Posted on September 14th, 2011 in process
Writing is a difficult job in some ways. Working as a TV editor you work to other people’s timescales, other people’s briefs. Sure, you can have quite a major contribution depending on the job and the director you’re working for, but ultimately you’ve got a set task to do in a given space of time. Or, more often, a whole set of small tasks to do within a set schedule. You have an office, a time to arrive and a time to leave and usually a daily assessment of progress. Writing is very different in that, although you’ve got some oversight and input from your editor, they’ve got a whole list to manage and a whole set of other authors and projects, and in general you have the one big goal of producing a finished book and no one else really imposing any particular shape on how that’s to be done.
Separating work life and other life is something that’s a difficulty for anyone who works from home, but it’s particularly so when the task is so long-term and amorphous. You have notional deadlines, places in the publishing schedule, but in the end no one can supply one of your books but you, so as long as you sell copies it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get really aggressive with you about supplying that manuscript.
It doesn’t help that most of us writers start out as hobbyists, amateurs, enthusiasts, burning the midnight oil after a day’s work at the day job to get a chapter finished for nothing more than our own amusement, hoping perhaps one day we’ll get published, maybe even make a living from it. Things change as it shifts from being a leisure pursuit to a work one, and when, perhaps, against all expectations, you’ve finished that book or series you always dreamed of writing and have to think of something new you want to write, digging a little deeper for ideas and methods. Inspiration and enthusiasm wane, perhaps, over the grinding years, and the shortfall has to be made up by earthier virtues of craft and application.
At the same time a huge amount of work-related tasks appear which are not actually writing. Interviews, blogging, promotion, dealing with agents, editors, rights, touring to support a release, going to cons and events to meet readers and other professionals, responding to email. The more successful you are as a writer, the more of this kind of work there is to do.
There’s a romantic notion that writing, along with other forms of art, maybe, should somehow be free-form, unpredictable, chaotic, maverick, not subject to the same kind of rules as any other kind of work. That writing should spring from a sort of heavenly inspiration. I’m not sure I see it that way. When you get a great idea, feel suddenly inspired, are visited by the muse, it can be a wonderful thing and the words can suddenly flow, hands hardly able to keep up with thoughts, you look up and night has fallen and you’ve pounded out a few thousand words you’re really happy with. But in my experience it doesn’t happen that often. So you have to find a way to make progress when you’re not feeling inspired. You have to spend time grinding it out. Slapping down ideas and deleting half, or three quarters, or four quarters of them. Writing rubbish sentences instead of beautiful ones and chipping, and chipping, and chipping away at them until they’re . . . at least better. What’s that they say about inspiration and perspiration, again?
After The Blade Itself was published I was still working as a tv editor just about as hard as I had before, fitting in the writing around it. It wasn’t until I signed my second contract, for Best Served Cold and The Heroes, that I was able to start turning down editing jobs in order to give me more time to write. But I’m not sure that my writing speed necessarily increased all that much, if at all. I still didn’t have any structured approach to the job, didn’t engage in any meaningful timekeeping or analysis of how I was working, kept on with the hobbyist approach of picking at it, piddling about on the internet an awful lot, in a sense working all the time but at a very low intensity.
Although I’ve become more or less a full time writer over the last couple of years, I’ve had the major distractions of two new children, a big move, and a massive building project, and haven’t really been able to get into a routine. A more disciplined approach is well overdue. So from now on I’m going to be aiming to do two blocks of two hours’ work a day. Focused writing time. Chair time (or perhaps standing time, since I usually write standing up, as it happens). Planning, revising, or drafting, and nothing else. No email, no piddling on the internet. In some ways that might not seem very much, but believe me you can get a fair bit done in four hours if you’re genuinely focused and I find, unless you’re really feeling inspired, it’s hard to get much more than that done in single bursts. Whether I can maintain that tight focus day in day out we’ll have to see. Then I’ll also have an hour where I do public facing tasks – responding to email (which has been sadly neglected of late), blogging and maintaining the website (also neglected), interviews and the like, and an hour dealing with business and organisational things, as well as attending to the general crap that accompanies modern life.
I will chain myself to the clock, and free myself through the imposition of tight rules. Also lock the door so that my kids can’t distract me when I’m supposed to be working. Hopefully I can cut down on the vast amount of procrastination that dogs the life of most professional writers and, if not work faster, at least work smarter and less stressfully, perhaps having more time in the evenings to play with my kids, be a functional human being and live life to its fullest. Meaning watch the X-Factor on catch up, of course…