I’ve heard all sorts of recommendations about how much a writer should write every morning or night. Some people say four hours of uninterrupted writing time is essential, and while that would be nice, it won’t happen until I’m independently wealthy. Others go by word count. They say to write 5,000 or 10,000 words at a minimum. Just keep banging away and getting it down with the idea that it can be edited later. It’s all about pacing, about finishing, because so few people ever get to type those two little words, “The End.” It’s true. I know a lot of people who have started books or who want to, but for one reason or another, they haven’t finished. And they probably never will. That was even one of the positive comments I received from a journalist about my first novel, Horse Bite. When he sent me a link to his review of the book, the first thing he did was congratulate me on simply finishing it.
“That’s an achievement, sir.”
That was nice of him, but it made me wonder at the time if he was one of those who’d started but never finished a book, so after I read his review, I had the brief daydream that he would take inspiration from me, that he would write a book and thank me in the acknowledgements. “Thanks, Dave, for reminding me to get it done.” That never happened, of course. Well, he could have written a book, but if so, I’m certain he never thanked me for anything within its pages. I wonder if he still writes articles and book reviews these days. I wonder how much time he spends writing or if he’s counting the number of words he gets down.
As for me, my guidelines for how much to write are very simple. I have none. I have my nights where I write 10,000 words over a four hour period, but I have other nights too, nights where the actual writing time might be short, even though there’s plenty available, nights where the word count struggles to reach the triple digits. But these can be good nights. They can be productive. They can change the course of a manuscript or tie it together or wrap it up.
I remember while finishing Horse Bite there was one night where I needed a transition from a moment in July to the beginning of September. There was nothing happening in that space of time, but I couldn’t just leap-frog it and disorient the reader. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, though, but I sat down at my desk at eight o’clock with the whole evening in front of me to figure it out. I drummed my fingers on the desk for a few moments, typed a bit, thought a bit, opened a beer. It was hot outside, and my apartment back then didn’t have air conditioning, and so with the sweat dripping down my forehead and my arms and the beer bottle and my legs sticking to the chair, the idea came to me. I typed slowly, lingered over each sentence, reread it many times while moving my hands almost in the manner of a symphony conductor, but still had it done in an hour. And it was perfect. One paragraph: 148 words in 60 minutes.
And I was done for the night.
The trick with writing is to know when not to force it, and that’s why I have no guidelines for how much or how long to write. Sometimes the words are just perfect, so good, in fact, that nothing else can be written. And in those moments, I honor the words. I tip my beer to them. I luxuriate in them. But I also let them be because I know more words will come tomorrow in one or four hour chunks, and more will follow the day after that, and in the weeks and months thereafter, and that’s the real power of this whole writing thing, the knowledge of all those words to come, especially those last two, “The End.”
And, of course, those last two words mean only one thing for the writer: Time to start the next book.
About Dave O’Leary
I’m a writer and musician living in Seattle. My second novel, The Music Book, was published by Booktrope Editions in the fall of 2014. I’ve also had a short story, Condoms on Christmas, published in the Monarch Review and an essay, I Was a Mean Boy, on Slate.com. My first novel, Horse Bite (Infinitum), was published in 2011.
The Music Book can be found in Seattle-area Barnes & Noble stores and all the usual online outlets. I also write about music for Northwest Music Scene
When not writing or playing music, I’m apt to be found at The George and Dragon pub cheering for Arsenal, Swansea, and the Seahawks or at home on the sofa cheering for Tyrion, Arya, and the dragons.
Find out more about Dave on his website.