Monday 6 April 2009

Throw Mummy On The Train

There is an apocryphal story, attributed to Mark Twain, that in the 19th Century Egyptian steam trains were run by burning mummies rather than coal or wood. It’s an attractive story and so plausible what with the mummies baked dry by centuries of Egyptian heat making them so combustible, the relaxed 19th Century attitude to a nation’s heritage and conspicuous shortage of coal and wood in the Nile valley region. Sadly, as far as I can tell, it’s not true.

Still it does make a wonderful metaphor for the process of writing a novel. When one is in the pit and getting the job done, my max sustained writing speed appears to be 250 centigreenes(1), one is taking concentrated chunks of research and imagination, some of which have been marinating in your brain for decades, and burning them in the engine just to gain that extra 200 words (50 cg).

Now it’s true that many authors, particularly former journalists, can run their engines on pure bovine excrement but even the most seasoned hack must throw in the occasional mummy if they want to avoid leaving the tracks altogether.

It’s when a writer starts to run out of mummies that his or her work becomes moribound, sometimes bloated, occasionally recursive but nearly always unreadable. Many writers complain of what we used to call writer’s block but now goes under the more modern name of Acute Story Deficiency Syndrome or (ASDS).

During the sixties there were brave experiments into drug therapy by such luminaries as Michael Moorcock and Phillip K. Dick and although carefully calibrated doses of amphetamines, alcohol and coffee were deemed to be promising the side-effects were terrifying and are now considered unethical.

The only solution to ASDS is to go tomb raiding and dig up more mummies but that’s a subject for a future blog.

(1) The centigreene (cg) is the SI unit of measurement for writing novels and is approximately 5 words per day. It’s named after Graham Greene who consistently wrote 500 words a day all through his career. Thus a 100 centigreene is a greene and a 1,000 centigreene is a hectogreene, 5,000 words or roughly equivalent to the old imperial measure of one and one third Agathas. It’s important to note that the centigreene is a linear measurement denoting a rate of writing towards finishing your novel. Any other words written - blogs, emails, twitters and faux research are considered a separate vector and don’t count.


Pitrone said...

I dub this genius, and simultaneously a misery. I know the truth of it, however. I feel certain that I will never even finish one of my extended short-stories, much less the novels I dream of. And Graham Greene's output is a constant mockery to me. And don't get me started on David Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon...

Anonymous said...


Malcoth said...

Really really late to the party here, but:
As SI units an hg (hectogreene) would be 10000 cg (100g). 1000g would be one dag (decagreen).

Sorry, just too much nerd in me to let that error stand unchallenged :)

Technicalities aside, I agree with Pitrone on dubbing this genius, and Anonymous in judging it funny!