Non Compos Mentis

Multi-tasking has coated my desk in a thin layer of detritus. Midway through Week Three, items are continuing to arrive in my inbox faster than they are getting cleared out. The schedule I set for myself was fairly onerous: each week, in my roughly three and a half spare days, I am to retouch about a half-dozen images, edit about eight 500-word essays, and rearrange about fifty pages of chapter text. The worklists for the first two weeks were fairly lax. Now, it’s hitting hard.

As I chew through tasks big and small, I am lobbing a steady stream of serves over the net to my father’s desk. Stacks of commentaries to be approved. Chapters to be approved. Missing paragraphs to be written. New paragraphs to be inspected. (My description of the Last Spike and introduction of Donald Alexander Smith was enthusiastically approved; my definition of the Deutscher Werkbund was roundly rejected. C’est la vie.) Ever play Asteroids? It’s a bit like that. Shooting down the big tasks creates smaller tasks. If you shoot too many big tasks at once, soon your entire screen is filled with tiny little tasks, any of which can turn your tiny craft into space debris.

Amid the whirlwind, it’s easy to become demoralized. Most of the way through Week Three, I still have much of Week Two glaring malevolently at me from my work list.  Technically, I still owe a paragraph from Week One. I’m wrestling with a chapter on “Styles and Movements”. (If the chapter were a guy, he’d be an entertaining party crasher: “You’ve got some great stuff to say, pal, but what the hell are you doing here?”) The edges of my mental composure are already slightly frayed. My sleep schedule is drifting later again, a few minutes at a time, a creeping tide.

I have begun tentatively eyeing the Panic Button. In order to finish by New Year’s, I created an eight-week schedule that finishes a week before Christmas. In theory, this allows me two weeks of contingency fund in my schedule. In my mind, there’s a big red Panic Button that simply pushes everything back a week. This is a good thing, because I’m not even close to being on schedule. Of course, it was a ballbreaking schedule to begin with. And on the plus side, my productivity is waaaay higher than it was before I put this plan into motion. Not hitting the Panic Button. Yet.

The knife edge of my focus is the morning. The first five minutes of consciousness. If I can get my head in the work first thing, I can roll all day. If I start the day with a lazy thought, it’ll hamsterwheel me all day like a song I can’t get out of my head.

While all this is going on, I’m finishing up some final touches on the libretto of Shine: A Burlesque Musical with John Woods & Cass King, plus a tuneup on a websomething I’ve been working on with Mike Jackson and Seth Jaret. Neither of these projects can really afford delays right now, so it’s really just the way it is. Last night was a lengthy Skype conference with Mike and Seth followed by a rap session on the Werkbund over falafel and beer. Tonight was a subplot tuneup on the Shine libretto. Tomorrow is the book and Shine. Monday is the websomething, shift at the day job, the book, musical jam session. Tuesday the book, the job, the websomething. Wednesday night three of our comedy shorts are screening at Celluloid Social Club, but I have a feeling that I may not be able to make it. I also have a feeling that one by one, things are getting done.

God, I love it when things get done.

For those of you at home that would like to spend five or more years living with an unfinished project, here are some simple tips to help you on your way:

1) Expand the scope of the project.
This is known militarily as “mission creep” or in game design as “feature creep”. The principle is simple: you agree to do something, then once the agreement is in place you slowly expand the mandate. The agreement is a contract of one sort or another. In its simplest form, it’s just something that you said yes to; once you said yes, you were committed to see it to the end, wherever it led. To take just one example, you could set out to write an illustrated overview of Vancouver architecture, then expand that to include a social history of architectural style, then expand it further to include a social critique of western civilisation through the lens of Vancouver architecture. Each time you agree to expand the deliverable, you’re expanding your yes.

2) Work on several projects at the same time.
The most reliable way to not finish a project is to not give it your full attention. The best diversion from an ongoing writing project is another project. I can recommend the following, if you don’t want to finish your project anytime soon: Rewrite two feature screenplays, write and direct an award-winning musical, make two horror shorts and four comedy shorts, create a new sci-fi thriller property, join two gospel choirs, and take a little travel time to visit LA, New York, and Black Rock City. Not that I did all of these things solo; it’s easier to tackle multiple projects if you have great collaborators that you love working with. I’m fortunate to have T.J. Adel, Mike Jackson, Seth Jaret, Cass King, Peter New, and John Woods numbered among my creative partners. Warning, though: this approach carries a risk that any given time someone else is looking pointedly at their watch and waiting for you to come back to whatever project you’ve shuffled onto the back burner that week.

3) Allow yourself to be overwhelmed.
When you’ve been working on something for long enough without taking the time to quantify and track your progress, it’s easy for the demon Resistance to get a hook in you. Listen to its sweet voice lull you with sweet familiar songs like “It’s So Much Work You’re Not Even Close To Finishing”, “Videogames Want To Be Played”, and that popular old hit “Nobody’s Going To Read It Anyway”.

See you next week.

PS: New post is up on the book preview blog: “Asian Fusion and the Bungalow”. New post coming tomorrow on the Hotel Europe.

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In Medias Res

I don’t know if I can do this.

I’m halfway through week two of an eight-week schedule to finish a book that my father and I have been working on for the last five years. The work has often taken on a purgatorial aspect.  It’s hard to remember the time before I was working on it: I had to look up the file creation dates to learn that it was indeed five years. Well. All that is about to end. If I can do this.

Styles & Society was to be a book of photos of Vancouver’s architecture – a showcase for our excellent architectural photography, supported by a little bit of historical information for background and interest. Five years later, that little bit of historical information has metastasized into 450 pages of chapter text. Plus 80 full-page photos, each of which is accompanied by a 500-word essay. A little history has become a social history of architectural style and has further expanded to include social critique.

I get by with a little help from my friends. One of those friends is Jennifer Howd, with whom I’ve been doing a coaching exchange. Each week we meet on the phone for an hour or so and work through stuff relating to our respective projects. A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer asked me when the book would be finished. “I have no idea,” I said. “I catalogued all the work we still had to do on it and I think it’s about 25 weeks. It might be shorter and I’m afraid it might be longer. What I’d really love is to finish it by New Year’s.”

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

Damn her. “I don’t know if that’s even possible,” I said.

“Why don’t you just plan to have it done by New Year’s and work backward from there?”

I thought about what this would mean. It would mean doubling the time I worked on it each week and limiting the scope of my work to fit within the compressed schedule. It would mean saying no to a lot of invitations and a lot of leisure time. And, if it worked, it would mean singing Auld Lang Syne at some debaucherous New Year’s Party knowing that the book, the beast, the magnum opus, was done, fresh-paint shiny, idling on the runway with a full tank of gas, ready for takeoff.

“Okay,” I said.

Now, the heat is up. Each week I do bits and pieces of monkey work from Monday to Wednesday, before and after my shifts at my day job. (“Monkey work” is what I call the work that I can do when I’m tired, or when I’ve just got a few minutes: line-level editing, transcription of hardcopy markup, photoretouching, things like that.) Thursday and Friday are for the heavy lifting – the major restructuring that’s the meat of this rewrite. Saturday and Sunday are for picking up the pieces.

Week One was a near miss. I finished a structural edit of 82 pages on Victorian architecture, but didn’t get through resolving all of the zillion annotations. And I still owe a closing paragraph. Now I’m around the corner into the back of week two. My longhand edits on eleven building commentaries are mostly done, but I have structural edits on Styles and Movements (30p) and Classical Architecture (29p) that I’ve barely touched. It’s doable, but thinking about it makes my chest hurt. And Saturday/Sunday is taken up with rewrites on Shine: A Burlesque Musical and a rehearsal with the City Soul Choir.

There’s an Irish notion that after you die, you will be suspended head down in a barrel full of all the liquor you have ever spilt in your life, and if you drown, to hell with you. This schedule makes me think of that story. I can drop a few tasks on the floor to pick up later. A few. If they’re small.

One of the things that really brings me joy is to help other writers, to share what I’ve learned and catalyze something for them that helps them take their work to a higher level. In the New Year, I’ll be rolling out a project-based coaching practice for writers. And I wouldn’t be much of a coach if I couldn’t practice what I preached. I’ve made up a punishing eight-week schedule, with a ninth week for niptucks and pickups. And now I’m on the ride and I can’t get off. But this is where I like it: with my back against a nice concrete wall, cornered, nothing between me and the exit but the work.

I don’t know if I can do this. I only know that I’m doing it. Which makes the question of whether I can or not beside the point.

See you next week.