A thousand words a day

February 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

If ever a daily amount of writing is recommended, 1,000 words a day is the figure which crops up. Graham Greene told Theodora Fitzgibbon (noted in volume two of her autobiography, Love Lies a Loss) that you could accomplish a great deal by writing 1,000 words a day. In theory, you could indeed. If you write for five days a week, you clock up 20,000 words in a month, and have finished your novel within four months.

However, we know writers, with the exception of Trollope, are not producing three novels a year. (Trollope managed about one thousand words an hour and wrote for two and a half hours; for another half an hour, he revised his previous day’s work.) One would very much like to emulate Trollope, but one has to be realistic.

Writing one thousand words in an hour, in the early stages of a book, is not difficult. Words gush forth. Something goes wrong though. Our 1,000 words a day are not fit for consumption and it is overhauling them that takes time. The revision process is a very strange one for me: to be sure I am not methodical enough. I often believe I am working on the pen-ultimate draft but that is mere fancy, it is the pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-ultimate draft.

When we start to revise, some problems glare out at us. We fix them and think, “Next time final draft”. Having fixed the glaring problems, we begin to see the less glaring problems: they then glare out at us. We fix them. And perhaps a draft or two later, we realise that some of our earlier work (already fixed) drops below the standard of our later revisions. That now must be fixed. Do not think I am aiming high. I do not spent days searching for the right word or manipulating syntax, I operate on a lower level than that, and I am merely trying to create something that is identifiable as a novel.

On the other hand, I am not without ambitions. I feel my “novel” is in want of some very good descriptions, moving scenes and insightful commentaries about the human race but I flounder. It is all that I can do to get my story straight or straighter. I must lower my sights and aim for a novel that makes sense, at least, to me.

What analogy is fitting for writing a novel? Barbara Pym likened it to making a sauce that you add things to and then reduce and perhaps continue this process. That is quite a good one. One is always adding and taking away and even taking away what one has recently added.

You could liken the writing of a novel to a drawing. Let us say we have almost drawn a pig but the pig does not look right. We change the pig’s face, and a dog’s face begins to emerge. For quite some time, the pig drawing and the dog drawing remain conflated. (Our book has become neither one thing nor the other: in other words got worse.) We sometimes forget to remove parts of the pig and the emergent dog looks a little peculiar. Finally the dog resembles a dog. On the whole the dog seems to be a better dog than the pig was pig. Not a wonderful image, we must confess, but at least it is a dog and not a pig-dog. We would very much like a better drawing of a dog. It is in want of improvement, but we fear that the dog may start to become an elephant. The dog will do. Let’s leave it like that. It will do!

The “it will do” standard does not impress others as very high but when you have worked and worked with your little book which takes so long to assume a recognisable shape, you can hardly be accused of being slipshod. We cannot spend the rest of our lives improving our novel. The “it will do” standard is not a low one, it often feels impossibly high and something we think we might never be able to say of our novel.


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