Tag Archives: on writing

The Need For Speed

So, I write a lot. You may have noticed this from me everywhere.

I also write fast, or at least I do when circumstances cooperate and I can sit down and bash out some words. This contributes to the impression that I write a lot; on a bad day I can usually grind out 500 words or so, and on a good day I can get up to 8-10k, sometimes 14k on different projects? I think that’s my upper limit. I did this by breaking myself, in the way that you can shape bones and bodies when they’re young and malleable by breaking them. I dont’ recommend it, and I’ve gotten into it in more depth elsewhere on my blog.

One of the ways I do write fast though, that I do advocate, is because I have learned to both shut up my inner editor and to use her to my advantage. I recommend starting with gagging your inner editor, sitting them in a corner, and telling them to think about their many and varied sins and how you’re not going to have anything for them to complain about if you don’t finish this first draft. Once you and your inner editor have gotten into that routine (and if you have you might know what I’m talking about here) you can begin Phase 2 of becoming Even More Awesome.

Look, if you ground out a first draft you are an Awesome Writer by my way of thinking. Drafts are hard. So we’ll work on being Even More Awesome.

My mind is, eh, I don’t want to say a finely tuned instrument but more like it’s a government institution. Which is to say that it has inertia on its side, it works sluggishly at times and way too fast at others, and both of these times are the least convenient. (I refer you to the perpetual phenomenon of Ideas In The Shower.) It has many rooms and offices that each perform functions, another thing I’ve gone into more detail elsewhere about which rooms perform what functions. Today we’re going to be looking at the Inner Editor’s office. It’s pretty empty most of the time, after all she’s not very useful in getting the draft out, but some things do live there with reasonable permanence.

The first thing that comes to mind as I write this is also the latest thing: the shelf of weasels. Occasionally these weasels will be retired and new weasels will show up. Not the typical kind of brainweasels, these are what Editrix calls the “weasel words,” the ones that I’ve started using as conversational filler like ‘almost’ and ‘at least’ and so on. And in some places they’re justified, but most of the time they dilute the writing and wear down the impact, so I leave the weasel cages on a shelf to remind me to cut that out. Every paragraph or page or so I go back and look; did I use them? Could I take them out? No? Good. Stay in your cages. The whole process takes about thirty seconds if I don’t have to make any changes, and then I’m on writing the next chunk of text. Sometimes I can catch them before they escape their cages and pee all over my text, which is ideal. Nobody likes watery weasel pee-soaked text.

Another thing I do is I have a few coats hanging on hooks. If I’m doing detective pulp I’ll have a detective coat on my hook and every few minutes I’ll do an internal check to make sure I’m in that mode. Clipped sentences, vivid description. Hints scattered here and there. How’s the tension? If I’m doing something more along a fantasy line I might keep a simple or a fancy cloak, and do an internal check there as I write. I want something that flows well and has a lyrical quality to it, without being so heavy in the phrase or word choice that I weigh myself down and can’t move the story at all.

I use visual metaphors to describe this because that’s how I think. What I’m doing is getting used to keeping these concepts in mind as I write, but separating it out from the part of my brain that worries over everything. I refer to it often as hanging things on hooks in my head, and it’s complicated at first but gets easier with practice. It helps to do a few test runs of writing shorter things at first, keeping one or two things in mind as you write and otherwise just going as fast as you reasonably can while maintaining coherence of story.

The other thing I do, unrelated to my Inner Editor’s Office, when I sit down to write is I have an idea of what the scene is. I’m afraid this may just take practice, or if there’s a method to learning how to do it I haven’t picked it out of my head yet. I’ll sit down to write a scene and I’ll know, for example, that this is the scene in which a father tells his daughter his life story. I’ll know it starts with a meal, and in the kitchen, and that the immediate family will be there. I’ll pick a point before the action starts and I won’t stop until I’ve completed the scene goal and gotten everyone to where they need to be, or until it’s become obvious that I’ve run so completely off the rails that I need to stop and go back and start again, or reassess what I need out of this scene.

As with all useful skills, it takes practice to do this. It takes a lot of practice to write well, fast, to get things up to 50% right on the first try. Which honestly is about as high as I’d try to get on the first try, so tell your inner editor to can it. But it’s a skill worth developing if you’re one of those people who has a lot of stories you want to tell and a limited amount of time in which to write.

I know this torment. Trust me. I have a to-write list a mile long. Speed writing is the only way I get things done without becoming an eternal scream of frustration.

If you don’t have a lot of stories to tell or you have as much time as you feel you want or need to write, don’t worry about practicing this! But for those of you who are like me, who have so many stories in your head and are typing at the speed of light to get this out before you have to go someplace or do something or wrangle a child or a pet, I hope these tricks work for you.

The 2%

At this point I’ve been writing so long that there are things I don’t notice about the ways I write. They just are. My brain just works this way, it doesn’t strike me as odd or patterned until someone else points out hey, I’ve noticed this thing about you. Case in point, this tweet chain that started off with an observation my Editrix made about me several days ago after I’d just finished the second near-final draft of a novel of this year.

The novel I just finished, by the way, was not the first draft that was over 50% correct. That honor goes to Turing Shrugged, which as of this blog post is in submissions and so y’all may not see it for some time. I’m sorry! I swear it’s a really good, fun novel. Even if I did kill off one of my favorite characters to write.

This is a new phenomenon for me. For all that I write, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time or looked at that twitter thread, you know I write a lot. I wrote out a whole post as to why! (Dumbassery. Is the short version, I was an idiot.) I’ve gotten better over the years about finishing things I write even if I don’t always finish them immediately and a lot of times if there’s six months between starting and finishing the end won’t resemble the beginning very much. And not in a sequential way. So. In the twitter thread I estimated that I write about ten items every year, fifty items every five years. One or two of those will be novels, one or two will be novellas, and the other six or so will be short stories. This might be a conservative estimate given how often I’ll hear something that my brain will interpret as a prompt and go off cackling into writer-land, but we’ll go with it. Ten works a year, fifty works in a five year. And only one of those will be over fifty percent correct the first time. Which works out to 2% and roughly means every work has a 2% chance of being that one.

(I may be doing probability wrong here, by the way, it has been a very long time since I reviewed math on a regular basis.)

I tell you this because hating your first draft is a feeling that never, ever goes away. Because even experienced writers, especially when the drafting is novel length, have the soggy middle that starts whispering you suck you have no idea what you’re doing this entire novel sucks go lay brick somewhere. Yes. The first draft sucks. It’s supposed to suck. That is the point of a first draft.

No, I’m wrong, that’s not the point of a first draft, the point of a first draft is to take a trial run at the novel and see where the edges are, how close you get to dealing with it, where your problems are going to be, and if this is a thing that should exist by your hand or by someone else’s.

You’re not going to find out any of these things if you don’t write it. If you don’t finish it.

You’re not going to find out how long it’s actually supposed to be. You’re not going to find out that it’s supposed to be in third person instead of first, or vice versa. You won’t find out that you’re actually telling three different stories here. You’re not going to find out that it’s not supposed to be about exams and stressing over your future, it’s supposed to be about intergalactic conspiracy and dealing with feelings getting in the way of ambition. You’re not going to find out that no, there really is no way for that character not to die. You won’t find out that the ending is like the gasp of fresh air and burst of sunshine on the eyeballs when you crawl out of that three mile tunnel of shit and sewer water. And you won’t find out that this is a story you have enough passion and drive and imagination to tell. Or, perhaps, that this isn’t a story for you to tell and should be handed off to someone else. Not that there’s any guarantee that someone else will write it but the point is you don’t know until you’ve completed that first draft.

First drafts suck. They’re very rough sketches, sometimes they’re outlines in prose form. Sometimes you veer off south when you should be going east, ask me how I know and about the novel I rewrote literally half (45k words or so) of because the first time it got stuck in a boggy mire and I floundered around for 40k words. Sometimes you get distracted. It happens. Without that first draft, you will never know that the work wasn’t supposed to be this, but that. You can’t have the fix until you make the mistake. And you can’t polish the thing until you have something to polish and can see where all the nicks and stains are.

Ask me how I know. Ask me about the novel I’m about to start again that I’ve written four goddamn times. I think four, by now. I’m not sure. Somewhere around eight or more years ago this one character dropped into my head and put his feet up on my mental desk and not only has refused to leave, has refused to cough up a coherent novel four times. So, periodically, I keep throwing myself at the fucker in the hopes that it’ll work this time if I do this one thing differently. I think I have it now. We’ll find out by the end of the year.

First drafts suck. You have my permission to hate your first draft. You have my permission to feel like it’s the most arduous task on earth if you need it. Not that you need my permission for anything. But my support and reassurance then, you have it, because your first draft is going to suck. My first draft is going to suck. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and George RR Martin’s first drafts are all going to suck, because a first draft is figuring out all the places the story isn’t. It’s only when you get very lucky that 2% of the time that a first draft is when you find out where the story is. The rest is sifting through mud and sewage looking for its shiny buttons.