Tag Archives: Writer’s Block

5 Life Hacks for Productivity

Let’s face it… humans are creatures of habit.  That phrase often has a negative connotation; in a conference that lasts several days, people will tend to sit within a few chairs of the seats they sat in on the first day, whether they like the location or not; once a person starts hanging the loo roll on the dispenser either top or bottom, the other way is just wrong.  But habits can also work to our advantage, if we form good ones:  Cleaning up after ourselves should have been a habit formed in our childhoods; brushing our teeth, pushing a chair in after we leave the table, and dozens of other little habits are hygienic, energy-saving, and contribute to more harmonious relationships within our social and environmental landscapes.

Those of us who express ourselves through creative media (such as writing, arts or crafts) might tend to see ourselves or the expression of our craft as outsiders, or at least mavericks, when it comes to business practices.  However, there are many tools (such as the SWOT) and principles for increasing productivity in the business sector that we can and should apply to our creative streaks (if the intention is to take them beyond the level of hobby to a more serious endeavour).  One of those principles involves forming good habits.  Below, I’ve listed five things that I do to keep my creativity fresh, and thus keep the time that I spend writing more productive than it would otherwise be (I know from experience).  For practical purposes I’ll refer to the expressions from the perspective of a writer, but these hacks apply to any creative discipline.

5 Productivity Life Hacks

I’ve taken the liberty of making a “cheat sheet” as a reminder of these principles; if it’s helpful for you, feel free to print it out and hang it up where you work or write.

1)   Find your most productive time.

Are you an early bird, or a night owl?  Or are you a late-afternoon type?  Most people have 9-to-5 jobs that dictate when they have free time; but when you are looking for time to write, try to schedule it in your most productive time of the day.  I am an extreme night owl; I need very little sleep and work at home, so my time is flexible; yet my most productive time of the day is between 01:00 and 04:00, with the second-most productive period being late-afternoons. I know this about myself, so I use the less-productive times to get other things done that are no-brainers (housework, shopping, etc.).

2)  Use time management apps to focus your energy.

I have two (android) apps that I use:  “Clear Focus” and “aTimeLogger”.  The first app counts down from the time I set, with a five-minute break following; every three sessions, it encourages me to take a longer break of fifteen minutes.  The second app allows me to log how much time I spend in a particular activity; I have added customized activities such as editing and blogging.  I use these apps especially when I’ve got a dozen incongruous tasks on my to-do list – it helps me focus on the task at hand, thus being more productive.

3)  Learn a new skill.

That may sound a bit odd; after all, it takes time to learn a new skill, right?  But bear with me a moment:  The current thinking of today is that one should become a specialist; the thinking goes that if you focus your energy into learning one skill to a high degree, you will be successful in it.  But I have one word in answer to that:  Renaissance.  During the Renaissance it was considered ideal for one to pursue multiple disciplines; a gentleman of the time was expected to speak several languages, be well-versed in various scientific disciplines such as astronomy, botany, or medicine, and be eloquent with words through writing poetry, play a musical instrument, study philosophy, theology, and so on.  The standard was set, and met – think of all that was accomplished, discovered, and invented during that age!  Variety is the spice of life, and I find that iron sharpens iron – that one skill hones another.  So take some time to learn something new; it will stir the creative juices and get them flowing much more productively than if you stagnate in specialization.  And in gathering new skills, you will add to your arsenal of personal experience from which to draw on when fleshing out characters, worlds, scenes and dialogues.

4)  Create a music playlist.

Spotify is a great invention!  I have dozens of playlists, and depending on what I’m working on, I’ll turn on music to set the mood for a scene I’m writing (for me, it has to be just right or it can be counter-productive), or to speed me up or slow me down.  Music stimulates our creative energy, and helps our minds become more curious and more imaginative.  It affects our moods, and thus can influence the way we approach a particular scene or dialogue.  Just for the record, as I write this, I’m listening to the album Grace by Steven Sharp Nelson (of the Piano Guys).

5) Take breaks.

This is another habit that runs counterintuitively to conventional wisdom, but being “so close to the forest that you can’t see the trees” is never a good thing; staring too long at a problem, or a blank page, will get you nowhere fast.  Frustration builds, making any mental block that much thicker.  Set it aside; get some fresh air and exercise, airing both your mind and body.  By putting space between ourselves and the issue, we often gain fresh perspective.  Think of it as a backward approach to moving forward.  As Steven Spielberg advises, contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.  Some of my best solutions or plot twists have come while doing a craft.  By the way, crafts encourage abstract thinking, problem solving, and creative perspectives.  To apply this, take a 20-30 minute break after you complete a particular element; sometimes it actually helps me to start that new element before taking a break – it gives my mind time to percolate away from the computer, yet gives me a starting point when I return to work.

I hope these hacks encourage you in developing and honing your craft.  Keep writing!

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SWOT Analysis in Fiction

Writing fiction often brings the writer to a crossroads:  Should I take my character(s) down this road or that?  Will they decide this or that, and what will the consequences of either choice or decision be?  Which would fit best into my plot?  All of these questions can be answered by applying a corporate business tool called the SWOT analysis chart.  I have this baby hung on a magnet strip near my desk, along with other prompts such as the sensory image, and I apply it frequently.  Just last week I faced a crossroads:  Would A) my character run away, or would B) another character (or C) take her away?  On the latter question, I had another two options (thus, B & C); I needed the SWOT.

SWOT Analysis Chart, Watermark

This image shows you the variables of each option; internal vs. external influences or attributes of a situation or choice; helpful vs. harmful in reaching the character’s goals, or the consequences of the choices laid before you.  What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of each path at your character’s feet?

I’ll give you the example of my thought process as I applied it to my historical novel’s fictional situation:  If my character ran away (A) , the strength would be that she would be taking her destiny into her own hands – it’s what you want your main character to do; the threat would be that such an action might raise assumptions that would damage her reputation (was she pregnant?).  The opportunity of doing things in her own timing was overshadowed by the weakness of practicalities:  How would she, without support, get from her family’s estate to Portsmouth, at least a good half-day’s journey by carriage?  If the “B” character (her mother) took her to Portsmouth, the main character would be passive in the decision – the action would happen to her rather than her controlling or causing it.  The opportunity of solving the weakness of “A” by giving her a ride to Portsmouth was a strong incentive, but would raise a bigger threat in that it might seem like the mother was being just as manipulative as the father, forcing the main character into making a choice to suit the mother, which wasn’t the case.  If “C”, her future husband, came to sweep her away from the problems at home, again it would seem that the main female character wasn’t strong on her own two feet, or was too pliable and passive.

I took each scenario through the SWOT rigorously, and in the end I decided – well, when the book comes out next year, you can find out for yourself!

Applying such tools helps you focus your energies on finding solutions, rather than finding yourself stuck in writer’s block.

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Thoughts From Gibraltar and London

I just returned from a research trip a week ago; after the dust of “coming home” has settled, it’s time to sit down and get to work in earnest on my next novel.  I’m working on the third book in my 18th century historical trilogy, and to be honest, up until this trip I would have rather been working on a different manuscript!  My time away was research into the major section of the book which takes place in the Royal Navy aboard a ship of the line.  Part of the reason I think I’ve had “writer’s block” on this manuscript is that the military aspect of the plot is not my favourite topic to delve into from a writing aspect – I love reading about it, but condensing that down into dialogue and prose is not my forté.  But I know myself:  As with anything, if it’s not my strength I’ll work at it and hone it until it is.

The Cutty Sark 1

The Cutty Sark

A very important thing for me to remember in the midst of the research is that I’m not writing a maritime history book, but a novel; I’ve got to take the research, sift it for the elements that support my plot and leave the rest of the information aside as “nice to know”.  I’ve bought, read and taken notes on dozens of history books focused on the Royal Navy; I spent a day taking in impressions aboard the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest clippers from the days of Sail, on the right), and talking to curators both there and in the Maritime Museum, as well as the British Museum; I spent time on a clipper on the Thames, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, salt spray and tastes of the river.   My hotel was literally just round the corner from the largest used book shop in London (Skoob Books)… a very dangerous thing.  Trust me.  I found some great gems, from a history book on the Seven Years War (exactly in my time period), to a portrait collection of 18th century fashions – invaluable visual aids, with explanations of things like mob caps, waistcoats, etc.  If I’d had more time (and more room in my carry-on-sized luggage), I still would have had to leave hundreds of great books behind…!

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary Ape, with Spain in the distance.

Gibraltar itself was a special time:  I was there with my husband, who then took off for a 10-day bike ride toward Madrid on the day I flew to London.  Gibraltar was vitally important as a British Naval base for centuries, and you literally cannot walk down any street without being reminded of its military past:  Atop the Rock are the ruins of fortifications; St Michael’s cave was a strategic hideout; in the town are cannons everywhere; ramparts are now part of walled parks, and everywhere there are military street names, town square names, and military ships in the harbour; Spain is a spit away, and Morocco is visible even on a foggy day; it is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean.  Taking a cable car to the top of the Rock you’ll find Barbary Macaque (aka Barbary Apes, though they are tailless monkeys) everywhere; they were originally brought from Africa in the 18th century by British sailors.  A few of them escaped and set up house on the rocky slopes above the town, and now they run the show; tourists are lower down in the pecking order than they are, and if they get half a blink they’ll steal your food if you’re silly enough to take it outside.  They usually stay up on the Rock, but it’s still not wise to leave your hotel window open…

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.

So now that I’m back, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this new manuscript!  Sometimes it just helps to get away, get new impressions, percolate ideas, and become inspired.  If you’re stuck on something you’re writing, get out!  Go on a research trip, or if you can’t afford it time- or money-wise, then get out to a park, or somewhere different for a change; take your notebook, and let your mind wander.  You’ll find a way through the block!

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Writing Tip: Dealing with Boredom

boredomIf you’re bored with the subject you’re writing about, it won’t work to try and think your way out of it, or to convince yourself to write.  I know all too well that when that’s the case I can find a million things that are suddenly far more pressing, like cleaning out a (clean) cupboard or repairing a household appliance.  But often, boredom is an indication that we don’t know enough about our subject matter, and that our writing has simply subsided into going through the motions.

There’s a simple solution:  Find out more!  Read more on your topic; travel to the location; find maps from your time period; investigate the place with Google Earth Street View; go to a museum; ask questions; look for original documents; engage your senses to gain more knowledge and understanding about your theme.  As you find out more, write scenes to inform your work, or a dialogue between characters that will inform you about their situation, setting, personalities or role in the story as a whole.  Beware of your motives in extended periods of research, however:  Are you procrastinating, or percolating?

I look at it this way:  If I’m not getting anywhere with a manuscript, I can either give in and call it “writer’s block” and allow it to paralyze me, or I can proactively work against that block in what I call “percolating mode” – thinking around the problems that I’ve run into, and use the time to inform myself, learn about the time period, and investigate aspects of the story that I am interested in.  That block may be like a boulder in the stream’s path, but my writing, like water, will eventually find a way around it.

Let that boulder of a writer’s block make you stronger and more diversified – and keep on writing!

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