The Speed Of Writing

It never ceases to amaze me how sure people are that they know what other people should do.

A certain class of people you expect this from, because they have a vested interest in thinking everyone else is an idiot and incapable of tying his own shoes or wiping the snot from her own nose. After all, the more incompetent the individual is, the more power to those who crave power and who constitute themselves authorities over others. It’s the nature of the beast.

But I wish it started and stopped there. It doesn’t. And the only reason I’m surprised by this is because I’m stupid. After all I grew up in a village (Yes, yes, like Miss Marple, right…) and therefore I should know that even when there’s no payoff in power and money and pensions for life, some people SIMPLY know how things are or should be done and believe they’re the natural police of how everyone should live.

So I shouldn’t even have been shocked when I stumbled upon the blog that was doing the usual lament about how the problem is that indie published books will be mostly cr*p and that the gems will get lost in the muck. Frankly, THAT part of it is a valid argument, something rational people can discuss. I think it’s wrong – miles and miles of wrongitude – but then I’ve been at the vanguard of the ebook thing starting with fanfic, and my perspective is slightly different.

THAT part of the blog is completely understandable.

The other part isn’t. That is the part where this writer – as far as I can tell a beginner – starts laying about against what she calls Nanos and, incidentally, Amanda Hocking who has sold (roughly) three metric boatloads of books give or take a ton.

You can think whatever you want of Amanda Hocking – or any other wildly successful author – G-d knows I do. I haven’t read her yet. I love Harry Potter against my own best judgement (well, I can see the mistakes in craft. BUT that’s not what counts, is it? What counts is does the story carry you?) I loved the three first Anita Blake’s (despite the fact characters changed hair color and height without notice throughout the book. Which, incidentally was a grievous copy editing error.) I haven’t been able to make it into Twilight, possibly because it reminds me of the sickish sexual fantasies I had as a teen and pre-teen (which probably is at the root of its success.) I think Dan Brown … No. Not going there.

Still, they are all mega bestsellers. I’m not. They did something right that I’m not doing right. I don’t care what I personally, as a reader, think of their books, the LAST thing I’d do is give any of these people advice on how to write. Or how fast.

And here we come up against it – how fast.

Of all the ways to judge a book, the LAST one I’d advise is how fast that book was written. In traditional publishing (and among bestsellers too) you find both people who take ten years to write a novel and people who write a novel in a week. And you can’t tell the difference from the product.

Look every writer who has a modicum of experience in the business has got over the idea that the way he writes is “the only true way.” Yeah, we were all there at one time. But all you do when you tell someone “first you start with the plot” or “a character is the only way to start” is stand on a soap box and scream at the top of your lungs: I’m a raw beginner.

To be honest, few writers do this. Instead we gather in little worried knots at parties and say “so, are you a plotter or a pantser” – trying to get confirmation that we’re doing it right, or one of the ways that is right.

But heaven help me, every writer – with a half dozen exceptions, yours truly, Kris Rusch and Dean Smith among those – THINKS they know the one true speed to write a book. More importantly, every writer knows that if you do it any other speed it will be terrible, terrible, I say. Cats and dogs living together. The end of the world.

And every writer – with the few and exceptional excepted of course – is wrong.

Not only isn’t there one-true-speed to bind them all, there isn’t even a right speed for any given writer. I’ve written novels over three years, and I’ve written a novel in three days. Incidentally, the one I wrote in three years is unpublished (and unpublishable) and the one I wrote in three days is my highest grossing work. BUT that’s probably just coincidence.

Some novels come to me fully formed and limited only by my speed in typing them in. As Agatha Christie apparently said, the novel is finished, it just needs to be put on paper. BUT some other novels come out drip and drip, a page at a time, each one hard fought for. Both of those extremes are unpleasant. The first means that my husband has to get forceful on the subjects of food and at least cat naps. The second means I clean the house, kick the cats, pick fights with friends, anything to distract from what feels like an extremely slow and painful birth.

The final quality has nothing to do with how fast I wrote it. Nor does it success or failure.

I confess there have been years of one book and years of six. That usually had more to do with my state of health and the press of contracts than with the books or their quality.

I’ll also confess I Nano. Or I try to. Since November for us involves two family birthdays, a major holiday and USUALLY a trip out of state, many years I don’t make it, but I always mean to.

I will also mention that the author of the blog post that prompted this seemed to think the philosophy of Nanowrimo involves not editing at all. Unless it’s changed out of recognition, it doesn’t. When I’ve done it, they tell you that you’ll have to edit. Also, 50k isn’t really the size of a commercial novel these days, so you usually have to write at least another 30k.

Of course I think people should edit, no matter how fast they write. Weirdly my 3 day novel took less editing than the others, but that too I’m fairly sure is just a coincidence. Each book I do takes at LEAST three passes (and no more than five, because otherwise I kitchen sink it – i.e. throw in everything but) – one for story (depending. Actually the slow books are the worst at this point, since my idea of the story changes while writing it, which means I might have a beginning, a middle and an end, all different books.) Then one for mechanics (foreshadowing, emotional shading, length of segments) and cursory language. At this point it goes to betas. When it comes back, unless the betas found MASSIVE structure issues (hasn’t happened yet, but G-d knows it could – knock on wood they don’t find these in DSR) I correct minor mechanics and do a serious language pass. Then, depending, it either goes to secondary betas (the unsullied ones, who get to see the thing in its finished glory) or it goes to publisher. (It’s a judgement call.)

The NORMAL time for all this is three months, which is why I don’t like doing more than four books a year. (This might change, when, say, the kids are out of the house and I have fewer distractions.)

This is the normal for me. Doesn’t mean it’s normal for anyone else. It certainly doesn’t mean it’s superior. I have a colleague who rushes at a book in two weeks, and finishes it in that time, and for the record he sells WAY better than I do. And I don’t need to bring up George RR Martin, do I? Because if I had to write a book in six years, it wouldn’t even be readable. I’d completely lose the plot. BUT clearly it works for him.

Of course, part of what makes that normal for me is that I’ve done it so often. I used to have a cleaning lady come in and in two hours she did what it took me a whole day (dust, vacuum, clean bathrooms, scrub kitchen, clean fridge) and did it WAY better than I did. OTOH some people are just naturally fast. My older son’s first book was written in something like three weeks when he was thirteen. It’s profoundly odd (everything he writes is) which might make it less commercial. BUT it’s a perfectly functional novel, with beginning middle and end and better than many a novel I’ve read. He’s now been fighting the second for five years. Does that mean it will be bad? Well, no. It’s just that the novel itself is coming out differently and also that he’s learning and that takes time and… who knows? It just means it’s different.

So… as a reader, judge other writers any way you want to, including “I don’t like his font.” As a writer too, for all I care. But don’t hang up your belief you’re better than “them” on how fast (or how slow) they write. DO NOT sling insults around based on how fast people write. And, oh, btw, do not try to spit on mega bestsellers. The spit always falls back on you. You can have your private opinions about them, but this is a small field. Perhaps your interest is in awards or literary recognition and not money. Fine and dandy. But these people are successful in the way they set out to be successful. Leave them alone. Who died and made you arbiter of taste, Petronius? (And it would help you to remember how Petronius the Arbiter died.)

I’ve had people who write much slower – or differently – than I help me along the way. Some significantly. I have friends up and down the field, at all levels. At this time and place, the goodwill of your colleagues is more important than ever.

You do your work and you leave them to do theirs. In any way they wish to. And however fast or slow they wish to do it.

You don’t have to like it. You just have to let them do it.

Stick with that and you’ll find it’s the beginning of wisdom.

20 responses to “The Speed Of Writing

  1. I had to look up Amanda Hocking. [Wink]

    I’ve used YMMV (your mileage may vary) when it comes to enjoying (or not enjoying) somebody’s books/stories.

    Sounds like some people should realize that YMMV applies to writing books/stories as well. [Sad Smile]

  2. I’ve found that I can do around 2500 words, on average, per day, in about 5-7 hours, which seems just fine for me. Then again, I was never able to get the hang of keyboarding skills in high school and am still a two finger typist, though far less of a hunt and peck than I used to be. At 2500 words I can clear 10-12k a week not working Saturday or Sunday and get a first draft down in around 2 months, give or take. Of course, with turn around time for beta readers and my own need to get something done as well as I can, the editing tends to take longer.

    I was reading Rachel Aaron’s blog recently and she’s clearing 10k a day, give or take, but by the look of it, she’s working all day. I’ve got a kid and chores and dinner to cook, so that’s not an option. She probably also has far better typing skills than I. ;)

    And I hear you about the “this is how it’s done” crowd. I started trying to write back in the 80s, when every “how-to” book and magazine article was saying, “you MUST write this way!” I became very discouraged, because the way I wrote wasn’t anything like how they were telling me to do it. I think, in part, that was why it took me so long to actually say screw it and try anyway. It took me a long time to figure out on my own that there isn’t just one way to do it and to work out the best way for me. Oh, maybe there’s a “most popular” way, but certainly, no one true way.

    However, I do think that picking up speed might help you get published in the long run and make more money, if that’s your goal. I mean, it’s easier to hit a target with a machinegun than it is with a derringer, so to speak. ;) The more bullets in the air, the more chance you have to hit. Then again, there’s something to be said for accuracy as well. :D

    • Two things — first I type 120 wds per minute, or did when last clocked, and I do write “in my head” and remember the words while cleaning, mopping, etc. Second your “I’m not even going to try” is why I get hot under the collar at “you must do it at this speed” people. They could be discouraging far better writers.

      On your typing — yep, it will hold you back. Frankly I’m pretty dang impressed at 2500 wds with two fingers. I couldn’t do it. Just for grins and giggles, I suggest getting Mavis Beacon or the like, and practice your keyboarding in your copious spare time. They now have games and stuf to do it with and it’s MUCH easier (and more fun.)

      I used to type 20 words a minute (I’d never survive by my typing alone) but I’m compulsive. So, I took a month and spent the ENTIRE month practicing, with my husband’s old highschool manual. At the end of it I was at 80k words a minute. Yeah, it took me a month, but TOTALLY worth it.

      My speed varies, but when I’m isolated, no interruptions and it’s not a hung birth or breach or something, I run about 15k words a day.

      • I type somewhere in the 100-120 WPM range. If I could write as fast as I could type, I’d be able to do do a novel every 2 or 3 days.

        Needless to say my writing is much, much slower than my typing. ;)

        One of the things I do, however, is have several projects going on at once. I’ll be outlining/plotting one piece (a process that is not for everybody and I don’t always use it myself), writing a first draft of another (or more than one), doing revision/editing on one or two more, and be marketing whatever I have available for sale. And if I get stale or stuck on one project I can simply shift to another before coming back to pick up on the one I was stuck on.

        That’s what works for me when I’m writing.

  3. Sarah,

    You worried me there for a second. ;)

    (As far as “lost in the muck” I have a concern about that, but not a certitude, and believe it is a subject on which “reasonable people may disagree” particularly since now is _only_ the vanguard and we haven’t seen what things will be like when/if “I can just self-publish” completely replaces the slushpile, should it do so. Note the extensive use of qualifiers. ;))

    I like what you had to say here about various bestsellers. In my own case, I have been reading Terry Brooks’ books because, whatever else one might say about his work, the man is able to turnout bestseller after bestseller after bestseller. He’s obviously doing something right (for sufficient values of “right”) and I’d like to know what it is so maybe I can do it too. ;)

    And as for “one true way”, well, when people make that kind of claim I usually trot out Kipling’s “In the Neolithic Age”:
    “There are nine and sixty ways, of constructing tribal lays
    And every single one of them is right.”

    Speed? “The Future is Now” (about 10,000 word novelette) took several months and three times back to the editor before it sold. “Match Point” was done over a weekend and sold first time out of the chute. “EMT” was in between. “The Hordes of Chanakra” (Fantasy novel) has been ten years in the making (okay, most of that time languishing in my archives while I was getting on with life) and I’m now looking at publishing for it. I’m not a particularly fast writer compared to some but then again, I also spend a lot of time on things like making a living. (To eat, or not to eat; that is the question.) If I can’t say what the right “speed” for me is, how can I possibly prescribe for others?

  4. Not a King fan, but I liked his answer to “how fast do you write a book?” “Somewhere between three days and six years.”

  5. As a reader only (drowned that muse years ago and she’s hardly troubled me since) I confess that when I start sifting through the shelves at my local shops the first, the VERY FIRST thing I look for in the book jacket copy is “how long did the writer spend on this?” Because in my experience, if the writer didn’t spend at least 3 weeks but never ever more than 7 on the book then it isn’t worth my reading time. You would think that publishers would make this information more accessible, even part of the title, but no, they’re obviously engaged in a conspiracy against the Reading Public (and probably the public of other cities as well, many of them not even in Pennsylvania.)

    More seriously, it has been my belief for many years now that all novels take the same amount of time to produce: a lifetime. Each and every book represents the cumulative life experience of the author up to the time it was written … and the time spent typing it up is NOT the same as time spent writing.

    • RES
      Have I mentioned lately how much I appreciate your comments? Your first paragraph should come with a spit-warning, and I love your summation. A lifetime is about it.

      • Sorry – I considered an END WHIMSY tag but feared somebody would misinterpret it and start a campaign to effect that. Mind you, this from somebody convinced there exists a Feline Liberation Movement slipping about putting up posters demanding that we free kittens.

        Such compliments as yours go a long way to meeting my daily recommended dosage of kvelling and do little to address my conviction that I might be less tedious than I find myself (although it is my suspicion that one trait common to all SF fans is the sight of eyes glazing over whenever we drop our shields and actually open up to a mundane about what interests us.)

      • Someone is demanding free kittens? Where do I get in on that?

  6. David, I too, once tried to figure out what the bestsellers are doing in order to copy it, and from my vast research, decided that I could either write about a male teenager with a massive samurai spirit/robot guardian, or a female teenager guarded by a mysterious man in a tuxedo.

    Failing that, there should be a small, fluffy creature with big eyes and the ability to morph.

  7. @Daniel D

    the key thing that learning to type better gains you is that you spend significantly less time thinking about the mechanics of typing, which lets you spend more time thinking about _what_ you are typing. the shift in concentration is worth a lot, even if you don’t change the number of words that you get on the page per day.

    I’m not a writer, but my english grades jumped from the low C’s to the low A’s when I started using a computer,not because I type faster than I scribble, but because it freed me from the mental effort of getting it right the first time,instead i could just get it out and change it as needed. for many people, learning to type without having to think about the mechanics gives you the same type of productivity boost. It does take a while to get there, but it’s worth the effort. If you think about how much time you spend dealing with a keyboard every day in normal life (let alone a writers life), anything that makes that more efficient is worth a lot.

    there are a lot of typing games out there, go through the drills a little bit to learn how to move your fingers properly, but then you probably want to spend most of your time on the drills (especially the game based ones), but like writing speed, there is no one true way to learn typing.

    • You are absolutely correct. Part of the reason the time investment was worth it, is that now it’s like pouring my thoughts onto the screen. I really don’t have to think, at all, about HOW I’m doing it. Mind you, for outlining I do it on paper with pen — otherwise I start writing the book!

      • Even back in High School I knew I wanted to write and that manuscripts needed to be typed. And so I took a typing class. That the class was full of attractive young members of the opposite sex was purely coincidental, I assure you. ;) This was in the era before personal computers became big (on the cusp, the Apple II was out, still programmed in Integer Basis, with an all-caps keyboard and a screen 40 characters wide, and priced _way_ out of my reach).

        When I entered the AF, there was a typing test I had to take for my job. 25 WPM with five or fewer errors over five minutes. Since, to this day, typing errors are my bane (yay! for backspace) I stopped early after hitting the last character that would have made it 25 wpm–no chance of introducing any more errors.

        Since that time I’ve spent so much time in front of a keyboard, whether writing or otherwise, that I’ve gotten reasonably adept at it. Once you hit the point where you don’t have to think about where the keys are, when your fingers just go there, it becomes much easier and you can concentrate on what you’re doing rather than having to focus on the mechanics.

        And, yes, I outline on keyboard do.

        You’re doing it wrong, Sarah! Repent! Repent! Lest you be consigned to the 10th circle where all who commit sins against writing the One True Way are forever drowned in vats of printers’ ink! Repent!

        Uh, do I need a just kidding or was that sufficiently over the top to indicate that I wasn’t serious?

  8. Melvyn Barker

    I never managed to get beyond 2 finger typing, so I cheated and started using voice recognition software at work to produce reports etc. I found it very good and, for me, much faster than typing, but I needed to do an outline with pen and paper first to keep me on track. I really envied colleagues who could just sit at their computer and write. The only problem I found was that occasionally the software would have a brain fart and insert a couple of sentences of pure gobbledegook in the middle of a paragraph. So I had to proof read very carefully.
    Generally speaking I think people do dictate faster than they type and I’ve heard that some authors use the software to avoid carpal tunnel and other problems. So I wonder how widespread the use of dictation software will become among authors.

    Melvyn in Darlington UK

    • I’ve tried the software, but given the accent — if you haven’t heard the accent, I’ll rustle up some older “reading” files from around here — it takes me FOREVER to train it. And everytime I got it perfectly trained in the past, the computer died and I had to start again. Plus I have kids and cats. Meaning things get dictated not by my.

      To this day, I don’t understand why my cat Pixie could dictate mroe easilly than I could. And I’ll wonder forever if he was REALLY saying “Hello, hello. How are you? Is Good Boy!”

    • some people talk faster than they type, but I have seen people who can type faster than they can talk (especially if they are trying to proof-read what the computer is interpreting it into as they go)

      I’ve also seen people who were trained in shorthand be able to handwrite in shorthand faster than they can type or talk. A assume that court reporters can gain similar speed with their equipment.

      the key is to get it to the point where the mechanics of getting the words into the computer get out of the way so that you can concentrate of what words to use.

  9. Pingback: The Five – Fifteen Rule Redux – Sarah Hoyt and The Speed of Writing | Wayne Borean – About Writing

  10. @davidelang Ack! All gods save us from computer auto-correct! The first thing I do on every re-install is go through and turn off every possible instance of it (of which there are like five in Word and two in WP.) *gag* *shudder* My own typos are enough, without some program defaulted for “business writing” deciding what I *really* meant to type. >:{~

    • LOL. The day I got the suggestion that “I cannot kill you” was too negative and I should try “I might be able to kill you” was the day Word grammar and what not check got turned off. (Okay, it was also the day I started using word. And about a month before I STOPPED using word for having a far too strong tendency to do things I hadn’t told it to.)