Writing is an exercise in self-motivation. Quite simply, if you don’t put words on the page, you’re not going to finish your manuscript. While setting appropriate goals is an important key to getting things done, the concept of an “appropriate” pace varies as much as individual writing styles. Learning the speed that works best for you is part of the process of discovering your identity as a writer.
Famous Authors Set the Pace
Ever wonder how your page rate compares with well-known writers? Novelist James Thayer, writing for Author magazine, offers the following insights (www.authormagazine.org/articles/thayer_james_2009_04_09.htm).
Among the speed writers is Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, who wrote approximately 13 pages each working day, or a million words a year (estimating that a double-spaced manuscript page contains 300 words and that a year contains 250 working days). Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, reportedly wrote 20 pages each day. English writer Samuel Johnson often produced an astonishing 40 printed pages in a day, or 12,000 words.
On the other end of the spectrum is Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American, who wrote just 500 words per day. Yet he was a prolific writer, churning out more than 30 books, along with several plays, screenplays, and short stories. It took J. R. R. Tolkien 11 years to write The Lord of the Rings, a 670,000-word endeavor, which amounts to 245 words each working day.
Those finding a middle ground include Jack London, who wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day, and Stephen King, who writes 2,000 words a day.
Judging by the variety in the writing pace of the well known, persistence trumps speed.
Book in a Month
Recent years have seen the rise in speed writing contests, which provide a supportive community for those wishing to take the plunge. NaNoWriMo, or the National Novel Writing Month, challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30. This averages out to 1,667 words per day, or 2,273, if you take the weekends off. Quantity is valued over quality; the idea is to hit the word count and revise later. The contest offers no official prizes, and anybody who reaches 50,000 words is declared a winner. Find out more at http://www.nanowrimo.org/.
Don’t feel like waiting for November? Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, PhD, provides suggestions for creating a rough draft in a short amount of time. You can delve in whenever you have a slow month on your hands. I own this book, and even if you never plan to write a book in a month, it offers great writing tips as well as ideas for organizing your schedule. If you like to make lists and tick off boxes to help meet your writing goals, this is the book for you.
Slow Writers Club
Type “slow writer” into your search engine and you’re sure to come up with blog posts on the realities of slowness, some containing hilarious insights, others reflecting frustration or peaceful acceptance.
Christine Lee Zilka describes “negative word count” days that involve generous use of the delete key (http://czilka.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/being-a-slow-writer/). I don’t know her personally, but when I found her blog, I knew I could relate. My editor suggested that I heavily prune my first book, Freeblood, which originally weighed in at a whopping 122,000 words. That advice resulted in a few months of negative word count days—and a much more concise 105,000-word novel.
Ev Bishop, another author whose blog I found serendipitously, observes that taking on a day job to make ends meet has considerably slowed her writing output (makes sense, right?), but she also notes that the new job allows her writing “to be my whimsy and passion again” (http://evbishop.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/slow-writer/). That’s something to consider when pushing to meet arbitrary writing goals.
A Happy Medium
Where do I fit in? Well, I have my fast days and my slow days. Recently, a day of 3,500 words was followed by several of little to no words. In general, I’d say I’m on the slow end of the spectrum, but a lot of that slowness crops up in the editing process, rather than at the rough draft stage. I’ve noticed that if I write fast to meet an arbitrary word count, I don’t really like what I produce and end up scrapping it. On the other hand, if I write fast because I’m on a natural roll, that’s entirely different, and I generally keep the fruits of that inspiration.
I like to know where I’m going, so I plot events in my mind before sitting down to write. Sometimes I plot and write at the same time, but that’s not my usual habit. On the best days, I develop a scene in my mind, write a few paragraphs, and then think for a while, maybe while I’m doing housework or going for a walk. When I repeat this process throughout the day, I like what I come up with.
If you want to experiment with your writing pace, you might try setting high goals a few days a week. But be flexible! You may find yourself generating useless fluff to hit your mark, a sure indication that speed writing is not for you. Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining, repeatedly typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Sure, he met his word count, but he went crazy doing it!