August 21st, 2006


Writing is not a competitive sport

Writing is not a competitive sport, though they do give points for style. the_flea_king IM'ed me this morning to ask why I'd written Madness of Flowers so quickly. Around the same time, specficrider and I were IM'ing about a collab project which has been moving along at a most stately pace. Which led me to realize maybe I ought to explain a couple of things.

I write novels fast because that's how I have to do it. I'm not showing off or being naff. In fact, I agonized considerably before posting my daily numbers on Trial of Flowers last spring. Everybody more or less yawned, so I decided it wasn't a bad thing. Posting the numbers also gave me a sense of public accountability. ("Look! Live! Without a net!") More to the point, I noodle around with the idea -- those 'novel bubbles' I've mentioned before having in my head -- until I'm ready to jump in. Then things go more or less according to the jet plane theory, my riff comparing the sustained speeds of airliners and writers. Except I have a tendency to land real, real fast at the end of the trip.

So, for example, around the first 10,000 or 15,000 words of Madness, I was seriously worried that I wouldn't make length (140,000) because it felt like the plot was advancing too fast. The discerning reader will note that I overshot length by over 50,000 words. This is not a Good Thing, btw, though my current hypothesis is that cutting down is a better idea than padding up. Ask me next spring about that one. Then I hit cruising speed, went into 2,000+ words per hour mode, and ripped through the rest of the book, my available time permitting.

But like I said, I don't write that fast because I'm being competitive or showing off. I write that fast because I want to get the damned story out of my head before it gets away from me. This is the downside of my concept of "span of control." Holding a nearly 200K word novel in your head is quite an experience. It tends to run out of your ears. And I wanted it to get done before WorldCon especially, because that six-day break would have affected continuity of voice, plot and character in ways I didn't want to cope with. (There were other issues too, like the need to approach Stemwinder with a clear head.)

So, hence the fast writing. It's the only way I know how to do it -- the manic mode of my ADHD like behaviors.

As I've mentioned before, repeatedly, I also think fast writing is a virtue. (Or can be, for many if not most of us.) It releases the inner voice and shuts down the inner self-critic, which makes for far more interesting, readable fiction. In my case, since slowing down doesn't seem to be much of an option, I've had to learn to deal with craft issues either by getting it right the first time (which I do a decent job of, Ghu only knows why) or handling it on rewrite/edit (which I'm only starting to be any good at).

More later on my sense of my own process changes.

ETA: the_flea_king just said something really important as I was composing this post. I forgot to mention the reason I wrote this so far ahead of deadline was so I could put it in a drawer and let it age out of my emotional investment in the draft, thus allowing me to approach rewrite/edit with a much more objective eye. That was my Big Lesson in delivering Mainspring to Tor -- I'd never approached a major text of mine before that way, and casacorona was able to help me see some things I'd never had seen on my own. Same reason I'll be writing Stemwinder this fall -- to get far enough ahead of it to drop it in the drawer and forget it.

So the important thing the_flea_king said was: "Future self-collaboration." What a fascinating concept. I get what he means, instantly. I'll need to ruminate on that.

LACon Schedule (updated)

Wednesday, 8/23
4:00 pmSFWA table
8:00 pmBroad Universe Rapid Fire Reading [M]
10:00 pmMidnight Tales of Horror [M]

Thursday, 8/24
1:00 pmWriters & Illustrators of the Future [M]
4:00 pmWriting While Holding Down a Day Job
5:30 pmCities in Science Fiction
8:00 pmTwo Beers and a Story

Friday, 8/25
3:00 pmAutographing
5:30 pmIntermediate Writing

Saturday, 8/26
10:00 amSFWA table
NoonSigning at the Borderlands Books table
1:00 pm (double session)Writers Workshop

Sunday, 8/27
1:00 pmReading

Plus of course the usual quality bar time, social frippery, parties and mealtime confabs...

Explaining the Not Goodness of Things

garyomaha asks in comments:

Speaking as more of a civilian than writer, why is that not a good thing? I see novels of different lengths all the time. Is there a commonly-known "sweet spot" for number of words in a novel? Is it your own personal choice for story length, possibly related to your span of control? Or is it simply a matter of economics -- the publisher said you can fill XX number of pages and that's it?

Please educate me (and, I presume, some others here). Thanks.

This in reference to my statement:

The discerning reader will note that I overshot length by over 50,000 words. This is not a Good Thing

Well, it's Not Good for several reasons. In my personal case, for one, I have a contract which calls for 140,000 words. The publisher isn't going to accept a 190,000 word manuscript from me. It's too big, and messes up his P&Ls for the book. (alg had a very cogent explanation of P&Ls a while back, as pnh previously has done at Making Light, I believe.) Now, if I've written the next Left Hand of Darkness, they might find some flexibility deep in their pointy little souls, but as a practical matter, drastically overdelivering isn't the done thing here.

The other reason it's Not Good is entirely independent of contract issues. I sized the book based on my plot outline. I'm supposed to be able to do that, it's part of my job as a writer. That (erroneous) sizing on my part is why we contracted for 140,000 words, in this case, but even if I'd been writing on spec, it would have been important to me to hit some accuracy. This isn't Not Good as in career trouble, it's more Not Good as in feeling I don't understand my craft as well as I'd like to think.

FWIW, I'm usually very accurate on size estimates of short story ideas and drafts. It's part of why I can write to length, which is occasionally important. I'd like to be similarly accurate on novels. OTOH, I've written at least 30x more short stories than I have novels at this point, so my expectations of experience should be tuned accordingly.

For those of you who work to contract now, what's your take on sizing process and accuracy? Do you have to write and cut, or do you pretty much hit the mark?