Heresy for Beginners

rsz_the_burning_of_master_john_rogers

At what point is it acceptable to abandon an attempt at a novel?

If you’ve been planning it for a year, working on it for 6 months, and you still can’t summarise what it’s about, is it acceptable to put it aside and do something more productive? If the piece is fundamentally lacking both thematic unity and a strong narrative drive, might it not be best to let the material sit for a while, and see if you can salvage worthwhile scraps from it at a later date?

I’ve been resisting this urge for a while now, but I can’t shake the suspicion that the reason I’m having such trouble getting to grips with the Untitled Longer Project is that my whole conception of it is flawed. It’s like building a house with wet clay, on top of quicksand, in the middle of a rainstorm. While blindfolded.

Then again, if you do abandon it without struggling through to the end, will you ever learn how to gorramn FINISH a project?

This question seems valid too. Surely I can find a way to fix the misshapen material. “Giving up” on the current project will only make it more likely I’ll give up on future projects too. But blind perseverance in itself isn’t a failsafe route to accomplishment. There’s room for realistic assessment of potential and prospects. There’s a need for clear-eyed appraisal of errors along the way.

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Nine Activities That Promote Writing

You’re stuck in an endless bog of getting started. If you have a productive week, it’s followed by two where you get next to nothing done. The further into the project you get, the further you feel you are from completing it. The eternal lament: you need momentum, you lack focus, you’re woefully short on willpower.

This is me. I read blogs by writers who churn out multiple novels in a year, who never call a day done until they’ve churned out two, five, twelve thousand words. How the hell? How is that possible? And why can’t I maintain that kind of work ethic?

We don’t choose our vices. But it often (almost) feels like swapping Sloth for, I dunno, Gambling Addiction would be a fair trade. Even with all the attendant shame and penury.

WHAT TO DO?

You know the advice. You’ve read it countless times, in books, blogposts, and tweets. Just fucking do it, fercryinoutloud.

  • Read. Heaps. Across all genres and forms and socio-historical milieus. Four obvious raisins. (Check)
  • Run. Exercise is good for the brain. (Just-about-a-check)
  • Be in nature. Nothing encourages the mind to wander like trees n’ birds. (Check, if you count city parks)
  • Listen to people. As in, talk to people, get stuck into conversations, but with the focus on hearing their stories, their viewpoints, their voices. (Semi-check. I need to get out more)
  • Talk with other writers. A reliable way to top yourself up with motivation, externally-validated constructive criticism, and general skill-polishing (Check! Thank gud and Skype for the writing group in Amsterdam I still meet with, and for the nascent group I’m meeting with in Stockholm)
  • Post on the goddamn blog. It doesn’t take long. Do it regular, like. For discipline. For practise. (Feeble-check. Once a week? C’mon, that’s hardly difficult and yet you lapse so often)
  • Set goals. Remember this. “5k words this week”, if stuck to, soon becomes 7.5 or 10 or what have you. (I-meant-to-do-it-honest-guv-no check)
  • Learn another language / Play an instrument. For the etymological insight into your own language and grammar. / However appallingly. For the learning of skills and the variation of expression. And I specify a musical outlet because I’m not about to start painting watercolours or attending pottery classes. (Check) / (Not-very-convincing-check)
  • WRITE. Write! Just write, for the love of… To be fair, you could ditch the other 8 directives if you had the habit of just sitting down and frigging doing it. Or you could rewrite this with WRITE as numbers 1-7, with read at 8 and run at 9. (…)

‘Holm Habits

HolmHarbour

Ahh but this is a grand city to walk around when the weather’s fine! The end of last week was clear and bright, and I’m thinking if winter is full of days like that, then – short as they are – the long hours of darkness might not be impossible to deal with. In Amsterdam, winter is a long, grey, cloudy affair, which is its own kind of depressing. Maybe shorter days and bluer skies is a trade worth making.

HolmStatuary

Also, if I’m going to get anything written, I’m going to have to carve out time for it. (Ya don’t say, quelle surprise, etc.) Seems strange to say, given that we’re “between jobs” and not exactly slammed right now. But this Guardian article/book plug about the daily rituals of history’s great creative thinkers reminded me that structured work is the best way to get something done. Routine provides a schedule, and props up willpower in the struggle to keep one’s ass in the writing chair.

HolmTGold

So I managed an 08.00 rise today, and though I didn’t manage much more than notes and tweaking, it should get easier to get straight up and then down to work. Eight o’clock’s pretty poor, I know, that ought to be wound back to a 07.00 or ideally 06.30… am setting the alarm clock now.

The Productivity/Deadline Facedesk Pledge

That’s 92 days to write 32 more stories, only one every three days.

– Me, 31st May 2012

That was an arbitrary deadline I came up with for completing first drafts of the 96 Girls stories. It’s the end of July now, and it’s taken me this long to realise that between 31st May and 30th September there aren’t 92 days, there are 123.

Ignore, if you can, the awful (non-existent) fact-checking. At the end of May I was on story #66. Two months later and I’m up to #74. That’s eight stories – flash fiction pieces of a paltry 96 words apiece – or, ONE A WEEK.

What *is* the secret to productivity? How do you folk manage to churn out so many novels, playlets, poem cycles, and above all blogposts, while I can barely find enough time to tweet? I read all the productivity articles on Lifehacker, I continually review the task management software I’m using (ANY.DO recently switched from Astrid), and still – can’t find the time.

Ahh. There it is!

Reading about productivity is not the same as being productive, just as watching TED talks doesn’t automagically turn you into an iconoclastic innovator. These things are useful, but only in moderation. Like salt, say, or driving lessons.

Also, I saw this RT’d gem from Nora Ephron fly by today. “You don’t find time to write. You make time.”

There’s not much I can add to that. My job is busy, sure, but that’s hardly unique. I’ve got the advantages of a negligible commute and few serious commitments outside of work competing for my time.

A month away from blogging? A backlog on 96 Girls and other projects losing momentum or gathering dust? What the fuck is my excuse?

The 96 Girls deadline still stands. But I also need to keep blogging, and to chip away at the other short stories on which I’ve made passable starts. And if I miss that deadline, I pledge to slam my head repeatedly into the desk until I’ve learned my lesson, or blood starts trickling from my head openings, whichever comes first.

Sverige

I realized recently, and with no small measure of WTF?!, that the last time I had a vacation longer than a week was May 2007. It was a great ten days in Buenos Aires, followed by my sister’s Scottish wedding weekend. That’s two solid working weeks of empanadas, kilts, and the complete absence of work emails.

It’s all too easy to let work take over. To blame your lack of writing on stress, exhaustion, or the simple fact of being out of the country and working eighteen-hour days. Though simply not taking enough vacation – when the days are there just begging to be used – well, the only one at fault there is yourself. By which, of course, I mean myself.

Anyways, now that I do have a decent (just over two weeks) vacation lined up, I need to make the most of it. Forest walks, lake dives, and sauna sweats will be the order of the day. A bit of amateur bird-watching, a touch of midnight sun. But the most important thing is that I disconnect, let my brain do some off-road rambling, and write when I feel like it. Scratch that, write every day. With the luxury of knowing that’s the only important thing to do.

Deadline 96

The first draft of my flash fiction project, Ninety-Six Girls, should have been completed last summer. That didn’t come to pass, life got in the way, and so the target shifted to the end of the year. Of course then work got in the way, and that deadline went drifting by too.

But they were soft deadlines, they existed in my head and a series of vague mutterings. And the thing about deadlines is: you need to commit to them. Publicly, loudly, repeatedly. So that it’s embarrassing if you miss it (is that the reason? Mebbe).

Thus: end of September 2012 is my deadline to complete first drafts of the 96 Girls.

This should be eminently doable. I’m currently up to #66. That’s 92 days to write 32 more stories, only one every three days.

There’s plenty to do after the first draft,so I shouldn’t be dragging my heels like this. I need to rewrite, of course (some stories more than others), and crucially I need to ferret out 96 illustrators to interpret the pieces.

So. I’d better get cracking.

Morning Pages and Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto III for iPad

Grand Theft Auto is a stoopidly entertaining game. You know the drill, progress from smalltime lowlife to city-straddling crime kingpin via a series of improbable car chases. The port of GTA3 to iPad is a real achievement, bringing a “full console” experience to a portable format. In a session I’ll typically complete one or two small missions, crash a bunch of cars, and spend half the time running cluelessly around the city looking for health and armour restores. At the end, I’ll quit the game, check the time, and think “f*ck me, was that really two hours?”

Fun as it is, GTA is a massive time sink. This, I had to remind myself, is why I never bought an X-Box or PS3 – because I would lose whole weekends to the damn thing.

My big problem – and I know I’m not alone here – is productivity. Actually getting the things done that I say I’m going to. The blogpost, that short story rewrite, the legendary screenplay (“think Goodfellas meets The Princess Bride with shades of Hable Con Ella”).

It’s clear I’m not writing enough. How to fix that? The simple answer would be stay up late/get up early. I’m working on those two. Honest.

I love tools that make me feel more productive. Initially I thought 750 Words might be another productivity-boosting tool.

The idea – supposedly inspired by something in “The Artist’s Way”, though it’s a common enough concept – is to produce a burst of untrammeled automatic writing in the morning, before doing anything else. The 750 Words site gives you a place to do that, and software to log those words. You can also track variables like hours slept, mood, whether you got laid the night before… whatever you feel the need to track.

The point of this exercise is that it’s a massive clear out, a total brain dump that clears the mind of extraneous worries so that it can focus on the creative task at hand.

Now this is fine if you’re then going to spend another 8 hours writing. I was doing something similar, on a smaller handwritten scale. But what if you’re struggling to carve out enough time as it is?

750 Words tracks you day by day. It knows when you’ve skipped a turn. Then you feel guilty, because not only are you not keeping up with your writing, you’re also not keeping up with your pre-writing exercises.

There are sites that use gamification well, such as Memrise. There I’m keen to collect points and creep up a leader board – there, it’s all in service of learning, i.e. the work at hand.

With 750 Words I felt like it was just more time I should have spent doing something more constructive. Maybe I’ll go back when I’m struggling with my second novel. But for now, no.

So I deleted my 750 Words account. I uninstalled Grand Theft Auto. Instead, I rebooted my blog. Writing with a sense of purpose. FAR more productive.