A paean to routine

In one of the great injustices of the world, my big brother is, I think, funnier than me. If you had asked me why that was the case, I would have uttered some vagaries concerning timing, the tone used, material, and so on. But in my head, these weren’t the reason. It was simply the way the world was. Some people were born funnier than others.

I no longer believe this to be the case (this is the way the world is, I mean. My brother, alas, probably remains funnier than I). I now believe anything can be taught. Charisma, humour, selflessness, creativity, all things that one point or another I think were inherent to the personality. They can all be learned.

As an example, to continue on the funny theme, after going to a few classes led by a fantastic person and friend of mine, S-G, I did a short stand-up show (10 mins), and it went quite well, I think. No rotten tomatoes were produced in any case.

But behind those few lessons, there was a lot of preparation. I produced enough material probably for one hour, and then went through it, ordering it, making it flow, creating a setup, a punchline, all to the best of my ability. I also practised, over and over, on my own, in front of a mirror. And regardless of whether it was good or not, it got better. From where it started, to where it ended, that little routine became better. And the enormity of that claim is that practice makes you funnier.

This is a long way round to the well-observed conclusion that there’s no substitute for hard work. And the less accepted conclusion that if you work hard, you can improve in pretty much anything. But this blog is about routine, because one thing I’ve been realising is that hard work is far more productive when there is a routine to it.

I wrote two books between about August 2017 and May 2018, two full length novels. About 180’000 words in total. The first one was so terrible it had to be entirely re-written, resulting in the second one. But they are so completely different that I count them as two separate books.

That’s a lot of words to get down on a page, particularly counting for re-writing (and there was a lot of that, even on the first book before I scrapped the whole thing and started from scratch). It was hard work.

How to write so many words? Routine. Routine is basically the recipe for creating something, channelling hard work in the most effective way possible.

I found myself settling into a routine, more by accident than design, in the last place I lived. My work timetable, working in the afternoon and evening, allowed me to get up in the morning and write for two or three hours. I also didn’t have to do that much at home, beyond preparation (and far less of that than a teacher teaching a normal subject).

Routine, I’ve since read, is a sort of Holy Grail of a writer. Writing books urge you to set aside a period of time every day to write. The mantra is that the quality of the words doesn’t matter, not yet. Just get into the routine. Productivity is measured in terms of words written rather than time spent, to ensure that the burgeoning writer cannot spend three hours staring at an empty screen.

And the routine of writing, just writing, certainly lets you put a lot of words down on the page. To write books continuously, and produce a couple a year, there’s probably no other way of doing it. I’m unaware of authors who can sit down for two weeks with an idea and write a book, working all hours of the day with a kind of mad scientist look about them, then completely lose for half a year whatever force they had that carried them through the entire writing and redrafting of a novel, before getting it again.

This may well be something obvious to others. It seems obvious now. After all, normal working lives are set up so as to be roughly the same hours, in the same place, with the same people, doing similar tasks, over and over again. There’s routine for you.

But surely in the arts, I hear you cry, creativity have a role in all of this? The artistic muse? Isn’t that meant to be the not-so-secret secret behind all great works?

Creativity plays its part, naturally. But I’ll address that another time (lessons learned, part 3). What I will say is that you can be the most creative person in the world, but if you don’t do the hard work (and, normally, channel it through some kind of routine, it doesn’t particularly matter).

As to the nuts and bolts of my routine, if you’re interested, well, in essence it is to spend 3 hours a day writing. It varies in schedule each day because my other routine (real life, and all that) varies each day, but for at least three hours a day I lock myself away, into the same space, with the same food and water, and try to write. Morning, afternoon or night, it doesn’t matter.

If I’m actually writing, that is in the process of putting words to paper, then I measure it in terms of words written. I aim for at least a thousand a day. But if I’m in another part of the equation, like now for example – I’m currently trying to plan out book 3 of the Dakar and Scott series using index cards (I’ll let you know how it goes) – then I measure in terms of hours.

And if I’m in the horrors of redrafting, then it is by pages done that I measure it. This can be both heartening and disheartening. Come across a plot point that needs changing and you crawl through the pages. But come across a sub-plot where all is fine and you speed through.

Another lesson learned for me. I knew the one about hard work being key to learning. I’ve more recently accepted the belief that we can learn anything if we commit ourselves to it. And now I’m realising that hard work goes a hell of a lot further when you put it into a routine.

Best

E

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