Sunday, September 15, 2013

1000 Words A Day And Other Myths About Writing

Another myth about writing, good writing that is, is that 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. At the Brisbane Writers Festival last week I talked to half a dozen writers who are able to do the 1000 words before breakfast thing and they all seemed happy and successful. 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. I also spent a month on the first couple of pages of I Hear The Sirens In The Street. 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. 
So what am I saying here? 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.