Just before Christmas, I spent 100 hours in an isolated farmhouse, taking requests for what to write in return for donations to Arvon, and then writing each commission live, on webcam, with every keystroke appearing as I typed it on www.100hours.tv.
The idea was to forego sleep as far as possible, maintaining a vow of silence, and releasing everything I wrote for free under a Creative Commons Zero licence.
It was an experiment. It was an experience.
Here’s some kind of summary.
One of the challenges and joys for me was deliberately inviting a wide range of forms and themes from the public. I wanted to test my range. I got my wish.
I wrote a lot of haikus, a Christmas story about a magic bookshop, a hexaflexagon poem, an online dating profile for my ex-wife, several sonnets including one about Jesus signing for Watford, ten tips on how to stop worrying, advice on living in the face of death, some Christmas cracker jokes, a written warning for an employee, a song for the Solstice, fan-fiction based on some of my own previous characters, many compliments, a near-future techno-thriller, a new version of Red Riding Hood, a short story about fitness videos, a schizophrenic dialogue with my online video image, a ghost story about Ted Hughes, a sci-fi parody, a childhood memoir, a tale of gentle euthanasia, a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian night, a brand new Mycroft Holmes adventure, a series of comedy sketches, an excerpt from an epic fantasy poem, something rather too sexy involving a handheld device, a horror story of hallucinating cheese, titles and straplines for a forthcoming documentary, messages for greetings cards, words for a picture book, tips for a lecture, and my opinions on nutmeg. That is not an exhaustive list.
I couldn’t predict what people would ask for and in the end I think there was enough variety to keep everyone entertained, most of all me. I owe everyone a debt of thanks for providing me with such stimulating cues.
I wrote over 100 pieces and nearly 44,000 words over those 100 hours, not including any notes I deleted along the way. Considering how much of that was poetry, that’s a pretty solid total.
On a normal working day, I’d usually be chuffed to write 2,000 words – but that would be to a higher degree of completion. Everything on the 100 Hours site now should be regarded as a first draft. A lot of it is embarrassingly raw and it’s taking all my self-control not to go back and correct the typos, let alone the structural problems.
One of the outcomes of the time-pressure and the sense of an impatient audience was that I was often rushing. The pacing of many of the longer pieces is off, and I’d love the opportunity to go back and smooth some of that out – though that would be against the spirit of the live experience. I also feel that I short-changed some donors while others got much more than they bargained for as I found a fruitful idea or simply got carried away.
Overall, I think there are a few really good pieces in there, pieces where my first draft isn’t far off a final draft. But there’s quite a lot of shite. I’m realistic about this. It’s been said that any writer should throw away 90% of what they write and, while I think my strike rate was somewhat better than that, it’s no surprise that the majority of the work was below my usual standard. Which leads me onto…
Another one of my goals was to see what effect sleep deprivation would have on me. I knew it was biologically possible to survive the whole 100 hours without sleep, but as it turned out, that would have been a bad idea.
After the first 24 hours, I noticed a severe drop in productivity and quality. I could barely string a sentence together. Since I could only raise money by writing, I decided to take a nap and rejoin the fray when rested – and the improvement was noticeable.
Though I persisted in working for as long as I could, I found that sleep made a marked difference in my speed and ability. I had 90 minutes’ sleep after 24 hours, the same on the second night, then five hours on the third night, which carried me through to the end at 4am on the fourth night.
Looking back at my work now, I can see a direct correlation between how rested I was and the quality of my writing. Friday morning produced the best work, after that five-hour nap.
The macho desire to power through without sleep was a foolish aim, but I’ve learned from it.
So here’s my grand claim: writing live online like this is a new type of performance art. It’s a combination of improv, online chat and oral storytelling, and the use of streaming video makes it seem all the more personal and immediate.
More than once, the feedback I received referred to the experience as magical, watching the text appear. I loved being able to see comments and heckles coming in via twitter and email as I wrote, and sometimes I responded to them on the live site. It felt like a distributed communal storytelling experience.
Here’s a photo of Hanna and Molly watching their story unfold as they travelled across Europe on a train. Apparently Hanna shouted, “Come on! What’s next?” at the phone.
Others described the experience as ‘so ridiculously exciting,’ ‘so cool,’ ‘an amazing experience to see,’ ‘totally awesome,’ and ‘really interesting to perv’.
So it’s not just about the reading. It’s about watching the writing.
I wasn’t sure if people would find that entertaining, but it seems it was the most effective part of the whole project.
This is where I need to give a huge shout-out to Alex Heeton and Riccardo Cambiassi for the work they put into developing the web tech to make this possible (for free, in their own time); and to Pusher for the server capacity that made it work smoothly; and finally to Ustream, for the free Pro licence that let us stream two cameras at once.
We didn’t get huge audience numbers. Over the four days, we had around 1500 unique visitors. Some better publicity would have helped with that, but frankly, I don’t think I could have coped with many more requests. The real downside is that we didn’t hit our fundraising target. We wanted £3,000; we raised £2,280. Better than nowt.
What was interesting was seeing which pieces of writing drew the crowds. Broadly speaking, the faster I wrote, the more people watched. Poetry was a turn-off, as I sat and wrestled silently with individual words. Short stories, with their narrative hooks and relatively fast-flowing prose, were more popular. But most attractive of all were the opinion pieces: the near-stream-of-consciousness essays on the state of TV and the fragility of human life seemed to get people watching and commenting, partly because of the rapid flow of words but also, I suppose, because the topics were debatable and not purely fictitious stories.
Having said that, I had a lot of fun writing a romantic poem from a guy to a girl as they both watched, getting email and twitter comments from both of them as I went, and ultimately receiving a reciprocal poem from the girl in response. That audience of two produced a lot of lovely noise.
Everything on the site is free for you to copy, republish, remix and make money from if you can. Feel free to loot whatever you like. I hope some of it will live on.
A couple of stories on there are unfinished, and I particularly want to complete the modern Red Riding Hood tale.
There was some discussion about publishing the whole thing as a collection, but the variable quality makes me reluctant. Moreover, the lack of immediacy, the missing element of performance, would rob the stories of their original power. Maybe there’s an ebook solution, showing the stories appearing as they were written in real-time? Perhaps a collection would still carry some power if simply presented as the product of rapid improvisation.
In any case, I intend to perform more live writing events in future. I don’t think the sleep-deprivation element added to the quality, so maybe I’ll limit the time to a single day, or even to an hour at a time. And I should really try to figure out a way of making money out of this for myself and not just for worthy causes.
As always, I’m open to suggestions.