The last seven days have been a flurry of pretty good work across so many different projects. But right now I’m drafting part of Chapter 7 and my prose seems limp. Limp as wilted broccolini. Well, I’ve been reading the inimitable Steven Pressfield (check out his “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It“), more specifically a series of short booklets he calls JABs, and in one of them, he exhorts us writers to write as if we are indeed J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Barak Obama. Well, in my case, one of the gold standards is Robert A. Caro, historian extraordinaire (and author of the LBJ bio-in-progress, four volumes so far).
So I give myself a good talking to: “Write as if I’m Robert Caro!”
It seems to work. Not so limp anymore.
This morning I rose on time and dashed outside with iPhone to photograph blackness, the dark of the night, just to prove to myself that I’d virtuously hauled myself out of sleep before the laziness of first light. Well, many attempts taught me a fundamental lesson: smartphones don’t photograph the dark. So the image for today is a stock one, called, wonderfully, “close-up view of empty black grunge background.”
Anyway, the other lesson I learnt today is that talking to myself, as in “posting” in this core adventuring blog, is good in itself. The morning held a couple of diversions but I worked well at plotting Reactor over 1959. A scare with a twinging hamstring shocked me but the first part of the afternoon had me back in paradise, Finders Keepers, engrossed in nuclear comings and goings. I wrote a couple of reviews. I composed a couple of Nuclear Power History blog posts, of a more reflective nature than is usual, and that step in itself made my heart swell with pride. I even had time to take inspiration from sage advice from Steven Pressfield, which I’ll share when I’ve had time to absorb. By the time I close up shop at 5 PM, I’ll have 7½ hours, much of it real meat.
A fine day. (And how beneficial it feels to announce just that!)
It’s a bad sign if I can see the dawn upon rising. It means I’ve slept in. Sometimes that seems the only way to go, especially when I have a cold, but if I can get back to rising in the dark, the hours flow again. The last four weeks have been a mix of steady, successful routine, and interrupted chaos. I’ve been able to stick to six and a half hours each day, with over four hours being “proper-like” drafting work, so I’m happy.
Steven Pressfield writes terrific fiction but is perhaps more famous, at least among creatives, for his works on how to write and make and dream. In a recent blog post that is grandiosely (and wonderfully, in my view) titled “The Gods Rule by Acclaim,” Pressfield concludes with these four magnificent exhortations, which I set out here with my self-feedback about my decades-plus book on reactors:
Start before you’re ready (I did)
Write what you don’t know (I did and continue to do so)
Pick the idea that’s the craziest (Certainly, after more than a decade of work, I can admit that’s true)
Write the book you can’t write (Ha! I cannot, I cannot!)
I take courage from Pressfield’s foolish advice. WRITE IT I SHALL!!
2019 started early, in December last year, so I’ve just completed six months. Did I knuckle down to 6½ hours of writing work a day, as the Author Big Year bound me to? Not quite – I’m averaging 6 hours a day. I’m satisfied enough.
Of the hours at desk, did I stick to 4½ a day on proper drafting rather than research, book production or marketing? No – 3 hours/day is all I could manage. This aspect I’m not satisfied with.
I shall double down on “proper” work from tomorrow.
Would you ever countenance reading a whole book just to absorb a certain way of writing? Normally it would never occur to me but “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer, a New Yorker writer I admire, was described as stylistically bold and I grew intrigued. Holbrooke, an “almost famous” apparatchik and diplomat, was known to me but only peripherally. He was instrumental in ensuring that the post-Soviet-Union non-Russia countries with nuclear arms got rid of them, and I’d read about him, but the nuclear arms race is not on-topic. In the end I gambled and bought.
Well, after an introductory chapter that reads like Packer is chatting to me over the phone, something that’s unusual enough and takes a lot of skill, here is his introductory sentence to the first real bio chapter, the one about Holbrooke’s “early years”:
Do you mind if we hurry through the early years? There are no mysteries here that can be unlocked by nursery school. Why Holbrooke was Holbrooke is not even the question to which we need an answer. I wonder if there’s an answer for anyone, least of all him. You really need to know just one thing, and it has to do with Holbrooke’s father.
Can you credit the author’s chutzpah? You’re writing a bio and you tell the reader you’ll skip the early bits? Needless to say, I’m delighted and can’t wait to read the rest.
A brief locale shift to Darwin could be a holiday but isn’t at all. Instead it’s much better (or will be, if I can continue to accept the generosity of others letting me be a preoccupied antisocial geek). In Melbourne a day ago, I was still mired deep in the early to mid 50s, with plenty of drafting to go, but coming up here, I’ve decided against bringing all the stuff and angst involved with that era, and instead shall just scope out the final three years of the decade (actually 1958 to 1960). I don’t need much check-in luggage to cart up my accumulated notes on those three years, already marked up with my thoughts and observations. Now I’ll work through those marked-up notes, trying to find “the story” they tell and paving the way for an intelligent plot framework. I kind of have a rough idea of what I want to relate about during this seminal period as the world moves into the turbulent 60s, but past experience tells me those vague initial thoughts might flex and transform. In any case, it’s hard to convey my excitement as I begin work at the comfy, atmospheric Laneway Cafe.
Now that the two crime fiction books are on the Amazon shelves, I can stop obsessing about them. I can work on the nuclear tome. The last twenty-five May days have been wonderfully steady, days in a routine, days not travelling, days doing not much except the work towards the future. I’ve averaged seven hours a day, not quite the targeted eight, but I can’t be cross with myself. Within those seven hours, not enough have involved drafting new words, but that’s improving right now. The last few days, such glorious late autumn Melbourne days, have been magnificent days of wordsmithing.
Life never stays still. Mine swirls. I have my second book coming out next Thursday, I’m obsessively losing weight (more on that another time) after dropping the ball for three quarters of a year, grandparenting is more time intensive than I’d forecast, etc., etc.
But over the last ten days, I’ve kept at it, clocking up 6 hours/day on average, only slightly down from the target 6 ½, although I should be closer to 7 hours/day because this period has been mostly uninterrupted. I’d like to have spent an hour per day more on drafting than I have, but I’m not unhappy.
That said, the next three weeks are crucial. Quiet, steady work, prioritised optimally, that’s the aim.
I first came across COPACETIC in one of James Lee Burke’s florid, brilliantly written Robicheaux series. The hero’s sidekick, out-of-control Clete Purcel, uttered the words in casual conversation and I had to scramble to my dictionary. The word means “very good or going very well” and it’s a dialogue word, not an in-text word.
It turned out James Lee Burke would trot out this word too often for my liking and in recent years I’ve dropped his books. But Nadia, the hero of the brilliant “Russian Doll” Netflix series (I’ve reviewed Episode 1, with the other episodes’ reviews out soon), uses the word, much to my pleasure. But here’s the amazing thing. Nadia’s utterance was the first time I ever heard “copacetic” spoken. I’d assumed it’s pronounced “coppa-ketic,” which has a nice ring to it. No, not at all! Nadia pronounces it “coppa-setic.”
Isn’t language wonderful?