Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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,


At 6:20 AM, Blogger Carol Collett said...

I needed this today!

At 7:27 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I can see your point. What I struggle with is should I write fast just because I can?

When Athol posted his opinion, it confirmed what I was pretty sure God was trying to tell me.

David could have stormed the gates and kicked Saul to the curb while announcing, "God annointed me!" We know he didn't, he went right back to his sheep.

After David killed the giant, that would seem to be the perfect opportunity for him to take over as king. Again, he didn't.

So for me, the better choice is going to be the one that follow's God's timing in the matter. Not doing something because I can, but doing it because is what He wants.

Right now, that means being like David and remaining in the pasture. That is not to say there won't be a time when God asks me to move faster.

We all need to be aware of what it is that God is asking us to do. It's the most important thing.

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much more nicely worded than, "Keep Butt in Chair" -- thanks! I am one of those who has finished one MS -- and needs to be working on the next, and planning for the next, but I get so caught up in "this one" that I can lose focus.

Thanks for the kick.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for a verbal kick.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Jim--I can always expect your words to hit home for me. Thanks for the encouragement to devote more of my time to writing. It's what gives me joy, so I better get cracking!

At 10:09 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Well said, Abigail. I'm in awe of you. Winning that award three times? And yes, it will help you enormously as a novelist to have done this.

Michelle, I hear you. We must follow God's lead. If I'd had more space, I would have written more on the theme of "stewardship." Sometimes, we have to get in there and work the ground we've been given. We can look at the land all day, but if we take plow in hand we'll get closer to the harvest. My hope from this post is to have writers consider pushing themselves a little more vis-a-vis production. See what happens. It's always a good thing, I think.

Thanks to the others for the kind words.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think as people we're always looking for affirmation of our thoughts, habits, existence even. So when AD posts something that resonates in the hearts of some, it's no surprise that when JSB posts another position (toward the same goal)there is a similar response from those who need to hear it.
Just as the liking of certain fiction is subjective--I detest Faulkner, hated Hemingway's writing but liked his stories--I like JSB's writing (especially Breach of Promise which I found both touching and hysterical, and I don't normally prefer first person).
I think the voices of experience re-inforce what the Lord is trying to show each one of us, to broaden our writing perspectives, and to listen to what the pros are telling us, discerning whose solid advice will best suit His purpose in our lives.
It's good to hear the different experiences and perspectives and to pray over what we are to do in light of them.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

JSB- I do understand where you're coming from. I hope that I don't come off as some high and mighty know-it-all. That is truly not my intent!

I've fought what seems to be a never-ending battle of people who want to stand in front of me and declare what God would have me do. It is interesting to me that I've been blogging about this very thing for three days now. I think I'm rather emotional about it because it hurts me deeply to think that someone is sitting out there doubting because of what someone else said.

I learned the hard way that I must ALWAYS listen to God's voice first. If I do that, the affirmations will come at just the right moments. I've spent years breaking out from under people who want me to be someone else and I was pretty well six feet under and buried with only a long straw sticking out for breath.

I'm just now digging and clawing my way out of that grave. God has graciously taken away the people shoveling dirt on top of me, but I'm not getting out unless I keep digging.

I love this statement by Nicole: I think the voices of experience re-inforce what the Lord is trying to show each one of us, to broaden our writing perspectives, and to listen to what the pros are telling us, discerning whose solid advice will best suit His purpose in our lives.

If anything I've said comes across as demeaning to another, I apologize.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Thank you. How did you know that I was procrastinating today?

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good as always, Jimbo. I remember the first time we really got to talk about this, at a table by the pond at Glorieta. I'd attended the first of your LOCK classes that morning, and was astounded by the idea that fiction could be reduced to its component parts. Then when you closed the circle by saying that speed-writing didn't always mean crap-writing...well, the light clicked on. And stayed on. Your post just reiterated what you shared with me years ago. Thanks, man. It helps.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

I probably said "bad-writing" but then again, you're a fiction writer, John. As Chaucer says in "A Knight's Tale" when he was accused of lying: "I'm a writer! I give the Truth scope!"

Thanks for the nice memory, though. I well remember that writers conference. Congrats on getting into print.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

Great reminder. One of the things about actually completing a book is you can always go back and fix whatever needs changing. Too, too many writers have a dream but let it fizzle. It's tough work, that old combination of perspiration fueled by inspiration...

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

Thanks, Jim. I really needed to hear this. I don't produce huge amounts of words each day, but I've learned to produce every day. And doing that finishes a novel. :o)

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Can't let this pass without a thank you. I remember your good advice: "get it down, then get it right." And, even though a first novel isn't good enough, it seems that writing novels is like getting olives out of a bottle/ After the first one, they come easier. Thanks for your advice and support.
"The Doc"

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friend Jim, we do agree on many things. Writers write. It takes a lot of discipline to write. A daily quota of words is a good idea. One must not sit around waiting upon inspiration; one ought to hunt it down aggressively. And one should not “hover too long over one unfinished (or unpolished) manuscript.” But I honestly don’t get the connection between all of this excellent advice and writing fast. Listing a few authors who consistently produced masterpieces in a month (or less) doesn’t seem to help. To me at least that logic seems a bit like saying, “All musicians should write symphonies by the age of six—after all, consider Mozart.” And by the by: I have fifteen or twenty John MacDonald novels on my fiction shelf, and while he did produce several great ones including THE EXECUTIONERS, he also inflicted a lot of truly banal and repetitious pulp upon the reading public, in my opinion.

I recently listened to a radio interview of a press photographer who won a Pulitzer with 13 photos of New Orleans after Katrina. He said he shot about 3,000 digital photos while he was in New Orleans. He sent them to his editors, who eventually culled them down to the 13 winners. One could write that way, I suppose, the John MacDonald way: producing as many novels as possible as quickly as possible in the hope that one or two will be Pulitzer material. But no matter how quickly one can type, 80,000 words for a single novel involves a lot more button pushing than a single photograph, so it seems an inefficient way of achieving excellence in fiction. And one pities the poor editors who must cull them down.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boys, boys! Play nice, now. This reminds me of the old Certs commercial: "Certs is a candy mint! Certs is a breath mint! It's two! (smack) Two! (smack) Two mints in one!" *G* Seriously, I can see the wisdom coming from both camps. For Mrs. Robinson's boy, I personally like to write white-hot, and then when it cools, try to see exactly what I've created. But that's just me; what the heck to do I know?

At 9:53 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Athol's playing nice, John. This dialogue is good. And Certs, BTW, isn't a breath mint OR a candy mint. It's an ear plug. They just can't say that because it wouldn't sell.

Anyway, I said at the beginning of the piece that "concentrated effort" is more important than "speed" (or lack thereof) to a writer. When one keeps up a steady pace it really adds up, as Ane pointed out, even in small daily increments. But even more important, there is something to this "flow" that starts to bring out the really good, deep stuff. Not only in material, but in pure writing skill. Slowing down might put, as they say, a cork in it.

Also, one doesn't (at least one shouldn't) send off rough drafts to an editor. There is a revision process, and that can be approached in the same, disciplined way.

What works for me is to print out the previous day's work, correct it on hard copy, do the revision in the computer version, then move on.

And what works for each individual writer is a matter of trial and error. By all means, if slow is your thing, stick with it. All I suggest is a trial period of pushing on, getting the words down, taking production to the next level. Many will be pleased, I think. And we might just get a few more excellent novels out there weaving that fictional dream.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn’t feel like it.

Before I started reading your post, I had a perfectly good funk going. (took oldest son to college yesterday--and he's not even that far!). It started to crumple and that sentence above finished it off.

Thanks a lot. ;-).(at this point, yes, it's an ambiguous statement)

Off to pound out a few words...


Post a Comment

<< Home