Author Archives: liamvictor

Unconscious Mutterings | Week 842

  1. Boredom :: Ennui – I love how it’s pronounced: /ɒnˈwiː/
  2. Motivation :: goals
  3. Shame :: embarrassment
  4. Significant :: other
  5. Bring :: it on.
  6. Weight :: wait
  7. 40 :: 5040 – the anti-prime
  8. Healthy :: eating
  9. Predictable :: Irrational
  10. Husband :: and wife.

Unconscious Mutterings | Week 842

I’ve been very poor at doing this over the last several months. I’ve always enjoyed Unconscious Mutterings and hope it starts again soon.

The Power of a Tomato

In the On Writing post I made a comment about completing a “Pom”, which is a 25 minute work block.

Pom is short for Pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato. It’s based on an idea by Franceso Cirillo called the Pomodoro Technique. It takes its name from the tomato shaped timer that Sig. Cirillo had.

In the white paper he goes into a lot more detail and explains the experiments he performed on himself. The actual method varies from how I use it, with time estimations, reviews, and more. How I use it is simply to have a block of time, 25 minutes, which I will use to work on one item. At the end of the 25 minutes I’ll take a five minute break, and then at the end of every forth “pom”, I’ll have a longer break.

In my breaks I will walk away from the screen, perhaps make a tea, coffee, or read a book. It’s important that I don’t switch from the screen to another screen activity as then the benefit of the break is negated. Being human I often break the rule, but honestly wish I was better at walking away, that short time away from the screen helps my overall productivity.

A benefit of moving away is allowing the brain to enter a period in diffuse mode rather than focused. This allows ideas to bubble about. It’s just like that time you’re in the shower and suddenly have a great idea for a scene, the solution to a tricky problem, or the name of the song that’s been on the tip of your tongue.

But that only works if you allow your brain to take a rest from one sort of activity and move on to something different. It helps if it’s physical too. In another of my goals I’m increasing each day the amount of steps I take. In my breaks then I often will walk outside for a few minutes. I’ll get a few hundred steps, and I’ve cleared my brain a little for the next chunk of work. The next pom.

An argument I hear against this idea is that it interrupts “the flow”. I argue that it helps.

Firstly flow is rarer than you think. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who formalised the concept as flow suggests flow has six components:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

While being deep in a writing session can bring on several of those factors all six would be a very rare occurrence. Instead I think we enter periods of hyper-focus where the ‘real world’ around us drops away. There’s a great series of the TED radio hour on Maslow’s Human Needs which includes an episode featuring Csíkszentmihályi.

Secondly, I find that the breaks away from a session help me. I rarely come back and think that I wish I’d stayed as I had a great idea or turn of phrase which I now can’t remember. Instead stepping away for a few minutes usually means I return with a clearer idea of what to do next.

As it happens, I usually write at the end of the day now, as I have to work for a living, and as such I only usually get one Pom in a day, but I did start off writing in the morning, and I could easily get two poms without any issue and had to control myself not to write for a third or forth.

I had to switch my writing to the end of the day as I should work first and write afterwards as I need to concentrate on what could possibly pay a bill, rather than something which for the moment is a hobby.

Timing yourself is painless, I would advise against using your phone as then you’re opening up more possibilities for distraction which you want to me minimised. Instead I would use either Tomighty or Toggl.

Tomighty is a simple app I use on my computer which becomes available in the system tray of the taskbar on windows. Once you set it running you have a little countdown of how many minutes are left for that Pom. I used Tomighty happily for years.

Toggl is a more involved app. I switched to Toggl as I wanted to track what I was working on. I set up various projects for my work and clients and can then monitor how long I work on each. The way I use it is to add the task I’m working on, select the project I’ve already added to the system and then start the timer. At the end of 25 minutes it will automatically start timing your break. For my writing I simply record the book, but it would be simple to go more granular and track what chapter you were working on, or if it was drafting, editing, etc.

Whilst I’ve said that my daily goal is for ten minutes or two hundred words of writing, I actually open the Toggl app, start a POM and get to work. I’ll write for 25 minutes without much difficulty but the point is that the pass mark is just ten minutes. It should be impossible to fail. I can tick the box every day in my Goal Tracker app. I make a note of my daily word count in my spreadsheet, and most important of all, I come back day after day, put my bum on my seat and succeed again, and again, and again.

Bum on Seat, and by the Seat of my Pants.

I mentioned in On Writing, that I’m a pantser.

In the past I’ve tired plotting the entire book, to know where the protagonists will be, what they’ll do, who they will meet, and much more. It’s never worked for me. I think it hasn’t worked because I don’t know the characters well enough. It’s through writing them I’m taking them from an outline to a portrait. And as I know them better, I know how they will react to situations, what it is they want, and it’s their wants that push the plot along. My original ideas are there, but who I get to those ideas, those plot points, is different.

The other thing that has changed was that I thought you had to write from point A to Z, in order. Now when I get a little stuck, I just move on. If I’m bored with one conversation, then I just write a few words about needing to improve the section, and keep on with something else.

I know that the focused brain can’t be creative, you have to be in diffuse mode, where your brain will take various inputs and ideas and combine them. So forcing yourself to focus on something hoping you can crunch out a solution isn’t a great use of your time. Instead work on something else, change your environment, and let your brain get on with doing what it does best on its own.

Therefore, when I hit road blocks, I skip over them rather than force myself to find a path through them. Quite often I’ll step back in the story and tidy something up: add some description, add some dialogue. Or move forward a scene or two and start to work on something that is coming.

I think it’s a bit like a watched pot never boils, or when someone is watching you intently as you do something, you suddenly can’t execute as well. So rather than force something in my writing, I move on.

In the past I would have tried to create an outline where all the plot points are laid out in order, and once I had a problem I would try to resolve it through shear force of will and determination. I would try to continue, but would always be thinking there was a problem, and eventually stop writing knowing that there was a hole in the story.

Now I think that I haven’t learned the characters well enough to know what they’ll do in the situation, and until I do the problem will still exist.

I skip ahead, I go back. I learn who the characters are. And the diffuse mode of the brain never fails me. Ideas come, and the story moves on.

This is what I think writer’s block is. Trying to force your brain to write creatively in focused mode. Focused mode is to be used sat in front of a screen and getting the words out. Then give yourself a rest and let your brain work on the problem without you watching over yourself.

Let the pot boil on its own.

On Writing

This is a new section to the blog where I’m going to discuss various aspects of writing a novel.

Over the last few months I’ve been writing a novel. In fact over the last twenty years or so I’ve been writing a novel.

Writing a book is something I’ve attempted many times. I’ve got at least half a dozen good ideas I’d like to do more with. There’s a crime novel, a thriller, several children’s books, at least two non fiction books on memory techniques, some very bad erotica, and I’m sure things I’ve forgotten about too. Most of those have a few thousand words somewhere on my computer or wandering around the cloud. And there they remain. Waiting.

This time though I’ve taken a different approach to the process. Rather than type up a few pages and leave it for inspiration to strike, I’ve taken a different tack. It’s the bum-on-seat approach of turning up every single day. And more than that, it’s the approach of recording if I’ve succeeded, then not breaking the chain.

I have a spreadsheet, a Google Doc, and in it I am tracking what I do on various fronts. I’m also using a simple Goal Tracker app. Between the app and the spreadsheet I’m recording work hours, steps I’ve walked, progress with writing, and more. In some future post I’ll discuss how I’m tracking the various tasks / goals. And how I’m tackling them as it’s not a one size fits all strategy. The goals and data vary for each and so warrant some further discussion, but for now let’s concentrate on the writing.

The book I’m currently writing, The Ghost Writer, I started in 2013. That’s six years ago. I have an early version of it at 6,217 words. And then it was mostly dormant for five more years.

In April 2019 a friend who I had told the story many years previously asked me about it, so I resurrected the book to see where it had got up to. Somehow I had 10,112 words in the document where I had added bits here and there, and then abandoned it again for months or years.

So I created a goal for myself in the Goal Tracker app, one I could do regardless of everything else going on in my life. To have a successful day and get a tick mark, all I had to do was write for ten minutes, or add 200 words. To do either was a success. I could open the Scrivener file, for ten minutes and walk away giving myself a tick in the app knowing that I’d put my bum in the seat and tried to write.

What’s happened though is every day I add a few hundred words. The ten minutes I have to write is usually 25 minutes as I will complete a “Pom“. Most days I average 500 words. As I write this article I’m at 68,000 words, and have been writing every day for 116 days.

I chose 200 words deliberately, some careful analysis (okay, a quick internet search) indicated that an average book was 90,000 words. 200 words a day would mean you’d have a novel in about a year and a half, assuming you take a month off to let it lie (or fester), and a couple of months to edit the first draft.

200 words would be, very roughly, about half a page. Long enough to actually take some effort, but short enough that given a little effort I could do it. The ten minutes was simply the minimum period where it felt like it was still a period worth counting.

The actual writing now seems pretty painless. I am apparently a pantser, just making it up as I go along. I have a rough idea of where the story is going, but as I write I discover how I get there.

In another post I’ll talk about how my writing process has changed this time, for now it’s enough to say if you want to write your book, get your bum on your seat, and make sure you don’t break the chain.