How much is enough? How to write a novel–part 26

The robotWriters can be very competitive folk, especially when it comes to the topic of production. Like people in any other profession, some writers exaggerate while others are painfully honest.

Dean Wesley Smith for instance, really does crank out a prodigious volume of work. His goal is two million words a year. That’s 1000 words per hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. I don’t write *quite* that much. [cough]

I also know a couple writers who claim to churn out amazing quantities of prose, yet they publish very little. They can’t all be completely full of crap, can they?

Yes and no. Some writers refuse to publish independently. Therefore, they’re locked into what used to be called the “traditional” publishing route–tradition in this case means sending your work to agents or editors with no thought of self-publishing. That’s not the way it’s always been done, despite what the Big Six would have you believe. (Oops, my mistake. I missed another merger. The Big Six is now down to the Big Five.)

Big FiveThere’s certainly nothing wrong with having your book picked up by Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins or any other publisher of note. I’ll gladly stand and applaud anyone who can traverse the obstacle course that leads to publication in the “traditional” manner. A few people who publish this way will achieve wealth and fame. Their books will be picked up by celebrities and other influential folk, and overnight the writer’s names will become the subject of late-night talk shows and book clubs. There will be a bidding war for the movie rights, and editors will complain that they never got the chance to look at any of the manuscripts before somebody else jumped on them.

For most people, however, the real world provides a different scenario. Getting a book into an editor’s hands is a difficult and time-consuming process, and even if successful it often results in the publication of a couple thousand paperbacks which will stay on bookstore shelves for a few weeks. They will receive no fanfare or publicity beyond what the author provides, and after a couple months they’ll be taken off the shelf; the covers will be stripped off and returned to the publishers for credit, and what’s left of the books will go into a dumpster. The book will never earn out the author’s advance; the rights to the book will forever remain with the publisher, and the author won’t be able to sell another book to that same imprint without changing his or her name, because the accounting department will never forget that the first book wasn’t a hit. (Thank you, Harvard MBA program.)

1st rounderI apologize if my admittedly jaded view of the “traditional” method puts a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm. I’m merely being realistic. The odds of an anonymous writer making it big on their first novel are about the same as the average college football player’s chances of being drafted by the NFL in the first round. It’s on a par with the chances of any kid who moves to New York or Hollywood in hopes of becoming a star by standing in line at open casting calls.

The truth is, there are way more gifted people available than the system needs. It applies to publishing, movies, recording, professional sports–just about any field based solely on talent. And the really crazy thing, the thing that makes so many of us scratch our heads or swear or groan, is that so many of the people who “make it” really aren’t very good. Many of them just, simply, suck.

But, back to the main point: production. How much do you need to write? How many words should you aim to churn out in a day, a week, or a month? What’s the norm? What’s reasonable?

If there were a magic number, I’d gladly share it with you. How much one writes depends on the individual and the demands on that person’s time.

I think two pages a day is a very reasonable target. Others will disagree. If I’m on a roll, I’ll crank out a whole lot more than that. If I’m doing my taxes, or taking care of my grandkids, or pulling the ivy out of the trees in my yard, I’m not going to write much of anything.

glassOddly, my bourbon consumption will remain fairly steady whether I’m writing, painting the house, building a deck or taking my grandkids to the zoo. If I approached writing the way I approach Kentucky’s finest, I’d get a helluva lot more written.

How much should you expect of yourself? As much as you can do. Try to write every day. If you can do two pages, that’s awesome. More is better. Less is okay provided you try to make up the difference later. Two pages is about 500 words. The average novel is about 90,000 words. So, at 500 words a day, you should be able to write two novels a year and still have nearly a whole week to just goof off.

So, get busy!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to How much is enough? How to write a novel–part 26

  1. polinto says:

    When I worked in my mother’s bookstore in East Cobb, I was the one who tore off the covers and packed the remains to be returned.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. joshlangston says:

    I’m not entirely sure publishers are still doing this, but it was standard operating procedure for many, many years. Hardbacks, I presume, were a very different story.

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