Welcome to the second blog in our new craft of writing blog series! We’ve commissioned novelist, poet and short story writer Louise Tondeur to share her top tips and writing advice.
Here you can read the second in this series, full of advice, exercises and resources for organising your writing life – from developing your ‘executive skills’ to the joys of planning…
Organise Your Writing Life
by Louise Tondeur
What are executive function skills?
You can think of executive function skills as the suite of skills it takes to organise your life. These skills involve the ability to work to deadlines, sequencing, prioritising and planning of any kind. Commonly thought of as ‘organisational skills’, these are skills that you need in spades as a writer, especially if you’re going to put your work out into the world and – as I recently discovered – difficulty with executive function skills can stop you from making progress with your writing career.
My journey of discovery
Like most writers, I use these executive function skills regularly, but I also have a unusual relationship with them because I’m late-diagnosed neurodivergent. A couple of years ago I set out to find out how I could get better at executive function, specifically organisation, planning, and prioritising.
Anders Ericsson claims in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise that you can get better at a creative skill through a process he calls ‘deliberate practice’, that is, identifying a weakness and working to correct it, rather than simply practising in a general sense. I found this fascinating and it’s definitely a concept I applied to executive function.
This blog post is about what I discovered. I’ll write about each area I looked into and then give some exercises at the end.
Using a planner
I made a goal to learn as much as I could about planning and organisation, then I broke that down into actions. I found a planner I loved and carried it around with me. I started writing in it every morning and kept it next to my bed. In fact, I deliberately went into what you could call ‘full fat’ planning. Describing this as ‘using a planner’ doesn’t do the process justice! Falling in love with the right planner is closer to the truth.
By reading books on habit forming and distractibility, I realised that far from being a cliché of productivity training, knowing my values – specifically my writing values – would help me with all of the facets of executive function.
Setting writing goals
My planner enabled me to focus on my writing goals and to check in with myself so I could tell if I was working towards them or not. It also helped me to make the goals more specific and to break them down into stages. I have written a nonfiction book about goal-setting, but it wasn’t until I started planning every day that I properly applied the techniques in my book to my writing life.
Simply deciding then redeciding
For years I let the number of writing projects I had on the go distract me, resulting in an underlying feeling of guilt. Throw social media and the rest of your life into the mix and a whirlwind of distraction can result. Here’s how I learnt to handle it. I educated myself on decision-making, then made firm decisions about what I wanted to work on, knowing I could re-decide later if necessary. Realising that I could simply decide, for no reason other than I had decided, was life-changing.
Combining different novel-planning methods
I researched and wrote about planning a novel because I often find that if I write about something, I get to think it through. I combined different planning approaches and planned a novel in advance for the first time. (I had previously used a bit of planning and research combined with writing.) The approaches I combined are listed in the resources below, but the most important thing was that I made planning my own for the first time.
I worked out how best to focus and I realised that having time to focus regularly was more important than simply finding time to write. You can engineer focus time, but it is usually necessary to be proactive about it – don’t wait for focus time to come to you!
Here’s a summary of what I started doing as a result of my research. I ‘deliberately practised’ getting organised in my writing life by:
- using the right planner,
- knowing my values,
- setting writing goals,
- simply deciding then redeciding,
- combining different novel planning methods,
- working out how best to focus.
I found that these approaches were more useful than general tips on how to avoid procrastination, or how to organise tasks, because they got to the heart of what I wanted to write, why I wanted to write it, and how best to organise my practice.
Here are some exercises you can use to get your writing life organised:
- Keep a notebook with you for a day (or a week if you want to go all in), writing down any distractions that come up. Turn these into questions. Once you’ve got a question written down, you can look for answers.
- Use your notebook to work out how you focus best. In complete silence, with music playing, or in a café surrounded by other people, first thing in the morning, or late at night?
- To discover your writing values, simply note down what’s important to you and keep asking ‘why?’ Keep asking ‘why?’ until you run out of answers. On his website James Clear has a list of core values https://jamesclear.com/core-values, which is a good place to start.
- Learn the Pomodoro technique. https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique There’s free training available on the website and it can help you avoid distraction and to concentrate on a task.
- Review your writing goals regularly, say on the first of each month because it’s easy to remember. Record what you’re working on and keep track of submissions.
- The Plot Dot: https://www.creativindie.com/plotdot/
- The Snowflake Method: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
- Sophie Hannah’s Gnocchi Method: https://sophiehannah.com/why-and-how-i-plan-my-novels/
- How to Outline a Script: https://www.arcstudiopro.com/how-to-outline-a-script/ (Mentions Tent Pole Scenes.)
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson: https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peak/9780544947221
- Indistractable by Nir Eyal: https://www.nirandfar.com/indistractable/
- Deep Work by Cal Newport: https://www.calnewport.com/books/deep-work/
- The Disorganised Mind by Nancy A. Ratey: http://www.disorganizedmind.com/adhdbook/life-coach-in-book-form
In the noughties, she published two novels with Headline Review called The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, then she did a PhD in Literature and Cultural Theory at the Reading University, started a family, and became a Creative Writing lecturer, while publishing mainly poetry and nonfiction. In 2017, she left her full-time job to focus on fiction writing. Her short story collection, Unusual Places, came out in 2018 and she is currently working on a series of crime novels set in Norfolk / Suffolk border country where her grandparents lived for 40 years. Louise grew up in Bournemouth and after a long time in London, and spells in Cambridge and Norwich, she now lives in Hove with her wife and son and two black cats. Louise teaches on the Open University’s Creative Writing MA and blogs at: www.louisetondeur.co.uk