This article by Gigi Pandian is from the March 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
When COVID began to spread in early 2020, we were all shaken by our distressing new reality. For most of us, lockdown was a new experience to navigate. For me, I’d gone through something similar a decade ago, so I had a jump-start on figuring out how to keep writing, both emotionally (writing through incredibly stressful circumstances) and physically (writing at home in a small house I share with my husband).
Nearly 10 years ago, when I was just beginning my writing career, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I was 36, with no family history of the disease. Needless to say, I was not prepared for this news, nor the year of cancer treatments that would follow and knock out my immune system. I was forced to stay home, isolated from the world, for much of the year.
A dramatic life event, like cancer or COVID, can help put priorities in perspective. I knew I needed to focus on my health and my loved ones, and also my dream of being a writer. But how?
Before cancer, I was not someone who could write at home. By trial and error, I learned many things that year that have served me well in this year of COVID.
Below are a dozen tips that helped me successfully complete a novel during my year of isolated illness during cancer treatments and write two novels during lockdown—while keeping my day job. That cancer-year novel was the one that propelled my career to the next level, and one of this year’s novels sold at auction, which was a first for me.
1. Stay offline. Install an app on your computer that saves you from yourself by turning off the internet. I don’t know about you, but I cannot be trusted to do this myself. I think I’ll look something up for book research or to check the news “for just a minute.” It inevitably turns into 30 minutes—or longer. To save me from myself, I use an app that turns off the internet for a specified amount of time, such as a 45-minute work block, or even for the whole morning. If I forget and try to view a browser, my app shows me an inspirational quote instead, such as A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. (I use Focus on a Mac, and many writers I know enjoy Freedom. There are others too.)
2. Put your phone in the other room. This was difficult for me at first. Very difficult. But I promise the world will not end if you don’t look at your phone for an hour.* Especially if you have any notifications that will pop up and distract you, leave your phone in the other room, or at the very least far enough away you cannot reach it from your chair. (*If you really do have a reason you need your phone, such as awaiting a call from a doctor or elderly parents, change your settings so your phone will ring for preset priority callers even if your sound is off for everything else.)
3. Create your own background noise. Listen to café sounds, rain sounds, or instrumental music. While experiencing stressful circumstances, it’s especially easy to get distracted by small noises around you. It helps if you control the noise. iTunes and other apps have background sounds of all kinds, including café sounds (I found one that reminds me of my favorite café where I used to write). Some days you might feel like visiting a café, and other days a rainstorm will do the trick. Thunder on the speakers can give your creative brain a boost, whereas hearing the laundry cycle stop will throw you out of the story. Maybe you like classical music or some other type of music that serves as relaxing background music.
4. Join an online writing meet-up. It’s amazing how much you can get done in 30 minutes to an hour, and it’s so much easier to get started if you know there are online friends waiting for you. There are a lot of public write-ins organized online, many through writing organizations, or you can form one yourself with writer friends at a time that works well for you. My favorite is one I organized with a few writer friends because we agree to chat about life for 15 minutes before we start writing. It’s a good balance of having support for the stresses of life and being productive.
5. Find an accountability partner. Beyond online meet-ups, tell someone your goals. It’s much easier to keep them if you’ve said them aloud to someone else. See if you can find a writer friend to check in weekly to report back to each other about your progress. Or perhaps you want to tell your spouse or post your goal publicly on social media.
6. Try a writing prompt. A writing prompt can help your fingers start moving when you don’t know what to write next, or when you can’t still your mind from the real world around you. A prompt can be something like “take away one of your main character’s senses” or “an unexpected package arrives on the doorstep.” You don’t have to come up with them yourself; there are many online resources and books. You can experiment with what type of prompt works for you.
7. Pick up a paper notebook. The brain works differently on paper than on a computer, so if the words aren’t flowing on screen, try putting a pen to paper. If you’re having trouble writing the first word on that blank notebook page, because the stressors of the world around you are vying for attention, my personal trick is to write the word “perhaps.” That way, your brain knows this doesn’t have to be the way the story goes, but “perhaps” this happens. On paper, you might be able to write wild ideas that you were too afraid to write as “real” words on the computer.
8. Go outside. Step into your backyard or balcony. Sitting inside next to a window isn’t the same as fresh air, so take that paper notebook outside. Even when you can’t go far, a little bit of fresh air does wonders. When I was going through cancer treatments, I didn’t always have the energy to go far, but even looking up at the trees (in my small, semi-urban backyard) did wonders for my mental state.
9. Shift your view inside the house. This is for those of you who don’t have a dedicated writing room. I have a desk in a room that needs to serve multiple purposes. I sit at one side for non-creative work, then switch to the other side of the desk, with a different view out the window, for my writing. The small physical change can lead to a big mental shift.
10. Take a break to move your body. Yes, this tip is obvious, and I know you already know this. But as writers, all too often we forget this, so I’m including it here. It doesn’t have to be exercise. Stretching for a few minutes counts too. However, simply refilling your coffee mug doesn’t!
11. Ritual. Find something that signals your brain you’re writing fiction now. My ritual is that I plug a typewriter keyboard into my laptop when I’m going to write fiction. The clacking of the keys tells my brain it’s time to be creative. Maybe you light a candle with a particular scent, or drink coffee from a special mug with an inspirational quote. Whatever it is, give yourself that signal that it’s time to push aside the real world for a dedicated amount of time, however small. This is your writing time.
12. Go easy on yourself if you’ve had a bad day. This is the most important tip. Even with all of the lessons I learned in 2011 and 2020, I’ve had some lost days. A lot of them. I didn’t stick to the beautiful schedule I planned in my calendar, but I still got new books written that I’m proud of. Now it’s time for me to get back to work on the next one.