According to a new biography, the author of the Discworld fantasy novels, Terry Pratchett, had a very pragmatic view of his talent and priorities.

An affectionate portrait of the feted writer Terry Pratchett, creator of monstrous and magical worlds, by Rob Wilkins comes with some useful insights for writers.

Seven years after the novelist’s death in 2015, Rob, his assistant and aide, has written the official biography that Pratchett himself pondered upon but never got round to completion.

Pratchett died of a harsh form of Alzheimer’s and, on diagnosis, feared he had but two years to live. Ultimately, he was given seven more years and accomplished many favoured books but never Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, the book for which he had a title, a few scattered recollections but not an ending.

This is the book that Rob, who helped him during those final years – as “keeper of anecdotes” – has finally published.

There is a deep mine to dig with Terry Pratchett, a formerly unassuming press officer for an electricity generating board turned creator of 41 Discworld books who was famous for his black fedora, fabulous imagination and his dry wit.

But it is his application and industry that is the subject of this blog. How he earned his living.

He would, in Rob’s recollections, reject publishers’ advances that seemed outlandish and vast, cowed, perhaps by the sheer scale of the challenge of rising to meet the sum (although, of course, he did so with apparent consummate ease).

Rob writes in The Guardian,

“It wasn’t that Terry was squeamish about having large sums of money connected with his name. On the contrary. ‘Thank you for all the words,’ fans would say at the signings. ‘Thank you for all the money,’ Terry would reply.

“But he had an equally entrenched working-class belief that money had to be earned. Otherwise, what was there to be proud of?”

How to appease the god of words

Instead, it was his austere working class (perhaps lower middle class?) attitude to the business of writing, recognisable to anyone (a) who can’t believe their luck that they’re doing this thing for money (b) who knows how comfort and wealth can be transitory and (c) who understand there is no safety net except oblivion.

Many writers write to reassure themselves that the words haven’t dried up. A daily checkin with their gift, almost. If they stopped, they fear they will anger the god of words, Thesaurus, who would remove their gift as punishment.

Pratchett tried that once, announcing he would escape the pressures of work for six months, only to return half a year later with two books.

Rob writes, “Daily word targets became even more important to him, 3,000 the goal he now set himself. Terry seems to have decided that his approach to the business of being a novelist would be utterly blue-collar – industrial, even.”

There’s a parallel to be made with Charles Dickens here, although there’s no suggestion that Pratchett was “blacking factory” or “Marshalsea debtor’s prison” poor. Far from it.

But Dickens was driven to an industrial scale output by the grim ghosts of his penniless past and, like Pratchett, he took on all commissions – journalism, advocacy, non-fiction.

How many words a day should I write?

So what does that look like on a practical level, that “blue-collar” attitude to writing as work. Well, one indicator, a crude but illuminating one, is the number of words famous writers set as their daily target.

Stephen King says write about 2,000 words a day to avoid “the smooch of death”. He also says (somewhat impractically for most people), “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

Jack London hit the rough average of 1,500 words a day. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club,” he said. He died early, aged 40, somewhat underscoring his point.

There’s a tranche of writers who opt for the 1,000 word a day mark. (For reference, this blog is about 1,100 words.)

W Somerset Maugham, Sarah Waters (although she says this is her minimum) and Sebastian Faulks line up behind the 1,000. Faulks, like others, seems to view his four-figures as a deal to keep the engine purring. Anything less gums up the works and makes it twice as hard the next day.

JG Ballard, another 1,000 word a day man, said, “All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day – even if I’ve got a hangover. You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.”

Why discipline is essential

It’s the D-word. Discipline. And also, may I add, the H-word: habit. These are the two cudgels that beat to the ground that false prophet of productivity – Inspiration. Inspiration is a fickle friend (who gets up late in the morning, bleary-eyed and generally unhelpful before some kind of stimulant) and feels like a lightweight compared to the bulked-up, sweaty-browed taskmaster called Grind.

Jurassic Park Michael Crichton was uber-prolific. He hit a ridiculous 10,000 words a day mark although he accepts that those words were not the finished article.

He said, “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten,” he said. “It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle clocked in at 3,000 words a day. “Anything is better than stagnation,” he said.

How to write a novel a year

Nobel laureate Graham Greene wrote a carefully crafted 500 words a day.

He said, “Over 20 years I have probably averaged 500 words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.”

And the dragon-slayer Dickens himself? He targeted the magical 2,000 words (written by quill and ink, of course). He would lock himself away from 9am to 2pm and scribble away. Like the rest of us mere mortals, he sometimes struggled to hit his target but he stuck to his routine regardless, reminding his reticent creativity there was still work to do, bills to be paid and a huge family to feed.

The target for any writer should be around 1,000-2,000 words a day. If that sounds a lot, you have to remember that the first two sentences are by far the hardest. Once you’ve broken the back of that pesky first paragraph, the other 950-1,950 are a breeze.

Well, not a breeze, but a light, fluttering wind just off starboard.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins, published by Doubleday on September 29 at £25.