Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small moves, Ellie

May there be a God and when he's done sorting everything else out, may this God take a minute to forgive me: I'm being organised and it's working. I want to tell you about it and I'm not sure whether it's to get it off my chest, whether it's ask you to glare at me until I stop being lazy, or whether I'm hoping to groom you into joining this Organisation.

I honestly hate this in me. I used to enjoy writing in the middle of the night, writing an inch before the deadline, writing 50 pages in day when absolutely necessary. I used to just enjoy the night: going to bed before 1am feels sinfully wrong. It's a good way to work, it conjures up the kind of sound and furious action that I so relished in newsroom writing.

But it was always reacting to something, some deadline set by someone else. Things were getting done but not enough and not well enough and I would always be having ideas for projects I just couldn't find the time to do. I would forever be busy and I mean forever: there was never, not ever a point when I'd be able to say I was done for the day. I enjoyed that, I still enjoy it now, but sheer harsh, cold self-examination is never kind. Last year was very successful for me but it is easy to see that it should've been much more so: perhaps not in terms of what writing I got produced, perhaps not financially, but in terms of me and what I was able to create.


January the 1st was 196 days ago.

I know this because for every one of those 196 days I've written for at least an hour. If the day was spent writing on Radio Times or Doctor Who, for example, I still wrote something else for an hour afterwards.

That's all. Not a big deal, not really worth shouting about, but...

Because of this unbroken pattern, since the start of the year I have - wait, I haven't worked this out yet and it may depress me; grief, I hope it's a lot of work... okay... well... it's not bad. Since 1 January I've written a four-part Doctor Who audio (recorded the other week, due out some time next year), half a new stage play that I abandoned on account of it being rubbish, a half-hour film, a one-hour film, a 15-minute sitcom, a one-hour telly spec. I also wrote 90,000 words of a novel but threw away 40,000 before sending it to Paul the Agent Guy.

Plus I'm only about 2,000 words into my book but I'm running the research for it in a rinkydinky FileMaker Pro database of mine and currently I figure I must've written about 10,000 of the words in that. I suppose I also wrote and shot a couple of How To videos for friends - I'm easier to bear when you can pause or fastwind me - and probably made about eight or ten pitches to people.

I can't work out how many pages or words I've revised on top of this but I know, for instance, that I began the year with a substantial rewrite of a stage play which is now with a producer who's raising cash to stage it. At a rough guess, I've at least revised 300 pages of my own scripts. And if you tell me that I've read fewer than 2,000 pages of other people's scripts, I'll believe you but want to see your working out.

I don't know.

Doesn't matter, really. A lot or a little, worthwhile or rubbish, all that's important is that it is geometrically more than I wrote last year or the year before. And more of it is out there getting produced or commissioned than before, too.

If I decide that this is a lot of writing, then it sounds like I'm saying quantity is key.

I think I'm saying quantity is key.

Since I cannot dare speak to the quality, I can at least look at how there's that abandoned stage play, for instance: last year I might've had the idea but not got around to it. Now I've tried it, I know it doesn't work, it's gone.

And this one-hour-per-day minimum is brilliant and exciting and satisfying when you're in the middle of a script and you know you can't wait for the next unbroken hour on that project. It's still pretty brilliant when you know what bit you have to do in that hour and you're afraid of it. It's hard when it's already 1am and you have't started.

But it's only actually awful when you're between projects and have not the faintest idea what to do but you won't cheat.

I call those Forced Hours. An hour where at the start you have zero in your head but you're going to bloody well sit there and work until you've got something. I've had about four of these in the 196 days so far and each time I've ended up with a new idea. Last year I had the problem that I never got around to ideas, now I'm trying to get through them quickly so that I can get to the next ones I've now got waiting. I have a queue. Can't believe it. A queue.

I can cope with this level of organisation. There's a line in Carl Sagan's Contact that Angela and I often quote to one another: "Small moves, Ellie". Doing a little bit often appears to work for me and I'm okay with that. I can feel a drama precedent in it, so long as I don't examine it too closely. So long as I don't, for instance, blog about it.

Anyway, there's a problem. By May I was aware that I hadn't yet skipped a day and it didn't look like I was going to. So I added to it. Can't tell you what, but as well as this hour writing I added a mandatory daily half-hour on this other thing. Then in June I was commissioned to write a book and it was one that would take a lot of research work, so I added again: half an hour every day on the book too.

These two half hours are not enough for their particular jobs but guaranteeing to do them means I start them and almost always burst the measure, spend longer than the thirty minutes. Same with the hour's writing.

But setting a limit and being able to see that it is working over time, it means there have been five nights this year when I honestly felt I was done for the evening and could relax.

That was horrible.

So that's a problem I haven't solved yet.

Also, I used to live in my Todo list, constantly chewing over deadlines and pitches, yet I'd only glance at my calendar when my days at Radio Times changed around. Now for some reason the work I'm doing takes a lot longer and means me blocking out times to do this, periods to be here, days I must be elsewhere. I spend ages dragging appointment blocks around my week's calendar like I'm playing Slow Tetris.

Suddenly I'm really good at estimating how long a job will take. I can tell you what time I'll finish today. I can clear a hole in the week and know by when I'll have made up that time or that work.

Except the hour per day. That's inviolate. Sacrosanct.

And of course I recommend it or I wouldn't be bending your ear about this madness. Only, if you do this, if you do find that it works for you, promise me you won't start your day's two hours at 1am. I have fallen asleep while writing my hour that late at night; you look again in the morning and your very nightmares are on the page. You've written whole scenes, huge arguments, between characters you've never heard of about topics you don't understand. It's borderline psychotic and if it's funny sometimes, there are other moments when it is profoundly, frighteningly disturbing.

So, you know, there are some wrinkles in this plan.

But I'll work them out.

Probably an hour at a time.