The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

In search of an alternative chunk

Henry Miller's writing commandments got me thinking again about how to motivate oneself to write.

Towards the end of the first draft I established a good system. The weekly word target was no good – invariably leading to 3 days of doing very little followed by  desperate, guilty cramming on Thursday and Friday. I started aiming for a daily word target instead, but with a twist.

A simple daily goal was not that helpful. Firstly, I would leave it late in the day to try and reach it, wasting at least the morning. And if the going was hard, I would think never mind, I'll just make up the words tomorrow. Then the pressure would be on the following day to write even more, and the cumulative effect would make the past two days just as scrambling as before.

So the twist was this: the daily goal was 1500 words, and as soon as I wrote the 1500th word I could pack up and do whatever I liked with the rest of my day.

It was a daily reward for progress. Some days I hit the target by mid afternoon and smugly went off alone to the shops, or turned up at the school to surprise the boys by picking them up. Other days I kept on writing past the limit because I was in the zone. On tougher days I might labour up to the last minute, or not manage to hit the target at all. The beauty of the system was that the words did not stack up throughout the week: if I missed the goal one day, I'd just start afresh the next.

Henry Miller also had fresh start concept: 'Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it the next day'.

Something about the daily, reward-driven but guilt-free chunk of work helped me to finally to finish a first draft. I discovered too that freedom is my favourite reward: I relish the prospect of free time in which I can do anything I choose, rather than any one favourite activity.

But this formula doesn't work for the second draft. It doesn't work because the work can't be quantified in as simple a term as a word count. I have a terrifyingly long list of changes I want to make to the book, of things I need to check for, new scenes to add in and others to delete. I have extra research to do. I want to overhaul the speech of some of the characters. I need to zoom in on words and phrases as well as stand back to see if the whole works as a story.

I'm overwhelmed. On any one day don't know where to start.

Miller says: 'Work on one thing at a time until finished,' which is good for focus, but I never know how long each task is going to take, or how entangled it is with others. I don't know how to turn a task that I start into a chunk that I can reward myself for completing.

He also says, 'when you can't create you can work', which reminds me of something Eric Griffiths once told me. He said, 'there is no such thing as study; there is only work'. Forget the wall you have to build; simply lift up the next brick and put it on top of the others.

Perhaps then I need to work in chunks of time, like the Pomodoro technique. Anthony Trollope used to write 3 hours a day, every day. Perhaps I should set myself a target in hours that allows for some free time at the end of the day if I get on with it quickly enough.

Whatever I do, I need to try it fast. I feel like I'm sinking in the mire.


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