Commuter Piece

For The Evening Standard


There are loads of things you can do on your daily commute. 


Some people work. As long as you’re not a butcher, this is an acceptable method of whiling away the time you spend waiting for the train ahead to stop experiencing delays. Some people watch box sets like Game of Thrones. Sean Bean has probably been executed over a thousand times on the section of track just outside London Bridge where the train inexplicably stops every morning for ten minutes. Other people use social media. Twitter, Facebook and all the other ones I pretend to understand, provide an ever increasing amount of digital space to complain about packed trains, lateness, and burning your lips on the super-heated meat-based filling of an East Croydon sausage roll. 


I’d tried all of these things to pass the time on my commute to and from London. Then I decided to try something else. I would write a story for my daughter. The story was called The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones. I never imagined it would get published*. I never imagined I’d even finish it. I never normally finish anything (apart from East Croydon sausage rolls) but there was something about the monotony of the train ride that made me, twice a day, for one hour 15 minutes, prefer to exist in an imaginary world until the story was done.


But it wasn’t easy. Here are some things that helped me.


Coffee. Coffee is the fuel of commuters. It is also the fuel of writers. Get a coffee. Then make sure that the lid is on properly. Then double check. When you successfully claim a coveted table spot (more on this later) use something unimportant like the notes to this morning’s company-saving pitch to balance your laptop on. This will keep your important novel writing machine dry when your coffee is spilt by the un-removed backpack of a foreign exchange student inexplicably travelling at rush hour. 


A table seat. Unless you are writing a novel on a phone you will need a table to work on. If you are writing a novel on your phone then please TURN OFF THE KEYBOARD SOUND EFFECTS. Hopefully you live far enough away from your destination to be one of the first people on the train. If not you will have to ask that man to move his briefcase from the seat. The best spot is by the window. Here you are safely tucked away from passing backpacks (see earlier). It also gives the opportunity to gaze meaningfully from the window. I do this a lot when I am writing. Most importantly it means you can angle your laptop away from prying eyes. It’s hard to write a fight scene between a crazed polar bear and a penguin when someone is reading it over your shoulder and commenting that in real life the two would never meet.


Get into The Zone. The Zone is a state whereby you do not notice your surroundings. Some people use mediation. I use a general vacantness perfected from years of attending meetings where I don’t say anything. The coffee will help but ‘The Zone’ is an art perfected only by high-level commuters. You know the people who get into arguments about who owns the middle arm-rest? These people will never be in The Zone. The man with his briefcases on the empty seat? He’s so far away from the zone he doesn’t even know it exists. Once you are in The Zone you will be able to focus on your writing. The journey will fly by. Even delays on the line will become opportunities for an exciting new plot line. There is one caveat with The Zone. You may miss your stop. Don’t do this. Especially if you’re on the last train. If that happens make sure you don't get off at Pevensey station. There aren’t any taxi ranks at Pevensey. Just a massive castle. 


Finally, look round you. Your commuter train may seem full of grey and faceless corporate-work-drones, but in reality only 80% of them are grey and faceless corporate-work-drones. The other ones may lead interesting lives. They may hold the inspiration for a character your novel is missing. They may even have a story to tell you! Who knows, some of them might even be writing a book too.


*The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is available now, published by Puffin, £6.99. Follow Will Mabbitt on Twitter @gomabbitt