A Day in the Life, or should it be Paperback Writer?

As an insight into the writer’s life (and maybe into how procrastination works) I thought I’d treat you to a day in the life of a part-time writer. Since starting the new day job in mid-April, I’ve been doing that commuting thing Monday to Thursday, and Fridays have been my writing day. For a variety of reasons, most of them not at all fun, most of my Fridays have in fact been spent on other things but this week I had a genuine all-day chance to sit at a laptop, or with pen poised over a favoured notebook, to write.

Let’s see what I actually did.

I started my day with connections to other people, which seems reasonable enough. I dipped into Twitter for a couple of minutes (it will eat whole hours, if you let it) and spotted a submission opportunity. Then I caught up with the emails I’d been ignoring all week, and identified another couple of submission opportunities from writing newsletters and the like. I also offered my services to an embryonic working class writers’ festival which has been sparked by Natasha Carthew, who I think is Cornish. I remember reading an article she wrote in The Guardian about the lack of (particularly positive) representation of working class families in children’s books.

After a lunchbreak I wrote a few hundred words of the semi-rural fantasy but I was stuck on a scene so I figured I’d do something else for a bit.

So I sat with a notebook and pen and brainstormed an idea for a new story. Partway through this process it suddenly became imperative to know whether that was a Telecaster or a Rickenbacker I could hear at the end of a Swinging Blue Jeans song I was concurrently listening to for research purposes. A quick Google revealed photos showing them using both, so none the wiser I resumed listening and ploughed on. Of course the question now arises, why was I listening to the Swinging Blue Jeans for research? Well, I’m doing an homage to the three-minute pop song for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe this September so I went to Billy Fury on Spotify and hit a random Related Artist. I also worked my way through Freddie and the Dreamers and Wayne Fontana. The things I do for art.

Later still, I went to a secondhand and antiquarian book fair (in sweltering heat! Why would I do such an idiotic thing?) and coveted many expensive books on northern industrial history, and dialect. There were half a dozen I would have loved to buy but they ranged in price from £70 to £250; if you’ve paid that much for a book you’d never dare read it in case of finger smudges and tea drips. Or I wouldn’t, anyway. I treat (tret? I never write it down; the dictionary claims the past tense is treated but not in West Yorkshire it isn’t) myself to a 19th century history of Bradford, which of course is important research for a number of stories I haven’t written yet, not to mention the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing now, honest.

At least half an hour was lost to me just having a quick flick through the new book when I got it home.

Then I rang my dad to tell him about said book, and coincidentally he’d bought me a book on northern industrial history from a charity shop the day before. Way cheaper than anything at the book fair, naturally. Cue conversation about local history and old books.

After tea it was getting kind of late to do any serious work and the heavy rain was hypnotic, and the storm light made the valley look like an enhanced photograph. But then I made a cup of tea and sat down at the desk with every intention of concerted effort. And wrote a blog post.

Week one of the writer’s life

I’ve drunk a lot of tea and I’m feeling free, as Ian Hunter never quite sang. One week into my season of writing and there’s not much more to show for it than a pile of teabags in the compost caddy and a vague aura of tranquility, though I’m enjoying the pre-breakfast walks and big rollneck jumpers of the new regime. I never did get used to the filtered air and unseasonal temperature of a mechanically-ventilated office.

I’ve had a rejection for a story I sent out in March (seven and a half months to read 350 words!), and I’ve sent out another story to a new magazine, but there’s been no step-change in my submission habits. NaNoWriMo carries on apace, but sadly that’s a snail’s pace and I’m averaging only about twice as many words as if I’d had to cram all my writing into my lunchbreak, as I used to do. If I was including all the notes I’m writing, however, I suspect I’d be nearer the mark (and I’m certainly doing better than last year). I have been doing a lot of poking around the internet and calling it research: Cumbrian folk songs, terraced houses to rent in small Yorkshire towns, maps of the north Pennines. Are you intrigued yet?

Thankfully I’m also finding time to read. I was a bit concerned that without that 40 minutes of sitting on a train with a book, I might fall behind. So far this week though, I’ve finished the Doctor Who novel (7th doctor, one of the Virgin New Adventures) I was reading for the last few days of commuting, read the first couple of chapters of a novel I’ll be reviewing for The Bookbag in a couple of weeks, and worked my way through chunks of two creative writing books (one fresh out of the library, one I own and have read before). And I’ve messed about on Twitter a bit. Obviously.

All in all not a bad start to a break from the 9 to 5. Further updates to follow.

Not writing a novel in November

Suddenly, in burst a man with a gun. “What the hell are you doing?” I cried. “Blasting you out of a plot hole, sugar,” he said around a dog-eared roll-up.

NaNoWriMo, month of furious writing. I have been taking part this year, but you might not have realised because I’ve been relatively quiet about it. Those of you of an optimistic bent are now picturing me hunched over a computer keyboard, fingers a blur of caffeine-fuelled activity. Those of you who know me (not to mention my typing skills, usual coffee intake, and the state of my back) have a whole different idea, and you’re probably nearer the mark.

So far I’ve written just over 6,000 words, which is 6,000 more than I had on October 31st. It was never intended to be a novel – keeping it realistic, I was thinking maybe a novella. It’s called Larry Price is Missing and here’s the synopsis I put on my NaNo page:

Larry Price’s wife sent him on an errand but – typical Larry – he doesn’t turn up to meet her where he was supposed to. Not for the first time, her Saturday afternoon shopping trip is spoilt by her selfish husband and she’s not happy about having to traipse round their small town looking for him. When he isn’t in any of the obvious places she begins to wonder if he hasn’t just forgotten about her, after all. Might he be genuinely missing?

It’s based on an idea I suggested for Ilkley Writers months ago, when we were first kicking around ideas for this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival – we would each have done a monologue from a different character linked to a missing middle-aged man. In the event, we ended up doing something entirely different (and you can hear me reading the final performance story, and the one I wrote for the intervening idea here) but I liked this idea and decided when I had time I’d write all the monologues myself. Only in the meantime I read the wonderful Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (you can read my review of it here) and it gave me the confidence to try something a bit different in terms of structure.

So that’s the novella I should be writing at the moment. Why haven’t I got further with it? Well, I’ve been reading and reviewing books (there’s a new one at The Bookbag if you haven’t seen it – gentle South of France mystery for gourmets and art-lovers), following up new possibilities for Ilkley Writers (more of which soon, I hope) and entering a couple of writing competitions. Plus of course, it being November, I’ve spent a few days wrapped in a duvet, sneezing.

A restrained hurrah, then, for my minor wordcount achievement (and the month’s not over yet), best of luck to those of you sprinting to the 50,000-word mark, thank you to all the spouses (spice) etc that make all this extra writing fit into busy lives relatively painlessly, and sorry to those who get sick of hearing about it.

Weekend creativity

Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.

So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?

Heat, laziness, mildly exciting activity

This week has felt like summer, specifically a hot summer, one which I imagine occurs on a regular basis in the South but thankfully not here. It’s been (for a few hours) too hot to drink tea, which is frankly unacceptable. On Tuesday the temperature reached 84 degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously. In Celsius I think that’s ‘very hot’) and on Wednesday I went to bed much later than intended as I couldn’t tear myself away from the quiet storm raging over the valley. Like being under a giant faulty striplight.

Picturesque and interesting as it’s been, it’s also been (for me at least) uncomfortable, oppressive, and absolutely not conducive to getting any writing done. The energy required to hold a pen hasn’t really been there. The idea of being in close proximity to a laptop generating heat has not been an attractive one. I went to the library one lunchbreak during the week and sat idly in a patch of sunlight from a high window, revelling in the feeling of bare yet warm arms resting on the wooden table. I didn’t do much writing though.

In theory, I’m hard at work on my piece for the Ilkley Writers fringe performance in October, but what’s actually happening is I’m writing down disjointed ideas and pretending they’re fermenting and producing something useful. The looming deadline for a draft will no doubt galvanise me into action. I have been writing some book reviews – there’s a new one due at Luna Station Quarterly in a couple of weeks, and I may be reviewing elsewhere soon (details here as soon as it’s certain), and partly related to that I’ve been to the library twice in the last 2 days and now have a stack of books so high I seriously doubt I can read it all in 3 weeks (even without the inconvenience of the day job cutting down my reading and writing time).

That said, I’ll take my leave now and get some proper writing done. Or I might return to the slightly silly but highly entertaining interactive fiction (like those Choose Your Own Adventure books which may or may not still exist) detective story I’ve been writing with OneMonkey this weekend. As I go, I tip my battered straw hat to all of you who live in warmer climes and yet somehow manage to function on a daily basis, and even write stuff.

How goes 2014 so far?

We’ve had at least a day and a half to get used to it, so how are we all feeling about 2014? Apart from it being a scary futuristic-sounding year, that is. Broken any resolutions yet? If I’d made any (which I haven’t), one of them would have been to get back into my regular Wednesday blogging habit. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t make any resolutions. (My excuse is that yesterday felt like a Sunday, specifically one of those winter Sundays from childhood – too wet to go walking, nothing on the radio, not much happening in general).

2014 Calendar page

The second day of the year is a good time to take stock. The pressure of day one is off, and real life may well have kicked back in and reminded you of routines and practicalities that just don’t fit with those mighty aspirations of the early hours of the previous day, when the world was bathed in firework-light and glitter. Nearly three years ago (how long have I had this blog?!) I wrote a post about the new calendar for planning my writing year, and if you haven’t read it before you could do worse than nip back and have a look now. This year I’m using a pocket-sized week-to-view diary someone gave me for Christmas (bright pink, but you can’t have everything) and I’ve started off by hatching in each day I’m not at work (in pink pencil, may as well continue the theme). Useful places to go next include the Thresholds list of competition and submission deadlines (I have spotted the odd one where some of the details aren’t quite right but as long as you check out the full details on the competition website you should be fine) and the Literary Festival planner (UK and Australia). In my 2011 post I mentioned Duotrope, which at the time was a free resource but is now subscription-only (I still use it, but it’s not as useful to point you at it as an example) but a quick internet search should reveal plenty of deadlines to be going on with. Right, now you’re ready to panic. Sorry did I say panic? I meant methodically plan writing time, themes, goals and priorities.

Now we’re all organised, everything will be absolutely fine as long as no-one signs up to any free online university courses this year. Ah, wait a moment… More about that, undoubtedly, in a future update.

Deadlines, the procrastinator’s friend

Depending on the circumstances a deadline can help you focus on a task. When you’re writing, it forces you past the moments when you can’t think where the story’s going next and you want an excuse to go do something less taxing. But the deadline has to be real in some way.

Script Frenzy (don’t sigh, I’m only mentioning it in passing as an example) was a real deadline for me because I’d told everyone I was doing it. If I gave up before the end, at the very least I’d have half a dozen people ask me what happened, and if the answer was ‘inherent laziness kicked in’, I might be a bit embarrassed. In other words, I’d have something to lose.

On the other hand, the deadline for a crime-writing competition last year wasn’t real because, although I may have mentioned I was going to have a go at something in a vague sort of way, I’d never firmly promised anyone (even myself) that I would submit an entry. So giving up on it sometime last May wasn’t a big deal, and I moved on to other things. However, a year later (to the day, I think, though that was coincidental) I thought about that part-written story which had been quite fun to start with, and seemed to have potential. I decided to resurrect it and see what happened. Five lunchtimes later I was a couple of paragraphs away from a first draft, and I finished it last night.

I’m not about to start announcing all my writing intentions in public, for one thing it would get tedious for all concerned. However, I do keep surprising myself by discovering what a focus can help me achieve, and if you’re a procrastinating ditherer too it might be something you could try. Having decided I’d try and write every lunchtime at work, I’m finding my productivity goes up when I decide in advance what to work on and stick to it for the whole week or until it’s finished. Not only does it cut out the agonising decision of what to write (or reduces its frequency) but it means I’m more determined to plough through the blocks.

Stephen King calls it writing with the door closed, if I remember correctly – writing the really rough draft that you wouldn’t even want your cat to see. I’m often quite bad at that, spending too much time trying to get the phrase right the first time. Over the last week or so I’ve been deliberately writing the story as it comes, adding notes to myself to go back and check if I’ve used the right surname, for instance. What they call on all the courses I go on at work ‘moving out of my comfort zone’: increasing the word count and worrying about quality later. I know some people are sceptical about that – surely an hour of writing rubbish and an hour of redrafting can’t come to much difference in wordcount than two hours of agonising first-time-pretty writing. Maybe I was on a roll this week, but when I went back over the draft last night I found that by quickly tweaking half a dozen sentences I had something that looked like it could have come out of my usual way of writing. It’s still just a first draft, but it’s a quicker first draft than I’d have got otherwise and the quality’s about the same.

There’s a lesson there, and I hope I learn it. If you’re reading this because you don’t want to work out what two of your characters say to each other next, go back and write. Better still, tell someone you’re going to do it, then you’ll have to.