The Lunchtime Writer Part Five: On Breaks

One question which leaps to mind on the subject of Lunchtime Writing is: can I (or should I) take breaks? Maybe take a day or two off and make it up later.

Well, sometimes you have to. There will always be days when you have literally no time, not even a spare half-hour, for writing. Or other days when you really should, for other reasons. I remember one of Isaac Asimov’s editorial columns from his magazine, where he boasted that he worked literally every day of the year, and then added (also as a bit of a boast) that this had led to his wife getting angry at him for excusing himself from a holiday visit with guests to go write. Let’s just say there’s more than one reason Asimov doesn’t have a reputation for the greatest social awareness.

But I’ll also say that part of the power of Lunchtime Writing comes from the fact that it’s a daily practice. It’s like learning a language or studying for an exam or exercising or playing a musical instrument: in some ways, doing it regularly is better for your brain than the amount of time you spend doing it.

You can also, of course, shorten the amount of time you spend on it. If you want to make sure you get in some writing every day, you could set yourself a target of 100 words, or even just 1 word, on busy days.

But if even that’s impossible… well, my advice is to keep breaks to a minimum.

Preorder “Management Lessons From Game of Thrones”!

So, Management Lessons From Game of Thrones, based on (but expanding on!) my blogpost series Leadership Lessons From Game of Thrones, is coming out in July and you can preorder it right now!

UK link here

US link here

Buy direct from publisher here

This is the management theory book you never knew you wanted– order it now!

The Lunchtime Writer Guest Post 2: Writing in the Gaps with Sara L. Uckelman

I wrote my first story age 4, typing it out on my parents’ Osborne before I could even hold a pen.  This was followed up when I was 7 or 8 by my first “novel”, Cyclesta, an epic tale of a dynasty of fish, and by age 11 I had started my sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

I always knew that I was going to be a writer.  I knew this even when I reached the end of my university years and realised I wasn’t that good.  I put aside fiction and poetry, concentrating on graduate school, research papers, and building my academic career instead.

By the time I woke up one morning in 2014 and thought, “I’m going to start writing fiction again,” I hadn’t written more than a few paragraphs of fiction in more than a decade. I’d gone from a student with an endless supply of time to a married parent of a toddler about to embark on a tenured academic position in a new country. I challenged myself to write 500 words a day – exactly – (I am motivated by arbitrary and obscure constraints) and if I missed my 500 words one day, they rolled over to the next day. Within these constraints, I gave myself perfect freedom: I would write whatever I wanted to write, without any concern about whether I should write it, or whether it was good, or whether I was allowed.

I very quickly realised that 500 words is a lot of words.  Too many words.  I woke up in the morning and was daunted rather than inspired.  Within a day or two, I reduced my challenge to 400 words a day, and that was the first important lesson that I learned: where 500 is impossible, 400 is doable.  I went on to write 400 words a day for the next two and a half months, and continued to write sporadically on that project over the next two years until I had 80,000 words.  Two years later, I extracted a short story’s worth of material from that 80k, and it resulted in my first fiction acceptance as an adult  (“The Sum of Our Memories” was published in Hannah Kate, editor, Nothing, Hic Dragones, https://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/product/nothing/).

If the first lesson I learned was immediate and obvious, the second lesson I learned from this practice I only realised I’d learned in retrospect, and that is that: writing breeds writing.  The more I wrote, the easier it was. Small, achievable goals meant I had the impetus to write every day; actually writing the words meant I wanted to write every day.

A few years into my new job, I joined a group of other academics and writers in formalising the 400 words a day challenge; each month, we bet the others in the group $20 that we could write at least 400 words a day 5 days out of every 7.  It was during this that I learned my third lesson about writing: All words are real words, all writing is good writing.  Many other people in the challenge only counted “real” writing, e.g., word intended for publication. I, on the other hand, counted everything – blog posts, referee reports, comments on student papers, things I would not otherwise have written had I not needed to reach my 400 word goal.  Because writing breeds writing, all writing is good writing. To separate out my words into those that “counted” vs. those that didn’t would only have served to say “some of the things you are writing are valueless”, when manifestly they were not, because they primed the pump. [The words for these post are going into my daily word count tracker!]

Which brings me to the title I chose in this post: Writing in the gaps. Leisure time – time to think, uninterrupted time, time when I am not exhausted – is hard to come by, when you have a partner and a child (even if she is no longer a toddler!) and a demanding job, even before you add a global pandemic into the mix.  Often, I have only a few minutes here and there, a moment when a few sentences spring into my head and I dump them down on paper.  It is in the gaps between all the other calls on my time that I am able to write, but even if it is just a few sentence here, a random Twitter poem there, all writing is good writing, and writing in the gaps means I am doing what matters most: Putting words on paper and building something out of them.

All words count.

All writing matters.

Writing breeds writing.

Write what you want, without judgement.

These are the lessons I’ve learned over the last decade or so, which give me the freedom and permission I need to write in the gaps.

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman is an associate professor of logic at Durham University. Writing in the gaps has resulted in a steady stream of published short stories, flash fic pieces, and poems over the last 5 years, including a story co-written with her (then 8yo) daughter, which resulted in the establishment of Ellipsis Imprints, a small press based in the northeast of England, which publishes SFF, poetry, anthologies, popular nonfiction, and books written for and by children.

For more about what she writes and publishes, see https://sluckelman.webspace.durham.ac.uk/fiction/ and https://www.ellipsis.cx/~liana/ellipsisimprints/.  You can find her reviews of short science fiction and fantasy stories at https://sffreviews.com/.

The Lunchtime Writer Part Three: The Scheherazade Effect

Last time, I talked about how Lunchtime Writing is a good way to find time in your busy day to write. A regular routine of writing a small amount of words keeps you working steadily at your manuscript, allowing you to write over 100k words in a year.

But there’s another benefit to Lunchtime Writing which I call the Scheherazade Effect.

If you remember your Thousand and One Nights, you’ll remember that Scheherazade the storyteller weaponised the cliffhanger, stopping her stories at an exciting point so that the sultan wouldn’t execute her, because he wanted to find out what happened next.

Forcing yourself to stop after a small number of words has a similar effect on the brain. You go through the rest of your day thinking about what’s going to happen. Maybe running through dialogue options, or trying out different things your characters could do in response to the situation you’ve left them in.

By the time the next lunchtime rolls around, and you’re sitting down to write again, you’ve thought it all through, and the next 500 words just flow.

So, it’s not just about writing a small number of words so as to fit your schedule: it’s also about stopping writing, so that your brain goes on working on the manuscript in between. Making those 500 words count, and reducing editing time.

Which is what we’ll talk about next time….

FitzJames and Moyo make the BSFA Award Shortlist (again!)

The BSFA Award Shortlist has been announced, and my FitzJames and Moyo story, “Things Can Only Get Better”, about a surgical bot repurposed as a taxi who cracks a gambling ring, is on it! This is their second time on the shortlist, after 2020’s “Jolene”, and what can I say but it’ll be an honour to lose to such amazing people.

You can read my story at the link to Abyss and Apex above, and vote at bsfa.co.uk.

The list:

Best Book for Younger Readers

The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis, Bloomsbury Children’s Books

A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger, Levine Querido

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao, Rock the Boat

Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko, Hot Key Books

The Empty Orchestra, by Elizabeth Priest, Luna Press Publishing

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve, David Fickling Books

Best Novel

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, Tor

Blackthorn Winter by Liz Williams, NewCon Press

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts, Gollancz

Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley, Solaris

Green Man’s Challenge by Juliet E. McKenna, Wizard’s Tower Press

Best Shorter Fiction

‘Fireheart Tiger’ by Aliette de Bodard, Tor.com

‘Light Chaser’ by Peter F. Hamilton, Gareth L. Powell, Tor.com

‘O2 Arena’ by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Galaxy Edge Magazine

‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by Fiona Moore, Abyss & Apex

Best Non-Fiction

Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, by Anna McFarlane, Routledge

Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color, by Joy Sanchez-Taylor, Ohio State Press

The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, by Mark Bould, Verso Books

Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T. Barbini, Luna Publishing

Octothorpe Podcast, by John Coxon, Alison Scott, and Liz Batty, Octothorpe

Science Fiction and the Pathways out of the COVID Crisis, by Val Nolan, The Polyphony

Best Artwork

Cover of Eugen Bacon’s Danged Black Thing, by Peter Lo / Kara Walker, Transit Lounge Publishing

Cover of Eugen Bacon’s Saving Shadows, by Elena Betti, NewCon Press

Cover of Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm, by Dan dos Santos / Lauren Panepinto, Orbit

Cover of Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki (ed.)’s The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction, by Maria Spada

Glasgow Green Woman by Iain Clark, Glasgow2024

The Lunchtime Writer Guest Post 1: Dawn Vogel

When you work a day job as an author, you sometimes need to carve out bits of time when you can write. For me, when I worked in an office, that time was my lunch break. Even though I sat at the front desk and needed to answer phones, I could usually spend the bulk of my hour-long lunch typing bits of a story or a novel while I ate. More often, I spent about fifteen minutes devouring my food, and then forty-five minutes writing.

I’m a fast typist; if I’m really in the zone with a story or other creative project, I can easily get close to 1,000 words in forty to sixty minutes. For me, 1,000 words is roughly a scene in a novel chapter. With four or five days a week of writing during lunch, I could write about a chapter and a half a week. Several of my novels were largely drafted on my lunch breaks, over the course of several months.

The one thing that lunch time writing didn’t really let me do was revising and editing longer pieces. For those, I tended to want a little more focus and often a little more time. But for drafting quickly, lunch was a perfect opportunity.

Now that I’ve been working from home for nearly two years, I find that I don’t get as much writing done on my lunch break. My husband also works from home, and we usually chat during our respective lunch breaks. Some days, I go for a walk during the second part of my lunch break. Often, there are little household chores that I can knock out instead of writing. The time just doesn’t feel as focused and dedicated as it did when I was in the office daily.

However, I still use similar techniques when I want to draft something quickly. I’ll set myself a timer for twenty or thirty minutes and just write until the alarm sounds. Similar to the Pomodoro technique, I will often break up my writing sprints with short breaks, either to move around so I’m not in my seat all day, or to focus on another task for a bit. I find that using this technique helps me get more done without feeling overwhelmed by the larger project.

So, while my blocks of writing time may no longer be quite as organized around my lunch break, I still make use of short sprints of time to draft new pieces. It’s a useful technique for anyone who doesn’t have as much uninterrupted writing time as they might want!

Dawn Vogel has written for children, teens, and adults, spanning genres, places, and time periods. More than 100 of her stories and poems have been published by small and large presses. Her specialties include young protagonists, siblings who bicker but love each other in the end, and things in the water that want you dead. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. You can find her and her lunchtime drafted novels at historythatneverwas.com or chat with her on Twitter @historyneverwas.