Friday, December 04, 2009

Weighing the Output

I was a chubby kid. When we lived in town, a couple of boys in my school used to stand on the sidewalk and chant a rude verse at me on the way home ("Fatty," it began. I sometimes think that if my brain disintegrates with age and I begin to regress like Hal, instead of "Daisy, Daisy," I'll start chanting the "Fatty, Fatty" rhyme. ) I was almost thirty when I lost close to 60 pounds through Weight Watchers. I don't know what WW is like now, but back then, you'd get on the scale, and, if you'd lost anything, the group would applaud; if you'd gained, they offered warm support for the struggle.

At the same time I was going to WW, I was struggling with my doctoral dissertation. A friend of mine was struggling, as I was, with weight and dissertation; we'd go to Weight Watchers together, but we thought we should start "Dissertation Watchers." Each week you weighed the number of pages you'd written. "Two more ounces of deathless prose: well done, Eileen. Ooh, threw out six ounces, too bad Sara, but you'll do better next time."

I think about Dissertation Watchers often because writers seem obsessed with how many words we've written. I notice my fellow Outfitters talking about their weekly quota, or producing 4 or 5000 words a day. One of the pernicious attributes of word processing is the word count on the screen. I do the same thing--when I had more stamina, I could write 4000 words a day. That dropped to 2500; since my car accident 3 years ago, a good day for me is now 1500.

But I also find the word count stultifying. Even back when I churned out 20 pages a day, writing to the quota very often ended up with unusable text--I was so driven to produce that I wasn't thinking about either the quality of the writing, or whether the story was going in its rightful direction. I throw out more when I'm writing to quota. For me, too, the hardest part of writing has always been thinking--figuring out how to tell the story so that it gets me to where I want to be.

How does it work for you? Do you try to write for a set number of hours? A set number of pages? Or are you one of the fortunate ones who gets lost in the Web of Words and writes blissfully, without thinking?

By the way, I did finish my dissertation, which has the catchy title, The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England before the Civil War. I see it as a pulp paperback, with "Breakdown" in jagged orange caps on the cover.


Maryan Pelland said...

Love the substance of this post. It would be easier to read if the tech people put some graf divisions in the body. Thanks.

Libby Hellmann said...

That's what makes me hate the process of writing. I feel compelled to write even when I don't know where it's going. And I hate that. I've heard some people say.. just write.. eventually something good will emerge. I dont buy it. I'm not 100 monkeys on a keyboard.

Or maybe I am.

Dana King said...

I have a pre-set goal for each day of writing. I can do more, but I can't do less. Since I write from an outline, I rarely have the meandering, "not sure where I'm going but I have to get 500 words in" issue. (Of course, I also sometimes look back at yesterday's work and ask who broke into my office and wrote this crap.)

I kind of have to do it this way. I work full-time, and try to keep up with things around the house, as well as the lives of my wife and daughter; even though The Sole Heir is at college, she's close enough to keep an eye on. I also reserve some time to relax. Setting daily goals allows me to keep moving forward without burning myself out.

(For the record, when drafting, I write one single-spaced page on work days, two when i have a day off. When editing, I may select a number of pages, or a chapter, depending on what I'm stressing on that draft.)

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Just to add: HARDBALL has been named one of the NY Times' Notable Crime Books of 2009. Congratulations Sara! And well deserved.

Christopher said...

Congrats on the weight loss. I lost 70 lbs a few years ago but I still hear the fate jokes in my head.

I write to a min. word count. I have to it keeps me honest otherwise i would let my day job wear me out.

Mike Dennis said...

Way to handle Weight Watchers AND Dissertation Watchers, Sara! Losing in one area while trying to gain in another can be tricky for the equilibrium.

I try to get in 2000 words a day, but if I only do 1300 or so, I'll quit IF I'm at a natural break in the story. I just try to get them down onto the screen, often in bare-bones form, and make necessary changes the next day.

I might add that included in these 2000 words are the words I add while fleshing out the previous day's output.

Sara Paretsky said...

Maryann, I've divided the paragraphs, but I'm unable to put photos in my blogs where I want them, or to add captions--my "settings" button doesn't give me anything but a chance to use e-mail, so my posts are always rather primitive.
Libby, I am so with you!
Dana, good for you--I'm glad you've found a system that works so well. Outlining is not good for me--when I've done it, it's deadened the story, because when I see characters in motion, scenes and even chunks of story change from what I originally imagined. But you're in company with Elizabeth George and PD James, both intense outliners.
Christopher, kudos to you on your weight loss, too. It's a constant battle--those first 5 pounds come back and I know I'm in trouble.
And good for you and Dennis with making a system that works for you.
And Kevin, thanks for that very generous note.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike Dennis said...

SCAM ALERT!!! Note previous post. I'm sure you didn't approve this, Sara.

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