categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I just finished spending a couple of months writing a draft of a new book and I thought I’d focus today’s bad advice on the routines of writing that I tried to put in place during that time. The draft I just finished, technically a first draft but not really (I’ll explain), is the most tense, scariest, most exciting and pleasurable and life-sucking. The reason for all this is it is the part where you make something from nothing. For me this means there has usually been a long period of gestation before I begin—of reading, travelling, brooding, journal-writing, osprey-watching, note-taking, outline-making, file-putting in, tape-recording during walks, anxiety attack-having—but when I do begin, I usually really blast off.
This time around my daily schedule during the draft went like this:
4:30/5:00: Get up/feed dog and cat/boil water for tea/make coffee for later/stretch back/eat banana
7:40: Drive Hadley to school and get Latte.
12:00—1:30: Walk Missy (yellow lab) in woods at school or Carolina Beach State Park and talk into tape recorder: notes and sometimes spoken draft of tomorrow’s work
2:00/3:00 Read NYTimes. Bath. Nap
4:00/5:00: Beers and reading in the shack behind my house. Reading sometimes related to the book, sometimes not. Occasionally this segment becomes a third writing session, but only occasionally, and less so as I get older.
6:00: Dinner. Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Nina and Hadley (since her school ended)
9:00/9:30: Fall asleep after watching first quarter of NBA playoffs.
A few things to note about this schedule:
1. It doesn’t account for the normal obligations of life. There is always other stuff that butts in. For one thing there is usually some sort of job that has to be factored in to all this. Out of necessity, I have written these drafts in between the cracks of school and other obligations over the last decade but ideally this should be the draft where you somehow find some real time, the writing retreat or at the very least vacation-time draft. For me this means Christmas or summer vacations.
2. Even on a bad day you put in five hours at the desk. This adds up. Math isn’t my strong suit, but even I can see that this means 50 hours every ten days, or 150 a month, or 300 in two months. I’ve been called a fast writer but do anything for 300 hours and you’ll get something done. Also, I sat down like this, as much as life would allow it, back when I was younger and a slow writer, and I feel like all that sitting is what has made me fast.
3. Depending on your own temperament, my schedule may seem like either a) A dream or b) Dullsville. To me it is a little of both. The routine feeds the work in some way I don’t entirely understand. It also enforces boringness—you want to go out and party, sure, but then how do you get up at 4:45? And oddly, the whole thing is surprisingly tense. Because you are doing all this stuff, controlling what you can control, going through your rituals like a batter at the plate, but at the same time at the heart of the whole thing is crazy voodoo magic: the fucking words have to come from somewhere! Where do they really come from? Who knows? But if you are smart you don’t spend too much time thinking about it and just keep writing.
4. It’s tiring. It doesn’t look tiring when I write the schedule down—it looks kind of gentle and nice–but it is. More so as I get older. Basically, if you are really into it, it renders you incapable of doing much else. I can still be civil to my family, still have some fun even, but the truth is that I’m kind of a shell, useless. I stop showering or doing laundry. Okay, I never do much laundry anyway. But I do even less.
5. You find yourself looking ahead at the calendar, thinking/dreaming about when you will be done. That–being done–seems like heaven. Which is kind of weird and speaks to the insatiable workings of the human mind. After all, aren’t you kind of in heaven when you are absorbed in a first draft? No, your mind wants to be done. And then, when you are done, it wants back in.
6. Another strange thing is that the more I do this the more I can predict, almost to the day, when I will be done. Tonight we are going to the Blockade Runner, a hotel on the beach out on Wrightsville, for a two day vacation of hot-tubbing and beach-going. That’s my reward before the next drafts start. I made these reservations a month ago, figuring this was the day I’d finish. I was off, true, finishing not on Wednesday morning but on Tuesday. But you get the point. I have no idea what this is about. Experience maybe.
When I get back I have a series of drafts ahead, including:
1. A Tighten the Bolts on-computer draft. That is a fast, language-centered reading of the whole ms. on the computer.
2. A Print-Out-and-Read Big-Picture draft. Thinking of the book as a whole and how the chapters relate.
3. An Individual Chapter Print Out/Read Through draft.
4. A Final Read Through draft.
All these are important, all necessary. But momentum, and some peace of mind, have already been won through this simple fact: the scariest draft is done. From here on I will be working with something in hand. Not creating out of nothing.