Time flies by, when you're writing on a train...

I've probably mentioned this before, but there's no place finer for writing than on a train. Now I know that some of you will be commuters, and will have torrid tales of there being no seats and of being squished up against faulty doors between Hither South and Yon Central, and all for the price of a gajillion pound season ticket, but I don't have to ride those kinda trains.  

Most of my train travel is east-west across the middle of the country, on the train equivalent of the M62, the service run by the aptly-named Transpennine Express. It's pretty quiet, at least between Cleethorpes and Doncaster. Donny's where the action is, you see. Change for London and points north. Keep an eye out at the western end of platform 4 for the gaggle of what Network Rail somewhat coyly terms "rail enthusiasts".

Sometimes there's a few on board; in the run-up to Christmas and those making their retail pilgrimage to Meadowhall shopping centre; a portal to Hades, except with a Debenhams and a Nandos. Football will put a few on board too, generally stalwart fans of non-league teams with a pleasant sense of ironic distance from their obsession. Otherwise, it's holidaymakers. Yep, we've got our own little airport, but there's plenty who take advantage of the direct rail link to Manchester Airport to start or finish their vacation in style, with a few cans on the train, the way God intended.

Time your journey right, though, and it's pretty blissful. A bliss punctuated by the remnants of the industrial north; Grimsby Fish Docks, Scunthorpe steel works, former collieries throughout South Yorkshire. Meadowhall itself is built on old mining land; locals reckon they dug too deep, and had to cap the shaft with something worse than anything Old Nick could come up with himself; and that's why Meadowhall's where it is. 

These are flatlands for the most part. Reclaimed land, silt-rich soil clawed back from the Humber and the Trent. If there are growth industries around here, then they're in crumbling warehouses on the edges of conurbations, and wind farms. When coal was king, this was where the country generated its power. Now we claw back what we can from the sky, but it's not the same.

Only three stops, most journeys, along this bit. Habrough, Barnetby, Scunthorpe. That ghostly works is a titanium dioxide plant; the white filler they put in toothpaste and Polyfilla. 

It gets busy around Doncaster. Busy for Lincolnshire folk, anyways, blinking our eyes in metropolitan wonderment at the paved roads and the kids with shoes instead of clogs. Doncaster to Sheffield is a through-line past the backs of Virgin Actives, Tesco warehouses, and the friendly-looking Big Red Shed, which might wholesale booze. There's a chirpy-looking gurdwara, and some not-bad graffiti. Keep an eye out as we zip unstoppingly through Mexborough and you'll see Conisborough Castle.

Meadowhall is an arrogant surge of Thatcherite brick, red as City slickers' braces, a Loadsamoney fuck-you to them who don't have much from them who took it from you.

Five more minutes and we're into Sheffield. This is not a point to be locked to your screen or huddled into the fictional arms of your paperback; check out the evidence of some glimmers of the old ways. Cutlery workshops. The English Pewter Company. The run into Sheffield station is sheathed in tall brickwork on both sides, but this time it's the soot-grey of honest work that keeps you close till you get stationwards.

There'll be a kerfuffle here. Those hopping from Donny or Meadowhall will be off, and those commuting to Manchester crowd on. Now's the time to relish your seat, to give yourself a little power-up for having the foresight to have booked.

Sheffield's behind us now. There's a chance of a brew. The trolley gets on at Doncaster; no drinks between there and Cleethorpes, so come prepared. The coffee they have these days has fancy new lids. A straining contraption to keep you filtered from the grounds in the cup. Puzzling as heck first time out. It's not bad, but it's not the same as a brown spoonful of Nescafe from a catering drum of the stuff into a polystyrene beaker.

Civilisation cuts out, and you've got a good twenty minutes of the middle of nowhere. Forget your 4G, phone boy. Watch the clouds over the hills. Count the sheep in the upper fields. Then what it would be like to be that woman hauling hay from the back of a Land Rover for a day.

Manchester comes up on you slowly. Places you'll never get off; Hazel Grove. Then Stockport; the pyramidic Co-Op building, the hat museum. A brace of pleading signs on the outward surge; office blocks from a previous generation pleading with you. Low rents. Ample parking. Anything.

Pack your stuff away. Manchester in less than ten minutes. Again, the backs of industry. A cemetery, an old cinema, long-since converted to other use. Cash and carries, breakers yards. Up ahead its skyscrapers and stadia; Manchester's an ambitious city. Here, though, the railway line remembers what got it there.                   

It's two hours twenty minutes Grimsby to Manchester Picadilly. That's maybe 1500-2000 first draft words if I'm on a roll. A hundred and fifty pages or so if I'm reading. A thousand words if it's a commission. You can get a lot done. But that's no reason not to keep a check every now and again on where you are.    


On establishing writing routines

There's an awful lot to be said about knowing yourself. One of the reasons that we don't get as much done as we might like is that we either haven't got our heads around what works best for us, or that we fight against that reality because it doesn't fit in with what we might prefer. 

So these are guidelines rather than rules. A quick scout around the internet will give you no end of lists of routines of the famous. Here and here, for example. But this is what seems to work for me.

  1. Start the day writing. The earlier, the better. For me, that's 5 a.m. I can get more done between 5 and 7 in the morning than in any other two hour period of the day. This goes back to when I was a child. In a book of Andrew Lang's  retellings of Greek myths, he relates the story of Theseus. At the start of the story, Theseus' father has left home, but has said that there's something buried under a rock at the bottom of the garden for the young man. Theseus tries but can't lift the stone. Then one day, he gets up early, goes straight out to the rock, and is able to shift it. Under the rock there's the weapons he'll need for his adventures. For some reason, that's stuck with me for dozens of years. And for me, it works. So; early starts.
  2. Don't write all day. Three or four hours a day is more than enough. Less is perhaps better. A couple of hours a day before the house gets up / work / college / whatever. I've got an upcoming post about what goes on in that writing time, but a few hours is enough, and maybe an hour a day, even half an hour - as long as it's productive - is OK.
  3. Targets. I've got a daily first draft target of 2,000 words. It doesn't matter what your target is, as long as you do what you have to do to get there. Your target needs to be realistic, achievable, but not too easy. And it's personal to you; bigger isn't necessarily better.     
  4. Use the right tools for the job. I don't have an office. At home, I'm best with a laptop on the kitchen table. By all means have a den, an office, a writing shed. Make sure that the right music is on, that Mr Snuggles the cat is nearby, that the moon is in Uranus. Put on your Magic Story Ideas Hat. But don't make a fetish out of these comforts.
  5. Have a dedicated machine. A little bit of an extravagance this, perhaps. But it might be worth considering, and it works for me. A laptop for writing, and one for everything else. Specifically for me, I first-draft on a different machine (a cheap Chromebook) and then do all the other work (rewrites, admin, research, correspondence, wasting time on the internet in general) on another one. 
  6. Coffee. Simple black filter coffee for me, thanks.  
  7. Be open to working in public. The Starbucks novelist may be a cliche, but if it works for you, don't fight it. For me, it's the library. My local library has a small local studies and reference room that's perfect for getting on with some work. After that initial burst of wordage first thing, I'll be more productive if I go somewhere to work rather than try to keep doing so at home. And the library is the best placefor me to do just that. 
  8. Trains. Writing on trains is the best. 
  9. Stick to the routine. Every day works for some. Monday to Friday for others. weekends only for yet more. 2,000 words a day every first draft day is my routine. I've just knocked up a planner for the next two months; first draft word counts, blog posts, monthly newsletter, other bits of writing. Find your method for keeping yourself on track. Make that method simple. Make it public if that helps - tell your significant other, whisper it to Mr Snuggles, Blu-Tak a chart over your desk - hold yourself to your own promises.
  10. I don't have a reward system, but if you need that to motivate, then go for it. Make these small and useful; another hot drink, a cigarette if you're a smoker, Bonios if you're really into dog treats.
  11. Don't cheat yourself. Don't borrow from one day's output to pay off another's shortfall. The clock always resets back to zero. You might find that a weekly rather than a daily target works better. Fine. Do that instead. Just do it!
  12. Don't let it be work. Adjust the time, the words to be written. Write something different. 
  13. If the routine needs to change, go with it. 

So, over to you. What's your routine?


My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available from me (signed if you'd prefer!) and also in ebook and paperback formats via Amazon.