The Arithmetic of Writing

If you’ve read many of the posts on this site, you already know what I’ve been doing today. I’ve been taking stock of the month that just passed and I have been deciding what I need to do this month. At the start of each month I’ll note what actually got written as opposed to what I said I would write at the start of last month. If the targets were not met, I will try and work out why and do better in the coming month. I spend a lot of time on this sort of thing. I believe the old business management saying that what gets measured gets done.

So what’s going to get done this month?

It’s pretty simple actually. I will (hopefully) be finishing the first draft of The Angel of Fire. At the moment, I am at 74000 words, ahead of my deadline milestones, but there’s always the possibility that I will fall sick or something might come up that interferes with the writing. It’s one reason that I like to leave a lot of slack in my schedule. It may look like laziness but it’s sound planning. (And you will never get me to admit otherwise.) I will also finish formatting the second Terrarch book, The Serpent Tower and put it out on the Kindle. I’ll  write a bunch of blog posts as well.

So how long does it take to write a book?  Mike Stackpole said much the same thing as I would. Roughly 200 hours at a guess. I would add that every book is different. Some are easier and some much harder and in my time I must admit to never finishing some at all. 200 hours seems reasonable for the sort of books I write though.

Two hundred hours, that’s a book every month, you are thinking, working a 40 hour week. Actually, no. I am in agreement with Anthony Trollope who said that a writer should be able to build a career on three hours of writing a day or words to that effect. (I don’t have my copy of his autobiography at hand so I can’t give you the exact quote.) He held down a full time job working for the Post Office while still delivering forty seven mighty Victorian size novels to his assorted publishers so he knew what he was talking about. I show up at my desk for a lot more than three hours but there’s a lot of vitally important Facebook checking and random web-surfing to be done. I do aim to actually work for 3 hours and many days I even achieve that goal.

While we’re discussing the arithmetic of writing, I may as well reveal that I type roughly 1500 words an hour. And again some of  you are thinking 200 hours at 1500 words per hour? Are your books 300000 words long, Bill? Do you write 4500 words a day? Of course not! There is a difference between writing and typing! Often you need to go through what you’ve written multiple times before it says what you want or, at very least, makes sense.

The books are  usually around 100,000 words and I usually aim for 2000 finished words a day. So what do I fritter away all those extra hours on?  Mostly re-reading and editing and (surprise, surprise) planning. Quite often a lot of time will be spent rethinking things as well. At various points, I will go back to the start and re-read and rewrite everything up to the point I have reached so far. And the rewrites usually take a lot of time during which I may well be subtracting words rather than adding. I count on the very strong possibility of dumping at least 20% of what gets written in the first draft in the final rewrite. It’s not very efficient, I know, but it is my process and it works for me.

I picked 2000 finished words a day because I know it will be pretty easy for me. It’s a comfortable amount of writing. It wont trigger my RSI if I am careful. I can see some progress every day and mostly I don’t have to struggle to reach it. And that’s important. Writing a novel is, as almost any sane writer will tell you, a marathon not a sprint. You need to pace yourself and it’s a lot easier to pace yourself on goals that are easy to achieve than on tight deadlines. Beyond that having a career as a writer requires even more pacing. It’s a bad idea to burn yourself out with overwork so I set myself easy goals and I am shallow enough to be pleased with myself when I achieve them.

Now, I am not saying that I write 2000 words and stop as if a button has been pushed. There are days when it I actually continue well beyond 2000 words. There are days when I write for more than 3 hours too. I actually enjoy writing and not forcing myself to slog away for hours on end is one of the things that lets me keep it that way. I like walking and cycling and swimming too, but that would soon cease to be the case if I forced myself to do them eight hours a day, five days a week. Some people can do it, I can’t. At the end of the day, its about results. I am not paid by the hour and I am not expected to show up at the office and look productive eight hours a day, every day. I am expected to write books. My methods let me write 2-3 novels a year without undue stress, in a manner that makes my working life a pleasure. I’d like to keep it that way!

Still you are thinking, 15 hours a week of actual writing, you have a pretty easy time of it, Bill. I would be the first to agree but I also have to deal with the other business that surrounds writing, dealing with editors and emails and now formatting e-books as well. You can add in a few more hours a day on that.

There’s blog posts like this as well—which has now reached  1062 words according to the word counter. And here, I think I’ll call it quits for the day!

2 Replies to “The Arithmetic of Writing”

  1. Thanks again, Jonathan. Some day I am going to get one of those programs that monitors the actual time spent doing stuff on the computer. I am sure the results will be interesting and a little scary (for me, if no one else.)

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