Working Speed

In athletic terms a novelist needs to be a marathon runner. I have known novelists who could produce a first draft in less than two months but they’ve tended to be men enjoying 5 star domestic support. No school or supermarket run for them. No plumber to hang around for.

I’m definitely a distance runner  –  typically a novel takes me nearly a year, from conception through to final edit  – but I occasionally have to sprint. Journalism is a sprinter’s game. If you work in-house you just have to sit there amid the pandemonium of an open plan office and knock it out, on demand. Sometimes it shows. As a freelancer I might have 24 hours to submit copy. A whole weekend would be a luxury. I don’t get asked to do much journalism these days but when the call comes, wonder of wonders, I find, provided the topic is something I have an opinion about, I can do it.

When the spirit moves me I can write an 1800 word newspaper feature in a couple of hours. The same number of words for a novel could easily take me a week. Journalism requires intense focus,  even though you know that your words may never see the light of newsprint. The piece that is urgently required by 10 am tomorrow may well be spiked by lunchtime in order to make room for something more topical. The kill fee stops it from breaking your heart.

But the toughest writing form I ever tried my hand at was short stories. I used to get asked for them quite often. For some writers they are their natural art form. For me they were torture, demanding the creativity of fiction writing with the concision of journalism. To my great relief I no longer get asked. A marathon or a hundred yard dash, fine. For middle-distance writing, please call someone cleverer than me.

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