Beyond slow cooking: the 24-Hour Book Project

Evening. Monday 11 June. Pizza boxes lie on a table in the corner of the room, while around the table sit eight writers, feverishly tapping on their laptop keyboards. In a nearby room, the ninth writer hides himself away and works alone, listening to Hollywood film scores from the 1960s. There are only a few hours left before they must pass completed stories to a group of subeditors who will work through the night. By the following midday, in New York City, the book will need to be printed. From conception to publication in twenty-four hours – ‘The 24-Hour book Project.’

We’d already agreed on a few commonalities: there would be a flood and a librarian called Sammi. As we talked, I started to think about a post-apocalyptic, flooded world, two men facing off in a deserted library. After the meeting, without quite knowing where it was headed but certain that I had to get started immediately, I wrote my first lines: ‘At night I sharpen the axe, the whetstone cold in my hand. Though I keep the door closed to keep out the spiders, the sound still echoes along the library corridors the way I like it: shing, shing, shing.’ A flash of panic came as I heard those around me typing considerably faster than me, then went. After that, I plunged ahead.

I’d first agreed to be a part of the project back at the start of the year, when organiser and face of Queensland Writers Centre think-tank ‘if:books’, Simon Groth – who himself would be one of the writers – had sent me an email. The idea for the project was later explained on its website.

Digital tools have already made a tremendous impact on the process of writing and reading. We’re used to thinking about text written for screens, such as blogs, as instant publishing platforms: the act of making writing public is as simple as clicking a button literally marked ‘Publish’. Digital writing is also designed as a collaborative environment: writers, editors, designers, and even audience are all invited to take part in the creation of a complete document.

But what if we apply these concepts to making and reading books? Not just books for screens, but for ink and paper too?

How far can you push the technology? How far can you take the book?

As I agreed, I felt a slight sense of discomfort: to write a complete story in one sitting was an ambition of mine but it also ran against my rather slower perfectionist working habits – habits which have me returning to a story over coming weeks, adding, cutting, reworking. My fiction (though interestingly not my non-fiction) might be considered the writing equivalent of slow cooking. All very well when you have plenty of time, not the kind of process you want to take into the 24-Hour Book Project. Agreeing to take part was made possible by a fine dose of repression.

Willow Pattern - coverAs we wrote, a number of people followed our work. I know of at least one editor – connected to one of the participants – who read multiple drafts of some of the work. At one point, the project was trending on twitter in Brisbane. The Courier Mail did a little story on us. Overlanders Jeff Sparrow and Alison Croggon insisted I include a psychotic chicken in my story (which tells you something about their personalities, by the by). By 12pm the following day, copies of Willow Pattern were being printed in New York.

Initial reports suggest the project was a success. According to Groth:

From Monday to Wednesday we attracted more than 3,500 unique visits (which may include a few returning readers). For the 24 hours the free electronic editions were available, we also registered more than 1,000 downloads (pretty much evenly split between EPUB and Kindle).

As editor Keith Stevenson has given a detailed account of the collective process, what interests me here is instead the personal aspect, the view from an individual writer’s perspective, because it teaches us something about how we go about writing.

As writers, we develop certain habits and beliefs about what we can do and how we work: ‘I’m a morning person’; ‘I can only write for an hour or so before I run out of energy’; ‘I need to plan’; ‘I can’t plan’; ‘I do my best stuff at night’; ‘I can do 1000 words in a day, but not much more’. I’ve already offered my own – ‘I’m a slow-cooker writer of fiction.’ A typical writing day for me will start with a burst of activity for a couple of hours, followed by a long slow decline in productivity as I intersperse the writing with other work and tasks. My writing ‘half-life’ typically resides somewhere around eleven o’clock.

I’m constantly surprised by how much the question of the practices of writing obsesses writers. We discuss when to write, what programs to use, what programs to use to keep us off the internet, and so on.

My point is: it behooves us to realise that our views and habits are mostly learned and that we could just have easily learned the opposite ones. Habits and views – like the mind itself – are subject to plasticity. Provide the appropriate environment and I am no longer a slow-cooker writer. More importantly, provide the appropriate environment and all the thoughts and habits simply drop away, replaced by new ones. As I wrote my story for Willow Pattern, the idea that I might not complete the story that day never once crossed my mind. Failure was simply not on the radar. For eleven hours, I was in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, in which all sense of the outside world drops away, all sense of time passing dissolves and the individual is lost in the task at hand. (Kath Wilson wrote a nice essay on this in a past issue of Overland.)

I’m not here arguing for some kind of voluntarism, in which we can with simple force of will or change of environment jettison our writing personalities – the 24-Hour Book Project was an unusual environment (when else do you have people bring you food and coffee as you write?). Rather, I’m suggesting that those personalities – the beliefs and habits – tend to be much less fixed than we usually believe. It turns out I can write a 4500-word story fairly easily in a day, in those unusual circumstances. A number of the other writers I spoke to mentioned that they were surprised by how easy the process was for them.

As I flew home, I wondered how I could reproduce the experience.

Photo 24hb team. L to R: Geoff Lemon, PM Newton, Rjurik Davidson, Me, Angela Slatter, Steven Amsterdam, Simon Groth. Missing: Krissy Kneen, Nick Earls, Christopher Currie. (Source Courier-Mail)

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. As you say, these questions about how to foster creativity — from what time you start writing to what software works better — obsess writers. Yet they’re almost talked about like a dirty secret. Given how well ensconced in the academy creative writing has become, it’s strange that there’s not more academic writing on the subject, along the lines of that Csikszentmihalyi stuff. Like, you come across some of those issues in the how-to books (tips to avoid writers’ block, etc) but it’s always anecdotal and never really theorised. Seems like it would be an interesting area to explore.

  2. Yeah Jeff, these are certainly questions that have interested me – and most writers I know – a lot. Partly because do often ‘getting the job done’ has sometimes seemed so difficult. There’s a cross-over here between writing and lots of those management/productivity books out there, but they mostly come out of bourgeois management theory (as far as I can tell) and so should be taken with a grain of salt (e.g there IS a lot of individualistic voluntarism in them). As you say, there’s space here for further investigation. Czikszentmihalyi himself is a psychologist, and that’s the field you’d be delving into: how do you create flow states, etc.

  3. There’s a kind of implied politics, to do with meaning in the modern world and the kinds of activities which induce flow – i.e. it’s impossible to enter flow when you’re being judged or externally compelled. That means many jobs/thing’s you’re doing because of external forces prohibit flow. There’s also other things like, the task must be challenging enough but not too challenging. Both these would rule out, say, factory work for most people (though not necessarily all).

  4. Interesting post Rjurik. Thanks.
    I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of ‘flow’. As Jeff seems to be asking, does ‘flow’ make claims to be a politics-free state, something almost transcendental?
    I think it probably does.
    I can’t say I’ve ever experienced ‘flow’. But I think the conditions that make writing prose possible have something to do with thinking about why one does it, and who for, and organising one’s life around the values/ethics that such an understanding creates.
    It’s easy for it to become a bourgeois activity I think, rather than something more urgent that perhaps examines the conditions under which it is produced, even as it is produced.
    And – following on from something else Jeff said – I’ve always been intrigued as to how courses on Creative Writing got so encrusted on to universities. I’m not saying that writing ‘creatively’ can’t be taught, but a university seems like a rather problematic place to teach it.

  5. “it’s impossible to enter flow when you’re being judged …”

    Performers and sportspeople would disagree with that.

    “… or externally compelled.”

    But isn’t being surrounded by people all working together, to a tight deadline, a form of external compulsion? Or control, at any rate.

    It’s not that hard to attain flow when you are washing dishes or working in a call centre, in both of which jobs you are being judged and compelled quite stringently.

  6. I should say, I’m not an expert in ‘flow’. But in answer to the comments:

    Stephen: I think there is something to the study of the different psychological/emotional states we go through. There are times, certainly, when I write that I am ‘lost’ in the work, or if you like, my focus is entirely ‘on’ the work, At other times I’m distracted, scattered, self-conscious, etc. MC’s book seemed like the start of an analysis of the difference between these two states. He seems to include a great deal of different ‘states’ in his term flow, but at the same time, I thought it if not practical then interesting.

    Owen: yes I should have said ‘feel like you’re being judged’. Performers and sportspeople have the ability to ‘block out’ that feeling or sense of judgement. Those who struggle to perform are the ones who become self-conscious, that is, ‘feel they are being judged.’ Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon here:


    As far as the question of ‘dull jobs’ goes, this was one of the parts of MC’s book that I was a little unclear about (I read it some time ago). He argues – I think – that if there’s a component of you choosing to be there (i.e. the 24HB project) and you can find ‘challenges’ in the work, then you can enter a state of flow. So some people like/enjoy ‘dull jobs’ because they set themselves little challenges and tasks, while others find them alienating. I guess I was responding to Jeff’s queries about the politics of ‘flow’ and here it seems to me to be related to Marx’s work on alienation, for example.

  7. Sitting down. To write. Be creative. In an institutional setting? Possible, of course, as with any setting. Funny too how so-called creative writing generally designates literary text types. Let all writing be creative, I say. What was old dream about work in the morning, read Plato, a bit of fishing, then down to writing? I couldn’t imagine myself wanting to write beautiful words in a conflict free world. Bugger the flow. The more the constraint (internal and external) the better I write. Lousy though it may be.

  8. I think there is definitely something that is ‘flow’ – it’s a powerful state. Of course it will be triggered for different people by different things- constrain for some, lack of it for others. I also think it’s political, because, as Rjurik suggests, the context for it to occur is less and less like to happen using rules of economic rationalism. i.e.. as an ‘illogical’ state it’s harder to quantify. or something. I’m not articulating this very well but I want to try and understand it more so I can explain myself more. Will seek out the books mentioned in this post.

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