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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-07-12 05:41
Subject: [process] The virtue of slowness, -or- peed skills
Security: Public
Tags:calendula, cancer, endurance, health, personal, process, stories, writing
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 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.

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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-07-12 13:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I just wrote a private post in my journal on this theme. As you may know, I am participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon (and looking for sponsors--anyone?), and have set my goal at writing one story per week, old school clarion style. The reason is that I didn't achieve this at Clarion, and that ever since Clarion I've been a rather slow, hesitant fiction writer. However, in recent years I've been forced to learn to write quickly to deadline in my nonfiction work. I've suspected for a long time that I could bring these skills to my fiction writing, and I've also been inspired by your process, which I've followed for a few years. After two weeks of writing fast, I am happy to say, Hell, yes, it does work. I also write clean first drafts. For my nonfiction, I don't rewrite, and don't revise. I do a light edit and get the damn thing out of the house. I'm imposing the same rules on myself.

When I know I'm not allowed to rewrite, I think I write much better. I, too, have noticed that Fred is working harder for me, and that I write better when I "trust in Fred." In fact, in a recent story, I got 3/4 of the way through, and started feeling like I needed to introduce a new magical plot element, which meant going back and foreshadowing it. Hell, no! No rewriting. Instead, I thought about what Fred had already given me, and used that to complete the story.

I am not much a believer that writers' processes are determined by temperament. I think it is more habit and training. I think one hard stop is whether you can write clean on the first draft. I know some writers can't--or at least they feel they can't. But for those who can write clean first drafts, I think a fast, one-pass process is worth looking at. A big problem with writing slow is losing the train of the story. Every time you lose it and come back, you risk legacy errors and inconsistency. I have also shifted from being an active workshopper to a no-workshop, no-critique process. I still like to have first readers, but I feel that for me, workshopping is extremely demotivating. (And that may in large part be a temperament thing.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-12 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good for you. All of which points to something that I maybe should have said in the main post about fast writing. Writing quickly, without any revision during the initial drafting process, allows one to stay ahead of one's self-doubts and inner critic.

I have literally seen a fellow writer (at a retreat) sit down with their laptop and type for 3-4 hours, periodically screaming out, "This is shit!" and "No way!", backspacing/deleting like crazy, and wind up with 500 words of draft. Which strikes me as insane. Get it on the page, then fix it. None of us are good judges of our own work, especially when it's hot off the keyboard.

So yeah, lots of strong reasons to do what you're doing. And good on yez.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-07-12 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, that is a wince-worthy story. Ouch. It would be totally awesome if the writer was periodically screaming "This is shit!" and "No, way!" and ended up with 10,000 words at the end of the day. :-)

I do believe in being flexible about process. I'm glad I'm still experimenting. I've also found that I am no judge of the quality of my own writing when it's fresh, and often when it's not fresh. I've learned to judge it on effectiveness. Did I get the point across that I wanted to? Is there enoug background for the intended reader? Are all my facts checked and referenced? If the answer is yes, I'm done. I've been surprised by compliments and "fan mail" on articles I dashed off in a state of deadline-driven dementia, stitched together out of notes and stray thoughts, and barely managed to suppress an apology to the editor for the terrible quality.
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-07-12 14:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for posting this. I've been posting more about process lately (in the F2F posts mainly) due to Kij's writing workshop. This came about for two reasons:
1) It was interesting to learn about my own process, which I haven't thought about much.
2) It troubles me to see people, good writers, suffer from what I've come to call the "Amadeus Syndrome." There seems to be this belief that someone, somewhere out there pours forth beautiful, creamy prose as if the hand of Zeus scribes it directly through them with no intermediate stop, and thus we should all write that way. If you don't you're somehow inferior. Your work is crap. You aren't good. I say that's BS and a pernicious myth.

I'm a fast writer (not as fast as you, Jay). I can toss out thousands of words without much effort. On a good day, in eight hours, I can kick out a good 8,000 -10,000 words of prose. On a not so good one, 4,000 - 6,000.

A few sentences may even last through the week, nay, months of revisions I will put it through. Because once I'm done steaming through that first and second mad write through to get everything down, getting down the bones, then getting in setting and characterization and fixing most of the plot holes; I settle in for a nice long line edit. Long weeks of line editing. Months on my novel. There may be precious little left of the first and second crappy draft.

So I don't care how many words I write. I expect to rewrite most of them. They are the armature that gets covered up. So when I hear/see other writers swear at their writing, complain how bad they are, eventually stop; it troubles me. Because crap is workable. You can fix it in post. You can make it great. You can't do nothing with nothing.

Wow, I'm getting long winded. So I'll stop here. By saying for me it's not a contest. There are enough real wolves out there without turning ourselves into coyotes too.
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Clint Harris
User: wendigomountain
Date: 2010-07-12 14:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Hi. My name is Jay. I am a writer."

Hi Jay!
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-07-12 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting. I find that typically the faster I write, the better I write, because it allows me to keep everything in my head. Of course, I'm only a moderately fast writer because after 2-4k words my brain fries for the day--something to with my subconscious processing buffer I think. So I'm at 2 novels and a bit per year at the moment, though I am hoping to get that up a bit as I seem to write a little bit faster and a little bit cleaner every year.
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User: cuddlycthulhu
Date: 2010-07-12 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh! *S*peed skills.

I was wondering what the virtue of slowness had to do with urinary talents (at least I assume that's a typo in the title).
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-12 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's actually an old druggie joke, I think I picked up from Mad Magazine in the 1970s. "Speed kills" = "Peed skills".
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calendula_witch: Patchwork
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2010-07-12 16:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I saw it in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-07-12 16:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I admire your speed, but I don't, I think want to emulate it. I sit at 1000-1500 words a day, mostly, and it works for me. More than that, and my shoulder problems jump on me with a vengeance.
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Michael Curry: alton
User: mcurry
Date: 2010-07-12 20:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think I've seen an alpha version of one of your mss. in a while, but even back in the days of MADNESS OF FLOWERS, with the exception of some bracketed things that needed to be filled in later, your speedily written output was in pretty good shape.

I hope your post-chemo brain is able to get you back into the speed sweet spot soon!
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