Does Writing Fast = Crap?

 

I promised to step fully onto this smoking lava bed of a subject when I wrote the two parts of Why Bother Writing Lots of Books Quickly? 

So, I’ve rolled up my sleeves today.

Does Fast = Crap?

In a word, no.

Here are several thousand more words to explain that.

The idea that a novel written quickly must be of poorer quality than its brethren is one of the most pervasive, insidious beliefs existing in the professional book-writing world–and outside it, too.

You may well be holding onto the belief, deep in your bones, and not realize it.  If you are, and you’re trying to be as prolific as possible, that belief will hamper you until you properly root it out.

Do I speak from experience?  Alas, yes.  But I did get rid of it eventually.  Only, like the suckers of Manitoba Maples, of which I have been trying to rid my yard through six years of total war, the idea can slide back into your brain while you’re not looking and trip you up.

There’s so many facets of the Fast = Crap mythology, that often, you don’t recognize you’re a victim of the myth because it doesn’t look quite the way you’ve thought about it before.

Here’s a perfect example.  Have you ever thought, or spoken about “cranking out a book”?

There.  That’s the myth in disguise.  The word “cranking” implies something mechanical, ordinary and workmanlike, untouched by any form of creativity, and spat out at speeds faster than humans can produce without mechanical aid.

This is complete bullshit when it comes to writing novels.  If you can offload the myth well enough, you will find that some of your very best writing comes from moments when you had the gas pedal pinned down so hard, you were in danger of shoving the pedal through the floor.

This is just one demonstration of how pervasive the myth is.  You have to be alert, to watch and make sure it hasn’t wormed its way back into your beliefs, and has started to flourish again.

What does “Fast = Crap” really mean?

Typing fast?

The speed at which you type has no bearing on the perceived quality of the story you produce.  You can type shitty prose at ten-words-a-day, and the same shitty prose at 100 words a minute.

You’re the one selecting the keys and you would make the same choices no matter how fast your fingertips hit the keyboard, so who gives a crap about the speed you type?  The reader certainly doesn’t.

Typing more?

This is getting closer to the heart of the fast=crap myth.  Typing more—as in, sitting in your chair for longer hours, which means you get books written “faster”.  You’re not actually writing them any faster.  You’re just spending more time writing them.

If it takes you 1,000 hours (purely an example!) to produce a 50,000 word novel, edit and clean it up ready for release, and you only spend two hours a week on your writing, then it will take you a whole year plus a season or two to produce one book.

Working at the exact same pace, and spending 80 hours a week on the writing, editing and production, will produce one book in twelve and a half weeks.  In other words, just over four books a year.

Any author producing more than four books a year is generally considered to be prolific.  (In traditional publishing, that baseline is downgraded to two books a year, and you’re a Wunderkind.)

But is the work crap?  It was written at the same speed as the author who releases a book every 1.4 years, so objectively, no, it isn’t.

Readers and authors looking askance at authors producing 4+ books a year are raising their eyebrows for the wrong reasons.  Authors producing at this level either have the luxury of writing full time, or have a really solid, grounded work ethic and the ability and discipline to do the work when time allows them to do so.  Or both.

Taking short cuts?

Are there any short cuts in writing and producing a book?  If there are, I wish someone would clue me in.

In this context though, the implication is that the short-cuts diminish the quality of the book.  I confess, I’m still scratching my head over this.  What short-cuts, if there are any, diminish the quality?

Is it choosing not to build characters properly, to save time?  Foregoing outlining?  Not plotting?

It can’t be choosing to skip words or paragraphs or chapters, because to produce a coherent story, it is simply impossible to skip any of them.

The failure to include critical paragraphs and words and scenes, however, will diminish the quality of the story, but the ignorant writer who fails to include them will still fail to include them no matter how fast they write.  In this case, the poor quality has nothing to do with speed.

The savvy writing who (for reasons that defy sense) chooses to omit critical scenes, paragraphs or words in order to save time and therefore “write faster” …well, I don’t believe such a writer exists.  But if they do, their stories will certainly be weaker than they should be.  Such slipshod practices would continue no matter how fast the author is writing.

Choosing not to build characters or plot or outlines is the same thing as pantsing, which plenty of writers do and still produce wonderful stories. Stephen King is the ultimate example of pantsing.

So if omitting to plot/plan is considered a shortcut, it still isn’t a factor of speed.  In fact, there are plenty of vocal arguments (Larry Brooks and Shawn Coyne being two I can think off without stretching) that maintain that pantsing is the slowest way to write a book.

Both these story structure experts suggest that the first draft of a pantser’s novel is a long-winded plot outline that they must now spend two or three re-writes and revisions cleaning up.

While the outliner finishes the outline in considerably less time, and can usually nail the novel in the first draft, with only a couple of light cleanup and editing rounds after that.

So are short-cuts really short-cuts?

Probably not.

Books that have been written “fast” are usually produced quickly because the writer has abided all the conventions – good character building, solid structure and decent prose, which delivers a highly readable book.  They repeat this process over and over, getting better every time.

Producing many books quickly?

Spending more time writing will produce more books.  As I’ve already indicated, spending more time writing has nothing to do with quality.

Using good checklists and well-developed tools to make the writing and production process more efficient cannot possibly impact negatively upon quality.   If the writer is not flailing around, trying to remember every tiny step in the process, it can be argued that the books will be of better quality than those of a writer who takes six weeks longer to get the book out there because they’re second guessing (and likely forgetting) the many steps in the process.

Is it possible to skip steps in the writing and production process in order to produce more books, quickly?  Yes.  But “skipping” writing steps, as I mentioned above, does not save time in the long run.

From long experience (100+ titles so far) producing my own books, I can tell you that skipping production steps does not save time either.  Sooner or later, the indie writer is forced to circle back and take care of the step they skipped either through ignorance or haste.  They cannot release a book without doing the work.

Usually, when forced to go back and in-fill earlier omissions, the work is twice as complicated and takes more time than it would if it had been done in a timely manner.

Here’s a simple example:  acquiring ISBNs.   You can’t publish on some platforms without one.  If you wait until you upload to that platform to go and get the ISBN for it, then you’re doubling or tripling the time it would have taken you to just grab all five/however-many ISBNs for each platform that demands one, all at once.  (This is also one example of how excellent checklists will save oodles of time).

More words per hour?

I think this is the area where the fast=crap myth leaves the most bomb craters.

The reasoning is:  If you write 100 words an hour, you’re thinking carefully about every word and therefore the quality must be higher than if you “dash off” 1,300 words an hour (which just happens to be my current WPH rate).

To which I cry bullshit again.

If you’re only putting down 100 words an hour (or 200 or 500, or any number that is slow and deliberate and thought-filled), you’re thinking too much about the words.

Indie authors are 99.99% writing genre fiction.  It could be 100%, but I’m covering my ass and saying there might be an exception out there, who is making a decent living writing indie literature.

Literary writers do care about every single word.  Story is secondary.  Story does need to be there.  Often, though, it is the most fragile cobweb of an excuse for a novel’s worth of word poetry.

Literary writers may well write only 200 words an hour.  I don’t know, because I don’t know any literary writers, not even traditionally published ones.

Indie authors write genre fiction and beyond a certain level of prose competence, the reader cannot discern brilliant prose from workmanlike words.  They don’t care.  They just want to read a damn good story.  Story is all that matters.

This is why the E.L. James and Dan Browns of the world leave so many people scratching their heads over their success.  Their prose hovers just above acceptable and sometimes even dips down beneath it.  Their story structure, concept and characters, though, are flawless.  They tell damned good stories.

If you’re holding onto the argument that workmanlike prose is somehow bad, that every page should sing arias, then you’re coming to this business with a faulty metronome and you’re doomed to fail.  Sorry.

Story is all that counts.  And how fast the words are written have zero relationship to the story that is told with those words.  Writing slowly does not guarantee a good story.  It will often give you poetry, but the story is left in dust.

In addition, if you’re writing genre fiction and producing 200 words an hour, it will take you weeks or months longer to get the story down.  It is almost impossible to hold all the story points, character facets and the structure of the story at the forefront of your mind for a year or more.  You’ll forget if the hero had blue eyes in chapter one or what the heroine’s mother’s name was.

If you fix it on the spot, that involves breaking off and going back to the relevant page to get the story fact.  If you put an xxx in and keep going, you still have to circle back later, research, and fill the hole (which is another great argument for building story bibles and series bibles as you go).  Trying to remember the structure and details of a novel for such a long time will surely result in critical “bits” getting dropped.  That makes the revision(s) more onerous.

Plus you have to keep your enthusiasm for the story alive for a whole friggin’ year.

I don’t know about you, but even the most fantastic story I’ve written, the one that lived and breathed and wouldn’t let me go until I had it down…I’m pretty sure if I had taken a year to do it, I would have lost interest six months in.  Trying to finish a book you’ve lost interest in sucks.  The quality absolutely takes a dive, because you just don’t care anymore.

So, writing slowly does not produce a higher quality novel.  Quite the opposite.

Let me get back to the other side of the argument–that writing 1,000 or 2,000, or even 5,000 words per hour (in Chris Fox’s case) produces crap.

If a writer writes crap at 200 words an hour, they’re going to write crap at 2,000 words an hour.  Speed doesn’t beget skill.

On the other hand, there are plenty of experts (Rachel Aaron, Chris Fox, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks, William Wallace Cook, Jim Denney, Jim Driver, Monica Leonelle, Hilary Rettig, Dean Wesley Smith, and many, many more) who encourage speed because there is a point where the speed at which you’re writing the story cuts off the internal editor, and you’re writing purely in flow.   This is where the story lives in your head and you’re watching the scene play out and taking dictation.

When I’m in flow, I don’t really see the words on the screen.  I see the story in my head and the words are just the fallout.  I don’t think about typing.   I’m not pausing to make poetry.  Sometimes, what I write down is a surprise to me, too.  I’ll read it in later cleanups and blink, because I don’t remember writing it and the phrase/word/description is perfect.

That’s flow.

You actually feel like you’re waking up after writing in flow.  Time passes unnoticed.  You don’t get hungry or thirsty – well, you don’t notice it until you’ve stopped, at least.

Usually, when you’re in flow, you will discover later that you’ve been writing at your maximum speed, or better, yet it felt like you were just, well, writing.  It didn’t feel like you were sprinting at all.

That’s flow.

Story has the greatest chance of being told well when you write in flow, because you’re not focused on the words, which are just the medium.

In genre fiction terms, that is all that is needed for a damn good read—a damn fine story.

Your best speed to induce flow is personal to you.  As a beginning writer, you may find 600 words an hour is where you’re moving just fast enough to mute the internal editor (if she even exists, yet).   More established writers (those who have finished a number of books) will find their hourly word rate is higher.

You will absolutely get faster as you write and finish more books.  That is, if you let go of the fast=crap myth.

It isn’t a matter of sprinting.  It’s a matter of getting to flow and staying there—and when you do, the speed comes by itself.  So does the best story-telling you’ve ever done.

____

I was afraid this might happen.  I’m already well over two thousand words and barely a quarter way through my outline.

So, next week I’ll get back to this, and look at the fast=crap myth from the reader’s perspective.

t.

By |2018-05-10T18:50:21+00:00May 11th, 2018|Creativity, PROLIFICACY|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Hilary May 11, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    I love this post!

    I have one remaining question, and it’s about thinking time. You do a fine job of pointing out how thinking about every *word* doesn’t serve those of us writing genre fiction. But what about time spent thinking about the *story*?

    I’m considering less experienced writers like myself (only 4 novels to my name). If I write a book super fast (which I’ve done twice), the book needs HEAVY revision, and I hate that (because I hate revision). Writing slower, I’ve got more of a chance of getting something solid in one go because I’m thinking it through more, but even then, I find that there are things I just didn’t invest in enough (from world-building to character arcs to plot points), and seems to me that if I’d indulged in more thinking time, I would have gotten a better result.

    So that makes me wonder if maybe only writers who’ve done at least 10 or 20 books are experienced enough to write that fast, because they’ve internalized so much of what makes a story good and don’t have to think through it consciously anymore.

    What is your take? How much time do you spend thinking things through to make sure you have a solid story, intriguing characters, immersive setting, etc.?

    Thanks!
    Hilary

    • Tracy May 12, 2018 at 5:34 am

      It sounds like you’re using “thinking” as a euphemism for plotting, outlining, and character development.

      I develop the concept and build the plot & characters for a book before I write. I schedule time for both. When I write I don’t have to worry about if I’m hitting all the right spots for a solid structure because that thinking time has already been spent. I can just imagine the scene and get it down.

      If you check out some of the work log posts you’ll see that plotting time is part of my production schedule.

      What you don’t see is that concept building time is also part of my schedule — it comes before plotting. I don’t use “writing” time for concept work, as I do for plotting, because it’s a nebulous, thinking process. I will develop a concept with a keyboard and Word file, but that’s only because after so many years of writing down what I think, I think better when I write things down. Often I figure out what I’m thinking only after writing it down.

      I do concept building in my “spare” time, in the days before I sit down to plot the book. A lot of that time is time when I’m doing other things–especially chores around the house. Even watching television is part of the process, for everything I watch suggests plot points, or characters, even concept ideas.

      This is where a well-built note-taking system comes to the fore. But, that’s a different discussion.

      If you’re pantsing, you’re using your writing time to develop your concept, plot and characters in long form. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, you have to stop and think about the story all the time. And yes, it will require heavy revision. Plotters do the same revision to their outlines, then write their first draft.

      If you prefer pantsing, then you should expect your first draft to be slow and messy and require revision, and build that extra time into your schedule.

      Regardless of whether you’re plotting or pantsing, the time it takes you to get the first draft down will absolutely be greater when you’re just starting out. My DH, who is just getting into writing, and despite two decades living with me and thinking about story on a daily basis, is still painfully slow (to my mind) at the actual writing process.

      That’s because many of the aspects of writing that I no longer consciously process are still new to him and require deliberate decisions. I’m referring to micro-level stuff now, not big macro story elements. Things, for example, such as: Have I set the scene for the reader? Have I covered all the senses? Is it too much? Is that narrative observation a break in point of view?

      All of these concerns will slow a new writer down, until they’re internalized from heavy practice and you barely think about them anymore. For the first few books (and if you’ve only completed four so far, this is most likely where you are at), getting to flow is difficult, or impossible. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who wrote the initial theories about flow (also called “the Zone”), theorized that a high level of basic competence is necessary before flow can be achieved.

      However, I do not believe that it takes 10,000 hours to reach that level of competence. It’s different for every writer, but the first time you reach flow, you’ll know it. It is an almost magical dream state, where you (contrariwise) feel 100% alert and alive.

      Cheers,

      t.

  2. Hilary May 14, 2018 at 9:15 am

    That’s super helpful, thanks! It also gives me a bit of hope that after a few more books that magical dream state might start showing up for me 🙂

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