January, 2016

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Process and focus

I can be a bit of a process junkie.

This is probably because good processes (for the process pedants, including having the right controls) work and allow you to stop worrying about everything at the same time. If the process is right, and it is carried out correctly, the expected outcome should follow. And if it doesn’t, you can stop, assess what went wrong and change the process.

So that seems to work in my day job. What about writing?

I’ve taken a vaguely process-based view of what I’m doing, helped immensely by a fairly short book, 2k to 10k, which has helped me bring a lot together which I can loosely include under the term “process”.

I think there is a real danger in spending too much time worrying about how other people do their work. The really good ones have found an approach which works for them. There might be other ways for them to achieve the same thing, but they stick with what works. I have no idea how much they thought about their particular process, if they tried as much trial and error as I have, or if they somehow managed to find a formula early on which works for them.

If I tried to copy slavishly the writing habits of the really great writers, it would look like this:

Write 1,000 words a day. No, 3,000. No, 2,000. No, five hours. No, eleven hours.

Write on a laptop. No, on a typewriter. No, a fountain pen is better. Green ink. Or black. Or is it a pencil I should be using?

Get up early to write. Stay up late writing. Write in the middle of the night. Write mainly in the odd few minutes you have between other responsibilities.

Write in a room at home with no window. No, a coffee shop is better. Libraries are definitely best.

Surprise, surprise, there is no magic time, pen or place. There is just what works for the individual.

However…I’m starting from the premise that it must be possible to find out what works best for me. Allied with the one thing which I think all successful authors would say matters. Write a lot. If not all the time, possibly more than is healthy.

I think you know when you might be entering the more than healthy part when you wake up several times during the night with snippets of something in your head that won’t just stay quiet until the morning. And last week, en route to Birmingham (it was a long drive), I suddenly thought of something and had poor LoLo grab a napkin lying in the car and write down a plot twist that had come to me in the darkness of the M6.

So, write a lot.

This is where the process part came in. It’s still work in progress, but I’m now keeping track of where, when and how I am most efficient in just writing. Now don’t start with the quality or quantity thing at this point, right now it’s about keeping going. Editing comes later (see Jodi Picoult on this at the bottom of this post) and I know I have to be ruthless, when that time comes, but that’s not for now. Although I did just remove a character completely this week as it became manifestly obvious that there was no way he tied in to anything else, although we did have some fun times together for a few days.

My word output per hour seems to vary between about 500 and 2,000. That is some difference. 500 is when I forget to hide away every internet-connected device I own. 2,000 is when I set myself a deadline and focus on keeping going, ignoring everything around me.

I’m still working through this, and there are some other tricks I’m playing with to see if they help. I’m really just trying to find out what the process is that works for me. It seems so far to look something like this:

  • No distractions.
  • Only have with and around me what I need to write. My incomparable Neo is the fastest keyboard I have, much faster than my laptop will ever be, and it has the advantage of being utterly useless for anything except writing. Pencil and paper is second favourite and gives a nice change of pace. I can’t write anything like as fast with a pencil, but my finger has the calluses from trying. Pen and paper looks lovely when the page is full of purple ink, even if my handwriting does not enhance the look.

Pen and paper

  • A set amount of time. I really need deadlines. Self-imposed are fine. With limited time, there is no choice. And the feeling of hitting my goal is like finishing a really hard run. Pencil down or keyboard off, and on to the rest of the day. No regrets, no ‘I wish I had started earlier,’ just using what I have and making the most of it.
  • And I have a chart up on the wall to keep a visual record of progress. Because I know I do not want to have a day without a tick to say I wrote, and ideally one that says I did the absolute minimum of 1,000 words that day, and there had better not be two in a row like that. So I am introducing competition with myself to the process. It works well for running, my theory was that it would work well for writing. It doesn’t matter if someone else would do half as much or ten times as much in a day, this is not about trying to compete with anyone else, just finding what works for me.

And the real test every day – did I enjoy it, get something out of it, or learn something from it? As Jodi Picoult says, ‘you might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’

Distraction nightmare

Distraction is my biggest enemy at the moment.

 

Wake up.

Bit early. Need to let myself come to for a minute or two.

Isn’t the shipping forecast interesting?

And Farming Today… should really be up by now.

Sit down to write.

Need a drink.

My pencil needs sharpening.

Where do I put my mug?

Need to clear a space for it.

Bit cold, should put a sweater on.

Is it that time already? I could have slept a bit longer instead.

Oh look, that book seems interesting, I must read it at some point.

And that one, I started that one, must just remind myself of where I got to.

Write a sentence.

That clock ticks quite loudly at this time in the morning.

Must just check my e-mails.

Write a sentence.

Oh, wonder if anything interesting came in on Facebook?

Another sentence.

Think those pencils should sit in a different place.

Another sentence.

I’ll just play a quick game of Solitaire.

Right, time’s running out, I’d better get down to this.

Wait, I’m hungry now, I should eat some cornflakes so I have enough energy.

Write several sentences. (OK, maybe a lot of sentences by this time – do you know how little time I have left – the pressure is on).

Time to get ready for work (you know, the paid kind), children to school.

I’ll finish my word count tonight.

Tomorrow I will be better.

 

Stephen King has the solution to this, or at least something that will help deal with all the distractions that otherwise seem so uninteresting, pointless or simply futile:

If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.

He wrote this before the internet appeared in full force with its unlimited distractions.Distraction

This, I can safely say, is not conducive to getting any writing done… It’s also not what I told myself my iPad would be used for…

So as of a few days ago, the iPad, phone and laptop are left overnight in a different room on the other side of the house. Fetching any one of them would involve waking the whole family and that ends badly.

The ticking clock might be next.

Where rowing and writing collide

I was surprised to see an article about rowing in the normally closer to dull as dishwater tax magazine I need to read every month. So technically it wasn’t all around rowing, but there was a close to full page picture of a boat (quad skull for anyone interested) with the caption “Will it make the boat go faster?”

Boat

Unfortunately the article was only tangentially about rowing. It was really about setting goals based on what matters to you and some probably well-known exercises where the value lies not in saying “oh yes, I’ve seen that exercise before, people should do that” but in stopping and actually doing it themselves. Here’s one.

Imagine yourself at a dinner party in ten years’ time. What do you want to be saying about yourself?

Right, let’s forget the dinner party thing for starters. No, wait, that’s not the important part of the exercise. Strange how we can get distracted by the detail that we’re comfortable and miss the whole point.

And I knew the answer to this one. I think, I believe, that it’s the first time I do know, or at least the first time I can articulate it.

I want to have published five novels set in places or including subjects that matter to me. Now please don’t confuse that with the novel being “about” those places or subjects. I don’t think it works that way. Novels are, I currently think, about people (characters) and the choices they make in certain situations. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me. What am I writing about? Easy answer is I’m writing about East Germany. But I’m not really. I’m writing about Natalie Dornbusch, who is a teenager whose mother disappeared when she was young, with a father who spends all his time working, grandparents who met on a frozen road in 1945 somewhere between Leningrad and Berlin when they buried a woman and her newborn baby together. And Natalie has to figure out her place in society, who she is, what she will and won’t stand for, who she loves and what that means when she has to choose between two things she loves. She happens to live in East Germany but what she wants is the same as all of us. To have a life that she can shape, to do something she enjoys, to love and be loved, and to find out who she is. Her life is shaped by those around her, some of whom she chooses to be with, some of whom she has no choice about. When I write that story, I am writing about Natalie. Last week, I was laughing so much at one point that I couldn’t finish writing the scene for a while, then the next day I was crying at another part. This is, I think, a good thing. Natalie matters.

I was reminded in this article that our brains do not distinguish between something that is real and something that is imagined. Well of course they can tell the difference, but here’s a thought. When we were last in Berlin, we walked along a road I had been along hundreds of time. I have memories of it from when I was living there, when I’ve visited subsequently, of being on a conference call on December 31st one year when we decided whether to implement a project I had worked on for the best part of a year. And on this particular visit, I found I had memories of when I was a child there. Of the gap in the hedge at the end of one of the side streets that we used to crawl through, of where my friend collided with me on his bike with the wobbly wheel because his brakes didn’t work. Wait. I didn’t grow up there, I was never a child there. But I have memories of all those things and although one part of my brain knows what did and didn’t happen, there’s a part of my brain that actually cannot distinguish between the two sets of pictures and associations in my head. They all feel equally real and I would struggle to say that they felt different emotionally. I was very conscious that one part of my brain was working overtime trying to tell the other part to shut up with its nonsense, but that other part was having a lot of fun with it.

So, back to this ten year thing.

Why 5 novels? Because it’s a number. One a year would be silly because it would be unachievable (if I want them to be any good anyway!). One in ten years wouldn’t feel worth it. So one every two years. Feels achievable and worthwhile and definitely challenging.

And along the way I want to keep running and have some fun with that. I rather think it will be in cycles of one year increased time and focus on running, one year more on the actual writing of pen (currently pencil) on paper. But I have no idea. Nor does it matter as long as I’m having fun with both. And there’s the other thing with this writing business. Of course I would like to find I can do it well enough that what I write is of interest to someone else other than those who feel morally obliged to say nice things about it. Although now I come to think about it, I can’t think of anyone who will consider themselves to be in that category. But I have now realised that I am going to do this anyway, that’s just what I need to do. And I want to do it. So I’m also remembering that it’s supposed to be fun. Not always, nothing is, but if I’m not getting something out of it that is more than spending the time doing something else (we economists would call that opportunity cost) then long term I probably shouldn’t be doing it. And I’ve now had a few weeks rather than days (holidays were a huge help) of experiencing spending significantly more time writing that I can say that I prefer doing more rather than less. It turns out that the odd five or ten minutes can start to add up and all you need in addition is a piece of paper and a pen. And just as, when I started running, I found it was something that I would get out of bed early for every morning, I now find that I will get up early every morning to write. And still spend a good hour in the evening doing some more. It just means I can’t do some other things in that same time, but seeing as I am about to be stranded waiting for dance classes to end four times a week, I have that time as well.

So I know what I want to be able to say at the dinner party in ten years’ time and I have a plan of how to do it. I might even show up to the dinner party. Although that’s the less likely of the two outcomes.

Choices

My temporary enforced break from running is the longest period in a few years that I have spent not being out on some road or other. And it brought me to a simple realisation – I’m going to have to choose. This year was to be about a new marathon personal best and getting my novel finished. After two weeks of not running (the good news there is that I’m planning on going out tomorrow and seeing how it goes, I haven’t had a twinge in about a week now so think it’s good to go) I found myself with both more time and more energy because I was no longer doing runs that really tired me out and meant I needed to sleep for a while afterwards. Like the 16 mile ones that start off nice and slow and then build up with a few miles at fast pace towards the end and sprinting as fast as I can at the end. After one of them, you can pretty much forget about me for the rest of the day. Of course you get a lot faster over time doing runs like that once in a while, and they are great marathon preparation, but even with a proper programme with enough recovery time built in, at the level of training required to run marathons in under 3 hours, you are pushing your body a lot over a period of months and I find it does limit what else you can achieve.

The other extreme of that level of training, of course, is a lot worse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s the mental and emotional benefits which physical exercise also bring with it. And anyway, I couldn’t imagine not running now.

But my plan for the year has changed.

I used the extra time and energy I had in the last couple of weeks to write (and read) more, but mainly write more. And I think the better balance is entirely beneficial for my writing. Thoughts are coming to me which I can immediately jot down, threads of the narrative start to emerge, and I am happy to tweak the story as I go along, knowing that I can go back later and sort out the earlier part which now needs to change. The biggest sign of something having changed is that I will get to the evening and realise I haven’t eaten anything since the morning, and hadn’t noticed.

Last night, I decided to go to bed earlier in preparation for a more normal work schedule and was reading a Hemingway short story. That lasted for all of about five minutes before I thought of how I should write a scene I had been struggling with. I think it helps that Hemingway manages to write in one page what it takes me ten to say, and when you read the way he does it, you know he’s right. I tried jotting down the idea and put it to the side again, but I realised I wasn’t paying any attention to what I was reading, so I gave up, got out my pen and pencil and wrote it down (adopting the Hemingway trick of leaving a sentence mid-way through so you can go right back into it again the next day.) So much for the earlier night though.

So my new plan is not to run any races this year (OK, maybe a half marathon or something for fun, but not for a fast time) and to be (very) happy with running for the fun of it, enough so I get all the benefits, including thinking time, but not so much that it distracts from writing. And we will see how that goes.