Master Jedi That Writer Is

I have this weird fear of being controversial. It probably comes from the fact that I’m not a very confrontational person. Oh, I know… some of you are laughing. Me? Non-confrontational? But it’s true. I’ve never started a fight in my life…

…but I did kill a man…

Anyway, I say I’m not big on controversy because the subject of this post balances precariously on the knife edge of debate. Some of you will agree with me. Those who don’t will throw dirt in my eye. Lucky for me, I’m wearing my glasses. Your dirt will not deter me… much.

I just saw a post on Twitter by someone I don’t know and probably won’t ever know. The question was: how many hours have you dedicated to your current writing project? His answer: over 8,500 hours.

Hey look, a calculator. How handy.

8,5000 hours divided by twenty-four hours in a day equals… drum roll please… three hundred fifty four days. Now, lets be realistic and say that this guy has a job. Let’s say he only works part-time and sleeps seven hours a night. Let’s give him some free time to do things like shower and eat and watch a bit of television. I’m going to be generous and say he writes six hours per day.

:calculates:

3.8812 … that’s years. Nearly four years of writing six hours a day, seven days a week. Working on the same writing project.

I have one thing to say: you’re shitting me.

Newsflash: if you ever want to make a living off of writing, not only do you not spend 8,500 on a writing project, but you can’t. Hell, give this guy a year to recover (he sure deserves it!) and that’s one book every five years. Two books per decade. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to write a dozen books in your lifetime, and that’s with a whopping six years off.

It took me eight weeks to write a 75,000 word novel. That’s seven days a week, two to three hours per day. (Full-time jobs and mental exhaustion tend to cut in to writing time.) So, roughly, I spent 180 hours composing a first draft. That doesn’t count in hours for revision and editing, but let me be the optimist and say that it isn’t going to take me an extra three years.

I get it. Writers have been conditioned to believe that writing a book should take years. We’ve somehow been magically convinced that to create something of any worth, we have to spend years of our lives torturing ourselves, picking apart a single sentence for weeks on end, rewriting the same paragraph for months at a time, all in the name of perfection, all in the name of ‘The Next Great American Novel’.

Pardon me while I kick-start this debate but you’re insane. And if you’re one of those people who’s spent twenty years on a single novel, please, enlighten me how you’re going to make any money off of your craft. Seriously, I’m listening.

Okay, I hear you. “It isn’t about money.” I tip my hat to you if that’s the case. You’re a true artist. I, however, have spent a good amount of time making a living off of something I don’t enjoy, so to think that I can make a little dough off of something I love doing… well, call me a dirty capitalist, but that sounds pretty awesome.

Quite frankly, I can’t begin to imagine spending nearly four years on a single project. I’d get bored… and not just ‘ho-hum this is a drag’ bored, but self-destructive let’s-burn-the-house-down bored. Violently bored. Maybe I’m just not capable of it. Maybe that’s some sort of Jedi writing level I’ll never attain. But to me it seems, dare I say, compulsive? You can’t let go of your work, obsessively picking at it until you eventually look like Gollum (my precious!) I don’t know why anyone would willingly put themselves through what, to me, seems like a toss up between creative constipation and flat-out torture.

If you read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, he makes a clear argument for why a first draft should essentially be a speed-write. The trick is to get the story down before the story leaks out your ears, because yes, it will run away from you. Spending too much time on a first draft is a quick way to never finishing it. Spending four years on a project, whether you’re writing or revising, is a half-baked way of writing anything. But I’ll give it one thing: it’s damn efficient at getting you nowhere.

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17 thoughts on “Master Jedi That Writer Is

  1. I agree and disagree. I do agree that you shouldn’t spend 8500 hours on a project. But I spent easily more than that on what is about to be my sequel. The very first draft was written perhaps three years before I met Will. I’v since rewritten it — in its entirety — five times. That’s over the span now of 15 years. But in the interim, I’ve also written seven other manuscripts, a book, and have completed countless other creative projects. So I suppose then the question isn’t whether or not you could devote 8500 hours to one story, but rather are those the only 8500 hours you’ve got?

    • Simba,

      This is a really good point. But here’s the thing… I highly doubt you’ve spent 8500 on that project. Don’t count hours that you -haven’t- been working on it. Don’t count hours where you were working on something else and that one project was in the back of a desk drawer. 8500 is nearly an entire year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week… It’s a ridiculously long period of time. I’m not sure War and Peace even took that long.

  2. To assume that all novelists hold purely mercenary motives is an insult to those whose motives are not primarily pecuniary in nature. Of course, this is hardly my best writing, but English is not my first language and I am borrowing somebody else’s body.

  3. I knew from the start that I wasn’t likely to be able to earn a living writing science fantasy. That’s why I have a day job as a software developer.

  4. Thanks to OpenOffice, I can see exactly how much time I’ve spent on each manuscript. Now, keeping in mind that it counts time when the document is open but you’re actually just mucking around on the Internet or tending to needy babies, the longest I’ve ever spent on a single project is 1996 hours–and that one was NUTS. I’d actually estimate it’s more like half that, because even that one only took eight months to get out (I think I’ve done four editing runs on it since finishing). Mostly it’s more like 100 – 400 hours. If I take more than a couple of weeks to develop an idea into a 75k – 150k first draft I feel like I’m dragging my feet. A couple of days of notes and initial research, maybe a week of outlining, then around two weeks of hell for leather writing to bang out the first draft. And then weeks of editing and proofing.

    But yes. If you’re taking years to write a single book I have to wonder just how much time you’re spending just buggering around.

    • Ben,

      That’s amazing. The more I hear about Open Office the more I keep reminding myself to download it. I’ve never used it before, but I’ve heard that converting to html (for Amazon) is leaps and bounds ‘cleaner’ than it is if you use Word. The fact that it keeps a timer running is pretty awesome.

  5. I am one of those slower writers. I can see me easily taking a year to complete my novel, beginning to end. I’ve bought into the “it should take a damn long time to write a good novel.” But I consider myself a guy with an open mind. So I’m intrigued. I’m glad you’ve made this point because now you have me questioning my assumption. And I’m right there with you on the money-making thing.

    Btw, I love the passion in your writing. This was enjoyable to read b/c of your style as well.

    • Thanks Chris.

      And don’t get me wrong… I used to be one of the slow ones too. It would take me upward of 9 months to write a first draft, and I’d always joke that hey, that’s standard gestation time. But the more I would read about the approach a lot of pros use, the more I saw that the first draft was very much wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. It seemed like, at least to me, that every author I read about would run, not walk, to the end of their first draft. At first I thought this was insane. I shrugged it off and said ‘well, they’re PRO. They don’t have a full time job like I do. They have 24 hours in a day.’ Yadda yadda yadda… always an excuse as to why I couldn’t do what they did.

      There’s a book out there called ‘The 90 Day Novel.’ It’s available on Kindle, and I highly recommend it. I bought it because I was determined to at least try the fast first draft, but I didn’t know where to start. This purchase is one of the best I’ve made when it comes to writing help. It’s a hard program to follow. It’s every day, 7 days a week, for 3 months… so, not for everyone. I’m naturally disciplined, and at times even I had trouble turning down a night out because I had to sit at home in front of my laptop. But by the end of three months, I had banged out a nearly 80k word novel, and I was amazed.

      I think that experience calls for a blog entry all it’s own, hmm? 🙂

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  8. I agree with what you are saying, but perhaps his time is more than just the words. It took Tolkien 12 years to write the lord of the rings, but a lot of that time was creating languages, maps, etc to make the world more real.

  9. I’m in two minds. On the one hand, I worked for five years on my next Kindle release. Eleven rewrites. And it needed every one of years and every one of those rewrites. If I’d released it as it was then, I’d be ashamed of myself now.

    On the other hand, in those five years I also wrote and sold two novels, one of which is now a series, numerous short stories, most of which have been published, and started a horoscope column for a local mag which is still running. So it’s not like I just worked on that one novel. But some projects just need more time than others. And some people write faster than others. I used to be able to write 2k an hour, easy … before all that typing gave me chronic nerve damage!

  10. I’m not writing because I want to make money, I want to make money from my writing because I want to spend my life writing. The only way to make it your full time job is to earn money at it, like you would from, well, a full time job. It took me six weeks to write my current novel, which included two weeks of ‘I’m kidding myself about ever being a writer’ wherein nothing whatsoever got written. There then followed about three weeks of nothing and then two days of editing, at which point I’m 40% of the way through.

    I fully intend to earn money at this because that way, I get paid to do something I love. Like you, I have had to earn money doing things I HATE so given the option, show me the money and I’ll show you the words.

  11. My first novel took about 8 years. But I took most of that time off and wrote 300 songs and released 20 albums (under multiple band names). If I add up the actual hours of writing, it was much, much less.

    I write about 1,000 words an hour. I think the first 40,000 words took me a couple months. Then I took time off to do music. Then I wrote the rest of it in a few months. Then it took me about 2 months to do the second draft. And all of that was just a couple of hours a day of writing–at the most.

    I think the sequel will take me about 4 months (an hour a day). So that works out to about 120 hours.

    Maybe this guy’s project is a million words? Without the word count it’s hard to say if it took too long. Of course if it IS a million words, then he has another problem.

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