Today’s post is by author Tom Bentley (@TomBentleyNow).
The pandemic turned me to crime. Well, memories of crime: during the early months of the pandemic, I backed off from other projects and wrote a memoir on my years of teenage shoplifting, my first business success. But those 53,000 words didn’t emerge in singing sentences that built powerful paragraphs that made compelling chapters.
They emerged, as words do, in sputters and spurts. Or they hid behind walls, not coming when called, no matter the plaintive plea.
And yet, a book surfaced. All because of the power of incremental writing, a kind of compound investment. I wrote every workday, five days a week, for a scheduled half-hour. Be in the chair, manuscript up, cursor blinking, even if on that day the word pipe is clogged. A half-hour’s writing might be only 300 words, 500 words, sometimes a mere 100 words. But a half-hour’s writing over 7 or 8 months: a book’s worth of words.
That’s the subtle little secret to traveling from a work’s first word to its last: walk, don’t run. I don’t recommend a pandemic to move you to a long composition, but some of its isolations were helpful, at least in half-hour retreats. The allegorical wisdom of the tortoise vs. the hare—wise indeed.
Get your mind right
But before that galloping opening sentence breaks its reins, you need to address that inner voice. Or perhaps suppress is the operating word. Many people think “I could never write a book. Books, they are zillions of words. I wouldn’t know where to start. Or end.”
But the “I can do it” mindset starts with the simpler sense of “Yep, sure, I can write 100 words.” Turning that “yep” into 5,000 yeps is working on the power of habit.
First, determine when’s your best writing time. I’m an early riser, fueled by caffeine, mediated by meditation, but time has told me that writing at the first rooster call isn’t for me. I have to shuffle into it, go through email, perhaps read some wretched news headlines that make the scourge of writing seem an agreeable alternative.
Over time, I found that between 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. seemed the most productive writing period for me. So my mandated half-hours were announced to me by my electronic calendar, which dispassionately but commandingly told me at 10, every day, “write memoir.” Of course, your own schedule might demand that your only free hour is 5:30 a.m., but don’t let the initial misery of that daunt you.
Perhaps you only manage two sessions in the week, maybe three. Acknowledge that as good, without accusation, and begin the schedule again. A great boost to establishing the habit all the more firmly is seeing that you indeed did some writing, even if from A to B. The whole alphabet is now open to you.
Distractions are not delightful
When your half-hour calls, your phone is not your friend. Don’t have it buzzing and blurping at hand’s reach. My office is a 1960s Airstream trailer, and the phone signal out there is iffy; I don’t bring the cussed thing out with me in the morning. In concert with that, don’t have notifications active on your computer, so its buzzes and blurps do not sting you as well.
I wrote the initial chapters of my memoir with TextEdit, the Mac’s built-in word processor. I didn’t want Microsoft Word’s flush of ribbons and menus and choices to distract me from black text on white background, here and again. I minimize all browser and email windows, so just the active file is on the screen. Those windows and mails will wait for you—they always have.
Writers do have a rich gift for saying to themselves, “What I just wrote—that’s crap. C’mon! What’s the use?” But those are meaningless sneezes, not indicative of actual illness. You are always going to have setbacks or frustrations in your writing work, and you can train your thinking to see that setbacks and frustrations, no matter how sharp their needle, are temporary. The page is the thing, not sideways thinking.
One distraction I do recommend: if you’re able, get out and about at some point in the day. I find it remarkably consistent (and consistently remarkable) that many writing problems are solved by fleeing the computer for a walk in a park, or by the ocean or lake or just in the neighborhood. When you return to the keyboard, sometimes the complete and sweet cupcake of a new sentence, paragraph or idea will fall frosted on your writing plate.
Make research a scaffold, not a crutch
Let me backtrack a bit and say that in writing a memoir, I didn’t just jump swimmingly into the sweet pond of half-hours. Because my memoir is set during my high school years, and I am one of the craggy ancients now, I had to assemble a team of like ancients so that our collective brain was at least at 75 candlepower. I am still pals with many people from my checkered past, and they helped me refine (“Tom, you’re nuts! That never happened!”) some of my stories.
Thus I had many notes and emails to parse and assemble. After I had some pretty full chapters in TextEdit, and some partials, and many, many notes, I put them into Scrivener, which has a lovely way of holding chapters, half-chapters, one-line notes, emails, URLs and other research info into an easy-to-use matrix. Better Scrivenering yet—it’s simple to move all materials around, insert new, and rejigger again.
This assemblage, motley as it might appear, has some of the cheering effect I suggested earlier, based on the perception that accumulated writing inspires more writing.
You see you are doing it, you do more.
Miss a day, no matter
This bears repeating: If you miss a day in your writing schedule, as they say in the country, don’t make no never mind. Just begin again the next, with no wrenching of garments or cries of pain. Sounds like it’s too simplistic to work, but the simple things often sound that way.
And of course, should your keyboard be aflame, feed its fire: write more than a half-hour, write as freely as your fingers feel the words. I had many 1,000-word+ days, and enjoyed their combustion. Conversely, I agree with Hemingway’s adage about stopping when you are going good, leaving something in the tank for the next day.
After I finished the memoir, I used the half-hour method to edit it as well, before I turned it over to some professional editors. (Even though I used to be one, don’t listen to that wheedling macaw in your head telling you to edit your own work.) And now I’m using the half-hour method to do at least one promotional thing a day, no matter how simple. I was never good at math, but it adds up.
Look, a book!
I’ve likely forgotten many of the half-hours of my life, unless I was in an extraordinary place, or with extraordinary people, or there was an event of consequence. But I can’t forget all the half-hours that produced the book, because I have the book itself, a lovely thing (glossing past its content of however bad of an adolescent I was).
Books are bridges. Nobody builds a bridge all at once—you build it in sections, some of which are flawed and need redoing, some of the materials for which might never be used. But bridges begin small, and with the building, can become big.
In the future, let’s not have a deadly pandemic as the basis for any “inspiration.” Here’s to your next glowing half-hour.