Writing hack #1: writing on the train

It’s a common misconception that writers all congregate in coffee shops and mash their keyboards in a cappuccino-fuelled bubble of inspiration and creativity.

Ah, no.

The reality is many writers write when they can, where they can. Sometimes the challenge lies in trying to grab the moment when the inspiration hits. Sometimes it’s about fitting in a writing burst whenever time frees itself.

But most times, the challenge lies in trying to write fiction while still trying to earn a living, raise a family, have a social life or maintain a home. You have to be creative … about being creative.

I’ve been writing for a while and I’ve come up with a range of different places to write.  This is the first.

How to write on the train

I live forty-odd minutes south of the city, to which I often travel for work meetings or to deliver lectures. I used to join the slow crawl on the road network, giving me a mind-numbing journey that equated to an hour and a half’s lost time each day. Multiply those ninety minutes by five days, and that’s a lot of time to be sitting behind the wheel, your blood pressure slowly percolating.

So I decided to catch the train.

Yes, it’s public transport (and that carries with it its own special ‘great unwashed’ aura), but it’s also time where I’m still travelling but I can focus on other things … like writing.

People are funny on the train, especially in the morning.  They slump against the window, their earbuds pressed in to keep out the world. They sleep, and then stagger out of the carriage at the other end. They are killing time. So I decided to use that time to my advantage. I now write on the train and that gives me back four to five hours a week to write.

But there are three major hacks that make it productive:

  1. Always bring your headphones. Always. It keeps distractions out and means you don’t have to listen to the suburban grief stories about kids, schools, uncaring husbands or the pile-up of bills (although those conversation are useful – see point 3). It also allows you to pump the right type of music into your head. And what you pipe through your headphones is important.  Match the song or the soundtrack to what you’re writing and it helps to drop you into the scene more effectively.
  2. I give myself a task to complete before the train trip is over – write one chapter, develop one scene with conflict, run one quick pass edit or deepen one key exchange of dialogue. That works for me; it’s a built-in deadline that I can’t move. The best type of deadline.
  3. Set yourself a challenge to write a character based on the people sitting around you.  You don’t need to include it in your WIP, but you can always store it away for later.  You can also ask yourself the question: what if the guy sitting across from me was my antagonist?  What would he say?  How would he react?  Would his white, trimmed beard be menacing?  I’ve written a few characters this way – it helps if you’re studying people up close. I’ve now got novel characters that have a quirk from the guy who regularly sits in my carriage (he winces a lot while listening to his music), a woman who travels on the train with her kids (and she’s constantly on her phone – why would she do that?) and the urban warrior who travels with his bike and constantly stretches while on his train trip.  These are character quirks I could never have just conjured mentally, but they will make some characters more memorable.

I’ve been writing on the train for the past six months.  In that time I’ve finished my first novel (which finaled in the 2016 ACFW Genesis contest), and now the first draft of my second (which I can’t tell you about because it’s in the 2016 ACFW First Impressions contest).

I can tell you now: those manuscripts would still be buried in my mind without getting back this extra time on the train.



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