Exactly three weeks ago, on 14th January 2019, I began a draft of my first novel. I won’t discuss its contents here, but I thought I’d write about the experience of writing at speed.
Driving that train
First of all, how quickly have I written? As of today, my word count is 42,903 words, written in 21 days. That means I’ve averaged 2,043 words per day. That is above the pace required for National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated NaNoWriMo) which takes place every year in November. To “win” that contest, one must write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to 1,667 words per day. I was forgetful (and perhaps fearful) last year so I didn’t participate (I did, however, write a blog post for every day of November on my other blog.). Instead, I set myself a goal to finish 80,000 words in 6 weeks.
My speed is around Stephen King’s, as he describes in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I just finished reading. In it, he reports writing 2,000 words per day. It is a reasonably high rate among writers. Graham Greene and Hemingway, for example, aimed for 500 per day. Michael Crichton, on the other hand, apparently managed 10,000.
I, however, did not set a single daily word count for the period. Instead I’ve used the excellent Pacemaker Planner, which allows varying the pace, and even reducing it at the weekends. Here’s my graph-to-date:
As you can see, I was writing less than 2,000 per day at the start, but the past week I’ve written over 2,000 every day, and often more than 3,000.
On writing ritualistically
As I had no sense of whether I could sustain this rate, I set myself some fairly conservative ground rules:
- I am not editing, and I am barely re-reading what I’ve written. This may sound strange, but King, Dorothea Brande, and other writers, as well as the excellent Learning How to Learn course all encourage separating the writing process from the editing process. I am very much in rough draft mode.
- I go to sleep with my phone in airplane mode. When I wake up, I don’t turn off airplane mode until I’ve hit my word count.
- I wake up naturally, i.e. with no alarm (I am extremely fortunate not to be employed at the moment). I begin writing immediately upon waking.
- I don’t read anything or speak to anyone until I’ve hit my word count. I have severely restricted social media and messaging outside the writing time as well, and I don’t read the news. If I get stuck, I meditate or go for a walk (without listening to anything).
- I don’t make coffee until I’ve written at least a thousand words. This is possibly superstitious, but it’s an experiment related to the idea that coffee might reduce creativity. Sometimes I don’t drink it at all, but at other times I struggle to hit the word goal without it.
- I’m restricting the fiction that I read, out of concern that it will influence my writing. I cannot resist reading altogether however, and have read six nonfiction books so far this year, much of it motivational.
- I am not showing the writing to anyone, nor do I discuss what I am writing in detail with friends, though I’m very keen to discuss some of the ideas with which I’m grappling. I have benefited immensely from one-on-one conversations and high-level critiques of my ideas from friends.
What I’ve learned
The experience has surprised me in many ways.
First, I had assumed that writing at speed would be more difficult than writing at a lower rate. This turned out to be wrong. Not only has it gotten easier to write as I’ve gained momentum, but ideas surface more often, including on walks (every writer seems to recommend walking). Sometimes ideas come to me in dreams.
Second, I don’t seem to have any problem hitting the word goal. This morning I hit my goal just after 9am, after waking up around 7. Most days, I’m done by 11; the latest was around 2:30pm. This was a surprise. I don’t know whether this is a result of my rituals, whether it’s because I feel I have a lot to say, or whether I’m a freak in this regard. It’s just much easier to write this amount than I thought it would be.
Third, although it does produce some mental strain, and I sometimes fear whether inspiration will be absent when I need it, I feel like I could happily write at this rate indefinitely. I can see why Trollope reportedly started a new novel the same day he finished the last (he wrote around 3,000 words per day, publishing 47 novels in 35 years).
Fourth, I currently feel that the first draft, at least, will be longer than 80,000 words. I may need to cut or rewrite substantial parts, but I’m not worried about doing that. I am also not particularly concerned about whether the end result is good or not, because I’m finding the process so enjoyable.
Finally, and I may live to regret this later on, neither the plot nor the structure seems to matter very much. I did not begin with a clear idea of what I wanted to write. I have a strange faith (again, one I may regret later) that the structure is working itself out. Here’s Stephen King, which I thought was interesting enough to reproduce at length. So far, it matches up very well with my experience:
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).
Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same. No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last
resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.
Stephen King, On Writing
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.
On the whole, I’d highly recommend spending a month or two writing at a high rate. It need not be several thousand words each day, but set an ambitious goal for a single large project, and see what you get done.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve tried this before, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!