I talked once about how important it is to have a dedicated place to write in, and listed some public places you could use as your writing space, but not all of us can write amid the bustle and hustle there so how do we create a writing space that works for us?
1. Notebook Style
If you write by hand, then probably the easiest option for you is to buy a particular style of notebook you only use for your writing, and stick with that particular style for future projects.
I don’t do a lot of actual writing in notebooks because of my hands, but I do use them for world-building and jotting down scenes. My brain always knows “she’s got the notebook out, I need to think up some ideas”.
The notebook or journal you choose to write in doesn’t have to break the bank. The cost isn’t the important part. It doesn’t matter if you buy 50 exercise books for 50p off of ebay or if you can afford a fancy handmade leather journal from a crafter on Etsy. What matters is that you pick a style (e.g. spiral bound or case-bound) and then stick to it — because your brain needs to learn to associate that style with writing.
I know how easy it is to indulge your stationery obsessions and buy dozens of notebooks you don’t really need and will never actually use just because they look too pretty to “ruin”. I won’t tell you not to do that (because I’m just as guilty) but you don’t need a fancy leather journal or an expensive notebook. (I didn’t write any better in the £10 notebook than I did in the one that cost £1.) You can train your brain to associate any kind of notebook with “time to write”, so save your money for more important things (like a printer).
2. Create a digital work space
If, like me, you do the majority of your writing on the computer, then you need to set up a digital workspace instead. You can train your brain to recognise a certain programme in the same way you can train it to recognise a certain place so that it knows to “switch on” as soon you enter your office or the library or park.
One of the reasons I love Liquid Story Binder so much is that you can arrange file windows within it and then save them as a particular work space, so you can easily switch between sessions like “revising” and “writing”. My writing work spaces generally have more images and dossiers open in the background for quick reference. Revision work spaces tend to be just the draft I’m working on.
You don’t necessarily need to use special writing software, though. I write the articles for my Guardians wiki in the text editing box on the wiki site itself. It’s dangerous to do so (Firefox saves most posts if I accidentally exit, but you can still lose your work stupidly easily) but the wiki environment puts me in the world-building frame of mind faster than anything else I’ve tried. Similarly, I write my blog posts directly into WordPress because it’s easier than translating the formatting from Word.
Like with the notebooks, it doesn’t matter what software you choose. (I have a friend who actually coded his own software to suit his writing needs. Not that I’m jealous or anything.) What matters is that you pick one and stick to it.
3. Choose a colour scheme
I have different colour schemes for each book that I apply to all of my files, from my Liquid Story Binder theme to my spreadsheets, so my brain sees purple and knows I’m working on The Spy Master or that brown means it’s time for The Gun Runner.
Colour coding your notes is a great way to make them easier to read back, but I like to take it further. LSB lets you create entire display themes. That way, I can switch between the different colour schemes and immediately immerse myself in the corresponding book. The different environments let my brain know that it can forget all the info about the characters who don’t feature in this book, and focus only on the story and places that matter at this particular moment.
Having a colour scheme is doubly important if you use your writing software for things other than writing. For instance, if you use Microsoft Word for your fiction and for your dissertation, then your brain won’t know which mode it’s supposed to be in. Creating a colour scheme and even a different background for each project can help you switch gears and settle in to the correct mode much faster.
4. Use a Typewriter
Some writers use a typewriter and refuse to use anything else. Call them pretentious if you want (which seems to be the go-to insult for anyone who does anything different), but I get why they do it: sitting down to a typewriter is an almost singular event. Unless you’re very traditional, you’re not going to use a typewriter to send a letter when you could more easily do so on a computer, and you can’t send emails or do your grocery shopping or watch famous cats on YouTube. If you have a typewriter, it will very likely be solely for your writing.
In other words, you’ll be training your brain to recognise “writing time” without even realising it.
Of course, typewriters aren’t mobile and need physical space of some kind, but that doesn’t have to mean you need an office. (Ernest Hemingway apparently kept his typewriter on a shelf and wrote while standing.)
There are other benefits to using a typewriter that I’ll let other people talk about. I personally find them cumbersome and I would hate having to re-draft manually, but there are plenty of writers who love them.
You don’t need to buy an actual typewriter to gain some of these benefits, though. Some writing software offer a distraction-free mode, like Liquid Story Binder’s Typewriter, which you can set up so you can’t backspace. (I wrote the majority of The Dragon Lord in typewriter mode and averaged out at 2500 words per day.) There are also a couple of apps for the iPad (and probably iPhone too) that simulate a typewriter environment, and I’ve no doubt they or similar are available on other operating systems, too.
5. Be smart about it
There are other alternatives, as well. Enough writers are using an Alpha Smart that there are articles teaching them how. I had one back at uni as a study aid because it was cheaper than a laptop. It only had a 3-line LCD screen so I couldn’t go back (easily) to check what I’d already written — which is a bonus if you have issues with confidence and “accidentally” revising when you should be writing — and I found the buttons on mine very hard to type on. It was pretty disruptive in class because the keys clacked so loudly, and I had to transfer the contents to my computer frequently because it didn’t have a lot of storage and it was a bitch to edit on.
Still, it’s a neat little bit of kit and much easier to carry around than a laptop. (It’s definitely easier to carry than a typewriter!)
6. Tell it like it is
If you’ve ever had a burst of brilliance at ass o’clock in the morning, you’ll know how hard it is to pry your eyes open long enough to grab the notebook from wherever you had it last, find a pen and write in straight, coherent lines long enough to jot it down — all at the speed of light so you don’t forget your genius idea.
But then I discovered a voice recording app on my phone. It’s still tough to pry my eyes open long enough to open it, but I put it on the home screen so it involves less fiddling, and I now only need to keep my eyes open until it’s recording.
Of course, understanding the next morning what I was mumbling into my pillow is a completely different story (some of my earlier recordings were completely unintelligible), but I found that even just listening to a garbled voice was often enough to remind me what I was talking about. I managed to save ideas that would have been lost otherwise.
I’m not telling you this so you can laugh at my pillow talk, though. Some writers dictate their entire novel and then either translate it themselves (or hire someone to do it for them) or use a dictation software like Dragon Naturally Speaking to “type” as they speak. (I used DNS at university as a study aid and it was terrible. I got more done when my roommate volunteered to type for me in its stead. DNS has apparently come a long way, though.)
7. Build a “mind palace”
I don’t have a proper mind palace the way Sherlock does, but when I’m in the “zone” (which can last anywhere from a week to half a year, depending on my M.E.), I often find myself dreaming while I’m napping. I’m not actually asleep; I can’t physically move or wake up, but I’m fully aware and can make decisions.
In these lucid dreams, I can choreograph entire scenes and edit them until they work, or visualise settings in a way that I can’t when I’m awake. Since I spend a lot of time napping but not actually sleeping, this is a great way to maximise my writing time. The only trick is remembering what I “wrote” when I wake up.
You could build your own mind palace, or you could learn to meditate. The idea, in either case, is to give yourself a mental space to think and work through problems with your story or characters without putting pen to paper. And if you do it often enough, your brain will immediately start trying to enter this private zone whenever you sit cross-legged on your bed or start up your Tai Chi routine in your living room.
I have a certain style of notebook for general notes, another type of notebook for series-specific notes and ideas, and my digital work spaces on top of them. I lucid dream when I nap and need to work through a problematic scene or figure out how a character will react in a given situation, and I have a voice recorder for those late night/early morning bursts of genius.
If I’m offline and pick up my Guardians notebook, even if I’m not feeling particularly inspired and haven’t worked on the series in a while, I can pretty much guarantee that I will put it back down having added at least one idea or snippet of a scene. It may not be a long scene or a full idea, but it’s still more than I had before and I don’t put it down frustrated that I’ve added nothing.
If I open LSB and switch to the purple skin, the characters from The Spy Master start clamouring for attention and I know it’s time to write. If I load my Guardians wiki, I know it’s time to work on the setting.
Combining techniques and spaces gives you a lot more opportunities to work on your stories, even if you’re not actually writing.
You lied to me!
At this point, you’re probably saying, “Emma, most of these are writing tools, not writing spaces” and, well, you’d be right. That’s why the title of this article includes the word “alternative”.
The thing is: you can turn almost anything into a writing space if you understand the mentality behind how a writing space actually works. To me, the whole point of having a dedicated space — be it an office or a park or a notebook — is to train your brain to associate something with “writing time”.
Obviously, a real office is still probably your best option. Having somewhere to “hide” from all the distractions of life, from kids to pets to the postman, gives you more opportunity to get “in the zone”. Even so, having an office doesn’t guarantee your success as a writer, because you’re just as likely to get distracted in there as you are anywhere else if you let yourself.
The point of having a writing space, then, is not to have an actual space but to have somewhere that forces you into work mode — and you can do that pretty much anywhere if you know how.