Write Fast

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Since my title pretty much says it all, this might be a shorter post than usual (hold the applause). For me this has been a gradual discovery whose importance has lately become unusually clear.

As I’ve said before, my day job and the writing and theatre work associated with it, often mean that my writing opportunities come in spurts. This spring has been a case in point since I’ve barely written a word since mid January when I went into rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A combination of other factors has meant that it doesn’t make sense to start the next book I have under contract (Book 3 of a series whose 1st book isn’t out yet) so I suddenly find that I am approaching the summer—my main writing slot—without a major project to get my teeth into. I’ll have plenty of editing to do, but when I mentioned to my agent the prospect of heading towards the end of the year without a new book in the works, her advice was simple: start something new.

I had an idea for a book which had been rumbling away at a slow boil for a few weeks but it was very unformed and needed a lot of thought, let alone plotting before I felt able to write a word. But my schedule now presented me with an ultimatum: figure it out fast and write it faster, or go into the fall semester with little more than what I already have now.

Put it that way, and it’s a no brainer. I wrote the first few pages yesterday and hope to really get to grips with it as soon as I can put this semester to bed.

It’s absurd, of course, the idea of dreaming up and executing an entire novel in a couple of months, but I’m a great believer in the old maxim that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. If I say I need a year to write this thing, that’s how long it will take. Obviously the opposite isn’t true: I can’t decide to write it in 2 weeks and expect that to happen, but a few months? Maybe. If I don’t get it done by the time other things have to move to the front burner, so be it. At least I’ll have a decent chunk of something I can tinker with thereafter, and finishing an extant project is psychologically a heck of a lot easier than starting a new one.

But there’s also something to be said for just getting it down fast. Given a lot of time I’ll fuss with plot points, with questions of tone, of world building, and walk around with the whole thing noodling around in my head for weeks or months. This way feels more like spattering paint on the canvas and then pushing it quickly round while it’s still wet. It might be a disaster, of course, but I’m promising myself that if it sucks I’ll be honest with myself and scrap it. That should be easier to do if all I’ve invested in it is a couple of months, rather than a year and a half. This way perhaps it will stay fresh and spontaneous and exciting through the whole process, a great firework of color and light. I can see how that might work, and I’m thrilled to try it. The story is fairly high concept and likely to stand or fall according to its central idea rather than the minutiae of the execution, so this seems like the time to go for it in flurry of activity.

I’m still plotting, but I’m spending hours over decisions that usually take me weeks. I’m following my instincts and making quick, impulsive decisions. If they’re wrong, I’ll try to fix them later, but I like the idea of taking the plunge and chasing the idea through, discovering the story like an actor in rehearsal, making bold choices and not being afraid to fall on my face. My plan is to grab big ideas, strong images, compelling characters and get them down in big strokes, not allowing myself time to second guess the decision, to worry the thing to death. It’s like cartooning with spray paint and for me it’s the opposite of all my academic impulses towards caution, towards scrutinizing each piece before I position it, towards weighing all possible consequences before committing the story to anything.

I’m not saying, you’ll notice, that the book will be done in two months. I’m saying the first draft will be. Then I can put it away for a little while, work on other things, try to forget about it (easier to do if, again, it’s the product of 60 days work, not 400). Then I’ll come back, reread and see if I have something worth showing to the world. If I can get the big stuff done now, no matter how rough it is, I don’t mind dwelling on the revision as I polish it up.

Will it work? No idea. Will I actually do it? I hope so. Ask me again in August.

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16 comments to Write Fast

  • Good luck with this project, AJ. I hope writing fast works out well for you. I’ve only pushed for a quick draft in short stories and the results were mixed. That said, if you’re spending even a little time each day asking questions and plotting, your brain is probably working overtime trying to answer those questions for you.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • I adore this! I would like an update with every blog. tell us where you are — frustrations, things left out, notes to *fix later* backtracking. Take us with you!

    I’ve done a project like this only one time in my life and it was my biggest book. It was the one the agent to to Frankfurt and sold to 5 countries within a week and started a buzz that led to a hugh auction in the US. The creativity and the deadine … Four months from conception to final poilsh to first sale. I was beyond exhausted.

    I can’t wait to hear more.

  • I like the idea and have been toying with trying it myself. It’s true what you said: work expands to fill the time allotted to it. I keep giving myself all the time in the world and so far that has not worked out real well.

    I’ll also second what Faith said: keep us posted as to your progress.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    How fun. I wish I had the confidence (and the time) to try something like that, but I’m still learninglearninglearning. Of course, if I *were* to try such a thing, I have a good handful of ideas that I’ve been stirring around in my brain for years, slowly adding bits and images, so it wouldn’t be the whole thing from scratch in a summer (though plot is *not* my strong suit, so most of that *would* have to get done all at once). However, I don’t think I can classify any of my ideas as high concept, so that sounds like a great advantage you have going for you with this project, something that could really help propel things along. Good luck! and hope you have lots of fun.

  • Julia

    AJ, I’m excited to hear about the project and I think it’s a great approach! I second Faith’s desire to get updates on what your process is like.

  • I sort of did this with my first completed novel. It was originally going to be a novella that I wanted to send for consideration for an anthology, but I didn’t quite realize the scope of it when I started it. I kept the same deadline when I realized that it would be far better as a full novel. I’m not very good at self-imposed deadlines, but the novella contest deadline was a more real and concrete deadline that got me through most of the first draft writing process. I think the deadline was the end of August and I started on May 29th, ’09 when I heard about it and had the first draft of around 109,000 words finished by September 10th. Ten days over my deadline, but by that point it had become a self-imposed deadline again. Plus, I kept being distracted by another project for another guy that I promised to help on, a couple film scripts for revisions/edits that kept coming back to me.

    I wish I was better at keeping self-imposed deadlines. I’m a lot better at not disappointing other people than I am at not disappointing myself. 😉 Afterward, there were various time snafus and it took far too long to finish my revisions. Next novel has to come faster, once I start in earnest. It was just this past March that I went ahead and decided that it was good enough to start querying with. In part, because I don’t ever feel quite satisfied with my work and I’ll work something to death, and also my inability to say no to friends.

    It was also fun keeping a blog/journal of my first completed novel. I can go back and read the issues I had, the things I needed to fix, and hopefully, not make the same mistakes.

  • Watch out, AJ! You might turn into a panster if you keep this up. 🙂

    Ideally, this is how I would like to write. In reality, though…

  • “The faster I write, the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”
    –Raymond Chandler

  • I’ve heard that quote before Wolf, but had forgotten about it. Thanks for bringing it back to memory.

  • Thanks all. I’m dashing between meetings/shows but I’m glad this prompted some thought. Maybe I should post an update in a month or two!

  • Since it was brought up in the comments I’m curious how this will change your standing on the plotter-pantser continuum. I, too, have been trying to write faster, but I still find I need to spend a little time plotting out before I write (I just don’t mull for weeks until its perfect). It does get a little pantser-ish as I discover the holes that I would have found in my previous “mull” time, but I’m able to roll with it, take a few moments to re-plot, and then keep going. I still know where I’m headed, though, and I have the major plot points worked out — so it’s really the minute details that are being left up to the moment of writing. Keep us posted on what happens with you!

  • Go for it! All my best work has been written in mad dashes under heavy deadlines. (See also last dissertation chapter.) There’s nothing like the pressure of time to make you get it right and get it done. For me time pressure silences the internal naysaying – I don’t have time to fuss and worry and feel insecure, I just have to do the best I can and revise if there’s time left.

    Although *troublemaking grin* rapid, pound it out writing has made me more of a plotter rather than less of one. I have to plan what I’m going to write or I’ll sit at the computer staring at a blank document sweating blood wondering what I’m supposed to be accomplishing. If I have a note card saying “Mal visits prison, rides motorcycle, gets drunk” I can write efficiently because I know what has to happen for the scene to be complete. The discovery part comes in watching it all shake out as I go. And watching new twists happen.

  • I actually don’t think this changes my position as closer to the plotter end of the spectrum than the pantser. It’s more about accelerating the process, making quicker decisions, and getting them down with a little less scrutiny at teh first draft stage, be that planning or actual writing. We’ll see…

  • Good luck with the new book, A.J. I actually wish I had taken this approach with the book I’m working on now. I think I spent a bit too much time plotting and thinking, and now I find myself languishing a bit. That sense of wonder, the feeling of immediacy, the raw energy of the project — all of this has dissipated somewhat. As I say, I think your approach would have served me better.

  • Razziecat

    This really does sound like a good idea. I had the same thing happen that David did, kinda lost my momentum and am having a heck of a time getting the story off the ground. Of course, I also realized that there were some big details that I hadn’t thought through, but I think I could have dealt with that. Now I think I’ll have to start over to get the spark back.

  • Mikaela

    Good luck, AJ! I have considered doing something different, with onee of my ideas but so far I haven’t had the courage. A part of me know I should do it, though. Why? To know that I can go from a outline to a finished first draft in 4-6 weeks. And I know which book to use, too.