As far as I’m concerned, the true beginning of 2015 is Monday January 5th. Anything before that can be written off. I spent the first day of the new year twitching with guilt as I saw people posting word counts on twitter, discussing their edits and rewrites, and then I gave myself a stern talking-to.
See, there’s definitely merit in starting as you mean to go on. But one of the things I learned in 2014 – one of those lessons that I seem to need to re-learn frequently – is that you can’t work all the time. We may live in a culture that makes it tricky for workers to leave offices at any kind of reasonable hour, and that suggests we’re lazy if we sit down for a bit of television or just a little breather – but we also know (even if we don’t always practice it, or believe it in our hearts) that we need time off.
Writing is one of those things where you tend to set your own schedule, and as such, it can be guilt-inducing to take time away from it. Write every day, we’re told – otherwise you’re not a real writer. But just like work, or exercise, it’s important not to burn out – and it’s easy to do this at the start of the year, buoyed up with enthusiasm. I’ll write 5,000 words every day! we decide, and then manage to keep that up for a day or two. And then the real world creeps in – the days we don’t feel like it, the days when other people are making demands of us, the days when it doesn’t seem possible to meet those high targets we’ve set for ourselves. So we slump into despair – partly because it’s January (who on earth thought such a gloomy month was a good idea to be productive in, anyway?) and partly because we feel like we’ve failed.
For 2015, here’s a suggestion: think big and small with your writing goals. If you want to write the first draft of a novel by the end of the year, what do you want to have done by the end of January? What does that work out to per week? Per day? And – crucially – when are you going to check in with yourself about how things are going? That 5,000 words a day mightn’t be sustainable – so give yourself a date for when you’ll check in and assess why you weren’t meeting that goal. Is the target unrealistic or are there things within your control you can change to make sure you meet it? Is the target reasonable for the early stages of the project but less so for the middle, where you need to take more time away for thinking and musing and will be lucky to get 500 words down a day?
Give yourself fresh starts beyond January – whether that’s the start of every week, every month, or every project. Figure out how much time away you need – and take it. It might be that not-writing over the weekends means you return to the page with more energy each Monday; it might be knowing that after two hours at the computer or after 1,500 words, your brain turns to mush. Adjust your targets accordingly, regardless of however many billion words so-and-so seems to get done each day or how many you feel you ‘should’ be able to do. What are you able for, really, if you’re honest with yourself? Good. Okay. That. That’s your target, and if you stick with it, that will see you finish your project. Writing goals – any goals, really – need to be sustainable, things that will last beyond January, things that we can do even when things get a bit busier or something unexpected but not life-destroying happens.
And the downtime is where, ironically, a lot of the creative stuff happens – things swirling away at the back of your brain, making connections and links that need a bit of room to breathe before they make it onto the page. The downtime is what makes it possible to open up a new page or file with a sense of excitement rather than dread, to keep burnout at bay. Factoring it in means that you distinguish between legitimate time away and loitering in the procrastination zone – even though the two can look similar from the outside.
Good luck, folks. I’m off to go write.
(c) Claire Hennessy