“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac
Picture two of the Beat Generation’s greatest writers working in the same room. Jack Kerouac is in one corner, a roll of tracing paper (120 feet in length) fed through his typewriter. He types fast, using dashes instead of periods. Across from him sits William S. Burroughs, laboring over each sentence, scratching words out, starting again. “Relax,” Kerouac says, but Burroughs can’t. Words don’t flow, they come out like cold toothpaste.
This was in Morocco, or possibly New York. The details are sketchy. They shared a room at one point, possibly when they collaborated on “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.” Kerouac recounted Burroughs’ writing to his biographer, Ann Charters, telling her Burroughs wasn’t a spontaneous writer. “Bill would get there eventually,” he said, “but it took so-o-o-o long.”
For every thousand words Kerouac wrote, Burroughs might write a few hundred. For one it was a labor of love, the other a love of labor. Writing meant different things to each man, but both respected words. Think of it as open heart surgery. Every stitch to every vessel is a matter of life or death.
It’s also a fallacy that Kerouac never edited. He spent nine years writing and editing before Viking Press agreed to publish “On the Road.” Even then, names still had to be changed, not to mention locations, references to homosexuality and a wide variety of drugs. “They sanitized me down to my socks,” Kerouac told Ann Charters. On the last day of their interview, Kerouac (quite drunk) made a pass at Ann, proving that writers — even great writers — never give up being dreamers.
What people don’t realize — and they should — is that during the time he was waiting for “On the Road” to be published, he’d already written “Visions of Gerrard” (7 years to publish), “Doctor Sax” (7 years to publish), “Maggie Cassidy” (6 years to publish), “Mexico City Blues” (4 years to publish), and “The Subterraneans” (5 years to publish).
Over the same time period, Burroughs published “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch.” He also lived with a crippling heroin addiction and shot his second wife to death in Mexico City. Still, by the end of his 87 years, he’d written 18 novels and novellas, while Kerouac wrote 20 novels (dying at the age of 47).
Maybe this is a fable of sorts, the Tortoise and the Hare. Maybe slow and steady does win the race — that’s if you’re racing. Trouble is, Kerouac and Burroughs weren’t racing. There was no counting of words, no holding up a stack of paper, saying, “This is what I did today!” Besides, the race isn’t won by how many words, but how many words sing.
When writers on Facebook talk about their daily word count, it reminds me of Thomas Wolfe, running down the street, shouting, “I wrote five thousand words today!” Wolfe was a volume writer, a rambler in print. Hemingway never cared for Wolfe. “It takes him two pages to describe Max Perkins (then editor of Scribners),” he wrote. “I could have done it in one sentence.” Interestingly, Kerouac fashioned his first book “The Town and the City” after Wolfe’s work. It sold poorly. Kerouac moved on to James Joyce, enjoying Joyce’s unusual word use and phrasing.
In any case, counting words is a mistake — not that you won’t need a certain number to get published — but you won’t get published thinking the number matters. It’s the work you put into a book, the labor, the corrections, the crossing out, the destruction. Hemingway’s greatest piece of advice was “Murder your darlings.” He advised wholesale killing — butchery.
Kerouac gave the impression he wasn’t killing — but he was. His precision was just as calculated as Burroughs’. Compare the flow and care of the two:
“My first experience with junk was during the War, about 1944 or 1945.”
William S. Burroughs, “Junkie”
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”
Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”
As fluid and restless as Kerouac’s words may seem, he didn’t get there naturally. His first editor, Robert Giroux, reduced “The Town and the City” by four hundred pages. By the time Kerouac wrote “The Subterraneans,” millions of words had passed through his typewriter. What you see above is a writer reverting to early enthusiasm, much like a painter trying to imitate a child’s drawing. As any artist will tell you, that’s the hardest thing. You have to go to the end and come back. It takes years and years and years.
Before my first novel was published, I had to change the location and make it 30,000 words longer. Since it was complete, I couldn’t just add to the end. I had to rewrite and relocate the whole book. When I was done, two editors told me it wasn’t funny enough. So I rewrote the whole book again. The first draft took three months, rewriting and editing took five years. And this was after being turned down by 176 agents, publishers and editors.
Words are like bullets. If you’re a lousy shot, you’re no more deadly with twenty than you are with one. You’re better off becoming a good shot (although you can’t convince some American hunters of that).
More importantly, if you’re judging yourself by the amount you write, saying, “I’m halfway there! Only 40,000 more words to go!” then you’re an evangelist’s dream and probably a reader’s nightmare.
At least once a week, someone asks “What’s the difference between going with a established publisher and self-publishing?” The answer is simple: A publisher will make you cry, bleed and probably destroy all your self-confidence. Self publishing allows you to live in your dreams (for a while, anyway, until you see how few books you sell).
And those who say, “What about EL James? Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published before getting picked up by Vintage. Didn’t it sell over 125 million copies?” Well, yes it did, but it has also been criticized for being “very poorly written,” and the film version got the 36th Golden Raspberry Award.
Some people say, “I don’t mind being a joke — if it makes me rich.” You’re far more likely to be a joke and make nothing. Even dreams take a lot of work — probably more than if you didn’t dream at all. Not that I’m against dreaming. I’m just against the idea that everyone’s a writer until proven otherwise. Writing’s a hard business. It damn near killed Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to read their backgrounds.
It’s like Charles Bukowski, in his character as Henry Chinaski, describing Albert Camus. “He sounds like he just finished a good steak dinner,” Henry said, admitting he “preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.”
That’s the thing about writing. Unless you’re ready to “scream when you burn,” it’s a profession better left to those who don’t mind pain—or you’re Albert Camus. As Bukowski also said “Writers are desperate people and when they stop being desperate they stop being writers.”
So forget counting words. Write until you’re desperate. And learn to live with pain. At least you’ll know what it takes to write — and what it takes to scream.