Thursday, 12 May 2011

The really important question about a novel: how long did it take to write?

When I used to tell people I was a writer, they’d ask one of two questions. Those who didn’t read books would ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” – which, when you think about it, is probably the dumbest question anyone is ever likely to be asked about their work.

Those who did read books would invariably ask about work habits - when do you write, how long do you write for, do you write every day, how long does it take you to finish a book, etc. (Americans, refreshingly, would simply ask you how much money you made.) Strangely, I think this only happens to novelists – a biographer once told me that the only questions they got asked were about how they did their research.

The questions about work habits made perfect sense to me, because they were the sort I used to ask authors when I worked in publishing.( I rather fancied the lifestyle of Englishman Terry Harknett, the creator of endless successful Western series for our company under many pseudonyms,  who would write a book in two weeks, take two weeks off, and then start another one.) To this day, the first thing I want to hear about when writers are interviewed is their work routine.

When I started writing full-time, I soon fell into what, I later discovered, is a fairly common pattern: two hours’ writing, starting at eleven o’clock in the morning, and another two hours from about 4.30 or 5.00 in the afternoon. If I exceeded my time in the morning, my brain would be mush later on, and if I exceeded my afternoon quota, the following morning’s session would be a disaster. I’ve always been in awe of writers who manage longer hours, and perplexed as to where they get the mental stamina.

I’ve just read Balzac’s Cousin Bette (a truly horrible book, by the way), and as is my wont, checked up on his work habits as soon as I’d finished the bloody thing.  Turns out he’d eat at five or six in the afternoon, sleep till midnight, then work for up to fifteen hours at a stretch, guzzling coffee all the while. He wasn’t a fast or facile writer – he had to graft. In addition, he spent his life getting involved in doomed business ventures. No wonder the poor chap died at the age of 51. (The British thriller writer Jack Higgins also used to write through the night – he might still do, but he’s over 80 these days – which might explain why he always comes across as a bit of a miserable sod in interviews.)

Science fiction is generally so badly paid that the only way to make a living from it is to work insanely hard. In the early 1950s, Frederick Pohl even experimented with making his days 36 hours long so he could work for 24 hours at a stretch: unsurprisingly, this regime didn’t last long. Isaac Asimov used to write from 7.30 in the morning until 10 at night, often seven days a week  - which may have explained his prose style. Asimov (not exactly noted for modesty) described his work habits thus:  “I can write up to 18 hours a day. Typing 90 words a minute, I've done better than 50 pages a day. Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put on an orgy in my office and I wouldn't look up - well, maybe once."

I once read one of those Why I’m a Very Rich Writer and You’re Not books by the ridiculously prolific and ridiculously wealthy horror author, Dean Koontz (I’d have gone the deed poll route myself), in which he informed us that ten hours’ keyboard pounding a day was de rigeur. What he didn’t explain – which would have been handy – is how you fight through the befuddlement barrier. Whenever I tried extending my normal stint, there’d always come a point (usually two and a half hours in) when one’s imagination would simply refuse the next jump – and that was that. I mean, did Balzac’s and Koonz’s brains not simply seize up at some point? Didn’t the words start swimming about on the page after six or seven hours? Didn’t the effort of maintaining a fictional world in their head for hours on end leave them exhausted?

Or was I just a literary ladyboy?

As opposed to novelists whose writing hours are spent actually writing, Raymond Chandler would set by at least four hours a day during which he might not write a word, but would do absolutely nothing else whatsoever.No reading magazines or listening to music or talking on the telephone (although I suspect the occasional tincture may have passed his lips). 

Writers tend to fall into two distinct groups – those who use the amount of time devoted to writing as a measure of daily effort and those who use the actual number of words produced.  I was mainly a “time” man myself: but I never produced less than a thousand words a day, and would award myself an extra Scotch if I reached 2000. Besides, the quantity of words seemed beside the point: producing 1000 words which don’t have to be polished or rewritten represents a far greater achievement than four sides of double-spaced A4 (i.e 1000 words) which have to be gone over at a similar pace all over again. This means you’re only really producing 500 words of finished copy per day – and only 250 words (a single sheet of A4) if you do a third draft.

Nevertheless, for most professional writers, the numbers do matter. Trollope, famously, combined both measures - 250 words every quarter of an hour  between 5.30 and 8.30 in the morning, before starting the day-job. 

George Bernard Shaw reckoned a professional writer should produce 1000 words a day, which means that Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene – a paltry 500 words-a-day each – just didn’t measure up.

In the latter part of his career, Anthony Burgess slowed down to 750 words-a-day, but in order to achieve even that he had his second wife lock him in a room at their Monte Carlo apartment until he’d produced three pages, which he’d slide under the door so she could check he wasn’t fibbing. On receipt of the third sheet, she’d unlock the door and, presumably, he’d head straight for the drinks cabinet. (He and his first wife used to get through fifteen bottles of gin a week between them.)

Stephen King produces 2000 words a day He once claimed Christmas Day was the one day he took off – but later admitted he’d only said that to make himself sound less weird: he’s actually a 365 days-a-year man. 

R.F. Delderfield, on the other hand, routinely produced 33 pages - roughly 8,000 words - each day, and, if he finished a novel before knocking-off time (4pm), he’d stick a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter and start another one. Frank Richards, the creator of Billy Bunter, was a 20-page a day man. (When George Orwell took Richards’ fecundity as proof that several writers were using the same nom de plume, Richards wrote a letter putting him straight.)

As an extremely minor full-time practitioner for a mere seven years in the full flush of youth, I salute these life-long Stakhanovites for their industry and inventiveness. I know it can look like a bit of a doddle to those who’ve never done it, but you only have to look at how many of the successful ones drop off the perch early or commit suicide or wind up as alcoholics to realise that it’s not necessarily a soft option. 

Still, I often wish I’d had the creative stamina and the talent to still be doing it.


  1. How writers mechanically tackle their art is fascinating. You have worked with Harold Robbins and Irwin Shaw and it would have been interesting to hear about them. Apart from daily word quota targets there are other areas which would re-pay examination:

    Surroundings and their effect. Roald Dahl suffered chronic back-pain yet chose to do his writing sitting in a lumpy arm-chair with a rug draped over his knees in a freezing garden shed. Evelyn Waugh sat scribbling away with a quill in a splendid study and was invariably dressed in his [very loud] country tweeds - diverting himself occasionly by going downstairs and being very disagreable to his family. Where did Dostoyevsky do his writing? What kind of regimes did Dickens, Thackeray and Scott impose on themselves to produce their huge output? Did GK Chesterton have special desks made to accomodate his huge belly?

    Alcohol. Writers used to be notorious boozers - especially American ones [although Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and Kingsly Amis held their corner]. How did the fall-out affect their daily routines? Did they just barge through the shakes and sweats and anxieties and manfully complete their daily quotas? Or did they resort to a daylong hair-of-the-dog tactic. How can you write with a raging hang-over?

    Bibliographies. We have a fine group of contemporary historians [especially military] in the 35-50 year age range. Apart from all the primary source materials they have to read and digest their works always include very extensive bibliographies in the appendices. When did they find the time to read all these books or does a quick reference check via an index qualify the title for inclusion?

    That splendid old curmudgeon Paul Johnson used to provide answers to these kind of questions in his Spectator articles [ mind you, he did once claim to read around 20 European broadsheets before breakfast every day...perhaps he paid for a digest?],
    but since B. Johnson and M. D'Ancona turned it into a glossy flight magazine he has taken a powder and as his successor [ shaven-headed, button-nosed, know, that one] is clueless you must take on this mantle.

    By the way, E. Hemingway suffered all his life from haemorrhoids so did most of his writing at a stand-up desk and his reading lying flat out like the proverbial lizard drinking so your photograph is not representative [perhaps you should substitute him with A.N. Wilson?]
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 - 08:53 AM

  2. This post almost turned into one about alcohol and writing – I’ll do it some day. That fuzz around the edges of consciousness that even one glass of wine would create meant I couldn’t write a single sentence unless utterly sober, and I’m astonished at how many really proper writers managed to compose while two sheets to the wind. (Mind you, despite his alcoholism, Faulkner claimed to have been stone cold sober when writing).
    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 - 02:13 PM