How long does it take to…

I had a short week at work this week, because I took Saturday and Sunday off to participate in the writing binge. I’ve made good progress on the second book of the Swan Harp trilogy just by writing in the car, but I’d like to bite a big chunk off this weekend and get right into the story. I’m hoping to write 10,000 words. That’s certainly possible; I’ve done many 3,000-word days in my writing career, and sometimes more productive days than that.

A co-worker who also writes asked me how long it takes me to write a paragraph. It’s one of those questions that stops you dead. I was often asked in my pottery days, “How long does it take to make a button?” The answer is never simple, even if you leave out things like, “Two minutes to make the button, five years to acquire the skills.”

How long does it take me to write a paragraph? Depends on the paragraph. Is the Muse with me? Am I writing easily and fluently because this part of the story is working itself out as I go, or am I struggling to get from A to B? Am I writing a section in which I need to put details which will support a later event? Am I writing dialogue? Dialogue usually makes for very short paragraphs.

I’ve never timed myself writing one, but I’d guess between thirty seconds for a shot of dialogue to ten minutes for a piece of description. That’s a guess, mind you. It also doesn’t take into account that I may well go back and rewrite that paragraph once or twice or six times. When I worked out the magic for the final part of The Swan Harp, there were things I rewrote several times to make sure I’d got it right. Then there were paragraphs I had to go back and rewrite to sneak in those important details.

My co-worker said he sometimes writes a sentence and then sits there wondering what to write next. Then, because we work at a call centre, he got a call and I got a call, and we didn’t finish the discussion. I thought about what he said, though, and how I might have answered it.

What did he mean by “wondering what to write next”? There’s a difference between needing to organize what comes next (Who spoke first? Should the blast of wind come before or after the horse bolts?) and not having any idea of what comes next. For the first I’d say, “Spit it out. Fix it later.” For the second, I’d wonder if you were writing the right story. A story unfolds. Something happens, and then something else happens. In between people may have to eat, sleep and brush their teeth, but, let’s face it, a lot of that we skip writing. “Sing, oh, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, but leave out the part where we watch him eat.”

But, hey, maybe Homer wrote about Achilles eating breakfast and then cut it in the second draft. Maybe he couldn’t get a rhyme for “eggs fried in olive oil” (“coffee coming to the boil” immediately comes to my poet-for-hire mind, dammit!). Maybe he just figured nobody would care or it didn’t matter after all.

And I also bet that if someone asked him, “So, Homer, how long does it take to write an epic?” he’d also roll his eyes and say, “Well, it depends….”

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2 Responses to How long does it take to…

  1. Father Steve says:

    I have been asked: “How long does it take you to write a sermon?” I answer quickly and truthfully: “Somewhere between two hours and two weeks.” If the questioner is actually seeking guidance, this will lead to a fruitful discussion. If the question is not asked with good intent, the questioner is normally made angry by my answer.,

  2. ecreith says:

    I often wonder just why someone is even asking that question. Are they interested in doing it themselves? Do they want to pick your brain? Are they expecting you to justify the price of the item by how long it takes you to make it? Are they just looking for something to say? It’s an odd sort of question overall, unless asked by another member of your craft.

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