1,667 Words…

I can do it in twenty-five minutes! Eighteen! Forty-five!

No, I am not talking about a 10k race—though watching someone do 6.2 miles in 18 minutes would be a sight to behold. Nor am I talking about fishing stories or measuring contests of ill repute.

No, no, no. Let’s talk about the NaNoWriMo daily goal. 1,667 words. Not bad? Eh? That’s, give or take, a six page essay, typed and double spaced, or ten pages when you try to make the fonts that much bigger and the spaces two and a quarter rather than a simple double space. The wholly holy 1,667. It’s the sign of the beast meets Scheherazade; it’s the truly answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything; and, over the course of the past few weeks, I have seen people make various estimates, many of them well under an hour, of how long it will take them to meet that goal.

Can it be done in under an hour? I’m sure. After all, it is under 28 words per minute for an entire hour, without stopping. I’m not a particularly fast typist, but I know that I can type at that rate. However, what happens when people claim forty-five minutes? Twenty-five? Eighteen? Those who estimate that they do it in eighteen minutes write at a rate of 93 words per minute. That’s 1.6 words per second, 1,080 consecutive times. Sure, it’s still doable. Time yourself. Write anything. Go ahead. Sure, you can type that fast, but can you sustain it?

NaNoWriMo has these mini-challenges, called Word Sprints. In a Word Sprint, the goal is to beat the other person’s speed as a typist. At the end of a predetermined period of time, the two (or more) combatants then have their word counts checked by a judge of some sort (or not), and one of them is proclaimed the winner. I have no objection on the grounds of fair play or morals or anything like that, but I wonder what the experience does for someone that can conceivably finish NaNoWriMo in 25 hours or less. Philosophically, it isn’t what I strive for as a writer, and I don’t think that I’d be able to maintain the rate of speed to do something like that, let alone the presence of mind to write something cohesive and coherent.

Stephen King—who is, let’s face it—my idol, said that he could sometimes get his 2,000 word per day quota before lunch, but that he would sometimes get stuck in his study until tea time. Assuming he took his sweet time to get up in the morning, we’re probably talking about 3 hours of ass time devoted to writing. I’d have to go back and research it, but I don’t think that he was particularly writing to meet that quota, either. Instead, I think it was more along the lines of a way of meeting an arbitrary count to say that he had been productive on that given day.

When I wrote my first novel, I found that I’d sometimes pass that 2,000 word mark before lunch—sometimes overwhelmingly so–, but that my lunch would sometimes fall around 1pm. On other occasions, I would set the text aside and return to it in the evening, after my wife fell asleep. The problem was, I was no more a master of the amount of time it took me to write 1,000 words than I was the master of the time that it took me to commute to Morgan Hill during my first year of teaching. In theory, an hour is doable—especially, in the case of driving, if the trucks in the slow lane are still going 10% over the speed limit.

However, there’s always that potential that you’re not paying close enough attention, that you get in an accident, that you slip into a bit of a lull, that you have to pull off to the side to dial your buddy about Baron Davis’s missed three, or that there’s a roadblock ahead. I could be talking about writing or I could be talking about driving over the hill here, but the principle is still the same. Sometimes, what they have to say on the radio is so much infinitely more interesting than keeping that constant speed or rhythm throughout your journey—and the TV, well, good luck meeting your quota with that thing on! Sometimes, you’re looking at a nearly blank computer screen with the same line repeating over and over again (if not actually on the screen, then perhaps in your imagination): Willy Wonka traveled to Oompa-Loompa Land… Willy Wonka traveled to Oompa-Loompa Land… Willy Wonka traveled in the fourth quarter… As a writer, you have little more control over this than you would over a semi overturned at the Summit before the Woodwardia Highway. Tough breaks, commuters!

But, that isn’t to say that it couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be done. There’s always Soquel-San Jose Road, or 152, or 129, or (Heaven forbid) Salinas Road. Similarly, there’s always that little side trek that can boost your word count, or always that walk to the beach that will make you come back to the keyboard with fresh fingers. Twenty-eight words per minute is not half bad. A dozen years ago, I witnessed someone triple that rate without even breaking a sweat. If I have any luck, he’s reading this right now. However, it’s quite easy to write quickly when you’re typing from a script that has been spell-checked and proof-read and planned. What happens when there is no script, there are no players, and God only knows where there’s a stage?

I propose that writing is like driving through a completely foreign town, city, state, or country. Of course, you have to go at the rate of traffic, and sometimes thoughts are running so rampant that you wish you are Ganesh, or Shiva, or some multi-armed deity, but sometimes you just have to sit back and take it all in. Was that your stop, or is it the next one?

Over a month ago, my wife and I drove into Monterey. We were late for a function on Cannery Row, and I was driving, so we were getting later by the millisecond. I, of course, missed what may have been the only turn to get from Highway 1 to Cannery Row, so we instead tried working our way through the surface streets to get back on course. If you’ve never had the chance to visit Monterey, then you’re really missing out. On our way through the town, we went up and down hills, saw plenty of “one way” signs that were pointed the wrong way, and plenty of other dead ends. We saw old cars, new cars, expensive cars, and do-it-yourself custom cars. We even saw a guy on a tryke that was make up to look like a great white shark. However, the one thing that we did not see was a way of getting from up by the Presidio to down by the Aquarium. Since we had been to the aquarium before, and since I was in the mood for a wicked strolling buffet, we were both eager to get to our destination.

The aquarium would ultimately provide a lot of memorable experiences. Of course there was the food, the people, the food, and the giant octopus that woke up to say hello. However, what I took away from that little driving miscue was also memorable, if not entertaining, in its own way, and I wasn’t necessarily peeved that it cost us precious face time with the clam chowder.

All of those side-steps, those missed turns and trips down roads that had a Clippers’ chance in hell of being winners, and those people who were wondering what the hell we were doing, were the atmosphere that helped pull the Aquarium out of a vacuum. Similarly, all of the missteps in writing are just means of rummaging around, finding what works and what doesn’t, and sometimes adding to the atmosphere of your main plot points. Does it matter that underage bit player Jack is drinking beer at work? No. Does it add to the atmosphere? It sure does.

Though I have sat here on my soap box—okay, my wife’s piano bench—for over a thousand words at this point and have spoken as if I am some sort of font of knowledge on the subject, I’d like to think that, having written one book, I can speak with the voice of someone who has at least experienced a bit of the writer’s process and the writer’s struggles. Out of curiosity, I once tried calculating the amount of time that it took for me to actually write my first novel, and I came up with between 75 and 100 hours. Considering that it took me roughly a year to complete, I doubted the truth in my calculations. After all, my average speed is 30 wpm (at least, it was 12 years ago), and my novel was somewhere upwards of 183,000 words. Assuming that my rate has stayed the same, that would be 101 hours minimum. Assuming a 10 wpm increase, and… well, you get the picture. Not that it matters.

With that theory thrown out the window, I thought about it from a different perspective. When I was jobless, I treated my writing like my work. No, not the long, sleepless nights of my teaching career, but the forty hours per week that the average person works in an average week in their lifetime. Of course, I couldn’t write for forty hours a week, but my 7am to 12pm (roughly) sessions did amount to 25 hours a week. When you throw in the hours that I spent thinking about what I was going to write, researching the Michocan Indians, the terrain around Landers, and the roles that the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) play in the Catholic Church, it is quite possible that I tallied a 40 hour work week. Not that it matters.

I want to end on these three points. First, paraphrased by a video game (and thus cementing my sustained nerd-dom), it isn’t the amount of hours you put into the words, it’s what you put into the words. Secondly, amended to Mark Twain’s commentary, golf is a good walk ruined, but keeping score is a good golf game ruined. Thirdly and finally, I am finishing this as of 12:25 on Saturday morning. It has taken me about 66 minutes, and I have written almost 1,800 words. I guess that means that I can write 1,667 words in an hour. However, these words are not fiction, they are not part of my narrative, and they are not as coherent as I’d like. Not that it matters.


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