Sat 29

Maximum Words. Maximum Results. Maximum Barry.

Writing (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 hookers.