By Daniel McAdam.
I am certain that the question posed above will inflame the passions of some, and we know why. We are talking about fiction writing, which is a creative - and, one could claim, artistic - pursuit. How, then, can one even attempt to quantify such effort? Additionally, there will be prominent exceptions to any rule proposed.
I agree, in principle, with all such anticipated objections. But here is the problem: you are new to fiction writing, you want to write a mystery novel, and you have no clue (pardon the pun) about how much time you should devote to your novel. The easy answer, of course, is, "As much time as it takes to do it properly." But, amazingly, you don't find this answer to be all that helpful.
I am not proposing rules, or even guidelines. I am offering food for thought. and I am not the first to tackle this subject. Articles on this topic appear now and then in magazines geared toward writers, and in how-to books on fiction writing. Dick Lochte discusses productivity in "On Work Schedules," which is included in Writing Mysteries, using his own schedule as one example.
One can phrase the question of productivity in different ways, depending upon what one hopes to quantify. Thus, we can ask:
"How many days per week should I write?"
"How many hours per day should I write?"
"How many words (or pages) per day should I write?"
Let's start with the ideal; or, at least, my ideal. In this ideal, my only job each day is to work on writing a good novel, and there are no other demands upon my time. I rise early, walk a few short blocks to a tastefully-furnished office that is entirely free from visual and aural distractions, and sit down at my computer and begin to write around 8 am. The work flows smoothly until about noontime, when I get up from my desk and walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Back at work again around 1 pm, I write steadily until 5, at which time I get up, go home, and forget all about writing until the next day. Saturdays and Sundays are, it should go without saying, spent with family and friends, and a rollicking good time is had by all. Oh, and one more thing; I take the entire month of July off as vacation.
If you're thinking to yourself, "This guy isn't a mystery writer, this guy is a fantasy writer," I understand. Let's get back to reality, and make a few points here:
I've talked about time, but not about pages or words. Actually, let's forget pages, because we all have word processing software now and can measure things in words with that handy little word count feature.
Most modern mystery novels are between 75,000 to 90,000 words. Thus, even if you only wrote one word per day, every day, you could have your novel completed in 205½ years. But let's say you're a bit more ambitious than that. If you wrote 206 words per day, every day (this doesn't count outlining, rewriting, or anything else), you'd have a novel consisting of 75,190 words at the end of the year.
Only want to work six days per week? Then you need to churn out 240 words per day to get that book done in one year. (Incidentally, as of the last sentence, I've written 1,030 words on this topic. I started this an hour ago. Maybe I'm inspired . . . )
Most serious writers that I know shoot for something like 2,000 or 2,500 words per day if they use the word count method. I don't, because it's too mechanical, but I do sometimes check word count just to be sure I'm somewhere around where I want to be in terms of daily productivity.
By now, you've guessed my prejudice. I believe that "great writing" and "productivity" are not mutually exclusive terms.The idea that you have to choose between the two is something you needn't waste time worrying about. Now get writing!
Food for Thought . . .
"For forty years of his life, Buffon worked every morning at his desk from nine till two, and again in the evening from five till nine. His diligence was so continuous and so regular that it became habitual. His biographer has said of him, “Work was his necessity; his studies were the charm of his life; and towards the last term of his glorious career he frequently said that he still hoped to be able to consecrate to them a few more years.” He was a most conscientious worker, always studying to give the reader his best thoughts, expressed in the very best manner. He was never wearied with touching and retouching his compositions, so that his style may be pronounced almost perfect. He wrote the 'Epoques de la Nature' not fewer than eleven times before he was satisfied with it; although he had thought over the work about fifty years. He was a thorough man of business, most orderly in everything; and he was accustomed to say that genius without order lost three-fourths of its power. His great success as a writer was the result mainly of his painstaking labor and diligent application. “Buffon,” observed Madame Necker, “strongly persuaded that genius is the result of a profound attention directed to a particular subject, said that he was thoroughly wearied out when composing his first writings, but compelled himself to return to them and go over them carefully again, even when he thought he had already brought them to a certain degree of perfection; and that at length he found pleasure instead of weariness in this long and elaborate correction.” It ought also to be added that Buffon wrote and published all his great works while afflicted by one of the most painful diseases to which the human frame is subject."
-- Samuel Smiles, Self Help
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