Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adding Up

Ian Fleming claimed to write the James Bond novels at the rate of 2000 words per day. 1000 in the morning, followed by lunch and a swim; 1000 in the afternoon, and then cocktails and the company of beautiful women. It took him six weeks of this regime to finish a novel. Nice work if you can get it.

I started the ongoing project on January 3 this year, and finished the first draft on May 20. At twenty weeks, it doesn’t seem to measure up to Fleming’s Stakhanovite rate of production - even though the ongoing is somewhat over 170000 words long, while the Bond novels, at 2000 words a day for six weeks, stack up at an economical 84000 words, I seem to have been overdoing it on the lunch and swimming and cocktails and company of beautiful women bit. In fact, I was hitting Fleming’s rate, at minimum, each week. It’s just that I had other stuff to do - such as dealing with the edit and rewrite of The Quiet War, and then its copy edit. That’s five weeks out of the schedule right there. A fair number of weekends were taken up with finishing a novella, and writing an essay, too. And at the beginning, despite a fair amount of forward planning and making detailed background notes, I managed to make my usual false start, discovering after a few weeks and some 70000 words that I wasn’t heading in the right direction or moving at the right speed. D’oh! Well, nothing for it but to start over, and hope that some of the stuff can be reused (which about half of it was, in the end).

Writing seems to me to consist of a) blundering about in the wrong direction, b) finding the right direction and hitting the groove and getting on with it, and c) rewriting. Ah, rewriting! How I love rewriting! After all, the first draft proves that the project has a beginning and an end. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out all the middle stuff, and making sense of notes like this (and this is one of the more intelligible ones): [need to cut this up into at least two chapters and in second sharpen tension between Ghosts and others, more on unbound nanotech and also make the attack and the death of Colonel Neves much sharper].

But first I have to finish writing a talk I’m giving at the Norwegian Festival of Literature . . .


Anonymous Al Reynolds said...

Re: your remarks about having to rework the first 70000 words - Rushdie said something along the lines that a novel is like a big building that you have to find the right entrance into. If you find the wrong one, you end up wandering around back corridors until finally you realise that you have to reverse and find another way in. I liked that; it summed up exactly my feelings about the exploratory phase of writing a novel. I almost always have to throw out a good chunk of the first 30 - 70000 words because I haven't found the right door or I took a wrong turn somewhere inside.

And for me, the rewriting phase is the bit I like most of all - more enjoyable than the first draft, and also more enjoyable than the fiddly polishing and detail-fixing of the final one.

May 23, 2008 11:45 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Nice analogy - but it makes me feel even more stupid, as I was already *in* the building; the ongoing is a self-contained sequel to The Quiet War. Still, good to know that I am not alone. Apart from that first 70,000 words, I'd like 20,000 words of notes, more or less ignored afterwards, to be taken into consideration. I suppose I could consider them as a warmup exercise...

May 23, 2008 6:18 pm  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Along that building analogy's lines, Norman Mailer once wrote of the "basement of a first draft" from which the writer works upward, hopeful of emerging onto the proper first floor of the desired edifice, aware that the entire structure could collapse at any time.

Scratch a novelist and find an architect!

Speaking of scratching, on the other (as it were) hand, Anthony Burgess once commented on the hemorrhoids that were a consequence of writing extended fiction.

May 24, 2008 10:46 pm  

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