I used to make a habit of writing a thousand words a day. I have done this in various weeks long or months long pursuits of a goal, but never consistently. Now, I’m content with around 500 words most days, or four out of five days. I’m doubtful of writers who claim to do their writing as if it is a job, four to eight hours a day. If you have that luxury, because there’s such a demand for your work, then more power to you--I just don’t believe you. That also might be for the factory of thriller writers, but for the literary writer--where the words are considered with regard--there’s more useful strategies.
I try to get a few pages in every day with some regularity, half of which might be channeled into an active piece aiming for publication. On a very good week, I might produce several thousand words, which is the level I think you have to be at to produce a novel with any useful efficiency. I say efficiency, because you have to keep at a novel. When you put it down for too long, you can lose the thread and the inspiration, if you had that to begin with, and it’s difficult to pick that up again unless you are a genius. The pressure comes in at this sustained level, because then you have to find the time to dedicate to the sometimes teeth-gnashing goals of a quota, in pages or word count.
For anyone who is starting out writing, the idea that you have to practice, that you have to produce every day in order to make any headway, can be daunting. It takes years to get there, but it also can happen overnight simply by vowing to write a bit each day.
Any writing can get the gears turning, though for the most part, I think this process is something you don’t hear a lot of established writers talking about: how unproductive daily writing can feel. And yet you have to get over that hump to produce the work, and remind yourself with great patience that writing is really about re-writing. For most of the last few weeks I’ve been up around 6 or 6:30, and written at least 2 pages, sometimes more. How focused was I on the story I’ve been writing? Loosely, I had an idea and wrote to that end. When I sat down to read my twenty plus handwritten pages recently this week, I caught glimpses of a Nabokov-ian spoof filtered through my own concerted seriousness to say something compelling.
Usually, or ideally and rarely, I would be burning with a story to write, and would crank it out as soon as possible--usually in the early morning. Sometimes I’ve awakened at four in the morning with an idea that I could not shake, and forced myself to write, then after an hour and a half fury of near illegible scratching on a legal pad, I go back to sleep. Some of the best things I’ve written have occurred like this. There’s something about the synapses in the morning that are unpredictable and wildly able to go anywhere, it can seem.
I imagine the reason writers don’t often talk about this process is because it’s not romantic, and doesn’t convey the heroic notion that usually puts the vocation into a hallowed and sacred act that leads to the magical writing of magnificent, well-received tomes for mass consumption--if we could all be so lucky. In contrast, that idea that one writes as a job can be equally daunting sounding. If a writer does treat it as a job, I can almost guarantee for the full four or eight hours they are not continuously writing--either that, or the writing is mostly garbage. There’s a kind of sweet spot about how much time and how much you write each day that is probably optimal, but there is no formula. Everyone has to discover their own practice.
I’m not sure writing isn’t ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I think because I have experienced the inspiration driving the writing, I’m inclined to believe anything less is wheel spinning--though wheel spinning can indicate that the mechanisms are at least working.
When you generate this much writing, at some point you have to realize its potential. At five or six thousand words, is it going to be a story you pursue or not? And then, further, are you working on a story, or a novel, or something else altogether? I’ve put some much editing time into even relatively short pieces, that I know a novel takes a yeoman effort. In the futile seeming generation of all of this raw material, you might begin to think it is all a waste of time.
It’s not a waste of time. All writing can lead to this next story or article that will, or could, be the piece that pushes you to the next thing. That’s largely what writing is about, having the faith to continue on in absolute uncertainty. This is easier to consider in thought than practice, but it’s true.