The Power of Habit: with a little help from my friends Hemingway and Duhigg

Storytelling might be said to live at the fork in the road, always demanding of us which way now? Never allowing us the sweet ease of boredom trudging along the well worn path. That doesn’t, however, mean you can’t make it a little easier and call on the power of habit to do so. Since I know no one clicked on my link in my last post (it really is worth that devastatingly difficult index finger twitch, honest..) I thought I’d do all the hard work for you, since I am already, mid-way through Nano with a zero word count, attempting to do it for myself.


The dreaded decisions don’t start with Chapter One and whether your character is mid-flight or mid-yawn, for most of us the entire process is steeped in them, offering dozens of tantalising, torturous options long before we even switch on the computer. And it’s here in the run up to the actual putting of words on screen that we can use habit to the greatest effect.

If you are anything like me the first hurdle is simply getting your bum into the chair. Not the couch, not the kitchen stool, not the bed, but the little wheelie deal that tucks under my desk.

Not everyone has a cupboard stylish wee hideaway to write in, some do it at the kitchen table, some in front of the tele, some wherever they can. If you want habit to help you out, you need to scratch the last from your list. The others are fine, but if it’s at all possible to designate a chair, a spot just for writing, do it. Even if its just taking a different seat to the one you usually sit at for eating round the kitchen table.

Habit Mr Duhigg tells us is a loop, a closed circuit in the brain, that starts with a cue. A trigger. I’m sure advertisers could write a book on this. A trigger is a seemingly innocuous image, place, act that sets the process in motion. Its like how the thought of hitting the gym somehow suddenly doesn’t seem quite as insurmountably awful when you’re already in your gym kit. Of course there’s the small issue of making yourself put on your gym kit, when you might have already made the decision it aint going to happen. Duhigg suggests putting your trainers by your bed, so they are the first thing your feet hit when you swing them out from under the covers in the morning. The trick with a cue is to make it specific but also really easy. An act so small or insignificant you don’t even pause to question it. Like putting on shoes.

For me I’ve started putting my laptop in my cupboard study each night, so that if I want to use it the next day I have to bypass the couch, go in to the study, switch on the light. The simple act of walking into my writing space triggers the process of sitting down to write, much like being in your running clothes triggers the process of exercising. Sounds easy; it is. And you might find you don’t need to read any further.

Most of us find the getting started the hard bit and if we can overcome that, make it a habit, then the rest falls into place. When I was briefly unemployed many years ago I took the decision that rather than waste the days I would consider writing my full time occupation. I developed habits around this without really realising what I was doing. I would often find on days when I hated the thought of starting I had already powered up the computer and was sitting nursing a hot cup as Word flickered into life, even as I was still moaning about how I didn’t want to do it. I was living with my parents so had a proper study and a computer with no internet access..

I’ll repeat that: a computer with NO internet access.

The cue that gets your arse sitting down to write might not be enough if you’re still tempted to sit down to write a tweet or a facebook status. Or a scathing review on amazon, because even you could write better. Except you’re not. You’re not writing at all.


If you have a computer that has no internet access.. but who does? I don’t have spare one. Even my parents finally caught up (though they still can’t manage the wireless printer). That’s why containing writing to one very specific place can be so crucial, you are reducing the cue to one set of actions. However, until the habit is formed, it’s too easy to stray to easier, less tasking options, for the writer who ‘hates writing’.

The Habit Loop is closed with a reward. Duhigg states that this is often less obvious than we might think, is it the cookie or the underlying sense of having treated yourself? The coffee shop, the ambience, the chat or much more crucially the feel good chemicals flooding your brain from simply having completed the loop? For the writer who ‘loves having written’ I think the reward is fairly obvious and subbing in chocolate treats just leads to trainers by the bed..

Instead I’d look to my other mentor Hemingway (never cared for his novels, but as a mentor he’s not bad).

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible…  ~ A Moveable Feast, Earnest Hemingway

Mornings belong to rush hour for me most days, but if you can write early, it’s to your benefit. Decisions get increasingly harder to make, the more of them we make. Like candy crush, we start each day anew, but by the time we’ve got through a work dilemma, family dinner, and everything in between we’ve pretty much used up all of our reserves. If you want to start new habits start early. Even if you can’t write early, make the decision to write early. Studies have shown that dieters who decide what they will eat for dinner first thing in the morning, even better if they commit it to a daily planner, are far less likely to give in to a take away however late they crawl in.

Make a commitment and write it down. And as with the cue, don’t get carried away in that New Years Resolution, six aftershocks after you should have stopped, sort of way; keep it small. Insignificant. The aim is to get started. If you aim for 500 words a day, or even 100, that’s less than a page. Yet if you were to do it every day, it would add up to 14,000 a month, which means a book in six. Two books a year if you managed this very small amount. And in truth the amount is just about getting you started. More often than not a writing session for me totals in the 1000’s. If I can get started.

The second trick Hemingway offers is one I have always tended to instinctively and one I know I would struggle (even more) to do without.

…. and as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. ~ A Moveable Feast, Earnest Hemingway

I consider it a way of easing myself in. Like warm up exercises, you complete the bit you already know – no decisions, no figuring it out, no feeling stumped – you just start to write and by the time you reach the bit you do have to figure out you’re already in the groove.

I’m going to try and employ all of these and do my own nano and run from now til the 18th of December. I’ll let you know how well I do, and if you are trying too.. Still love this wee guy!



CampNano: Here we go again..


I’ve just written, with an irritating chirp in my typing, that I am nothing if not delusionally optimistic.I think you have to be if you have as bad a track record as I do in NanoWriMo and yet still find yourself cheerily signing up for another failure. And there isn’t even a tiny piece of me that is thinking of not checking in to that cabin.

I sometimes feel lately (lately covers the last six years right?) that I am living my own groundhog day. I wish it only took a day. I wish I could reset it. But while time marches on I don’t. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do I always end up back at the same place.

Thankfully it doesn’t come with a soundtrack. But like Bill/Phill I know that the only person keeping me on loop is me. There might actually be a song for that, but I’m happy to say I can’t think of it….

How many stories am I gonna discard before I figure out there’s no such thing as a perfect book? How many more books will I write before I figure out that the only thing I need to write is a query letter? How many query letters will I perfect before I figure out that the only thing I need to do is stick a stamp on it? Virtually speaking.

Bill/Phil learnt to play the piano, accept the inexorable truth of humanity’s mortality and give the perfect toast. Maybe I’m a slow learner. Or maybe I am just a slow climber. Doesn’t mean I won’t get there in the end.

I’m the chubby girl from high school who – ‘could’ with emphasis – turn up to the school reunion in a bikini. I’m not saying you could grate cheese on my abs, I might have to hold my breath a lot – breathing isn’t required to smile and nod – but it would be a respectable size eight. I didn’t do that overnight either. There were blimps in the road (if I’d scattered pics of myself about the streets anyway), ups, downs, a deep and meaningful relationship with the guy on the midnight to two am shift at the local garage. I spent a long, long time spinning my extra tyres about ten pounds from my final goal.

But I did it. I did it and maintained it. And without turning into a religious, health food nut. One fellow former fatty friend, who admittedly does have abs you can use to shave your parmesan on, ended up finding God. Another found the Gluten free aisle.

So I am climbing a mountain. I’m so far from the top I don’t know what it looks like. I can’t quite see my path, but I know where I am going and somehow – for whatever reason – abs, bikinis, a prayer of gratitude in the crisp aisle to the gods of Golden and Wonder – I have faith that I will figure out how to get there.

Be the Cups and Ice


I hope my GEITFUDO isn’t turning me into that Facebook friend. You know the one, always posting tie-dye memes and cat jokes, while advising we all dig our toes into the mud, bare our breasts to the moonlight and chant to the Gods of Broccoli. I’m a bit of a Cindy Lou, but I don’t like Broccoli and this really is meant to be practical for those like me who need the right kind of nudges.

So, I scour the interwebs – mostly youtube – for advice and inspiration. And I occasionally dig something up.


I have a theory, which I might attempt to prove one day, that almost anything you experience in life can be encapsulated by an episode of Friends. This guy would seem to agree. I like Ted and its happy hive of nerds at the best of times,throw in a bit of Pheobe and reblogging was a guarantee.


Someone should make a poster of that. No matter what life throws at you, make like Pheobe and be the cups and ice. He has a few other interesting things to say, but that one really resonated with me. I might make a big poster and stick it in front of my desk.  Hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Being a writer

So I have been a bit of a bad blogger of late. Actually I have been a sneaky bad blogger. My #100happydays series makes me look active, while in reality writing, blogging and all the rest of it – which some how has all got tangled up together – has been put to the side. It’s all I have been able to commit to really as RL has been a bit frenetic. But I haven’t forgot about it. I am still on my GEITFUDO mission. And today I had an epiphany.


Had to get the wee man oot, since its a GEITFUDO post. Love him!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes I was making lots of excuses. And they are excuses. Barring the apocalypse (no, it hasn’t happened, sorry, who knows maybe tomorrow..) we’re never that busy that we can’t get done what we really want to get done. Which means something is making me want to not write.

The more I don’t write, the more I think about why I don’t write. I’ve spoken before about fear of rejection, lack of confidence and so forth. Every time I sit down to write or even think about sitting down to write, I face the exact same fear: that I don’t have it in me to take the amazing stuff in my head and make it just as amazing on the page.  The ideas are always there; the scenes, the people, the emotions, even the words, pop up all the time, every where I go, inspired by everything I see, so the first part – probably in many ways the defining part – I do unconsciously, effortlessly and prodigiously. Unfortunately that next part is where the block sits. Kinda feels like this.


But I’ve written 5 books. I’ve finished 5 books. I’ve liked stuff I have written, I’ve hated stuff I have written. I’ve edited, I’ve deleted, I’ve even plagiarised myself, so good I used it twice. I should be experienced and hardy enough to know its worth taking a chance. I honestly thought the thought itself would have been ditched by now, but even accepting I’m always going to have a bit of self doubt, surely I’ve reduced it to something small enough to easily step over?

Which made me think there was more to this block. I have spent a lot of time looking into it. WAAAY to much time given lack of result.

Do I put too much pressure on myself? I am a perfectionist, but beyond that I don’t just write for the love of it, I write to be good. I want a career out of this. This has actually been influencing my writing for a very long time. I decided I must become a writer at age 9. That ‘must’ is important. By age 11 I was thinking I really should be getting on with things. By 13 I had written myself off after reading a book and realising the fifty something author was far superior than I would ever be…

Thankfully I’m an introvert so no one had to listen to this (until now). Actually I say thankfully, but maybe it would’ve been better if someone had heard it so they could laugh some sense into me. Instead the thoughts, they might have festered.

By now, they have so taken root that I, my books and my potential career can never ever live up to expectation.

So.. I could always return to writing for the love of it. But you see, I never stopped writing what I loved, I never stopped loving to write and I don’t know how to stop wanting to do it for a living (and no one else is paying my way through life). As I said above I’m not uninspired. I have way too much stuff backlogged in my head waiting to be written. I don’t need to remind myself of what I once loved about writing, why I write, do I?

And that’s when my epiphany hit.

The answer is the same really as what I would get if I asked, why do I write? but to get at it (so I didn’t just end up with same old.. cause I love it so..) I needed to rephrase – which happened accidentally as all great things do. Or so I tell myself as I love serendipity.

Why do I want to be a writer?  The paid kind who get it do it all the time. What do I get from being a writer that makes it worthwhile?

Now some people would probably – if they were being honest – reply they like the image of being a cool writer type. All floaty thrift store dresses and funky hairdos and late night readings in coffeehouse- cum – tattoo parlour-cum – bus stop.. And I do too. I want to be this girl.


but I also know the reality


Its not money. Though I say – no shame in that. You have to be honest for soul searching to work, otherwise its like frisking the man standing next to the man with the gun. Money has simply never motivated me. My mother had to bribe me with chocolate, and when we discovered I was allergic it really buggered things up. I enjoy many things money can buy, like chocolate and anti-histamines, but that’s not enough to motivate me past my fears. Neither is the admiration of others. Fame chills my passion like liquid nitrogen. Yes, its a bit humiliating to be seen to fail but fear isn’t a motivator. Not unless it involves the apocalypse (again not happened yet, sorry)..

The answer.. because I love to write. I know. But its true. I’m not just trying to be good to meet somebody else’s standard, I have a very specific internal measure because I know precisely what I want to create. I know how amazing it can be, because I’ve felt it when I have read stuff that is that good. To be able to spend my life creating, not just dreaming of creating, but actually making stories come to life, would literally be my dreams come true. And unfortunately nothing lives tucked away on a hard drive. As long as my work remains hidden its still might as well be in my head. It’s not had a chance to make an impact. What good is inventing a bicycle if no one ever rides it? And books are made to be read.

Seems my fear and my desire are the same thing. I just need to get to a place where the desire is strong enough to conquer the fear. I’ll let you know when I get there. I suspect its a long slow process. But I’m hopeful there will come that breakthrough moment when all the work starts to pay off.


Making a writer

I haven’t posted my progress in GEITFUDO in a while. Simple reason, there hasn’t been anything to post.

Life is my procrastination at the moment. Which as excuses goes has some virtues. But it is still an excuse. And as things start to return to normal – or calmer state at least – I really need to stop looking for more excuses and get back to it. So…


I am still facing my own fears and well… being well and truly stared down. I feel like a baby deer in the headlights of an 18 Wheeler. I cannot turn away but I cannot move.

The reason I cannot turn away is because this is what I want. Its what I have wanted  since I was sitting on the potty telling my parents stories.. (yeah, they didn’t appreciate my genius either..) It matters too much, it means too much. Its who I am. And I don’t have enough self delusion to convince myself otherwise. Though I have tried. Believe me. Another failure 😛

The reason I cannot move is fear.

And I have been looking into that. Mostly into kicking its arse. There are a lot of people on Youtube offering help for the self-helpless. I think its my new addiction – I will write a book about it one day. I adore the positivity. I’ve always been an odd Pollyanna type of skeptic. A great many of them talk a lot about vibrating and asking the universe ( if anyone knows how to avoid getting the answer phone?). There may well be truth in it, or more pertinently, help, but it doesn’t quite gel with me. As I said previously I am opening myself up to things I would previously have been skeptical about – so I am not writing it off, not straight away and certainly its a fascinating glimpse into another world view.

But as a skeptic I like those that throw in science and – always – some real practical tips. Nothing gets stuff done like doing stuff. As such I have really enjoyed some of this guys videos. He’s quite precise with his tips, and the science he relies on backs up stuff I have read myself. Stuff I have not just read but observed within my own life. Maybe what I really like is stuff that makes me feel right. Who doesn’t?

This is quite long, and while I think its worth watching, heres the points that I really feel are worth noting, especially if like me you are aspiring to do something with your writing (or art or dreams of any form) and are feeling a bit stuck.

I. Focus

Its not just the current cry of Internet is ruining my life.. one more level of Candy Crush and I am  definitely going internet dark.. Its about knowing precisely what you want and what to do next. That’s where those practical tips come in handy. I know I want to write for a living, but I need to know what needs to be done  to get from here to there. More I need to decide which of the many routes I will take. Even if I eventually try all of them I need to start with one. Sometimes choices can leave us feeling more stuck than if there were none. We need to set our sails in one direction and keep focus.

2. Grit

This guy likes this word. So do I. I like it in my writing and now apparently I need it in my life. I suspected all along. I have talked before about my fear of failure and my need to accept it as an intrinsic part of success. And that’s what grit really is. It is the determination to achieve your goal and to let nothing stand in your way.

3. Practice

As obvious notes go this one has a special ‘doh’ quality. But the truth is – it needs saying. Look at the recent furore over Malcolm Gladwells book, The Outliers and all he did was suggest that those who are very successful work hard. Truth is we like the myth of the hero. Those elite few born to stand above us all. Some of us even naturally judge ourselves by this. I’m sure I am not the only one to think, if I am not perfect first time, then I am talentless and should quit. In fact I might take this one even further and connect it up with grit. Failure isn’t just a natural result of trying it is the most vital component in success.

My sister is a very successful individual. When she sets her mind to something she invariably achieves it. She can even do slim-fast – if that isn’t will power I don’t know what is.

Funny thing is as kids, if anyone had been taking bets on which of us would succeed, I doubt you’d have put your money on her. She encountered problems from an early age due to her dyslexia and hyperactivity, which as anyone in the same boat knows are not always dealt with very well in schools. But what she did have was my mother. My sister wanted to do ballet – didn’t matter she wasn’t the most graceful, my mum would make her practice til  – well I don’t think there were bloody toes, but tears were shed, words were thrown and exams were passed.

If you do watch this video take a moment to appreciate how many of the success tories mentioned had similar experiences to my sisters. They were made to work hard, taught that success comes from that, not from some magical undefinable source. It is earned.

In defense of the synopsis

So as per GEITFUDO, I said I would, come the end of February, be looking to query. Its the 25th today and since there are apparently only 28 days in February (may re-count come the 28th..) I thought I should get on..

Like someone scared of heights about to bungee jump I’m trying not to think about jumping… I mean eventually I do have to take that leap but for now I’m focusing on the synopsis. The very necessary synopsis.

Before the commiserations come flooding in… Oh synopses.. I hate writing those… I’ll whisper.. I quite enjoy them


So whispering didn’t work…

I didn’t always. I wouldn’t go as far as to say hate, at least not initially, as I didn’t pay them that much attention. I didn’t think anyone else would either. And I have heard agents say this. Apparently no one writes a good synopsis and we shouldn’t get ourselves too wound up about them.

Before you feel too reassured, I’m going to say that while I have come to enjoy them I have also come to believe they are far more important than most will admit. This is part of your presentation, if its badly written, leaves gaping confusion in the reader and – the worst sin –  holds back the best of your work, then you’ve just significantly increased your chances of being rejected.

In a world where we are continually told how little time an agent has to devote to reading submissions, while being simultaneously inundated with an ever increasing number, the short synopsis is your best friend. This is a chance to sell your story. Think about the Sixth Sense – a film lauded and remembered for its end twist. But if they only saw the first few minutes before deciding they were willing to invest in it or not, would it be quite so compelling? The synopsis is your chance to put the best bits of your work, whether it is the hook at the end, the weird alternative world, or the kooky characters, in front of an agent and make sure they notice.

The problem I had when I first came to write them was simply this: I didn’t know what it was. I’d never seen one. Googling brought a myriad of answers none of which really clarified anything, 1-12 pages.. yeah no difference there! And the more I learnt of the submission process the more I realised that what the internet said and what agents actually wanted were two different things. Most if asked – and it would help considerably if they would put this on their submission guidelines – cite the shorter the better. Under 500 words seems to be increasingly the norm.

Googling will generally say that it is an outline of the main events of your story. And a bare recital of the plot is one of the primary mistakes most of us make.

Bob meets Mary. Mary’s husband is away on business. Bob and Mary start affair. Mary’s husband comes home early. He sees them kissing. He throws Mary out.

Is about the dullest thing you can imagine reading. If a synopsis ever was such a document, it aint anymore.  You need to explain that Mary is a bored housewife in search of excitement; Bob a retired assasin. Blending the why and the what, the emotional core that drives your story, is what a synopsis truly is. Doing it concisely is where the challenge lies.

You need to know exactly what details to put in, which to leave out, and you need to do it without leaving the reader, who hasn’t read your book, confused.

We Brits aren’t required to write a query in the same way that Americans do, however a good brief synopsis is actually very similar. The difference really is that a synopsis reveals the end while a query leaves you – hopefully- desperate to know the end. Apart from this they should be approached in much the same way. Officially you shouldn’t be looking to show off your writing skills, but unofficially you are displaying that you are able to be clear, concise and that your voice fits the genre you are writing in. A chatty conversational tone when selling a gritty coming of age tale of abuse and survival.. not good. Overworked metaphors are a no no, but so are overused clichés..

This isn’t about your literary skills as much as your marketability. Your ability to learn and adapt to the formula demanded means you persevered where others gave up, it means you are flexible and it means you did your homework. For the agent this means you are someone worth working with. For you, it means you got rid of all the reasons they might use to reject you and put your story in the spotlight.

Which makes the synopsis a tool that benefits you, the writer, as much as it does you, the wannabe published. Writing one before you finish your book is a really useful trick. It stops you starting writing something only to find 40,000 words in that its going nowhere. It teaches you the ability to separate out the main strands of your story, to check the internal logic of your world and consistency of your character development. I’ve never written a synopsis that has led to me abandoning or completely rewriting a story, but as a means of clarifying what I want to achieve  I find it invaluable. I’ve even found subplots lurking under the guise of plot holes.

I will look more in depth at how I write a synopsis, just in case its useful, but where I started and learnt most of my tricks was Querysharks blog. LIke I said, a query is just an unfinished synopsis. Beyond that I would simply say, keep going. Perseverance is what separates the serious writers from the hobbyists.

Lumbar support and other important writing issues..

SO GEITFUDO – my version of Nano (explanation here )  – rolls on


The danger date for new years resolutions is apparently the 17th January, so now in Feb I’m feeling ahead of the curve. I’ve kept my promise to write more blogs – check out my recent post here

Which has helped me keep up my daily word count. I haven’t managed to write every day but I feel that I’ve been generally productive.

I’ve even been looking into posting work on line.

Where I have failed is finishing my book. This must become my priority.

I’ve been thinking part of my problem is space. Dedicated writing space. When I first started writing everyone was, ooh cups of tea all day long, lounging about in your pjs – ie they thought it was Sunday without the farmers market.

But I was really determined to approach writing as a job. I got into a routine. I didn’t just squeeze it in when I could, notes, edits etc fine, but actual writing I set time aside for and got myself into a structured pattern so I didn’t even have to think about it, in fact I would often find even as I was prevaricating internally, I’d made my cup of tea, powered up the computer and was typing away.

I even had writing clothes. Because it seemed to me that if I did write in my jammies it would be really hard not to see it as just dossing. But you have to be comfy. My writing pants look like this..McHammer

I seriously recommend them 🙂

I used to have a little nook dressed up as a study. But recent developments have meant I am now writing on my lap. And I am beginning to think its like writing in jammies. There’s often pillows and blankets involved.

My mum says I need to face north.. or south? Something to do with when I was born and her being a wee bit crazy. (have I told you about my mum? remind me to sometime) The year of the horse dictates that facing west is just asking for a slipped disc.

I’m not sure direction factors in but I think I need to find a dedicated writing space. A place that I know when I am there I am there to write. Not play candy crush, not take a ‘which vegetable are you?’ quiz. Not search out cool gifs that I spend ages trying to write a blog post round.. Just write.

So now I need a desk, a chair and somewhere to stick them. Wish that was as easy as it sounds.

What about you? Any weird writing tics?