At about 11:30 am on Tuesday 12 June, a group of writers surrounded me at my desk, handed me a glass of sparkling wine and took photos while I desperately copied a group of hyperlinks and emailed them to my colleague at a desk three metres away. Shortly before that, I'd been uploading ebooks to the if:book website and felt a pang of completely unexpected emotion. Uploading files had never felt so weighty before. Within about an hour, a photo would appear via Twitter of a print copy of the same book visiting Times Square and I would end up in a sad approximation of a human pyramid. It was a strange couple of days.
I'm talking of course about the 24-Hour Book. In that couple of days, nine writers, aided heroically by ten editors and a support team, created a book over twenty-four hours. We called it Willow Pattern.
Plenty of ideas, thoughts, and observations have already flowed from the project and more will come. But what follows here is a bower-bird collection of the early reactions from the people involved.
Before the day itself, P.M. Newton thought a lot about what she had let herself in for. Despite my assurances that terror was unnecessary - if:book really just wanted data, not high literature - the feeling was present in various strengths in all of us beforehand:
You know the expression LOL, and how very rarely you actually do it? Laugh Out Loud. Well, I read Simon's email and I LOLed. Oh how I LOLed. I barked with laughter. I hooted. If I'd been drinking coffee I'd have done a shoot out through the nose over the keyboard spray. I answered yes, instantly. It sounded so insane that I was still chuckling as I shot back my reply.
Not laughing now.
Now, I visit the 24-Hour Book page and watching the countdown clock ticking away, the moment of truth growing closer and closer, and I'm thinking ...... WHAT WAS I THINKING?
But as often happens, the terror slips away as the reality and grind of having to follow through on our promises took hold. Though not until after a short break, as Angela Slatter describes the book's inauspicious start:
Like all true writers the moment Simon dropped the chequered flag and shouted ‘Start your laptops’, we immediately procrastinated like the professionals we are: toilet breaks, coffee-making, examining TimTam packets, heating hot packs, etc. But after five minutes or so of prepatory time-wasting, we sat down and got to work.
Our Lead Editor, Keith Stevenson summarised the atmosphere of the room:
I busied myself with reading the drafts as they unfolded, refamiliarising myself with the Pressbooks platform where the writing, editing and publishing would all occur, and trying some test epub exports and different format options to view the results. I thought it would be a long, slow day and I’d brought books to read and tv shows to watch in the ‘down time’, but there was none. The collective focus on the creation of the 24hb drew us all in. The concentration in the room was palpable, creative and workmanlike at the same time. There was a job to do, a time to do it in and any ego that might have been brought to the table – not that any was in evidence – was quickly subsumed. Everyone was pulling together, sharing dialogue, ideas, characters, quickly bargaining on plot points: ‘don’t kill her off, I need her in mine’, ‘Okay, but can you get the vase to level 4 of the library?’ And, of course, there was bragging rights about word count: hey, they might be collaborating, but they were still authors.
Nick Earls described the experience of constructing a story on the fly, based on the scraps of story elements in the room:
If you’re thinking that I didn’t have a story, you’re right. I can’t even say confidently that I ended up with one. But I was eighth in a running order of nine, and the further in you get the more you have to realise you’re a part of a whole. So I was a scavenger, a hyena in the darkness at the edge of the camp, ducking in and out and grabbing what I could.
We had a story wall, and characters and ideas (large breasts, giant spiders …) were stuck on it as the day went on. They were appearing in someone’s chapter and, in the interests of something not as sensible as continuity but perhaps in the spirit of the game, I decided as many of them as possible would end up in mine too.
And Rjurik Davidson, the first of the authors to complete a daft of his chapter, had this to say about the whole process:
So what did the writers take away? For P.M. Newton:
...the most important thing I didn't so much learn, as have reconfirmed, is that nothing – and I’ll repeat – NOTHING beats time. Not having enough of it, to think, to plan, to write and rewrite, and more importantly, to let the words sit, and then come back to them with fresh eyes, that really makes you appreciate just how important time is in writing.
It's perfectly true that to create the best stories possible, nothing beats the care and attention of an author over time, but I've started to wonder exactly how much time a work needs. Where is that balance between getting the words down and crafting them into the best words they can be? The answer is different for every writer. Probably different for every work.
We wrote a book that may be raw and rushed, but contains an energy and punch that I suspect would be impossible to replicate in in a languid tenth draft. It's a product of its time and place and an achievement everyone involved can rightly stake a proud claim to.
Rjurik Davidson realised how much of our writing behaviour is learned (and can therefore be modified or even perhaps unlearned) :
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.
As one of the writers taking part, I can easily identify with this. I found myself apologising to people who had arrived on the day without me noticing. The intense need to get the words down, followed by the even more intense need to produce and dispatch the files in time was all consuming (I feel myself tensing up just writing about it).
But the achievement is there. Some time today or tomorrow, I expect to receive the first locally printed proof copy. From there, Willow Pattern will make its way into the grown-up publishing world and we'll be onto the next experiment. Whatever it turns out to be.
If you want to see the how book unfolded in forensic detail, scroll through the liveblog below.