A New Year's Resolution for Writers

Jan 03, 2021
new year's resolution

From the Desk of Kate Riordan.

Someone once said to me, ‘It’s a shame, isn’t it, that being a writer was your dream but you don’t really like it’. I turned to him, completely taken aback. ‘But I love writing!’ I said. He laughed. ‘You’ve got a funny way of showing it.’

He had a point. I know quite a few writers but I’d never come across one more resistant to the actual writing than me. ‘Just do a little bit every day!’ well-meaning people would say, to which my answer was a bitter laugh. Every day? I’d gone weeks without even opening my work-in-progress. Obviously, the guilt was crippling.

I wasn’t unique in this, of course. A cursory trawl on Twitter revealed plenty of writers discussing their displacement activity of choice: manic decluttering, doing their tax early, watching videos of dogs launching themselves into piles of leaves. Anything, anything, not to just crack on and write the sodding book.

But while this is a common affliction, I had elevated avoidance to a terrible, toxic art form. The worst of it was that I actually did love writing, when I managed to coerce myself into starting. When the plates are spinning and the words are flowing, you can lose a whole afternoon to the muse. You look up and it’s grown dark outside and you’re dizzy with hunger because you’ve forgotten to eat. But those days were rare. In 2020 they became vanishingly few and far between, and while a global pandemic made being creative genuinely, biologically difficult (we need to feel safe to access that part of our brains, or so I read in a very long article while not writing my book), I had grown entirely fed-up with my own excuses. It’s wearing, fighting yourself every single day.

I’ve always got in the way of myself when it comes to work. ‘You’re your own worst enemy!’ my mum would exclaim in despair when I was at school and resisting my homework. When I think back to the fortnight of study leave we were granted for A-level revision, I mainly remember sunbathing in the garden with my headphones on, surrounded by folders of notes I couldn’t, wouldn’t, open. The exams themselves were great. I was forced to sit at a desk, in the quiet, and concentrate. Oh, the glorious relief of it. I recall those hours sitting in upper school hall with great affection: curtains drawn against the sun, the heady smell of just-mown grass, the soft tick of the clock. While my best friend sat in a cold sweat two rows away, I was happy as Larry.

Before I wrote novels I was a journalist and this suited me well. Most journalists are magpies. We have short attention spans and get bored quickly, beady eyes scanning for the next shiny story. We love finishing and work best under pressure. I still write the odd magazine piece, usually for book promotion reasons, and there’s great satisfaction in completing a task in a few hours. My mind clears and my focus sharpens. I get the thing done and happily cross it off my to-do list. I never have to think about it again.

Writing a novel is not like that. No one can write a 90,000 word novel at the last minute, buzzing off caffeine and adrenalin. It’s not just the sheer number of sentences that need to be wrangled on to the page with some semblance of fluency; there are the plot and subplots, the delicate interplay of characters, the variations in pace, the whole pretend world you’re trying to spark into life. You can’t blag that on the day, not even in the tranquil surrounds of upper school hall.

Happily, just as I was getting thoroughly hacked off with myself, I became a tutor at The Novelry. As part of my preparation for the role, I dived into the course material and discovered The Golden Hour: sixty minutes of writing on waking, when you’re still half in dreams, and not yet sucked into the minutiae of the day. I know I will never rise at 5.30 unless I’ve got a flight to catch or the house is on fire, but my whole ‘I’m an owl!’ schtick was convincing no one. I hadn’t written into the night for years.

Fired up by the notion of The Golden Hour, I began the usual bargaining with myself - my own, well-worn version of good cop/bad cop. It went something like:

  • Why don’t you get up early tomorrow, just to see?
  • But then the dogs will wake up and I’ll have to let them out and feed them and all that shit.
  • Just creep into the study and start.
  • I’ll be cold. The heating doesn’t come on till seven.
  • Ok, do it in bed then. Put your laptop next to the bed, wake up and just start typing.
  • I dunno, I probably won’t sleep well tonight and I’ll be too tired.
  • YOU DON’T KNOW THAT YET.

You see what I’ve been up against. The thing that eventually persuaded me to give it a whirl was the under-the-radar quality of it. If I could do an hour of work before I normally even woke, it would be like the most amazing sneaky freebie.

So I tried it. I woke in the dark, reached for my Mac and wrote 1,200 words by 8 am. When I skipped guilt-free down to breakfast, bad-cop me had only just come to. Like a Stealth bomber, I had flown fast and low over the ground, completing the mission before I even noticed.

Elated, I did it again the next day, and the next. Then it was the weekend and I rebelled and felt bad after. BUT I managed to get into the rhythm of it again on Monday. My word count on Scrivener crept up. I did more in two weeks than in the previous two months. Crucially, I didn’t try to do any more during the rest of the day. I felt like I ought to do at least one more hour in the afternoon but I followed the advice not to push it. And Louise was right (again). Not only was I writing regularly, but I was actually kind of looking forward to it. I was dipping into that other world just enough to keep the lights on, but not so much that it felt like a chore.

Neil Gaiman has compared writing a story to moving through fog and it is - and should be. But where before I was crawling along the M1 trying to find the fog lamps while HGVs loomed up on the inside lane, this new fog is something more enchanted and mysterious, a Narnian kind of mist that reminds me why I wanted to write stories in the first place.

New Year’s resolutions have always felt so dutiful: eat less, exercise more, work harder (work at all). This year’s - simply to continue on the path I’ve tentatively started down - is different.

It feels like nothing less than an indulgence to gift myself this magical, liminal hour between sleeping and rising: the house still silent, the dogs quiet, and me sitting up in bed with my laptop as the sky lightens, flying under the radar.

Happy writing in 2021!


More about The Golden Hour Method at The Novelry here.

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