(Gahh! I wrote most of this blog, then got sick. It was
the usual. But I’m better now,
thanks for asking.)
Some people recommend that you write a certain number of words every day.
Well, not you, necessarily. Novelists. See, those of us who decided it was
a good idea to write a novel sometimes find that our key challenge has
become not drawing heart-breakingly realistic characters or identifying
our underlying unifying theme, but rather getting to the end of the
frickin’ thing before we die.
Novels are long. You probably don’t realize how long until you
write one. Occasionally I hear that someone read one of my books in
some ridiculous amount of time, like a single night, or half a day
while sipping coffee in Barnes & Noble, or while waiting in line at a movie,
and this is wonderful but also appalling, because people really shouldn’t
be allowed to digest a couple of years’ worth of my work that fast. They
should have to work at it, like I did. It’s only fair.
But the point is: if a writer isn’t careful (or if he is;
if he is too careful), he can find himself
with a reasonable amount of pages but no enthusiasm to write any more.
The minimum-number-of-words-per-day technique is meant to help.
It’s practiced by
successful authors and
advocated by admirable organizations,
and for many people, it clearly works.
But for me, it’s a disaster. I tried it in 1998, after I’d finished
Syrup but before I’d found a publisher. I was starting
a book called Paper Warfare, a fairly straight corporate thriller
about tobacco marketing, and I was very disciplined;
every day for weeks I pounded out my minimum 2,000 words. But it felt
wrong, because I knew that some days I was just banging
out words so I could close the goddamn word processor and go do
something else. The next day, I’d try to avoid looking at the words,
because if I did I would be so appalled that I would have to delete
them. This didn’t seem very efficient. And, more importantly, I wasn’t
enjoying it: writing had become a chore.
I made it all the way to the book’s climax—I even had the ending
plotted out—then realized it sucked. Not just a little. Not
in ways that could be fixed. The whole book really, really blew.
Since then, I’ve written exactly as many words per day as I feel like.
And that’s worked well, because when I’m having fun, I’m usually producing
good words. But for the book I’m working on now, I’m
trying something new: a maximum number of words per day.
I had something like this when I wrote Syrup, because
I wrote during my lunch breaks at Hewlett-Packard: I had one hour to eat,
write, and get back to pretending that I knew what SCSI interfaces were.
Often I would be forced to leave half-way through a
great scene, even though I was chafing to finish it. During the rest of
those days I would keep thinking about the book, and come up with little embellishments
and new ideas. Next lunch time, I would cram down my chicken sandwiches so
I could get to writing as soon as possible.
I think this is pretty close to the perfect state: unable to write quite
as much as I want to. So I’m seeing if I can create it artificially.
So far it’s been hard, because when I’m on a roll, I really don’t want to
stop. I find myself deliberately avoiding doing a word count, because I
know I’m probably already over. (I have set my maximum low: just 500 words
per day.) Stopping before I want to is frustrating. But then, that’s the
idea. I should finish each day a little frustrated.
You will know if this technique is working, because my blogs will become
much longer, as I seek outlets for my pent-up words. Yes. You will be my
I mentioned this once or twice on my book tour, but for those who
weren’t there—you know, because you live in one of those areas that
my publisher hates—earlier this
year I had what I am pretty sure is my nerdiest moment ever.
I am quite proud of my nerdy accomplishments—I have created
a web game,
written a science-fiction novel,
and formed a religious opinion
about operating systems. I consider my nerdiness to be not
abnormal, but rather the way that everyone would be if only they
stopped and thought about it properly. But then I had this moment,
when even I thought, “Ooh, that’s pretty nerdy.”
Here’s what happened. Some time ago, I registered a domain name for my baby
finlaybarry.com. (That’s not the nerdy thing.) I thought this would
be a good way to share photos and news with relatives in
various parts of the world, and, when Fin was old enough,
she could use it for whatever she wanted. Maybe a blog, if by then
those weren’t so 2005.
I have already gotten Fin banging away on a keyboard, because I
want her to get used to the command line before I introduce her
to a GUI. Here is the first thing she ever wrote:
6fcv5jnnnnnnnnnnmmmmmmmmmmmmmjnj /bvyj,[k[ v
That’s not the nerdy thing.
The nerdy thing is that I thought—I actually stopped and
thought—“Hmm… before I name my next kid, I should check to
make sure the domain name is available.”
my novel Syrup, the hero comes up with an idea for a new
cola called “Fukk,” which comes in a jet black can. He sells the concept
to Coca-Cola (well, kind of), and the company releases it.
I’m hoping there will be a Syrup movie in the not-too-distant
future, but Coke is making me nervous by releasing products that are
increasingly like Fukk. The latest is “Blak.” It’s a black bottle, not
a can, but still: I’m becoming convinced that their plan is to creep
toward a Fukk-like product, then sue me for stealing their idea.
Incidentally, I visited the
Blak web site and noticed it has a
“Spread the Word” section. Coke is clearly excited about this,
because if you visit any of the other sections, you see a big
link back to “Spread the Word.” It turns out that Spreading the Word is
sending e-mails to your friends to tell them about Coca-Cola Blak.
I would be very interested to know if the number of people who use this
facility is greater than zero.
Update: They do sell it in
a black can! Aaargh!
Some people were confused and disturbed by my blog about
“Rub-a-Dub-Dub.” They wanted to know if I was seriously upset about
a children’s book featuring a duck. To which the answer is: yes.
Yes, I was. In fact, every time I go into that bathroom and see
that little vinyl horror sitting in the corner, it bothers me all over again.
I can’t see inside its chewable pages, but I know that “Quack-a-doodle-do”
is lurking there. These sorts of things play on your mind.
Going crazy? No, I’ve always been like this. I’m just opening up.
In less confusing and disturbing news, Company is apparently
going great guns. My editor, Bill, e-mailed me:
COMPANY rolls on…another reprint.
This was very exciting, because I’ve never been reprinted in hardcover
before. (I have in paperback. Syrup is now up to its ninth
printing or something ridiculous. But according to my royalty statement,
it has still sold hardly any copies. The only explanation I can think of
is that the publisher is doing tiny print runs—like maybe ten books at a
time. This would make sense, since this is my ex-publisher, Penguin
Putnam, who dropped me like an envelope full of Anthrax
after Syrup failed to scale the bestseller
lists. If I were a little more bitter and vindictive, I would
cackle with glee every time they’re forced to reprint, and fire
off e-mails to everyone I ever worked with there saying, “How do you like
me now, huh? Huh? HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW??”)
Any reprint is terrific, because it means the book has done at least a
little better than the publisher expected. But that “another” in Bill’s
e-mail puzzled me. I queried him about it, thinking maybe—maybe—this
wasn’t the second printing at all; maybe, if I was really lucky,
it was the third. Bill replied:
4th, as a matter of fact.
Hot damn! Even if these are tiny print runs, that’s fantastic. Everyone
who bought a copy, I’m thinking of you right now. Not individually,
obviously. That would take too long. I’m imagining an amorphous,
book-buying blob. No, really. It’s the least I could do.
Company has also picked up a couple of great new reviews,
most notably in The Economist. What I especially liked about this one
is that it called me “a master of short sentences and the passive tense,”
and this outraged a group of linguists so much that they wrote
essay about it:
[T]he passive involves a voice contrast; it has
absolutely nothing in common with tense.
I am astonished, all over again, at how educated people can commit blunders
as extreme as this one in print, and editors don’t even notice.
Clearly you don’t want to mess with people whose idea of
begins: “I was walking across campus with a friend and we came upon half
a dozen theoretical linguists committing unprovoked physical assault on
a defenseless prescriptivist…”
In the comments, Mark Liberman—one of those outraged linguists—points
out that this isn’t the first time my scribblings have caught their attention.
article from 2004, in which Mark discusses Jennifer Government’s use
of “And yet.” It took me a while to work out whether I was being praised or
dissed—I think it’s praised—and the more I read of their web site, the
more stupid and uneducated I felt. To rectify this, I plan not to visit their site