It’s not true that yesterday, the 194th in 2016, was the actual first Big Year day . . . but in one sense it is. Among the 194 days there have been many good and effective working days legitimately judged “successful,” and there were pivotal periods, back in February and April particularly, that redeemed the very big year concept. But I’ve struggled all year to find a way of expressing and measuring what a “writing big year” looks like.
Initially “big year” meant “finish the millstone book,” broken up into week-by-week targets, but if some days got a tick, many didn’t, and not always because I was dumb or slack. It’s demotivating to push at a daily goal that is not precise enough. Jogging 4 times a week, 10 kms each outing, is so easily measurable that it it creates its own momentum. “Complete Chapter 4 by Week 3” is measurable, true, but what if that quickly seems unachievable, what do you do? What do you do? What do you do?
I’ve found a solution. I still have week-on-week, indeed day-on-day completion targets but the brunt of the challenge focuses equally on “how to work.” Put simply, every day for the rest of this year (when in town), I give myself a tick if I do four things:
- Rise early, on time. No ifs or buts.
- Don’t touch the world: no email, Internet, newspapers, phone calls, chores, meetings, shopping . . . nada. In my cave I am.
- Set big but hopefully achievable tasks and pour energy at them.
- At noon I down pen and turn off computer.
Most days target additional afternoon and even night work but if these times get swamped by real life, it’s the morning that counts. If I fail to complete the set tasks, I recalibrate; as long as I’ve worked flat out, the tick remains. The rest of the world, even the Jogging Big Year, must be jammed into the PM portion of each day.
Day One worked and worked beautifully. Peace. Let’s repeat today, okay?
First things first . . . I’ve nearly drafted my entire Chapter 2, but that word “nearly” means “not nearly at all.” To tame the unruly slag heap of research material, I’ve taken to scripting plot points that move around a bit in time (we’re in the late 40s and early 50s). Scripting software is available – Scrivener is one fine choice – but feels too much tailored for fiction not nonfiction, so I’ve resorted to pen and scraps of paper. I now have all but four of my plot points drafted but what I’ve got is marred by jarring continuity and mistaken duplications. Some of it flows and works, but some is a mess.
So I’m slowing down again and writing out plot points on old-fashioned cardboard index cards. Shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle. Primitive, eh?
It’s just after mid year (EOFY I would have labeled it in a former life) and one Big Year – that of the jogging obsession – is, I reckon, swimming with head above water.
But the other, far more crucial Big Year – the writing one – has hit an underwater shoal. In truth, it was a flawed, if deliberately over-ambitious aspiration for 2016. Imagine the fear in confronting the primary work target for one’s year! I’ve taken the overwhelming step of turning one Big Year into two Big Years. Now to ensuring delivery . . .
I only have three weeks until an extended hiking trip, so reassessment is vital. If I knew how to shift existential purpose with a casual pen, well, I would. But it’s difficult. And so it should be. The work begins . . .
There are so many ways to organize a day, especially if you’re willing to rise before everyone else. Distractions abound. I decided to try a different way of structuring time. As soon as I’m up in the morning, I will write uninterrupted until noon. I call this the AM Brick Wall, a barrier cutting everything else off. No newspaper, no email, no Facebook, no SMS. Let’s see how this idea fares.
Ten years. First half year. Two big years halfway through. Progress?
Jogging Big Year: big thumbs up.
Writing Big Year: big thumbs down
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.
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.)
As with any management or motivational tool, how we plan and monitor a Big Year is all-important. One of the major issues confronting me at the start of the writing big year was that I’d gathered, and was continuing to assemble, too much research information. Every attempt to write something engaging had gone nowhere. I needed a new mindset, so I boldly said: no more research, use your brain to cut through the thickets of information, and just write the damned book. Enter the 2016 Big Year: by December 31, through reckless courage and bold thinking, write a draft of all 20 chapters.
Of course I knew that would be tough, if only because prior arrangements, some clean-up work in January, and overseas visitors, etc., meant that 2016 at-desk time will only amount to just over six months. I worked out that all I had to draft each chapter was a week and a half. So be it, I yelled, and got cracking.
At the Big Year halfway mark, Chapter 1 is drafted and Chapters 2-4 are “nearly there.” I’ve spent some three weeks on Chapters 3 and 4, and eight weeks (yes, eight, not one and a half) on Chapter 2. A disaster.
But much good came from this half-year push. I now have a “plotting process” that winnows the piles of research and provides a blueprint for drafting. The analyse-then-plot-then-draft process grows clearer and quicker each time. For the first time in years, I can see the end of it all.
But how to rescue the Big Year? Or should it be abandoned? I grab some butcher’s paper and “think tank.”
In the corporate world, fierce action and short deadlines are the go. Or at least that’s how I recall that world. I don’t find writing so straightforward. When I wrote murder mysteries, I managed to pump out a manuscript each year, but this nonfiction book has turned out to be an epic of slowness. Even now, under internal (and external, hi friends and family) pressure, on some days I need to slow right down, to take small, deliberate steps, in order to speed up delivery of draft material. Today is such a day.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of calmness that descends upon me when I finally set aside the website-type development work and begin again on my chapters. The whole point of a “big year” is to give daily time and focus to what you’ve judged as most important (at least for this one year) and when you’re not attending to your big year, it feels like existential anxiety.