It began so well. When I first left my office job to write novels full-time I was a totem of cast-iron discipline. At the desk by 9am, I never faltered, never took a day off.
Puffed up with the New Regime, I simultaneously followed Weight Watchers to the letter: so much easier when you can meal-plan and cook at home. I not only produced my first novel, I lost a stone at the same time.
Fast-forward five years and who is that shuffling egg on legs approaching Tesco Metro in her slippers for a “sharing” bag of Twirl Bites?
My discipline has faltered, not with writing novels (I am now on my fourth) but with keeping a lid on the grazing, the inertia and the trips to the fridge that punctuate my day.
Arse expansion is a serious side-effect of being a full-time writer (not to mention going quietly mad). My FitBit reveals that, on the days I don’t consciously exercise, I barely clock up 2,000 steps. It’s no good telling yourself that you are up and down the stairs with the laundry. If you’re not commuting, you’re not moving. And as we all know, sitting is the new smoking.
I am simultaneously the queen of new regimes. My time is my own, so I can launch enthusiastically into fad diets, or fantasise about treadmill desks, which will make the weight fall away. I decided I could walk to a swimming pool, swim, then walk back – all before settling down to write each day. I did it once, only just making it home in time to pick up the kids from school.
My very constant preoccupation with food and weight and the deliciousness of things, has surfaced in Persons Unknown, my new novel. Persons Unknown is the second in the series featuring detective Manon Bradshaw (the first was Missing, Presumed), and introduces a new protagonist in Birdie Fielding.
Birdie is the morbidly obese owner of the Payless Food & Wine. She owns two recliner chairs and she doesn’t hold back on the trans fats. While some authors’ fantasies are about sex and death, mine are very much centred on unfettered access to the crisps aisle. I dwell on Frazzles a lot in this novel. As Birdie says: “Whoever said nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, has never set in on her third mince pie.”
Authors are not slow to come up with strategies to combat the arse expansion (as well as the loneliness and psychic pressure) that comes with the job. When I put the question to a Facebook writers group, there was a veritable avalanche of spluttering, sausage roll crumbs falling on keyboards across the land, as they bemoaned “writer’s butt”.
“Half a stone per novel over here,” wailed Sinéad Cowley, author of One Bad Turn. Catherine Ryan Howard, author of Distress Signals, agreed: “Since writing full-time, I’m in a constant state of exponential arse expansion.”
So, what is the solution? Carys Bray, author of A Song for Issy Bradley, writes at a treadmill desk, as does Emma Donoghue, author of Room, and US thriller writer Michael Connolly.
Many writers are adopting standing desks (with models available from Ikea), so that for 10 or 20 minutes each hour, they stop sitting. This can help with the added strains of back ache and shoulder hunching attendant to writing. Val McDermid, Susi Holliday and Erin Kelly are all standing-desk writers.
Kelly, author of He Said/She said, loves her standing desk. “I kept reading all those stories about sitting being as bad for you as smoking,” she says. “I don’t get tired but I do get light-headed if I stand for more than two hours. When this happens, I adjust it to sitting. Also it wobbles when it’s at full standing, which means I can’t write by hand. In practice I’m only standing up about half the time.
“I don’t think it’s changed my body because I do exercise a lot - an hour every day, ideally at the gym but more realistically brisk walking - although that’s more for mental health than in pursuit of a hot body. I write in a tiny room and if I don’t get out and move for a big chunk of the day I get depressed and lethargic.”
Holliday, author of The Damsel Fly, says her desk “goes up and down, like me. I put it to standing mode for about 10 minutes every hour. I also do various physio/pilates stretchy things and kettlebell swings and use the hydrotherapy jets at the gym. When I do all this, it’s great, but it’s keeping the discipline that’s hard; I have just gone through a period of too much slouched sitting for weeks and I’m really feeling it.”
There is a lot of exercising going on in the fiction-writing community. And I mean a lot. I’m not saying it’s work-avoidance, I’m not saying things at the desk aren’t going well. However, I have never had the muse strike, as it’s supposed to, on a walk.
Angela Clarke, author of Follow Me, is a swimming fan: “I listen to Audible books while I’m doing it so I still feel like I’m working. I do the same thing with a walk each day. It’s become part of my process now. Bottom is still sizeable.”
Others swing kettlebells, or engage in yoga and pilates etc. But there was one clear winner in the fight against author flab and the maintaining of author spirits: “My advice both for arse and depression is the same: get a dog,” says Amanda Craig, author of The Lie of the Land.
The enthusiasm for dog-ownership made me wonder if part of it is the outsourcing of your persecution complex. Instead of (your own) nagging voice in your head saying, “You really should go for a walk”, the doleful eyes on your beloved mutt can do the nagging for you. Dogs force lonely authors out on rainy walks even when they don’t want to go, and assuage much stay-at-home loneliness.
Simon Toyne, author of The Boy Who Saw, says: “I have a dog who destroys things if he doesn’t have two long walks a day. I also use these walks to listen to podcasts relevant to what I’m writing and figure out plot and character knots and make voice message notes on my phone.”
Amanda Jennings, author of In Her Wake, agrees: “Walking the dog is my arse-saver; not that good, though, as my arse is indeed sizeable. Also, walking from desk to kitchen to make seven cups of tea a day helps. And opening the fridge door is a good tricep workout. And I find banging my head repeatedly against the keyboard helps keep my shoulders loose …”
So there you have it. You can buy a standing desk, or a treadmill desk or just a desk, but the thing you really need if you’re going to write novels is not the muse but Muttley. Now get back to work.