Friday, June 27, 2008

Counting Words, Wasting Creative Energy

The University of North Texas recently launched a promising literary journal. (HT Michael Merchel at Texas Pages.) In the inaugural issue, the estimable Bob Shacochis muses on the agony of trying to finish a long, difficult novel while resisting the seductions of literary journalism.

Let me admit right off that I took great comfort in his suffering. I constantly fret about literary output. If Shacochis does the same, I must be in fine company. I enjoyed the entire essay, but found his descriptions of his daily work habits most fascinating.

"Sometimes I do fall asleep, which makes me feel miserable in every conceivable way. Neither sleep nor stimulants have any effect, however, on the speed at which I write these days, which is glacial. I begin each session by revising the 300 or 400 words I extruded–wrenchingly, haltingly–the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and I end each session with 300 or 400 new words, the dogs dancing around my chair in anticipation of their before-dinner walk. "

At first glance, that looks like a very modest output. When I'm working on a novel, actually writing as opposed to researching or plotting, I usually manage 500-1000 words per day - usually closer to 1000. But, unlike Shacochis, I'll write an entire draft without slowing to revise. So I'll spend most of a year turning out a very rough first draft, only to spend almost as much time on the second. After that, subsequent drafts go much faster, and of course there's the psychological benefit of seeing pages accumulate. I hesitate to spend time revising until I've reached the end of the story because I'm afraid a chapter or long passage will have to be scrapped or rewritten because of an unforeseen plot twist.

On the other hand, while writers like Shacochis, who revise as they go, will take much longer to reach the end of the story, they have a fairly polished draft when they type "THE END." I read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut perfected every page before going to the next. When he finished a first draft, it was ready to go to his editor. You can't argue with success.

I'm very suspicious of anyone who claims to have perfected a method. About the best anyone can offer is, "This is what usually works for me."

1 comment:

Matt Mullenix said...

Writing "In Season" from blog posts made revisions and scueduling a snap, but I don't think that framework suits every project.

I would generally make note of a topic each day and write the opening in my head, or at least choose an approach to it. I'd revise the previous day's post in fits and starts and coffee breaks while planning how to seque from that to the next one.

I'd then write the following passage first thing in the morning the next day.

Rinse. Repeat.