Fast Does Not Equal Crap…but here’s what does.
I received yet another review the other day, marvelling at the high standard of writing, which surprised them, given how fast I write books (and they don’t know about the other pen name, either).
I sighed and moved on…I thought.
Only, my brain kept working on it and came back around in the middle of the night to nag me about it.
As it’s been a while since I tackled the whole Fast = Crap bullshit, it’s time to have another run at it, given the thought which struck me in the middle of the night.
For a four-post, exhaustive breakdown of why Fast does not equal Crap, start here. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
As you just read, there are a lot of logical and reasonable counters to the Fast = Crap myth. I don’t intend to go over them again here.
What did strike me at 3.00am one morning is that while writing fast doesn’t produce crap, a lack of apprenticeship does produce whiffy piles of brown stuff—no matter how fast (slow) you write.
Not even if you lovingly craft every single word, taking a year to polish each page, will you produce writing that doesn’t make people wrinkle their nose, if you do not have sufficient writing skills.
Luckily, despite the other myth about not being able to teach writing (which makes me shake my head, too), there are ways you can acquire that training, so that no matter what speed you’re producing books, you’re at least producing them to a standard that doesn’t stink.
What’s An Apprenticeship?
Read, read, and read some more.
There’s a solid argument for saying prolific readers tend to make good writers.
I would suggest that most writers were prolific readers before they began to write, but I suspect the ratio of prolific readers has dropped in the last few years as non-readers enter the indie publishing field with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads.
Readers who read widely and voraciously absorb good grammar and stylistic patterns along with the story they’re reading. Their vocabulary is significantly larger than non-readers. Even if they don’t know how to pronounce that thirteen letter word (after all, they’ve never spoken it aloud, or heard anyone else use it), they can spell it correctly, place the word correctly in a sentence and understand the meaning.
This all helps when it comes to writing prose.
Even if you weren’t a prolific reader when you started writing, everything you read now shapes your writing. What should you read? Everything. Fiction in your genre. Fiction not in your genre. Non-Fiction. Writing how-to books. Books about publishing. Non-fiction books about anything but writing. Read it all.
Malcolm Gladwell has famously proposed in his megaseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, that to master any complex or creative skill takes 10,000 hours of practice.
Let’s use that as a benchmark and work the example. Let’s say you’re writing for two hours every day—actual writing, that is. Not admin, marketing, social networking, production, etc. Actual words on the page writing is all that counts for this example.
So, two hours a day, for six days a week, worked in around your day job and weekends. This is a pretty standard example, I would guess.
For each week, that’s 12 hours of practice.
To reach 10,000 hours, that would take 833 weeks.
Or, in years: 16.02 years.
Now, that’s for complete mastery. If you assume that you only have to be half as good to turn out competent novels, that’s still eight years of hard work until you’re producing something good.
For sure, the work you are producing at the beginning of your 10,000 hours is absolutely going to suck compared to the stuff you’re producing all those hours of practice later.
One Million Words to reach competency
There are arguments over which writer first said that it takes one million written words to reach a basic level of competency in writing; David Eddings, Jerry Pournelle, Ray Bradbury and John D. McDonald have all been credited, and I can’t find a reliable source that points to just one.
But the statistic has been often repeated and writers who know their stuff tend to agree that after putting down a million words, your writing does reach a level of competence that works for the average reader.
If you’re writing 1,000 words an hour, for two hours every day, for six days a week:
1,000 x 12 = 12,000 words
12,000 words x 52 weeks a year = 624,000 words
Still not a million!
One million words would, in fact, take 83 weeks. More than 18 months!
And in fact, this time estimate is wildly inaccurate, because I write 7,000 words every week day, five days a week, and still only manage just over one million words a year. Life rolls, production, admin and world-class procrastination all take a bite. Someone writing only two hours a day would get considerably less done and take much longer to hit the first one million word mark.
Even a full two years to hit your first one million words is a great deal less than Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, but he was speaking of mastery, not mere competence.
In fact, the two provide a tidy spectrum;
- To reach mere acceptable competence takes one million words of practice.
- After that, your work will steadily improve, until you have put in ten thousand hours and reached mastery.
- Reading will support and possibly accelerate your rate of improvement.
The lowest possible level of competence
In the bad old days when traditional publishing was the only route to publication, most authors (including me) shopped around their early efforts and were routinely rejected.
It wasn’t unusual for authors to have four, five or more early, unpublished novels collecting dust on a (virtual) shelf somewhere. I have four of my own that will never see light of day ever again. I’m embarrassed, now, that I submitted them. But no author can tell if their writing is any good at the time. Even Stephen King threw Carrie into the garbage.
There was also usually a lot of short story writing going on while authors tried to get the first novel published, with some success or not at selling those. They tended to pile up, too. (I have a single volume collection of mine.)
The system forced you write those one million unpublished words, then niggardly offered to publish your newer, better work.
That was then.
New authors these days tend to rush into publication their very first novel ever written, adding to the tsunami of crap quite unintentionally, as in their eyes, the novel is competent.
So, there are a lot of weak novels out there.
Rapid Release Fever
Added to this river of sludge is the drive for success at indie publishing, which at the heart of that is the widely acknowledged logic that the more novels you have published, the more sales you make—and it is a compounding effect, not a linear progression.
The need to write and publish quickly was born.
This drive is even more pronounced in the genres where readers inhale a book a day or more – the Romance genre, for example.
Amazon’s 30 day cliff (which some authors are claiming is now 21 days) doesn’t help ease the need to get books out there.
Combine those two facts and you get new writers shoving books out once a month that are anything from downright awful to just barely readable.
It’s not how fast they wrote them that decides the quality
It’s how much apprenticeship time they’ve put in.
So, let’s go back to the reviewer who marvelled that I write good books quickly. What she probably did not stop to consider was that I have been writing fiction for twenty years. If I’m counting only novels, I’ve written 112 of them. Most of them are well over 50K words, some of them much longer. But let’s be conservative and say they’re all 75K words each.
That’s 8.4M words.
And I have a lot of novellas, novelettes and short stories, too.
So I’ve had a lot of practice, and I’m putting in thirty hours more every week, these days.
Is it any wonder I can “crank out” <grrr> a novel in three weeks?
You get faster, the more you write.
It’s a simple matter of practice, of learning how to put words together to build a coherent story.
I’ve watched this happening in my own household. My husband just put out his first novel. In fact, it wasn’t the first novel he’s ever written. There were some not so good ones under a pen name, and three or four not-completed and nearly-completed-then-trashed novels. He’s still to hit the one million word mark, but he’s close and closing in fast.
I watched him struggle to get this one right, and at first, getting 400 words an hour down on the page was a huge achievement for him. Now he can comfortably write around 800 words an hours. Pedal-to-the-floor speed for him is around 1,000 words an hour.
I have no doubt he’ll get faster still.
To Write Good Stories Fast, Practice.
- Read more
- Write more.
The more you can do of both of these, the better you’ll get. Fast writing gives you a viable career, makes you nimble and responsive…but not if you haven’t put in the time and completed your apprenticeship.