Writing Big Year: How I cope with seemingly never-ending disappointment . . .

I don’t. Cope, that is. Writing novels used to be easier: miss a self-imposed deadline and I was a couple of months late. But this leviathan of a book seems to never reward but always to crush.

It’s all my fault, of course, as anyone except I could see from the start. I spent far too long gathering far too much material on an expansive topic. I made no attempt to winnow – my mantra was “I’m keeping an open mind.” I drowned myself and now writing is a brain-shredding exercise in slash and burn.

The upshot is that whenever I’ve planned, any realistic plan stretched out to infinity, so my actual announced “plans” have always been dreamy aspirations that quickly soured. Disappointment after disappointment after despondency after dejection . . . you get the picture.

I don’t often chat about this because responses tend to be unhelpful. The reaction I hate most goes like this: “Ah, but you’re keeping yourself busy, it’s clearly a labour of love, thank goodness something interests you, so many retirees get bored.” Find me a steep cliff, I think (but don’t open my mouth).

Luckily, this Writing Big Year spurred me to find mental models and working methods that have sped things up. On a wing and a prayer, my 2017 Writing Big Year (it’s actually 15 months) bestows on me a “plan” that is, I reckon, a real plan.

2017 Writing Big Year: To bed early, old man . . .

I wrote yesterday about the lynchpin of my upcoming Big Year: springing out of bed before the dawn.

In my 20s, 30 and even 40s, living the corporate life, I could party and still get up in the pitch black for a jog. For no good reason that I can fathom, I can’t readily do that any more. Friends will say this is inevitable biophysical decay (“getting older, dude”) but I don’t believe that. It’s also the rage right now to cite research encouraging longer sleep – the hip idea is that brain processing is suboptimal otherwise – but again, the research base for that notion is pretty slim. No, older people doze on because they’ve trained themselves to be lazy.

In any case, I’m struggling with early starts and in 2017 won’t accept that. So . . . another key obsession for the 2017 Writing Big Year is to protect tomorrow’s dawn by not fucking up tonight. Make it simple, Andres – go to bed early, say no to midnight parties, cut out the over drinking . . . in other words, act old to be bold!

Going to sleep early in a peaceful state of mind is rather selfish, I know. It goes against the cultural habit of nighttime “relaxation,” which I genuinely enjoy. So 2017 will be tough – who knows if I can be rudely self-centered enough to put tomorrow’s solo pre-dawn efforts ahead of my family and friends. Who knows indeed?

2017 Writing Big Year: See the dawn every day . . .

The upcoming fifteen months (I call it a long calendar year) is my make-or-break effort to draft 20 chapters, to conquer the chaos of too much research.

That’s the end goal but I’m centering this Big Year around one precept: every day, wake up early. Rise and get working before dawn’s first rays.

Plenty of writers swear by getting their wordsmithing done first thing in the day. Of course night owl scribes exist as well, but mornings have always been best for me, so I tend to rise as early as possible and focus effort on the AM hours. The trouble is, I don’t do it regularly enough. Late morning starts intrude every few days and they wreck me: dissipate energetic focus, bring on stress, result in conflicts with life’s demands, etc., etc., etc.

No and no – let’s do this right, Andres, just get up early each and every day. No exceptions, no excuses.

I appreciate this comes across as a lame notion for a one-year obsession. Trivial, right? Certainly easier than training for a marathon or “getting fitter” or learning French? Not so, I can tell you. I’m practising for 2017 right now and eliminating the sleep-in is tough and unforgiving.

Next year fills me with fear. Fear is good, right?

Writing Big Year: Once more recalibrate

This Big Year has floundered before and flounders yet again. It’s no great success, that’s for sure. But I’m moving on the book and faster than ever, and still aimed to hammer out a draft (20 chapters) over this Big Year and the 2017 Writing Big Year. We’re not travelling overseas next year and that will help immeasurably. Targets: 5 chapters by the end of this year; Volume 1 (Chapter 8) by March; Volume 2 (Chapter 12) by the middle of 2017; and the end, Volume 3, by December 31, 2017. Wish me luck!

What Smarter Faster Better suggests for me

The other day I tried to summarise what I reckon Smarter Faster Better is about. What should I do? I hereby exhort myself to work on five of his eight points:

  • My “morning cave” idea – rising early and working, nothing else, until noon – has added much to my efforts. It fits nicely into Duhigg’s Motivation chapter, giving me control in a meaningful context. Don’t ever stop!
  • Each morning, tell stories about the day, before, during and after, a la Duhigg’s Focus chapter
  • Follow his Goal Setting chapter and religiously use a To-Do list that goes big and small
  • Ramp up the fever! Get emotional, be as desperate as I should be to finish the book, switch tack to edit from another angle. This is the kind of approach Duhigg says, in his Innovation chapter, works for highly creative groups
  • Be bolder in turning my over-voluminous research data into useful book knowledge, using my pen, plot points and index cards.

Of course just writing such earnest thoughts down won’t guarantee they happen, but I’m enthusiastic.

What Charles Duhigg’s book is about

Duhigg writes so sweetly, so clearly and with fine narrative control. Smarter Faster Better could be summarised in many ways but let me muck around a bit and rephrase it in gonzo terms.
First, you can see where he’s going with his eight chapter headings: Motivation. Teams. Focus. Goal Setting. Managing Others. Decision Making. Innovation. Absorbing Data.
How do I sum up these eight in my terms (I guess I’m modifying Duhigg’s points somewhat by restating them, so if you want a Cliffnotes summary, get one or read the book)?

  1. Boost motivation by taking control and invest everything with meaning
  2. Lead teams by establishing safety
  3. Tell yourself stories to boost focus
  4. Fill To-Do lists with both “stretch” goals and small measurable actions
  5. Manage others by trusting them
  6. Explore probabilities all the time
  7. Create by getting inside yourself, ramping up desperation, and critiquing from a wildly different perspective
  8. Change data into knowledge by writing it out yourself

There is something rather captivating about all this but what does it mean for me? I’ll reflect.

Writing Big Year: Can Duhigg help?

Charles Duhigg is a splendid writer of stories that impart “how to” advice. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive has just come out. For two reasons, these days I’m inclined to gloss over such books: there is an aspect of the journalistic style that can encourage a suspicion of slickness; and I’ve come to a middle-aged person’s aversion to general “do this and that” advice, preferring to trust my own evolving process (hey, call it a big year).

But this once I’ll look for clues on how to get to the end of Chapter 20 by the end of next year. in reality, I need to synthesise smarter, work faster, and somehow write “better.” His book is apt. So I’ll jot down the takeaways from each chapter as pithily and provocatively as possible, and ask at the end what might help.

When failure morphs into deferment, do we cry?

Am I disappointed that my core goal for 2016, to complete a draft manuscript, has turned to ashes? Am I disappointed that what I said would take one year will take two?

Of course I’m stricken. Or rather, I was stricken. But aiming high and failing can bring rewards. I aimed for something I can’t deliver. But now I see what I can aspire to deliver. If shipping the book takes two years, not one, but I’m at last confident, deep down, of getting there, then I can sigh with relief, pick up pen, and get to it.

A Big Year is reborn . . . and twins!

There’s nothing like butcher’s paper for making sense of bafflement. Dates, chapters, commitments, family . . . mix them and see. The second half of 2016 has only 11 clear weeks for writing. The original goal – finish Reactor – is impossible. 2017 can focus more on Big Year writing: I’ll stay put for 43 weeks. Then I can aim to spend 3-4 weeks on drafting each of Chapters 5 to 20, plus finish Chapter 2 to 4 in the next 5 weeks.

All of which translates to two new Writing Big Years:

  • 2016 Writing Big Year: draft Chapters 1 to 8, covering 1942 to 1969. Let me call this Volume I: The Years of Promise.
  • 2017 Writing Big Year: draft Chapters 9 to 20 and be done. Let me call this two volumes, one for each half of the year: Volume II: The Years of Doom (1970 to 1985) and Volume III: The Schism Years (1986 to now).

Why break the book up into three volumes? To sharpen focus: finish something! Also, I might even move to publish the book in parts.

(Please note: all the above names, of the book and of the “volumes” are just working titles, I’m sure the eventual titles will be completely different.)