7 tips for starting a writing session


I received a question this morning via the blog:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!

Great question. Starting off a writing session is not easy. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head.

1. Write until you write
If you are only losing the first 10 to 15 minutes, you’re doing well! The first lines (or even pages) you write in any one session will probably end up being deleted anyway, so don’t spend too much time trying to hone them! Just see those first words as a fluency exercise. Write until you write. Persevere and the good stuff will come. Many people (not just writers) find ‘morning pages’ a good discipline – writing a three page stream of consciousness every morning to process thoughts. Sites like 750 words can help you with this.

2. Gravity Boots
Dan Brown hangs upside-down from time to time. “Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my entire perspective.” I’ve never tried gravity boots, but I do find that the weeks when I do some physical exercise tend to be better writing weeks.

3. Freedom
If, like me, procrastination is your enemy, invest in a little app called Freedom. It blocks your computer’s internet access entirely for the length of time you specify, forcing you to focus on the task at hand.

4. Coffee
I would never have completed NaNoWriMo in November without a mug or two of the beautiful bean. I drink instant coffee, but I have promised myself that when I write my breakthrough novel I’m graduating to the real thing.

5. Prayer
Not for everyone, of course, but if prayer forms part of your belief system, this is a good time for it. In fact, I probably should have put this above gravity boots. You talk about ‘centering yourself’. Different people will do this in different ways. I try to see the work of writing as a sacrament, not a burden. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human publishers masters.” (Colossians 3:23)

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously
“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” (Margaret Atwood) Be playful. Use words like imbroglio, flugelbinder and ratatouille. Let frogs rain from the sky. Don’t put pressure on yourself by imagining that everything needs to be perfect. And start sentences with And. Who’s going to stop you?

7. Rhetoric is your friend
I very much enjoyed The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. It is a jolly (but incredibly useful) tour of the various rhetorical devices at the writer’s disposal. “In an age unhealthily obsessed with substance” he writes, “this is a book on the importance of pure style.” Hehe. Felicitous rhetoric releases endomorphins, of course, which (combined with caffeine) produce a pleasurable and focussed writing session.

Use these tips and before you know it you’ll have racked up four thousand words in three hours and wonder where the time went. Either that or you’ll be hanging upside-down, trying to remember how to extract yourself from those gravity boots.

Bon courage!

What do I here myself?

The Phaeacian sailors deposited the sleeping Odysseus on the shore of Ithaca, his homeland, to reach which he had struggled for twenty years of uspeakable suffering. He stirred and woke from sleep in the land of his fathers, but he knew not his whereabouts. Ithaca showed him an unaccustomed face; he did not recognize the pathways stretching into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices. He rose to his feet and stood staring at what was his own land, crying mournfully: “Alas! And now where on earth am I? What do I here myself?”

(Homer, The Odyssey)

Reentry shock. They warn you about it, of course. They tell you that you will snivel unaccountably in supermarkets, tremble uncontrollably in traffic, and yawp ‘Alas! Where am I?’ over the unforgiving rooftops of your fatherland. But nothing quite prepares you for it.

The low point for me on returning from fourteen years in Africa was getting stuck on a narrow one way street near Sainsburys, Nine Elms, facing the wrong way, an object of contempt and wrath to six oncoming drivers. Deep breaths didn’t help. I heartily wished I had stayed in Africa, where no street is one way and everyone smiles from dusk till dawn.

I rang my wife Charlie, as I am prone to do at moments of raw befuddlement. ‘Do you want me to come and get you?’ she said. I thought about saying yes, and then I remembered Odysseus. He struggled with reentry, but struggled manfully. “Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.” Great Odysseus, man of many wiles, would not have wanted his wife schlepping across London to rescue him from Sainsburys. So I did what Odysseus would have done. I stiffened the sinews, summoned up the blood, and executed a slick twenty-seven point turn using forward and reverse gears.

Things have got better since the Nine Elms Debacle, imperceptibly at first, and now markedly. Our flat at the top of Battersea High Street is quickly becoming a home – amazing what a lick of paint and a pot of Japanese bamboo can do. And now, after a month of visiting family and friends, I’m buckling down to work: writing books for young people. There are lots of exciting projects in the pipeline, which I shall share over the coming weeks. And lots of school and library visits, too. Which reminds me: if you would like me to visit your school, do get in touch sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

I’m a sucker for all those ‘Where I Write’ pieces in the glossy weekend supplements, so I thought I’d share with you this picture of my brand new writing station. It is located in a cosy nook behind the stairwell, and it is the only piece of furniture I have ever built. If you can call it furniture. Or building. It’s a piece of MDF painted white and screwed into the walls. It’s in a corner of the living room, and Charlie is keen for me to keep it tidy. Watch this space – she certainly is.


And while I’m uploading photos, here are some highlights from the last few weeks.

Packing the chequered bag

travel bag

#YouAintAfricanIf is trending on Twitter at the moment, and the chequered travel bag earned several retweets. Ours is sitting across the room from me as I write this. It’s full of clothes and ready to go.

On Wednesday, God willing, my family and I go to Ouagadougou airport and fly back to England. I’ve been back to England several times over the course of the last thirteen years, but this time it’s different. This time I am not planning on coming back. Or rather, if I do come back, it will only be for a short visit.

I will take with me many memories, the good and the bad and the just plain strange. During the course of thirteen years in Burkina Faso, I learned Fulfulde, followed a cattle drive, grew rice, rode a horse to a distant naming ceremony, travelled around Niger and Mali, wrote some books, recorded radio dramas and music videos, lost my faith, found it again, got malaria and typhoid (at the same time), herded goats, drilled for water in a dust storm, got married, acquired two daughters and made a few good friends.

It feels like the right time to be leaving Burkina. We’ve had a good innings, but with the passing of years we have felt the increasing tug of home. And yes, England still feels like home. Ko leggal ɓooyi e ndiyam fu, laatataako nowra. Even if a log lies in the water a long time, it will never become a crocodile.

We plan to be living in London, and I am going full time as a children’s author. I can’t tell you how excited I am about being able to spend more time writing. It feels like an absurd luxury and I can’t wait to get started.

Nomadic people groups have many phrases to ease the parting of ways, but none of them have much finality. Leaving my Fulani friends will be hampered (or perhaps eased) by the fact that there exists no word in Fulfulde for goodbye. We will make do with phrases like Alla moƴƴin laawol (May God make good your road) and Alla wan njiiden e jam (May God enable us to see each other again in peace).

Last week I said goodbye to my friend Zachariya Bah and his family. I was able to honour a promise I made to him a long time ago, to film a music video of him and his family. One of the songs we filmed is called We Ask for Strength.

Here is a rough translation of the lyrics:

We ask God for the strength of the prophet Moses. We ask God for the strength of the prophet Noah. We ask God for the strength of the prophet Jesus. Why do we ask God for strength? Because the world is hard. Why do we ask God for strength? Because the difficulties are many.

Africa is a horrifying continent and a wonderful one, too. Sometimes it feels like there is more horror than wonder, but what would I know? I must learn not to generalize or romanticize or demonize. I must learn (along with everyone else) not to talk nonsense about Africa, particularly when in a stage of transition.

Because there are no generalities, of course. No sooner do you say ‘#YouAintAfricanIf you don’t have a chequered travel bag like this’ than a million people chime in to say ‘We’re African and we don’t have one’. Or rather, they would if they were on Twitter.

There are no generalities. There are only specifics. Yesterday I said goodbye to the old woman with the big nose who sells tomatoes in Zogona market. ‘Take me with you’, she said, and I said ‘Yes, okay’. She forgave my inanity, and I hers, and she handed me an extra tomato.

8 Terrible Reasons to be a Writer

Great blog post from James Cary over at Sitcom Geek, detailing 8 terrible reasons to be a writer. You want to make money, it sounds fun, you want to be famous, you want to meet famous people, you’re pretty sure you have a good idea for a movie or novel that would be successful, people have told you you’re funny, you have things to say, you write because you have to (also a bad reason, says James, but also the best!)

Gap Year good, Gap Yah bad

Gap Yah

Great ‘Viewpoint’ piece by Daniela Papi on the BBC website this morning, entitled Is ‘gap yah’ volunteering a bad thing? At the time of writing, Daniela’s piece is both the ‘Most Read’ and also the ‘Most Shared’ article on the BBC site. Her criticism of the gap year industry has clearly touched a nerve.

Papi argues that gap year volunteering is designed to make gappers feel good about themselves, that the opportunities to serve are contrived, and that we are encouraging unskilled, inexperienced, clueless volunteers to dabble in development work, with results that are at best neutral and at worst damaging. We are setting ourselves up for monumental failure.

The article is well argued, a devastating critique of the ‘gap yah’ abroad. As a one-time ‘serial volunteer’ herself, Papi does not doubt the good intentions of those volunteering. But she thinks it could be done better if the emphasis were on learning to serve rather than on serving. “It’s a small change in vocabulary,” she writes, “but it can have a big impact on our futures.”

Here are a few disjointed comments by way of response. I write as someone who took a ‘gap yah’ myself, and now as a long-term crosscultural worker in West Africa who regularly receives and mentors ‘gappers’.

  • I once talked to a lad who grew up in Mexico. He said he dreaded the arrival of gap year volunteers. When they left, he and his friends would have to tear down the wall the gappers had built and build it again – properly this time!
  • British nationality – or any other kind – does not qualify us to save the world. Being an influence for good is more about your heart than your passport or your education.
  • Cross-cultural exchange is valuable in and of itself.
  • I like receiving gappers. They bring energy, inspiration and fresh perspectives. Nothing keeps me on my toes like continually being asked ‘Why did you just do that?’
  • My friends and neighbours in Djibo like receiving gappers. It’s true. Koyngal woni endam (lit. The foot is fellowship – Being visited is honouring).
  • The best gappers have been those who helped with the washing up and played tag with kids in the yard and asked millions of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer.
  • All the long-termers I have met in Burkina Faso started out as short-termers. Clued-up-ness grows from cluelessness.
  • Effectiveness is born out of uselessness.
  • Gappers who come humble leave wise. Those who come wise leave jaded.
  • As Daniela says, training is essential. Often this means learning how to learn. The World Horizons training programme (brief plug!) is excellent for ‘learning how to learn’ language and culture.
  • I question those in the comments section below the BBC article who say ‘Stay home and donate your gap yah funds directly to charity’ – it seems like wisdom, but it is monochrome, reductionist, armchair wisdom of the worst sort.
  • A woman once anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, and Judas (of all people) got upset and said ‘That perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’
  • Perhaps we need to develop a theology of waste. Perhaps we should we smile a little less knowingly and talk a little less condescendingly about those bright-eyed young things washing cars to raise money for their plane tickets.
  • Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up (1 Cor.8:1). ‘How will it look on my CV?’ puffs up. ‘How can I stay involved?’ builds up.
  • Not one of our gappers have ever said ‘And then I chundered everywhere’. Yet.

Present tense for novel writing

So I’m reading Matt Haig’s wonderful novel The Radleys. I usually don’t like vampire stories but this is about a very English family of vampire ‘abstainers’ living in suburbia – it’s warm, sympathetic and very funny.

Anyway, The Radleys has got me thinking about present tense narration, and even considering it as an option for the thriller I’m writing at the moment. So I have been reading various opinions this morning about present tense novels – do they work, do they irritate their readers, and so on.

Never one to shy away from expressing a strong opinion, Philip Pullman has weighed in on the anti-present-tense-narration side of the discussion, calling it a ‘silly affectation’. Really? Always?

Opinion on the Writewords forums is divided when it comes to present tense narration:

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005

Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.

More seriously, though I’ve read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it’s often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn’t really imagining out the scene completely. It’s also less flexible: I think it’s much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder.

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? Luisa at 19:27 on 01 December 2005

No disrespect at all intended, but I’m struggling to understand the point of view of people who dislike books written in the present tense, or who see its use as trendy, or liken reading it to being hit over the head.

I strongly disagree with the comment that it is not natural to tell a story in the present tense in English. It is perfectly natural. Have you ever told a joke? Or talked about what a bad day you’ve had? Sometimes you use present tense, sometimes past tense. In both cases, you’re telling a story. They are both natural in our language. Do I speak a different language from the rest of you? (Don’t answer that!)

We’re talking about writing fiction, not newspaper reports. There are very few strict conventions to be adhered to, as I see it. Writers tell stories how they see fit to tell them.

We have a straight choice. We write in the present tense, or we write in the past tense. It’s the same as deciding whether to use first person or third person. It’s an important decision, and has implications for the whole story, but I can’t see how choosing one tense over another would cause such extreme reactions in a reader.


Preach it, Luisa! Molly Spooner’s take on it is similarly nuanced.

I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy.

So what might be a good reason to write a novel in the present tense? Richard Lea of The Guardian has this to say:

It’s no accident that Christian Paul Casparis traces the recent upsurge in present-tense narration to the beginning of the 1960s – the moment that Harold Wilson proclaimed a new Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution. As the pace of modern life accelerates, the present that we’re all living in seems much more immediate, much more fragmentary. In a world of Watergate and Wikileaks we’re much less prepared to accept a final version, an official story. The internet, mobile phones, Twitter: all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

I’ve got nothing against present tense narration per se – I’m devouring The Radleys, I loved J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and I even quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. But as a novelist, you need a reason to do it and you need to be aware of some of the technical problems it throws up. Like how to convey time-lapse without a sensation of ‘grating gears’. How to maintain immediacy and pace without stressing the reader to the point of exhaustion. And most importantly of all, how to avoid sounding like you’ve just done a Creative Writing MA and are wanting to show off your shiny new toolkit.

What do you think? What novels have you read which use present tense narration particularly well? Is it a portal to vivid, immediate, thrilling experience of story at its rawest and purest? Or is it like being hit over the head with a teaspoon?