How I wrote a novel in lockdown
Updated: Jul 30
My debut novel, Dark Wonders, is coming out soon (available here) and getting it fit for public consumption during our world altering hiatus from normal has been tough to say the least.
But, through mild discomfort and swinging moods, I've managed to finish a whole book with the help of some particularly generous and patient friends. Thanks go out to Ali and Charlie, who both do things that I, apparently, am incapable of doing for myself, and without whom this wouldn't have been finished. But don't worry, they will be rewarded with my unending affection and the promise to maybe babysit some time if they ever need me to. Let it never be said that Joshua Helmer doesn't repay his debts. (side note: please don't assume this book release means I can pay any of my *actual* debts, you people will just have to wait...)
The most difficult thing about this process has been maintaining any capacity for creativity whilst spending the vast majority of my time in my living room. Coming up with ideas for stories and edits and fantastical details that bring vibrancy to a story has been nigh on impossible. I had the bones of this book in the bag for a while but being self-directed, with no external deadlines, meant I was able to let my projects languish in some purgatorial state, with a promise to myself that I would definitely finish it when things got back to "normal".
But I decided that "normal" might be a while away, so I forced myself to finish the book, despite the challenges faced along the way.
In lockdown, it's been hard enough just coming up with ideas for meals twice a day, and that's despite the ample collection of cookbooks that I've somehow accrued over the years. If it weren't for those books, my only reference for dinner ideas would have been the same tired mind that brought you golden poetry like this.
I can only imagine the disgusting number of chip butties I would have consumed in lockdown were it not for the option of referencing the directory of culinary suggestions at my finger tips that gave me inspiration to cook something else.
Which brings me to writing.
It's rough going trying to come up with fresh ideas when you share the same world as every other writer who has ever lived. But lockdown has slashed my interactions with the outside world to a fraction of what it used to be, giving me significantly fewer opportunities to steal an idea from something I see on the street or over hear in a cafe or read on the side of a bus. (Yes, I once wrote a poem inspired by a bus advert.
But like life, creativity, uh, finds a way *insert sexy Jeff Goldblum gif*. And it was through trial and error that I managed to twist some of my practices from the before time to suit me now, in the indoor time.
So here is how I managed to eek out the tiniest morsels of creativity whilst I've been in lockdown:
1. Consume a variety of media
News just in, watching the same guff you've been watching for the last 8 years is NOT an inducement to a creative break through.
As much as I love rewatching my favourite Michaels (Bluth and Scott) bumble through their daily lives, there is no value in going over the same comfortable stories again and again when you're trying to trigger inspiration.
Where possible, I've been forcing myself to consume new things as much as I can. Be it a book that's been sat on my shelf for years, a TV show I've never had the chance to start or an album by a band whose back catalogue I've been meaning to explore.
It's these things that help me find that spark of an idea, a little thing that could be a big thing, a notion that could become a saga.
One of the most important books I ever read is Austin Kleon's "Steal Like an Artist" - a book I stole (like an artist). It taught me the important lesson that, in art, nothing is original, everything is an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation. So the best way to find a new idea is to consume something new.
2. Avoid most social media
Twitter is a cesspit of vile opinions and fuel for the already hyper-actively depressing state of the world. But the meme's....
Social media is hard because it's so addictive for many of us. I'll admit that most days, the first thing I do is hop onto Instagram and check the new cute dog videos and old basketball highlights.
But more than being a black hole for my time, it is something that actively makes it harder for me to do work and be creative. Despite what I've already said about consuming new things, it seems that social media is the one form of "new" that switches the healthy parts of my brain off and turns me into a thumb with a body attached to it. When I'm on social media I'm almost exclusively a consumer. And when I am interacting, I'm barely engaging with what I'm looking at. And when I engage with a thread or look into trending topics, I'm confronted by horrible news, misinformation and awful opinions from sociopaths whose empathy glands were seemingly amputated in the 90's.
Consciously spending less time on social media has helped me keep the momentum of creativity going, so I do little things like keep my phone out of sight when writing and move my social media apps into folders so they're not the first thing I see.
Building momentum is easier if you've had a running start.
This used to be my "go to" for getting going. Back in the before times, when going outside wasn't a treat, I'd start most of my writing days by going to the gym and pretending to do exercise.
Getting my blood pumping first thing in the morning gave me a feeling of accomplishment and set my momentum for the rest of the day. If I already felt like I'd achieved something before 10am, there was no limit to my capacity to create something new after that. I've already lifted a heavy thing a few times, which was hard, so sitting down and tapping away on a keyboard must be easy by comparison.
And, of course, there is the meditative element to exercise. Running or lifting weights or doing yoga can have a positive effect on your state of mind, giving you a chance to focus your attention inward on your sensations, breath, and the movements of your body.
Add in a good old blob of endorphins and your day is off to a rolling start.
4. Intentionally do the wrong things
Washing up? Sure. Go shopping? Absolutely. Video chat with a friend? I'm free right now.
This one is new and is only made possible by the extra time I have at home now. In the before times I had routines in place, built from years of experience and hemmed in at the edges by the requirements of adult life. I'm more productive as my day goes on, my creativity being like an old steam engine that has to get the fires burning before it can slowly pull away and taking some time to reach it's maximum velocity. As a result, I had to get started with writing ASAP (after getting swole with the gym's finest 5Kg's, of course).
But now I have time on my side. And it turns out the best aid to my momentum is having nothing else to do in a day. No distractions = nothing to put the breaks on when I'm at full speed. So now I allow myself my whole morning to get anything else I want to do out of the way and I don't pressure myself to start until I'm good and ready.
This might be chores, it might be a chat with a friend, or it might even mean reading or playing video games, activities which I know aren't as productive as writing, but at least they get my brain buzzing.
Then, come early afternoon, I've put those urges to bed and I can start writing, knowing I've almost nothing else in my way.
5. Then do the right thing
At some point, you have to actually work...
Finally, when all of those tips/time wasting excuses have been completed, I sit down and I start working. And this is the part of my process that requires discipline, which, as anybody who has met me will confirm, is not my forte. I'm more of a free-spirit, make-it up-as-you-go-along, what's-that-over-there, I-wish-there-was-a-dog-here type of writer.
But, given that I dream of growing up (one day) to be a full time author, I have to choose to sit down at my computer and go through the arduous task of doing the thing I love the most.
Creating anything is hard work. But nothing good comes of nothing at all. Money don't come for free. A goal is only a dream until there's a deadline -*insert more quotes that high school football coaches would say*- At some point, after all the tricks and tips, the tactics, the habits, the processes, the rituals and the time-wasting fun stuff comes the requirement to sit down and do some damn work.
So I bang on some "beats to think to", block out the world and I force myself to put fingers on keys. Even if what comes out is garbage, it's paving the way to something better.
So, if you too are struggling to get your brain to come up with anything new, I hope my pathetic experience can be of some use to you.
And don't forget - Dark Wonders, the debut novel by future superstar author Joshua Helmer, comes out 12th May 2020, pre-order available here.
Stay fresh, cheesebags.