August 31, 2013 @ 10:53 PM

The daily quota of words...

A few weeks ago, in the post about my little vacation on reaching the halfway point in my new book, I remarked how I was looking forward to getting back into harness again ... of resuming the disciplines of writing and my daily quota of words as I tackled the second half of the manuscript.


It prompted a degree of comment from people interested in what those disciplines were? What did I mean by a quota, and how many words a day did I write? What other techniques did I employ at the writing desk?

Some correspondents, on the other hand, questioned the need for a discipline at all. Isn't it better to wait for the Muse to inspire, than harness yourself like a workhorse to the treadmill of composition? Surely a writer, like any artist, should await the urgent calls of creativity, than simply hew out words as a day labourer?

The Muse is a fickle creature...

The dichotomy is a long-standing one between those who believe that the art of writing should be practised only when one feels sufficiently stirred to take up the  metaphoric pen, and those – like myself – who see it as a profession to be worked at regularly like any other.

To be sure, when I was producing  my first books over a quarter of a century ago, I wrote fitfully and as I felt like it, carried along by the initial enthusiasm and buoyant optimism that every novice feels. The Muse whispered, and I responded.

But as I turned from the third to my fourth and subsequent books, and found that with each one I had to dig deeper into myself for something new to say – or at least another way of saying it – I realised that it wasn't enough to rely on the Muse.

Her presence is real enough; but she's a fickle creature and often when I needed her most, she was nowhere to be found.

The solution, for me, was to adopt a daily ritual of method and order – and surprisingly, the more I practised the disciplines  of writing, the more I found that the Muse returned to suggest exactly the right words in my mind at precisely the moment I needed them!

Which was a particular blessing when I reached the point, 15 years ago, when I was able to earn a significant part of my living from writing.

Hours or words?

Of course, if I think the daily discipline is important to a professional wordsmith, I also believe the nature of that practise depends entirely on the writers themselves. It's a question of temperament and habit. What works well for one may fail for another: the important thing is to find a method that best suits you.

Some writers, for example, spend so many hours each day at the desk, as they would at the office. The late Bryce Courtenay, I recall, spent up to ten hours every day ... writing, revising, editing, and dealing with the business of authorship – responding to the letters, emails, requests and publishing communications that all of us face.

Rather than impose time disciplines, however, other writers adopt a quota of writing so many words each day. I'm very much of this group ... although once again the precise quota depends on the individual temperament.

Some writers I know will write a minimum of 1000 words a day. The words seem to pour out of them.

I'm an altogether slower writer, and for me the daily target when I'm composing is a minimum of 200 words a day. It's not difficult. The 200 words are fairly easily achieved – and are usually written without creating any undue stress.

True, it's often more than 200 words – I wrote 1800 in a single day a few months back, in the excitement of describing the last hours of the military evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915. But it's never less than 200, and I don't go to sleep until they're done.

I give myself Sunday off, and there have to be allowances to pursue necessary research and to undertake other authorly activities such as school visits and talks (which I've been doing this week, close to Children's Book Week in Australia).

But on the whole, the regular discipline of 200 words means that every day one more page gets added to the pile – and that step by step I ascend the literary mountain I spoke of the other week, and come down safely again on the other side.

I can recommend it to any of you who are struggling under the burden of composition.

Next: another writing technique: the best I've ever come across.

*  *  *


To celebrate Book Week, I’m offering a signed free copy with complementary book mark and postage of my novella The Burnt Stick to the first person who can answer the question:

Who said, where, in which book and about what: “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat!”

An easy one!

Email your answer and postal address to The winner will be decided on the earliest time after  midnight (00.01 am) on 2 September (Australian Eastern Standard Time) recorded on the first successful incoming email.

The Burnt Stick, illustrated by Mark Sofilas, was an Honour Book in the Children Book Council of Australia’s 1995 Book of the Year awards


Photo credits:

Quill pen. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, BWCNY at the English Wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.

The Politician by William Hogarth: Author photo.

Cover: The Burnt Sick, courtesy Penguin Book Australia.