THE GREAT SLOG

by Gar Anthony Haywood

In my last post, I listed a number of authors I envy for possessing traits and qualities (or adorable pets) I cannot claim, at least to any great degree.  None of the traits or qualities I referred to related to the actual process of writing (generosity, self-confidence, honesty, etc.), so an obvious follow-up post would be one in which I list authors I am equally envious of for reasons solely technical in nature (Author A’s dialogue, Author B’s characters, C’s plotting…).

But I’m not going to write that post today.

Instead, I’m going to revisit my last one, and discuss yet another non-technical gift that some authors have been blessed with that I, as of yet, have not been:

Speed.

The ability to write well with relative haste.  To write a paragraph, six lines one right after another, without having to stop and rewrite four of them because they’re total and unmitigated crap.  To see an entire chapter with the forward vision of a world-class chess player, all twelve steps at once, and write it exactly that way.

Speed.

Some people got it, and some people don’t.  I’m one of the don’ts.  Here’s why:

  • My mind just doesn’t work that way.  I may eventually construct a functional, occasionally brilliant sentence or two, but it takes me fifteen false starts to do so.  No line worth a damn has ever emerged from my brain fully formed.  Everything with me is two steps forward and one step back, making turn-of-phrase a sometimes interminable adventure in trial and error.
  • I’m a perfectionist.  Try as I might, I just can’t move on to the next line of anything until I’m satisfied the last one was as good as I’m capable of producing.  “Close enough” won’t do, even in a first draft.  Gods knows I’d probably feed my family a lot better and with more regularity if I were less concerned with art and more concerned with commerce, but I just can’t bring myself to prioritize that way.  So I obsess over every goddamn word and pray I live long enough to write at least half of the books I’d like to write before I go.

    (Note, BTW, that I’m not suggesting I ever actually achieve “perfection” — that’s for others to decide, not me.  But perfection as I perceive it is my constant goal, and I spend [waste?] a lot of time re-inventing the wheel trying to get there.)

  • I have no patience for multiple drafts.  As I’ve mentioned here on numerous occasions, the very idea of a second, third, or sixth draft of something sends chills up my spine; when I get to the end of a manuscript, I need to know that all — and I mean all — the heavy lifting is done.  To make sure that’s the case, I bust my ass writing a first draft that will, to all extents and purposes, be my last.  That kind of anal retentiveness takes time.
  • I’m incapable of writing in shorthand.  Remember when Ken Bruen was a regular Muderati contributor, and how short and concise the sentences in all his posts were?  Man, I used to marvel at that, and wish I could write precisely that way.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.  I start out writing bare-boned sentences, only to have all the ensuing ones morph, slowly but surely, into long, compound ones.  I don’t know why.

    This is problematic enough when I’m writing prose, but it’s a huge pain in the ass when I’m screenwriting, because lean and mean is what writing for film or television is all about.  In the outline or beat-sheet stage, in particular, one’s ability to state the purpose of a scene with a minimum of verbiage is vital — and I struggle mightily with that.

    This is partly because:

  • I ask — and feel compelled to answer — too many questions.  When you write crime fiction, especially mysteries, asking yourself all the questions your reader is likely to ask about the story you’re telling is imperative, as is answering most of those questions in a logical, satisfactory manner.  But trying to predict every question your reader might ask, and then incorporating an answer to each one in your manuscript, is over-thinking things, and this is a habit I fall into that adds hours of unnecessary writing time to my every project.

All these things combined conspire to make everything I write — this blog post included — one great slog.  If the end product turns out well, that’s some consolation, to be sure.  But I still wish I could just rip through what I write like the proverbial hot knife through butter and worry about the details — and perfection — just a little bit less.

Questions for the class: Writers: Are you happy with your own rate of output?  Readers: Beside the obvious (typos, misspellings, etc.), what are the tip-offs to a book written too quickly?  Do you sometimes wish your favorite author would take a little more time to write each new book?

20 thoughts on “THE GREAT SLOG

  1. Sarah W

    I'm a slow writer, too, for most of the reasons you stated, except for the multiple drafts — I plead the 5th on patience, but I've apparently swapped retentiveness for repetition — and the the addition of a hefty case of newbie self-doubt.

    But I'm a fast reader, so I unreasonably and hypocritically want my favorite writers to get a move on, even though I also want well-crafted plots and characters and thorough editing — and really dislike rushed, Deus Ex Deadline endings. I did say unreasonable . . .

  2. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Gar
    I try to write fast, and I'm trying to write faster. I started the current Charlie Fox book, DIE EASY, on Oct 4th and hope to have it done, including fiddling and read-throughs, by Jan 31st. I've even been giving out progress reports on my Facebook page, for anyone who cares to keep track. My aim was to be at 35k by the end of Oct (made it by 44 words) and 70k by the end of this month. I know I can comfortably manage to hit a 1250-ish words a day target, which is all I need to get me there. I write in 300-400word bursts, then stop, think, and rewrite as necessary.

    I, too, don't like multiple drafts. The more times I have to rewrite something, the messier and more fractured it gets. So, I spent quite a bit of time working on my outline before I started writing at all. 'Front-loaded suffering' was a phrase that came up recently and oh boy that fits. I try to get my agonising over plot out of the way before I'm in the midst of the book itself.

    That's not to say things don't change as they go – they can change a lot. But I also keep a summary as I go – almost like a retrospective/hindsight outline – so if I've laid in strands that I haven't collected afterwards, I can see them in the summary. I'm probably 2/5th of the way into the story, and already my summary is bigger than my original outline.

    Once I've finished I'll print the whole thing out and read it through, going over every word, every chapter break, every scene and piece of dialogue, but I hope there won't be major structural changes because I should have taken care of that at the planning stage.

    It's a nice theory, anyway.

    As for being happy with my speed … erm, no. I'd love to be able to write more books a year. Next year I want to tackle a trilogy, written almost continuously like one huge book. Hmm, I'll let you know how that works out …

    As a reader, a general slap-dash style tells me this might just have been a 'contractual obligation book' repeating pet phrases is another one, as you mention, as are plot strands that you think are going to lead somewhere but don't, or sub plots that are not developed.

  3. Richard Maguire

    A fascinating post, Gar. I enjoyed it very much.

    A good question you put to readers. I'm a few chapters into a crime novel by an author whose books are always bestsellers, and what has struck me so far is that I'm accurately guessing what's about to happen. It feels like our hero has been down this same road once too often, and it's become the same old same old. Is that, perhaps, one of the traps in writing a series? That after 10 or 12 books it's hard to keep the character and stories fresh?

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gar – I am exactly your kind of writer, except that I do manage to write the short sentences – but only after I've written ten short sentences in my head first. And screenwriting is coming faster for me, now that I've had to wade through a couple novels. It's like the difference between playing clarinet and sax – if I have trouble with the sax, all I have to do is pick up the clarinet for a while. The clarinet is like the novel, slow, ponderous, exhausting. Makes sax easy when I return to it.

  5. Gayle Carline

    I wish I could write faster, too. I don't have to make everything perfect on the first go-round, but I can't barf it onto the page, either. I'm conscious of typos and grammar and could never see myself putting in a note that says anything like "insert blah-blah here." Most importantly, I need the storyline. Where are my characters going? What's the arc of the story? And subplots – I require some underlying theme that permeates the crime and my character's personal life.

    I've never read an author who I thought wrote too quickly, but I've read plenty of series where it looked like the author was now in assembly-line mode. I'm really trying not to do that myself.

  6. David Corbett

    Gar, I could have written this post myself, but not as well. I envy Stephen's sax.clarinet + screenwriting/novel writing tag-team efficiency. Like Zoe, I need to outline so I don't just meander, and that kind of pre-plotting suits the screenwriter in me, but I can't say it's gotten an easier or quicker.

    I think the more you know the harder it gets, unless you're phoning it in. Which segues to Richard's remarks. It seems like we've all chosen not to embrace the formulaic out. And we pay.

    But whatever it took to write them, you should be damn proud of your books. They stand up well against the competition. They have a heft and a world view to them I can't get elsewhere, and I'm glad you wrote them.

    David

  7. Gar Haywood

    Zoe:

    I'm wondering what the gestation period is for one of your books before you actually start in? Does the Oct. 4 – Jan. 31 writing period for DIE EASY include the time you'll have spent developing the story?

    Richard:

    I think the more time there is between books in a series, the more likely an author is to lose track of territory he's already travailed. And yeah, after a dozen or so titles in a single series, I can see how a writer might start running short of fresh and new ideas.

    Stephen:

    The clarinet and the sax? I've got to start playing multiple musical instruments now to keep pace with you? Forget it, I give. You win.

    Gayle:

    "Barfing it onto the page" is the perfect way to describe what a first draft of mine would look like if I ever attempted to write one without looking back to do edits along the way. Scary.

    David:

    I don't think everyone who writes quickly can be accused of embracing the formulaic. I think words in ideal combinations just flow faster for some people than they do for others. For instance, I'm just guessing, but when I read one of Jonathan's epic posts, I don't envision him sitting at his desk, head in hand, struggling to put his next florid sentence together. I picture all that good stuff just rushing out of him like water from a tap.

    And if your own writing takes more effort than that, it certainly isn't obvious. I'll have to take your word for it that it's a slog.

  8. Allison Davis

    Gar, I just gave a 14 minute presentation, a piece of an hour webinar that took me minimum 20 hours to prepare. Writing is the same. I spent a lot of time thinking, reading background, and writing out notes longhand before I actually write. Since I haven't published any of the three manuscripts I've written (well, #2 and #3 still in progress), yes, I'd like to write faster but I don't have the luxury of time with a full time job. I'm still trying to find the groove that is most efficient. The last two I wrote the first "barf" draft as part of nanowrimo, getting 50,000 words in the month of Nov and then spent the year basically rewriting the entire story and adding 30,000 words. Not sure that is the best way to go. I do keep a "map" of the book so I know where I've been and where I'm going, and that helps me focus quickly and get moving when I can sit down to write.

    But bless you for this blog, as it means that those of us who are slow plodders will eventually get to the end if we just keep working.

  9. David Bishop

    Great post, Gar. I think I struggle with speed in a slightly different way – I have no problem getting the words down, but it's then the task of re-writing and honing what I've got that takes the time. I find it much easier to tinker with something I've already got, rather than try and get it right first time. Hemingway's 'the first draft of anything is shit' is something of a mantra for me, and strangely comforting. If he struggled, there's hope for the rest of us.

    Re: speedy books – you can always tell when the author repeats pet phrases, or keeps going over old ground – are they trying to inform the reader what's going on, or themselves?

  10. Tom

    Gar, I read all the Sherlockian canon when yet I was in grade school, so I blame Arthur Conan Doyle (and Tolkien, and E.R. Eddison) for my tendency toward long and twisted baroque convolutions in place of sensible sentences – which, surely, is easier than admitting my own quite separate tendency toward disorder, not to mention pedantic disorganization.

    But, honestly, Stephen – you reed players!

  11. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Gar

    I started thinking about DIE EASY last June when we visited New Orleans, as I'd really wanted to set a book there, the story developed on the back burner while I was writing something else, then got put aside while I got the whole e-book thing under way this summer. All I had at the end of August was a half-page jacket copy outline and a couple of opening chapters. I was still plotting the book in detail while I was at B'con and although I'd hoped to start on Oct 1st, I still didn't feel ready to commit to a daily writing target so I gave myself another couple of days to really get it straight in my head.

  12. PD Martin

    I couldn't believe it when I saw this post, because for my post tomorrow I really wanted to write one I've titled 'Too good to be true', which is about how quickly and easily my current WIP is coming along. It's actually scaring me and making me suspicious of the content. It would have made an interesting contrast to your blog today, but in the end I did want/need to report on my findings from my gender poll! So that's the blog I've written ready for tomorrow.

    Anyway, after trying different methods and different levels of pre-plotting, editing as I go, etc. I'm now settled on the stream of consciousness writing of getting the story down on paper and then doing 1-3 rounds of edits. It works for me and seems to suit my personality and writing style but there's also an element of necessity in my method…I don't have large chunks of writing time and can't write every day or even 5 days a week. I get one full writing day a week, and the rest is 2 hours here, 4 hours there, etc. So it's better for me to get a draft done and then revise. And I find it necessary to totally silence/ignore that inner critic for the first draft.
    Phillipa

  13. Reine

    Hi Gar,

    Oh yeah, I wish I could write faster. Right now struggling to WriMo is a bit much. But at least my book is starting to take shape, if not the word count. I just had a wheelchair provider here (why I'm late) to help me find a bluetooth device that will help me write on my computer from a distance. That should help my word count. Please keep your fingers crossed that my work-place insurance decides it might be helpful in getting me back on board.

  14. Pari Noskin

    Great post, Gar.
    It's strange, but right now I have no idea what kind of writer I am because I haven't edited in such a long time . . . I'm just writing right now and not worrying about quality — though I hope that all of this work is useful — and will have some kind of answer when I finally look at everything I've written.

    I guess I'd say I'm fast right now because I'm not allowing myself to critique my writing. It's a process for me to encourage the health of my creativity since I got so burned out trying to be "perfect."

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am NOT a perfectionist; my first draft is a blocking draft, like a first read-through of a play. Only, thankfully, the first draft is usually BETTER than a first read through. It's the later drafts that I really love, which is like rehearsals, too, building and riffing and finding the meaning. I did theater for too long to do it any other way, I think.

    In answer to the other question – I think LOTS AND LOTS of writers write their books too quickly and those books end up reading pretty much like my first drafts that I would never show to ANYONE, much less publish. I understand, we're all making a living here, but it's troubling. I've stopped reading a lot of people I actually would read if they would take more time to write.

  16. Lisa Alber

    Fancy this, my thoughts exactly!

    It's now 6:00 p.m., and I'm STILL not done with my 1, 667 NaNo word count for today, and I've been lamenting my sloooow writing pace. After a week of NaNo I'm starting to loosen up, it's coming a little faster, but I'm stll on the slow side. I periodically need to stop, step back, look at what I have, fiddle with my endless index cards, vent in my journal (otherwise known as brainstorming), and ponder. This takes time.

    I, too, envy the fast writers. I have a friend who is fast AND good. She says it's like writing on rails–writing what she sees in her head, having already figured out the story. I can't imagine what this would be like. Even if I think I've figured out one little scene, I really haven't…

    What Pari wrote about encouraging the health of her creativity pertains to me right now, too. Which is why NaNo.

    I was a faster writer when I didn't know much craft. I hope knowing craft leads to better first drafts. Jury's still out on that one! ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Gar Haywood

    Alex:

    I couldn't agree with you more on all counts. Having to turn in a book before you really think it's ready is the occasional downside to multi-book contracts, I guess. Seems like an awful high price to pay.

  18. Lisa Spangenberg

    Gar it's WAY easier for non-fic writers like me. We don't have to create reality; we just describe it. My last book was written (with two co-authors) was written in April, and published in May. On the other hand, my dissertation took mumbled-mumble years.

    There's a huge amount of scholarly ruminations about "the writing process," but basically, some writers revise as they go, and produce final copy in the first draft; at the other end of the spectrum (and it IS a spectrum) are those who do twenty drafts.

    There is an interesting wrinkle in the multiple-draft-camp; writers like Hemingway, wo do several drafts in very quick order, vs. writers like Tolkien who do several drafts in ten or twenty years.

    It's all good; whatever works for you is what's right. The difficultly of course is that publishing (and the appetite of readers) is much faster; hence the all too common agony all writers share over the impending doom of deadlines.

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