Tuesday, 21 February 2012

How To Intimidate A Writer

Alexander McCall Smith gets up at 5.00am every morning and writes 3,000 words until about 8.00am.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words every day without fail, Christmas and birthdays included.  John Mortimer wrote 1000 words a day before doing a full days work as a barrister.  Agatha Christie wrote two novels a year, every year.  So does Joyce Carol Oates, who also wonders what writers who struggle to complete one novel a year are doing with their lives. Georges Simenon once wrote a Maigret novel in eight days flat (admittedly, accompanied with plenty of Benzedrine).

Feeling intimidated yet?  Feeling guilty?  Unworthy?  Lazy?  Untalented?  

Yup.  Lots of writers work to a strict timetable.  Lots of writers have a daily target that they meet come hell or high water.  Lots of writers do it - but it doesn't mean that ALL writers have to do the same.  Nor does it mean that your work will be inferior if you only produce 200 words a day (that was Graham Greene's target BTW).  

Your circumstances may be different from, say Anthony Trollope who wrote 2000 words before going to his day job running the Post Office for the government.  He ordered his valet to wake him up and make sure he got up and started writing, regardless of what AT said at the time.  

Don't know about you, but I don't have a valet.  If there's getting up early to be done, it's going to happen by will power alone.  Sometimes it works - and sometimes it doesn't.  I try to get 1000 words done most days, and hope for nearer 2000.  When I'm on a writing retreat I can manage 3,500-4,000 words a day, because I've excluded everything else in my life.  

Word counts and targets are good, but they have to be your own, not ones you've taken from someone else.  Don't be intimidated because you know a prolific writer - maybe they will need to do a lot of re-writing to bring their splurge of words to the level you write at on your first draft.  You've got to remember you're not in competition with anyone else.  Just keep writing at a steady pace until you're done.  


Giles Diggle said...

Well put! And not a good idea to take a 15 year break from writing like I did. (That's another story!) But it's never too late to start again; mind you I had one heck of a Monday morning feeling when I eventually began again two years ago!

Now I just enjoy my x number of words a day, and it's better for you than a tobacco habit.

Sally Zigmond said...

Very true but these people still terrify me. Are they never interrupted by spouses, children, neighbours, postmen and other callers, husbands in need of feeding, not to mention mothers in need of a long gossip?

PS. Sarah. Your verification codes are impossible! It took me five attempts to post this.

Marina Sofia said...

You are so right! I have been so intimated by these stories (and by other people's productivity - 1000 words in half an hour, anyone?) that I have often not written anything at all for weeks or even months at a time. Now I have decided to relax and write something every day, even if it is just a rough version of a poem or a sentence on my novel or a diary entry trying to work out some plot line. So I am focusing on continuity rather than targets. So far it seems to be working well, touch wood! Great article, enjoyed that.

JO said...

Like Sally, examples like this leave me quivering in the corner.

Yes, I write every day. But if there's no time to settle to the WIP (getting up early just won't work!) then I have to settle for emails, blogposts etc. At least the words are flowing somewhere.

The problem for me, with targets like this, is how often I fail to reach them. And setting myself up to fail is ridiculous. After all, I'm writing because I love it, not to feel a failure.

Philip C James said...

It's the routine that helped them, and I so agree with your last post. Leave it too long between sessions and you spend the first 30' consulting the character spreadsheet.

Thanks for being our balet, Sarah!

Philip C James said...

Oops! That 'balet' should have read 'valet' :{

inless you've been moonlighting? Author, Actor, Balet Dancer? :)

Phillipa said...

Have I ever told you that I love you,Sarah Duncan?

I loathe 'competitive' writing - mainly because it makes me feel like a lazy failure. Like you, I sometimes write several thousand words a day but often I don't or I stop altogether.

Kit Berry said...

All very timely, when I'm fannying around here all day unable to get started at all! I think the clue to success is the routine, perhaps. I now have five and a half weeks to meet my deadline and I'm not quite half way through the book. I haven't done the maths (too scary) but lots of writing needs to be done pronto. Once I get going I'm pretty prolific, so it's a matter of getting that kick-start early in the day. I wonder how others achieve this? Thanks for such an interesting (and relevant) post.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I always aspire to sticking to targets etc. but in practise life happens! I tend to have periods where I am very good and then periods where it's all a bit of a struggle.

Sarah Duncan said...

Giles - A 15 year break is quite a long time...glad you're back and enjoying it again. We could start a list of things writing was better for you than. Pork pies? Alcohol?

Sally - sorry about the verification codes, they really are nothing to do with me, just whatever blogger puts up. I must admit I find them scary too, but try to tune out whenever someone tells me how many zillion words they can write in an hour.

Marina - Continuity is, I think, much more important than targets. Continuity keeps creativity going.

Jo - I agree, that's why I never get on with NaNoWriMo. When I've tried it, the targets just depress me and I write less than I usually would.

Phil - neither a balet dancer nor a valet, two jobs I lack any aptitude for.

Phillipa - awwww *blushes furiously*.

Kit - I like your thinking in not doing the maths, just saying a lot of writing needs to be done. I think one can spend lots of writing time on working out charts of how much you should be writing instead of actually doing it.

Pat - I'm like you. Sometimes I'm productive, other times I'm not. Life gets in the way...

Lesley Cookman said...

Oh, god! My deadline's end of March and I'm only half way through, too! On a good day I've written up to 3000, but mostly, I sigh with relief if I manage 1000. It's not like copy typing, (see Sarah's subsequent post) there's thinking, checking, mini-research - all sorts of things that comprise "writing". (Oh, and Twitter, and Facebook and blog posts ....)

Thanks for this post, Sarah, it's made me feel a lot better.

penny simpson said...

Sacrilege - but I wish Joyce Carole Oates hadn't bothered!

The worst story I heard about Trollope was that even if he had finished his novel, if he hadn't done his quota, then he would start a new one the same day. One can go off people!

Sarah Duncan said...

Lesley - I think that's the secret of targets, set them low, then hope to exceed them on a good day.

Penny - not a JCO fan then? I've heard the Trollope story too. Kind of annoying, isn't it?

Yellow said...

I have to say reading this made me feel a bit inadequate!

I've never tried writing a book but set myself a new years resolution of doing one. I started on Jan 9th and set myself a goal of 2,000 words minimum each day with one day off a month.

Unfortunately I couldn't quite do it. Instead of taking me a month to write 60,000 words it took me two months to write 86,000 words.

Does this mean that what I have written is complete rubbish? Should I have taken five years to achieve this like Rowling apparently did?

I'm just not sure after reading this. Actually I've never written anything before so how long should a book be?