Writing Fiction: Flowstate

I’ve been suffering from chronic staring-out-of-the-windowitis recently.  I know what I’ve got to do: get on with the next draft of the novel.  I’ve even come up with a clear plan.  But still, my gaze drifts to the tree outside.

I started to write a blog post on what would happen if you knew that what you wrote would never be seen by anyone.  Would you still do it?  And if so, why?

This wasted a good couple of days.  But it did bring me back to the point: why do it?  The best I could come up with was those moments of absorption in writing, when the exact words of the next couple of sentences are just hanging there, waiting for me to copy them down.  I’d call it pure writing; psychologists call it Flow.

This led onto yet another efficient diversion: looking up literature on Flow.  But instead of ordering Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi’s book (and I was sorely tempted) I happened across an app called Flowstate.

A simple idea: you pick a period of time to write and, as soon as you start, a clock ticks down.  If you stop writing for more than five seconds, it deletes everything you have written up to that point.

Sounds like a white-knuckle ride for writers.  But, what it forces you to do is to stop thinking and keep writing.

Clearly, buying apps is yet another tool of the professional procrastinator.  But this one seemed to eliminate two flying animals with one geological weapon, so I gave it a go.

The first thing to say is that, at the moment, it’s only available for Apple users and it costs eight quid.  But my thinking was, if it’s going to stop me from looking out the window and get me writing, it might be worth it.

The experience is a little like that theme-park ride.  Stop writing for two or three seconds and the words on the page begin to fade.  The first time, I had foolishly thought that I might be able to have the occasional sip of coffee.  No chance.  Even the tactic of pressing one key while you have a sip, runs the risk of losing your flow of thought.

I did a five-minute session and felt pretty proud of myself, then a fifteen-minute session, followed, the next day, by a half-hour.  Yesterday, I even risked a one-hour session. There were definitely moments when I felt myself sinking into the Flow-state, and others when it was pure verbiage.  There is no time to consider options and I often just followed the next thought that was available to me – which I think is the point.

A huge caveat is that at the end of my half-hour session the program crashed.  So, I lost the whole thing.  I contacted one of the creators of the app, who sent a rather charming personalised reply – with apology – and promised that there will be an update very soon.  It hasn’t stopped me using the app – though there is even more of a sense of Russian roulette about it now.

The solution to all writing problems?  No.  A gentler pace is often just as productive and some people will hate the pressure.  The literature suggests that Flow arises when there is high challenge and high skill.  But challenge does not have to be in the form of a ticking clock, it could just be the ambition of your writing.  I doubt that Hilary Mantel writes to a stopwatch but the task she has set herself with the Wolf Hall trilogy must be challenging enough.

In the meantime, I have produced more this week than I otherwise would, and there are some interesting passages to be edited.  At the very least, it will be my go-to tool to stop my eyes drifting to the window.

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One thought on “Writing Fiction: Flowstate

  1. I once tried writing a 5K word story in a morning. Well, I think it was 5K but it was a complete story. I told myself just not to stop, not for coffee, not for anything. And I did it. I’m not sure I enjoyed it, that kind of rapid writing but it did get a first draft down on the screen. I have not done that since and I have no intention of doing it again. Just as well as these days 1K words would be a reason to rejoice.

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