Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If there’s one writer who’s (thankfully) incapable of shutting up about the writing process, it’s beloved American horror icon Stephen King. In his fantastic and much-quoted On Writing, he says,
The first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
– Stephen King, On Writing
And, ever since On Writing’s publication in 1999, we eager students of his work have been pondering the wisdom of this statement. Is spewing out your writing as quickly as possible really the best way to ensure you finish your book? Is it really better than adding to a manuscript slowly and carefully, even if it takes years to finish?
Yes, yes it is. But why? Well, dear reader, if you’re sitting comfortably…
A likely story
I started with Stephen King, so I’ll continue with him; this first reason to write quickly is taken straight out of his book. For King, getting that first draft done fast is important because it keeps you engaged in and familiar with the story you’re trying to tell. If you take any longer, King says,
The story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on a high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.
– Stephen King, On Writing
This is a good point; with our 21st-century attention spans, it’s easier than ever for us to get sick of our own stories. You know that initial excitement and passion you experience when you come up with a cool idea for a story? That’s what you’ve got to capture and maintain while writing your book, and your best chance of doing that is by getting stuck in.Passion is the fuel for your first draft, but it’s a brief flame.Click To Tweet
It’s also a great way of making sure you don’t stray too far from the core premise or fly off on too many tangents; it’s easy, after all, for a writer to come up with new ideas and directions if given the time to do so, and while these can be good news for your writing, they can also dilute your story. By getting your draft down quickly, you’ll ensure you’re telling the story you set out to tell.
Get over the fear
In her superb 1934 text Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande points out that the reason so many people are disappointed by creative writing courses is because those courses jump straight to the technical stuff and don’t pay any attention to the main obstacle between writers and their work: themselves.
Fear of failure; a sense of inadequacy; the idea that ‘real’ writers possess some kind of unattainable magic or genius; the notion that writers are born, not made; these are all demons that must be slain for a writer to become productive. Or, if you can’t slay them, run past them while they’re looking the other way.Write fast enough and you can have a first draft before your demons know you’ve started.Click To Tweet
This latter method is essentially enabled by diving into your first draft and tearing through it furiously. If you grab a pen and do nothing but write, you won’t have time to worry or doubt; there’s only you, the pen, and your hand whipping up a storm on the paper in front of you.
Separate editing from writing
One of the main things that slows down writers and keeps them second-guessing themselves is editing as they go. They might finish a scene in a flurry of activity and, grinning at their productivity, go back to read it only to find typos, errors, and weak sentences. Discouraged, they’ll hang up their pen and call it a day.
Or maybe they won’t; maybe they’ll spend the next few hours trawling through the fresh text, editing and fixing and polishing. Great – it’s looking good. Now, where were they? What was happening? They were excited about something; someone was about to do something. A plotline was hurtling toward its dazzling crescendo. Something climactic was about to happen… but what?Nothing kills momentum like editing. Finish a draft before you worry about the details.Click To Tweet
Nothing kills momentum like editing, and I say that as an editor. Save the red pen for afterward, when everything’s already safely on the page and your story is done, otherwise you’ll umm and ahh until the cows come home and that book will never get finished.
Get in the zone
Ah, the zone: that mythical Elysium we creative types dream about. You know what I’m talking about; when you’re in the zone, words come easily, your fingers type furiously, and the ghosts of great writers past seem to whisper what to write into your ears. Your storylines interweave and combine in ingenious ways without you even thinking about it, and poetic phrases fall from your pen as if by magic. The zone, man.
You can spend hours trying to find your way into the zone – downing espressos, listening to Chopin, surrounding yourself with pot plants – but, if you’re not sufficiently engaged in what you’re doing, you’ll never enter its hallowed halls. On other days, you’ll wake up and trip into the zone without even trying. It’s a fickle thing.
However, one surefire way to make a beeline for the zone no matter its particular whims is to turn up and throw yourself into your writing. Yes, that first half hour might be agonizing, and you might write with all the grace of a blind turkey; storylines might seem cumbersome and characters dull, but keep at it for long enough and click. Despite yourself, you’re engaged. You’ve forgotten your phone, your responsibilities, the outside world; there’s only the story. You’ve found momentum and you’ve established rhythm. Everything’s falling into place.
This is a direct result of speed. You’ve not given yourself time to doubt or be distracted; you’ve dived in and your story’s flooded your head. By working quickly and, dare I say it, thoughtlessly, you’ve tapped into that deep part of your unconscious that somehow knows how best to tell your story. In other words, you’re in the zone.
Be prepared to redraft and edit
Easy cowboy – yes, you’ve worked like some kind of literary tornado and your first draft has been churned out, but now’s not the time to write a book proposal or to self-publish. I’m afraid it’s time for your sober, analytical self to take over: that’s right, it’s time to redraft and, afterward, edit.Write your first draft as quickly as possible and then commit to a rigorous editing process.Click To Tweet
Redrafting and editing, while lacking the romance of that first creative urge, is just as important. Okay, so there may be fewer strange fits of passion, but you know as well as I do that those eighty thousand rushed words are going to be full of typos, plot holes, questionable ideas, and clumsy descriptions – it’s just the nature of writing fast. But these problems are easily solved, and it’s far easier to prune, expand, and improve than it is to slowly assemble the complete product from scratch.
I’ve talked a lot about why it’s a good idea to dive right in and get that first draft finished, but I haven’t talked a lot about how to do that. After all, if throwing yourself into a writing frenzy was both easy and effective, we’d all be doing it.
So, what do you need? The biggest resource is, sadly, time. Writing quickly is much easier if you’re able to cultivate a sense of monomania, and that’s only possible if you’ve got the time to dedicate to your writing and are able to shirk your real-world responsibilities. Of course, this doesn’t render the whole point moot; even freeing up an hour a day to dedicate to writing will have you well on your way.
Some important things to remember: you still have to plan! After all, if you don’t know where your story is going before you throw yourself in, you’ll quickly write yourself in circles. Second, be kind to yourself. If you have to miss a day or if you spend you whole writing hour unable to concentrate and staring blankly at a wall, know that that too is part of the process. We all have our wall-staring days. Third, try to isolate yourself from anything distracting. Close the door, turn off your phone, write on paper if you don’t trust yourself to use a computer – make sure that writing is the most interesting thing you have access to. Most importantly, write; no excuses.
Have you tried squeezing out a novel in record time? Do you prefer to write quickly or slowly? Let me know in the comments, and check out Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems and NaNoWriMo Week 1: How To Get Your First Draft Started for more great advice on this topic.