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Break on through

July 26, 2009 2 comments

I’m willing to bet there are far more unfinished novels sitting in desk drawers than will ever be finished, let alone published.

The whole process of writing a book is a winnowing out; for every 10 people who have an idea for a book, only one starts in earnest, for every 10 who start, only one finishes, and for every 10 who finish, perhaps only one goes on to look for a publishing deal. And the odds get much worse from there on.

Perhaps it is the magnitude of the task that is daunting. A typical novel runs between 70,000 and 100,000 words, which is a lot to create from that manic spark which says :”I’ve got a great idea for a book.” Even George Orwell could only find 30,000 words for Animal Farm, although he topped 100,000 in 1984.

How many words can an author write each day? It varies enormously, as do authors’ methods of work. Tom Sharpe said he wrote Riotous Assembly in four weeks, and also revealed his working schedule: early morning to midday and 3pm to 7pm. It works out at about 3,000 words per day over an eight-hour day.

Another fan of the early start is Jackie Collins. No matter what you may think of her prose, she has completed over 25 novels and so presumably has some insight into writing discipline.

The most difficult thing is starting. And this is the secret. You don’t do anything first. You don’t even get dressed. You go straight there and you start to write for half an hour, and then you get dressed,” she said once in an interview.

To confirm that we can learn even from writers whose work we may not personally admire, Jeffrey Archer admits to a rigid writing schedule: “I get up by 5am, write for two hours between 6am and 8am and again between 10am and 12 noon and between 2pm and 4pm and between 6pm and 8pm. You have got to be self-disciplined. Nobody gets anywhere without working hard. Lazy people will get killed. You have got to love what you do.

Garrison Keillor also agrees with the notion that if you don’t start early in the day, you probably won’t start at all.

The best time to write is first thing in the morning, and you simply plow in and go as long as you can, and then take a coffee break, and resume. When the spring of inspiration dries up, usually sometime in the early afternoon, one simply shifts over to editing, which is an unending job and one with its own pleasures, and when that begins to fade, it’s time to close up shop.

I wish I had the facility with words of these writers. My maximum is usually 1,000 words per day, including editing, as I am one of those writers who goes back and tinkers with sentences as I write them. That takes me from early morning to somewhere around lunchtime, after which I will ponder what the next day’s writing is liable to be.

Under ideal circumstances, that means I should complete a 90,000-word manuscript in three months. In the event, FOP‘s first draft took five and a half months, during which time I backtracked several times after losing confidence in my approach.

So I don’t think it’s the discipline which stops most writers; it must surely be a lack of confidence in what they’re writing. If they had the belief that they were progressing every day towards a worthwhile end, they would continue. But for many first-time authors, this is the biggest hurdle. How do they know that what they are writing is worth anything, especially if they’ve had a bad day at the keyboard?

Some writers never have bad days. Stephen King, for example.

For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good,” he wrote in his book On Writing.

We’re not all Stephen Kings, though, and most authors face moments of significant self-doubt. It is very liberating to discover the depths of despair that a great writer like George Orwell could sink into while writing his novels.

While writing 1984, he wrote to his agent: “I am struggling with this book, which I may finish by the end of the year — at any rate I shall have broken the back by then, so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn. It is a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.

The turn of phrase is interesting. Orwell writes of “breaking the back” of his book, as though it were some hostile beast he was wrestling with, which is probably an accurate reflection of how many authors view their novels. Some, like Collins and Archer, seem to sail through their work without a backward look (although Archer does admit to multiple rewrites).

For the rest of us, though, the task is to plough on, to crash through until the day we can write “The End“. Then we must go back and grapple with the “dreadful mess” we have created.

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Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: , , ,