This author made novel-writing his career by building a focused routine
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Meet Matthew Harffy
Matthew Harffy is the author of action-packed historical novels. His most recent book, A Night of Flames, is the second in the A Time for Swords series set at the dawn of the Viking Age. His 2020 standalone novel, Wolf of Wessex, was called “a treat of a book” by The Times.
Before becoming a full-time author, Matthew worked in the IT industry, where he spent most of his days writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him! Prior to that, he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator.
The ninth novel in the Bernicia Chronicles, Forest of Foes, is due for publication in December 2022, so we thought that now would be a great time to catch up with Matthew and find out more about his work and writing methods.
How did you arrive at where you are today? What were some of the steps you took along the way?
I started writing my first novel, The Serpent Sword, back in 2001, but it took me until 2013 to really start to take writing seriously and create a routine and a plan that would see me finish that first novel and go on to write another twelve to date.
Very simply, I realized I needed to use the time available to me, which back then was often an hour here and there waiting for my kids to finish a dance class or some other activity. This meant I needed to be flexible and be able to write anywhere in those small windows of time.
What is the biggest mistake or lesson you have learned along the way?
My biggest mistake was not getting that first novel finished sooner. I was very busy with a young family and a full-time job twenty years ago, so there are good reasons for not being able to complete the novel quickly, but looking back, I wish I’d created a more focused routine for myself and truly believed I could write a novel.
What excites you most about what you do?
Telling stories and being able to write books I would like to read. Being my own boss is great, but with the flexibility and freedom to do what I like also comes extra pressure. It is very easy to become distracted, so discipline is a must.
Do you have a routine of writing at a certain time every day?
Yes. As I said, I used to write whenever and wherever I could, but now I am a full-time writer, so I sit down each morning after breakfast and I get to work. I have a break at lunch and take my dog, Blue, out for a walk, then I write again through to five. So I basically do a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, working week.
I have a daily word count target of two thousand words, which I try my best to hit. This is important for a sense of achievement and also for planning so that I can hit my deadlines.
At what point did you realize that technology was taking a toll on your productivity and time?
The importance of social media to help me promote my books and to communicate with readers and other writers has grown massively over the last few years, particularly since the pandemic with so many restrictions placed on personal movement.
Being on my own all day, it is all too easy to get distracted. I find one of the worst culprits for me is email. I know emails are not meant to be instant communications, but if I see a message come in, I cannot ignore it and I tend to get pulled into not only reading it, but also replying, and that often means doing some work, further distracting me from what I had planned to do that day.
When and where are you most and least productive? How does this shape your daily working routine?
I think I am least productive in the mid-afternoon, but writing in short bursts of 30-50 minutes really helps me get the words down. I also have an adjustable desk, so at those times when I’m feeling a bit snoozy, I stand up to work.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?
I use a program called Scrivener for writing. It is so much more flexible than a word processor like MS Word. It allows me to include all the extra info about characters, places, and research for a novel in the same project as the actual manuscript. It also allows me to break down the manuscript into separate chapters and scenes that can then be easily moved around.
I also use a piece of software called Aeon Timeline to help me structure my novels. As I write historical fiction this also helps me to place real historical events against the fictional events of the novels.
Of course, more recently, I have started using Freedom every day and since I have, I haven’t missed my word target once. I tend to use it in three or four sessions a day, each less than an hour, which has proven enough to get my two thousand words written.
What are your biggest distractors?
As mentioned above, my biggest distractions are emails, with Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp coming a close second.
How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?
This is a tough one. I think the best idea would be to set aside a specific time each day to access social media and answer emails and messages, but that is easier said than done and I am still working on that!
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive?
I take long walks with Blue which are good for thinking and pondering problems. I also read as much as I can.
What upcoming project are you currently most excited about?
I am working on novels in my two ongoing series, The Bernicia Chronicles, and, A Time for Swords, but I am most excited about the challenge of writing a novel set in a completely different time and place!
It is still a secret, but I plan to write it next year, with publication the year after, so watch this space…
Matthew’s new book, Forest of Foes, is available for pre-order now.