Monday, July 25, 2011

Piecemeal


I wrote this little article for Free Xpression magazine last year, where it first appeared:

I never imagined I could finish a book

I had asked around, and was reliably informed that the average book was round 60,000 words. I struggled with 600. Sure, I had always liked the idea of being a published author; I’d cherished the vision of me giving a reading at a trendy inner-city bookshop, or addressing thousands from a platform at an international writers’ festival. In my head I had been interviewed on Ramona Koval’s ‘The Book Show’ many times, and I dazzled myself with my winning imaginary combination of wit, humility and intellect. The lifestyle of an author I could handle, I figured, it was just the work that kinda scared me.

Dozens of times in my life I had sat down to write ‘the book’ – the one I had sketched out so thoroughly while I was showering or driving home from the shops. That mental bestseller was just waiting for me to get in front of the computer and get it all down on paper. Only I never did. It was all too much for me, the thought of an entire book, a clunky little collection of 300+ pages that made as much sense at the beginning as the end and had quite a substantial in-between as well. Instead I would quietly power down my computer and watch a bit of TV. The book could wait for tomorrow.

It took me years to discover the trick: don’t think about a book at all. Think about a story, a situation, a scene. When I finally wrote my first book, Destination Saigon, I rarely thought about the finished product when I sat down in my study, morning after morning, writing furiously to meet my deadline. I was working on a short piece, a piece which was to the fore of my mind and which was obsessing me. And pretty soon, piece by piece, I had 60,000 words – simple as that. Actually, I had way more than 60,000 and had to make some major cuts.

But as I was writing it was never a massive, monolithic, frankly terrifying book. I assembled it piecemeal, bit by bit, and slowly a book emerged, almost effortlessly. So stop letting the size of your book get in the way. Forget it’s even a book, and just keep your eyes on the road in front.

When you become obsessed with a story – one small, intricate and specific piece of a much-larger work – almost everything you do and read feeds into it and leads you back to it. “Why, that’s just like that chapter I’m writing right now,” you’ll find yourself saying as you read the paper or sing a hymn or deadhead the gardenias. And you’ll find yourself rushing back to that story because it’s so immediate, so raw, so absolutely in-your-head. Book? What Book? I’m writing a fantastic story, a short piece of tremendous power. I’m so excited about it I don’t have any time to think about the book I’m meant to be writing...oh wait...

There’s something about writing a book that seems so big, so terrifying. Writing books is what people like Dickens and Dostoevsky did. That’s a big job. Not me, I just write. For too long I carried that burden of the book around – the sense that I should have a really big project in mind, and not just lots of really interesting (and sometimes really good) pieces that got me excited. That idea constantly crushed me and stopped me from writing. I needed to free myself from the sense that I was embarking on something enormous, and instead concentrate on the fact that I was writing every day – that I had to write every day. And, who knew? Piece by piece, a book emerged.

And it will for you too, if you let go of the seemingly impossible end-goal, and glory in what you can produce right now.

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