Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Think small

Traditionally, motivational gurus and self-help enthusiasts encourage us to think big. 'Dream on a grand scale' they advise us, and 'reach for the stars'. They pour scorn on the old advice not to set your sights too high.

But are they right? If you set high standards and challenging targets, do you risk overwhelming yourself before you even get started?

I think so. Let's consider a typical person developing a new daily schedule to fit in all the things they want to do, in addition to all the things they need to do. Let's even assume they have the luxury that all these things actually fit into a standard twenty-four hour day. The alternative involves emigration to a planet with a slower rotational period.

Wow! I have an entire four hours a day free. Well, I've long been meaning to start an exercise programme that'll convert me from a couch potato to an Olympic athlete in two years, so that's two hours a day. That leaves two hours per day for writing.

Two hours? That's not very much, is it? You won't be producing two books, two screenplays and twelve short stories a year just by writing two hours a day, will you?  

You're right. OK, let's see if we can't economise a bit. I can cycle to work, which is as quick as using the car and takes care of the exercise as well. And no-one really needs to sleep for eight hours; six would be fine.That gives us six hours a day free to write.

That's more like it. Six hours a day is about 6000 words. Assume we take Christmas day, New Year's day, two birthdays and the summer solstice off, that's 360 days a year times 6000 equals 2.1 million words. Also assume that you have to write about 360,000 words to produce a finished standard novel, 100,000 for a finished screenplay and about half a million for the short stories, blogs and everything else: that means we can produce our two books, two screenplays, twelve short stories, our weekly blog and still have time for our new mammoth epic fantasy series, one giant volume per year!  Sorted!

Great. I'll just produce the daily schedule now...

Yeah, right. I'm sure many of us have devised schedules like that. I know I have.

Guess what?

It won't work. Ever. Oh, you might be able to stick to it for a few days, with a Herculean effort of willpower, but it's unsustainable for medium or long periods. Worse, it will leave you with a learned aversion to cycling and writing which may last for the rest of your life.

So what's the matter with the schedule? 

Let's take a typical day. It's winter. You really want to leap out of bed at five to write for a couple of hours, don't you? It's cold and dark and wet outside, and it's not too sparkling inside. But no, you do it. Well done you! Except it won't be two hours writing, because it takes a small but measurable length of time to get up, get dressed and switch on the PC. So, it's about 1 hour 50 minutes. Already you are ten minutes adrift.

You can wash, dress, cook and eat your breakfast in an hour, so that's OK. You pull on the wet weather gear and cycle off to work. In the rain, into the headwind; with the lorries throwing icy, muddy spray in your face as they thunder past with an inch to spare.

You get to work. It's chaos. Network systems have failed and major new orders have to be filled. You have to work through your lunch break and stay until six in the evening to get things done. Cycle home, picking up a puncture on the way.

Now it's official. You're knackered. You need to eat, your wife is getting dressed up, there's a bill to pay and already it's way past seven. The upstairs tap is dripping, your better half expects you to go out with her to that party you were told about a month ago and you're getting a stinking cold.

Looks like there'll be no writing tonight, unless you stay up till three in the morning. If you do that, you'll have two hours sleep before it starts all over again. Your wife wants to snuggle in bed and if you refuse yet again, you'll end up with pneumonia, divorced and sacked because you keep falling asleep at work.

I know, because I've been down that route, if not all the way.

Next time, I'll share how I now produce a schedule that has a good chance of working, but for now, remember this: shit happens. In fact, shit happens daily.

You need to have periods of time that are actually left free to accomodate these unexpected little crises. You need to allow time for snuggling with your nearest and dearest. You need time to read and watch films and TV dramas to analyse how other writers handle things well (or badly). You need to get enough sleep.

Oh, and two hours writing a day? That's what Stephen King does, and he seems to have produced a fair amount over the years.


  1. Great article. I need to reread this once a month to remind myself that little steps are good enough.

  2. Yep. Graham Greene used to write 100 words per day - but I imagine they were finished words. In the next post, I'll be covering progression from small to sustainable.