Thursday, March 18, 2021

L’appétit vient en mangeant by James W. Ziskin

How has “Lockdown Life” affected your writing? Have you written more? Developed/honed new writing skills? If so, please tell us about it. Or have you found yourself off-track, lacking motivation, or otherwise sidelining your writing? If the latter, how have you handled that?

(DISCLAIMER. I wrote a similar post to this one a few months ago. I’ve used some of the same graphics and descriptions for this week’s question.)

I wouldn’t say I developed any new writing skills during the past twelve months, but I may have honed some of them. The French say that appetite comes with eating. L’appétit vient en mangeant. In a similar vein, I believe good writing comes with more writing.

Early on in the lockdown last year, I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” for the anthology, In League with Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to a miracle of good fortune, that story has been selected as a finalist for the 2021 Edgar Award for best short story.

But one short story isn’t much production for an entire year, especially when you consider that I was sitting at home having groceries and other supplies delivered to our door. 

Once I’d finished my short story, I realized I wasn’t making any progress on my new book. I won’t say it was a revelation. More of a growing awareness that became impossible to ignore. So I decided to get moving or risk wasting the one good thing the lockdown provided: time. There was nothing else pressing for me to do, aside from some household chores, cooking, laundry. I had no excuses to avoid writing. 

The novel I was writing was Bombay Monsoon, which I describe as “Graham Greene meets Gatsby on the Subcontinent.” It’s 1975. Danny Jacobs, an ambitious, young American journalist, arrives in Bombay for a new assignment and gets caught up in the chaos of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency.” His enigmatic expat neighbor, Willy Smets, is helpful and friendly, but the man’s secretive business dealings trouble Danny. The reporter falls hard for Sushmita, Smets’s beguiling and clever lover, and the infatuation is mutual.

The Emergency, a virtual coup by the prime minister, is only the first twist in the high-stakes drama of Danny’s new life in India. The assassination of a police officer by a Marxist extremist, as well as Danny’s obsession with the beautiful and inscrutable Sushmita, conspire to put his career—and life—in jeopardy. And, of course, the temptations of Willy Smets’s seductive personality sit squarely at the heart of the matter. 

Here’s how the book came to be. I began writing it in March, I set up my usual spreadsheet to track my progress. I’ve found that the spreadsheet is the best tool to shame me into writing more, into meeting daily goals, into putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward day by day to finish a novel. And here it is.

But I got off to a terrible start. See all those zeroes in the Words column? There was no excuse for this. My lethargic effort hit rock bottom when my daily word average dropped to 172 words per day. My spreadsheet told me I had to make a change.

And I did.

April turned out to be a very good month. Only one day without any writing. The spreadsheet compelled me to produce. Slowly, my daily production improved, and that improvement spurred me on to write more. Soon, I was writing more than a thousand words a day, then two thousand. My cumulative daily average rose from the low point of 172 words per day to 660. I managed 30,516 words in thirty days in April. Better, but not good enough for someone with nothing but time on his hands.

Then came May. I wanted to have the first draft done by June 1st, and a thousand or two words per day wasn’t going to get me there. Studying the numbers on my spreadsheet, I willed myself to do better.

Two thousand words per day became the norm. Then 3,000 or more. A bad day was 1,500. My daily average soared. Suddenly, thanks to my spreadsheet and the growing numbers I entered there, I was inspired to write more, even when I was tired and ready to turn in. I reached 4,145 words in one day on May 16th. More than 3,600 the next day. The words started piling up and the end of the first draft was in sight.

I missed my self-imposed deadline of June 1st, but only by three days. In May, I wrote 73,572 words. That’s enough for an entire novel. By the time June arrived, I’d improved my daily word count average from a low of 172 words to 1,300.

There was still plenty of work left to do on the book, and I used the next few months to revise eight or nine times before I felt it was ready. Remember, you can’t revise what you haven’t written. So a first draft is the sine qua non in the life of a book.

As for motivation, I don’t believe in writer’s block. At least not for me. I know when I’m not writing, it’s out of laziness. It’s because the prospect of 400 plus blank pages is daunting. It’s hard work and, like Dorothy Parker, I love having written but writing itself? Not so much. It’s a slog. A marathon, even when you’re sprinting. But I’ve found tracking every word every day is one of the best ways to fuel your motivation.

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