This is the third in a series of slightly portentious reflections resulting from the intense, ecstatic experience that was the writing of my second novel (in eight days). Here are links to the first and second entries.
When I write short stories, [I generally faff around a lot until I find something that interests me], then I write it until I write an opening that seems like it suggests an interesting story. Then I usually draft around 800-1200 words an hour (this is not including revision time, later) until it’s done or I realize it’s not going to work. This is not a terribly unusual speed for a genre writer, but it’s still a little fast to be respectable. I am suspicious of it myself. I used to write far slower (maybe 300 words an hour) and had to work 3 or 4 hours to get in the thousand words that I usually aimed at in a writing day.
The difference came when I read a blog entry by Nicola Griffith (another really good writer blog) about a program called Freedom, which turns off your internet for a set number of minutes. There is pretty much nothing you can do to go on the internet (not even go into the task manager and end the process) short of rebooting. She said that this program had tremendously ratcheted up her productivity. That is an astonishing thing to hear from someone who’s been doing pretty well in the writing game for about twenty years.
I downloaded it sometime in the fall of 2010, and immediately saw an increase in my own productivity (at least as measured by wordcount): a massive, almost unimaginable increase. I went from spending half an hour writing and half an hour browsing the internet (or fifteen minutes writing and forty-five minutes browsing the internet) to writing for the whole hour. Suddenly I could get my target word count in an hour and a half or even two hours. I proceeded to do this, and dispense with the other two hours of allocated writing time.
I can’t prove this, but I also think that my writing productivity improved when I quit smoking*. I used to smoke a lot while writing, and I had to smoke outside (if I was allowed to smoke inside, I think I never would have quit). Although I smoked pretty fast, going outside and lighting up and smoking, was pretty time-consuming…it was taking maybe 10-20 minutes out of each writing hour. When I quit, I not only got that time back, I also got the ability to concentrate for a solid hour or two hours and work without stopping (not that I use this ability that often).
Okay, anyway, so I’m drafting like 1200 words an hour, oftentimes. However awesome this was, it kind of made my word count a little less defensible. What kind of writer only spends an hour a day or sometimes 45 minutes a day writing, slaps down his 1000 words, and then calls it quits? I might be working faster than before, but it’s terribly un-American to compensate for that by working less than before (and thus producing about the same amount).
Above, I’ve been using “writing speed” and “drafting speed” kind of interchangeably. That’s because I don’t revise that much, and I redraft even less. There’s no good reason for that. Revision just bores me intensely. I tend to let my completed stories accumulate for six months and then plow through and revise them all in a row. By that time they’ve all gone solid and cold. The fire that wrote them has kind of faded, and it’s hard for me to reimagine them and make the large changes in style, structure, or plot that they sometimes need. Basically, in my mind they’re done and when something is done, a person generally doesn’t want to un-do and then re-do it.
So yeah, I revise things to a greater and a lesser degree. I’ll cut the opening scene, rewrite the ending, sometimes expand it a little, and sometimes go through (when it’s long) and pick out 10% or 20% of the words. I’ll rewrite awkward passages (never more than a few on each page, to my eyes), and try to make things more comprehensible, and sometimes add in little details. But it doesn’t amount to much. For most of my stories, a Word Track Changes between the first complete draft and the draft that I actually submit (and I generate this comparison all the time, just to see) will often show that less than 20% of the words have been altered. I don’t think I’ve ever, for instance, gone through and rewritten a story with a different viewpoint character (which is a thing people do, but which seems like madness to me).
This is something that nags at me. I neither enjoy revising, nor have I seen appreciable results from it. But I am also not getting amazing results from doing what I am doing (though I am improving, of course). There’s a balance for everyone, I think between the rewards of finding your own method and the rewards of changing your method in order to get to a different place than where you are currently.
But you know what should have nagged at me more? The hours I was working. If you have the time (as I do) then it’s kind of a no-brainer that you shouldn’t be working an hour or two a day and calling yourself done. I don’t particularly beat myself up about it, because it is something that I was aware of (and my increased drafting speed is only like nine months old…and it’s taken awhile to realize that it’s “real”).
What I’m trying to get at here is two things: A) how I can even begin to imagine that something I wrote in 8 days could be any good?; and B) how did I write more in eight days than I have in many entire years of my writing career (like, the first five of them)?
The answer to the first question is that writing this novel didn’t feel to me (while I was sitting down and drafting) like it was any different from writing a short story. Instead of writing 1000/hr for one hour, 4 or 5 days a week, over two weeks, I did it for eight hours in one day. Now, the short stories I write might not be good, but I didn’t do anything different to write the novel than I did for the stories, so it seems possible that the novel could be just as good as the stories are.
Oh, and I think that I already answered the second question. I wrote it for 8 hours (and sometimes 10 or 11 hours) a day. I’ve never written that way that before in my life (some people would say that I have never worked 8 hours in a day at anything in my life).
The way I wrote on the first day basically set my schedule for the next 7. I woke up around twelve. I started around 2. I wrote until 6. I ate (and usually watched Season Three of The Wire [which is amazing]) until 8. Then I wrote until 12. Sometimes I did a third shift from 1 to 3. Sometimes all these times were shifted back by an hour.
Next: On Monday I am going to talk about how the writing of said novel actually went down.
*Smoking cigarettes, which is a clarification I never would have needed to make before I moved back to California.
I am with you on the madness of revisions. I generally think things come out as they ought to come, most of the time. I’ve completed about 30 short stories at this point, plus another 20 and 4 novels that need “revision,” but I’ll never just redraft anything. Of those completed works, I have two that I legitimately think I have to trunk. I’ve tried editing them, and they really just suck. But I’m not going to begin again. As they say, ideas are cheap, and… there are more fun things to do, generally speaking.
And boy, are you making me feel bad about my writing. I can do 2000 words in a half hour, with the right outline and the determination to not-Internet. And if I do 4000 or more in a day, I will gladly ring the quitting bell – no matter how much free time I have. Yikes.
I don’t know. The way some people revise _sounds_ like madness to me, but the results they get speak for themselves. Flaubert-type revision (staring at the page for a morning and deciding to add a comma, and then staring at it for an evening and deciding to take the comma out) sounds pretty justified if the result is going to be Madame Bovary.
In SF, David Marusek and Ted Chiang are both known for being absurdly perfectionist and taking months or years to finish a single story, but the stories they produce are superb. So I kind of want to get on the revision bandwagon sometimes…but…the prospect just fills me with dread.