Monday, June 16, 2014

1000 Words A Day Is Not A Rule For Everyone

On this Bloomsday I thought I would talk a little bit about writing... 
...
I think a big myth about writing is the idea that to become a good writer you need to write a 1000 words a day, every day. Preferably before breakfast. This of course was and is the habit of a lot of great writers. Trollope and Somerset Maugham were the masters of getting their work done early in the morning and then taking the rest of the day off.  JG Ballard (my favourite British novelist of the twentieth century) would get the kids off to school, pour himself a stiff glass of whisky, line up the typewriter and force himself to write a 1000 words, rain or shine. It's good discipline if you can do it but it's not me. Not me at all. First of all my brain doesn't function that well before breakfast or indeed for a good while after breakfast and then there's the 1000 words themselves. 1000 words a day is 7000 a week and before you know what's happening in 3 months you've got a new novel. But if I was to do this it wouldn't be writing it would (to borrow a line from Truman Capote) merely be typing. I go slow. I spent a month working on the first page of The Cold Cold Ground: on a good day I think I managed a couple of sentences. Many many combinations of lines and sentences went into the wastepaper basket. Indeed the great Isaac Bashevis Singer said that the "wastepaper basket is the writer's best friend." At the end of the month I had a couple of pages that I felt worked and a few weeks later I had a chapter that I thought worked. If I'd been under an artificial pressure of 1000 words a day I would have stressed out and I wouldnt have come up with anything. In my opinion the first page of a novel is very important. It deserves to tinkered and fussed over like a poem. You should spend however long it takes to get page 1 right. And even more important than the first page is the first line. That deserves to be tinkered with even more. I read so many books with a shit opening line and my heart just sinks because I know the author didn't put any thought into it at all. Whereas: "A screaming comes across the sky." or  "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." or "Mother died today." or "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K."
...
I'm not really working on a book at the moment so I'm not doing any writing at all. And this too I think is a good thing. If you're writing 1000 words a day when do you take time off to reflect and to read? Reading and reflection is what keeps a writer fresh not more bloody writing. Even the prolific Philip K Dick would take time off to read and play with his favourite kitty. So what am I saying here? Nothing very radical. I'm saying that if the 1000 words a day thing works for you that's great, but if it doesn't don't sweat it. Taking your time and making your book good is far far more important than the arbitrary word count on your computer. 

40 comments:

Alan said...

Adrian,Certainly a craft pursued with ardor and tenacity shows a level of professionalism that distinguishes the talented from the mediocre.Yes indeed there are many ways to Rome.Ballard like you informed his work from his own experiences especially with the Japanese so I do not wonder at your admiration for him,Do you enjoy the process of writing or just the results, or both? I admire your intensity of pursuing a goal and wanting to get it right.How different form the worshippers of Mamon and those who do a job and say it results were good enough.Best Alan

Realbooks4ever said...

Hi Adrian!
Just wanted to say hi and I finished COLD, COLD GROUND and loved it. I've never been disappointed with any of your books.
Keep writing the good stuff!

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

It depends. Sometimes I enjoy the process and sometimes I do not. I'm not a fan of the work I have to do when a deadline is looming and I dont enjoy editing that much either. But I do love chapter 1 of a new project - a blank computer screen, lots of ideas and the notion that the book could go anywhere or be about anything - thats fun!

adrian mckinty said...

Realbooks

Thanks for that. think CCG is one of my better efforts.

Anonymous said...

Adrian

Your fussing pays off - much of CCG is a poem and the whole book is a great read.
I'm not gifted - I write essays to stave off memory loss. It takes me forever to complete a short piece. I only hope to be honest and not make myself cringe.

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

Honesty is the key. Werner Herzog has this thing he likes to call ecstatic truth which for him means being true to the project not necessarily true true to the facts. Does that make sense?

seana graham said...

It's funny, but I think writers both want to know what other writers did, like Trollope, but also to shed their masters at some point.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I've read 4 of those Paris Review Interview books to attempt to get a better method for myself but it hasnt really worked. Your method is your method for better or for worse I think.

Although I do like this quote from Stephen King: Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work."

seana graham said...

I think that is a thing Anthony Trollope would have said as well.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I admire anyone who can not only start writing a book but also finish it , no matter how crappy it is.
That so many writers produce good work as well amazes me.

I would need deadlines. I was one of those who starred at exams in school but crashed and burned when they introduced continuous assessment. Same in the business world.

Ken said...

Adrian

I am so glad that you write the way you do. It is such a pleasure to read your work. Too much crime fiction reads like plot bullet points. The care that you put into your sentences clearly shows. I look forward to your next novel.

Dana King said...

Whatever you're doing works; keep it up.

Someone once asked James Golding if he wrote every day. His reply: I do when I'm writing. Time is needed to recharge any batteries. I've pretty much taken the summers off from anything but an occasional polish of short story, and I think it's made me more productive.

Since it's Bloomsday, here's my favorite writing story. I friend enters James Joyce's writing room to find Joyce sprawled across his desk. The friend asks, "James! What's wrong? Is it the writing?"
Joyce: Of course it's the writing.
Friend: How many words did you get in today?
Jyce: Seven.
Friend: That's not a bad day for you, james.
Joyce: But I don't know what order they go in.

(Joyce may have said something closer to "I don't know the order in which they are to go," This is not a literal transcription.)

Matt said...

Writing a thousand words a day? Some days I don't have the strength to read a thousand words a day!

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Yeah its a nice thing that someone sat down in a chair and decided that she or he was going to tell us a brand new story that no one had ever heard before. THats always a pretty cool idea.

adrian mckinty said...

Ken

Its the only way I can do it. Its the only way I know how to do it. I'm lucky that some people appreciate the method.

adrian mckinty said...

Dana

Thats a good story.

Here's a Yeats story.

Yeats wife comes in to Yeats office to find him looking unwell.

Whats the matter darling, she asks.

I'm feeling really terrible, he replies, I can only write prose today.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

Yeah I know what you mean.

Matty Campbell said...

Mr. McKinty -- You have completely ruined me. I have never left a comment on anything and yet here I am. I am so hooked on your books, I just shed a tear when I read that you weren't working on anything at the moment. I'm jonesing for another Sean Duffy.

adrian mckinty said...

Matty


Thank you for the kind words!

Yeah I tried a couple of things that didnt work out. I tried a football hooligan story based on a true of something that happened to me in 1987 but I couldnt get on that and I tried my hand at a war novel set in Camp Bastion loosely based on my little brothers experiences but that didnt work out either...

I'm sure I'll think of something though....

Although Stephen King wd say: DONT SIT AROUND WAITING FOR INSPIRATION, JUST WRITE!!!!

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Alan Glynn said...

Oh man, I'm so with you on this one. I go for months without writing - between books, and sometimes even when I'm supposedly writing one. The flip side, unfortunately, is that the self-loathing dial tends to strain at eleven when I'm not writing. But I've no interest in writing just to be writing. I'm slow, too. It's all about inching forward - can't proceed until I'm rock solid with what comes before. And though I've tried, I'm too set in my ways to change now.

seana graham said...

Alan, it's too bad you don't have access to the same kind of performance enhancers that they guy in Dark Fields did.

On second thought, maybe it's just as well.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Damn it you beat me to it!

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

2nd Seana's comment!

But its also good to get a little distance from what you're doing too, no? I admire Stephen King's work ethic greatly but if he'd taken a couple of years off maybe the most recent SK novel wdn't have looked exactly like the SK novels he was writing 40 years ago.

seana graham said...

Sorry, but I'm a fan of Mr.Glynn and couldn't resist. Besides, I think I'm pretty sure I'm caught up on his books and so he'd better get cracking.

seana graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan Glynn said...

Seana, Adrian, yes there was certainly an element of wish fulfilment in the idea for The Dark Fields. And I agree with your idea, Adrian, of a bit of distance being a good thing. You talk of the tyranny of the 1000 words a day (happened maybe half a dozen times in my life) - another tyranny is the one book a year, which is now being seen as a borderline slacker pace. I've been doing one every two years and am lucky (very) that my publishers (Faber and Picador USA) have been fine with that. But now, back to work . . .

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Dont change a bloody thing. You're fortunate to be with Faber. Its quite the collection theyve got of Mick auteurs over there: you, and Eoin and now Lucy Caldwell doing really interesting things with the genre with every new book. Its always worth the wait.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Dont change a bloody thing. You're fortunate to be with Faber. Its quite the collection theyve got of Mick auteurs over there: you, and Eoin and now Lucy Caldwell doing really interesting things with the genre with every new book. Its always worth the wait.

Tom and Linda said...

As hard as it is to write well, I can only imagine the joy when Duffy (via your imagination) comes up with one of his clever lines. My wife and I listen to your books in audio version and we break out with tears of laughter more often than we deserve. Are we going to see him on TV anytime soon?

adrian mckinty said...

T&L

The Duffy books have been optioned, but that doesnt really mean a whole lot. Dead I Well May Be has been optioned for nearly 10 years now and nothing has happened.

Tom McGraw said...

A thousand words a day, yikes, I think of Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, and look what he put out. And that brings us back to Stephen King, whatever works.

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