Expert Q&A: finding time to write

We caught up with Emma Finlayson-Parker to ask her how she fits quality writing time into her busy schedule — and she’s kindly shared plenty of useful advice with us, along with insights into her writing life.

A core member of the Retreat West staff, Emma manages the Facebook group and member group, and is also a reader for competitions. She’s represented by Laura West at the David Higham Agency and has been published widely online and in print.


– When it comes to finding time to write, what are your main challenges?

I have a busy family and work multiple part time jobs so I have to be disciplined, but also precious with my time. I haven’t given up on watching TV or film and the odd Netflix binge, but I have sacrificed a lot of time where I might veg in front of the TV. I have adapted to be able to work in the chaos of the living room, so that really helps.

– What do you find are your biggest distractions when it comes to writing, and how do you overcome them?

My biggest distraction is definitely Twitter. I have to make little deals with myself like no checking Twitter until I’ve written at least 100 words or a paragraph. I also have the Forest app on my phone where you can grow trees the longer you keep off social media on your phone.

– Is there a certain time of day when you find you write best/when it’s easiest to focus? Or a particular place?

I’ve tried getting up at 5am or 6am, and it doesn’t really suit me as it takes me longer to wake up enough to function. I can write most times throughout the day, but I’ve found I either write better during the morning, or late at night. I’m definitely a night owl.

– How much writing time do you aim to set aside each day or each week?

I try to write a little each day, even if it’s just a sentence or mulling over an idea without actually putting pen to paper. Thinking time is just as important so I try not to feel too cross with myself if I don’t meet a target, but similarly I try to give myself smaller daily goals so I can achieve them easily and give myself a little boost that usually leads to a more productive day.

– Do you aim to write a certain number of words each day, or do you structure your writing time another way?

I’ve started a journal this year to add something to each day, whether it’s a word I like, a sentence, or just a bit of free writing; it’s a good way for me to spark ideas and keep track of productive days. I have a lot of editing work so have to structure my day to fit that in, and also try and set aside more time for my writing. I do often have a good few hours at the weekend where I just work solidly on a project of my own, so it’s a good time to work if I haven’t worked on my own writing as much in the week.

– What are you working on writing at the moment?

At the moment I’m editing a picture book to send back to my agent, and working on a totally new Young Adult book — so very much in the messy first draft. I also try and write a piece of flash fiction each week.

– What drives you to carve out time to write?

I absolutely love the buzz I get from writing, and love to be immersed in anything to do with writing. So I am more than happy to stay home and write and not go out as much!

– What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to find the time to write?

Set yourself easy targets. Even 10-100 words a day is great because over a week you’d have 70-700 words, and that’s more words than you had at the start of the week. Small goals are easy to hit, and usually result in you writing more anyway. Find ways to write that fit in with your lifestyle; I often text myself ideas or use the voice recorder on my phone to get ideas down fast.


Follow Emma on Twitter: @FinlaysonPalmer and Instagram: finlayson_palmer

Best Opening Page Competition shortlist

Many congratulations to the writers of the following opening pages as they have gone through to the shortlist to win the writing retreat at Casa Ana. I’ll be making the final decision and announcing the winners next week. Well done to all the writers who were longlisted too. It’s never an easy decision to make once you get to this stage of the judging.

Shortlisted Opening Pages

  • Between the Sea and the Shore
  • Devil Girl
  • From the Last Will and Testament of Peter Pan
  • Gone Viral
  • Places I Find My Mother
  • Rules for Living with a Rugarou
  • The Furies
  • The Voyagers
  • Things I Want Back From You
  • Unclean

Micro Fiction Course Competition Winners

Many thanks to everyone that entered this competition to write a 150 word story from this photo prompt; and to all our shortlisted writers for their patience waiting for the results. Mary-Jane and I have read them over and over again and there was so much to recommend in them all. But we had to choose three winners and they are…

First prize winner: Dark and Light by Lucy Hooft

Why we chose it: Beautiful imagery and the play of dark and light is done so deftly throughout. Love the last lines and the sense of ambiguity it leaves you with.


Second prize winner: Ghost Blocker by Andrew Boulton

Why we chose it: Great humour to this one yet it still manages to pose lots of questions and keep you wondering what’s really going on with the ghosts as the narrator realises he shouldn’t have let the promise of riches sway him.


Third prize winner: The Quickening by Abi Hennig

Why we chose it: Strong images and great use of language and we loved how the past and present weave together and how the last line is so open to interpretation.


Many congratulations to our winners. Lucy wins a place on the Micro Fiction Month Course in November 2020; Andrew wins a place on the work-alone, start anytime Micro Fiction Course; and Abi win a year’s Bronze Flash membership.

Monthly Micro Competition: September shortlist

We’re excited to share the shortlist for this month’s Monthly Micro Competition. Vote for your favourites at the bottom of this post — we’ll announce the winners on 29th September.


A Barbed Wire Tattoo

You came for me in the middle of the night and I stifled a scream. The soft glow of the moon was  our only guide as you showed me what I had been missing all these years, if only I had been  brave enough to leave the safety of my single bed.  

The barbed wire left imprints on my back from where we wrestled against the fence, a tattoo  reminder of misdeeds done and I cherished the bruises for weeks afterwards.  It wasn’t until I got home I realised a part of me had been left behind, snagged on the wire.


As We Forgive Them That Trespass against Us

  1. Saturday Bath-time.

She sees the watch on my wrist. Turns it over in her hands, fingers tracing creases in the old leather.

“Yesterday lunch-time, near the sandpit.” I say. 

She looks at me and I hear a steady ticking.

  1.  Monday Assembly

Mr Vance says that a watch, found in school, will be in his office for someone to claim. I press my hands together for The Lord’s Prayer. 

  1. Friday Tea-time

Dad watches her fasten it at the smallest notch. It feels heavy. Later, I wrap it in tissue and sneak it to the back of her drawer.  


Border Crossing

The border is 3,145km long. 

It’s taken almost eight years, but a 20-foot wall winds its way along the invisible line between lands. The photographer stands in the Texas sun, camera slung across her chest.

She tries to calculate how many tons of steel it took, but her brain goes blank, the number too vast. 

A team of builders stand by to secure the final ceremonial section. 

Sweat beads on her forehead. A cavalcade of cars appears, churning up dust. Shimmering light refracts from the desert beyond the wall and she pictures her family, the night they crossed the border.


Last Week I was Bitten By A Mosquito  

Now Tiff won’t stop talking about that bit in Jurassic Park where they extract the dinosaur DNA from the insect trapped in amber and I think if mama was here she’d tut and say that girl’s got a gob on her. 

She’ll blame Tiff, like always, but this time I’ll speak up. 

I’ll say trespassing was my idea. 

I’ll say hearing Tiff’s voice made me forget my no feeling legs and I’ll say how falling through the ground on the wasteland is strangely similar to how I feel now when Tiff squeezes my hand to check if I’m still with her.


On Hallowed Ground

This place is ours, but the sold sign says otherwise. 

Still, I hop over the back gate, brambles poking through the rails – fellow trespassers. 

Picking a blackberry, I thumb the fence with its juice, anointing it. And for a moment, I see your fruit-stained apron billowing, as you carry a basketful down the path. An echo flickering in the low September sun.

I fill up on familiar scents of lavender and overripe tomatoes, as a spider scuttles along an invisible thread. 

A car door slams.

And I sever the web with purpled fingers, leaving it adrift – golden in the light.


Scarce as Hen’s Teeth

I have zero in common with Jackson. He’s ex-T.A. and I’ve got a stove. 

Audrey’s on patrol tonight: Halloween green through the binoculars. People laughed when she started handing leaflets round school, ranting about food security. I told them to lay off because Audrey’s eyes made vegetable soup of my insides. 

She pauses, pixelated in chicken wire, scours the land behind. 

A fast might’ve worked; a taste of scarcity for those not on food banks. When you’re hungry, you’ll smash through concrete to get your hands in soil. You’ll do things you never imagined. 

On my signal, Jackson starts cutting.


Sometimes, The Best Things Feel Like Death

He’s left his toothbrush behind, its splayed bristles a roadkilled hedgehog. His middle-squeezed toothpaste tube puddled on her countertop. Time to end it? But how she savours their evenings: his midnight smell, the feel of him, thrilling as the days she went trespassing with the neighbourhood kids, compressing themselves under barbed wire fences into the Major’s grounds, creeping through long grasses to the bullrushed lake. The wonder of a rowboat tied to the jetty, the maze of lily pads, the air alive with amphibious croaks. Then, leaning in closer, the loom of a swollen-mushroom corpse: the shotgun-wielding Major’s once-prized koi. 


Sunday Dinner

‘I shagged your mother’s best friend,’ dad says, his spittle flecking the roast turkey’s  half-eaten carcass. Around his neck, a lopsided napkin bearing a cross-shaped gravy  stain taunts me. There’s nothing holy about this day, about the fact that of all his  memories, it’s this demon that trespasses its way across the worm-holed landscape of  his mind. Oblivious, he grapples with the Brussel sprouts dotting his plate. Tongue  drooling, he anchors the largest, admires it like a prized marble before swallowing it whole. My mother hooks her finger around a too small wishbone, dangles it above her  Royal Albert plate.


The Sign 

Some families pass around colds and the flu. Some families pass around insults, jokes, advice, or hugs. Like a talking stick, Brenda’s family of six passed around the No Trespassing sign: handmade stencils on a plank of bark-edged mesquite, the size of a baguette, two holes drilled into the top corners to hang by leather string on a bedroom, bathroom, sunroom door. The sign kept family apart so the holder could repent, rage, pray, or fantasize. 

The summer before entering college on an academic scholarship, Brenda inked the tattoo, No Trespassing, on her thigh. For protection, her father said.


When Mum Holds Hands with the Trespasser

Frozen – my favourite book. 

You hummed it so I threw it away; buried it deep in the rubbish bin so mum wouldn’t see.

At night you slither into my bed, size me up, shed your skin. Scales flaky and dry, virulent confetti to sully me.

Pizza – my favourite food. 

I smelt it on your breath; vomited, ruined my dress; buried it deep in the rubbish bin so mum wouldn’t see.

Mum’s in the kitchen cooking. You slither closer to me; whisper, ‘shall we play a game?’ 

Tonight, I pray for Eye Spy, in the hope that mum will see.


Best opening page competition: longlist

After much deliberation, we’ve narrowed down our entries to the longlist below:

  1. After the Fire
  2. Between the Sea and the Shore
  3. Blood Money
  4. Blue is Truth
  5. Calloused
  6. Carburetors and Cupcakes
  7. Cascading
  8. Devil Girl
  9. Figments
  10. Glacier
  11. Gone Viral
  12. I See Red
  13. Into the Soup
  14. Nogales
  15. On Tuesday I Will Kill Him
  16. Pity-Heart
  17. Places I Find My Mother
  18. Riding the Tiger
  19. Rooks Cry from the North
  20. Rules for Living with a Rougarou
  21. Saviour of the Broken
  22. Sentenced to Love
  23. Simulacrum
  24. Teddy Mills
  25. Thawed Waters
  26. The Adding up of Little Things
  27. The BODYCON
  28. The Death and Rapture of Anthony C. Wong at the Double Dragon
  29. The Furies
  30. The Last Will and Testament of Peter Pan
  31. The Notebook of Things That Happened That Shouldn’t Have Happened
  32. The Pavement Gardener
  33. The Other Side of Time
  34. The Savage Path
  35. The Secret Lives of the Doyenne of Didsbrook
  36. The Surfer Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
  37. The Voyagers
  38. The Witches of Undoing
  39. Things I Want Back from You
  40. Twenty-Eight to Forty: A Memoir
  41. Unclean
  42. Unexpected and Overamped
  43. We Drink to Calm Our Bodies
  44. Where Streets Have No Names
  45. Your Name is a Myth

The shortlist will be announced on the 25th of September… Good luck, everyone!

Monthly micro fiction competition: September longlist

Thank you to all our entrants — the standard was as high as ever this month, and it was a pleasure to read all the entries. Congratulations to everyone whose story made it to the longlist below:

  1. A Barbed Wire Tattoo
  2. As We Forgive Them That Trespass Against Us
  3. Border Crossing
  4. Douglas Successfully Does Something That Isn’t Boring
  5. Goldie
  6. Granny Smith
  7. Hidden Messages
  8. I am…
  9. I am the Astronaut
  10. It’s Safe in the Moon
  11. Last Week I was Bitten by a Mosquito
  12. No Trespassing
  13. No Trespassing App: Installation Successful
  14. On Hallowed Ground
  15. Perotine Massey, Guernsey Martyr, 1556
  16. Pray for Silence
  17. Run to Earth
  18. Scarce as Hen’s Teeth
  19. Sometime, the Best Things Feel Like Death
  20. Sunday Dinner
  21. Texas Holdem
  22. The Sign
  23. Trespass to the Person
  24. Two Ghosts in a Landscape
  25. When Mum Holds Hands with the Trespasser

We’ll share the shortlist on Monday 21st September… Watch this space!