Sunday, September 13, 2015

Speed Writing For A Tortoise

Last night, I finished a two day marathon writing session where I did nothing from when I woke up until I went to bed but work on my new book. I looked at the word count and found I'd written 15,900 words. In my current format of approximately 300 words per page, that worked out to 53 pages of new material. For me, that's speed writing.

While I'm usually a slow writer, I'm not like the poet who considers finding and removing an unnecessary comma to be a good day's work. Nor am I remotely close to those prolific writers who expect to produce 20 pages every day and thus complete a rough draft after a mere three weeks work (the term "work" being uncomfortable for me considering that a farmer or a logger or even a computer code writer would not consider making up stories remotely close to real work).

Never mind that. I wondered what it was that contributed to such - for me - prodigious production. Thinking back, it was movement. Plot. Action. Those things tend to get down on the page fast. Had I been writing "character," I'd have produced a fraction of the words. I'm not talking of writing about "a" character, but simply "character." Writing "character" is getting down the words and phrases that reveal something subtle and telling about the characters. Writing "character" is slow. Writing plot is fast.

Years ago, when I had completed only four novels, books that are unpublished and entombed in a drawer, there to stay, like a diploma, as an iconic reminder that writers need an education like everyone else, I thought that plot was easy and character was hard. (How's that for a run-on sentence?) But once I came to understand how character worked, I realized that character was relatively easy and plot is relatively hard.

This is ironic. Although I came to develop skills that made creating character fairly easy, it writes slow. In contrast, while creating plot is hard, it writes fast.

I have a poet friend who says he can't plot his way out of a paper bag. I used to think it was because he hadn't tried much. Now I think it's because it's hard to plot your way through even the simplest scenario if you want to surprise the reader, get your characters wrestling with interesting dilemmas, work toward a rising conflict that makes the story interesting, and, hopefully, also include some intelligence and intrigue in your opus. Even more difficult is the plot of a mystery, where the puzzle aspect of the story is critical.

But once you figure out the plot, putting it into words often involves scenes where it unfolds in your mind much faster than you can type, and the typing becomes a rushed torrent, words tumbling over each other as you get it down.

Once you've developed the skills, creating a character is relatively easy. You imagine a specific individual with hopes and dreams and worries and fears. You figure out what makes that person unique, one of a kind, unlike any other person you've ever met, read about, or watched on the screen. You give that person a name. You dream up what they look like and what they wear and how they talk and how they walk. You give them a past. The creation of character comes pretty fast.

But once you figure out a character, putting that person into words is a slow process because you don't just tell everything up front when you first introduce the character. That would be a long, painful exposition and would bore the reader to sleep. Instead, you reveal bits and pieces of your character as they cope with the dilemmas imposed by the plot. Writing these "telling" details, these revealing phrases and sentences that build your character and set them up for a surprising and satisfying transformation, takes a great deal of time and head scratching and walking in the woods.

The next time I get enough of a break from the business of writing to begin another writing marathon, I might be focusing on character. In that case, two days of morning-to-night work might produce a page or two.

Writing slowly is still writing.

Will all 53 pages of my marathon end up in the next book? No. For most of us writers, future editing will cut the chaff from our first drafts, and we'll end up with half or less. But we have to get the first draft down before we can begin the rest of the process.

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