JSB: Type Hard, Type Fast
My friend Athol Dickson recently made a case in this space for writing slow(ly). A good case, too. I’ve never known Athol to render a half-hearted opinion or write a half-hearted novel. Nor bring anything but the pursuit of excellence to any enterprise. That’s why I love what he writes. Yet as a recovering trial lawyer, and in the true spirit of literary dialogue, I would like to present a slightly different view.
I begin by noting that our central concern is the same—great writing and stewardship of the gift God has given us. This should always be the goal of the writer. The difference is I don’t see speed as the key issue.
Concentrated effort is, I believe, the more important virtue. This means great work can be done relatively quickly, and not only by “geniuses.” Further, I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft -- and chances of getting published -- if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.
First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and simply went at their task with singular resolution:
-- William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.
-- Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.
-- John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 1950’s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant. The others were merely splendid. Over the course of the decade he wrote many more superb novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.
So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel,” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.
John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.
--Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”
--Jack London was anything but promising as a young writer. He could hardly string sentences together in a rudimentary fashion. About all he had was desire. A burning desire. So he shut himself up in a room and wrote. Daily. Sometimes 18 hours a day. He sent stories off that got returned. He filled up a trunk with rejections. But all the time he was learning, learning. When he died at the age of 40 he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.
--John O’Hara wrote fast, and well, turning out books, stories and plays over the course of his long career.
--Charles Dickens wrote fast. He had to. He had ten children. And he wrote many of his novels in installments for literary magazines. He had to keep the chapters coming.
--But even Dickens pales when compared to Anthony Trollope, author of some 47 novels (thrice the number Dickens wrote). Yet Trollope wrote a good many of these while working full time as a civil servant.
How did he do it? He produced a quota of words every day. If he got to the end of a novel and hadn’t reached his daily quota, he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and wrote “Chapter 1” on it and kept going.
--Stephen King says he used to write 1500 words a day, every day, except his birthday and the 4th of July. A prodigious output – and the prestigious National Book Foundation Award for Distinguished Contribution to Literature – are the result of this steady pace.
One could go on, but the lesson is clear. Writing “genius,” like any other kind, is 99% perspiration. These authors all worked extremely hard early in their careers to learn their craft. By writing fast they virtually forced themselves to learn. Their books were not the product of small bits of inspiration, but rather steady, dedicated, intense work, day after day.
Now, I think many young novelists would do well to write faster, especially early in their literary journey. First, you learn most about writing a full length novel by actually writing a full length novel. It is much more valuable to do this repeatedly than to hover too long over one unfinished (or unpolished) manuscript.
Second, you become a professional in the best sense of the word (well, maybe second best, after getting paid). A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn’t feel like it. A surgeon can’t refuse to operate because he’s upset over the Dodger game last night. A criminal defense lawyer can’t ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who is actually innocent.
And a professional writer can’t sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing.
I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”
You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.
The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.
One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had but a week to live.
“Type faster,” he said.
James Scott Bell has written 17 published novels in addition to short stories, screenplays and a volume of poetry entitled “The Night Carl Sagan Stepped on My Cat.” The latter title is available exclusively from the author, who may be contacted via his website, http://www.jamesscottbell.com