One Year Of Writing
“A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
Last year on the third of June, two months after breaking things off with my agent, I had an epiphany. It’s an epiphany I’d had many times over the past fifteen years as a writer. Every month or two I’d have this groundbreaking lightning-to-the-head idea, and I’d tell myself This time I’ll follow through with it. But life didn’t quite work out like that.
For a start, so many things kept getting in the way — or, in other words: I allowed things to get in the way. Back in my early twenties I was married with two kids, holding down two part-time jobs on the other side of London (I lived in South; my jobs were in North West), which I soon followed up with a divorce and weekend dad duties — and going out three times a week to get drunk and pick up girls like a brainless teenager. I had so much going on in my life, and I took those excuses and ran with them. If I couldn’t be bothered to write, it’s because I had to buy a new outfit for that evening’s escapades. If I didn’t want to write, I blamed it on my kids — they’re hard work, after all. If the word-wizard didn’t have his hat on that morning, I’d blame tiredness from work or from watching too much porn. Whatever could be an obstacle, I let it be one.
And that’s all they ever were: excuses, lies to pin my laziness on. That way, when I got around to my school reunion, or a big family dinner, or whatever, and people asked me why I never made anything of myself, I could say: Well, where should I start . . .? and throw out a list of bullshit reasons to explain my endless procrastination. I could blame my kids, my hectic lifestyle, the break up of my marriage — or my marriage in general, as many relationships take away valuable alone time. I could invent any number of reasons why I never had time to pursue my dream. But the truth was, if I really wanted it, I could find the time to write. I certainly found the free hours to play football or go to the movies or call up girls or listen to music. When my kids fell asleep, I’d sit in my living room and watch TV all night. And although, especially in their early years, I felt exhausted — I still had enough spare hours in my evenings to write a novel. Even if it was only a single page a night.
So when the epiphany hit me, I figured I should actually pay attention.
This time around will be different. That’s what I kept telling myself. I soaked in as much habit-forming literature as time would permit, noting the many psychological techniques one can use to trick their brain into being productive, and then I chose the ones which seemed to fit my personality best. I needed to build an unbreakable routine. Firstly, I changed my sleeping habits. For so long I’d head off to bed when my brain could no longer hack being awake; I’d slide under the covers at 12, or 1, or 3 in the morning, only to then sleep in, wake up around 11, and feel like shit all day. Most times I probably wrote two or three hundred words. Maybe a thousand on a good day.
So I began going to bed in the early evenings around ten, or as soon as I felt tired. And then, in the morning, the moment I woke up — whether at 6:30 or 8:00 — before I thought about breakfast, or brushing my teeth, or anything like that, I’d flip open my laptop at the dining room table and I’d get to work. I started with short stories at first, just to build a regular routine and stick with it. Writing a novel can be draining; it’s a lot easier to bang out a short story. You spend three days or so and get instant gratification and satisfaction that you’re working. I kept this up for about eight weeks, writing a ridiculous amount of short stories — somewhere close to sixty, I think. My most important rule, however, was to never look back. Keep moving.
Even the stories I thought were great I dumped into my writing folder without so much as a second glance, then moved on to the next idea. As long as I kept writing, I knew I’d soon ingrain the habit. Neural pathways would form and solidify. I’d become accustomed to the routine of waking early and writing first thing.
And I did. I wrote it all: novels, stories, novellas, hit lists, ransom notes.
It wasn’t easy, though. In some ways, it was a nightmare.
At first, it seemed simple. The words flowed, and I worked in peace every morning — no emails, no Facebook notifications, no phone calls, no tweets, no one awake to bother me. This was a writer’s dream, and I was living it. Nothing had ever been this easy. But it turned out I was simply stuck in the honeymoon period. You might have noticed a similar attitude in people who try to quit smoking. The first few weeks are a breeze. It’s only later on, maybe a few weeks down the line, when something really stressful happens and they don’t have a cigarette that their true willpower kicks in. A lot fail at this hurdle.
But I didn’t want to fail. For a start, I’d been chronicling my word count day by day, and I hated the thought of leaving a blank space. After every session I wrote the number down and felt a weight off my shoulders. I had the rest of the day to relax, to hang out with my fiancée, to play the computer, watch TV, complete some editing work, whatever. The earlier I finished my writing, the freer my day.
And if my brain wasn’t working too well that morning, it didn’t matter. I’d force out two or three paragraphs and write extra the next day. I didn’t set myself an amount. My only stipulation is that I’d write something.
Then came the hard times. The obstacles I didn’t expect.
I began to exhaust myself — writing and editing throughout the day without taking breaks, eating, or rehydrating properly. And waking up every morning first thing didn’t help much, either. I was working seven days a week (and still am) without so much as a free weekend to let my mind breathe and switch off. In the end I contracted acute tonsillitis (even though I had a tonsillectomy as a child). I don’t know if the two things were connected: a lack of sleep/rest leading to illness, and yet they seemed to be — my immune system is usually strong as an ox. But still, even with the fever and the shivering and the trips to the hospital and the antibiotics and painkillers, I refused to give up my word count. Wiping the sweat from my body, I persevered and worked through the sickness. Later, I toiled through the tiredness and the long days and all of my dirty hangovers.
Over time I occasionally slacked on my morning routine, sometimes waiting until nine in the evening before I began writing. But it didn’t matter much anyway: in the space of a year, I missed only two days and that wasn’t my fault. I was away for the weekend in Leeds and I’d been meaning to write on my phone but I dropped it and the screen smashed.
Even still, that’s only two days out of a year. That means for 363 out of 365 (I wrote on Christmas morning and my birthday, too), I managed to write — sometimes half a page, sometimes twenty pages. And it’s something I’m proud of, in spite of the drain it’s had on me. The thing is, I’m due a break but I can’t do it. I’m scared to stop writing.
What if I take a week off and never get back into the routine?
Now that the twelve months are up, I plan to edit it all, save the good stuff, and send it off so I can get a new agent. Then start the process all over again.
Maybe none of it will sell in the end. Maybe all of it will. The point is I set myself a goal — to write for one year straight — and I achieved it. In increments, through many sleepless nights and early mornings and tiring and draining afternoons, but I did it; I wrote piles of pages. Some of it was most likely terrible. It’s bound to be; no one writes perfectly amazing prose and plots every single day of their life. But in this case, quantity lead to an overall quality. By writing so often, and so close together, I realised mistakes in my writing as I went along. I could pinpoint issues from something I’d written and fix it in the next thing I wrote. It was like joining an advanced writing course, except I was the teacher too.
And every month felt like a success, especially when I counted up my words and saw how much I’d written that month. My average was about 55,000, the length of a short novel. Overall I wrote 669,145 words, which adds up to almost 3000 double-spaced A4 pages (according to this website).
So if anyone out there doesn’t feel like they’ve been writing enough, try the ONE YEAR CHALLENGE (as I’ve just dubbed it). For one whole year dedicate yourself to your craft and see what happens. You’ll be amazed at how much you grow as a writer and how disciplined you become.
And in the long run, you’ll be the professional you need to be. Don’t wait for a contract to assign those extra hours to your craft. Be a pro and people will see you as one.
Now stop reading this and go get started on today’s two thousand words.
Or three hundred. Or one sentence.
Just as long as you’re doing it.
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