An article in the Guardian newspaper led me to Brooke Castillo’s excellent life-coaching podcasts, of which a recent one had been about a Writing Retreat. This 5-day experience sounded bliss: a small group of people with projects they wanted to write; a highly skilled coach; a beautiful large house with all meals and creature comforts taken care of. The retreats were oversubscribed and Brooke gave detailed instructions so that people could run their own. Even then, I didn’t really have the time or the money for this level of luxury.

I have been fortunate enough however to have my own study, a more or less undisturbed writing space, at home. The previous November I had a great experience of doing 30-minute word sprints with my local NaNoWriMo group, which we coordinated via WhatsApp.

Some elements of the two approaches, it seemed to me, could re-energise my writing: I had been drafting and redrafting the same novel using Scrivener for what seemed like forever: Scrivener had gone from version 1 to version 3 during the time.

The NaNoWriMo word sprints had taught me to focus intensely on writing, ignoring distractions and allowing the words to flow uninterrupted from my brain to the page. From Brooke Castillo’s podcast I took the idea of having a strictly timed schedule for each writing session, even though much pared down from her time-rich retreat days. To the actual writing sessions she had added a prior planning session and then a session afterwards of reflection and positive feedback. Another element of her retreats that I adopted was stopping distractions by putting my phone into flight mode and turning off notifications.

I opened up the Notifications Menu on my desktop computer’s System Preferences (I’m a Mac user so apologies if this is being read by PC users, but hopefully you have something similar) and went through every app and turned everything off that I possibly could.

After that my DIY writing retreat sequence now consists of:

1. Turn on the heating in the study – operated remotely by a phone App.
2. Use the bathroom
3. Make a cup of tea

Use Focus timer (a Pomodoro style timer) for the following steps:

4. Flight Mode: 1 minute allowed to turn iPhone and Apple Watch to flight mode and switch on the computer

5. Thinking time: 10 minutes. Don’t write any of the text. Pick a scene and in the Notes pane in Scrivener list the things that need to happen during that scene and also copy and paste any parts of the previous draft to be incorporated.

6. Writing time: 30 minutes. Work on the text itself.

7. Summarise: 5 minutes. In the Synopsis pane write a summary of what is in that section of text so far, update the Label and Status, check the word count and update a running total, while mentally patting self on the back.

8. Stop Flight mode on iPhone and Apple Watch (1 minute)

9. Turn off the heating in the study (1 minute)

The whole sequence takes just under an hour, so it doesn’t eat too much into the day or overtax my attention span. Generally I can increase the word count of my draft by about 1000 words each time – this is a combination of redrafting old material and writing new.

Focus timer can be set up to link the timed steps in sequence so that a visual and sound warning is given for each one. I have an old iPad2 running iOS 6 (so beautifully retro!) which has its WiFi switched off and I am currently using it just for Focus timer.

Scrivener is ideal for this system of work, as the Notes pane can be used for the thinking time and the Synopsis pane for summarising. If an idea comes up during writing time which belongs elsewhere in the text it is easy to find that part of the text in the Binder, or insert a new Scene and type the idea in the Notes.

After using this system a few times I informed my family about it, so they now know that if I do disappear into my study I am most likely going to reappear in under an hour.

I’ll see if I can maintain it…


PS (16/01/2020). This works. With 1 -2 sessions of the Focus timer daily my novel word count is increasing by about 1000 words per day. It’s not stressful to maintain.