It was watching the London 2012 Olympics that confirmed it: you need a training programme; you need to eat well, sleep well; you need to have mentors to guide you, role models to inspire you, lovers and friends to cheer you on. Above all, you need to put in the time. If those muscles are going to get you through the race, let alone give you a chance of a gold medal, they’d better be toned. And toning takes time. Day in day out. No excuses.
Aristotle said that ‘moral excellence comes as a result of habit.’ I think you can substitute ‘moral’ with just about any worthy pursuit – not least writing. Athletes don’t wait to be inspired before they start training: they train to become inspirational. They get good through practice, just as we all get good through building our lives around what we want to achieve. That summer, I understood that if I wanted to be an ‘excellent’ writer, if I wanted the inspiration to flow, the ideas to come, the words to fall on the page, I’d have to adopt some pretty good habits.
How many hours do I write each day? It depends. If I manage six or seven, I’m in smug, patting myself on the back territory. Four hours isn’t bad. Anything less is a bit of a disappointment. As I see it, there are twenty-four hours in a day – the least I can do is to spend a good chunk of those doing what means most to me. I have a chart, a box for every day, which I colour in depending on the number of hours I’ve written. It’s a helpful visual reminder of how far I’ve come. When a week is largely light blue (my favourite colour, which I’ve attributed to my six hour days), I know I’ve done well.
Of course there are variables. I can edit for hours whereas generating new material takes more energy, which means I can’t keep going for quite as long. And there are days when life crowds in. Friends. Family. The dentist. Teaching. Feeling rubbish. I spent most of last summer throwing up: I had chronic morning sickness. Anyway, at times like these, those wonderful writing hours dissolve. But even then, I maintain my golden (and superstitious) rule:
I must write every day.
Even if it’s Just Five Minutes – even if it’s only working out that Milo’s micro pig is going to be called Hamlet. It’s about not breaking the thread. Here’s another quotation that lies at the heart of my writing life: ‘It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop’ (Confucius). That’s my main habit: I keep going, no matter what.
So far, I’ve made writing sound pretty gruelling. Some days it is. But there are lots of fun things I do to form part of my ‘how I write’ habits. I’m a visual writer, so, for every novel, I create a massive cardboard collage that sits propped up against the wall in front of me. It has pictures of everything to do with the story I’m working on. For What Milo Saw, I had a picture of a gorgeous micro-pig with a black ear and a white ear; the retina of someone with retinitis pigmentosa; a full moon; a piece of baklava; a park bench; a portrait of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because she makes me think of Nurse Thornhill; a Syrian schoolgirl; quotations from writers I love; pictures of writers I love. Every time I look up from my screen or page, I feel inspired.
I also have a coloured, A5 notebook (or two…or three) for each novel I write. These are full of mindmaps: mindmaps for every scene; for my characters; for the places that appear in my novel. The notebooks come with me everywhere and, when they’re full, they find a place on my desk, reminding me of the many projects I’ve completed.
There are other habits that are vital to my writing life. I walk every day. Ideally, 7km, either around Shinfield or from Shinfield to a coffee shop in Reading. I listen to podcasts by writers, I look at the sky, I magpie shiny things for my stories. And my writing brain keeps whirring, bringing together plot strands and developing characters so that when I sit down to write, I’m bursting with ideas. Along with the obvious benefits of fresh air, pumping blood to my brain and working my muscles, there’s something almost spiritual about walking: that rhythmic, meditative pace that allows my mind to shift gear.
There’s a third leg to my writing-walking stool: I read. I’m not a fast reader but I read a great deal, I read widely and I make notes in the margin. I see this as akin to an athlete’s diet: if I’m to write well, I need to feed my brain and my heart.
And so, as I write my diary every night, I hold myself accountable. There are three boxes, each of which require a tick or a cross:
If I’ve done all three, I’ve had a good day.
Perhaps the most important feature of ‘how I write’ is my relationship to my characters. Scribbling is a pretty lonely profession, which doesn’t sit too well with that fact that, as human beings, we’re social animals. I have some lovely, flesh-and-blood friends and, along with my soul-mate, Hugh, they keep me sane.
Animals work their magic too – Viola and Sebastian, my two white moggies, are fantastic (and distracting) company. But when I’m ‘in the zone’, plunged deep into the seams of a story, it’s my characters who feel most alive. They give me advice. They poke fun at me. They let me know when I’m writing them into a corner – or making them look a bit flat. And they live with me, even when a particular novel is finished. Milo keeps nagging me to meet Willa, the little girl in my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells.
My characters’ birthdays are also crucial. They’re in my birthday diary along with the birthdays of friends and family – and yes, I celebrate them. I haven’t baked them cakes yet, but now that I think of it…