Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hours or pages?

Even if you're really cooking on your work, you have to stop sometime. I haven't met anyone who can consistently write all day, or write, say, ten pages in a day. At some point, even when you are on a tear, the writing can go from excellent to moribund in an instant. The worst part is, you often can't tell when the transition takes place. When I was writing Mailman, my fourth novel (and the one I had the most fun writing), I would sometimes exceed my allotment, in the excitement of the moment. When it came time to pare down the monstrous thing I'd made, I could tell precisely where I went off the rails each day--it was as clear as cracks in the sidewalk.

Many writers don't have the luxury of being able to maintain a consistent schedule. But when I'm working on any kind of extended piece, especially a novel, I do my best to set aside the same time each day for writing. I'm a morning person--I do almost all my writing these days between 8am and 11am on the sofa, in my pajamas, with my HP laptop (running Ubuntu Jaunty of course) on a little lapdesk that Rhian had before we met, the underside of which is stuffed with little styrofoam pellets to create a comfortable contour for your legs. But it isn't the hours that form the parameters of my working day--it's the pages. I have to write four pages, period. If it's mostly dialogue, or short paragraphs, I finish quickly. If it's complex or sustained narrative, it takes longer. If I'm still excited after four, I might continue for one more, but I learned my lesson with Mailman. More likely, I run out of steam after two, and have to push myself. But the forced writing is usually better than the overrun writing. This is the Graham Greene method: quantity, not time.

Other writers go by the clock. They will write for a set number of minutes or hours. When Rhian was working on getting her chops back after a long break, she wrote ten minutes a day for a couple of weeks, no more. Eventually she was ready to expand. (I dunno how long she's going these days...she is very secretive about her writing habits). I understand the time-limit method, but my mind doesn't work that way--I have an amount of work I can do in a day, and it doesn't matter how long it takes. Four pages is, I've discovered, the amount of half-decent writing I can do, and I am not eager to mess with the formula.

What's your method, hours or pages? Or are you completely haphazard? And if so, how's that working out for ya?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I try for 1,000 words a day. It was difficult until I started using the same technique that helped me increase my running milage: I keep a journal. Every evening I put down the day's word count. If I don't make my goal, I chide myself on the page.

Excerpts:

April 24. Word count: 200. Awful.
April 25. Word count: 0. Disgusting.
April 26. Word count: 843. Better.
April 27. Word count: 1,012. Kudos.

It sounds weird, but it works for me.

Anonymous said...

I have no methods at all. I do some of my best writing just in the moments when I'm falling asleep. By that I mean, a writing voice creeps into my thoughts. It also appears in the moments that I'm waking.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my role models; she seemed to emerge from nowhere in her 60's as a wonderfully formed writer.

One of her best anecdotes was about the Booker Awards ceremony: they asked her to look as well-presented from the back as from the front since there would be cameras. I love that story. Only in England !

-Nancy

jrlennon said...

Nancy, that is REALLY interesting. I have read that the voices schizophrenics hear are akin to the ones everyone hears when they are suspended between waking and sleep...those voices fascinate me...it's as though the conscious mind has half shut down, and the subconscious leaks over and you can actually see and hear it in daylight. But for me, this only really lasts for a couple of minutes, and I'm in bed.

Anonymous #1, a writer friend of ours who was blocked once had a shrink who would turn off all the lights and berate him for being the shittiest writer in the world. for some reason, this didn't work...

jon said...

I wouldn't have to pay a shrink to denounce me in the dark as the world's shittiest writer, those voices in my head do it for free.
My ideal work habit would be 4-6 hours, first thing in the morning. But life isn't like that. When I was working a schlubbier job I could do 1-1/2 to 2 hours a day in a dark corner with a notebook and pen, which i would then type into the computer at night. I really thought I could never do what I do now, through long practice: after dinner, go to my office and write for an hour or so. It's awful, but it works. the problem is, the best way for me to work is to spend half the time revising what I have written the day before, and then half the time adding to it. Again, this is after long practice. But it works, and it's better than lying in bed listening to those voices with nothing to say back.

jonah said...

god, this was refreshing to read. i'm a reporter so i spend a bunch of time each day either writing or preparing to write. by the time i get home, i'm beat. i shoot for three pages, regardless of quality and hit the mark occasionally.

not going to lie, though. four days out of seven, i'd rather do ANYTHING but write. so as long as I'm being creative or using my head to build/structure something, I go with it. Music, fixing a drawer, anything that lets me 'do'.