Think Before You Click
by Alex KeeganIt's early, five in the morning. You can't sleep. You roll out of bed, go downstairs to your office, your computer. You switch on. You are a writer! Just think, the next two hours before the family gets up are personal island time, dream time, wonderful, productive.
Or are they?
When I was writing the second to fourth Caz Flood novels, I could get up, switch on my PC, sit down, read the last page of yesterday's work then start. Five hours later 2,000-2,500 words were written, edited, printed. I would break to cook a baked potato while I watched the one o'clock news, then settle down to drink a large glass of red wine, eat the spud and watch a soap. At two o'clock I went back to work, answered mail, made telephone calls, re-read my work, and then (maybe) I would log on to the internet.
The writer's life, is for the most part, a lonely, isolated one. But we all need stimulation, social contact, the rise and fall of conversation, good argument. Did we live before the mobile phone? How did we exist before there were internet chat-rooms? And before television, before radio, were we walking around like zombies?
When I attend Writers Conferences (those places you go to avoid actually writing), as well as giving lectures and running workshops, I am often asked to run my favorite hour of mayhem called "Wear Something Pink!" This hour is about writing, about doing it, about forgetting the excuses and just getting in front of that keyboard and committing the foul and heinous crime of creating fresh words.
One feature of the talk is "What have you written today?" For most (after all, they say, they are away from home at a Writers Conference) the answer is zip. They have not written. They have written nothing. Their life word-count is the same as it was at sunrise, the same as at breakfast. Not growing. OK, I ask, everyone write down today's date and their total word-count for the day. Done? Good! Now underneath write yesterday's, and underneath that, write what you wrote the day before, and then the day before that, and the day before that. Go back until you have a total of ten days logged. And you dear reader, dear procrastinator, dear read-rather-than-writer, you do it. Do it now. Do it now! Do not read on. Be truthful, be honest, be wicked and cruel, Go naked. Tell the truth.
You didn't read on. Tell me you didn't read on.
Now add your total. If you are telling me (screaming at the computer screen) that you don't know what you wrote yesterday, a week ago, ten days ago, I will respond "Why not?" "You call yourself a writer, don't you? Writer's write. They work hard. They write virtually every day. They have targets, 500, 600 words as a minimum, 1,000 words a day, more. Did you write each day? Did you write every day? Did you write all the days and think every night, and did you look at the world morning noon and night through a writer's eyes? What is your total? What is your best estimate?"
Well, dear reader, do you know what the total is, averaged over a dozen of these group examinations? Do you know the feeble word-counts discovered, the dizzy number of empty pages filled?
We are talking beginning writers and intermediate writers, but writers committed enough to pay good money and travel to attend a conference. Do you think the total was 1,000 words a day? Too high? 800 a day? No. 500? No. Friend, the total was, for ten days, work 1,370 words, an average of just 137 words a day, and this, be reminded is where the answers may be more generous than truthful, and from "committed writers."
There is no substitute for hard work, for consistent production, for a steady output. Without a lottery ticket you cannot win. But there is more to steady production than merely producing words. A famous author was once asked, "How do I know if I'm a writer?" and his reply was, "If the first thing you do on waking is worry about when and where you can fit your writing in today, then you are a writer." I would add that if you get annoyed when life gets in the way of writing, if a holiday fills you with dread and you try to smuggle a lap-top into the luggage, then you are a writer. But writing each day, every day, all the days, does more than produce words. It changes you. You become someone who writes every day, a writer. You begin to define yourself as a writer. You begin to think as a writer, see as a writer, feel as a writer, so much that no matter how traumatic the events going on around you, you find yourself guiltily logging incidents, listening for snatches of dialogue, examining feelings and trying to sense the essence of every disaster. The world becomes material. The love of your life is walking out the door -- you are shattered but you capture the moment, see the way the sunlight shines round her silhouette as the door opens, (and did you hear it?) see how you blinked, as you saw that halo, as you. So what has all this to do with think before you click? The clicks when I was at my most productive were the kettle, the PC, the printer, the office light because it was still dark outside. I was so disciplined that I would switch on my computer -- CLICK! -- first, and walk through to the kitchen to turn on the kettle or set up the coffee-percolator while the computer was warming up. Well, why waste a whole minute?
I would prepare the cups, perhaps a breakfast snack, but would then return to the computer without a drink, without a bowl of cereal. They were to be my rewards for finishing my first page, a page which often caught fire and became three. By the time I eventually downed a mug of tea or had my nice cup of coffee I had often reached 1,000 words and the house was still deathly quiet. I was a writer. I had done my writing duty for the day. And then I discovered the internet.
Stand up. Be brave. Everyone here is like you. We understand.
Hi, my name is Alex Keegan. I'm a surfaholic. Hi Alex. Cough. First it was just an email, only a small one, then I replied to two emails -- (someone nods, he's been there). But it was OK, I could handle it. Then I went into an internet coffee-shop (I though I was in control). Oh it was wonderful at first. There was so much to do, so much stimulation. Oh sure there were some rows, but some people are a bit headstrong after a few surfs.
Recently, in Boot Camp I noticed a fall-off in the number and length of stories being submitted for criticism. I thought, too that some criticisms were sketchier than I remembered. I was ready to start banging the big nasty Keegan drum until I realized that my recent output was pathetic, and worse, my average monthly write had dropped below an acceptable minimum.
But this couldn't be. I lived writing, I breathed writing, and wasn't I on the internet every day discussing craft, whipping the Boot Campers into shape, critiquing stories, collating results? Didn't I answer questions at Xxxx and discuss issues at Yyyy? Heck, everybody knew me, didn't they?
All was fine, except somewhere I had taken my eye of the ball and instead of writing I was talking about writing, and instead of wrestling with my inner demons I was debating the demonic with strangers, most of whom were no more than funny nicknames allegedly living in Alaska.
So, on September 6th 2003 I told Boot Camp (really I was telling myself) that I would not be logging on to the internet (AT ALL) nor downloading emails (AT ALL) until I had written a solid early-morning stint, a set target of 500 words "before log on". Sixteen Boot Campers joined me, and for at least fifteen of them it was tough. Did I wake up every morning and just rattle out the words? No, I found it very difficult. I desperately wanted to log on to the internet, to go to ezboards, bring up Boot Camp Keegan and read the overnight posts, I was addicted, no question. I still am. I had formed a habit, a bad one, which had replaced a previous habit (a good one). Still, now, seventeen days later, I want to wake, up, log on, play an MP3 and read the boards. I want to drift through my emails, listen to some TV news, take a slow breakfast. But I don't. I am a writer.
So what of the other Boot Campers? Two are editors and both admitted that in the previous seventeen days they had effectively produced nothing. In this seventeen days, so far they have accumulated 15,105 words. The group, seventeen serious, keen writers, (but the majority beginners or intermediate writers, and many with day jobs or children to care for) in that same seventeen days has managed 170, 809 words, at a rough guess about three times what they produced in the previous seventeen days.
That's about ten thousand words each, almost twenty thousand words a month, a novel or a collection of short stories finished in four months. That's writing what we should have been doing anyway, but somewhere, somehow, talking about it became more interesting than actually doing it.
No doubt the group (who wants to be the first to fail?) has some effect but each and every one of us -- you are reading this aren't you? -- should ask the question, "Has the world around my writing, reading how-to articles, surfing the web for forums and chatting about books, taken over? Have I lost the core principles I based my being on, which is to write each and every day, as early as I can, as much as I can, as passionately as I can? Have I earned the right to say, "I am a writer? Have I earned the right to enter those chat rooms having done my target for the day?"
The experiment continues, but the feedback is changing. No-one is finding it easy but after two weeks we are starting to see sudden surges in output. An individual has to fight her monsters to force out 400, 450, 500 words a day but then suddenly out pops a 2500 word story (or this 1,800 word article) and all this well before lunch. Inside us all there was a little animated writing machine. All that was wrong was we let it go to sleep.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.