I write every day, but I don’t have a typical writing day. My motto: snatch every scrap of time from the tight-fisted weekday to write. An hour in the morning. A couple of hours at night. I prefer nights. Morning is a brash time of day. So many demands to meet: chores at home, deadlines looming on the day-job front, which involves editing non-fiction.
Nights are mercifully quiet. The roar of traffic is muted, the manic city simmers down, as do my noisy neighbours. The sliver of sky I get to see from my second floor apartment is lit with stars. The moon hovers outside my window, sometimes a thin slice, sometimes rounded and full. At night, inner calm is an attainable goal. As is clarity of thought. Words come to me faster, easier, then. Thoughts flow seamlessly.
Weekends are when I get uninterrupted chunks of time to write. I make the best of it. Right now, I’m finishing work on a collection of short stories, and Saturdays and Sundays over the past few months have been all about the stories. My weekends have been consumed by writing and revision (a spectacularly niggly, but necessary task). Breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks, and a short walk in the evening – the rest of the day, I spend at my desk, getting the stories into shape.
I can’t lay claim to a typical writing day, but there are some constants, a few daily ground rules that apply, no matter what chaos the rest of the day brings.
Write 500 words a day. This is the hoop I shoot for. The holy grail. The word count is not a fire-breathing dragon. Not a sword I’ve hung over my own head, prompted by some strange masochistic impulse. It just helps to have something concrete to aim for when I sit down at my desk. For the runner on the track, there’s the finishing line. For my writing day to gather steam, there’s the daily word count.
Read something written by another person – big press or small press author, member of the canon or criminally overlooked writer, literary icon or debutant. This helps me to keep my writing muscles flexed. When I read a good novel or short story, my awareness of the possibilities of the forms expands. Reading a tightly coiled piece of flash fiction leaves me amazed. Reading a poem sets me free for a few glorious minutes – from the constraints of prose, the straightjacket of sentences, the preoccupation with plot. I learn by osmosis from the writers whose work I read. It’s a debt I can never repay.
Slow down, zoom in, observe. Confession: I’m a news junkie. Much as I would like to tune out the happenings in our increasingly insane world, I do end up spending a lot of time, especially online, chasing after the news. Political intrigue, the alarming rise of bloviating dictators, an escalating environmental crisis – all of it is rich material for fiction. Many news items spark story ideas. Reality is an excellent plank to jump off from and dive headlong into fiction. That being said, as a fiction writer, it’s my job to pay attention to the nuances, the human facts, the emotional terrain of individual lives the news avoids. I remind myself, constantly, to pay attention to people’s stories, their struggles, their quirks, their discontents and dreams. I always carry a notebook with me. Jot down snippets of conversations, interesting details or chance remarks, which I know will find a place in a story some time.
Coffee. Not a ground rule, but a necessity. Without coffee my writing would grind to a halt, wither away, die a sad death. I’m told there are writers, in this world, who get work done in without drinking a single cup of coffee in a day. I’m also told there are people who’ve spotted UFOs hovering overhead. I find both equally hard to believe.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, A Happy Place and other stories (HarperCollins, 2014). Her fiction has appeared or is slated to appear in the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asian Cha, The Missing Slate, The Bombay Review, and The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab, Singapore). She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, June 2018.)