Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Get It Done

Several years ago I saw Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson doing a reading of their book, "Peter and the Starcatchers." Very entertaining evening. Dave does a great job holding an audience, and mystery writer Ridley Pearson does the best dolphin voice I have ever heard. Ever.

He should start a holiday – Talk Like a Porpoise Day. Except no one could do it as well as he does so we'd all give up and go away depressed and he'd be drinking alone. So it's probably best that he didn't.

But the other thing I remember is Dave talking about the writers' reputation. Writers like to talk about how terrible the burden is, he said, how lonely the job is, how difficult it is, staring down the muse and tortuously prying their stories out of thin air and their deep pools of creativity.

Then – "Stephen King spoiled it all for us."

King makes it look too easy. According to King, “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book."

Which brings us to the point about getting it done. As Anita Paul, the book marketing guru Tori and I heard Monday night, said – all the brilliant marketing strategies and pretty websites and email lists and guest spots don't mean a thing until you write the book. Finish. Finito. Done.

Paul has written a book on the subject, "Write Your Book in 90 Days or Less." She offers a formula and some rules, which I immediately rejected. Not because I thought she was wrong, I assume they work for her and could work for a writer. But the one-size-fits-all attitude doesn't work for me at all. It's like Somerset Maugham said. "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Follow a formula if you want to. Follow her formula if that's what you want to do. Or write the story you want, without artificial constraints. The question isn't whether your story fits a particular structure. It's whether it works.

But she was right about something else. 90 days really should be enough for a first draft. Let's all agree that Stephen King is unusual, some kind of freak-of-nature, human writing machine. When I read – gosh, must be a dozen years ago – that he was retiring, my immediate thought was "Bullshit." Stephen King could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing. So when he says 180,000 words is "a goodish length for a book," I think we can safely ignore him. He's what my dad used to call a D.A.R. – Damned Average Raiser.

But 90,000 words is a reasonable length. These days, that seems to be about what editors and publishers are looking for. Today you'd better by King, or Tom Clancy or J.K. Rowling, if you're sending an agent a 180,000 manuscript.

And suddenly the math is pretty damn easy, isn't it? 90,000 words. 90 days. 1,000 words a day. That's pretty do-able. My goal has always been 1,000 words a day when I'm working on my first draft, and I almost always hit it. Some days less, some days more. Occasionally 2,000 words and one memorable day more than 4,000. (Man, that was a rush!)

My problem isn't words a day, it's days I can focus on the work in progress.

But assuming you can wedge a few hours of writing each day into your schedule, you can do 1,000 words a day and in 90 days, there's a book.

Or the first draft of the book. Then you have to revise and rewrite somewhere between two and 4,700 times to get it right and make it work.

And then you send it off to an agent and wait. More than 90 days.

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