Veronica Henry on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Tuesday 24th April 2012

It’s all very well having a stack of ideas, but how on earth do you carve out the time and space to get cracking with your book?

After hearing the brilliant Contemporary Women’s Fiction discussion at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival I blogged about yesterday, I hared down the street to hear novelist Veronica Henry’s talk on Discipline, Displacement and Dipsomania.

Veronica – known to everyone as Ronnie – is well-placed to talk about the day-to-day reality of writing for a living. She lives in north Devon with her husband and three sons and for the last 20 years has combined her hectic family life with a hugely successful career as a scriptwriter and novelist. Her latest book, Marriage and Other Games, is out in paperback and her new one, The Long Weekend, will be published in July.

First of all, she told us, “writing is a business and you have to treat it as a business. It’s not just about floating around with a pen and a notebook.”

But how do you go about combining “creativity and real life?” Well, for a start, said Ronnie, you need “head space” – the time and space to get on with your writing. That means no distractions – no mobile phone, no TV, no internet. She sometimes negotiates three days away in a rented cottage or hotel by herself so that she can write without any interruptions. “Your productivity shoots up,” she said. “I can write 10,000 to 15,000 words in three days.”

Personal space is vital too. Ronnie writes on the dining table in her open-plan house and uses a Mac PowerBook. She backs everything up on Dropbox and has an inspiration board where she pins pictures of what her characters look like, where they live, even their wallpaper, and “a smallish library” (dictionary, thesaurus, book of names, brochures, index cards).

She also reckons writers have to be ultra-disciplined about how they manage their days. She works office hours and has a target of when she is going to finish a book – “a mental meter about where I am aiming to be.”

Ronnie mentioned a few apps she finds useful. Pomodoro (Italian for tomato!) is a timer that sits in the corner of your computer screen. Apparently 25 minutes is the perfect time to complete a task so Pomodoro sets the timer for 25 minutes and at the end of it you can allow yourself a five-minute break.

And what about Twitter? Ronnie agreed that on the one hand it’s “an amazing tool for writers” and “just like having all your mates in the room with you,” but there’s no doubt it’s a massive distraction too. It was news to me but there are apps available (Freedom is one) to stop you sneaking on to Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to writer’s block, Ronnie told us that “everyone gets it, and if they say they don’t, they are lying.” Her strategies to combat it include going for a walk on the beach or taking a power nap. “Don’t let it paralyse you,” she declared.

Finally she had a word of warning about writers’ clothes. She confessed to wearing “skanky leggings, my brother’s old rugby shirt and a pair of tights to tie up my fringe” while she works. But, she said, “try and dress up sometimes. Treat yourself as a real person and dress for success.” Dress for success – my new mantra.

10 comments so far

  • Thanks for posting this. I shall look into the apps. I’m a devil for spending far too much time on Twitter – then wonder why my word count hasn’t been achieved.

  • A really interesting blog posting, Emma. Many thanks to you and to Ronnie. I know what she means about twitter and FB…

    Liz X

  • I agree, it was a fantastic talk and so true! This was my choice of complimentary ticket as a voluteer at the ChipLitFest, and I’m so pleased I chose this one – just perfect for my own situation. I’m going to check out Pomodoro and Freedom asap as well…

  • Me too, Liz. Not so much FB, but Twitter is completely addictive. I try to stick to using it in the morning and evening but it doesn’t always turn out that way!

  • Interesting read as ever, thank you Emma.

    Funnily enough I came across the Pomodoro technique recently – but have been putting off reading the article 😉 I am the absolute queen of displacement activity and am so thankful that the internet was not invented when I was a youngster. I would have never done any proper studying at all!

    I am a huge fan of Dropbox, as I use it to transfer assignments that my students upload to the Uni system. Then I can open them on my iPad and mark them via an app, and then return them to Dropbox and back to the students. Of course, I could just use a usb stick if one could fit in an iPad ….

  • Love hearing how other writers work. Unfortunately, I do spend an awful lot of time floating around with a pen and notebook and doing not very much. But I have found that wearing high heels at my desk – as if I were working in an office – does somehow concentrate the mind.
    PS: I’ve got Dropbox; would be interested to know if Pomodoro works (although I do have an Internet cafe round the corner, so I’m not sure if it would be enough to keep me away from Twitter).

  • That’s a brilliant tip about wearing high heels at your desk, Karen. I’m always in bare feet, which could explain a lot! I’ll report back on Pomodoro – it sounds good, I think, so am going to give it a try.

  • Thank you so much, Linsey. I have started using Pomodoro and it’s really good. It doesn’t keep me off Twitter entirely but it does concentrate my mind, which is good. Next I must try Dropbox. At the moment I email stuff to myself but I don’t think that’s very reliable.

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