Saturday, July 21, 2012

What 1,000 Words Looks Like

(As this week began, I had planned on writing about one subject: Batman and specifically the three movies Christopher Nolan directed. This post here was going to be offered next week. After the unspeakable tragedy in Colorado, today is not the day for that post. We here at Do Some Damage offer our sincerest condolences and prayers to the victims and to the families that now are absent a loved one. Writing about writing seems so trivial and, to a degree, it is. But it is on days like yesterday where we are all reminded of the preciousness of life and all the tribulations and triumphs we endure. Each one of us copes with tragedy in different ways, and writing, for many of us, is one of those methods. Whatever you do, do it with passion and intensity and joy and abandon with as much zeal and verve as you possess.)

Accountants do not need any tricks to do their job. Neither do oilfield engineers, carpenters, teachers, or bus drivers. In my day job as a technical writer, I also do not need very many tricks to get my job done. However, when it comes to writing fiction, something seems to happen. We get stuck, we don't know where to go, we may not be able to think up interesting plots, we may not be able to carve out the time, and any number of other things that get in the way. Why is that? Is it because of the inherent creative nature of what we do? Is it, perhaps, the muscle of the imagination is the thing that needs to be honed and exercised?

The most obvious way in which we fiction writers measure our progress is by word count, the number of words that we have imagined into existence. Naturally, if you were measuring yourself by word count, the most basic metric is the daily word count. And, in that sense, the myth of the 1,000 words per day writing pace has developed. This is a modern metric, not nearly the pace and the output of the old pulp masters, and yet, quite a bit faster than the pace of some modern literary authors who publish a big book once a decade. If you do the simple math, it goes something like this: if you write 1,000 words per day, you will write 365,000 words per year. Since most novels are roughly 90,000 words, it naturally falls that you could conceivably write three 90,000-word novels per year.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about the new expectations of readers and how established authors are changing to meet demand. For certain name brand authors who publish one novel a year like clockwork, the article mentioned that publishing houses are beginning to wonder if these authors can't add in a novella, or short story, or a small e-book to fill in the gaps between novel publications. Having never published a best seller myself, I can't speak to what goes in to making one. But back to the 1,000 words per day metric, one would think that that is an achievable goal, or at lease one to strive for.

The late Ray Bradbury, who died in June, was a prolific author. No, he did not publish 3 books per year, but he did do something for much of his adult life that he advocates all writers do: write every day. Soon after he passed away, I pulled out my copy of his writing book, Zen and the Art of Writing. It was in this book where he advocated writing something––anything––per day. Here is one of the many money quotes from this book: “If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both. You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

Writing something every day isn't that difficult, really. If you want to be a writer, you just do it. But how does that compare with that modern 1,000-word metric? One of the arguments that have made for myself is that the thousand-word goal seems like a very high and threshold to reach. True, I don't *have* to meet that goal, but without setting some sort of goal, one would just meander, right? I mean, if you wrote a paragraph a day, you would be following Bradbury's advice, but you would not ever complete a novel.

So this past week, I did little experiment. I went back to my Harry Truman novel and selected a chapter at random. It turned out to be in early one, chapter 4 I think. I want to note two things: how long it took me to literally type one thousand words and how long it took me to type each page. So with a copy of chapter 4 next to me, I started typing. At the end of the first full-page (double-spaced), 6:15 had elapsed. By the end of the second page, I was at 12:16 and I completed the third by 18:30. It took me an additional 20 seconds to type the remaining few words to get me up to 1,000. It doesn't take a math genius to pretty much see the rate of typing, that being around 6 min. a page. As you may have already figured out, 1,000 words is approximately 3 pages of double-spaced typed manuscript with one-inch margins on the side.

Three pages. That's all. I was surprised when I saw those three pages printed out. In my mind, the entire chapter was around 1,000 words, and the idea of writing a chapter per day seemed quite daunting. In reality, I chapter is 7-1/2 pages long. That equals approximately 2500 words.

Now, your your response will be the obvious one: I knew exactly what you're typing and all you did was type. I did no creating. That's true, but if you examine the amount of time it took me to type those 1,000 words––19 min.––you'll realize that it's less than half hour. One would like to think that, given eleven min. to come up with a scene or a bit of dialogue, that you could easily type out the 1,000 words it could take to describe that scene in the next nineteen minutes.

Thirty minutes. Half an hour. When we talk about carving out time to write each and every day, my mind almost always goes in to the hour block of time. And, given our busy lives, I can honestly say that finding a hour a day can be challenging, even though I want to be a prose writer. That was how my reasoning went before this week: which hour of the day do I want to carve out to write 1,000 words? After my little experiment, I am rephrasing the question: what half an hour do I want to carve out each day to write 1,000 words?

While this might be easier said than done, my modus operandi of writing is via outline. My Truman novel was written with the complete outline before I started. Yes I revised along the way, but what having it outline gave me was a purpose for each writing session. I didn't have to think what I was going to write, I merely had to pick up the next index card in the outline and write that one scene.

In the years since my first novel, I have experimented with other types of writing regimens. To date, as I like to jokingly say, it is taking me longer not to write another novel that did take to write my first. I think it is time to go back to what I know works: outlining and producing. And, after the initial burst of creativity to create the outline, might it only take me a half an hour a day over 90 or so days to create a novel?

I'm looking forward to finding out the answer.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

Scott, for me the answer is a resounding yes. It takes me about 45 minutes to do 1000-1200 words, and that makes the idea of writing a 100,000 word novel much less daunting. I usually do that early in the morning before I leave for work. My day goes so much better knowing that I got my writing in, and sometimes when I get home I can knock out another 1000. I like short chapters, so yeah that comes out to a chapter a day most of the time. Hope it goes well for you.

Thomas Pluck said...

If you think about what you're going to write first- take a walk, etc- and set aside the time to write, even 30 mins, it works.
And my friend Matt "FRank Sinatra in a Blender" McBride wrote his novel in 35 second breaks on an assembly line... so quit making excuses. write.

Jay Stringer said...

Don't time it and don't set a word count. The more rules you throw in, the more barriers you'll have. Just sit and write until it feels done, then start again until it feels better.