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Helen Whitaker's Writing Routine

Welcome to Luxuread’s new monthly series, My Writing Routine. In this series, we’ll be talking to authors and writers from around the world to find out more about how and where they write and the tips and techniques they use that helped land them with that all-important book deal.

Covering everything from weekly writing goals, to her favourite productivity trick and what her dream writing spot would look like, read on to find out more about what a typical day of writing looks like for Helen Whitaker, author of I Give it a Year, which you can find in March’s Luxuread box.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

It's a bit in flux at the moment so there is no 'typical' day really, due to a combination of: my 5-year-old son moving from pre-school to school in September (with different attendance hours), the pandemic (meaning he's not actually at school right now at all and hasn't been since December) and having to fit my writing around my day job. In normal times, I work 4 days a week as Editor of British Airways' magazine, High Life, and have Fridays off to write while my son is at school. Aside from that, I try to grab 30 minutes in the morning before I start my working day to write because I'm most productive early in the day and it also helps me focus on my day job knowing I've had a bit of time for myself. However, as my son's been at home for the past couple of months I haven't been able to do any of that - as a family we've been purely in survival mode, and trying to do our day jobs around homeschooling, which are our priorities at the moment. I have written a little bit in the evening or in the morning at weekends when I can shut myself away while my husband looks after Isaac (my son) but put it this way, I cannot wait to get my Fridays back when school reopens! If I'm writing a draft I have a weekly goal of 5000 words a week (I find a daily count is too much pressure) for a very rough first draft. Draft 2 is where everything is sharpened and actually 'written'. I do find that only having small pockets of time makes me more productive though, which is perhaps due to my journalism background - nothing like a deadline to make you get on with it! - and I'm not sure I'd actually be any more productive if I had 5 days a week purely to write.

Where do you write from?

Usually our loft room, which is a spare bedroom-come-office. It's a nice room but boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. (I type this while wearing my fingerless 'writing gloves' during a -1 degree snow day in London.) Otherwise, wherever I am - on my laptop on a train, in Pret a Manger on my lunchbreak, wherever I can grab time!

What are your non-negotiables when it comes to writing?

I've found I have to be quite flexible simply due to all the above circumstances but in an ideal scenario I prefer it to be quiet and to be at home on my laptop - with no one in the house is the dream. But I have written longhand in notebooks in cafes and in the notes function on my phone while I'm on the tube when I've had to. I can't listen to music while I'm writing though, and sometimes put my headphones in but without playing anything if I'm in a cafe, to block out the background noise.

How long have you stuck with this routine so far?

It's probably more of a non-routine routine but I've been doing it this way since I started writing  my debut (The School Run), as it was after my son was born so I needed to compartmentalise my time. 

How has the way you write changed over the past few years?

All the things outlined above I guess. For me, having a baby shifted a lot in terms of the time I have to write, plus the changing demands of my day job (I used to be the Entertainment Director at Glamour UK and moved to High Life in 2017), and now the pandemic. 

Do you have any tips or techniques you can share that make writing easier?

From a parenting point of view, having children means you have to be much more organised with your time as you just have less of it to yourself, but you also need to be a bit selfish (if you have a partner to share childcare duties with) in order to get it, and say you need 'X time on this day to write'. Once it's scheduled in then stick to it as you would any other appointment  - as once it's gone you'll be back on parenting duty. I don't think short bursts are lesser than having a whole day to write though - for me it helps focus - and a lot of people swear by the Pomodoro technique, where you focus for 25 minute intervals. Basically, waiting for your muse to show up is great if you won't have any other pressures on your time, but for everyone else, just grab any time you can! Connected to that, is that your first draft doesn't have to be good. Once it's written you can edit it, so don't stress too much about what's there until you go back for the second draft. I leave gaps for things I need to research properly while drafting because I don't want to stop to look things up while I'm in the flow. Then when I have something to actually shape I spend time interviewing people (for example about their jobs, which I did for the therapy scenes in I Give it a Year as well as for Iris's job at the National Trust) so I can add the colour and detail, and spend a lot more time on the way sentences are structured and how it all flows.

Where would your dream writing spot be?

In a lovely seaside house (that I have bought with the proceeds of my multiple bestselling novels, obviously) where I have a whole writing room-slash-library and a view of the ocean.

On the days you’re not at home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?

We're currently 7 weeks into our third national lockdown in the UK so I'm not sure I can remember going ANYWHERE that isn't my house right now, but if I trawl the archives of my brain I can just about remember a cappuccino, a pain au raisin and a notebook in a cafe and being perfectly content to spend an hour writing there.