[…] you can’t rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.J G Ballard
Let’s face it, writing is hard and nobody really knows what they’re doing. We fumble away at the page like dirty macaques reaching through a mesh fence for a slice of apple. But that’s no reason to give up. Why, even literary heavyweights like James Joyce made a habit of complaining about the struggles and tribulations of writing.
In fact, according to legend, Joyce once lapsed into melancholy at having written a mere seven words that day. But his friend was quick to encourage him. Seven words, by Joycean standards of procrastination, was a positively Herculean effort, but still nothing to shout about.
Don’t wait for the Muse — chase after it! There’s no gain without a little turmoil and plenty of hard work. Read on and consider how you too can change your writing routine, and attitude to the craft, for the better.
As Vladimir Nabokov might have intimated, butterflies don’t catch themselves.
Relish Your Writing Routine
Many writers will impress upon you the importance of a regular writing schedule. Provided you can find time each day to dedicate to writing without distraction, you’ll find routine boosts your productivity and sets your mind to task like nothing else. Spontaneity is overrated.
With a strict regimen to look forward to (or curse), you prepare yourself for the task of writing — of composing — and when you do finally sit down to it, you’ll likely accomplish more than you did before.
Take Anthony Trollope, who wrote an obscene number of words throughout his career. Most of his hours were filled by his day job as a postal clerk, although he always kept to his writing schedule at home. For two-and-a-half hours every morning he wrote non-stop until the final second, and so was able to churn out gargantuan novels like Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now with astounding regularity.
But writing is not a sprint to the finish line, nor is it a competition. Thinking that way will drive you mad, so forget about what other people are doing, and focus on your own work. Harper Lee only saw one novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) published in her lifetime, with her second (Go Set a Watchman) published posthumously. If you only ever publish a single book or a single short story, that’s still an admirable achievement, and more than most people will ever achieve. Then again, don’t settle for less than your work is worth.
Setting Your Schedule
When sitting down to write, be strict with yourself, and allow nothing to distract you. Early morning is the best time to write because you’re less likely to procrastinate and the act of getting up and ready to go to work (even if you stay in your pyjamas) mimics the routine of a traditional nine-to-five job.
Once you start, don’t stop until your allotted hour, two hours, etc. is up. It’s one thing setting a routine, but sticking to it is an altogether different, and oftentimes more difficult, feat to pull off.
By cultivating smart habits, you’ll become a more efficient, productive writer. You’ll take the task of writing far more seriously than you would otherwise. It’s simple when you think about it.
Go to bed early, wake up early, and write. There’s a good mantra. If you don’t believe us, try it for yourself.
How Much is Enough?
Every writer sets their own limits, so who’s to say how much is a lot to write in one sitting? 1000 words? 100 words? One chapter? Half a chapter? It’s not always possible to crank out the same volume as and when we’d like, so go at your own pace and set a target.
Remember, you can’t edit what isn’t there, so don’t worry about quality so much as quantity. 1500 words per sitting is as good a starting-off point as any, which, writing five days a week over three months, accumulates to 97,500 words.
That, friends, is a novel.
Chronic procrastinators will tell you, if you don’t write every day, you start to lose the thrust of the narrative. Characters become vague and indistinct. The plot stagnates, pace screeching clumsily to a halt. But by far the worst symptom of not-enough-writing is the mood it inspires.
If you don’t write enough, you lose the excitement and joy that comes with writing. You’ll start to treat it like a chore, even if you’re dying to get the words down, and curse yourself for wasting time and not getting work done.
Like any obsession, writing must be managed effectively, lest it take a dark turn. There’s no reason why writing a first draft can’t take longer than three months if you really work at it, although this may be wishful thinking. Nevertheless, once you’ve got the story down, editing is a breeze.*
*Editing is not always a breeze. For some, it is a nightmare. Please don’t shout at us.
Distraction is Detrimental
Your writing space should be a private one, a place where you can think and dream at ease. A spacious study or even a private castle would be nice, but who has the money? Truman Capote used to do his best work in motels, so take advantage of all those cushy business trips and clandestine, adulterous liaisons. Your boss, mistress, or side-mister will understand.
Moreover, your garden shed (so long as you don’t mind the spiders) or a vacant bedroom will also do for a writing room, provided it’s comfortable, but a proper desk and chair are imperative. The job is mentally taxing enough as it is, so why allow your posture to suffer?
You must be prepared to close the door, to spurn the nourishment of human contact (platonic, familial or otherwise), and get on with writing as and when you should. Do whatever it takes to make time and be productive about it. Turn off your phone, send the family out for a steak dinner, kick the cat off your lap, and if you practice Voodoo or Santería, sacrifice your chickens before or after you sit down to write. Not during.
Free Writing vs Typing Up
We have the luxury of being able to read wherever we like. On the plane to the funeral of an estranged aunt whose mysterious and much sought-after fortune she leaves to a poodle named Bob. On the subway in disguise on our way to assassinate a sneering Bake Off rival. Or even on horseback before plummeting off the edge of a prickly mesa. The last is not recommended, but entirely possible, if not probable.
Writing at length, however, is not always feasible, at least in the traditional sense. We can’t lug a typewriter around everywhere we go — a laptop, certainly, but even portable computers can be a hassle. Frankly, nothing beats pen and paper, and a fresh or dogeared notebook (pocket-sized preferably) does more to spark your imagination than can a blank Word document. Fewer features to meddle with. Less temptation to make a quick Google search. Just you, your pen, and the beautiful white page. For goodness’ sake, don’t forget to bring a pen.
Yes, free writing is a great alternative to typing directly. Writing your ideas down by hand as they pop up is far more invigorating than idly tapping away at the keys trying to force the story into being. Perhaps not quite as painful as giving birth to a rosy cherub the size of a small elephant, pushing yourself to write outside of the most serene conditions, too, can be especially draining. Writing by hand encourages you to use your imagination more spontaneously, or rather, taps into the ideas already dwelling in your subconscious at the get-go.
Write it down now, type it up later. There’s a second, equally useful mantra. We’re giving them away today.
Written by Michael Conroy
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