Lessons learned working as a solo writer
I’ve been given a gift. It’s huge. And priceless.
I’ve been given the opportunity to plan my own time and write books. To read a wide range of literature and study my craft. To attend writers’ conferences and meet new friends on a similar mission while being cheered on by old friends who wish me well. And by a family who support me with all their hearts.
Ready to embark upon my new career, I promptly invested in a new white desk and a larger, sharper screen that hooks up to the MacBook Pro now housed in a drawer. Then bought a new printer and a pretty swivel chair. Plus a handful of my favourite erasable ballpoint pens, a pack of highlighters and a fancy box of index cards to round off my new writer’s hard-core supplies.
Then came essential software. Scrivener (novel writing and organisation) and Evernote (random notes and research) were duly downloaded and earned their trial-end keep by swiftly becoming indispensable. The bones of this blog were jotted down in Evernote while my car tires were being changed, and I’m now writing it up in Scrivener.
Day one. Children, husband and dog left for school and work, leaving me alone with two snoozing cats and a head bursting with a book idea that needed researching and writing.
Just as soon as I’d decided what to cook for dinner: does anything need defrosting?
And checked my social media accounts: gotta establish a writer’s platform if I’m hoping to publish a book.
And made fresh coffee. Obviously.
Or popped to the city on an errand, or met a pal for lunch, or or or.
It wasn’t a question of procrastination, I realise now, it was a question of being too free. For the first time in twenty years, I had no, literally nada, work obligations. No colleagues, no clients, no deadlines. My only obligation was to myself and, morally, my husband for agreeing to my career change and financially supporting the family.
This all began back in 2012. Since when, I’ve learned a huge amount about Swedish social history, crafting a novel and the publishing industry. But I’ve also learned a good deal about working as a solo writer (or a solo anything for that matter) from home.
Get up and get organised
No point reading or writing half the night if that interferes with the following day’s production. Much better to establish a steady sleep pattern that promotes a decent working day with a clear head and rested brain.
Establish a morning routine
Shower, load washing machine, retrieve dinner requirements from the freezer. Then I can mentally let all these things go and settle down to work. Buy a large, good-quality thermos mug and fill it with coffee. This keeps the coffee hot until lunch and eliminates wasting numerous half cups of cold coffee and the time it takes to make fresh supplies. Repeat after lunch.
Buy an attractive diary and plan the week
I favour a diary with the week on one side and blank lines on the other. This way I can add appointments to fixed days and keep a general outline of my week’s plan (I also add appointments to my digital calendar, but a physical overview helps me focus and prioritise). Each Sunday evening I plan for the coming week by allocating set tasks to certain days. Every hour counts. Winging it doesn’t work. Or at least not for me. I flounder in trivia without a schedule I’ve mentally committed to. In short, nothing worthwhile gets done.
Schedule appointments and errands on the same day(s)
It’s much better to spend a writing-free day running from pillar to post, maybe highlighted with a pleasant lunch with a pal, than several singular interruptions throughout the week. And if a single appointment is unavoidable, try and schedule it for as early as possible. A 2 pm dentist’s appointment might be ‘possible’, but it’s also a pain in the neck at 1 pm when the time comes to down tools and change into clothes fit for an errand in the city.
Watch your weight
And speaking of clothes, watch your weight. Working in leggings or sweats is cosy and undoubtedly a perk of working from home. But living in elasticated waists makes it incredibly easy to gradually gain weight. I used to quip that my daily exercise constituted the walk from my door to the car and from the car to the office door. And back. That was a half-truth. A not insignificant number of steps were also accumulated by walking to my desk, consulting with colleagues, visiting clients etc. That all stopped and the pounds piled on. So pay attention. A waist cord is one idea.
Find different places to work
Writing at a desk is a given. But many other tasks, such as reading and researching, can be accomplished in a comfortable chair or sofa. A new position is balm to a tired back or shoulders. And a change is as good as a rest.
Install an app to block specific urls for a given period of time
Blocking Facebook and Twitter for a couple of hours enabled me to research without the alerts that triggered my Pavlov dog response and need to check what was happening. I’m over the temptation now and enjoy social media at fewer dedicated times. But SelfControl was a godsend in the early days.
Install a brain drain app to manage life
Personally, I prefer OmniFocus, but there are numerous apps available that will keep track of all the tiny bits and bigger bobs you need to remember. From book a shot appointment for the cats and replace a button on a jacket to send the manuscript to the editor. Add these items on the fly, with the correct due dates, and the program will do the remembering and reminding for you. It integrates with your calendar app and frees up valuable space on your brain’s hard disk.
Back up your work
There’s no IT department to fall back on. No one else is affected but you. I don’t entirely trust cloud solutions, so I also send my most important files to a thoroughly trusty pal in another country. Easily accessible and unlikely to go up in flames at the same time as our house. God forbid.
Keep track of accomplishments
No one else is going to say ‘good job!’ for probably some time. This makes you your own boss and cheerleader. Which requires something to cheer. Keep track of how much you have achieved: the number of words written, pages edited, blogs posted, books read. Anything that constitutes a step in the right direction, which in my case is a writing career.
Ask for a deadline
I need a deadline. It’s a sad but true fact. I asked my editor for a deadline and scheduled the work remaining on my novel accordingly for the following seven months. I also planned for unforeseeable interruptions. That stood me in good stead when flu struck. Working alone means no one picks up the slack while you are, for whatever reason, unable to work. Everything stops dead. Plan for that eventuality.
At the end of this week, I shall be sending the manuscript of my debut novel to my editor. It’s exciting and exhilarating. Most of my satisfaction lies in having completed a manuscript of some 80K words, and I have already requested and received a deadline for its sequel.
But a small part of my euphoria is definitely reserved for the simple satisfaction of having produced a piece that is the result of so much self-discipline and focused hard work.
A result of the gift of the time to write.
And never, since the birth of my children, have I ever appreciated a gift more.