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Russell Smith: Stories don’t come from apps, novels don’t come from routines

There is a lot of talk about how to write books these days. Not about what is in them, but about how to write them, in the most literal sense: about how to sit in a chair at a table and type, as if this is a skill humankind seems to be forgetting.

Recently I saw a lot of online argument, among writers, over the merits of a "writing app," a commercial program, which you would pay for, that apparently puts you on a schedule to write a novel in an astoundingly short time.

The app received free publicity last month in a widely circulated Guardian article about a successful author and how he used it. The article was about the British novelist Wyl Menmuir, whose debut novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year. The piece was titled How To Finish A Novel but it didn't exactly deliver on the headline's promise.

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The app used by Menmuir, called Prolifiko, is essentially a productivity tracker: It aims to help you produce a certain number of words a day or month. It claims to be based on psychological research about productivity. It produces graphs and charts for you to show how you have been meeting your daily word-count goals. Menmuir shared with the Guardian his peaks and troughs, why he faced procrastination and self-doubt in certain periods, and how he overcame them (long walks on the cliff).

It turns out he did write the novel in a short time (just over a year), but whether his word-counting computer software was a decisive factor in this speed remains unproven. He doesn't talk at all about how he came up with his story in the first place.

The objections that then unfolded on social media focused on the thing that writers always obsess over: the unpublicized value of time. An app that tells you to devote a certain number of hours a day to writing is all very well, if you have those hours. If you work full-time and have small children, no app in the world is going to provide those hours for you. A far more useful app for writers might be a babysitting exchange. Or a program that applies for grants. For let's be honest: Anyone with this amount of free time likely is in a place of financial security. If you are in this place, an app might be great. But this is like recommending a stereo for your Porsche. It's gravy.

I teach novel-writing myself and have my own objections to productivity-focused systems.

It is odd to me that so many of these apps and guides stress process over product, as if merely writing a certain number of words a day is going to ensure that you invent a gripping story. Coming up with the story is not some kind of preliminary step, like priming your canvas: It is the crux. Writers will agonize for weeks and months and even years about what exactly happens in their story, filling notebooks with questions to themselves ("How does Z get the invisible letter back to D without exposing her robotic arm, and how does D read it if he died in the previous chapter?"). This is before they even start writing the chapters. Apps don't invent characters for you, nor do they imagine their secrets.

My experience is that if you have a clear idea for a story, including a pretty clear idea of how it's going to end, the daily writing is not the agony that is commonly imagined. There is no "blank page" to stare you down; there is a series of notes to follow. An outline is a far more powerful motivator than a timer.

Here's a professional writing tip: It doesn't matter when you write or how often. It's not yoga. You can write for nine hours a day three days straight and then do something else for a month. Your editor, and your public, only care what comes out at the end. It's not prayer; it's not therapy; it's not a spiritual journey. The only thing that matters is the collection of pages you submit for your deadline.

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Why, then, do so many writing courses and programs focus on daily routines instead of on ideas? Possibly because, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Pascal thought that was tough in 1669, and he didn't have electric light, let alone Pornhub. Now concentration – a facility destroyed by computers – requires a computer program. Many of these helpful programs tell you to turn off all the things that computers do so well.

A more puzzling question might be: Why does there seem to be such a growth in writing apps and guides at all, at a time when the novel – its sales and readership – is by every measurable indicator declining? If no one wants to buy novels, why does everyone want to write them?

The answer to this is also related to technology. It may be hard to write a novel, but it is easier than ever to publish it. It takes about a half-hour and a few dozen keystrokes to sign a contract with Amazon and post your novel as an e-book; you can start selling e-copies that same day. And this is a great thing. Why should we not all be novelists? This would be a sign of a civilized and peaceful society.

There is a myth that the age of the amateur is diluting the quality of global letters, that too much bad literature is being written and this swamps all else. This is not true. Ask literary editors if they have too much to choose from these days and they will say nope, there is still not enough. They will say they would publish more books if they could find more excellent manuscripts.

Start telling your story, I say, if you are lucky enough to have the time. And for that, you don't need an app, or a "writing practice" – you need money.

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