There’s a saying in academia: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation—the point being, of course, that it doesn’t matter how much hard work you put into your dissertation (thinking about it, planning it, talking about it, researching it) if you fail to finish it. The same might be said of novels.
Between the conception and the creation, as Eliot wrote, falls the Shadow. For the novelist, the Shadow takes many forms, most of them pedestrian by artistic standards—cutting the lawn, raking the lawn, cooking food, eating food—but, by human standards, entirely necessary. And yet, the real work, the writing, has to get done.
Novelists have developed a number of strategies to keep themselves moving forward. Ernest Hemingway kept a log of his daily word count so as “not to kid himself.” PG Wodehouse claimed to write as many as 2,000 words a day. And Graham Greene set a target of 500 words a day while finishing The End of the Affair. As strategies go, keeping a daily tally is simple enough. Most people, even novelists, can count. And 500 words a day adds up.
But 500 words of what? That’s the question. 500 words, after all, is 500 words. You get what you measure.
I know I could write 500 words every day before breakfast, if that were my sole measure, but they’d be pure drivel. (I currently have 233 words of drivel on this page alone. I know; I just consulted ‘word count’ on the tools menu.) By the end of the week I’d have 2,500 words of drivel. A word-count strategy, for me, would be a disaster. I’d go for quantity, not quality. I’d be like an old hack writing for ten cents a word: my sentences would grow to page-length monstrosities, full of subordinate clauses, parenthetical inclusions, asides, and em dashes—and I already have an unhealthy passion for em dashes.
What might work better would be a target that included a sense of quality as well as quantity: not simply 500 words, say, but 500 usable words, words strung together in sentences that could conceivably find their way into the finished work, sentences I can read without embarrassment. But then again some sentences—some passages—come more easily than others. I can write three pages of dialogue in a snap, if I can hear the conversation in my head. But if I can’t hear it? Well, then it might take forever.
Georges Simenon, who wrote six novels a year, used to complete a book in eleven days, writing a chapter a day, the strain of which required that he have himself checked by a physician both before and after the process. Philip Roth, in his 1983-84 interview in the Paris Review, said: “I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.”
But how many of us have two or three years to sit all day, writing?
The answer, I think, might be to combine quality with quantity. Most of us can schedule a set amount of time into our lives more easily than we can target a specific number of usable words, given that we don’t know how long it will take to write those words. Perhaps a schedule of three hours a day, with a target of 400 usable words would work. Or two hours a day, with a target of 250 usable words. Whatever you can manage.
Because a good novel is a finished novel.