Alright, we’ve discussed the writing habit, or muscle if you prefer. Now I want to talk about something that is closely related to “the habit” and “your process”: output.
As writers, as people really, we like to see what we have to show for our work. Being able to look at a screen/notebook/printed pages and say, “wow, this is what I got done today,” is a key part to our esteem as workers, as writers, as creators. Eventually this question might also cross your mind: “How much should I be writing?”
In his memoir of craft On Writing (2000, Pocket Books) Stephen King mentions that he does ten thousand words a day. For those of you who can’t do the conversion from words to pages in your head that’s forty (OMG!) pages a day. Author of The Phedre’s Trilogy Jacqueline Carey, in an interview with Writer’s Market, mentioned that while writing the first book in the series she made a deal with herself that she couldn’t shower until she got at least a paragraph…and some weeks she went days without one.
Recently I overheard two of my colleagues in my writers’ group talking about writing. One of them asked the other how long it takes them to write. Of course I perked up and listened doubly hard. The other one answered: “I take about three to four hours,” and I thought this was reasonable, “per page.” My mind was blown. I couldn’t believe the person takes that long for each page.
For me, if I’ve spent 3 to 4 hours on a page it’s a bad day. I’m not feeling it; I know I have to admit I’m beat and take a break. The project I’m working on with my writers’ group I wrote over the summer. I wrote it in full lit-jock mode so not only was I hitting my five page quota easily I was averaging between 12 and 20 pages most days.
There are two very different amounts of output associated with working like this. I want to stress that my colleague’s pages have beautiful language (they better), but this is a stylistic choice that wouldn’t necessarily change if he worked faster. In the writers’ group we usually deal with a couple people each week with no more than a maximum of thirty pages. The last time we looked at this colleague’s pages he turned in 10 and those were a couple days late. My pages don’t have beautiful language, but then I didn’t write that type of story, and I’m done with the whole novel, in fact I finished in the summer, I turn in 30 pages every time I’m up for the group.
Now before you think I’ve thrown down the gauntlet, or I’m condemning my colleague, I want to clarify a few things. First, I’m a 10 on the personality scale (my scale only goes up to 10) so every story I write I’m excited about. Second, I have a crazy work ethic and if I don’t get at least five pages a day I feel like I’ve wasted my time. Third, I believe in the power of editing. One of my favorite things to say is: Editing lets you craft the story you thought you wrote the first time around.
Some of you might be thinking that taking 3 to 4 hours per page means you can cut down on the editing process. Well, that’s a false premise, because the 3 to 4 hours per page factors into that. Obviously my colleague is taking the time to make each sentence perfect (or near enough) before moving on. So there’s still editing, it’s just built into the writing process. Secondly, it cuts down on the editing on a basic, sentence level, but not necessarily when it comes to the story itself. Do you know that old military saying? “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Well, no manuscript survives intact after first contact with readers (agents/editors/focus groups/what-have-you). So you still might have to change the story multiple times to clarify things or flesh things out.
Again, I’m not drawing a line in the sand and saying writing slowly is bad. I’m not even saying it’s less or more work, taking less or more time. What I want to make clear is if you write fast or you write slowly it’s roughly the same amount of work either way. I want everyone to be aware of that.
The point I want to make with this post is this: all progress is positive. It doesn’t matter if after 4 hours you have three pages or twenty, you’ve done a good job. If you’re only getting a few pages after hours of writing it doesn’t matter. Seriously, your process, your style, your output will change, should change, as you mature as a writer. The important thing is you’re writing.
And to put it simply: if you want to write more, write more.