‘Tis(n’t) the season: How to get any writing done this Christmas

Long dark nights and plenty of snacks: by rights, Christmas should be the perfect opportunity to get words on the page. But in practice, it’s easy for December to fly by in a blur of mince pies and endless Love Actually reruns, and it’s not unusual to find yourself wondering where all that lovely writing time you’d planned has disappeared to.

Here are a couple of tried-and-tested ways to get the season to work for you, whatever you’re up to.

Try a cloud-based app – or go analogue with a notebook and pen

If the next couple of weeks are looking a bit jammed for you – whether with parties, family commitments or a job that gets extra busy at this time of the year – it can be hard to find a decent window to be alone with your laptop. Instead, try and get creative with the places and ways in which you write. I’m a recent convert to working on Google Docs, because it means I can open and edit my manuscript on my iPad on the train to work, on my phone when I’m stuck in a queue, and on my laptop when I finally do get enough time to sit down and write for longer. There are plenty of apps available that allow you to do this, so finding one you like working with on your devices can make it far easier to get a couple of hundred words down when you get a quiet moment (sneak your phone into the kitchen with you when you go to check on the turkey, or hide your tablet behind a sofa cushion ready for when everyone else has a snooze in the afternoon).

Of course, you don’t need fancy technology to make writing a more portable pastime. Grab yourself a nice notebook and try writing by hand if it’s not something you usually do. You’ll be surprised at how much it’s possible to jot down in the space of a bus ride once you’re headed home with your Christmas shopping.

Don’t make it a chore

While it’s good to have targets, sitting down to write because you feel you should is one of the quickest ways to kill your creativity. This can be even harder if you’ve got feelings of should coming from other directions, too: I should be spending time with loved ones or I should be mulling my own wine and making my own wrapping paper or I should be watching as many trashy Christmas films as Netflix can offer me. When there are so many demands on your time, make sure writing is something you’re excited about, not something you’re forcing yourself to do. If that means that some days you write out of order – skipping to a crucial scene you’ve been planning for ages or cycling back to fill in some backstory about a character you’ve become more interested in – then that’s okay. If it means that some days you don’t work on the manuscript at all, but fill in a character questionnaire or sketch out a chapter outline instead, that’s okay too. It all counts. And if it means you work on something entirely different to what you were planning, well… don’t tell anyone I said this, but that’s fine too. Treat yourself and try and have fun with whatever you’re writing – you can always come back to the trickier thing you were stuck on when January rolls around, and you’ll probably feel re-energised and ready for it.

Find a friend

If you’re determined to really make the holidays count and get lots of writing done, find someone else who is too. Whether it’s a friend you can keep in touch with via text or meet up with in person (country pub with a roaring fire, anyone?), or a writing group you share a WhatsApp group with, or even friendly like-minded writers on Twitter, there’s nothing like feeling part of something to keep your focus on the page. Why not suggest word-sprints – where you all write uninterrupted for a set amount of time (15 or 20 or 30 minutes or whatever you have) and then report back on how you got on. Feeling accountable for your day’s output – even if it’s just a quick text to say ‘Hooray, 1000 words in between naps today!’ – is a great way to motivate yourself even after the third tub of Quality Street.

Remember you don’t have to be writing to be working

Whatever the time of year, it’s important to remind yourself that much of the writing process happens away from your manuscript – and some of that is really crucial stuff. It’s the thinking time and the moments when your mind wanders just enough to let ideas sneak up on you (as Stephen King calls it, the boys in the basement). It’s the plotting and wondering and listening. Listening to the world around you, to how people speak, how they react, how they think, will make you a better writer, but Christmas is an especially good time to also step back from the technicalities of the craft and listen to what engages the people around you when it comes to stories. What are the films they choose to watch on their days off, what are the books they’ve asked for? And what about you – what do you find yourself reaching for when you have an hour or two to yourself? Whether it’s a novel you’ve been saving for ages or that entire afternoon of Christmas films, regularly losing yourself in a story is frankly just good practice for any writer. Use this time to fill up your creative well, to remember what inspires and excites you about fiction.  Because that’s something that’s really worth celebrating.

Four reasons your POV isn’t working

It’s one of the first decisions you need to make when starting a novel (or a short story or screenplay or pretty much all writing in fact): who is telling this story, and how are they choosing to do so?

This week at Bloomsbury House, our Writing A Novel students have been learning about point of view. First person, second or third; past or present or a combination thereof – finding the perfect voice can do wonders for your narrative.

But if something doesn’t feel right as you start putting the words down on the page, here are some of the reasons your chosen POV might not be working for you.

Your first person narrator doesn’t know enough… Or they know too much

Writing in the first person can be a real gift – done well, it can quickly bring your reader close, make your action feel more immediate. But it can prove tricky in terms of plot because we can only know what your narrator knows; while this can add intrigue and layers to the reading experience, you may also find yourself constantly having to invent ways for them to overhear or see things that move the story along.

At the opposite end of the scale, a first person narrator can sometimes know too much for your plot to feel believable. If your main character is withholding information from the reader that will provide a twist at the end, think carefully about the mechanics of this. Of course deliberate misdirection can work brilliantly (do we even need to mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd here?), but this suggests an interaction, a dialogue between narrator and reader. You can do this by playing with form – the diary sections of Gone Girl are another oft-used example – but if your novel features a more traditional first person narrative then there should be a good reason that a relevant fact doesn’t surface in their inner monologue until the point at which it serves you best. It can feel like a cheat, for example, if your main character spends an entire novel watching a murder investigation and only acknowledges to themselves right at the end that they’ve held a vital clue all along.

Your third person narrative is keeping you at arm’s length

A third person narrative can give you a lot of freedom. If you choose an omniscient narrator you can decide to move from character to character, even to impart information that none of them have; whilst even a close third person narrative can offer a cooler, more balanced perspective than being inside that character’s head. But it can also be limiting in certain stories.

Sometimes we need to have a closeness to our protagonist(s) in order to fully experience the things that are happening to them, and in the third person, you may find yourself resorting to that much-feared writing sin of telling your reader what your character is feeling and thinking. Consider this: Brian thought that Miranda was an idiot, especially since that time she had broken his favourite mug in the kitchen on the same day that he had stepped in a puddle on the way to work. He thought about what an awful day that had been. It becomes laborious to read; distancing for a reader. Instead, novelists from Jane Austen to Stephen King have made excellent use of free indirect style to bring their narrative to life. Miranda was an idiot. What about that time she had broken his favourite mug? That had been an awful day; his trousers still wet from the puddle he had stepped in on the way to work. The content is essentially the same and yet it subtly positions us, the reader, in a different way.

Your past tense is… not so tense

While writing in the past tense offers you a great level of control as a writer, if you’re also using the first person, it can make it harder to add suspense. Because how to make us wonder if things will turn out alright when the narrator is patently here to tell the tale? The third person can offer better grounds for toying with your reader here, giving you all the power. But it can work in the first person too – if you have that relationship between narrator and reader mentioned above. Is your narrator holding back what happened from us? Or do we know from the outset where they are now, and the drive of the narrative is therefore in finding out how that came to be?

Something to consider with any story is the question: why should we care? Why will we read on? Is it to watch events unfold, or to simply enjoy being in the company of an irresistible narrator? Is it because we can’t stop, because we need to know what happens next? Knowing this when you set out will help you work out at an early stage whether the POV you have chosen is going to help you achieve that goal.

The voice you’re using is great – but it doesn’t belong to the character you’re writing

Sometimes everything can be great in the thing you’re writing – you love the prose, you can tell the pace is there, exposition is no problem – but somehow it just still feels… wrong. If you’re writing in the first person, take a step back and consider your narrator. Think about who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through. Is the voice you’ve given them built up from that? Does everything that gives it depth – their vocabulary, their speech patterns, the unique way they think about and look at the world – come from it? If the answer is no – if the voice came first and their story is something you’re figuring out along the way, or if your plot has shifted and changed the longer you’ve been working on it, it could be time to revisit who this narrator is. Character questionnaires and other short exercises can be a great way to do this; on Writing A Novel, we often recommend students attempt writing a letter to themselves, the author, from their protagonists. Get to know your character again and you may find your POV slipping back into place.