Anyone who’s given writing a shot knows it isn’t easy. The key to doing it, though, is just to do it. You have to have to write. You have a story that has to come out–a compulsion, an obsession. It’s in your blood, or it’s bleeding out of you as the old line about sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein suggests. But how exactly do you do it?
When people ask me about my writing process, I sometimes say that I use the Jack London method, but without the morphine. That’s my cryptic (probably annoying) way of saying I commit myself to writing a thousand words a day–but only when I’m actually working on composing a book.
I’ve heard other writers say they use the same method, which was what London claimed he did. And if you look at London’s literary output in the short span of his career (something like 50 books in 16 years, combining novels and short story collections), it’s pretty impressive. If you put your mind to it, it doesn’t take terribly long to write 1,000 words, and if you can budget that every day, you’ve got a novel’s worth of material in 3 months or less.
I don’t claim to be as prolific as London, not by a long shot. I have a day job and a family and I often bring work home with me, so finding the time for a thousand words a day happens for me only at certain times of the year. But when it does happen, this method works pretty well for me.
But then there’s the editing and revision process. That’s where the real writing comes in, and that’s where London’s method stops working. It’s tough to quantify page numbers and words when you’re carefully reading and re-reading, looking for errors, typos, awkward strings of prepositional phrases and passive sentences that just snuck their way into the writing.
Which reminds me of Thomas Wolfe, another literary over-achiever who snuffed his candle at both ends before turning 40. Wolfe is reported to have been heard wandering the midnight streets of New York chanting, “I wrote ten thousand words today, I wrote ten thousand words today.” And I believe it, considering how thick his novels are. He is also said to have shown up at the home of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, with a trunk filled with manuscript, announcing that it was his new novel and leaving it for Perkins to sort out, turning the mass not into one book but two.
I think 10,000 is a bit of a stretch, but if you can push yourself to get that thousand a day done, you’ll have something you can really work with before long. Not all of us have a Maxwell Perkins to dump the results onto, but once you’ve got that first draft down, you’ve at least got something you can pass on to a trusted reader who can start you moving on the next phase.