Swallowing the Big Lump

by Chris McMahon

Having talked about breaking down the ‘approach ramp’ to writing into smaller lumps to build on successes, I am now contemplating the exact opposite end of that extreme. I have signed up for an intensive retreat called The Rabbit Hole, where we are setting ourselves the target of writing 30,000 words in three days – working ten hours a day.

So if you do the math, this is 1000 words an hour. No problem! Well . . . When I first drafted Calvanni way back when, I did indeed average over 1000 words an hour. These days it is closer to 300. So this is starting to look like a very ambitious target.

Why should my word output have actually decreased over time? Surely after twenty years I am a more experienced writer, and it should be easier right?

Well there a couple of factors that come into play. The first is that when I wrote the first draft of the Calvanni I was in a 3 month break between jobs (the only time I have not been working since I graduated engineering in the 80s – more’s the pity). So I could write a solid five to six hours a day in one big block. At the time I had no idea how hard it would be to get that sort of flow in my later life.

If I cut my sleep – which only ever works short term before a crash – I might be able to write for a two hour block, of which the first half an hour is ‘tuning in’. Realistically, I have more success fitting in an hour most days of the week. This turns into some bizarre form of torture, with me really only hitting the flow about ten minutes before I have shut down and run for the bus. Life is cruel.

The other thing is that I tend to think about so many damn elements at the same time. How will this work with that? How will this work later in the book? How does it tally with this? Then there are the craft elements: have I used this expression earlier? is that a cliché? etc etc. It slows things down.

So when was the last time you signed up for a big writing goal? How many words an hour can you manage when you push yourself? Do you take sugar with your big writing lumps or are you sweet enough? I like biscuits.

I’ll be sure to let you know next week how I actually went:) With a bit of luck, I might have been able to finish the first draft of my current project, which is a Koontzian near-future SF thriller.

All the best. . .


  1. Back when I was looking for my first job I managed 50,000 words in five days on one novella. Lately I’m pleased if I get 500 or more in an hour considering how little time I have to write. We’ll see how I do this weekend. I need to finish my current work and I got ambushed by a new story idea a couple days ago.

  2. NaNoRiMo got 50K words out of me in 30 days, last November. Barely. I had a couple of excellent 5K days, and the rest was 1 or 2K.

    I’ve done a few 10K days, but that was flying with a new idea, and no pauses for grammar, spelling, page long run on sentences, lame dialog tags, if any . . . in other words, forget the craft, use the cliches and get the story down.

    Lots of fixing later, but then, even when I’m careful there at plenty of those. The speed writing errors are so obvious, they’re easy to spot and clean up as I reread the first time.

    I’m off on vacation later this month, when I get back I’m going to have to do the low carb diet and defog my brain. These days (with no kids in the house) that’s my biggest barrier to writting.

    1. Hi, Pam. I’ll have to try the NaNoRiMo at some stage. I guess you would have to be at the right point with your story to have that work for you – i.e. know where you are going!. 50k in one month sounds pretty good to me.

      10k in a day really is flying. It’s great when you are at that new stage with a new idea.

      Why do all the things we are not supposed to eat all taste so damn good? i’m trying to avoid fat at the moment. That’s tough!

      I managed 7900 yesterday, which I am pretty pleased with. I’ll see how I go today.

      1. Yes, having enough of a grasp of the end of the story to at least aim at, is necessary at some point. Mind you, it’s often a moving target, but it does give the writing enough limits that it doesn’t just flop randomly around.

        7900 is terrific.

  3. I usually work in chapters now, but I used to push myself for a big word goal every summer and every Nanowrimo. During Nanowrimo, depending on how much time I devote to it, I can write anywhere from 100K to 300K. A lot of it is junk-but I write some of my best stuff during Nanowrimo, when I get really deeply into the flow of writing.

    1. Hi, Dianna. You must really fly in the keyboard! 300k in one month – 10k a day for a whole month.
      I know what you mean though. It’s great to get into the flow of the story. A busy life seems to give so few opportunities to be able to write in good chunks. That is definitely where you want to be though.
      I’m not very good at throwing things away. So being overloaded with the junk is a real risk for me.

  4. I can do 1000k an hour pretty easy if I get going on new stuff. Generally much slower when editing. I’ve done 10k in a day when I was getting near the end of a book (was the end of book 2 but will now be the start and end of book 3 when I get around to writing it.)

    I also did 50k for Nanarimo one year and 32k in 19 days when I wrote my first novel.

    Free Book– http://www.scottjrobinson.com

    1. Hi, Scott. I really have to try that NaNoRiMo. Some good chunks there.
      I find the word length targets really only apply to first drafting. For editing I generally just go by the number of hours.
      I’ve never really got how you can apply a word length target to editing since if you do it right things are probably shrinking:)
      What targets to you give yourself for editing?

      1. Ummm. Targets for editing? How about ‘Some’? I like first drafts. After that it’s starts to seem a bit like work (though work that I don’t hate doing).

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