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.
As 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.