Early in a first draft there is little that can be depended on. When you’re twelve pages into a manuscript you know is eventually going to be three hundred pages or more in length, the biggest question is: can I even do this? If you have never written a novel before, you don’t even know if you are capable of the task in general. Can you write the first draft of a novel? But no matter how many books you may have written, every novel is different. Every inkling that there may be a novel lying dormant in this or that particular seed of an idea is independent of all other inklings, and there is no guarantee that what you’ve been foolish enough to risk starting can be finished.
But there are ways of minimizing uncertainty. There are ways of approaching a nascent project and making it much easier to define and tackle. Subsequent drafts are all about quality, and quality is a slippery commodity. It’s easy to spot when you see it, but not always easy to know how to make appear. Writing a first draft, however, like grabbing a pile of clay you wish to shape on a potter’s wheel, is all about quantity. In a first draft what you need to do is produce a blob of possibly shapeless words, a blob of sufficient size that it might later become possible, through the practised touch of a crafter’s hands, to spin and prod until what rises up from the very shapelessness itself is something graceful and admirable.
This is why I find it very productive to think about numbers while I’m writing a first draft. Numbers: what could be more full of certitude, more quantifiable?
My current daily numbers are: 5, 5:30, 6:30, and 3.
Up at 5 am. Writing by 5:30. Do not stop writing until 6:30. Minimum output in one hour: 3 pages of double spaced, handwritten manuscript.
I have a full-time professional job that requires a lot of my time and attention. I have three children. Five or six days a week I am responsible for making supper for a family of five. I have daughters who must be walked to dance classes and then home four days a week. I have children studying three different musical instruments that require daily audible practice.
One hour a day, four or five days a week, is all the creative solitude I can squeeze out of my life right now. (The fifteen minutes or so I’ve been putting into blog posts can and often is done with a host of my own and other people’s children in the room, eating popsicles and microwave popcorn, listening to god-awful music and fighting over whose turn it is to take out the compost. Novel writing requires the stone-silent, focused solitude that in a family house is found most reliably in the wee hours.)
Focussing on the numbers immensely simplifies the creative process. I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to write. I’m going to write at 5:30. I don’t have to think about whether or not I should get up today and write: the decision has already been made. I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write: I’m going to write three pages. I don’t have to think about why I’m writing: I’m writing because it’s 5:30.
How do I manage to hold together a career and write at the same time? This is the ugly, unvarnished answer: I’ve developed a way of working that leaves little room for me to worm out of what I’ve committed myself to.
Of course, once a first draft is complete, the waters become considerably muddier. Numbers are not reliable for measuring quality.
But I’m not even going to let myself think about that now. I’m drafting new pages : I can feel myself getting into a rhythm with it. Switching back to the concern with quality that will guide the long, long revision process: that’s far beyond today’s horizon. A year away if I’m lucky and fast. So I’ll settle in. I’ll make friends with my alarm clock. I’ll reacquaint myself with numbers.
Coming tomorrow: lucky page thirteen.