Writing Faster... and keeping it okay

So in the indie world, and really probably in the world world, most of us who write, or create, or do anything really, are under pressure to write, create and do things faster (it was all associated with the advent of the dishwasher I’m sure). Let’s put it this way, I’m pretty sure none of us is under pressure to do many things slower (just ask my poor husband, but don’t mention the wood shed). 

 Photo Credit:  Tomi Tapio K  / flckr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Tomi Tapio K / flckr / Creative Commons

More Content = More Sales

In the indie world, we are told again and again that more content is the way to make more money, earn a living, and break out of the mid-list, or the bargain basement list, or the complete obscurity list. And in this immediate gratification world, readers are demanding more faster, and the writer who is able to meet that demand might be the one who emerges on top. Producing one book a year, once considered a breakneck pace, is now seen as positively leisurely.

I have pondered this issue previously, especially given Russell Blake’s mega-production process that has led him to considerable indie success. However, fast writers have been around for a long time. Nora Roberts on average produces a book every five weeks, and everyone at the high-brow writing conferences I used to attend joked that James Patterson could not possibly write everything that his name is attached to. But maybe he can. Brian Keene observed that for pulp fiction writers writing fast was a requirement:

“It was common for the pulp writers of old to write 40,000 a day. This is because they had no choice. They wanted to eat. To earn their pay, they were required to crank out journeyman novels and stories to beat ridiculous deadlines and for a low rate. (In truth, not much has changed since then… and I see a whole bunch of mid-listers, ghost writers, and media tie-in scribes nodding silently).”

This issue came back to the fore for me this week when I was asked to participate in a project that would require me to produce a short novel by mid-December. Mid-December!! It’s September. I have a job. I have another novel coming out in three weeks. I have short story commitments. I want to pursue a new genre. I have a life…well I sort of have a life. I’d like to have a life.

But when I broke it down, I realized that producing this novel would require me to write a thousand words a day, which is my daily word count goal, and my usual production pace, anyway. So I said yes, and now that I’ve started (see Declination on the progressometer on my homepage), I think it will be fine. If Nora Roberts can do it in five weeks, by gosh, I can do it in twelve.

How Fast Can You Write a Novel?

But the whole thing and the pressure that I know indie authors are under, made me start to question, how fast can you write a novel? How fast should you write a novel? Are novels written fast better or worse than those labored over for seven years? And most importantly, how do you write a good novel fast?

The answers are more complex than you might think.

First of all, there are many famous and critically acclaimed novels that have been written fast. Very fast. A Christmas Carol, The Sun Also Rises, Water for Elephants and As I Lay Dying were all written in six weeks. A Clockwork Orange was written in three weeks. Okay, so I don’t feel quite so bad now.

So clearly, it is possible. What are the downsides? There are many. Writing so fast you produce a pile of crap is the obvious one, and it has side effects. The big one is obviously turning off future readers. There is also the whole issue of a gradual lowering of the overall quality of our literature. Burnout is another concern and Porter Anderson has a great article about this on Jane Friedman’s site. Still, if Nora Roberts can do it, and we can debate the finer points of the quality of her books, (but suffice to say, it is clear that she has had commercial success and is not writing egregiously bad fiction), then it is clear that it can be done.

How To Write a Novel Fast

Okay, so no crap, try to stay sane. If you want to write fast, super fast, how do you do it? I have compiled the following, in no particular order, from a variety of sites, and my own experience.

1) Outline, outline, outline

I am a big believer in serendipity and going with the flow when I’m writing. I generally start with an idea of where I want to go and build from there. But when I have to write fast, a more detailed outline, and one that I mostly stick to, is an essential tool. I imagine the story in my head for a day or two, and once I am satisfied with the general trajectory and characters, develop it in more detail in Word, and then I leave it at the end of my manuscript so I can quickly add to it when I have additional ideas.

2) Start with a character

This tip is from Joyce Carol Oates, who is a prolific writer. Conceptualize your character in detail and get to know them. Once you know your character they will tell you what will happen next. Getting to know your characters in detail is an essential part of writing whether you are writing fast or slow—it has to be done. So, if it helps speed things up, then it’s probably a good idea to do it early.

3) Write the last sentence

This is also from Oates, and is related to outlining. It is easier to get somewhere if you know where you are going. There is value to a novel that is developed from you driving around aimlessly and seeing where you end up. But if you need to be on time, you might want to Google map your ending.

4) Figure out the beats

Sean Platt, a notorious fast writer, claims that beats speed up his writing. Beats are the answers to essential questions related to your character and plot, such as why is your character living in a certain location, what makes a stranger seem suspicious to your character? Platt claims that once he has the beats, his story is much easier and faster to write.

5) Write like you talk

This one is from Christopher Hitchens, but is echoed in a way by Platt. Hitchens maintains that you should read everything that you write aloud and if that is not how you would talk, then you are probably doing it wrong. Of course, Hitchens’ arguments also seem to indicate that if you are boring when you talk, then you should probably give up writing. Platt observed that writing faster is actually a way to make it more likely that you are writing like you talk—and that you are writing better. According to Platt:

“The faster you write, the more your words will sound like you. The more your work sounds like you, the friendlier it will be.
The friendlier it is, the more likely it is to get read, and hopefully, reviewed.”

6) Write simpler

Novels written in four weeks are not going to give readers the impression that you labored over every word, because well… you didn’t. That is a different kind of writing. And laboring over every word does not always produce better writing. Novelists who labor over every word sometimes produce lyrical masterpieces, and sometimes produce dreary crud. Novels written in a straightforward style, in which you aim for clarity and simply say what you mean, can be produced in a lot less time. This was a secret of Asimov’s and while literary critics dissed his colorless prose, readers bought his books in the millions.

Then there are the obvious tips to writing fast. Minimize distractions. Don’t surf the Internet. Don’t clean the house when you are supposed to be writing. Remember that the first draft is just that—a first draft and you can go back and fix things later. After my twelve weeks, I’ll still have a few weeks to edit, so I’m not even attempting to set any land speed records for writing. Nora’s five-week turn around time includes editing, so I’m going to have to step up my game if I want to compete (I doubt Nora is worrying right now).