Sunday, 22 November 2015

Because Even Dedicated Writers Need a Break Sometimes.

The interior of the Hydro Hotel, Eastbourne, UK. For when you need to
get your Downton on!

It was Stephen King who famously said that he wrote every single day except Christmas Day and his birthday (and even then later reneged on including his birthday.) Ernest Hemingway agreed with him, along with Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and scores of other great and good writers. Haruki Murakami had this to offer:

'When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.'

(Oh good. Thanks Haruki, because I was starting to worry that my typical routine didn't look Jeremy-Kyle-Show-slothful enough compared to other writers, but you've fixed that for me nicely now, haven't you?)

The point they're all making - and the one that's echoed by millions of writers, writing teachers, writing blogs and the metric tonne of all the writing advice that's out there ever - is that 'proper writers' write every day of their lives, no matter what. That, like breathing, slacking off for a few days is fatal. Because your creativity is like a muscle that, if not subjected to its regular routine of push-ups, will burst like a bag of blancmange the next time you try to lift a Mars Bar out of the fridge.

And yeah, I get what they're saying. I was once a huge advocate of this thinking myself, to the point where I'd feel guilty if I 'missed' a day of writing (and then spent an anxious bedtime trying to convince myself that commenting on that blog post did so count as 'writing.') I was that annoying one that said things like "even if you just write a bit in a journal about how you can't seem to move forward on your w-i-p, you're still exercising that creative muscle." I still think that's true, by the way. And I still see the wisdom in writing every day, even if it's only a teeny-leetle bit...


I had an experience a couple of months ago that prevented me from doing that for almost a week, when I was hospitalised with cellulitis and blood poisoning. Although I tried to minimise the inner self-flagellation for it at the time, the unwanted hiatus didn't do a lot to dispel my belief that taking a break from writing every now and then made it harder to come back to that writing afterwards - in fact, if anything it reinforced it. But... it wasn't disastrous. Kind of like falling off the wagon with a diet really; okay, I finished off two portions of half-fat cheesecake because - hey, look! half the fat! - but I got through the stodge-cravings for the next couple of days... and look, I haven't morphed into a female Homer Simpson after all. So yeah, taking that break from writing wasn't ideal, but it certainly wasn't a catastrophe...

But then a writing friend of mine pointed out that, actually, a week lying in a hospital bed unable to walk, in severe pain, with a high temperature and having three different types of antibiotics intravenously pumped into your limbs is not most sane people's idea of a 'break.' (Virgin Holidays certainly aint offering it as a package, that's for sure.) 'Breaks' are meant to be - well y'know, devoted mostly to doing fun stuff, preferably with loved ones, at a reasonable level of general health. And, she added, since I hadn't had one of those kind of breaks for a stupidly long time, I was talking out of an orifice that wasn't my mouth (she's kinda blunt like that, bless her weird-shaped sports socks.) Maybe what I needed was a break - an actual one, with fun and stuff - rather than just a medical interruption.

And then it came to pass that my son got a chance to go on his first residential school trip, i.e. staying for a couple of nights in a kid's camp with all his school chums (and four teachers with the stress tolerance of a Mother Theresa and Bear Grylls hybrid, I would imagine.) Which meant that, while he and his mates were off rampaging through forests and terrifying the local wildlife, my husband and I could have a couple of days off from being Mum and Dad. The world was our oyster - for two whole, glorious days!

Well, Eastbourne was, to be precise. Okay, so it wasn't exactly Vegas, but it was two days in a four-star hotel with a view of the beach.... in November, admittedly... with breakfast and a two-course dinner in the evening thrown in. Entering the hotel felt like stepping onto the set of Downton Abbey, and all of the other guests looked old enough to have been around in that era (well, it was Eastbourne...) We got to eat proper, posh food - the kind of posh where you have to pretend you understand the sort-of-frenchified descriptions of it in the menu (and then don't even mind when it turns out to be something completely different from what you thought it was, because it still tastes amazing anyway.) We got to sleep in a posh bed in a posh hotel suite, being ordinary humans instead of Mum and Dad. And we got to meet (and people-watch) the kind of characters you can only find in a hotel trapped in a 1930's time bubble, in a town rated in the top ten for retirees, in November. It was flippin' bliss, let me tell you.

But most of all... I didn't do any writing at all. None. Not even a postcard. For two whole days.

I still took the tools - and the good intentions - of course. I had the Kindle, the blank notebook and the assortment of pens shoved in the suitcase, ready to whip out at the first hint of holiday fun downtime. But... I suppose I just had too much fun, because they stayed in my suitcase for the whole two days. And did I feel guilty? Oh heck yeah - when I remembered to... which wasn't that often, if I'm honest...

But here's the weird thing. Since I came back from those two days of skiving off writing, my daily word count has doubled. It's like my mini-holiday has given my brain a mojo infusion; I've always loved the story I'm writing (not a lot of point in writing it otherwise) but now I'm back to loving the process of writing it as well. For the last two or three months that had - well, not gone exactly, but certainly needed increasing amounts of chocolate waving under its nose to tempt it to come out and play.

So Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut et al (and especially YOU, Mr Haruki)... I salute your dedication, I really do. You are writing superheroes and no mistake. But I... am not. It would seem I need more time off writing than Christmas Day and my birthday, and now that I know my creative abilities are not going to shrivel up and die in the space of a couple of days, I'm going to take that time out when I need it.

And next time I might even send a postcard or two.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Why it's Okay to say "Na-NO, Wri-Mo!"

It's that month again. The one that comes around every year and messes with the brains of writers.

I'm talking of course, about NaNoWriMo.

Like teenagers in a How Cool Are You Competition, writers are asking other writers all over the Interwebbyworld "Are you doing it? Have you done it before? Did you get to third base last time? D'you think you'll get there this time?"

So, with that in mind, let's get this out of the way right here, right now... if you're 'doing it' this year - well done you. No seriously - and sincerely - it's a massive thing to undertake, and having the danglies to do so, even if you don't expect to succeed - in fact, especially if you don't expect to succeed - says a lot about your determination and strength of character. And it gets you writing like a thing possessed for a whole month, so yaay for anything that gets people passionate about writing! For a whole thirty days of a randomly-chosen month...

(Dammit, I nearly made it to the end without any hint of snark... I was soooo close.... )

Sorry. I have certain feelings about NaNoWriMo. Y'see, for me it's like having a delicious but huge chocolate cake, and being told that the whole darn thing is for you - yes Preciousss, only you! - but you only have this teeny-weeny time period to eat the entire thing. Now I love me a bit of chocolate cake as much as the next chocolate addict... but what I don't like is being given ludicrous conditions for eating that cake. Especially when the reasons for those ludicrous conditions arose as a result of some random somewhere decreeing "It will be done this way, because that's where my Pin of YOLO landed when I covered my eyes and stuck the point into my Page of Car-azy Rules!"

Thanks for the lovely chocolate cake - much appreciated, believe me - but I will eat it when, where and how I want to - and in a way that doesn't end in me being violently sick and hating chocolate cake for... I dunno, a very long time. Like maybe even weeks.

Not only that, but I watch some ( not all - but definitely some) of the other competitors in this cake-gobbling competition and... well, they make me sad. They take that chocolate cake and they go "Yeah! I'm-a gonna do this!" (probably in a Mr. T-type voice.) And then they go "nom-nom-nom-nom-nom" and succeed in eating the entire cake. And then they are stratospherically pleased with themselves, because it's the only time they ever eat chocolate cake at all, never mind this much in one go. They have basically done a Bear Grylls with the chocolate cake challenge, i.e. done it purely for the sake of being able to tick it off some mental list of Things I Must Do To Be Totally Awesome, rather than for any love of chocolate cake itself.

Which means that, once it's done... well, that's it. No reason to eat chocolate cake again now unless... oh, I dunno, maybe I'll do it again next year, just to maintain my awesome, y'know? But no, not as a regular thing. Why would I  - what's so awesome about eating chocolate cake normally, in smaller, non-awesome quantities, all throughout the year? Pffft, that's for losers!

Some of these Bear Grylls-cake-scoffers take the level of self-congratulation a step further. So impressed are they at the phenomenal amount of cake they managed to ingest in such a short period of time that they decide the world should see that cake for themselves - like, really see it, and right now, before their guts have had time to extract all the goodness from it and decide if it was a healthy, nutritious cake or not. So they barf it all right back up again, in a nasty, slimy pile and cry "Look! Look at what I just did! Behold its awesomeness - bet you couldn't produce anything like that!" And then they get really, really cross with anyone who points out - however tactfully - that it's just a pile of cake-sick. "What the hell do you know, lightweight? D'you know how long it took me to make that? I'll tell you - hardly any time at all! Because I made it in NaNoWriMo 'cos I'm that awesome!"

These are the type of NaNoWriMo-ers that make me feel sad. They're otherwise known as - perhaps unkindly, perhaps not - 'wannabe writers.'

You can spot them a mile off. They talk abut NaNoWriMo as being their 'chance,' their 'opportunity' even their 'letter of permission' to 'finally' write that novel. As if all the mysterious embargoes that were somehow preventing them from writing it in any of the other eleven months of the year are suddenly magically lifted just for November because... um, somebody somewhere said so, and lots of people agreed.

So, when November the first cracks open, they 'know' they've got the next thirty days to be awesome writers. Thirty days of wearing the ball-gown and dancing with prince before - bong! The clock chimes midnight and they turn back into pumpkins again. Those thirty days must seem like precious jewels of time to those writers, and the pressure to use them wisely and come up with the goods must weigh heavily.  Because remember, this is their one chance to finally write that novel...

Sadly, these are the writers that are least likely to know the cold, cruel truth about NaNoWriMo - and probably wouldn't want to believe it even if you told them, because it destroys the metaphorical summit they're heading for in their mind.

You CAN'T finish a novel in thirty days.

You can certainly write 50,000 words in thirty days, as per the NaNoWriMo brief. But calling those 50,000 words a completed, publishable novel is like calling a dead cow a T-Bone steak. There's a heck'a-load of other processes gotta happen before you can serve that thing up for public consumption, and that can take anything from weeks to months - maybe even years. Or maybe even... never. Because, even after lavishing all the time and love in the world on it, it may still just... y'know, not be good enough to publish. At all. Ever.

Seasoned writers know this, of course. They know all about rewrites and multiple drafts and beta readers - and rejections and then more rewrites... They're also the ones who don't wait for each November to rock around before they start word-painting. They're more likely to take NaNoWriMo for what it really is; a jolly game to get writers in the mood for barfing up a first draft as quickly and crazily as they can. It's a calendar-based motivational tool, nothing more.

So if you have 'writer-friends' in your life who try to nag you into doing NaNoWriMo, or berate you for 'wimping out' of doing it year after year... maybe it's because you're already writing stuff all the time instead of just waiting for November. And y'know what? If you are, it doesn't even matter if you're not hitting the magic word-count of 1,667 a day. You're proving you're in it for the long haul - which is what you need for writing anything worth publishing. There's a reason the tortoise won the race and not the hare.

That's why I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I'm gonna be too busy writing.