Strategic breakthroughs and the art of beating time

The Artful Strategist has a lesson from the Maestro.

In June 2011, after thirty years of monthly profit and loss, I left the boardroom for the final time and facing a long year in the cold storage of a non-compete, decided to go back to college. It was time to learn how to write.

Not you understand that I had spent the previous thirty years of my career in branding being completely incapable of wielding a pen, but apart from the occasional short story and the random urge to add to the EU poetry mountain, I hadn’t yet written anything over two thousand words. So I decided to find out if I could write long – long, in a year of learning to write dangerously.

They say that we all have a novel inside of us, and I decided it was time to discover where mine was located and whether it could be extracted without too much pain to me or my nearest and dearest.

So off I went, back to University for a whacky year in the utterly misnamed faculty of creative writing. Here I met a fascinating gallery of characters that included smug dysfunctional poets, sociopathic novelists and semi-sozzled journalists, but at least my fellow students turned out to be always generous, often clever and sometimes very, very funny.

This was to be the year of contending with the Big Deadline. Not the usual daily deadline of which I was the past-master, that is winging-it in the world of advertising, but squaring up to the mother of all big, fat hairy monsters of a deadline that was terrifying both quantitatively (the word-count) but also qualitatively (spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout).

To make matters worse, I was also required to submit a critical commentary with my novella that was the equivalent of making public a journey into the disturbing privacy of the authorial mind. James, my tutor, told me he had every confidence in my ability to deal with this challenge, but I remained anxiously unconvinced.

My first, and so far unfinished novel, if you’ll forgive the Schubertian parallel, is called Historyland and it is a dark comedy set in a distant and dystopian future. As a structuralist par excellence, I had prepared a detailed synopsis and plot outline that I enjoyed reviewing and editing with pride and affection. To my opinion, it had an engaging protagonist, great set pieces, a wonderful narrative arc, in fact everything, apart from the 30,000 words I now needed to write.

I drew up a week-by-week action plan – over the summer I would need to write a Conrad a day. A Conrad is the standard unit of creative writing inspired by Joseph Conrad that consists of a daily target of 750 words. It was, however, depressing to learn from visiting writers whose job it was to inspire us that these 750 have to be a good 750 words. Some of the biggest names in the business went on to depress me even more by telling us that they considered it was a good day if they were able to add a net 250 words to their magnum opus. All good writers we were told must learn to love the Delete Key.

My plan had also not taken into account the summer heat. The sun followed me back from the South of France to a South-facing Oxfordshire writing room that made long distance writing difficult. There were also a gazillion reasons I became adept at finding to procrastinate. Before long, I was dozing at my keyboard or found myself typing on autopilot. As the September deadline approached, my anxiety increased and little ripples of self-doubt even began to raise concerns about the first few thousand words I had committed to the Dropbox

But then something wonderful happened. As the countdown entered the final days, all sorts of collisions and creative leaps started to happen and disrupt my story for the good.

As I ate, wrote and slept Historyland, my subconscious explorations became richer and the outcomes more interesting. As vignettes from my life randomly resurfaced into the narrative, I was, as they say, now totally in the flow and qualitative and quantitative milestones seemed to be within my reach. What I realised was that whilst it’s great to have a plan – a Germanically disciplined and logically structured outline of a plan – it’s even better to have the pressure that comes from Time’s winged charioteer hurtling towards you at full pelt.

Leonard Bernstein, the maestro and great champion of Artful Learning knew all about this phenomenon. “If you want achieve great things,” he observed, “you have to have a plan, and not quite enough time.

Precept: Do not luxuriate either in the preparation or execution your plan. A fast ticking clock is a wonderful instrument for triggering a strategic breakthrough.