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Environment is hard to overcome, even in fiction

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Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy

Character is fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place.

Where we are is who we are

In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her. The industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another major setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.

When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.

One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.

Places are characters …

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How you can turn your ‘to do’ list into your quest

‘To do’ lists can be deadening and demotivating. We all have things we have to do and some of those things are routine and don’t set the world on fire. But all too often we allow those things to take far too much time and energy. So what can we do to transform ‘to do’ lists so we don’t get stuck spending most of our time on the small, time-consuming stuff?

1. Think about your use of time

A great journalling exercise I did recently was to make a huge list of all the ways I spend my time. Then I divided the list into three groups:

  • routine things that have to get done, but which are uninspiring and can multiply to take up lots of time (C)
  • essential tasks that use my skills and are enjoyable (B)
  • the core goals that I’m most passionate about (A)

For me, the category C activities are things like emails and routine admin. This includes organising book launches, doing business accounts, buying train tickets etc.

I estimated I was spending around 40% of my time on category C activities. With another 40% on work, that left 20% of my time for family, relaxation, writing … How can core goals and values be so squeezed and thrive? Of course, they can’t. So the questions then became, what could I eliminate? What could I automate or streamline? And what could I delegate?

One of the things I noticed was that I was repeating the same information to lots of people in serial emails. I set about writing a series of information sheets for authors. These covered what to expect during the publishing process, information for launches etc.

They are all online and available for authors to download on a resource page.

We added an invaluable office manager to our team at Cinnamon Press. We employed a virtual assistant to do a routine task uploading competition details. And I started time blocking so that emails are all answered once a day. I batched other admin too, so I’m not wasting time going back and forth between different types of activity.

My category B is either work-related (editing and mentoring, for example). Category B activities are harder to limit in some ways as they are more essential and more enjoyable.

I love my work, but I don’t want to be co-terminus with it. Having supportive authors who help with these tasks makes a huge difference. I gain a lot from editing the work of others, but I’m also grateful to have trusted editors to delegate part of the process to.

I get huge satisfaction from teaching and mentoring, but sharing the load is also rewarding. I have no desire to cut the category B activities from my timetable, but a team can achieve much more than an individual. Once again, time-blocking enables me edit and mentor when I’m most focussed.

And I’m learning to say no. Loving my work does not mean I have to take on more and more until it overwhelms me. Greg McKeown asks:

Have you ever said yes when you meant no, simply to avoid conflict or friction? … the very thought of saying no brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. … But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes or say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months or even years.

We all have the same amount of time each day, but how we use it makes the difference. We can spend a bigger percentage of our time on the important things if:

  • we eliminate non essential activities (no one needs to be available to a phone or messages every minute of the day)
  • streamline and/or delegate some of the routine activities
  • use blocks of time for different types of activity so you focus on the important things first and one task at a time
  • build a team to share the more essential and rewarding work
  • don’t imagine we can do it all and learn to say no

These strategies have helped me shift from spending 40% of my time on the routine ‘to do’ list to around 20% and I aim to get that down further this year.

This frees much more time for editing and mentoring, but also for my category A activities. These include writing, travel, learning, family time and relaxation.

2. Think about why certain activities are important to you

We all have different goals, different category A activities that are more ‘quest’ than ‘to do’. It’s sad that the pace of life often relegates these to the ‘add-ons’ that we hardly have any time for. But the more passionate we are about these things, the less we will find excuses for not doing them.

As I said in recent post:

Your goals should be your passion and, if they are, then it’s no longer a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.

It helps to know why we we value certain activities over others. This is what Benjamin Hardy advises:

Think about what it is you want, and ask yourself this simple question:

What about ___________ is important to me?

If your goal is to work from home, then ask yourself the question:

What about “working from home” is important to me?

Your answer might be something like, “to have a more flexible schedule.”

You then put THAT into the previous question.

It’s good to go at least 7-questions deep into this exercise.

Don’t overthink it. Let the answers come and move on and you’ll find your thinking is much clearer than you imagined.

For me:

Writing is the most meaningful and transformative activity I undertake. It’s fundamental to how I reflecting on life and connect with others. Becoming a different story is my life’s work.

Travel puts me in unfamiliar places and situations. This in turn stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work.

Family (including an extended family of close friends) makes my world make sense. These are the people who teach me to live from abundance rather than scarcity. These are the people who confirm for my that generosity is the key virtue.

Keeping fit facilitates other goals. I’m less than 5 feet tall and have a slow metabolism so to maintain my energy I need to be fit, of moderate weight, flexible and well-nourished. It’s about valuing my most basic resource: myself, so that I can give.

Personal development is also foundational to my goals. When my daily rituals, habits, learning, attention to values and relaxation are in harmony, the rest follows.

If we are clear about what matters most and why these things matter, we are more likely to live life as an exciting quest rather than a tedious to do list.

3. Think about building your life on values rather than ‘oughts’

When we face a long list of things we have to do, resistance sets in. Life becomes drudgery sustained by a diminishing supply of willpower. Even if we manage to achieve everything on the list, we’re not likely to take much pleasure of pride from it.

When we manage our time by eliminating, streamlining, delegating, sharing, time blocking and saying no, we find we have ‘more time’.

When we know what we are passionate about and why, we release energy that is much more effective than willpower.

And when we act from our deepest values rather than ‘oughts’ imposed on us from outside, then this energy increases beyond our imagining.

Living from values gives us this bigger vision. Living from values comes from intrinsic motivation rather than from something imposed on us.

As with goals, we will each have different value sets. But something I’ve found useful is to use a system attributed to Benjamin Franklin. He decided on thirteen key virtues and each week of the year would focus on one of them so that over the year he’d concentrate on each value four times.

I’ve written my values into a tiny book (less than two inches square) that I can carry with me. The first two for me are generosity and abundance. It was fascinating to spend time journalling to reach my list of thirteen. And starting each day thinking about how I can show that value in my life is much more motivating than starting the day thinking about a to do list. It doesn’t mean that there are no routine jobs to do, but it keep them in perspective.

4. Think about taking time out

When you know how you want to live and why; when you know the values your life rests on, life becomes a quest rather than a mundane list of demands on your time. This is exhilarating and motivating and it demands that we redirect our energy to what matters to us. How do we do that?

i. We need to take space to think

I’m currently rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own— it’s an important text and the idea that we need a dedicated space in which to write is essential. Over the last week I’ve set up a dedicated writing room in which to work. It has 23 years of past journals, all the books I’ve bought but still need to read, and important texts that have informed my current thinking. It’s a place I can go to think or write. If you can’t take a whole room, find a desk, a corner, any space that you can call your own and where you can think and write.

ii. We need to create a mindset that helps us to focus

Whatever your daily commitments, journalling morning and evening can make all the difference. Five minutes of writing about how you envisage your future. Five minutes of reflecting on how you have used your time, lived your ‘why’ or values, makes an enormous impact on how you see the world and interact with it. Take time every day to affirm and reflect and watch your world change.

Environment is crucial to our perspective and when we take control of it, things happen.,

iii. We need time in other environments

This is why travel is so important to me. It places me in unfamiliar places and stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work. If you can’t leave the country, go for a long walk; swap houses with a friend for a week. Do something that shifts your perspective and in the unfamiliar situation you will find yourself having new thoughts.

In short

If you want your life to be a quest rather than a mere ‘to do’ list; and want to make a difference, there are a few simple strategies:

  • think about your use of time — you have as much time as anyone else and it’s up to you how you use it.
  • think about why certain activities are important to you — dig deep until you find what matters to you.
  • think about your values and build your life around intrinsic motivation, not what someone says you ‘ought’ to do.
  • think about taking time out, whether in daily journalling or unfamiliar environments that challenge you to adopt new perspectives.

When you begin to make these changes you’ll find life is no longer a mundane to do list, but a quest of your own making. Enjoy!

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