It’s the season for conflict. No, not Trump vs. Clinton. I’m talking Nanowrimo fans and their opposition, a group that for the lack of a better term I’ll call the, anti-rimos.
On one hand, you’ve got something like 29.394 billion writers of various skill levels pounding out words at a 50,000 word pace for the entire month. On the other you’ve got folks like my friend Myke Cole, who is an outstanding writer, and who dropped this very valuable mini tweetstorm last night.
As you might know, I come from a background based on the idea of writing as quickly as you can. Many of the big names who tutored me suggested that writing fast helped accelerate the learning curve. Write fast, they said, and don’t go back over things a hundred times. Some advocated plotting, others advocated writing deeply into the dark, but both groups of these very successful writers counseled rapid writing. This would lead you to suspect that I’m a fan of Nanowrimo. You would be at least partially wrong.
Both ideas (write fast vs. take your time) can have problems.
Luckily, in this case you don’t have to select the lesser of two evils. Instead, you can squint your eyes and see through to the truth of the matter.
Which, to me, is that the most important thing to think about when it comes to writing is to realize that, no matter who you are—no matter how practiced you are, or how new you are, no matter if you’ve got every award known to humankind, or if you’re a twelve-year-old trying to finish your English assignment—every time you sit down to write, you’re really doing one simple thing—telling a story.
Read that again.
No matter who you are, your goal when you sit down to create is to learn how to tell the story you are working on in the most effective and efficient fashion you can.
Those two words, effective and efficient, are both important. They are the crux of the problem. They are the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Those two words whisper divergent theories, and divergent urging. Those two words send people of creative bent into mind-bending moments of self-reflection that can be paralyzing at times when things aren’t working particularly well. These two words drive writers to drink. To drugs. To quit. To begin again. To scream at the top of their lungs. To wake up in the middle of the night in puddles of sweat.
The words effective and efficient can suck the life out of artists.
So, let’s talk about them for a bit.
By effective I mean that it is important to the world that you tell great stories filled with deep characters, vivid worlds, and interesting plot lines that are well crafted. This is the whole “do good work.” thing. If your result is not “good” as defined by the commercial masses, then it won’t be read. Us writers all know this as we grab our swords, or our blasters, or our chisels and mallets, and head into the fray to hack away at the stories we’re working on. That’s the problem, right? The semi-snobbish anti-rimos’ creed of “do only the good work” feeds into another semi-truth, that being the idea that an artist is her own worst critic. Which again can serve to cause paralysis. “What is good?” is a tough enough nut for us to crack even after we’re done with something, better yet while we’re smack dab drowning in the middle of the morass that is “in process.” Get too tied up in convincing yourself that what you’re writing is “good” and you may not finish squat. I wrote about “Good” once. Perhaps it would help to review.
By efficient I mean that if you’re trying to make your living at this thing you’re almost certainly going to have to write more than one book every manymanymany months. So a writer wants to move quickly enough that you can be happy as you keep doing it. Writers get hungry, too, you know? And a writer has to pay the landlord or the bank to keep a roof over her head. Write too slowly, and you’ll almost certainly never be able to quit the day job. Yes, there are examples of writers who finish one book, and then that one book feeds them for life (Harper Lee, anyone?), but there are a lot more examples to argue that nothing is as debilitating as churning on something forever, never to finish. So, yeah, a productive writer, in general, needs to be like a shark, constantly moving forward. Heinlein’s Rule 2 is “finish what you write” for a reason.
This whole “two-sides” thing is so insidious. It’s divisive. It’s put forward as an “or” thing—like either you’re with us or against us, like Batman or Wonder Woman, like chocolate or vanilla.
But here’s another truth to consider: the beauty (and terror) of this whole gig is that you get to choose what the balance of these things means to you. Not only do you get to make this decision, you have to make it. No one else can do it for you, and to not make this choice directly—to not even see it as a choice, or at least accept it as personal trait or preference—is, in my opinion, the source of a great deal of pain for a lot of writers. Among the things that frustrates us is that what we need from this balance between effectiveness and efficiency as writers and as basic human beings will change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes even daily, depending on a wide set of things.
The problem here is that the question how fast should I write? is the wrong question. The issue of speed is the wrong perspective.
Want to be George R.R. Martin? Realize he’s been a very fast writer at times. Realize that Stephen King set The Dark Tower aside for years because he didn’t know how to tell the rest of the story…but when he got back to it, he moved like lightning.
A peek under the hood and into the catacombs of the Secret Society of Ultra Published Writers That I Happen to Know: the fact is that most writers I know write at speeds that are highly variable. I have written the core of a novel in three weeks. I understood how to write it the minute I sat down. I have also written a novel that took, effectively, 15 years to learn how to write. My new story “Ten Things” took about three hours when it flashed into my mind fully formed. My Derringer nominated story “The White Game” took an entire week of intensely immersive work (or 35 years, depending on how you want to talk about it).
That’s the way with stories. They come as they come.
And that’s the point I want to make. Story is not about writing speed. There is no “wrong speed,” only wrong results—and of the wide range of “wrong results” that are possible, the wrongest of results is to not have any result at all. This is the point that things like Nanowrimo address.
For me, the turning point on my thinking about how to resolve this whole effectiveness vs. efficiency thing has been to ignore it completely. To see it as the wrong question. For me, the turning point was when I began to choose stories and ideas that matter to me, and then take whatever time it takes to write them well. Come to work every day. Write words. Maybe I throw them away or maybe I keep them, sure, I measure my words because I’m curious and because the rising number says I’ve been coming to work every day. But mostly I don’t care about the numbers. Mostly, and this is what I think Myke’s tweetstorm is really saying, I care only that I’m learning how to tell the story I’m working on. When I do this, no matter how short it takes, or how much one person likes it or doesn’t, the piece I end up with is something I’m proud of. Something I’m happy with. Maybe some other people will say it’s good. Maybe they won’t. But when I come to the table every day, and when I create words, and when I use those words to understand how to best tell my story, it winds up being what I want it to be. The point is to work as quickly as you can to write this particular story you are writing. And then LET IT GO.
The message behind Nanowrimo is that it’s possible to write a novel in a month. It says to a writer that they should drive out fear of failure—which is a message I adore. The message behind the anti-rimos lies in Myke’s last line, and that is that there is a difference between writing and typing. This is completely true. There is a difference between typing and writing.
The key is to use every opportunity you have—including the use of Nanowrimo—to discover what that difference is, and make it work for you.
In that light, I’ve been listening to Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History
podcast. I can highly recommend the entire first season, but Episode 7 is a bit on creativity that, for reasons that become obvious upon listening, he’s titled “Hallelujah”
. It’s an intensely interesting 35-40 minute exploration of creativity and art that is squarely focused on this question of the speed of creation vs. the perceived value of the creator’s output.
I think it should be required listening for any artistic creator who finds herself constantly swimming inside her own head and worrying that she might be doing it wrong.