Monday, 9 June 2014

The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zerubavel, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I wish I had read The Clockwork Muse (Harvard, pb, 112pp) by Eviatar Zerubavel a decade or so ago. If I had, maybe I’d have an MA from the OU now instead of a measly postgraduate diploma. My dissertation work was interrupted by our first baby – boo-hoo, poor me! – but this would have taught me to plan properly for that interruption, and to keep pushing forward, rather than waiting for an endlessly receding week off when I would catch up on everything.

It is a short but intensely useful book about the importance of scheduling time for writing and making an ongoing effort instead of relying on unpredictable bursts of inspiration. As the title indicates, it’s an unromantic view of the creative process. Who would want a clockwork muse, you’d think? But as the subtitle says, this is “A Practical Guide” to getting the book done, a guide to doing the job without leaving blood on the keyboard and a trail of broken marriages in your wake.

Of course, some of my favourite books are by writers who drank all day and wrote all night hopped up on speed, but for most of us that would not be terribly productive. The goal set by this book is “to establish a regular writing routine that would actually work”, and the way to do that is by creating “a comfortable fit between your writing and the rest of your life”. This is for people who want to finish their books, and finish their books on schedule, saving the drama for the page.

There are similarities to the thinking behind NaNoWriMo: whether writing a thesis, dissertation or a book, The Clockwork Muse encourages writers to plan the length of a writing project, identify times you can and can’t write, take the pressure off a first draft, write whether you're in the mood or not, and develop the habit of steadily writing. The difference is that NaNoWriMo is a short sprint, shoving aside everything from your life for a single month.

This book aims to help with longer-term projects. It certainly doesn’t suggest trying to write a huge amount in one great heave. In fact, Zerubavel explains that he normally plans “to write only a page and a half a day”, two or three at most. He explains that “setting a sustainable pace will certainly help increase your chances of meeting your deadlines and avoiding disappointment and failure later on”.

When I come to write another novel, I’ll be certain to follow the advice given here – for example marking off well in advance the days on the calendar when I already know I won’t be able to write, and planning accordingly. Many of you may have to fit your writing in amongst the demands of work and the pleasures of family: get yourself a copy of this book. Even if you have to buy an expensive second-hand copy, it’ll pay off in the long term.

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