[process] The virtue of slowness, -or- peed skills

Hi. My name is Jay. I am a writer. Yesterday I wrote 6,000 words. In the past week, I wrote 14,400 words. I can stop anytime I want to.

I’m going to say something here that I’ve said before, specifically about myself: It is possible to write too fast. Speed in writing is not inherently a virtue. As writers, a great many of us track word counts, and can readily get hung up on them. This is sensible enough, in that word counts are one of the few nominally objective metrics of progress which are within our control as writers. That and submittals.

But not all word counts are created equal. For a writer who is a multiple pass reviser, the first draft word count may be almost irrelevant. For a writer who’s a write-and-send type, the first draft word count may be just about all there is. In my case, my first drafts tend to read like other people’s second or third drafts. One of my truly great gifts as a writer is a very active subconscious (“Fred”) who does an enormous amount of pre-writing for me somewhere deep in my head, working out things offstage that some writers have to work out on the page.

Which is not to say my first drafts are perfected instances of the story-teller’s art. In many cases, especially novels, they are very far from it. (Just ask casacorona, who has to edit me, or calendula_witch, who reads it all fresh off the griddle.) It does mean I write clean copy that’s usually not terribly difficult to fix. And I tend to do it swiftly, which is another great writerly gift.

The true struggle of my writerly career, my personal maturation challenge, has been to slow the heck down as I write. Because I am quite capable of slamming through 2,500+ words per hour. For hours on end. (I once calculated my theoretical maximum drafting rate, based on my typing speed, as being 4,000 words per hour. I believe I’ve hit 3,400-3,500 words per hour once or twice.) And it’s pretty clean copy (see above) and can be pretty good prose.

Fast writing is not bad writing. But it’s not the best writing. Because while I can keep a pretty clean, crisp skin on prose churned out that quickly, the story bones don’t necessarily have time to set correctly. Some pieces of story require deliberation, even when Fred is all over it behind the scenes. A project of the few years before cancer swallowed me up in 2008 was reducing my draft throughput speed. I worked to get it down to around 1,800 words per hour, which is apparently about as slowly as I can move without falling over. (Imagine trying to ride a bicycle very slowly.) Much slower than that and it all just stops working. Combine a slower drafting speed with an increasing focus on revision as I move through my career, and the quality of output increases, at least in theory.

There are always exceptions. Some of my most successful stories have been pieces I sat down and wrote in one swift, ripping go. But I can’t always call down fire from the gods, and careful craft will beat brilliant inspiration nine times out of ten. The true point is, of course, to yoke careful craft and brilliant inspiration together in a single process.

Another exception is right now. Thanks to chemotherapy, I’m coming off a silent period a little over two months long, which is the longest period of time I’ve gone Not Writing in at least the past decade. It’s made me crazy. Story, both in specific and as a Platonic ideal, has been boiling in my head for the last several weeks. A lot of pent-up energy is trying to get out through my fingertips. Furthermore, I have two major deadlines (Sekrit Projekt and Endurance revisions) in the next five to six weeks, both which are already postponed due to cancer and its discontents. I must move swiftly to meet my commitments.

So now is when I trust to the same speed I’ve been working for years to moderate, and trust to my experience as a writer not to make the speed-mistakes I used to so blithely gloss over. Also, trust calendula_witch and casacorona. Because for the next five or six weeks, I am required to move very, very quickly. Luckily, speed has always been one of my gifts. Perhaps by now slowness has taught me sufficient wisdom to make speed my servant instead of my master.

It’s never a contest, you know. That’s the sweet, sweet lie we writers always tell ourselves when someone else hits a milestone we hunger for. But still, it’s never a contest.

11 thoughts on “[process] The virtue of slowness, -or- peed skills

  1. Sean Donnelly says:

    Thanks for “Rocket Science.” I don’t know the speed with which you produced that piece, but it was FUN!

    1. Jay says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Rick York says:

    I’m sorry I missed Jaycon but, I have to say that it’s great to hear you complaining about writing too fast. It has been an honor to follow your travails with cancer and chemo. But, it’s a true joy to listen to you worrying about the volume of your writing.

    Congratulations. Now as a reader I can begin to get impatient again to get more from you without feeling guilty.

    Write more, write better but, most of all, write in happiness and fulfillment.

  3. Matte Lozenge says:

    I enjoy your science fiction and tech-oriented fantasy the most. I think the quality of your writing has improved over time, too. But if there’s one complaint I have as a reader, it’s that your novels end abruptly or perfunctorily. Sometimes after I finish one of your books, I feel like, “Is that it? Where’s the second half of the book?” Death of a Starship was that way. And I liked the world building in Green a lot, but the final act felt like going through the paces of a predetermined outline. So maybe the time to slow down is towards the ending, to make sure the book finishes with the same level of fire, animation and structure that it started with?

    Anyway, thanks for hearing the comments of one fan.

    1. Jay says:

      Matte –

      Thank you for the feedback. Definitely something I’m working to improve. Have you read any of my short fiction?

      Best,

      Jay

      1. Matte Lozenge says:

        Hey Mr. Prolific, I’ve barely read your bibliography! I think I’ve read a few of your shorter pieces in some of the popular anthologies, but can’t recall any off the top of my head. Why – do you feel they have better endings?

        1. Jay says:

          Maybe not better, but the structural requirements are different.

          Try this one:

          http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lake_03_08/

          Or maybe this one:

          http://literary.erictmarin.com/archives/Issue%2031/plan.htm

          You might see what I mean.

          And of course, I’ve written, what, about 13 novels, but well over 400 short stories. I’ve got more practice at shorts…

  4. Ken Davis says:

    Hi Jay, great post.

    I’ve been making a similar change to my writing approach this year, so it’s cool to hear your line of thinking.

    One word you used (“deliberation”) particularly resonated with me. Over the past few novels, I’ve over-written my first drafts – keeping my daily count up – only to then spend enormous efforts neck-deep in multiple revisions. It hasn’t been unusual for me to have to cut 40% of the first draft out, and then still wrestle with the standard issues of revision (pacing, structure, language) with what’s left.

    This year, I’ve jettisoned goals related to word count for the first draft and am instead going deeper into each chapter as I go – writing / rewriting / reassessing / trying out different approaches. It’s been insanely slow (my weekly word count is not too far off from your daily word count, sounds like…), but I think I’ve managed to drag much of the grunt work of later drafts into this first one, and it feels like I’m getting a stronger (more deliberate) output overall – less churn, more solid manuscript.

    It’s hard to make a shift in the craft like that, but so far it’s been rewarding.

    (BTW, we’re repped by the same agency. DM is my agent and has one of my novels is on submission right now. Fingers crossed.)

    Cheers,
    Ken

  5. Gordon says:

    Not exactly the discussion I expected from the title ending in
    “peed skills”.

    Probably better than what I expected from that, though.

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