A Tomato is Helping Me Write My Novel
“Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you may never get back down.”
My biggest obstacle when it comes to writing is focus. This is not a new issue for me, as I discovered recently when looking through an old box of childhood writings. Turns out I wrote a lot of stories when I was younger. Or, to be more accurate, I started a lot of stories. I was adept at beginnings, middling at middles, and catastrophic at endings. As I browsed page after scrawled page, I found stories that I had abandoned in mid-paragraph, mid-sentence and on one occasion, mid-word.
I’m not alone in having issues with focus. If you think about it, imaginative leaps and flights of creative fancy are an asset for writers, particularly at the start of a writing project. New ideas and beginnings are the easy part. The challenge begins when we have to settle on one idea and see it through to fruition: how to focus on that, and only that, and avoid the many and varied pitfalls that are waiting to distract us?
Now, more than ever, it has never been easier to choose an online form of procrastination over writing. When struggling to write a particularly tricky scene, I’ve often been tempted to “just take a little break to check my email”, only to find myself emerging from an internet vortex hours later with a cup of cold tea beside me, a sense of impending doom beating at my temples, and that scene still resolutely unwritten.
While technology provides plenty of distractions, in recent years it has also offered some possible solutions. Internet restriction programmes like Freedom and Anti-Social allow you to block distracting websites and social media apps from your device for a period of your choosing. With Write Room (Mac) and Dark Room (Windows), you can go back to basics and use your computer solely as a word processor. A more extreme option is The Most Dangerous Writing App which will delete your work-in-progress if you stop typing for more than five seconds. This I haven’t tried as the very thought is enough to give me an anxiety-induced heart attack.
The option I’ve found most useful in my own writing is something called The Pomodoro Technique It’s a time management tool that was invented in the late 1980’s by Francesco Cirillo. Although it was first developed for the corporate world, I’ve found that the technique can equally be applied to creative tasks.
It’s based on the idea that bursts of activity interspersed with short breaks can help to increase mental agility and productivity. The name is derived from the Italian for “tomato” because Cirillo developed the technique as a student when he used a tomato-shaped timer to divide his study sessions into twenty-five minute intervals.
You can order your very own pomodoro timer and book online but I’ve found that neither are strictly necessary in order to use the technique, which in essence is a pretty straightforward one. You simply:
- Choose the task you want to complete and make a note of it (e.g. “Write chapter 11 of novel”).
- Calculate how many “pomodoros” (twenty-five minute intervals) you will need to complete your task (e.g.: four “pomodoros”).
- Set your timer for twenty-five minutes (I use the timer on my phone).
- If any distractions enter your mind (new ideas, pressing concerns, etc.) make a note of them to come back to later but continue with your task.
- After twenty-five minutes, take a five minute break no matter what (get up, have a good stretch, nip to the loo, etc.).
- Repeat the cycle.
- After four cycles you can take a longer break.
It really is a simple technique but I’ve found it to be an effective one both in terms of minimising distractions and achieving focused productivity in my writing. Focus will probably always be an issue for me, but with the Pomodoro Technique as part of my writing routine I feel confident about completing my second novel. Who knows, I may even go back and finally finish those abandoned childhood stories.
Máire T. Robinson is a Dublin-based novelist and short story writer. She was nominated for a Hennessy Literary Award in Emerging Fiction in 2012. In 2013, she won the Doire Press Chapbook Competition and her collection Your Mixtape Unravels My Heart was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her widely acclaimed novel Skin, Paper, Stone was published by New Island in 2015 and was shortlisted for the inaugural Annie McHale Debut Novel Award 2016. You can find Máire’s blog at www.mairetrobinson.com.