Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[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 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.

Tags: calendula, cancer, endurance, health, personal, process, stories, writing

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