Sunday, 25 October 2009

Me and Sisyphus

OK, it’s over. Well, the first draft is done anyway. A quick recap. A friend suggested I was just the guy to rewrite a book on study skills for a different market from the one in which it was already operating very successfully. I had a meeting with the publisher in mid September and we agreed on a 145,000 word target. My impression was that it was to be delivered in the Spring.

But when I got home from London, there was an email telling me that that was when promotional work would start, which meant having it ready by December. As we exchanged more emails, one apparent bonus was that the total came down to 105,000. But it was only apparent because, as I was writing, I realised that targeting a word count makes no sense. A book will always be as long as it needs to be. As it happens, this one came in at 110,508.

I really need to think a lot more about the experience because it was strange. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written but it was written in the shortest time I’ve ever taken. I had to put everything else aside which, at first, made me resent the fact that it was taking over everything but which, in the end, was sort of comforting. As the chapters piled up it gave the impression of purpose, progress, even meaning, for God’s sake.

Oh, don’t worry, those of you who rely on me to empty the universe of any significance; my fundamental lack of belief hasn’t altered. At times I did think of Sisyphus, but in my case, when I sat down to the next session each day, the stuff I’d already done hadn’t disappeared. (While I’m at it, I need to rethink my whole Sisyphus attitude, too. I mean, I know his acceptance of the futility of what he was doing was a fine example of the indomitability of the human spirit and stuff, but surely the best response to knowing that the bloody rock was going to end up back at the bottom every time should be ‘Sod it’ and go off for a pint. That’s real humanity.)

Anyway, so I started work around 8.30-9 a.m. each day and stopped around 5.30-6. At first, as I said, I resented giving up the time but, as I got into it, it became one of those experiences where you start writing and everything (including self) disappears. In a way, you become the words. When you’re writing fiction, it’s different. Because you’re with the people in your story, interacting with them, recording what they do – but this was a book of advice. I wrote in a loose, conversational style, addressing the advice directly to the reader ‘You’ll find that …’, ‘If you start by …’, ‘Then give yourself a reward …’ – that sort of thing. But the person doing the addressing, while it was me and I was drawing on my own experience as well as the excellent material in the original book, was a sort of construct. I became a writing machine.

And now it’s done, I feel a slight sense of loss. I know I’ll have to edit it and maybe rework some bits, but the regular 8.5 hour days are over and I can start making inroads into the stuff that’s piled up while I’ve been writing it. I suppose it also helped that it was commissioned and therefore will (probably – nothing’s ever certain) be published next year. With fiction, you never know until you start getting the rejection slips.

One silly thing one can do with this sort of project is play statistics. For example – the 110,508 words were written in 29 working days, which is 3810 a day or 448 an hour. But the further you take this, the worse it gets. In the end, it means I was writing just 7 words a minute. 7 words a minute! That’s crap. It’s hardly writing at all. I just timed myself as I was writing this to prove it and, even with correcting typos, I can easily manage 70 words a minute. So in theory I should have been able to write that book in 2.9 days. See? I keep telling you I’m a lazy bugger.


  1. And you men say we women over-analyze!

    Seriously, Bill, I know how you feel I just finished writing a 150,000-word insurance text on a 3-month deadline. Cripes! Your world shrinks to the size of a peanut. But, oh, when you emerge...

  2. Indeed, Linda. (But 150,000 words! On insurance! See? It's made me use up my allocation of exclamation marks for the next 3 months.)

  3. Congratulations! I don't buy the lazy bugger part though. As a writer you also have to take time to read and check.
    I also need you not being a lazy bugger, mon ami, I'll send you some work tomorrow.

  4. it is my opinion that laziness, not necessity, is the mother of invention. besides, i'm not being lazy... i'm thinking. t

  5. Thank you Thea - I'll steal that line and use it unashamedly.

  6. let's both use it in one of our books, and then we'll start an international plagiarism scandal! with a glorious smackdown! that will give us loads of free publicity!! i must now go think about it.

  7. I'm so jealous. What a wonderful feeling to lose yourself in the 'moments' of creation even non-fiction. Non-literary types might call that shameless basking in the moment to be laziness of its own sort. I don't think I'll be doing any deep analysis of word count anytime soon.

  8. Pushing that rock uphill at seven words a minute is quite an accomplishment, Bill. It's all downhill from there. :-) Welcome back to the outside world!

    (Snowed in on the mountain)

  9. Thea, I have a character in a completed but as yet unpublished novel who says that sort of thing. I'll find a point for him to utter your pearl and, if ever it's published, I'll be sure to let you know so that scandal ensues.

    Marley, I guess I'm just lucky. Today, for example, was spent clearing out 30 years of accumulated rubbish from the garage, re-siting lights and switches, screwing brackets onto shelves - and it was just as absorbing. But I always advocate living in the moment anyway.

    Jean, good to hear from you again but sorry to hear that you've swung to another extreme of climate. I hope the house is all you hoped for.