Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How long does it take to write a novel?

Asking how long it takes to write a novel is like asking how long it takes to have a bowel movement. The answer: until it’s done.

In search of something a bit more concrete, I googled the usual suspects.

Hemingway purportedly worked on a strict schedule that produced an average of 500 to 1,000 words a day. But he also consumed an average of nine Papa Dobles a day, so I’m not sure I can trust him.

Stephen King shoots for 2,000 words a day, which equates to about ten pages of a printed novel. When he’s working on a manuscript, he writes every day.

Dan Brown, of da Vinci Code fame, still starts his writing day at 4 a.m. He writes seven days a week. He keeps an hourglass on his desk and, on the hour, puts aside his draft to perform push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. But he seems like an asshole.

The process may vary, but the common theme is you must have a daily word quota and a deadline. I think 2,000 words a day is reasonable. So when I start my draft, my goal will be 12,000 words a week, with a minimum of 2,000 a day on the days I write.

That should put me ahead of my goal to complete a 120,000-word draft by August 27th. This draft will be ferociously bad. But that’s okay. It will tell me what the story is about. The real time, I’ve learned, is spent in the rewriting and editing process. Anyone can write 120,000 words. The tough part is making them good.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The evening redness in the west

I love to read and write dream sequences, because the possibilities are infinite; you are not bound by the story or even the confines of the natural world.

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. With him you get to experience the beauty of Faulkner in a book you’d actually want to read. And he writes nightmare dream sequences that can take your breath away:

He’d dreamt of the dead standing about in their bones and the dark sockets of their eyes that were indeed without speculation bottomed in the void wherein lay a terrible intelligence common to all but of which none would speak. When he woke he knew that men had died in that room.
–-All the Pretty Horses

In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
--The Road

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

In the past few weeks, I’ve read four books on writing:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Chris Baty
Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik
On Writing, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s On Writing is the best of the bunch. It’s one of the few that don’t make you feel terrible about yourself (No Plot, No Problem is another). Most books on writing are written by people who can write well, but have managed not to sell many books. There’s nothing wrong with this –- selling books shouldn’t be your motivation, I get that – it’s just that it spawns this you-have-to-suffer-like-I-did attitude. Through it all, there’s a dour, pedantic voice, saying: Everything you’ve ever written sucks, and if you don’t know it yet, I will help you know it. You shouldn’t worry about getting published, because it won’t happen. But if you still want to write anyway, here’s how I do it.

King’s On Writing is pithy and unpretentious. And his message is remarkably simple: "Read four hours a day and write four hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can't expect to become a good writer."

For the next year at least, I have found the time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Case of the Mondays

Let’s go back two weeks to that first Monday. I woke up and remembered that I didn’t have to go into the office for a year. I’d rehearsed this scene in my head a thousand times. I was going to be like the guy in Office Space, where he gleefully turns off his alarm and snoozes away the day. But I knew it wouldn’t play out like that. Whenever I have extended time off, it takes me about two weeks to relax. Which usually means I unwind a day or two before I have to go back to work.

I had a backlog of errands I didn’t have time to run while I was working. So, I got up at my normal time, and I:

  • Renewed my driver’s license at the DMV
  • Scored a residential parking permit at the SFMTA
  • Washed my car
  • Sorted out clothes to give to Goodwill
  • Went to the grocery store
  • Got a library card

Now, I’ve worked for years at a company whose primary mission is to cure cancer, and I can’t recall the last time I felt such a supreme sense of accomplishment.
Just visiting the San Francisco DMV and Municipal Transportation Agency in the same day warranted my taking the rest of the week off.

Chapter One

An insider's perspective on biotech in the bay area. That was my first idea. I even briefly considered calling it Hella Biotech (I know). But after I wrote, "this is a blog about biotech in the bay area," I realized that the rest would take research. I don't want to do research; I want to write.

I quit my biotech job to write full time. A year from now, I hope to have completed a novel. That's what this blog is about.