The quota system
Some writers favor it. They make themselves write so many pages or words per day, no matter what. “I mandate a thousand words a day from myself,” is something I’ve seen on lots of writers’ blogs. “If I’m shooting for 60,000 words, I’ll have a draft in 60 days.” “No matter how sick I am or how busy I get, I make myself sit down and write [so many] words every single day.”
Sounds laudatory. One of the Hollywood moguls from the golden age—Sam Goldwyn or somebody like that—reportedly would walk in on his writers unannounced, and if he didn’t hear typewriters going, he’d raise Cain. He was payin’ them, dammit, and didn’t want them sitting around reading magazines. (Imagine how he’d react to this era of Facebook and Internet gaming.)
I’ve never counted words or set goals, other than to write well and, ideally, to surprise even myself. I go days and days without writing sometimes, then write like crazy. That’s how it works for me. If I can’t you-know-what, I get off the pot for a while.
When I’m not writing, it’s percolating. I hate it when the idea comes to me and I have no way of writing it down. You’d think by now I’d carry a small notepad and pen everywhere, but I’m too stupid to do that. Plus it doesn’t work well in the shower.
Mozart worked best just before a deadline. (Contrary to the myths portrayed in the movie Amadeus and elsewhere, he did not always write effortlessly and abundantly.) He reportedly scratched out the overture to Don Giovanni the night before the first performance, with his wife keeping him awake with coffee and witty stories. (Though I wonder if this tale isn’t made up. After all, Constanze telling witty stories?) Beethoven went on a dry streak that lasted from about 1809 to 1817. Not that I’d recommend this, but it shows even the best of us run out of fuel.
For one thing, there are some days I can sit there and turn out words, but I know they suck and the next day I’ll just erase them. On days like that it’s better to go off and do something else—read a book, watch Igby Goes Down again, change my Facebook picture five more times, watch Igby Goes Down again…
In one of her early novels, Night and Day,† Virginia Woolf,* whose own work habits were highly sporadic (and just because of her bouts of mental illness) describes through the eyes of one of her characters, Katherine Hilbery, how her mother Margaret would go about writing:
Katherine would calculate that she had never known her to write for more than ten minutes at a time. Ideas came to her chiefly when she was in motion. She liked to perambulate the room with a duster in her hand, with which she stopped to polish the backs of already lustrous books, musing and romancing as she did so. Suddenly the right phrase of the penetrating point of view would suggest itself, and she would drop her duster and write ecstatically for a few breathless moments; and then the mood would pass away, and the duster would be sought for, and the old books polished again. These spells of inspiration never burnt steadily, but flickered over the gigantic mass of the subject as capriciously as a will-o’-the-wisp, lighting now on this point, now on that.
I don’t know if this describes Woolf’s own way of working. In her diary, she states, “I find I write it by clinging as tight to fact as I can, & write perhaps 50 words a morning.” Fifty words! A quota, yes, but not one most writers and aspiring writers would be happy with.
But I can say I’ve been there. Writing comes in drabs and spurts. I can’t say I’ll write a thousand words today. First of all, I have no idea when I hit a thousand words. It’s not like a bell goes off. Second, I could count and write a thousand (or whatever number) words a day, but I wonder how many of those words would survive. If most of them are mowed down in the battle of revision, what’s the point?
Usually when I write I multitask like crazy. I have several windows open on my computer. I’m online (to do frequent fact-checking). I know someone who makes sure she is disconnected from the Internet when she writes, as she considers it a distraction, and I recently read about Jonathan Frazen’s rather severe method for writing—in a small rented room with almost no furniture and no distractions, with an old laptop that is not only not connected to the Internet, it cannot be. Franzen removed the wireless card and permanently blocked the Ethernet port by gluing a plug into it! That’s going a little too far for my tastes, but whatever works, works.
However, word counts seem silly to me. I understand the necessity of making measurable progress, but it’s not the number of words, but how good they are, that cheer or blacken my day. And some days I know a scene is going to be particularly tough, and it may take all day to get down a few thoughts. Other days the work is simple—exposition is often this way—and I bang out the pages.
Once I was writing, or rather re-writing, a scene from Entertaining Welsey Shaw. It required few changes from the previous draft. Most of it was just cut and paste, literally. Still, I felt deep inside it was not the killer scene it could be. It was a major moment that propelled us into act III, what screenwriter William Goldman would call “plot point two.” After my cut-and-paste, which I don’t really count as writing per se, I had a sudden jolt, and added two lines at the crucial point that weren’t in the last draft. Those two lines changed the intentions of everyone at that moment, and made the interactions much more meaningful, even though they were just two very simple sentences, almost a throw-away. So technically I wrote just two sentences that day. But I consider it one of my best writing days ever.
† Note to Amazon: Just how many different Kindle versions of Night and Day do we need? Especially when Google Books has it online for free.
* Note to Virginia Woolf: Sorry, Ginny, but this novel was boring.