ON WRITING and 50 ways to avoid writing a novel

See entry 7 of 50 ways to avoid writing a novel (see entry 13 for the ultimate avoidance tactic)

bengali tile



I received a rather silly email from a very patronising lady, saying that if you are not the kind of person to get up an 5am and have all your writing done by 10am you are not meant to be a writer. Of course it went into the trash – I hope everyone will do the same. One has heard of some busy novelist/mother of 4 school kids that she got up at 5am and by 7am she had written 7 chapters, before showering all her kids, producing a full breakfast for 6 people, loading the dishwasher, mopping up every breakfast crumb in the house, jumping into the family SUV and delivering the kids to 4 different schools before doing a job in high finance. And what did the husband/father do while all this was going on? Oh, I forgot, she’s has probably also written a book with a title ‘How to write a blockbuster in less than a year, the ultimate manual for author stardom for busy mums.’

The assumption is that the only thing that counts is how many words you hack out in the shortest possible time. I have just read Gaito Gazdanov’s very short, but beautifully written THE SPECTRE OF ALEXANDER WOLF. He wrote it between sleeping on Paris park benches and driving taxis at night. No doubt the idea that  writing between 5-10am is the only measure of a worthy author was found in one of those American ‘How to Write a blockbuster’ manuals – ‘never mind the quality, Madam, feel the width’. This is not the first time I’ve come across this absurd idea, someone even spouted it at one of the major literature festivals. Predictably, it was during an event featuring an author of a trilogy of very ‘fat’ books which had been ‘puffed up’ no end with so-called background research and in which the chapter endings dangled, unproofed and largely unfinished.

In the end, it doesn’t matter when one writes, as long as one does.


As I reported in an earlier post, I have been hard at work to find an agent. When I was responsible for the literary criticism and creative writing section in the book trade people often approached me and said: ‘I’ve got this idea for a book. Do you think I could get it published?’

Well, what can one say to that? My usual reply was: ‘If you’re sure you have a really, really good story and you’re willing to spend a good few years working hard at it, but … writing a book is easy, getting an agent is almost impossible, and getting published is practically impossible.’

‘But the bookshops are full of new books,’ was the astonished reply. If I went along the fiction shelves and pulled out the books printed from the publishers’ back- catalogue, re-issued with fresh graphics and type to make the author’s older works look more current, there wouldn’t be all that much left.

Me in garden lunch June 2013

As for my work, I have been getting on with the second book of the trilogy and mapping out the third, in between also writing reviews, working on a couple of non-fiction projects and still teaching some French. I am also convinced that if I could escape to some shepherd’s hut in the mountains, with only my piano for company, I would finish the next two books in no time at all. As it is, I enjoy our lunches in the garden, cooking and eating delicious food – it’s just too tempting to give it all up.


Just think – there are so many ways to avoid writing a novel – you’ll gain years of free time to travel the world or sit at home doing nothing.

The following are all thoroughly and rigorously tried and tested by me over the last year.

1. Avoid sitting – standing is not a position favourable to writing. Standing at a keyboard will soon make you give up. Virginia Wolff wrote standing up in order to imitate Vanessa, her painter sister, standing at an easel. Perhaps she was driven into the waters due to exhaustion?

2. Cleaning and household chores – these will deserve more frequent mention than other categories or strategies. It is THE most effective way to avoid writing a novel.

3. Go to the Globe Theater to see a performance of the rarely performed Shakespeare play King John – in Armenian. (3hrs)

4. Clean all silver cutlery in case mother decides to visit (she lives in France).(30)

5. Clean old travel typewriter, ribbon, and keys. You haven’t used it for 25 years and are unlikely to use again as the action is so hard you may break your fingers. (1hr)

6. Dig in your ears with Q-tips even though there’s never anything in your ears.

7. Check what the Lord’s Prayer looks like in the Bengali alphabet (see top of page)(20mins)

8. Clean Venetian blinds again – blade by blade. (1hrs)

9. Spend half an hour filing your heels.(20mins)

10. Refold all your jumpers in the wardrobe, even though it is summer.(20mins)

11. Wait till dark, take a torch and a trowel and slaughter the slugs that are eating all your flowers.(20mins)

12. Sort out you make-up box even though you know that by tomorrow it will be in total disarray again. (20mins)

13. The ULTIMATE, all morning bobble-cutting session: That 39% Acrylic, 31% Wool, 30% Nylon, oversize XXXL grey cable-knit polo neck jumper that looked so beautiful in the shop …. ‘You look like Henry the VIII in that,’ says my other half. As I spread my arms out, taking up the whole kitchen, with the sleeves folded back up to the armpits so my hands can stick out, he says, ‘I hope you’re not planning to grow into it!’ (I’m a size 10-12). The monster is the size of a house, true. I’m surprised I can get through a door with it, but, oh, it covers my knees when I sit at my writing desk against the window with the wind blowing in. So, periodically, I take the sharp scissors and start snipping, or rather shearing like a Australian farmer. Perhaps a lawn mower would do the job better? Well, that’s another morning I’ve avoided writing a novel. (1hr)

14. Try and remove the label from a beautiful cigar box given to me by a friendly Dutch tobacconist in Leiden last autumn. The label on it reads: – Roken kan het sperma beschadigen en vermindert de vruchtbaarheit ( Smoking can damage your sperm and reduce fertility). I think I can learn more Dutch from reading health warnings than phrase books – perhaps the point about reduced sperm will make a good get-out line with that chain smoking Dutchman in the local cafe determined to interrupt me working. Next time he tries his hopeless chat-up lines about how a pretty woman shouldn’t be working all the time I might say: – Sorry, I don’t fraternise with men with beschadigte sperma en verminderte vruchtbaarheit. (20mins)

15. Polish mini brass tin containing skull of baby sparrow found in the attic of our house in France.

16. Watch two field mice eating the bird food in the garden, then wait half an hour in case they come back

17. Have a cold! It will give you a suitably woolly brain to prevent clear thought for writing, editing or correcting anything you  may have written. Good for a full week.

18. While you look terrible with your cold … try and make yourself feel better by putting on more make-up than you’ve ever worn, until you look like a Russian painted doll.(30mins)

19. Make a meal of your cold – amuse yourself by trying out silly hairdos using your patterned over-knee socks as a head scarf. (30mins)

20. Listen to the Archers … on second thought – DON’T listen to the Archers. You’ll feel much worse when you hear them talking about Amadeus, Constanza and Salieri. (I have a radio in the loo and sometimes can’t reach quick enough to switch off when the Archers tune comes on). I thought they were cows, but I’m told they are lamas.

21. Coat your fingers in black ink and do finger prints in a nice pattern (30mins)

22. Do the rounds of the charity shops (28 in this town) and read the 1st page of  novels to see how other authors managed to grab an agent’s interest with the opening paragraph. (2hrs)

23. (35 minutes’ worth) – clean the grease off the controls of the kitchen radio

24. Count the frogs in the garden at night with a torch – they hunt in the dark. They will sit and stare in the torch light, so it’s up to you how long you take. (20mins)

25. At least 3 days worth – the mosquito-phobic husband has swatted the beasts on the ceiling where they wait to pounce – on him, not me. Unfortunately he used a magazine to do this. Now there are black fist-size stains on the ceiling from the printing ink. Repaint the entire ceiling, only to find he’s done the same on the walls. Move all furniture, strip the bed and turn the mattress while you’re at it, repaint the walls as well. At least now there is a good reason to make him feel very guilty because he has stopped progress on the novel writing.

26. Men can’t be bothered with small change, especially note the coppers. If one is lucky they all end up in an empty jam jar. Count up all the 1p and 2p that HE can’t be bothered with and pack them into those little plastic bags for coins. Whether is is worth a trip to the bank is questionable (a bit humiliating, seems so petty). (20mins)

27. Go to the bank with the bags of coins after all. Exchange them for a £5 and buy food for the homeless man sitting on the corner (giving him money is no use, he spends it on booze)(1hr)

28. Sort 40 saucers by size, even though the cups of many of them have long been broken. (20mins)

29. If you use reading glasses – NEVER wear them when cleaning the bathroom. You see piles of dust in places which – without glasses – looked pristine. (1,5hrs)

30. Amazing how one finds things to do – clean and polish the keys of the piano. (20mins)

31. Take a walk up the hill in the woods. Collect pine cones for your fire. To be fair, such a walk also often provides thinking/ideas time for your writing, so always carry an notebook. (1,5hrs)

31. Restore old (worthless) bracelet found in charity shop (a good 30 minutes worth).

32. Some books are small, others large so you end up with a lot of wasted space. Arrange them according to size – then spend hours looking for that one book you need to research on tulips just a few days later. ( 3hrs)

33. Re-arrange your 1000 books on the shelves in order of subject matter. (at least 3 hours worth).

34. While you wait for your scanner to process a very large document, remember you were quite good at standing on your head when you were 20 – find a flat cushion (and a blank wall in case you fall over). You discover you can’t do without compressing your neck to a life-endangering level. (20 mins

35. Good for a week of upheaval – good excuse for NOT writing. Make friends with your neighbours beautiful cat which comes and jumps on your bed. After a week of being bitten you realise it must have dropped a flea or two somewhere in the room. – Strip the bedding, stand bed on end, empty all linen, underwear, socks from chest of drawers. – Buy gas canisters and place them in sealed room. Then spend a week washing all linen etc.. That’s when you finally decide to give up on ironing sheets.

36. Cut and file your husband’s toe nails. (At least 1/2 hour)

37. Half a day’s worth – Wash the house wall after the builder has made a mess.

38. Iron 12 pillow cases even though you only ever use 4 at any one time. (20 minutes)

39. Sort pens and pencils from your over-flowing pencil jar only to find that most ball points have dried up (20 minutes)

40. Polish all your silver bracelets, then decide you’ll never wear so many – take most of them to the charity shop (1 hour at least)

41. Clean your great-grandfather’s diamond ring with an old toothbrush dipped in lemon juice – discover an inscription with his name and the date of 1879 engraved on the inside. (30 minutes)

43. Sharpen all your make-up pencils even the little stumps which should really go into the rubbish bin (20mins)

44. Wash old dust cloths, even the ones your husband has mistakenly used to polish his shoes – then decide that they can’t be saved – throw them away (30 mins)

45. Take all half used shampoo bottles and mix the contents together to reduce the number of bottle standing around the bathroom (30 mins)

46. Struggle to trim the rampant Russian vine outside the bedroom window. Give up when you can see the far side of the garden. (30 mins)

47. Now that the vine has been cut back, realise that snails have crawled all over your window, leaving their tracks – wash window, window sill and wall surrounding it with vinegar (1 hour)

48. Search for new baby frogs before mowing the lawn. This takes a while as they are no larger than a child’s fingernail and the same colour as tired grass. One only sees them once they start hopping. Start the lawn mower at the edge of the lawn while another person, with a large jar in hand, acts as spotter. Suddenly the lawn is alive with baby-frogs.  (1 hour)

49. Scrape moss off the decking even though you know it’ll regrow after the next rain shower – ask yourself who on earth persuaded the English that decking was suitable in this wet climate – it becomes a skating rink when wet! It was all that talk about global warming that suddenly got everyone planting enormous and hugely expensive cacti & palm trees all over London green spaces and gardens, believing that we would all live outdoors like people in California or Portugal (the palms & cacti all froze in the next cold winter)  (3 hours)

50. Pull all your shoes out of the cupboard onto the floor of your work room – you want to sort them out and give them to charity (30 mins)

51. After a day of stepping /falling over them to get to your desk, put them all back as you can’t quite yet part with any of them (20 mins)

Total time spent avoiding writing a novel : – 16 days/8hrs per day.

I would say that the trip to the Globe Theatre in London was not wasted. Few of us can sustain son many hours writing per day. After 5 hours I lose concentration and my back hurts – so in the end you can successfully avoid writing a novel for a full month! If these avoidance tactic do not work and you’re still thinking about your novel, give up and write it.



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