Changing Habits

I am a creature of habit. I like to do the same things in the same ways. I don’t think habits are of necessity bad things. They can be either good or bad, depending on the habit and the circumstances. The habit of smoking 60 cigarettes a day I once had was undoubtedly a bad one. The habit of writing 2000 words a day has done my life and my career no harm at all as far as I can tell and it has provided a number of positive benefits.

Scientists think we have habits for a reason. They save having to make complex decisions for parts of our life where it is easier to automate things. I am in the habit of going to Mama’s Coffee House in Prague most days to get my daily (now decaff) Americano. For health reasons I had to give up the  caffeine. The habit of going to the place where I like to work and where I am now writing this remains. The habit of going here means I don’t have to go through a long involved process of decision making every time I go out the door looking for a place to sit down with my laptop and get some writing done. I already know the way. I already know I like the people. I already know its an environment in which I can work. I can employ my limited brainpower thinking about something else as I walk there, such as what I am going to blog about today.

As I mentioned in an earlier post I decided to tinker with my work habits this year in the hope of making myself marginally more productive. I am at the end of the first week and I am noticing some consequences of this. I decided to try and write 2000 words per day come what may, rather than my usual workflow of writing them until I have completed my first draft and then revising and completing what I have written. This has caused me some discomfort this week, which let’s be honest, is exactly what you would expect when you try and change your habits.

For one thing, I have found myself working on four projects at once. I have been revising one and writing two different works of fiction while preparing for a third. Normally I would be doing only two of these things. Editing the project that needs to be and letting some small part of my brain simmer on a potential future project.

The commitment to write 2000 words of new fiction every work day has prodded me into writing stuff I would not normally write. It feels a little strange because some days I have no idea what I am going to write when I sit down to do those two thousand words. I did not have any plan when I made the resolution and I am living with the consequences. Right now I am editing Sky Pirates, writing sections of Stealer of Flesh, a Kormak story, and The Distressed Lady, a novel about my Victorian detective Jack Brodie. I am reading the Dark Eldar sourcebook and making notes for the second Macharius novel as well.

The writing has been fun. Normally I plan everything in advance but the daily commitment has forced me to sit down some days and invent even though I have no idea where I am going. A lot of the stuff has amused me and I think its good although I may end up dumping it in the long run because it just does not fit. I am still learning as I go though.

This method actually works with the Brodie books. Detective stories are the only sort of fiction I would dream of sitting down and writing without some sort of plan. There is a method in my madness here. In a detective story the structure is actually implicit in the form. I don’t really need much of a plan because the outline of a detective story is pretty much always the same. A crime has been committed and it needs to be solved by the end of the book. This will come about by having the detective wander around interviewing suspects, overcoming obstacles and most likely, by having a man come through the door with a gun at some stage. To write a detective story, I just need a crime, a bunch of suspects and a detective. In some ways there is an advantage in not knowing too much because it puts me in the same position as the narrator as he uncovers new clues and encounters new people.

As fate would have it, for The Distressed Lady, I already have a detective, Jack Brodie, ex-Bow Street Runner. I have a setting, Victorian London in 1841. I just needed the crime and the suspects and I was good to go. In the case of this book, the story may turn out to have something to do with the double meaning in the title. (In the Victorian period being distressed did not just mean you were upset. It meant you were undergoing a legal process in which all your goods were being sold off to pay the debts you could not otherwise pay.) I even had an opening line (even in her distress, she was beautiful) which set up a scene. We have Brodie sitting in his traditionally dingy office listening to a beautiful and somewhat morally ambiguous woman ask him to find her missing husband. After accepting the case, Brodie’s next moves are clear. He needs to find out more about the husband and how he went missing so off he sets to interview the man’s employer and workmates. A structure is already starting to emerge. Writing in this style actually suits the change of habit.

The Kormak story actually does have a plan. I stopped working on it to work on Mask of the Necromancer, for reasons I can no longer remember. Now it was just a case of sitting back down and making a start and getting Kormak back on the trail of the body-switching demon he is trailing through the Eastern city of the Four Warlords.

With Macharius I am at a different stage. I am working through the structure of the book, trying to fit and balance the elements together. This is the middle book of the trilogy and it is the fulcrum of the series. At this point, we are at the height of the Crusade, Macharius is at the peak of his powers and things can only go down hill from there. The job of this book is to show this crucial turning point in his career. It needs to show him utterly triumphant and it needs to begin to expose his weakness and the things that will eventually bring him down. This too implies a sort of structure and an arc that needs to be followed, one that will take a lot more planning than the winging it, I am attempting with the detective story.

There have been some problems adjusting. I have not done nearly as much revising on Sky Pirates as I would like because I tend to get caught up in the new writing and knocked out of the mental head space I need to be in for revising that book. I may need to make a formal separation of times for the different types of work, maybe new writing in the morning and editing in the afternoon. Part of me is already considering heading back to the old method simply because I am more comfortable with it, which is always a problem when you try and change your habits.  On the other hand, part of me is really enjoying trying something new so I think I shall most likely stick with it for at least a few months. There is some evidence to suggest that it takes around 6 weeks for a new pattern of habits to replace an old one, and I intend to test that. And that’s where things stand with me and my New Year resolutions at the moment. How about you?

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Comments

  1. Excellent post, William! I was stuck on one of my short stories, a detective story, when you posted your structure for one and realized what I needed to do next (more suspects, more interviewing). D’oh.

    Your point about the friction in changing habits is also spot on: consistency over the long haul adds up, and as one of my major goals this year is getting the BICHOK so I get consistent production, I’m stealing all of your tips. 🙂

    (I think Stephen King does fresh writing in the morning and then edits and revising in the afternoon or early evening after the new pages, as well, so that might be worth a try.)

    I’m behind on my scheduled wordcount for the week, but I will refrain from trying to play catchup and just go about trying to do the preset quota. No need to burn myself out the first week of the year when I’ve got 51 more weeks to go.

    • Thanks Sam,

      Good to know Stephen King has a system for this! It is the logical order — write then edit. I imagine a system based on re-reading and editing the previous days work and then starting the days would work as well. Actually I know it would since I have used this system myself on occasion. Good luck with the writing!

  2. Michael Mooney says:

    I’m thinking of what habits to embed. I agree with you on the 30-40 days to make something a habit. So Monday morning I’ll take the car to work early and go to the same gym I joined last year. And I’ll do the same on Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday and Thursday I’ll take the train, and try to write 1,000 words.
    30 days of faking a habit, till I make it real.

  3. I’ve always made a habit of wandering. I like wandering, I live in a very wanderable city and for the past few months I’ve lived in a very wanderable part of it. I’ll set off with the aim of working somewhere different, and wander off to find somewhere – I always did this in preference to working in the same place each day, but the truth is I waste a lot of time just wandering, going the wrong way, not getting where I wanted to get to, finding it’s shut, or busy, or doesn’t have wifi like I thought it did, or just not finding a place at all. A little more routine probably wouldn’t do me any harm. I might try your method.

    • I find the walk to the café helps wake me up and get my brain in gear. I still do most of my work in my office at home but having a quick wander around helps get me going in the morning. It’s also part of my routine now. As I said in the post I am a creature of habit.

      • Yes, I wander for the same reason – the thing it produces is excellent – but I think the disorderly way in which I do it probably cuts into my productivity.

        • I often wonder about that myself. I feel like I am losing productive time by moving around but at the same time I have obviously found something that works for me. Also I come up with a lot of ideas when I am walking around.

  4. I have the most success writing fresh in the morning. Usually some sort of image, a character or location point, or the skeleton of a scene is lurking behind the eyes, eager to manifest. I then switch to editing/re-writing in the afternoon. Unfortunately, dictates of life frequently interfere with the afternoon session, pushing the editing work to evening. This rescheduling ruins the habit benefits, but does have the effect of making the subconscious work on the story while asleep.

    I greatly admire anyone who juggles more than one story (the creative writing end) at a time. My pace slows to a mire-like slog when I attempt that feat.

    I am presently one day behind on my NYR. One week of failure out of 52 possibles. I believe, at this point, I should spend time constructively rather than beginning the scourging. Is mercy weakness at this stage?

    • I confess I have never been good at working on more than one project at a time except in the vaguest of ways– ie plotting out ideas for a new project while I work on the current one. I think this is why I felt so uncomfortable last week. That said, it is kind of exciting to watch new things take shape and I find there is a sense of possibility lurking in my work routines at the moment that wasn’t there before.

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