On a private email loop of mostly long-time professional writers, the subject of writing methods came up. Quite a few of us had pressing deadlines and we posted our progress, our challenges and triumphs each day in order to stay on track, and to feel less alone. It can be awfully isolating to be slaving away on a deadline. Heading out to the water cooler of the internet to tell somebody who knows what it means that you’ve written three pages since the last time you check in feels pretty good.
We ended up in a discussion about our various methodologies. We’ve been together a very long time, and it’s easy to see the natural rhythm of a writer when you’ve been watching her process for a decade or two. Just as each of us seem to be stuck with certain themes, we are stuck with certain methods, too. In our group, one of the writers plods away, writing at an unremarkable pace for most of the book, then blasts out the last 60, 80, even 110 pages in a few days. Every time, on every book. She writes in the morning, but when those blasts come, she writes morning to night until the book is done.
Another writes six pages a day, six days a week, year in, year out. Another doesn’t write much at all until she’s close to deadline. She shows up just in time to start writing her pages, and writes seven days a week, every evening, until the book is done. She’s a fast writer, a former journalist with a clean, uncluttered style. When she finishes her book, she goes off to putter with her hobbies, her family, her avocations until it’s time to write the next book.
One of our group bemoaned her inability to stick to the goals she sets. But book after book, she has said the same thing, suffering through the not-meeting her goals, and manages to finish the books, over and over. The suffering seems to be part of what she needs to get the book done.
As I said here before, my books are written in my head for a year or more before I start to put them down. What I fret about is the fact that I end up having to write and rewrite, write and rewrite, a process that feels like combing long hair, over and over. The first hundred pages take three times as long as the rest of the entire book, and there always comes a point where I leave this reality for the book world, and stay there for the last couple of months. It’s just too exhausting to live in both worlds at the same time.
This is a subject that causes a lot of concern among all writers. And as with so many other things, it’s a subject that’s almost doomed to make us feel like a failure, no matter where we are on the continuum. Fast writers are sometimes viewed suspiciously as hacks. Slow writers are often seen as precious and full of artist angst. Obviously, some of it has to do with the material. A busy commercial fiction writer might easily write two substantial books a year and not ever break a sweat, while her counterpart in historical novels might not be able to do one book every five years.
But what do you do if you’re a slow genre writer? A super fast literary writer? I know writers who find even one book a year to be completely exhausting—and there you are, surrounded by people blasting out 5000 pages a year. What if you’re that naturally prolific writer who can do 5000 pages per year? Will people inevitably cast aspersions on the probably quality of your work.
What struck me in the discussion with my long term writer circle was how most of us felt there was something wrong with our own process. It seems to me that so much rewriting must be a sign of me not listening clearly enough during the original drafting. The fast writer thought she probably should be rewriting more. The angsty one said she should figure out how others do it so she could be more peaceful.
Instead, each writer has created a system to accomplish the very difficult task of writing whole books, over and over. It seems we create that system fairly early, too. A burst writer is often a burst writer from the first days of attempting her first material. A six-page a day man is probably orderly in other areas of his life, too.
What is your natural speed? How much can you comfortably write in a day, a month, a year? Have you ever just noticed what you can do, what’s comfortable, how long you can actually write in a day before you are very tired? Do you have any idea how many pages you write in an hour? What if you observed instead of judging?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Creative Commons, Blickolage.108