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The importance of setting
for both the story and the writer
This morning, it was necessary to leave.
After months of trying to write the novel in the same room or, at a minimum, in the same flat as I do all my regular work, I had to accept it was impossible to separate the tasks adequately.
Having had an excellent wake-up call conversation with Katherine May yesterday evening, I realized I had to make a decision. Katherine asked me on her Q+A session (note that at time of posting this, the replay isn’t yet live but will be later):
“Is writing your work, or does it need to be a hobby?”
This is the trickiest question of all. Especially for those of us who are fortunate enough to have work that we genuinely enjoy. The blessing and curse of being a writing coach and course creator for novelists is that I get to think and talk about writing fiction all day long. Without necessarily writing any of my fiction in the process.
Our identity as writers is so important to clarify in order to be happy with what we create. I am, at heart, a novelist. And the work I do with other writers is based on what I have discovered in my own writing.
I don’t make nearly as much money from book sales as I do from coaching and teaching, so it’s easy for the aspect of society that identifies “pays the bills” as the task that’s top priority to take charge.
But at what expense?
I can’t be the best teacher if I’m not writing effectively. There is nothing to teach if I’m not creating fiction. The cart cannot go ahead of the horse for long without the whole system breaking down.
When I had day jobs I didn’t love, it was easier to fight for writing time. I knew I was doing that work for money rather than love, so I stole every moment I could find to work on writing. I dictated while walking to work, I wrote sections of manuscript in sneaky emails to myself. I made notes when the workday was slow.
But if you love the work you do in addition to writing? It’s harder, especially if you work from home.
Here’s the solution I’ve found: leave.
I need to change setting. Just as a scene gets really dull if you leave your character in the same place or have them do the same activity over and over, sometimes a change of scene is required.
This morning, with Katherine’s question “Is writing your work or is it a hobby?” echoing in my ears, I headed out with a backpack at 8:30. All that came with me was my writing notebook, my iPad, which has become my typing station, and the handwritten second draft of my current novel so far.
No work laptop, no business work.
I walked twenty minutes to a favorite cafe on the canals close to my home in Berlin and sat myself down to write. There are no toilets to clean in a cafe, no laundry to do, no email to escape into.
Hilariously, they thwarted me with this sign:
Uggh. I didn’t think the argument “But it’s an iPad with a keyboard!” was going to convince them, so instead I made notes and wrote a new scene rather than typing up existing work as planned.
It felt good. The walk helped, and more than anything, so did the change of scene.
Is there a way you can step outside your usual setting and try a new spot?
While we cling to routines, the fun thing I’ve learned is that breaking stagnant routines is as easy as changing the scenery. Sitting in that cafe, I was an entirely new writer, even though I’ve been there many times before.
I rarely go in the morning. I rarely go out during the day on workdays.
Making those two changes was enough to blow the doors off.
Change your space, change your results.
What routine do you want to change this week?
Note to subscribers: Up to this point, I’ve been attempting to write From Dream to Draft chronologically, the way I imagine you would read the finished book. However, that’s not usually the way I write, particularly for nonfiction.
I build up sections, but have insights all the time about earlier and later parts of the book, and I write those bits as they come to me.
Part of the reason I think it’s been such a challenge to make the progress I’d hoped to with this substack project is that I’ve been fighting my own writing process.
Going forward, I’ll write the section I’m excited about in that moment and include a note like this one at the bottom to orient you to where it might live in the book, to the best of my knowledge.
If any section inspires questions or things you’re curious about, share that in the comments as it will help me keep writing the book, so it serves you best.
Thank you again for your patience and incredible support.