So How'd I Do?
About a month ago, I wrote about Michael Moorcock's methods for writing a book in three days. This past weekend, I made the attempt myself, moved from my original date (two weeks from now) to Labor Day weekend for solidarity with the three-day novel-writing contest—though I didn't actually participate in the contest because I didn't want to pay the entry fee and didn't think whatever I wrote would be worthy of the publishing-contract prize anyway.
Right off the bat, I'll admit that I did not succeed in writing what I would consider a whole novel. Someone get a picture of a book and put the word "FAIL" over it for me. First off, I cheated; in preparation for the contest, I wrote a 6,500 word (about 26 page) short story in one day, two weeks ago, and then, as the date loomed, I decided it would be easiest if I used this story as a launching-off point.
A couple things to keep in mind: before two weeks ago, I'd never written more than about 2,000 words of fiction in one day (about 8 pages at 250 words/page), and at the time I had considered that a laudable feat. My growing fascination with writers like Moorcock and Lester Dent has a lot to do with their legendary prolificity. Lester Dent boasted of writing 200,000 words (that's 800 pages) a month for 4 years, though he suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of it. For me, writing 6,500 words in one day felt like winning a marathon. Yet it wasn't close to the 15,000 words a day I had to write to get the relatively modest sum of 45,000 words (180 pages) I'd assigned myself for a short novel in three days. (And which is fewer words than in most of the novels Moorcock claimed to write in 3 days.)
The first day, Saturday, started off well enough, I wrote about 7,000 words in a stretch, finishing a complete section before starting on another. I'd intentionally kept the plot simple, but it seemed completely necessary for what I was trying to accomplish to have a long part set in the middle of the war in Afghanistan. Of course, I've never been in the military, I've never been in a war zone and I've never been to Afghanistan, so it seems fairly obvious that I'd need a good bit of research to pull of such a thing, but for the purposes of the three-day-novel (which, after all, no one ever had to see), I was willing to bullshit a bit. However, I ran into another, entirely unanticipated problem which is that war is by its nature emotionally hard especially when your talking about a war in a horribly impoverished, third-world nation rife with corruption, terrorism and death. It's just not the lightest writing. After the huge number of words I'd already spilled out, I got a few hundred words into the Afghanistan section before my brain just turned off. I couldn't do it. Nothing would come out.
The second day, Sunday, I woke up tired and with a persistent headache that wouldn't go away. I felt like crap. I managed to hack out 1,200 words of the Afghanistan stuff before I felt like I couldn't do anymore. Fine, I thought, I'll do some research. So I watched a documentary on the war in Afghanistan. And that just made me want to curl up into a ball and cry. It's just so much worse over there than I had imagined. What was I thinking trying to approach something like that in a three-day-novel? I had promised myself that the whole thing would stay easy and pulpy and fun, but Afghanistan had seemed like such a good idea at the time. It just made so much sense for the plot.
Monday I woke up, clearheaded and refreshed. I wasn't going to give up. I had to throw out completely the 1,200 words I'd written the day before, but it was okay because I'd worked out in my mind exactly how I could make it work. I wrote about 4,500 words, maybe half the section, before stopping.
My total count for the weekend was about 12,700 words. If we throw out the unproductive Sunday and replace it with the productive day three weeks ago, I wrote about 17,000 (actually more like 16,500) words of a novel over the course of three non-consecutive days. That's about 66 pages. A novella's length.
So what did I prove? Well, for one thing, writing a novel in three days is freakin' difficult and I think I would have to attempt it a few more times to have any hope of success. But that's okay, because I don't actually need to write a novel in 3 days. I proved to myself that I can, if need be, write over 6,000 words on a given day, which if I could keep it up would give me a 200 page novel in 10 days (Moorcock's outside number for his 3-10 day novels) and a 300 page novel in 15 days. But much more importantly, I proved to myself that I can write 4,000 words a day even with relatively difficult material, provided my brain doesn't decide to explode. If I didn't have a day job, that'd be enough to do 120,000 words a month or 400 pages. And even with a day job, I can crank out 1,000 words on a lunch break, and have been doing so for weeks now.
Now, I know what you're thinking: what about rewriting? This is something that always bothers me about writers who brag about their numbers, or say things like 'you can write a novel in a year by writing 250 words a day'. What about the rewrites, the revisions, the business of taking your writing from the raw stuff poured out of your imagination into the shape and form of a polished, presentable work? Absolutely, the stuff I wrote this past weekend needs to be revised badly. I would never show it to anyone in the state it's in right now. But at the same time, I think at core it's pretty good, and that if I really, conscientiously dedicate the time it can be polished up into some great stuff. Time will tell if this belief is well-founded.
And I know what else your thinking (because I'm psychiiiic — fear my power!): sure, you can write pulpy stuff this way, but it won't be really high quality unless you spend a lot more time on it. Maybe. It's certainly true that especially lyrical writers, your Don Delillos, must spend a lot more time crafting every sentence than, say, your Dan Brown does. But the point is that they spend the time. I know for me, I used to cram out 500 or 1,000 words and figure I'd done my duty and stop and go watch television or something. What this whole experience has opened my eyes to is that I can write more, I can write a lot more. I need to spend an adequate amount of time revising the work and making it sing, making sure everything clicks, that it says and does everything I want it to, there's no question. But before I wasn't spending nearly as much time on any of it as I could have been. I realize that now. And this is what it means to take your writing seriously.