An Hour a Day Keeps the Existential Angst Away

Thursday 18 February 2010, 17:54

Dominic Mitchell Dominic Mitchell Writer

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In the book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters there is a section on the hours these highly successful scribblers devote to their craft. Each and every one of them tells the editor of their gruelling work schedule. Getting up before dawn and pounding on the laptop, at furious pace, until dusk. Only stopping to do aerobic exercise on the porch of their Malibu beach homes or to play with they're overtly charming and attractive children. My double chin (un-aerobicized) fell to the floor and I was filled with a nameless dread. Jesus Christ, I thought I hardly manage to drag myself to my own dramatic doodles for 60 minutes per day and even then my cursor is magically drawn to the internet explorer icon - 'ah there's an article on filmmaker Kevin Smith being too fat to fit on an airplane, I must read this in minute detail'. Now it turns out these Hollywood stiffs are putting in 12 hour shifts. Blimey Moses.
With sweaty palms I put the book back on the Waterstones shelf (I'm a wannabe screenwriter; I can't afford books on screenwriting). This can't be true I hoped. Well maybe it's true of these uber successful scribes but the common garden writer would never manage that kind of hellish slog... right?

I clicked on my trusty explorer icon and put into Google this desperate question: how many hours a day should you write? The first site to appear was a Yahoo Answers message board . The best answer (chosen by the asker) went as follows: "I write for about 8-9 hours a day. It's very hard work! It depends on how fast I am writing. Sometimes I'll write 20 words a day, and sometimes I'll write over 2000! But usually my goal of the day is to write a chapter of the book I'm writing (My chapters are about 10-20 pages long). Good luck, and have fun writing!" GOOD LUCK AND HAVE FUN WRITING?! I'd commit suicide twice if I had to write 9 hours a day. 9 hours a day. 9 hours a day? Who was this person? Stephen King? Thomas Pynchon? Martin Amis? No, it was: Soon_ To_ Be_ Mommy_4_Weeks_To_Go. That was her Username and that meant - I was presuming - she wasn't a professional ink layer. Just your average soon to be housewife and she was beating me on the commitment scale by 540 minutes to my 60 (not including YouTube breaks).

At this point I was in full despair mode and started on the self-flagellation; I'm a lazy, undisciplined piece of work that does not deserve to kiss the boot of Soon To Be Mommy 4 Weeks To Go or anyone else who's ever lifted a brio. Time to delete all plays and scripts and bring up that ASDA application form again. Before I sent My Documents to Dignitas I decided to watch an interview with David Foster Wallace on Wallace is - or was (he tragically killed himself in 2008) the kind of writer that makes your soul sing in delight. He's that good. His magnum opus is Infinite Jest, 1079 pages of brilliant near future Meta fiction. My mind started spinning on rinse cycle at the thought of the number of hours he would put into his craft. I took a deep breath and prepared to be awed. But when the subject of writing day to day came up and what he would doing in a year out because of a grant he had just received Wallace said this "If past experience holds true, I will probably write an hour a day and then spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle worrying about not writing". At last, a writer who procrastinates as much as me and doesn't wear out the keys on his computer.

This little piece of info kept me afloat and then I found an interview with screenwriter Dan Roos at the wonderful (if you have a weird fetish for viewing on set footage like I do, this sites for you) where he tells of his daily writing schedule and advice for beginning screenwriters - Make an appointment to write for an hour per day. Spend that hour either writing on your current project or in a journal. Sometimes you'll spend 10 minutes writing in the journal and 50 on the project at hand and sometimes you'll spend 10 minutes on the project and 50 minutes on the journal. Doesn't matter because at least you're putting words on the page. Every day. This is liberating for a whole set of reasons; Writing 10 pages of screenplay a day is instantly intimating. Ever looked at ten blank pages? Feels like looking into the abyss. Whereas working for a mere hour doesn't have the same awful ring to it. Also in an hour you can write 10 pages, or 6 or 2. But because you've set the goal as an hour of desk time you feel like you've accomplished something.

By this time my heart rate was back to normal. Then I remembered a foreword written by the playwright David Watson who talked about the importance of "thinking time". I too believe in thinking time. Some of my best ideas, characters, scenes or lines have come out of just walking around having a good think. However if you do this and don't scribble down what you've thought, the gems will flutter out of your head. That's where the hour a day writing appointment comes in handy.

When I had fully calmed down I began to wonder about some of the 12 hour, full working day boasts that I had read in Waterstones. I also began to ponder on the writer's preference for exaggeration. The screenwriters who were being interviewed for the book knew that other scriptwriters - their competitors - were being interviewed as well and perhaps they figured that if they didn't make out like they were sweating 24/7 they would be looked down upon, perhaps even lose work. In other words I thought they may have been telling fibs. Like all writers do. Like I've done. 60 minutes per day? Come off it - More like 20 minutes (including YouTube breaks).

My name is Dominic Mitchell and I am one of the writers on the BBC Northern Voices scheme.

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    Comment number 1.

    Just 60 minutes a day,eh. Heartening and realistic, I guess. And when you do more, because it must happen sometimes surely, that's got to feel bloomin' awesome! Well, it does for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    You know I found one of the most motivating (is that a word?) information from other writers is when they say how little they write. That's shameful, isn't it. But there's something about being in the boat together, knowing how hard it is to actually write, that peps you up and makes you realize 'perhaps I'm not the utmost failure I keep telling myself I am'.

    Of course the how 'utmost failure' shtick returns within a matter of minutes but nevertheless it's a comforting distraction, reading otehr writer's lack of writing (unless you pick up the book afore mentioned of course.

    For me, 'The Writer's Tale' still remains my Bible; reading that Russell T Davies is just like the rest of us spurs me on more than anything else I think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I don't read How To books because they undermine my instinct about my own writing timetable. By 'timetable' I mean an inner self that only panics when it think how much I should have written as opposed to how much I actually have. Also, I think writers use these books as an excuse to avoid starting work. One writer sits at his laptop for twelve hours a day. Well done to them, but why would one writer want to be proscribed another's regime?

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I became a playwright because I have something to say and a need to show it and because I demand freedom from constraints and that includes freedom from worrying about fitting into the rhythm of what a writer should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I have been reading my friend's blog for a couple of years. Although I write a blog as well, I have to defer to her. She is a hoot! With the humor...well check it out for yourself. She has kept me in stitches for two years. We love to read her blog over here in America! Wish someone would pick up on the sheer genius of Marmite Toasty. Thanks, M

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Being a stay at home dad (not quite a mommy in four weeks) I find that an hour of writing a day is all I can manage anyway - children's nap time is a wonderful thing!

    I'm also in the Douglas Adams school of thinking - I always take a bath to help 'stew' and finalise plots/stories before I sit down and write.

    Russell T Davies' book is worth reading to help reassure your writing practices - although I would hasten to add that he may not be the best example to follow (for un-commissioned writers) when it comes to meeting deadlines!

    I certiany recognised myself in some of the things he was saying when it came to doing anything but write.

    What is the saying? 10% Inspiration, 90% perspiration.


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