Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Consistency of the King

Hemingway always said that he stopped a day’s writing at a point where he was still interested in finding out what happened next. In other words, he didn’t write himself out in one session but held back something for the next day. I always thought this showed a lot of discipline. The closest I’ve come to this is jotting down some notes at the end of a day’s writing to guide me the next day. Usually when I’m rolling I stop only with great reluctance, either out of exhaustion or simply because I have to go to class, or work, or sleep, or something of that nature. Yet, I know the key to completing any long piece of writing is consistency over time, not an explosion of activity over a short period.

Stephen King demonstrates the same thing. Some people have accused him of hiring a ghost writer because he’s so prolific. But, instead, he writes about 2000 words a day, or 7 to 8 pages, but does this day in and day out, rarely missing a day or shorting himself on his quota. At this rate, he can turn out a 180,000 word novel in three months. (The math works; I calculated it myself.)

Reading about the disciplined habits of Hemingway and King tells me how I could be more productive myself. However, I know there are times when my school work keeps me from making any quota I might wish for. And there are times when I let other activities interfere with writing, although relaxation is also essential to life and one can’t work constantly. How about you? Do you already exhibit the kind of discipline that Hemingway showed, or that King shows? Or do you find that real life and the work that pays your bills keeps you from being consistent with your writing? What might you do to improve your writing productivity while still maintaining your home life and your sanity?


Heather said...

There's a little munchkin about my house that doesn't like to sleep, which is my excuse for not producing. It seems we're getting close to a bit of a routine and then, I'll not have an excuse. I'll have to write then, or I'll feel lousy about it.

Still, once I get rolling, I doubt I'll get as much done as the King.

Angie said...

I started keeping track of my writing in early August of '06, of how many words I wrote each day. That didn't include revisions or edits or plot-babbling or anything like that, just new words written. I figured it'd be a close enough gauge of how productive I was being.

I write more consistently now than I did a year ago (well, a bit over a year ago -- I'm doing approximately the same right now as I did during NaNo last year) but still not as much as I want. I have a fuzzy goal of a thousand words a day. Sometimes I do it and sometimes I don't. I go through periods where I don't write anything for days or even a couple of weeks; eliminating vacations and other out-of-town periods, these usually coincide with depressive episodes, or buzzy-manic episodes, and I can't do much about that. But there are times when I could be writing and just don't. I'm still working on those, because if I could be productive when I can, I'd be writing a lot more than I do now. There's no rational reason why I couldn't average a thousand words a day, or even two thousand; it's just a matter of finding the discipline to write when I can, which is honestly most of the time.

Still working on it. January is always a good time for re-girding of loins, so we'll see. :)


Lana Gramlich said...

Although I don't write I've tried to be disciplined about painting...does that count? I was doing pretty well a while back--I was painting every day. I've since slacked off, but I typically won't let myself go a full week w/o painting at least SOMEthing. I need to get back to that "paint every day" thing, though, particularly as my "real life" job allows plenty of time for it.

SzélsőFa said...

While I am infamous for keeping disciplines in my lifes, I can't do that in writing.
I have a lot to learn to organize myself.

(Just the other day I said myself: You finish that shorty short story. No matter what.)

So, I'll be back checking the comments to find helpful hints. I have none.

virtual nexus said...

In potential writing terms, there are a lot of elements in my set up that are ideal; the issue is mainly one of setting personal boundaries.

Without a great deal of experience, I suspect that while its good to emulate top writers, its better to raid their approach for things that really 'fit'ours. I used to love Iris Murdoch, but could never consistently write 1k in longhand every day like she did.

(One area I'm curious about is how many writers actually touch type!)

Get the impression that a lot of people who are most productive are those who 'train' themselves into a routine more of set times than set words or particular points in a plot.

Angie said...

Julie -- I do. [waves] I took typing in high school, but really got fast later when I worked as a word processor, then department clerk, then lab secretary. I've also had several jobs online, back when it was all plain text. Definitely touch-type, and at a pretty good clip when I get going. It does help a lot with writing.


the walking man said...

"What might you do to improve your writing productivity while still maintaining your home life and your sanity?"

Find a story line that I haven't already explored and simply care more about telling it might help, but my question to you Charles is how can a writer maintain sanity when diving the depths of imagination and would one want to? Vivid imagination teeters on the knife's edge between sane and not sane.



Chris Eldin said...

This is a great discussion!
I was disciplined as much as I could be writing my first book, having people read for edits, etc. But now it seems that marketing it is taking longer than actually writing it.
I've started two other books, and have outlines and resources for both, but I haven't been able to do much with them. I'm hoping after the holidays....
I can't work with the kids around. It's impossible.

Charles Gramlich said...

H.E., I remember when my son was that age. You'll have an excuse for years to come.

Angie, sometimes there really is some truth in the old idea of refilling the well, for those days and even weeks when you aren't writing new stuff. But no doubt most of us could be much more productive if we'd be more consistent.

Lana, well, you geniuses can afford to slack off once in a while. The rest of us need to work steadily.

Szelsofa, I actually manage to be fairly disciplined in my writing, but I still know when I'm cutting myself a lot of slack.

Julie, yes, I think we have to borrow what works and leave behind that which doesn't fit our personality. I touch type btw and it really benefits me, as it does Angie.

Mark, I suppose you could call writing fiction controlled insanity, and I personally think allowing myself that kind of insanity keeps me more sane in other aspects of my life, my job and being a parent.

Church lady, marketing is agony. I would so love just writing the stuff and letting someone else market it, but I don't have that luxury. I know what you mean about kids, as well. Good luck.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; Then you need to start slacking off now & again, buddy. ;)

cs harris said...

It's one of my (next) New Years Resolutions, to take better control of my time. I remember thinking when my girls were little that I'd be more productive when they grew up. It hasn't worked that way. One thing I have noticed, however, is that certain prolific bestselling writers produce a rough draft only, and then leave the smoothing and editing to others. I spend far less time actually writing than I spend plotting and researching and editing. That would turn King's three months of writing into six to eight months of book production, which sounds about right if you don't have a family or a life.

Farrah Rochon said...

I've become much more disciplined in my writing since I left full-time work and started working part-time. It's the guilt factor, I guess. It's hard to justify writing only three pages (my quota when I worked full-time) I've sacrificed the larger salary for my writing.

My goal is usually 5 - 7 pages. Usually I hit it, but some days I have to fight tooth and nail to get just a couple of pages done. I tell myself I don't believe in the writing muse, but I'm starting to rethink that.

Danette Haworth said...

I do sit down at the same time every single day and write. It's the only way that works for me.

Travis Erwin said...

Once upon a time I got up two hours early to write every morning. I made me self impsoed quota's but I didn't seel much of the crap i produced. Now I about as much in a week as I once did a day but I think the quality is better.

I wish I could be a bit more productive but these days my ideas and words seem to have to stew in my brain for several days before they are ready to flow onto the page.

Bernita said...

I have the will power to assert that sort of discipline, but I'm afraid of becoming a slave to it.
I write every day, the quantity varies, as does the quality.
Is there such thing as half-touch typing?

virtual nexus said...

Charles, don't want to derail this,
but suppose it does relate to productivity

- has anyone tried using computer voice recognition software or dictaphone?

I used a tiny palmcorder on conference mode when I did the veteran interviews - no other way - and was surprised how handy it was.

Had to laugh at the controlled insanity.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent! One thing that would be helpful to me is to not have to do any other work at all . . . So, being independently wealthy would be useful . . . I'd have no problem with the extra relaxation, time either. . .

writtenwyrdd said...

True words, Charles. Now the trick is to apply them.

Travis Cody said...

I have never had that kind of discipline with my writing. It's usually a burst of activity until the idea runs its course, followed by a period of denial and excuses as to why I don't continue the work.

miller580 said...

I have read that about King before, others commit to 1ooo words a day. God, I would love to do that...this last chunk of weeks, I have not been nearly as productive (in fiction) as I wanted. But those weeks are almost behind me and I am starting my new regimen of 500 words a day (minimum)during the semester and on break then 1000. If that means no Daily show or no Cobert...then so be it.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that churning out a novel in three months was easy work for those with the financial resources to do it.

I'm a fan of both King and Hemingway. King's first novel took years out of his life and pushed him to drug and alcohol dependency. Hemingway, well, we all know what he did to himself.

Sounds to me like you've struck a balance that is yours. Don't knock it.

Michelle's Spell said...


You seem incredibly productive to me! I'm a slow writer by nature, but I tend toward a routine as much as possible. I find giving up things useful -- men, jobs, joyful activities, etc. Kidding, but not much! Larry McMurtry was one of my teachers for a brief time (he would never teach more than a week workshop anywhere and only did it as a favor to UNT because he went there) and he had an excellent way of looking at it -- five handwritten pages a day that took him an hour and a half (Oh how I hated him when I heard that!) and a novel in six months, a year and a half to revise. And he talked about not getting caught into the soul-killing path of teaching (he is a book scout by trade). So I'm trying to follow that path since I admire his work so much -- Last Picture Show is one of my favorite novels of all time. The question is how to get rid of work which I'm working on!

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, I hope to soon.

Candice, good point about the research aspect. I hadn't added that in for time.

Farrah, I know how much difference working makes. This past summer, for the first time since I've been at Xavier, I took the whole summer off teaching. I wrote every day and made tremendous progress. I was so amazed at how mcuh I got done that I'm going to try to take off next summer for a repeat.

Danette, you should be proud of your discipline. That's very good.

Travis Erwin, One thing I could never do is make myself get up early to write. I'd much rather stay up later.

Bernita, the only key, really, is whatever it takes to get it done.

Julie, Wayne Allen Sallee is working with voice activated software now. I'm not sure what his experience has been.

Erik, yes indeed, see my comment to Farrah.

Writtenwyrd, yes, the ideas are always much easier to come by than the effort required to bring those ideas to fruition.

Travis, Richard Bach once said that he was "a writer as rarely as possible," and only wrote when he had "an idea too lovely to let die."

Miller, I've been doing a lot of revision work lately so it's hard to keep a word count there. When I get back to a novel I'll have to see what my level of production works out to.

Wayne, goood point. Sometimes it's hard to know in writing whether a balance is working. The feedback is so tenuous.

Michelle, wow, that is pretty fast for five pages. I may have approached that on occassion for rough draft work, but never for polished material.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

My real life intercedes too much to have consistent writing. But I do my best to carve out parts of my day for it. But it's hard, like you know, whey you teach and have tons of papers to grade that hit you at specific times of the year. At that time, it is hard to do anything else!

Sidney said...

I've heard Lester Dent aka Kenneth Robeson would stop in the middle of a sentence so he could remember where he was and also continue on.

Save something for tomorrow was also advised at the conference I just attended.

I know I've left myself stuck many a day so I shall try to heed that advice.

Enemy of the Republic said...

I do write every day, but most of it is crap. I've always admired King--I may not always enjoy the finished product, but he is a writer, pure and simple. Part of his contract is to make sure the publishing company finds, develops and publishs new writers. How cool is that?

virtual nexus said...

...For disappearing acts, it's hard to beat what happens to the eight hours supposedly left after eight of sleep and eight of work.
Doug Larson

Came across this today.

steve on the slow train said...

Wonderful title for your post. I'm afraid I'm not very consistent. I've got a job that can be exhausting--Amtrak ticket agent at a station that serves two universities-Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan--and sometimes I get stuck working a double shift, as a did last Sunday. But I'm proud to say that I did get my mystery story in the mail to Ellery Queen today.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, for me as well. It used to frustrate me so badly but I've learned to adjust to the interruptions a bit now. It's especially hard when writing fiction, though.

Sid, I think I heard that Dent sometimes worked on two or three books at a time as well, or maybe that was another pulp era writer. I once tried doing a fiction work and nonfiction at the same time and couldnt' complete either.

Enemy of the Republic, I didn't know about that rider in King's contracts. That is really cool. My respect for him has gone up. Thanks for dropping by my blog.

Julie, that's a great quote. And too true. Made me sit down for a moment and try to figure out the answer in my case. Still working on it, though.

Steve, congrats on the submission. Sometimes all we can hope for is to make small steps. Life is just too busy at times.

Lisa said...

You already know the shift I recently made. Committing to 500 words a day (not 1,000) and giving myself permission to write crap have done wonders. :)

eric1313 said...

This was a good post, sir. The Hemingway part is some great advice for writers young or old. He can be a trifle boring to read, but For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of my all-time favorites. Of course his advice is priceless.

I think we all too often write until our imaginations are exhausted. That makes it much harder to drum up the desire to finish a thread. Actually, it kind of kills a story, at least that's what I've found.

I write at least five hundred words a day, some in prose, some in poetry, plus these sometimes long responses that I do. The honestly written 500 words was advice from Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird. She has a great take on the process, as well.

Stephen King is awesome. I'm not a huge fan, but his prolificness and passion are to be respected. And I loved the universality of Carrie, as well as his books on writing, A Memoir on the Craft and Danse Macabre. Both contained funny anecdotes and some excellent, hard-earned wisdom.

Swords of Talera is even at my local used book store here in East Lansing. I picked up the copy that they had. Sorry about not getting it brand new to add to the sales total, but that your words are making it around the country has to be a grand feeling. I'm in the middle of Speaker for the Dead right now, and already Xenocide is calling to me, but when this part of the Ender series is done, I'll crack at it with earnest glee. I hadn't read any sci-fi in years until a month back when I picked up Ender's Game. Now, I can't put the genre down.

Leigh Russell said...

Interesting blog, Charles. You've asked the same question I just asked on my blog (only you put it much better!)

I don't like to stop when I'm on a roll in case I forget what I was going to write. Usually I can't stop. I constantly jot down notes when I'm not able to sit and write. My problem is that I have too much to write. I have to reign myself in. For the first 9 months of writing, I averaged 2,000 words a day, long hand, every day (completely compulsively)for nine months. Didn't miss a day. BUT that didn't necessarily mean that what I wrote was any good! I just can't stop once I start! When I began writing, I would only write long hand. I can now produce work straight onto the screen. I touch type which helps enormously. I still average 2,000 words a day - maybe 4,000 if I do two sessions. I just need to have the ideas in my head and I'm off. Distinct lack of discipline, I'm afraid!

It's a great escape from reality, through the characters I 'become'. I think for me it's probably a bit like being an actor, finding someone else's voice.

I'd love to be able to write full time, but wonder if the pressure of too little time actually helps the creativity?

I don't know that I could use voice activated software - I think better in writing.

Sorry I've gone on rather a long time (!!) but this is a blog and we don't have to be disciplined or write well. It's so liberating!

Please drop by my blog any time Charles. Fellow writers are always welcome.

Anonymous said...

Charles, where are you reading this stuff about Hemingway and King? I'd love to read the same.

Steve Malley said...

I have a 1000 a day firm commitment. Even if I have to do it with. That damn. Dip. Pen. If life is hectic, I carry pen and pad and jot phrases, outline action, etc. But the sun doesn't set without 1000 words written.

That said, I'm just coming off a wild ride of a week, with 28,000 words finished in eight days...