Sunday 30 March 2014

Where did all the good time go?

I'm not going to talk about how to write well. I don't think I am the person to come to for that sort of thing. Not on account of my inability to string words together in a pleasing fashion, but because I'm yet  to present much evidence that it is something that I can do. If it's what you're looking for, there are lots of books on the subject by a great many people whose opinions on the matter are backed by the weight of this evidence.

Before quality though comes productivity. This is the first step. A blank page may hold infinite possibilities, but a full page holds the first step to not wasting them. I can talk about productivity. I have productively written for a number of years now. I can sit down and write a 2,000 to 5,000 word story outline in an hour. I do a lot of different types of writing, and I do it with both stealth and ease. If you're looking for stealth, then you are going to need to invest in a quiet keyboard, or a pen. Pens are quiet. If you're interested in ease, then keep reading.

Words aren't always in the habit of being there when we want them. This isn't really about the words though. It isn't about writers block either. That's just a name that we use. Despite all appearances, writing is like drawing, playing the cello, or anything else we need to train ourselves to do with ease. For the most part we tend to assume that however many years of school and university have prepared us for this, but think about the time we would put aside for 2,000 words, or 1,500. Where do we now find the time in our lives for 85,000 words? In reality you are more likely to need to find the time for whatever the actual number of words it is going to take you to write 85,000 good words. Words that carry with them everything that you need of them.

This isn't something that I figured out. It is something I researched. It is something the authors that I respect discovered through necessity, because for them it was part of the trade. A skill that needed mastering in order that bills be paid. Tom Wolfe, Philip K. Dick, Agatha Christie, Edmond Hamilton, Ray Bradbury, Steven Moffet, and so many others relied on their ability to continue to write whenever it was needed of them.

My first step in understanding this process was the work of Philip K. Dick, whose prolific output and commitment to the concepts behind each of his works is, to my mind, without peer. Dick wrote when he was sleep deprived, discontent, depressed, detached, and, most importantly, when he made the time. Dick wrote a lot of material that he was not happy with (the majority of which was not published), but if you were to say that only 1 in 5 of Dick's published stories is worth reading, that would still be 10 novels and 20 short stories.

Apart from a (very bad) novel I nearly finished instead of attending class when I was in my late teens, I spent nearly a decade staring at screens and pages instead of actually writing, because I wanted each moment that I found for my writing to be of a certain quality and to ring of an increasingly specific literary timbre, and I proudly prioritised certain stories and themes based on arbitrary bias, often relying on writing only 'when it came to me'. My work suffered as a result, because there was never enough of it.

With but a single exception, no story I had ever started had reached more than 7,000 words, and by early 2010 I had just over 100 stories with nearly a dozen drafts each, none of which were near completion. Then at a time when I only had one guaranteed hour a day to myself I went from having no real literary focus to having the first 20,000 words of a novel in a fortnight. I had most of my characters, and a plot that didn't have too many holes to be patched. It wasn't a new story. I had been sitting on parts of it for a half dozen years or so.

In the months preceding this point I had made the decision to just write anything. I would grab lunch, and probably a coffee, and sit down and write anything. 'The Sandwich Diaries' became a constant friend during this period, as did frustrated letters, vignettes from my childhood, film reviews, and snippets of fiction. I wrote when I was tired, I wrote when I couldn't think clearly, I wrote when I hadn't slept for days, and I wrote when I really didn't feel like it. For 45 minutes a day, 5 days a week, I wrote anything I could.

I should be clear at this point that I am not advocating any sort of punishing regime that is likely to destroy your passion for writing, but instead it is about training yourself to continue to operate creatively when you have nothing left. You will no longer be restricted to 'when it comes to you'. You can be the commander of your own writing. They're your words.

It is important to understand that productivity and focus are not the same thing, and they both require different skills and approaches. I had trained myself to make the most of a period of focus. Over the months that followed, the number of stories that I had on the shelf (it was a digital shelf) expanded to over 200, but the average girth of each was equivalent to my previous front runner.

I'm writing this as much now for myself as I am for anyone else, because it is something of which I need reminding. I took a year away from the two stories that I have that exceed 50,000 words, because 'I didn't have the time'. The time was there, but I didn't make it. I made the time for other writing, but The Book, if there had to be only one, was put aside. But, now it is back, and the dance begins again.


Belinda Henwood said...

Ok, so this makes me want to get off my butt!

Jacob Henwood said...

Even if you're the only one, I'm going to chalk this up as a win. Thanks, mum.

Jacob Henwood said...

BTW, if you know the title of my book, please don't post it. Your post will be deleted.