Systems

It’s been a bumpy ride over the last twelve months. I really struggled to juggle writing with other stuff and this led to some frustrating months where very little happened but as I mentioned elsewhere on this blog I seem to have finally settled down into a rhythm that is actually sustainable.

For years, like every other beginning writer, I have been drilled on the need to write every day and like many I have ignored that advice. I am a binge writer I have scoffed, always have been and always will be. Time, I just need more time and everything will be fine. Difficult if you have a job, if it’s demanding and you’re going through a pretty unique recession it’s a fucking pain in the arse. I have now written every day for getting on for three months.

How did I make this seemingly impossible mental leap?

I did less.

It’s a glib answer and at the risk of sounding like a Zen post I reiterate: I did less. Or less cryptically I committed to doing less and actually got more done.

This was my pre-October routine:

1. Commit to writing 2k per day and reading as much as possible.
2. No exceptions for anything.
3. Base all deadlines on this wordcount.
4. Do not measure editing.
5. Fail to hit the wordcount on most working days and engage in writing binges on the weekends in a vain and impossible attempt to catch up.
6. Beat myself up continuously for not maintaining the same output as other writers and missing deadlines.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s actually worse because this exercise in Catholic levels of guilt winds up in a lot of writer’s block very quickly. I knew by September that this wasn’t working for me, it had been more than twelve months when you factor in all the problems with the house and as noted my submission activity was in the toilet.

There are five things that changed my point of view on dealing with this:

1. I re-read an old article on Terry Pratchett and how, back when he was a PR man, he wrote to let off steam (exactly what I use writing for) and how he could only manage to produce regular books and hold down a day job by writing 500 words a day. That was his mantra. If he finished a book on word 450, he lined up the next book and wrote 50 words. That’s Pratchett…PRATCHETT…and I was beating myself up for not churning out four times that amount. How arrogant am I? I’m no Pratchett but perhaps I should pay attention to what he’d gone through while holding down a day job.

2. I saw Cory Doctorow interview Bill Gibson. During the interview Bill turned the tables and asked Cory what was the best writing advice he had received. Cory said it was the one piece he took longest to listen to which was to write every day. He said it didn’t necessarily make the work better but it did make it easier to get started, to pick up the story each day and run with it. Interesting, I thought but it would never work with my job.

3. I missed my deadline for my current project. The deadline was unrealistic, once I realised I couldn’t make it what was the point?

4. Real life got a bit unpleasant for a couple of months further compounding my issues with actually sitting down to write and I lost that particular vent to my stress. A vicious feedback loop.

5. G suggested I try to write less, reasoning that some is better than none. Anything to stop me moping around.

In the end I thought about killing my work-in-progress and starting again but by this point I realised I had too much invested in it and, besides, when I got writing I enjoyed it.

Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past where I would try to set myself ridiculous times to get up to write and ridiculous wordcount targets I established a series of lose rules that were designed around my working day and lifestyle. I make no claims as to whether it would work for anyone else but it seems to work for me. I offer them here in the hope they may help other people:

1. Write at least 500 words.
2. Generally this should be in the morning before work.
3. I may write more than 500 words but this does not contribute to subsequent days.
4. Do not talk about the system until it has worked for two months.

That’s it. I picked 500 words because I know, getting up at a reasonable time, that I can produce this in the time before I have to catch the train to work. Furthermore, if I miss this slot for whatever reason it’s a small enough amount that I can produce it in my lunch hour or in the evening without burning out. Also: it worked for Pratchett. Writers need egos.

I write in the morning because if my day goes wrong it and I want to veg out in the evening I can sure in the knowledge the project has moved on, even if it is just by a small amount.

I allow myself to write more because I enjoy writing and if I have the spare time, what the hell? But not setting a massive target does stop me beating myself up fruitlessly if I don’t have time because I have already done some that day.

It was hard at first. Some days I really didn’t feel like doing it because it felt like chipping a mountain with a teaspoon, and for the first few weeks I felt like I was having to stop just as I got started. But a funny thing happened after that, I began to start firing on the story much, much quicker, and then I started doing more.

I didn’t increase my target I just found I was going faster, enjoying it again and picking up the story in the quiet moments of the day. Being able to write in micro-chunks was so much better suited to my lifestyle. I now average around 750-1k during the working week and around 2.5k at weekends. I have even managed to write on days when I’ve had a migraine or been ill (rare but it is winter) simply because 500 is not a big enough mountain to keep me from the keyboard. My minimum limit is still set at 500.

So that’s my new system. I’m delighted. I just wish I’d listened to people sooner.

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