This past weekend was designated as a writing marathon, meaning all I did during my waking hours was write. This is not a normal mode of operation for me, but after a month-long and much-needed vacation, I’m behind on deadlines and had to get caught up on things.
On Friday, I wrote 40,000 words. Unfortunately, I posted about it on Twitter, and in doing so, caused a minor stir. Many people were happy for me (and I thank them). A few were skeptical. And still others were unsure of what that actually meant — “40,000 words in one day”. So, for this week’s writing journal installment, here’s a lengthier explanation (not confined to Twitter’s 140 character limit) of exactly what it means and how I did it and why you may or may not want to try it yourself sometime.
The first thing you need to understand is that this doesn’t work for everybody. Writing 40,000 words in one day is really only practical for three things — pulp, porn, and first drafts. In my case, the first and last apply. I am a pulp writer. If I were of a more literary bent or a wordsmith like Peter Straub, Thomas Ligotti, Livia Llewellyn, or John Langan, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. These are authors who labor over each and every word, and their fiction (and our enjoyment of their fiction) are richer for their efforts. But that is not one of my strengths.
It was common for the pulp writers of old to write 40,000 a day. This is because they had no choice. They wanted to eat. To earn their pay, they were required to crank out journeyman novels and stories to beat ridiculous deadlines and for a low rate. (In truth, not much has changed since then… and I see a whole bunch of mid-listers, ghost writers, and media tie-in scribes nodding silently). Michael Moorcock infamously wrote several weekend novels. And there are authors who still write like that these days. Carlton Mellick locks himself in a hotel room and writes a complete novel in three or four days. Nick Mamatas can also crank it out when he needs to. In both of their cases, the quality doesn’t suffer. But it should also be noted that what they crank out is, in most cases, revised and edited later on.
And that’s the case here. On Friday, Twitter went splodey with the news that I’d written 40,000 words in a day. What I didn’t tell you was that over the space of three and a half days (Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) I wrote just a smidgen over 85,000 words — the length of a complete novel. Is that how I normally work? Of course not. If I worked regularly at that pace, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because I’d be dead. Before I became a parent again, and had all day to work, I averaged between 8,000 and 10,000 words in an 8 to 9 hour day. These days, I average between 3,000 and 4,000 words per evening (I write 4 or 5 hours per night).
But when I need to (meaning I’ve been on vacation and now I’m fucked because everything is due) I can do more than that. Here is how.
1. NO DISTRACTIONS: My youngest son was with his mother for the weekend. My oldest son was at work and on dates. Mary and my future step-son were in New Jersey. That meant I had the house to myself (except for my cat) from Thursday night until Sunday evening. All I did for the entire weekend was write and sleep. The only times I wasn’t writing or sleeping were to check Twitter a few times a day, to call Mary once per night, and to attend my youngest son’s karate class (which lasted an hour). Other than those few things, all I did was write. I didn’t mow the lawn. I didn’t clean the house. I ignored all incoming phone calls (sorry about that Wrath, Eryn, and all the drunks at CONvergence). I skipped out on attending events (my apologies Qwee, Michele, and Dirk), and I declined invitations to hang out with friends (next weekend Kelli and Coop). All I did was write. And when I got tired, I slept. And when I woke up, I wrote some more. Did my wrists hurt? Sure. Did I give myself carpal tunnel? It certainly seems like it. Do I feel bad that I missed out on things? Of course. But did I accomplish what I set out to do? Absolutely.
2. KNOWING WHERE I WAS GOING AHEAD OF TIME: The 40,000 words in one day constituted a complete novella (Sundancing) and part of a novel (The Lost Level). If you’re curious, Sundancing was 20,000 words long. The other 20,000 applied to The Lost Level. A few of you asked me on Twitter if this writing was based on an outline. It was not. I rarely work from an outline, because I prefer a more organic, loose-knit approach to writing (that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with outlining. There’s not). But in both of these cases, I knew exactly where the story was going before I started the weekend’s writing. Sundancing is a meta-fictional account of my trip to Sundance this past January (and serves as a sort of bookend to my previous meta-fictional novella The Girl on the Glider). The Lost Level is a pulp fiction homage to John Carter, Land of the Lost, Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In series, The Warlord, and other lost world stories.
Writing 20,000 words about my experiences at Sundance, and what going there taught me about myself and our industry, was as easy as telling a friend about it over the phone or over drinks (or both). And adding 20,000 words to The Lost Level, while not as easy as the former, was still a breeze because a) I knew that my characters needed to find a crashed Nazi flying saucer and then fight a giant slug, and b) it was fun as hell to write.
Had these been novels I was starting from scratch, or had the subject matter been something I didn’t feel as intimate or close to (Sundancing), or simply frivolous and fun to write (The Lost Level) there’s no way I would have written that many words in a day. Indeed, there have been times (Dark Hollow, Ghoul, and Take the Long Way Home come to mind) when the subject matter was heavy enough that I was lucky if I wrote 1,000 words a day. And you’ll have novels and stories like that. But you’ll also have ones that you absolutely can’t wait to get down on paper (or onto a laptop screen), and it is my personal experience that those types of tales seem to write themselves a lot faster. Which brings me to…
3. QUANTITY OVER QUALITY: As I said on Twitter (but which a lot of people apparently missed) these were both first drafts. I can not stress that enough. These are first drafts. The 80,000 words I wrote this weekend are not meant to be turned in to a publisher, nor are they ready for you to read. They are the basic foundations of the books to come. I always do at least two (but usually three) drafts of before I turn something in. Sundancing and The Lost Level are no exception. Consider the words I wrote this weekend to be a just-built house. Now, I’ll go back and start the second draft, which is when I’ll run the electrical wires and the plumbing, and hang the drywall and the vinyl siding. Then I’ll do a third draft, which is when we pick out carpet and furniture, and make it ready to show to buyers. But what I did this weekend is just unpainted lumber. It’s raw materials. It looks like a house, but you wouldn’t want to live there… yet.
So, that’s what I did and how I did it. Do I recommend doing this all the time? Absolutely not. Will it work for every writer? No. But is it something I recommend trying at least once in your career? Sure. At the very least, you might have some fun. Perhaps you will learn something about yourself as a writer. And who knows? You may even get a serviceable first draft out of it.
The important thing to remember is this — writers get too hung up on word counts. It doesn’t matter if you produce 1,000 words per day or 10,000 words per day. What matters is that you produce words. Novels and stories don’t write themselves. Ass in chair, fingers on keyboard, repeat as necessary is the best method I know. If you’ve written 1,000 words today and someone else has written twice that amount, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve written. Be proud of what you’ve produced.
And now I’m off to dip my hands and wrists in a big vat of Ben Gay…
PS: And yes, I’m counting this Blog entry as part of those 85,000 words.