the Legends of the Sky young adult books

“I write notes, on paper or the computer, and then find time to shape them into poems.” – Rupert Loydell, poet and author of The Return of the Man Who Has Everything (2015)

‘I organise my time/tasks using Wunderlist. I use a modified version of the twelve-week year system (6 weeks, because I’m too fickle for 12) and GROW coaching with my writing partner to set goals.’ – Benjamin Wilson was part of Penguin’s writing talent scheme, WriteNow.

“I make digital text works across a number of software and hardware, but I also use cut up machines, text generators, digital algorithms and imaging software in some of my analogue/page-based writing. I write just a little each week.” – Dr David Devanny, multimedia poet and artist and author of Wasps on the Way (2012)

‘‘I’ve heard many people say that writing only becomes fun when you have a full draft and can crack on with the editing process and I tend to agree. That said, I usually edit as I’m writing a first draft. It feels like a real treat to craft a section the day after or a few days after writing it.” – Dr Amy Lilwall, creative writing lecturer and author of The Biggerers (2019)

*Sub-title adapted from the brilliant and beautiful creative writing bible: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Anchor Books. 1995.

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