Writing Fast, Thinking Slow

10 Nov

November is here once again. All over the world men are growing mustaches for money. The usual complaints about the extension of the Christmas season (and its endless commercialization) are plastered across the media – social and otherwise. And thousands upon thousands of writers are participating in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – the annual marathon of scribbling where millions of words are written to get that novel out of your head and into a digital file.

Some of those books (or substantial portions of books – the standard 50,000 goal is bit shy of a regular length novel) are not bad. A few, after considerable revision, re-writing and editing, are publishable. Quite a few more actually get published – it’s all so easy to do these days.

I have no objection to fast writing. As a former winner of the 3-day novel writing competition, I’ve obviously benefited from it. A Circle of Birds (Anvil Press, 1992) was a mere 33,000 words but it was written over the Labour Day weekend so I might be forgiven for its brevity. But it did have a beginning, middle and end and got decent reviews in Books in Canada and Geist Magazine. It was recently translated into French and published in Quebec.

But here’s the secret. I had been thinking about many of the scenes in the book for months, composing them over and over in my head during my summer –time runs along the Bow River. Those were the days, before the knees went and the weight went up, when I could go on 8 or 12 kilometer runs and think about nothing but writing. I suspect all that running helped – writing 11,000 words a day, even for three days, is a physical as well as a creative marathon. I certainly couldn’t do it now.

And, of course, after the book was chosen from the 200 plus entries, I worked with editor, Brian Kaufman, for several months to make substantive improvements to both the story and the writing. The final product was much better than the original (very) rough draft. Yet, despite the changes and improvements it was still the book I had written. It’s a lesson I often reflect on – the job of an editor is not to change a book but to help the author to turn it into the best book it can be. It’s what I try to do – though Brian set a high standard. One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp.

I still use the techniques of fast writing to solve certain kinds of writing problems and at certain stages of the writing process. But I don’t use it every day or to solve every problem. And neither should you.

Fast writing – just putting words on paper without thinking much about plot, style, continuity, grammar or, I guess, anything but the immediacy of the creative act – works well for the first ten thousand words or so. The reason is obvious – at least to me. It is the part of the book that you’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about. You know who the characters are. You know what problem they face. You’ve thought out the opening setting. It’s all there in your head. And, once you get experienced, you know that at least half of those words won’t be in the final draft. Less investment makes it easier to be cavalier about the process.

After you get that first blast down on paper, however, it is important to slow down for a while. This is natural and happens even if you don’t plan for it. Read the diaries of NaNoWriMo writers and you often see this big burst at the beginning of the process and then the struggle over the next week or two. It’s not just fatigue; it’s their brain kicking into gear. It is after those first 10-20K words that you really start to know what the book is about; where it’s been and where it’s going. It’s a good time to take a pause and put those conclusions on paper. Even if you have a plot, you shouldn’t be tied to. You are not baking a cake from a recipe book; you are inventing an entirely new dish. The creative burst has to be put to use – and the best use possible is to think about the book you’re writing. Edit those first 20,000 words, re-write the plot, figure out the next 10 chapters, delete or add characters.

Then write like mad for a couple of weeks (or months). By then you will have reached the crisis point. The novel is on track but has started to wobble. The ending you dreamed of seems to be eluding you. Time to spend some time thinking again. Go back and fix some of those structural problems to avoid derailment. Figure out the ending that was really promised by the beginning. Narrow your focus and tighten your aim. Then write your way to the natural conclusion.

Will the book you’ve written in 30 days (or, in my case, 3 days or 4 months) be finished? Not anywhere close. But if you’ve spent some real time thinking about the book before you started and you let your critical faculties play a role in the process (without letting them block you), you may be a lot closer to a final draft than fast writing alone will give you. And that will make any editor who has to work with you happy beyond measure.

News of the Week

Bundoran Press has reduced the prices of some of their print books and all of their e-books, which you can purchase here. Note that e-books sold off our web-site contain both the ePub (Kobo) and MOBI (Kindle) versions. Or you can buy them directly from Amazon and Kobo. Until November 15th, Kobo users can get Tom Barlow’s I’ll Meet You Yesterday at the low price of $3.99.

The Table of Contents for Strange Bedfellows has been finalized and posted several places – including in a previous blog post. It will be released in April 2014.

Bundoran Press will be hosting a party at SFContario in Toronto on Friday, November 29th. Look for signs at the Con. Books will be on sale – bargains galore. Bring cash.

One Response to “Writing Fast, Thinking Slow”


  1. Reflections of a Camp Nanowrimo Loser. | About Writing - May 8, 2014

    […] found quite an encouraging post by another Nanowrimo veteran that argues for the importance of taking time to think.  I’ve […]

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