Freedom: The Best Writing Tool Ever!

Oh Freedom, I have found you again!

I was delighted to see how one particular service has upgraded since my ancient  laptop gave up the ghost and with it, aside from the laptop itself, one of the best writing productivity tools I have ever had. Even if it was, in the early days back when I first learned of its existence, a little basic.

So what was this miracle tool? What was I genuinely aghast to find had been removed from my desktop when I switched from my cranky old machine to my lovely sparkly new one?

Well, sometimes the simplest things really are the best. It is:

The ability to switch off my internet completely for fixed periods of time

Yup! And that’s what this Freedom app thing does. Crazy, no? And yes, “freedom” really is the right word for it. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.

And alright, so you may be a whizz at self-mastery and able to focus like a pro for long stretches of time, but I, I’m afraid, with my little creative jump-about-everywhere brain that goes “ooh, look!” at anything that seems new and bright and shiny,  especially when I’m bored, am somewhat prone to distraction.

I find when I have major work to do, or I am slogging through a difficult draft, or my writing speed is about half a word a minute or fewer, there are a million ways I can find to do – well, just about anything else online. For example, I can:

  • Go and browse through threads full of crazy and less crazy people on Reddit
  • Go and browse through other forums and/or post and get into an argument
  • Read loads of writer’s blogs
  • Look at other people’s lovely Instagram or Pinterest pics.
  • Watch clips of shows I love on Youtube
  • Browse for books I don’t need – but might one day
  • Googlestalk a celeb crush (or two, or five. Yes, I still have them). Plus all my also supposedly grown up friends’ crushes, just to check. Learn said crushes’ entire imdb histories plus those of all their co-stars. In case I need this info later
  • Read celeb gossip sites and find self saying things like “See? Knew all along that xxxxx was a wrong-un”
  • Play pointless online games. For hours. I’m not sure it counts as writing just because it’s a word-game. It definitely doesn’t if it’s e.g. Candy Crush
  • Check my Facebook feed
  • Check my Twitter feed
  • Check my emails
  • See what new stuff is out on Netflix. Ditto Amazon watch, BBC iplayer, iTunes Curzon Cinema…(should point out I am in the UK and do not own a TV). Start watching anything interesting. ‘Cos it’s art, innit? All art counts!
  • Read reviews of anything interesting. Books, movies, exhibitions….
  • Follow a random internet trail of general interestingness in the name of supposed “research”, except not really when you end up at Reddit again and three hours have gone by.

Seriously, just being able to turn the frickin’ thing OFF for a bit has changed my writing life. I look back at my pre-internet days now (the net wasn’t even around back in days I was first a student) with a kind of stunned wonderment at a life free of all these  – devices and screens and “things” popping up all over the place. All the bloody time. Sure, I know it’s great to have easy access to all and any info at the hit of a button and I do love it but sometimes – it’s just too much. And it’s not what you need to get your writing done when you hit a rough spot, trust me.

OK, then. What are the best things about Freedom?

You can set the timing of the session where your access to the internet is blocked.

So if, like me, you are a fan of timed focus sessions like, for instance, the Pomodoro Technique, you can just set up the exact number of minutes or hours you want to be offline – and away you go. When the session is over, you can get back online again quickly and with no fuss whatsoever.

You can pre-book time slots for yourself to be offline

A great new addition to the Freedom tool, this – the ability to set up your offline time slots in advance. You can also set them to recur. Get you, you super-organised little thing, you!

You can choose what programmes and apps to block and not block

What’s your poison? It might be the whole internet you need to free yourself from. It might just be your Facebook, or Twitter, or Reddit that distracts you when you need to be Doing Other Stuff. Freedom now gives you the option of choosing exactly which of your personal distractions you get to block – and when.

You can choose which devices to block

Yeah, yeah, I know that old trick. My laptop’s blocked – ah, but I have the urge and I just have to just check and read this thing right now and – oh yeah, so I can check my phone, I can check my iPad… Ha! Well, not so fast there, missy. With Freedom, you get to shut off all your devices if you need to, in order to keep yourself productive and focused for your session. Thus giving yourself – no excuses.

So who’s it for?

It’s worth taking a look at Freedom (which you can try out for free, btw) if:

  • You’re struggling with focus on your projects
  • You are getting distracted by net-surfing and the various online rabbit-holes you can dive into
  • You NEED to focus for fixed periods of time in order to get things done – but just aren’t and are wasting time
  • Other members of your household will have spectacular tantrums if you so much as hint at switching off everyone’s internet connection at the source for a while so you can “work”.

Freedom mightn’t be necessary for you if:

  • You are already smugly self-disciplined and are never lured away from the task at hand by the tempting delights of the internet and all it has to offer
  • The idea of being removed from your constant stream of info, communications, and cute kitten pics fills you with existential dread. You couldn’t create without all that stuff flying around you, quite frankly.
  • You are the kind of person who “doesn’t believe in email” or “those bloody computer things” and still handwrites all your invoices and gets their personal secretary to type up anything that cannot be handwritten.

So – if the former sounds like you and you want to get some serious work done – check this out for a sec  (yeah, instead of that argument going on on your Facebook timeline) – and give yourself the choice for once. Switch it off – and GET PRODUCTIVE!


Review: The Artist’s Way

 The Artist’s Way   Julia Cameron

 The definitive book for reclaiming the creative self. Cameron’s 12-step programme (which follows AA methodology & structure) takes you on a week-by-week journey giving you the essential tools to reconnect you with your own creativity.  The most well-known of these are Morning Pages and Artist Dates.  Each chapter contains practical exercises for the week, and commentary on that week’s theme. It gives  Cameron’s guidance, and relevant biographical details of her personal journey of creative recovery after alcoholism and a harrowing public divorce (she was formerly married to director Martin Scorsese).

I can certainly vouch for this one. Originally published in 1992,  it’s maintained its popularity for a reason. I found  the focus on personal creativity, even in the simplest ways, and doing morning pages first thing worked amazingly well and improved my writing tenfold, although the commentary and methodology may be a bit hippy-dippy for some. Having first read it more than a decade ago, I still do my Morning Pages religiously, and I’d recommend it for anyone struggling with writer’s block.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling with writer’s block
  • Want to reconnect with your creative self
  • Would be keen to begin a regular creative practice but aren’t sure where to start
  • Are looking for something holistic with practical exercises
  • Have personal stuff to work out and process
  • Need  some creative self-care

Don’t use if you:

  • Run for the hills at any mention of God or spirituality
  • Come out in hives at anything new-agey
  • Are looking for a writing craft or structure book
  • Want a how-to-write book or one that gives you tips about editing
  • Need something to help you with a specific writing project



Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande

Becoming A Writer  Dorothea Brande

I took, and I still take, the writing of fiction seriously. The importance of novels and short stories in our society is great. Fiction supplies the only philosophy that many readers know; it establishes their ethical, social, and material standards; it confirms them in their prejudices or opens their minds to a wider world.

So writes Dorothea Brande in the introduction to her 1934 book, Becoming A Writer.

It seems to me that there is comparatively little written in the now hundreds of writing books about the psychological aspects of “being a writer” – about things that hit many of us, like lack of confidence, for instance, or the underlying anxieties that lead to writers block. (See Writing, Pressure, and the Things We Don’t Talk About Enough for more on these issues.)

And it’s interesting that, nearly 85 years after the book’s publication, despite the changes in technology , in spite of all the MFAs and books, the problems writers face are the same as they always were, and require the same basic solutions. These are what Becoming A Writer provides. It is essentially a guide to building for ourselves the good habits that form the foundation of a productive writing life.

You can see how later creativity books like The Artist’s Way have been influenced by Brande’s thinking and exercises – Becoming A Writer can be considered a precursor to those. She uses the language of the then-new psychoanalytic approach, and writes a great deal about the power of the unconscious, as well as what would later be popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as  “flow” .Her advice – she was a writing teacher – displays a  genuine psychological understanding  of writers and creative practice, particularly around building good habits and the sources of resistance.

The purpose of the book is to ‘”train” the burgeoning writer via a series of musings and practical exercises, such as writing first thing in the morning, agreeing with yourself to write at set times, viewing yourself objectively as a character and so on,as well as exercising your “non-writing” self.. She takes what we would now call a “holistic” approach– but there’s certainly no “woo” about it.

One particular strength for me is how the book encourages the writer to take ownership of their writing practice. Far too often, we look outside ourselves for the answers – to course qualifications, to self-declared ‘gurus’, to fixed interpretations of what constitutes good literature. Brande encourages quality, but wants her readers to know themselves well as people and what they think of the world and the big life questions,  so that they may strive for honesty in their writing, to familiarize themselves objectively with their own quirks, style, strengths and weaknesses and then use that to improve and build on that knowledge and skill.

In all the books I’ve read on writing, I still don’t think I’ve found a guide to daily practice as common-sense and practical as this. In terms of content, it is every bit as relevant now as it would have been 80-odd years ago. As a result, I would highly recommend.

Use if you need:

  • Guidance on building your regular writing practice
  • Practical exercises to build up good writing habits
  • An approach that encourages you to observe and take ownership of yourself as a writer, and that you can tailor to your own needs.


Review: The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

The Anatomy of Story     John Truby

Screenwriting guru and script consultant John Truby goes in-depth about how to build a satisfying story, level by level. The book is designed primarily for screenwriters, and I have used it for screenplays, but I have found the exercises invaluable when writing prose fiction too.

Highly practical, the book focuses on getting the writer to build a coherent story that works at all levels – including working out its particular  “designing principle”. This is the overall strategy you’ll use for telling the story, a concept which takes the whole thing into deep structural territory.  Truby focuses on more than just the basic three-act structure approach. Chapters cover key elements such as how to find your premise, the seven crucial steps of story structure, character, moral/thematic argument, the world of the story and its symbols and how these all work together to create a coherent whole. The book then takes you through Truby’s screenwriting  plotting method (The 22 Steps) which brings everything together step by step.

Although readers will find many of his movie examples outdated (he bangs on about Tootsie, for example) I have  certainly found his story exercises some of the most useful in my arsenal, particularly when I am planning a story or when I am stuck. As a result, The Anatomy of Story has turned out to be of the most well-thumbed and practical writing books in my  collection.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling to isolate the premise of your story
  • Want a step by step process to help you build your story
  • Like getting analytical with practical exercises at the same time
  • Are looking for practical ways to pull your story into a coherent whole
  • Would like to really go deeply into your story

Don’t use if you:

  • Can’t bear screenwriting gurus or writing “systems”
  • Prefer to be a pantser and work without outlines or too much analysis
  • Need your movie references to be modern
  • Are already a master plotter

Becoming a Writer: Create Your Own Path

How do you create your own path as a writer?

It is easy to get sucked into the belief that to give yourself permission to call yourself a writer, there is a rigid set of external steps that you have to fulfil. The fiction writing world, at least here in the UK, can be a small one, demographically speaking. Much as I love all the writers I know, it is, in my experience, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated crowd (and yes, that goes for me too). That means that for many writers,  the “officially-sanctioned path” – with its inherent assumptions about cultural background and income – can seem rather limited and exclusionary.

For instance, it is not enough to just sit down every day and write; it has to be literary fiction. It must be in the form of a novel ( you have to pick one form) and has to be traditionally published. You must have done – and paid for – an MA or MFA or one of the publisher courses specifically set up to rival these, or you are “ not doing anything”.  Or you must have studied English Literature at university and have gone to university in the first place. You must be under 40. Blah. Etcetera.

This, of course, is all bollocks. There’s nothing wrong with these things (well, apart from the under 40 focus), they can indeed be helpful for many – but they are categorically not the only ways to develop your writing, nor the only path to follow. It is perfectly possible to “become a writer” while missing any or all of these, and to create your own path yourself.

Five Ways To Create Your Own Writing Path

Know Yourself Well

Be honest. Think about the things you really like reading. What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see your writing dreams? What genres do you love? When push comes to shove, would you rather win the Booker, be a performance poet or make millions with a commercial bestseller? All of these make a difference to the decisions you might make on your writing path. The books to read, the authors to study, the courses to consider.

Learn Your Strengths & Weaknesses

It’s also worth getting clear about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps people have told you you’ve a knack for suspense, or you do a great line in sharp character observation, or your plot twists are sublime and your writing zips along. This is the stuff you champion and build on. On the other hand, your editing might need work, you might be rubbish at endings, you might struggle with structure or story. Nobody likes to be anything other than marvellous, but knowing your weaknesses means you can concentrate your learning efforts on trying to bridge those gaps.

Study The Greats

Your greats and my greats might be different – and that’s fine. I’m a short story writer and lover of dark, off-kilter literary fiction. You might be writing gritty urban YA, century-spanning family dramas, murder mystery spoofs, zombie sci-fi. I’m assuming if you are serious about your writing that you are already a voracious reader. But this isn’t just about reading for pleasure, although that too, of course. You need to actually study the best work in your chosen genre. Read a little around it too, explore the boundaries a bit. Compare and contrast different writers and forms and look at the patterns. Examine how the work is constructed; see how it has been put together, consider what the effects are on you, the reader and how those effects have been achieved. Make notes.

Don’t – ever – copy in the plagiaristic sense, but can you try out some of the structures in your own work? The effects? How might you improve on them?

Find Your People

No writer is an island – even for an activity that tends to involve so much isolation. It’s great to have like-minded people to connect with. I myself found a huge network of short-story lovers, first from joining a small short story book group close to my work, plus independently going to events and running into the same people, from there to a regular spoken-word night and joining a writing group with some of the attendees, connecting with new people over Twitter and by following blogs that interested me. If you take action, such as attending readings based on the stuff you genuinely love, you’ll soon start to connect with others doing the same. And who knows what can follow from there?

Seek Out Resources That Will Help You

 The better you know yourself as a writer, the better you can target the learning experiences you need. You may be someone who works best by yourself, using exercises from books and online and setting your own pace. Or you might benefit from the classroom atmosphere of a good course, or the silence of a writing retreat – or a one-to-one with a supportive mentor. You may want a critique group. You may want writing exercises targeting on one or two of your weaknesses. Personally I’ve done in-depth courses in screenwriting, playwriting, script-reading, short fiction. I’ve been to hundreds of author talks and spoken word nights. I have a ton of online resources I use and shelves full of books, many crossing over between screenwriting and fiction, which I happen to find useful. I’m in two critique groups. I do also have an MA, though seem to do my best work when setting my own pace and supplementing with short, targeted courses when I can afford them. That’s just me. Everyone is different, after all.

Truth is, there is a wealth of information and resource out there for you already – you just have to decide what you need to take your work forward and go out and find it. And yes, you are allowed. You might find that all of the listed “official channels” are right for you, or only some of them are, or only aspects of some of them that you can source yourself. Chances are if you want to, you will be able to find your own alternatives as and when you need to. Creating your own path may well empower you – and improve your writing, too.