The Egg-Timer Challenge


There’s nothing like willing slavery.

Every week, I set my fiction writing students one, two or sometimes three timed writing exercises in class. I am always impressed by the quality of first-draft work they produce in these short, intense bursts. When I say quality, I am not talking about beautiful sentences (though these can emerge too) so much as powerful raw imaginative material. They produce it because – let’s be blunt – I have forced them to. They have no choice in the matter. I am their creative writing slave-driver. To their credit, none of them gives up and walks out of the classroom. They sit and write, and often we’re all surprised and delighted by what emerges.

But what about those of us (I include myself) who don’t have a slave-driver?

With a little help, you can become your own.

Here is where the Egg-Timer Challenge comes in. Every week for the next few months, I’ll be setting you a 25-minute Egg-Timer Challenge. I should really call it a kitchen-timer challenge because who boils an egg for 25 minutes? But I like the word egg, and always have. Eggs pop up in all my novels: I can’t seem to keep them out. Magical thinking indicates they bring me luck.

How did this idea hatch? And will it grow wings and fly?

Lately, frustrated by how slowly my new gargantuan novel has been coming along, and how ready I am to procrastinate, I began experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. What’s that got to do with egg-timers? Or avian metaphors? Or writing?

Well, this.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method invented thirty years ago by the Italian  Francesco Cirillo. As a student, he had a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato: this is what inspired his system, and gave it its name.

Cirillo’s system is crazily simple, and crazily effective. It is a beautiful no-brainer. You sit down with your kitchen timer and you set it to 25 minutes. Then, armed with your Egg-Timer Challenge Writing Prompt, provided by me, you write non-stop, in longhand or on the computer, until the timer buzzes. And then you stop, even if you’re in mid-sen –

I meant it. Stopping is key. If you continue, you are cheating and you will be sent to the Pomodoro Prison. Here you will be set to work chopping tomatoes all day. Ever wondered, when you bought a can of chopped tomatoes, who chopped them? Pomodoro Criminals.

So when you stop, what? Simple. You take a short break and start again. And that is how your Pomodoro day goes. Intense bursts of writing with short breaks in between.

Hang on, “short break”?

That part is up to you.

I usually take 10-15 minutes (also timed), but much will depend on what else I have on. I keep a boring To Do list for the “in-between” sessions. Some of these tasks will take five minutes, some more, some less. It’s important in this in-between mini-sessions to get away from your desk, even if it means moving the laptop to another surface. Better still, take a walk around the block, or do your shopping, feed the dog or the fish or the gerbil, hang out the washing, make that phone call you’ve been putting off, learn three Spanish phrases, answer those emails, check your social media feed, blah blah blah. And when the timer pings again, return to your desk, set the timer for another 25-minute Pomodoro session and pick up your writing where you left off.

The beauty of this process is the built-in time-limit. You may not be in the mood to begin writing but if you know you’ll be stopping in 25 minutes, the nagging dread, or the feeling you should be doing ten other things instead, or whatever else is creating an obstacle, is neatly excised from the equation. The other advantage is that, having stopped mid-sentence or mid-thought, you’ll have no trouble starting again.

Check out my Egg Timer Challenge Writing Prompts every week on my Facebook page, and experiment with willing slavery. I look forward to reading what you come up with.

Here’s the first prompt: