This is a four-part series.
All the Daytime Disguises of “Fast = Crap”
Let’s examine some of the facets of “Fast = Crap”. As I mentioned in Part 1, the attitude can sneak in when you least expect it.
Cranking out a book
This is the belief/statement/comment I mentioned in Part 1.
Just the statement “crank out a book” is value-loaded. It implies that a book was written quickly and without pause for reflection, and therefore has no artistic merit nor any value beyond a commodity.
None of this is true.
Unfortunately, everyone uses the phrase without thought. It’s tossed off without realizing the erroneous assumptions that lie beneath, nor the reinforcement of the myth it provides each time it is spoken.
Writers shouldn’t write too much.
I’ve heard it said that authors shouldn’t spend 20 or 40 or 80 hours a week writing, because they produce crap if they do.
This is so hysterically outrageous and nonsensical that I giggle every time I see the argument put forward. (Just not to the poor deluded soul’s face.)
Writing is a craft just like any other.
In all other crafts (painting, piano playing, ring tossing, tattooing, etc.) the craftsman improves the more he practices. It goes without saying.
Why would a writer be damaged by writing a lot, when every other creative on the planet gets better at their craft with practice?
“Xxx spent a year writing their book and it’s a masterpiece.”
No, they did not take a whole year, all 365 days, to write the book. They lied, if they said that.
What they might have said and the public didn’t understand the difference, is that they spent a whole year researching and plotting the book. Maybe they work Ken Follett-style and write 100 page outlines they then toss at an agent and in turn, an editor, who both workshop the outline, and it goes through iterations…
Maybe they traveled to northern Finland for the winter, for on-site research.
And perhaps they merely thought about the story concept for nine months, before it jelled one day and they wrote in a three month white heat.
But they did not (I guarantee it) spend all 365 days writing the book. Even for the largest, most George R.R. Martin-style tomb of 250,000 words, that’s less than three pages a day.
Even the slowest sloth-speed writer on the planet can write three pages in—let’s say two hours, to be really generous (that’s a slovenly 300 words an hour). What did they do for the other six hours?
If you’re jumping in your chair, shouting at me that many writers can only spare two hours in their day to write, once they’ve taken care of their day job and their families – to you, I nod in agreement. Yes, that is true.
However, most authors who proclaim they spent a year writing the book imply that they sweated over it every day, for eight hours a day. (They’d look disingenuous if they added the qualifier that they only wrote two hours a day.)
The whole point of the statement is to make readers stare at the author in awe of their dedication and sweat equity.
And it’s complete crap.
It’s helping maintain the public illusion that books written slowly are somehow better.
Slow writing is deliberate and nuanced.
Oscar Wilde is famous for saying: “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”
Even just on face value, it is a stupid thing to say. I seriously doubt Wilde ever spent a whole day contemplating a single comma.
The implication is, though, that he sweats over every single piece of punctuation, and that every other facet of his craft receives the same deliberation.
As I discussed in the Prolificacy series, when you slow down and consider every decision, you’re putting your internal editor in the driver’s seat.
It may well make your prose perfect, but your story will be compromised. As an indie fiction writer, story is more important than the prose and by slowing down and choosing your verbs with care, you’re screwing yourself and your reader.
I suspect many writers who like to talk about slow writing do so because they haven’t the self-awareness and self-discipline to get their butt in the chair when they should. They cover their lack of professionalism with arguments about nuance and artistry.
Few of those authors are writing indie fiction for a living.
Look at George R.R. Martin!
“Martin only writes a single book every few years or so, and they’re marvelous!”
George R.R. Martin writes a wicked damn story, that’s why they’re marvelous. They’re brilliant despite how long he takes to get them done.
While you’re looking at George R.R. Martin’s 29 shorter works and 9 novels, consider:
Ray Bradbury: Credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories.
Isaac Asimov: Wrote or edited over 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.
Stephen King: King publishes a book a year. However, he writes much faster than that and is known for keeping two or more “backup” novels in the drawer for emergencies. King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written around 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections.
None of these three authors, who were/are all prolific, was ever accused of writing crap.
On the other hand, Martin is not a good example of the virtues of slow writing–his fans make fun of, or loudly decry, the snail’s pace at which he writes books.
Pulp Writers were notorious for speed, but they wrote crappy stories.
Pulp writers were being paid by the word. Earl Stanley Gardener always referred to Perry Mason’s assistant as “Stella Street”, because that was an extra three or four cents for no extra effort. It is also a mental tripwire for readers and certainly not a style enhancer…but he didn’t use every character’s full name to improve the story, either.
The pay rates for writers in the golden age of the pulps was abysmal, but if you were fast, you could live on the earnings. Besides, the reading public didn’t care about loose writing or florid adjectives. Guess what they did care about? Yes, the story.
Stories told at a breathless pace with a shock on every page were what sold the pulp magazines and made sure next week’s was sold, too. These fast, “crappy” writers entertained millions.
No, it was not literary masterwork.
Many of the pulp writers of old were not crappy writers because they wrote quickly, but because they were crappy writers to start with. Pulp magazine editors spent their lives in search of new writers to fill the pages of their magazines as more experienced writers moved on to higher markets and book deals.
Often, the weaker writers stayed at the lowest word rates of pay until they improved, or quit.
Unsurprisingly, writing that fast and that frequently, many of them did get better. A lot better.
Some of American’s most lauded and admired writers learned their trade writing for the pulps. Raymond Chandler is a prime example. His hard-boiled crime novels are stylistic primers.
All genre fiction is crap.
This is a “literature versus popular fiction” argument. It has nothing to do with the speed at which a book was written, although it is often hooked up to the notion that genre fiction is “cranked” out while literature is not.
Dashing off a story without an outline and thesis, and five re-writes = crap.
Your English professor taught you that. He was taught this notion by his English master. “Creative” writing taught in academic institutions has barely any relationship to commercial fiction. Published work that emerges from the cauldrons of academia are prose-perfect, and possibly literary masterpieces.
And they sell, oh, dozens of copies!
Fast writing doesn’t give you any time to reflect and think about your story, to come up with creative insights.
If you take a year to write a novel, there is no way you’re spending all year thinking about it and reflecting upon the nuances. It’s just not possible. You may think about the book on and off for the year, but not the whole 24/365 period. Strung together, the actual time you spent reflecting may add up only to a few days at most. Maybe a week.
If you write a book in seven days, though, believe me, you’re thinking about that story all the time — while you’re writing it, while you’re eating your scrambled eggs, while you’re brushing your teeth at night. It consumes you. It takes up nearly all your waking hours and when you’re doing mundane things like mowing the lawn, you still can’t shrug it off, because that’s all you’re doing with your life right now.
You don’t forget any details when you’re writing that quickly, and you make obscure and unexpected connections between plot and characters and situations, because you’re holding the book in your head all the time.
If you think that having greater amounts of time to reflect upon your story would give you a better story, you can always schedule those times in. How? By writing faster, when you do write, which gives you more time to reflect.
There are an infinite number of masks that “fast=crap” wears. They change all the time and sometimes they are sophisticated and hard to spot. These are just a few of the more common versions.
Have you spotted a different version of the fast=crap myth? Share in comments—I’d love to hear them!
Next week, I’ll wrap this series up with a final reflection on the myth.