Writing under Duress

Despite what the title implies, I’m not talking about a situation like King’s Misery (I’m told it’s good, must did that out of my room, actually) or Alan Wake (yeah, that went right over my head. Spent five minutes pissing ammo up the wall on the end before I worked out what to do!), but a more mundane form of writing when you just aren’t up for it.

                You know the drill; deadline in five days and Mr Mountjoy upstairs decides to shit on your head from a very, very great height by tossing a cold your way. Every writer’s had it happen to them, and every writer’s had to deal with it (particularly if, like me, you’re on a writing-intensive course. Then you’re doubly screwed because you have a lot of deadlines all at once and you’re stressed out, working all hours of the night trying to just get the poxy stuff done. Not exactly the best condition to be incubating a cold).

                So, you have a deadline looming over the horizon, which is coming at you faster than Sebastian Vettell charging down the main straight at Silverstone, and you have a cold. Now, in an ideal world, you’d go to bed with a nice hot cuppa of your favourite beverage (hot choccy, marshmallows, lots of whipped cream, ta. Sprinkles on top if you’ve got ‘em), wrapped up nice and warm under your duvet, and burn the bugger out.

                In case it’s not come to your attention, this ain’t an ideal world, and the aforementioned Mr Mountjoy does rather like to make things a tad tricky. So, instead, you’ll be in your bed, laptop on, caffeine and sugar practically on a conveyor belt, trying to bash out enough words in a somewhere-near coherent manner to reach your word count and keep Bob the Editor and Fanny the Agent happy.

                The reality of the situation is this: There are gonna be times when you want to pretty much shoot your laptop, your editor, your agent, and the numpty in the PR department who came up with this utter bollocks for a deadline anyway, along with yourself for coming up with the stupid poxy idea you’re currently flailing wildly at trying to knock for six when, realistically, you’re getting clean bowled.

                Three little words of advice: Deal. With. It. By and large, you’re stuck with what you get – you may be able to get an extra week or two, if you’re very, very lucky and have an awesome track record, like George RR Martin or Jim Butcher, but until then, you’re pretty much boned, sorry.

                Nobody said this lark was easy. If it were, then everyone’d be making 20pentabillion quid out of it like Rowling.

                I speak of this subject now because I’m coming off a cold myself. It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that much. There are clothes I’m debating whether to stick on my next barbeque, they’re so covered in nose gunk, and I’ve still got a bit of a cough writing this, but fear not, I am on the mend and am ready to write once more! I’ve also had a remarkable situation to the one described above in the last year.

                Christmas, 2011. I have nine assignments spread over four units, all due in for the last Friday of term or the Monday after that. It’s pretty much bottom of the ninth, and I’m on my second strike with a week to go. By this point, I’m thinking it’ll be a minor bloody miracle to get it all done.

                And I get a cold.

                Oh, joy, your blogger writes with as much sarcasm as he can possibly muster.

                God knows how I did it, I certainly don’t, but it was done, and done well, if my grades are anything to go by. It wasn’t fun, it certainly wasn’t easy, and it’s not something I want to ever have to do again (but I probably will), but it got done, and that’s probably the best way to say it: Keep calm and keep at it. Don’t go and kill yourself over it, it’s not worth it, but do what you can. You’re not going to be physically capable of working more than maybe a few hours at a time a few hours a day, but that adds up. If you can get a thousand words a session and have two sessions a day for five days, that’s ten thousand words (and, incidentally, if I remember right, that’s about an eighth of a novel by most standard word counts). Eight times five is 40. That’s just over a month... Actually, that’s not a bad schedule to keep if you’re healthy... Anyway, keep that sort of schedule up and you’ll have yourself a novel in about a month. Not bad for someone who’s sick as a parrot, eh?

 OK, it’s not as catchy as TARDIS, but time and space are key concepts to writing. If you’re in the wrong space, physically and mentally, you won’t be able to write to your full potential. You also have to consider time management for your writing – as I discussed in my last post, you can’t rush your writing, but at the same time, if nothing’s happening, if, for whatever reason, the juices just aren’t flowing, then there’s no point in trying to write something; you’re just wasting time you could probably spend on other pursuits.

So, space; what do I mean? I mean a place you can go to, any place will do, where you feel comfortable, and you feel that you can work; JK Rowling’s place in her early years writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was a cafe in my hometown, for example.

My space is in my house. In fact, I can work pretty much anywhere there; I’m writing this in my living room, but I can also work in my bedroom, and last Christmas I made good use of what is now the spare room but was the lounge (long story) to get my work done.

Having the place is good, but only you can make it perfect. You have to tailor your place to your taste and needs. You need to make sure you have the right tools for your job at hand. You need to ensure that as little as possible is going to distract you from the task of writing. Obviously, in this day and age that’s a lot harder, but here’s some basic, often common sense, tips:

Close your door. Seriously, you have no idea just how helpful a door is in helping you concentrate. You need to use your space to work, so as far as you’re concerned, once that door is shut, you have left any concerns or thoughts that don’t directly pertain to the work at the door. The door can be one of your greatest friends as a burgeoning writer.

Social Networking. Writing time is not the time to use going on Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube. Writing time is time that can’t be wasted, so before you start writing go to your web browser and close down any and all tabs related to social networking, or anything like that – it all has to go, or before you know it your entire evening will have been wasted. I have nothing against having the internet open – heck, I recommend it, it’s a great tool for research, particularly for the writer who doesn’t have the money or contacts to do first-hand research, but when push comes to shove and it’s time to knuckle down and write, that’s all it is; a research tool. That’s all you need it to be, anything else is just a waste.

Televisions and games consoles. Now, here’s a funny anecdote; at the end of my last semester, I had yet another boat load of work to do. At the same time, I had deliveries arriving from Amazon; the Game of Thrones series one boxset and Mass Effect 3. As potential distractions go, they were pretty big ones. But I still managed to get my work done, even though I got a bug a week before deadline. See, here’s where most writers fail: Basic discipline. If you can’t discipline yourself, as I mentioned in my last post, you will fail. Yes, I really wanted to play Mass Effect and watch Game of Thrones, but I knew I had work to do, so I held off. It was hard, oh God was it hard, but I did it, and boy was I happy about it. So, instead of resenting your nice new DVD, blu-ray, or computer game or what have you, I suggest this:

Use the reward system. I picked this up from, oddly enough, my parents and how they train all of their dogs. They work on the theory of “dog does good thing, dog gets treat; dog do bad thing, dog is ignored until he does good thing” (I’m paraphrasing and that probably sounds a lot harsher than it is). I work a similar theory; I set myself a target, and if I reach that target, I get a treat. For example, most essays are around 1500-2000 words. So I set myself a target of 500 words for that essay a day; the essay is done in three days, and I get three treats. The treats can be anything; a session on your new game, a disk of your latest TV series, but usually mine are cans of Coke. As an example, at Christmas when I had those ridiculous deadlines and workloads, I got through some 16 cans of Coke in a ridiculously short amount of time. In fact, I remember one particularly trying day when I nipped up to the shops to get a four-pack of Coke, and within a few hours, I had to go up to the shops again to buy another three four-packs.

I’m horrendous with Coke. I can easily down a two-litre bottle in no time at all, and I use it both as a reward and as an anti-stress agent, so most of those Coke cans I bought at Christmas were most definitely anti-stress cans more than rewards, but the theory works. You just need to find the right reward/incentive combination for you.

Now, here’s a bit of a stickler; music or other background noise. Personally, I have Tinitus, usually in my left ear but sometimes in both, and it drives me crackers, so I need music or other BGN to be able to do most things (brought about, I suspect, from several years of going everywhere with my iPod with the volume turned up to as close to maximum as I could stand), but I know that some writers don’t like it. As with most things in the world of a writer, it’s a personal choice. You can use it, or you can not use it, but let’s be fair here, just about the only people that are going to know if you use music or not are you, your housemates or family, and your neighbours, so it’s not exactly a world-breaking decision.

And now for time. The time to write depends from person to person – I’ve pulled all-nighters working on assignments and other projects, but I would hardly say that I’m a night owl; on those occasions I either had to do it then because there was no further opportunity to do it, or I had such a good idea that I really latched on to it and ended up working all night on it without realising. As a general rule, I never plan to pull an all-nighter; I’m not good at them, at least, not as good as I was. It may work for you, it may not, but, realistically speaking, you’re going to be writing while also working, so I’d caution against the all-nighter approach if you have to work the next day.

So how do you find time to write? Well, I believe that doers are rewarded more than do-nots, so I’d say write whenever you can. On your breaks at work, while you’re watching TV, or while you’re in bed waiting to go to sleep. Doesn’t have to be much, a few hundred words, and it doesn’t have to make much sense – I got through 300 pages of a novel once before I realised that precisely none of it made any sense what so ever while I was doing my GCSEs, as long as you’re writing. You can write for an hour, five minutes, or even just a little scrawled note in a notepad (which is a vital investment for any writer, unless you have an eidetic memory and can remember every idea you’ve ever come up with), just make sure you write. Any writing will do, it’s all experience, it all builds up, and it won’t be long before you begin to recognise the bad ideas from the good ones, or when you need to take a step back and rethink or retool an idea (trust me, you don’t want to do what I did with that 300 page thing, that was weeks and months of work wasted).

I find that a routine works – when you can keep to it (which I can’t. I started writing this article 3 bloody days ago, for God’s sake!) If you can get a routine going and find some time to write within that routine – like I said, it doesn’t have to be a lot, just an hour a day, like revision; little and often is better than lots of words written over three sessions in three months, then the work builds up and it won’t be long before you have your first draft. An hour a day equates to somewhere between 28 and 31 hours a month. Four months, and that’s something like 100 hours. Four months of an hour’s writing a day, and you will probably have something decent to show for it.

So there you are, readers; if you can find the right place for you, and the proper amount of time to dedicate to your work, you could be a writer too.