|Illustration: Michael Hale|
"[...] what's the best time of day to write? and its corollary: how many hours are necessary?
Some writers (Dickens among them) are larks. Others – more nocturnal – are owls. Robert Frost, whose remote Vermont cabin I visited recently in company with his biographer Jay Parini, never started work till the afternoon, and often stayed up till two or three in the morning, not rising until midday, or even later. Proust, famously, worked night and day in a cork-lined room. I remember reading somewhere that Raymond Chandler observed that it was impossible to write well for more than four hours a day. What do you do in the afternoon?
There's also the question of how long it might take to complete a novel. Here, you encounter literary legends. Faulkner claimed to have completed As I Lay Dying in six weeks. In the mid-1930s, PG Wodehouse, who wrote fast once he had the mechanics of his plots straight, polished off the last 10,000 words of Very Good, Jeeves! in a single day. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, Graham Greene describes writing Stamboul Train on benzedrine, to pay the bills, working against the clock. Further back, Samuel Johnson wrote Rasselas, which is short, in a fortnight to defray the expenses of his mother's funeral. Or so it's said.
More usually, a 60-70,000 word novel seems to take at least a year to complete, allowing for two or three drafts, although often the first, rough outline can get written in a matter of weeks. The strange truth about a lot of fiction is that the dominant moments that animate an entire novel can occur to the writer in a matter of minutes. After that, in the words of one New Zealand writer I recall with affection, 'it's just typing.' " — Robert McCrum, Guardian