There's a myth perpetrated some by Hollywood and some by institutions of higher education that good writing should be a struggle. In the film "Throw Mama from the Train," Billy Crystal's character spends the whole movie agonizing over the first sentence of his novel, trying to figure out the word he needs to write. The night was moist. The night was humid. The night was sticky, etc. In literature classes, there's a tendency to glorify writers who spent twenty years struggling to build their magnum opus, treating each word like a dot of pigment in a pointillist painting.
Of course, many of the best loved writers in history were extremely prolific. Shakespeare left behind 38 plays and almost certainly wrote many more that are lost to history. Twain, Dickens, and Dostoevsky churned out words as if their lives depended on it... or, more accurately, their livelihoods. Isaac Asimov put out nearly 500 books in his lifetime. And all this before word processors, when authors still wrote long hand or tapped on typewriters that were prone to jamming and where correcting a single misspelled word was a laborious process. Leave out a word from a sentence, and you had to retype a whole page!
Today, the technology exists to let us produce work as fast as our brains can generate it. Of course, the second half of that sentence is the tricky part. Thinking of what to write and developing it sufficiently to be of any value once it's down on paper does take time. Writing for me is like working a sudoku. I know that I've got 81 different elements that have to go into the final product, and I know that there are ways I can put these elements down that will produce something that works, and other ways I can put them down that will create an incoherent muddle. So, one of the first keys to writing fast is to slow down and think--but that's the subject of another essay. For now, let's return to the question of why writing fast is advantageous:
- Practice makes perfect. It's true of learning to play the piano or hit a golf ball, and it's true for writing. You're going to be more fluent and polished when you are typing your second million words of fiction than when you were typing your first fifty thousand, assuming you're capable of learning from your mistakes and absorbing the feedback of others.
- Momentum matters. My first novel took me two years to write, and it's a mess. One reason it's a mess is that I would take off weeks between writing sessions, and during these weeks I'd second guess myself and think about how what I'd written could have been better. So, I'd go back and restart and rewrite from the beginning before moving forward. When I did move forward, I'd again think of new ideas that would force me to go back and make changes. Spending two months on a novel instead of two years helps eliminate the tweaking and tinkering that can keep a book from being finished. Because:
- Humans need deadlines. It's just in our nature. If you're not under contract for a book, you have no actual date certain when you need to have a project completed. This means that your book gets pushed aside for all the other things in your life that do have deadlines. The good news is, you don't need a contract to have a deadline. My writing really started improving once I joined the Writer's Group of the Triad and started going to meetings twice a month, once for a speculative fiction group, and once for a novel group. This meant I had two hard dates each month where it was expected I would turn in something, either a short story or another chapter or two or five of a novel. Later, I joined an online group that held a lot of writing contests among the members where we would have to write a story for Halloween or Valentine's Day or whatever. Eventually, I learned to make my own deadlines completely independent of other people. I would tell everyone I knew that I was going to finish a novel by a certain date, and I'd do it. Even today, when I'm writing my drafts, I announce on my blog what my benchmarks will be and keep a public log of whether I'm meeting those goals. Without a clock constantly ticking in the back of my head, I would never get anything done.
- Speaking of the clock in the back of my head, one reason I'm a faster writer in my late forties than I was in my late twenties is that I've become exquisitely aware of my own mortality. Yeah, I go to some pretty dark places in order to make myself write. I've had people close to me die in their thirties and forties, and most of the men in my family pass away in their early sixties. I've got a finite number of hours in my life in which to make works of art that will outlive me. I can handle the thought of death a little easier if I think that my words might still be read after I'm gone.
- Speaking of being read, the faster you write, the faster people can read what you've written. Writing without being read is just authorial masturbation. You might be able to build the body of your story from the raw clay of your imagination, but you need a reader to breathe life into it. Maybe you have someone who reads your chapter as you write them. Fine, but they still haven't read your novel until you've finished it.
- Permit me to bring up the unpleasant topic of economics. I know, I know, you should write for the pure joy of writing, without letting any thought of actually selling your work sully the process. But, if you should one day decide to sell writing in order to bring in a little extra income, you will quickly run into the first economic reality of writing: It's piecework. I come from a family with some experience in the textile industry. In a factory making pantyhose, you get paid not for how many hours you sat in front of a sewing machine, but for how many pairs of hose you sewed together over your shift. Writers, alas, are pretty much paid by this model. You aren't paid for the hours you've spent writing. You're paid for the number of completed projects that an editor buys from you, at least until you pass a threshold where you also start earning money from royalties. There are a handful of writers who can produce one book every three or four years and sell well enough that they make a good living from it. But, most of the writers I know who are successful are also writers who are prolific, putting out a minimum of one novel a year, and often two or three, sometimes under multiple pen names.
- Finally, the one good thing about the piecework payment plan of writing is that, once you do start getting paid for your work, your confidence skyrockets. Until you start selling your writing, it's very difficult to gage whether or not your writing is any good. Your friends might enjoy it, but they probably get your in-jokes and are able to find your voice in the story. Other beginning writers might share critiques with you, but their critiques of your story often are thinly veiled critiques of their own struggles with writing. Editors aren't gods. They are certainly capable of buying horrible stories, and more than capable of allowing a brilliant story to sit in a slush pile nine months, then reject it because they didn't like the first line. But, while individual editors are something of a dice roll, if your work is any good and you get it in front of a dozen editors, something is going to notice it's worthy of publication. Once you make that first sale, you move from the realm of writer-wannabe to published author, and you start having more faith in your work. Your odds of making that first sale are vastly improved if you are sending out a dozen stories a year instead of one. Writing is a bit like being able to print your own lottery tickets. The more you play, the better your odds of winning.
I will grudgingly concede there's the risk of hackery if speed is your primary goal. We've all read authors who seem to keep writing the same book, caring less and less about quality with each iteration. But, a hack with a hundred pulp novels has far more readers than the tortured artist who can't get to the end of his first sentence without wiping the beaded sweat from his forehead. And, I suspect that most people interested in the topic of "How to Write Fast" are are long, long way from any danger of becoming hacks. If I do suddenly notice a proliferation of people writing ten novels a year, I suppose I can organize a class called "How to Write Slower." For now, it's just not something most writers need to worry about.