Over at the home of Tribe, a little talk arose because of George Simenon’s Three Bedrooms, which I haven’t read, but Tribe seems to be enjoying a lot. Sadly, I’ve only read one Simenon, one of the Maigret books, the name of which escapes me now, but I remember enjoying it quite a lot. But being a writer, the thing that most fascinates me about Simenon is his work habits, which I occasionally cite in backblogs, as I did at Tribe’s.
Simenon worked like a maniac, but a very gentlemanly maniac. First his doctor gave him a once-over, then he shut himself in his office and worked continually for 12 days, a chapter a day (his books were nearly always 12 chapters), took a day off, then edited for 3 days. He did not outline beforehand (other than occasional notes on the back of an envelope) and claims that he didn’t even think about a novel except during the hours of composition. (For more on him, see the Paris Review interview, from which I’ve taken the picture of his calendar—clicking should give you a bigger picture.)
Now, as someone who labors a year or more on a book, this just stuns me. Partly inspired by his example, I tried a “quick” novel with pretty good results—my agent likes it, and it’s now being looked at by the People in Power. Even so, it took a good 3 months to work through and edit, with a pause somewhere in between so I could view it coolly. Like Simenon’s, it was short, only 35,000 words.
Why should I obsess over this? Simple: practicality. I, like many, am a mid-list writer. My books are published, my advances moderate, and unless something explodes along the way, my finances will remain as they have been—fair to middlin, and sometimes quite poor. So what’s the answer? I don’t want a day job—writing full-time is job enough. So perhaps the answer is to produce more, thus earning more advances, thus maybe earning enough to buy, say, a car.
Al Guthrie brought up another stellar example of the fleshy writing machine, Harry Whittington. Troll the back lots of Hollywood and you’ll find numerous screenwriting versions of the same thing. And NaNoWriMo is of course a public example of the possibilities of speedy composition.
But on the other hand, it’s kind of a scary option to become like this, to produce produce! Because one wonders if one can maintain any sort of quality, develop ideas of any depth, or write that Great [insert country] Novel. Does speed lead to formula without content? Or do the paychecks—if they sell regularly—make one not give a damn either way? And how long does it take you to write a novel—one you’re proud of?
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)