Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Down Time

Fiona's feet on Cannon Rocks beach, South Africa.
As you are reading this I am on a beach near my in-laws house in South Africa. During this Easter break, apart from visiting my husband’s family, I will hopefully be getting some rest and perhaps writing a chapter or two of my new novel. On a two-week holiday a chapter or two is all I think I can and should manage. I do not want to spend all my time writing, but when I do it will be a restful kind of writing; the kind of writing that restores rather than depletes my energy levels.

When you write for a living the very act of writing can exhaust you. When writing is work, I suppose, it’s almost inevitable. For people who write for a hobby it usually has the opposite effect – to relax and invigorate you. So as a professional writer I try to consciously strike a balance between the two: writing as work and writing as leisure.

I do this by structuring ‘down-time’ into my writing day. I try to get all my admin, social media and marketing work done in the morning, as well as lecture or workshop prep when I’m running courses. But just before lunch I stop and take my dogs for a walk. And unless their nemesis – the neighbour’s cat – is spotted, it is usually a restful time for my body and mind. When I get back I have lunch while watching the news then settle down to do some creative writing in the afternoon. After the down-time between my morning and afternoon work, I find my mind is more rested and I’m able to be more creative. I generally do about two hours writing then have a 20 minute lie-down. If my daughter has an after-school club and will be home late I then try to put in another hour’s work before the family get home. That is my ideal daily rhythm.

However, when I’m approaching a deadline I frequently abandon that rhythm and write and write and write, putting in six - seven hours in a day, with only a short break to grab a sandwich which I eat as I continue writing. Six hours does not seem a lot, but when it is hour after hour of focused thinking, it is exhausting. After a week or two of this, I am near breakdown – but have a finished manuscript! I then need to take a couple of weeks off from all writing before I come back to the project and give it a second read through.

Fiona writing a chapter of Poppy Denby in South Africa.
Understanding your creative rhythm and how to build down-time into your schedule is essential for a writer. But we are all different. Some of you may hold down nine-to-five jobs and write in the evening or on weekends. Some of you may have physical or mental health limitations. Others have time-draining family situations. But each of us can and should be able to find something that rests our mind apart from writing. One of my creative writing students ensures he does a 10-mile run every day. Ten miles??????? Another likes to lie down while listening to music. Still another does the dishes (!) and another, yoga. What all of these have in common is that they are ‘mindless’ activities that allow the part of your brain that is involved in writing to switch off and rest. If you don’t have this down-time it will eventually work its way out into your body and your writing. The quality of my writing produced after down-time is far superior I believe to what I produce during my marathon sessions.

And of course, as a person of faith, prayer and time set aside to read the Bible is also essential to my daily rhythm. One might not use the term ‘mindless’ to describe it, but it is certainly soul enriching.

Do you understand your creative rhythm? What is your down-time?

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is currently a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year, and the third, The Death Beat, will be published in October. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter  a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her literary thriller about apartheid South Africa, The Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK.


  1. So envious of you being able to lie on a sunbed, balancing a laptop on your knees as you write! I can't do that ... I can't even get away with using a laptop. I've never been able to break the habit (taught at school all those years ago) of sitting up straight with knees and feet together. Hence, I'm rooted to my desktop. *sigh* Anyway, what's my down-time? - rescuing worms from the pavement when it's raining. I've come to love worms after conquering a childhood phobia of them! :D

  2. How very different we are, Fiona. I wake at any time between 5.a.m. and 8.a.m. with my brain teeming with what I want to write. My creative energy has to be put to use in the morning or I'm unable to write in the afternoon. I stop for meal, for QT with my hub, for a walk. I have no set pattern, sometimes writing all day for days on end, sometimes having a day off but, more usually, writing in the mornings only, through to lunchtime. I NEVER feel fatigued because it's no pressure to me. Writing is not what I DO. It's who I AM. Not writing for any great length of time is a burden and can create depression. But, as you may have seen on FB, I've just written THE END a day ago, on my latest book. Enjoy your time off. You deserve it. xx

  3. I so agree with Fiona - writing is definitely work! That is, it drains me more than anything else. However when it goes well I can write quite a lot in a short time. Down time is utterly necessary. I need to organise it better - as Fiona does - so that the whole thing is more balanced. My down time is usually gardening/housework/nature walks. All of those are physical exercise which has a product! I have done Yoga as well for downtime but have been off that as had a muscle problem may get back to it. Interestingly, painting is just as absorbing as writing, but not exhausting. (However, am taking a life class this term,so we shall see - drawing, in a class, may not be relaxing - or it may be!)