I have a ritual. I’m a writer. Of course I do.
Once I get up, I make breakfast and take it to my desk in my magical den. I check e-mails and messages while I’m eating. A lot of my friends and writing contacts live in different time-zones so it’s helpful to see if something demands my immediate attention. I try not to be distracted by videos of pets doing silly things. Or politicians doing silly things.
I finish breakfast and make a second cup of tea.
I’m from the British Isles. Of course I do.
Then I start work.
J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. I measure my day’s work in cups of tea.
I usually prefer to have one big project such as a novel to work on, but lately I’ve had a lot of smaller pieces to complete. There are a couple of short stories, some articles, ‘homework’ for my writers’ group, my play, this blog, and so forth.
The small stuff comes first. I find that completing a few easy tasks such as an e-mail to my editor, proof-reading an article, writing a poem, etc., gives me a sense of accomplishment. Only when these are checked off my list do I turn my attention to the big job. Sometimes it’s the novel or my play. Lately it’s been a Sherlock Holmes short story for an anthology. This feels like the most creative part of my day and usually I can’t wait to get started.
An average day’s work goes like this:
Breakfast / e-mails.
Work for about an hour.
Have a cup of tea.
Work for another hour.
Have a cup of tea.
Work for half an hour. Check e-mails, twitter and facebook.
Have a cup of tea.
You get the idea.
At the end of an OK day, I’ve accomplished my writing goals, but in fits and starts. I’ve also wasted a fair amount of time running to the bathroom. Ahem.
Final score: 1000 words written and 8 cups of tea imbibed.
A bad day often starts with a bad night. If insomnia has robbed me of my sleep, it’s all I can do to remember what work I had planned. I’ve learned to manage the bad days to a point, but it’s not ideal. I can have bad days for other reasons too: I’m worried about something, I’ve lost my focus for some reason, of the words want to remind me who’s boss and just refuse to come.
My goal is always to write a minimum of 1000 words. Generally, I tend to do considerably more than that, but this rule exists for the bad days. 1000 words is just four pages. On a good day, I can kick out 1000 words in less than an hour.
On a bad day it can take 18 hours or longer.
On a bad day, I don’t think about the work being good. I think about the work getting done.
It may take from sunrise till after midnight, but those 1000 words will get written. Here are my tips for dealing with a bad work day:
- Be determined to meet your goals.
- Avoid distractions, if you can. This includes spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make the perfect cup of tea.
- Sit at your desk for as long as you can. If, after an hour you’re still stuck, move to a different location. If you’re in your study (if you have a study), go to the kitchen. Go to the library. Go to the park. Sometimes you’ll find being in a different environment will jump start the work for you.
- Change materials. If you usually work on the computer, switch to pen and paper. Use crayon. Write on coloured paper.
- If you have to work on the computer for some reason, change how the work looks. Change the font. Put your document in landscape rather than portrait. The idea behind changing your environment, tools, etc., is to put the fun back in the process. Yeah, fun. Remember that?
- Write about all these things you’re trying and how you feel about them. It’s OK to write, “That bloody blogger promised this would work. She’s an idiot!” I won’t be hurt. Much.
- Still no good? I have a few more: Go for a walk. Yes, I know, everybody says that, but it does help. Just go for a ramble for an hour and bring your notebook with you. Sometimes those exercise-stimulated endorphins will do the trick.
- Eavesdrop. You heard me. Go to your local cafe and sit in the corner. Write down what people are saying. It’ll probably be fairly mundane: in my experience, people tend not to use coffee shops to plan murders, but you’re hearing a different voice. You’re writing something down. Write what these people look like. Imagine their secrets. Is that secretary really a spy? Is that banker-type embezzling from his company? When this bad day ends, at least you’ll have some fresh material to show for it.
- Use writing prompts. These give you topics and you just spin out a page on whatever subject you happen upon. Do a Google search for ‘writing prompts’ and find a site you like. Always go with the first prompt that comes up, otherwise you’ll spend hours looking for the ‘right’ one. There is no right one. Make the best of a dull one. You can do it!
- Finally, talk to yourself. More to the point, have an imaginary mentor and tell him or her the problem. Your mentor need not be a writer. Often I chat with Roddy Doyle or Aaron Sorkin or Stephen King, but sometimes it’s George Harrison or art collector Simon de Pury. It depends on what’s got me glued. If I can’t get the dialogue to flow, Roddy talks me through it. If I’m feeling spiritually disconnected from the work, my sweet George can be sympathetic or stern, depending upon what I need. Simon is hugely encouraging. His BE BOLD! BE BRAVE! BE AMAZING! has seen me through many bad days.
As to my teacup paradigm, how many do I get through on a bad day?
A good day looks very different — but I still measure it in tea cups.
On a good day I dream about my work and wake up full of ideas. I can’t wait to get started. Sometimes I’ll stay in bed for a while and listen to the characters talk, or I’ll mentally play out the plot. On days like these, I am absorbed in the story. I take the work into the shower and to the breakfast table. On days like these I forget to check e-mails or the internet.
On days like these, I forget to finish my breakfast. I’m in the world of my writing.
At some point I’ll pick up my still-full teacup and realise the tea is cold.
Bleauch! I hate cold tea!
There have been occasions, rare, but not unheard of, when I’ve written almost 20,000 words in one sitting. On these days I forget to eat, shower, call my daughter, or do anything else. As for tea, fuhgetaboutit.
I end those days a dehydrated, exhausted, smelly mess. I don’t care though, because the work was great.
Such days don’t happen very often, but even on a more common good day I can easily write 5-6,000 words. Of course, I can’t always tell how many words I’ve actually written. When you revise as you go along, you can easily delete a few thousand and end up with your word count just about where it was when you started. How can you tell you were productive? For me, it’s measured by how many times my hand brought a cup of tea to my lips only to discover it’s stone cold.
I live for cold tea days.
Which reminds me, time to make a cuppa.