Friday, April 17, 2009

The hare and the tortoise.

I was having a conversation with a novelist friend of mine the other day who mentioned that she is unhappy with how her novel has turned out despite numerous rewrites. She (and her publisher) have given herself three months to give it a final go to get it right. I also have a deadline which is a little over three months away, and it seems that our novels will be hitting the public at about the same time ("Let's feud!" she said).

Feuding aside, it got me thinking about just how different each writer's process is but how we all eventually get there in the end. This novelist and I both started our novels at around the same time. In fact I started a novel that I have since abandoned. Everything seemed to be going so well for her with it and I confess I felt a little jealous. She has always been so disciplined and always seemed to enjoy the first draft process. She was very much of the "just write 1000 words a day and you have a draft in three months" school, whereas I have always aimed for 1000 words a day and failed miserably.

It doesn't matter how many words I write, it seems it takes as long as it takes and I can either work it out on the page and write copious amounts of words, or I can write fewer words and work it out in my head. At the moment I have two and a half days to write, plus another couple of hours on Wednesday afternoons when the toddler is at my mother's house and I sneak off to her local library.

(Aside: sometimes those two hours are as, if not more, productive than the full days I have. I usually just put my head down and write in a stream of consciousness fever, then the next day go back and either find 700 words of rubbish or 700 gems.)

I can't help but wonder whether, if I had more time to write, the book would get written quicker. I suspect not. I think it's just going to take as long as it takes for the words to ripen and fall onto the page - if I were to force them out at 1000 words per day, seven days per week, I would inevitably end up throwing many of those words away. This way, it's like a steady drip, and by a designated date (hopefully within my deadline), the bucket of the novel will be full. To carry on the metaphor, if I were to pour great gushes into the bucket, I would inevitably end up spilling half of it on the floor.

What can I say? I am the tortoise, at first jealous of the hare's lightning pace and quick mind, but ultimately I think we will get there at the same time.


Damon Young said...

I try to keep writing every day. Whether it's 1000 words or 300, I like to keep scribbling and typing.

This helps to keep the craft alive, but it also chips away at the shape of the book. Often I need to write crap before I can claim clarity, lucidity, tangible insight.

I try not to get fixated on word counts, though: I find they distract me from the ideas and impressions (which are more qualitative than quantitative). Do you find this?

Tania Roxborogh said...

I love this phrase of yours: "it's just going to take as long as it takes for the words to ripen and fall onto the page"

I can't believe, looking back, that I wrote Banquo's Son (nearly 120,000 words) in about two months. Now, I've got a whole year to do it again and, though it's the school holidays, I've twiddled with half a first chapter - going over it again and again. I have the whole story in my head; I just can't seem to get the words down.

Hubby and I took the dogs for a lovely walk this arvo (gotta love Dunedin when the sun shines) and I realised that, to make myself feel better about the second book, I need to write the most interesting scenes which are agitating in my head and join the dots later.

The thing that I notice about Sound of Butterflies was how utterly beautifully crafted it was (and Mary's novel as well). So, it pays, I guess, to go at your own pace. This is the advice I've written on my blog:
What I have found necessary, apart from talent, is the need to persevere with the actual task of writing as well as the beauty of what is being created. Just like pregnancy, a story or poem is conceived but needs time to incubate in the womb (your mind) and then grow and develop (birth and the rest). Don’t be in too much of a hurry. The best works come when time is given for them to live, breathe, be.

BTW my v word was sporiess - love that

Damon Young said...

Rachael, I decided to explore this a little more, here:

(I hope you don't mind me quoting you.)

Rachael King said...

Damon - I love getting fixated on word counts! It makes me feel as though I have achieved something, however misguided that may be. I don't write every day (too easily distracted by household things), but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the book and make notes as I need them.

Tania - I still can't believe you wrote that book in two months. I am in awe.

Maggie May said...

I am the tortiose too. Which is interesting to me, because my poetry comes at lightening speed, I can write a poem a day and be happy with most of them, and very happy with a handful, but the novel is another beast.

Unknown said...

So are you self-editing all the time as you go Rachael? That is, write a bit today, then the first thing you do the next day is edit the previous day? Does that ever bog you down?

I've set myself a target of 500 words a day, but am only making about 200. I'm not letting this worry me: indeed, I've almost got to the point of so long as I open my novel once a day, and even do 1 word, at least I'm thinking on it and it is fresh in my mind so that's okay (three days ago I did 3000 words, and such stints will come every now and then from all the stuff jelling in my mind: the important thing really is constant activity.)

Actually, that reminds me of a quote I noted in my diary in 2003 from a business article, relating to business people:

'One of the commonalities of successful people is constant activity. Whether successful or not they are always active working on the current, or the next, thing.'

Personally, I have to really push myself in this regard, as if I have a spare minute, my natural inclination is to read a book, eat something, or take a nap.

Rachael King said...

Mark, I do self-edit as I go yes. But having said that, the further into I am and the more sure about voice/character/where it's going I am, the less I am doing that. I am concentrating on trying to get a full draft so I can have something to examine and play around with. But I am definitely not in the habit of head down, full draft in one go. the slower I write, the less rubbish I write that needs cutting later.

Rachael King said...

ps I'm with you on the nap, book and food.

Anonymous said...

I'm a hare sorta gal! I aim for the 1000 words a day, and the vast majority of the time I achieve it, but I don't beat myself up if I don't.

Write/work/play/eat/clean/laundry/watch Lost/read/sleep - there are only 24 hours in the day. Something has to give once in a while.

Damon Young said...

I think the Comment Monster ate my last comment.

I've blogged about writing and time here.

(Rachael, I hope you don't mind me quoting you.)

Anonymous said...

A teacher once told me, when I was getting fixated on how long something took, that "time is not the essence of a work". Its hard to remember that when you have a deadline looming, though. I continue to find that the last 10% of a work always takes 90% of the time...

It is strange though how important those other things are around getting the project finished. The procrastinations are just as important as the "progress" in clarifying ideas and resolving issues. Baking cakes and weeding the vegetables was what got me through a masters degree.

pjkm said...

Surely your friend's not having a "final go", is she? That sounds very depressing and dramatic.

All I've written today are emails.

Rachael King said...

pjkm, maybe "final go" was a poor choice of words! Basically she is not satisfied with it and has given herself a deadline to do a final revision that she is happy with.

Anonymous said...

It takes how long it takes. I suspect (and a thread on a forum confirmed this, very surprisingly: whether we thought we were hurling words onto a page into a shitty first draft, or polishing each word before we wrote the next, we averaged 1000 words per session) that what makes the difference is not how long one writes for, but how often. Deadlines are important, but so is momentum. The more you can keep it on the boil, the more effectively you work. I know that sounds a bit management-speak, but it's true. But yes, I keep track of wordcounts. Some days, it's the only thing that tells you that you've done some work.