Composing Novels: The Assembly Line Method
Some authors churn out entire novels in one fever dream sitting. Others take decades, falling into obsessive battles against themselves, struggling over commas and character direction and structure and other nightmarish roadblocks. Then there are the consistently reliable authors who put out one book every two years, the ones who most likely achieve a certain life balance and can actually take vacations and pay their bills on time. Unfortunately, these nine-to-five types tend to be the less interesting ones (I won’t name any names here, but check the release schedules to see for yourself), while fever dreamers like Phillip K. Dick and Chinese Democracy obsessives such as Donna Tartt put out the lasting works. It seems that the arts are just not kind to regular, stable people.
Which means they certainly aren’t kind to me.
I come from a working class background, so my approach to writing a novel has always been like I was clocking in for a shift at some sort of factory or warehouse. Each day, I punch in, do my shift, and then punch out. The shift itself has always included completing one perfect page of the novel. A perfect page that corresponds perfectly with the perfect page produced in yesterday’s shift. It’s the assembly line approach to novel writing, just like fastening the tire rods onto the frame that was completed in the previous shift. Once the page is completed to my satisfaction, I punch out and head for the bar for Miller Time or whatever it is that blue collar factory workers do when that whistle blows.
Just like in a factory, there is a design blueprint set ahead of time for the product. In my factory this would be the novel outline. Then the assembly line is put into place by a team of evil-genius engineers and it’s go time. Blow that whistle and watch the lone worker, me, limp in from the street with my thermos and time card. My own lonely assembly line.
It never fails to surprise me how much interest this gets from fellow writers. When I mention this method, at first they are incredulous. Then, when I let them know that I’m dead serious, the questions start rolling in. And they are always the same. What if you want to do two pages one day? What if you have a lot to do or have an emergency on any particular day? What if you have zero inspiration? What if the page just doesn’t come one day?
These are always the questions. And always in that order. And they always miss the point. Would you ask a factory worker standing outside the gates smoking a Newport on lunch break if he had the “inspiration” to complete his shift that day? It’s not about inspiration to that dude. It’s about doing what you gotta’ do. You’re hungover. Your wife just left you. Your mortgage is due. But you still have to complete that shift because this is what has to be done. And two pages in one day? Are you kidding me? He isn’t getting paid for extra work here. He’s getting paid to fix those tire rods onto that frame. Why would he go ahead and start affixing the doors when that isn’t what he’s getting paid to do? This would throw the whole operation into chaos. Assembly lines aren’t made to go the extra mile. They aren’t for go-getters. They are efficient, robotic processes set up to get the job done with methodical, perfect precision.
Of course, this method certainly isn’t for everybody, but it has always worked for me. The efficiency and timeliness appeal to me greatly. The original Condominium manuscript was 309 pages, which means it took 309 days to complete. My next novel, One Thin Dime, came in at a slim 279 pages, so it took 279 days to complete. I’m currently 184 pages into a brand new tome, so that’s 184 days on the lonely assembly line thus far. Someone like Donna Tartt would never be able to work in this factory. She would miss shifts. She would be a safety hazard. She would want to recall certain frames and reaffix the tire rods. She would question her work. Donna would be fired before her probationary period was over. Granted, D.T. writes much better novels than I do, but this factory is no place for dreamers.
Completing a page per day may have been tough back in the typewriter ages, but one of the lone things I enjoy about technology is that it lets you stretch out your assembly line much further than those factory walls. Have you been called away to a funeral? No worries. You can get that page done while the priest drones on utilizing the small electronic gadget of your choice. Did your place of residence burn to the ground? Just hit up a coffee shop with wi-fi, holmes. Do you have to work a nine-to-five office job? That Word file kind of looks like work, doesn’t it? Did your firstborn enter the world today? Let the kid scream for an hour and take the laptop to the basement. Aside from petty nuisances such as your death or your unconsciousness due to coma, there is truly no excuse not to get that page done. Motivation means nothing in this scenario. You do your shift. Some days it will be easier to complete your shift than others, but each shift must be completed in order to move the product toward completion on schedule. This is just how assembly lines work.
I’ve never come across any other page-per-day laborers when hobnobbing with fellow authors, but I’m sure they are out there right now with their blue uniforms, a pack of smokes rolled in the sleeves, safety goggles affixed, slaving away on their own lonely assembly lines. And I salute each and every one of them. Because for some rare artists, efficiency is key.
Many thanks to Daniel for stopping by! Be sure to check out Condominium and keep an eye out for the rest of Daniel's blog tour with features at Heavy Feather Review, Alternating Current and other hot spots....