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Filthy Habits – Writing and Routine

Jasper Bark Blood Fugue IncidentI heard a fantastic piece of advice at a This Is Horror Live Event in Manchester last year. This was one of the events where I didn’t tear out the throats of my fellow authors. If that clip left you a little squeamish gentle reader, please don’t be alarmed. Think of it as a purely Darwinian measure. I was thinning out the competition so that only the strongest and most worthy authors remain on the bookshelves. Publishing, as many people have pointed out, is a cut-throat industry, and those of us who can’t afford a knife have to use our teeth.

Anyway, I’m going a little off point here, back to that brilliant piece of advice. It came from Ramsey Campbell who, in my opinion, is the greatest living British horror writer. In spite of drunkenly heckling me from the very same stage we were sharing, and graphically demonstrating how to anally rape a Lovecraftian entity (I’m lying about that last bit) Ramsey did share some amazing bits of writerly wisdom.

One thing in particular sticks in my mind. Ramsey told us that he always composes the next sentence of whatever he’s writing, before he sits down to work for the day. That way he’s already overcome the first hurdle before he even begins to type. This probably saves him hours of angst and indecision over the course of a working week and allows him to coast along on the compositional momentum he’s already built up before he even gets to his desk.

This is one of those sage pieces of advice that has me marveling at its wisdom even as I realise I’m sadly never going to follow it. Along with all those other great pieces of advice that I ignore such as ‘write what you know’. Yeah right, I’m a comic writer and horror novelist. I don’t have superpowers (other than my ability to spout heroic amounts of bullshit) and I live in a small Wiltshire town. The most horrific thing I face all day is emptying the litter tray (although given the nature of the local wildlife, my cats’ litter tray often resembles the highlights of a Shaun Hutson novel). Along with other pearls like: ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’, something I was never very good at (see what I did there, ending that sentence, unless of course you count this parenthetical clause as part of this sentence, parentheses don’t count do they? Y’know I have no idea, guess I should have listened to more advice on grammar).

W.H. AudenWhat Ramsey’s point highlights is the extreme importance of habit and routine to the working life of any writer. The poet W. H. Auden put the prolificity of his output down to one thing, a strict daily routine. Writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami would rise early in the morning, to get in a good four hours before the rest of the world woke up. Other writers such as Neil Gaiman, Pablo Neruda and Charles Dickens preferred writing into the wee hours of the night. Given the chance that’s how I like to write myself (probably because it’s easier to buy hard drugs at that time, drug dealers are not known for being up with the lark).

Jack Kerouac would light a candle, say a prayer, then type continuously on an endless roll of paper until the candle guttered and went out. While writing Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury would visit a basement typing room at the UCLA every evening, drop a dime into one of the unclaimed typewriters and type furiously for the thirty minutes that his ten cents bought him. When the allotted time was up he would scrabble around for another dime and begin the process all over again, teasing his first real masterpiece from his sub conscious in these thirty minute increments.

As to my own schedule I tend to wake fairly early when the blunt object my wife has thrown connects with my head. Usually this is either because the kids are driving her psychotic, or she’s found the writer with his throat torn out that I left in the middle of the lawn the previous night (when the cats do this with their prey it’s considered cute, but apparently when I do it, it’s psychopathic – double standard anyone?).

When the kids are safely delivered to school or, if it’s the weekend, safely locked in the basement with the power tools and the matches where they can’t distract me, I’ll settle down in my office to work. I tend to begin my day by writing a list. Lists are great ways of pretending to work without actually doing anything and they bring a completely unearned sense of achievement. I’ll start with a ‘to do’ list that I’ll pay about as much attention to as the great advice I’m always being given by other writers. Then, if I’m about to embark on a new endeavour, like a short story, a script or another of these columns, I’ll write an ideas list like this one:

LIST OF IDEAS

  1. Erm…
  2. Err…
  3. How about… no that’s a bit obvious…
  4. Well I could always… no I couldn’t – God what was I thinking?!
  5. There’s always the old one about… no, everyone’s used that…
  6. Does an inappropriate thought about the Creature from the Black Lagoon actually count as an idea?

Once that’s successfully accomplished I may even write another list as a direct consequence of the last list. Such as this one:

LIST OF POSSIBLE REASONS WHY I’M GOING TO MISS THE DEADLINE

  1. I’m on the run from the CIA – again! (This has possibilities.)
  2. Look, it’s women’s problems alright! You wouldn’t understand. (Not sure if I can pull this one off  – fnarr, pull this off, snerk.)
  3. I’ve just suffered a rectal prolapse due to a civil war between the microscopic alien races inhabiting my lower colon. (Might need to work on this one, fnarr – work on this… oh wait that’s not an innuendo.)

Once the serious business of list making is out of the way, along with other important admin tasks such as ‘liking’ every lame picture of a cat that I can find on Facebook, it’s time to settle down to some serious writing. First I open a new document. Next I spend two or three hours staring alternately out of the window and at the blank screen of my laptop. At some point during this vital stage in the process my wife will walk in and say something devastatingly witty like: “working hard are we?” I’ll then spend half an hour contemplating whether I should draw up a list of snappy comebacks for the next time she cracks this particular howler, but failing to come up with anything in the least bit ‘snappy’ or ‘comebackable’ (yes that is a word) I’ll abandon the idea.

After eating a light lunch I’ll return to my desk for a concerted hour of weeping tears of bitter frustration, interspersed with kicking my desk and weeping tears of pain from the injury I’ve done to my foot. Then I’ll lie on the floor, stare at the ceiling and bemoan the fact that I was stupid enough to enter a profession for which I obviously have no talent and my children will undoubtedly starve as a consequence.

Walt Disney 1940sRemembering that my children will soon have to be picked up from school (or released from the basement) finally spurs me into action and, fuelled by sheer panic, I manage to rattle off a thousand words or more before I have to down tools and resume my role as a parent. In the 30s and 40s at the Disney Studios, the sixty minutes before the animators would clock off for the day at 5pm was known as the ‘golden hour’. This was the time when all the guys in the studio would stop giving each other hot foots, or drawing penises on each other’s cells when they weren’t looking, and knuckle down and do some serious work. It was estimated that the majority of work that you see on the screen from that period was drawn in this single hour.

That’s how it is for me too. I’d like to say that all the preamble leading up to this hour or so is an integral part of the process, but even I’m not that self deluding. In fact one of the main reasons for having a routine is not so much to encourage yourself to write, but rather to avoid all those things that stop you writing (namely just about everything). Don DeLillo said: “A writer takes earnest measures to ensure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” Which effectively says in seventeen words what I’ve taken over a thousand words to say. But I don’t think my editor would have been very pleased with a seventeen word column that has none of the trademark knob jokes, so I’m sure you’ll excuse the rambling so far.

And while I’m quoting writers who are far more respectable than me, Haruki Murakami said:

I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing, it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerise myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

I think Murakami has hit on the nub of the matter here. Writing for long periods of time is like falling into a trance and letting your consciousness travel to another place. This other place is the location of your fiction and as you conjure it up for the reader, it has to be more real for you than the physical space you’re inhabiting as you write. There are times when I’m writing that I’m so immersed in what I’m working on that my children could run into my office in flames and I’d simply open the window to cool the room.

In this respect writing shares certain features with shamanism (by which I mean falling into a trance like state not letting your children burn). Routine and ritual are important tools in the Shaman’s armoury and it is the same with the writer. That’s why a good working routine is so important to us. It’s also why the first thing you should look at, if you’re not working to full capacity, is your working routine. Changing the way you work and scrutinising the working habits you’ve developed is often the best way of overcoming a creative block and maximise your productivity. The key to realising your potential as a writer is improving your working routine.

Trust your Uncle Jasp, this is the best bit of advice that you’ll ignore all month.

JASPER BARK

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1 comment

  1. This is hilarious and so easy to relate to if you are a writer. I think by the time I start my work every day I have ‘liked’ every frickin’ cat and look at every boob on the internet. Can you tell I’m single?

    I have found my key for daily productivity is a compulsory word count – if I am teaching it’s 1,000 words, if it’s summer or a holiday it’s 2,500. In the first place, this has worked for me because at the end of the day I have put down my word count. Whether it was ‘easy’ or a chore and a half, it’s down. And you and I both know that the most important thing is to actually write.

    Also, I think a writer should reward him/herself. So when I achieve that word count there is some reward: a couple episodes of a TV show, a visit to my local pub for a pint, or a tall glass of Irish Whiskey. If for some reason I don’t achieve my daily word goal, I am punished by denying myself the reward. Nothing more and nothing less; no use dwelling on it.

    But a daily word count has also helped me figure out my personal routine and best time to write, which – for me – is morning. If I putz around and finally get to my writing in the afternoon it comes out in staccato bursts between visits to twitter, reddit, and youjizz. Can you tell I’m single?

    Thanks for this article, it was a delight to read and very humorous.

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