Letting The Words Pour Out

This is a post on how to write fast, if you want to.

Note that I’m not saying you should write fast.  Some of you should, some shouldn’t.  I don’t know how your mind works, I can only speak to mine.

There have been awful writers who took forever and there have been awful writers who wrote very fast.  Just as there have been good writers of both kinds.

I remember years ago someone who was published (once) when I wasn’t published at all, telling me that the problem with science fiction was that people required writers write a book a year.  There are and were many things wrong with the field, but that wasn’t it.  Some of the “literary” writers who take years to write books are still unreadable.

I’ve also watched the process of taking years to write a book.  I’ve done it.  It took me three years to write Through Fire.  Most of the time I didn’t write at all.  There were reasons for that: health and moves and a fatal breakdown of self-confidence.  None of which make a book better.

But there is a state I get to, where I can see and hear and dream a book.  And some writers need a year — or years — to do that.

I sort of lapse into that state when I’m not paying attention, possibly because I lived there until my mid-twenties, so to me it’s more important to get out of my own way and let it pour out.

Might not be for you.  I have taken to referring to writing as “the thing isn’t entirely under my control.”  I don’t think it’s entirely under anyone’s control.  It’s very annoying for people like me who are control freaks, because it seems wrong not to control it.  It’s a joke of fate (or G-d) that someone like me who was taught to value steady work and steady application should work in a profession where sometimes my subconscious locks tight and will not let anything out.  But there “the thing isn’t entirely under my control.”  And each person has to find a way to deal with their own writing thing.  It seems to come from different places for everyone.  Sometimes it comes different places for different books.  And we all approach it our different ways.

However, if you can, write fast there are material advantages to it, particularly now.  I wonder what my used-to-be-friend (I gather she has stopped talking to me because of straw Sarah) who thought traditional publishing and its demand for a once-a-year book was unreasonable would think of indie, where the rewards go to the very fast, to those who can put out a book 4 times a year or more?

No, wait, I know exactly what she thinks of it, because I’ve heard others like her lament on their pages and in their blogs about how people “write too much.”

Well, buttercup, you don’t get to do that.  I won’t tell you that “real writers write real fast” but you don’t get to tell me or other writers who write more than a book a year that we should slow down.  This is not the nursery, and life isn’t fair.

I suspect if you’re a slow writer of overmastering craft and talent you can still live, but you don’t get to tell others they should not.

So–  What if you aren’t and you’re still slow?  What if you’d like to write fast?

I can’t teach you to write fast — no, wait, yes, I know what I said, but listen — because it’s not a skill that can be taught.  It’s a skill that can be learned, though.  Like other things of the sort, things not entirely under one’s control, they require you to access some internal switch I can’t reach, to change some internal setting which I can’t touch.  But you can.

I know this because I’ve gone through years of being very slow.  H*ll, I used to be very, very slow.  If I produced two short stories in a year I thought I was doing well.  And I’ve gone through years of writing a novel every two months.  I have a feeling I could write one a week (I could on wordage alone) if I could just figure out how that switch works.  I haven’t yet.

All I can do is tell you what worked for me, to reprogram that switch.  Note the steps are in no particular order.  The first one is what you REALLY need to do, but sometimes you need to approach it through the others.  I’m not in your head.  This is like other things: learning to draw, learning to sing, or even getting in shape.  Each person must do what he or she can at the pace he or she is permitted by whatever it is internally that controls the writing thing.

  • Believe you can.
    Yes, I do in fact know this is much easier said than done.  Like “Just write it” or “believe in yourself” or “stop worrying,” it is the solution, but it is not always one that just comes.
    However in the end, that’s what you need to do.  Believe you can write fast and write well.  Believe other people can write fast and write well.  It might help to research the stories of writers who wrote very fast and very well.  We get told a lot of lies about how long a book SHOULD take, and we believe them, because we have no reference.  But a book should take as long as it takes.  And if it’s already in your head, it should be possible for it to pour out fast.
  • TRY.
    Try to write fast.  I don’t know what fast is to you.  There is a point I call “my head is empty and there are no more words.”  I wont’ tell you at what point I reach that because you’d kill me, and at any time it’s pointless bragging, because when I get lost in my own head there are many, many days of no words at all.  Let’s say I once finished a novel in three days, a novel that still pays well.  And if I could defeat whatever the fatal lack of self-confidence it is that sets in, I could write a novel every three days.
    So try.  This might involve trying new methods, including some that didn’t work for you at other times.  Or vice versa.  Not being entirely under your own control, the writing thing can change METHODS.
    My second published novel was written entirely by dictation. Two years ago, trying to get back in shape, I thought I’d dictate again.  My walk in the morning was completely solitary.  My recorder looked like a phone.  People seeing me would see nothing wrong, and no one was near enough to hear me.
    I couldn’t. My own voice got in the way.  It sounded odd to be talking aloud of things no one else could see.  I shut myself down completely.
    Try, until you find a way you can write however fast you want to.  How fast?  Well, 500 words a day — about where we are at this point in the blog post — is one large traditional book or two indie books a year.  1000 words a day (half my normal blog posts on my blog, usually dashed in an hour in the morning) is two goatgaggers or four indie books.  Set your goal, aim, try it.
  • DO IT FASTER.
    But I said I wouldn’t tell you how fast to write!
    I’m not.  I’m talking about your mechanical method of getting words down.  Dictation or typing or whatever you do.
    Almost all my silences — long ones, not related to moves or health or whatever — come from a break down in my method of getting words down.  Say a computer that’s glitching and forces me to type slowly or eat words.  Medication that somehow breaks the trained link between fingers and mind.  All of that forces me to slow down, and become conscious of the story.  It’s like hearing myself talk about things that don’t exist.  it stops me.  It forces me to concentrate on the words, rather than the story.  It allows me to DOUBT.
    So, whatever method you use get faster at it: take a typing course, put in ear plugs so you don’t hear yourself dictate.  Find a way to do it faster so the doubts don’t catch up with you.
  • TELL THE EDITOR TO TAKE A HIKE
    No, not your real editor, whether you work for him, or you hire him.  He’s an essential part of your process, particularly if you write fast.
    I mean the internal editor. The one who says “Oh, that word wasn’t good” or “what did you write that chapter for?  You know it’s wrong” or any of those other things.
    There will be a time for it, when you’re reading over the book AFTER your betas do, mind you.  For now, he’s just trying to slow you down, because he’s a little desiccated man in round glasses who can’t create anything and doesn’t want you to either.
    Every writer I know who brags about their internal editor and who jumps on little things in other writers’ first draft is NOT a professional writer.  In fact, most of them never finish anything.
    So, don’t let the editor in.  In my worst times, I’ve been known to surround myself with signs that say “No editors allowed.”
  • TRUST
    Yes, I know, it’s like “Relax.”  But trust.  Trust yourself, trust the process, let the words come out.  Ignore whether they’re good or bad.  Ignore your doubts.  Just let the words pour out.  Accept the thing is not entirely under your own control.
  • GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SUCK
    Look, many of your stories will suck.  They JUST will.  It actually does not matter at all how fast you write them.  Sometimes it’s because you’re not ready to tell that story.  Sometimes it’s because you’re working through some internal process, some learning thing.  Which means, you will suck and not know it.  Other times, you will think you suck, and your story will speak to everyone else who will consider it your best.
    So, stop trying to impose on your stories standards no one else will impose.  GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO SUCK.  Accept some of your stories will suck.  Do you have a favorite author?  How many of his or her stories, objectively, suck, even though you might love them because you like the world, the characters and the author?  If we’re honest about 1/3 of everyone’s stories suck.  And they’re not the ones the author thought sucked, either.  So, give yourself permission to suck.  Don’t reject yourself.  You’re the worst judge of your own work.
  • THEY DON’T WANT IT PERFECT, THEY WANT IT WEDNESDAY
    It is a bit of hubris to try to make your story perfect.  Sculptors and weavers in the ancient world left intentional flaws in their work, because they were only human and didn’t want to arouse the envy of the gods.
    Most of us don’t need to leave intentional flaws.  You’re human, there will be flaws.  But sometimes — trust someone who is experienced and has been doing this for 20 years — it is the flaws you perceive when you first write the work, which are the real strength.
    When I started writing I tried to guard myself from the story.  I didn’t want people looking INTO me.  So revelatory passages were considered flaws.  And yet, those are the books people love, and for THOSE reasons.
    So, stop dithering.  Whether you work for a publishing house or your fans, they don’t want it perfect, they want it finished, so they can read it.  FINISH THE STORY AND LET IT GO.  THEN WRITE ANOTHER.
  • PRACTICE MAKES SPEED

    The very act of writing fast will allow you to defeat the fear of writing fast, and thus will allow you to get faster.  If you’re having trouble, remember the clause above, and just write to the finish.  Tell yourself you’ll never send it out (it’s okay, lies to yourself aren’t sins, or we’d all be condemned) and just finish it.  Then another, then another.  Try a race with yourself.  how fast can you go?  Run from the editor.  Write faster.
    Eventually you’ll surprise yourself, and then you’ll believe and the barriers will tumble down.

  • DON’T READ BACK OVER WHAT YOU’VE DONE
    But Sarah, you’ll say, I can’t write a novel in a day.  So I have to read back what I wrote yesterday.
    No, you actually don’t.  Doing so is practically inviting the editor to come and pour doubts into your head and paralyze you.
    If you have a very bad memory leave a note to yourself, something like: I left John and Mary having a heart to heart.  Tomorrow he finds out she stole the thing, and then he has to decide what to do.
    BUT what if your plot — plotted or not — took a turn?  You need to go back back and change things!
    No, you don’t.  Half the time I do that (because I’m an idiot) I find that my subconscious already had the right markers in, it just didn’t bother to tell me.  So, when you’re afraid you’ll forget to change the thing, what do you do?
    Get sticky notes.  Make a note, stick it to your monitor.
    I’ve been known to have three pieces of novel, by the end, all pointing in different directions.  But I have the sticky notes, and I can always fix it in post.
  • YOU CAN ALWAYS FIX IT IN POST.
    The good thing about writing is you don’t pay for what stays on the cutting room floor, and no one has to know.
    For my first three published novels, I wrote three times what I turned in.  I still wrote them in six months each.  Write fast, then worry about cutting.
    And often the pieces you leave behind will blossom into other novels, years later.  A piece of Darkship Thieves became the start for the Shifter series.  No, I’m NOT going to tell you which or how.  (Mwahahahahahah.)
  • LET IT GO
    Once you’re done writing your first draft, do three passes: one for coherency, one for word choice, and one for typos.  Then LET IT GO.
    Sometimes things will feel wrong in a book that aren’t wrong at all.  It’s just a new thing you did, and your subconscious is panicking that it’s WRONG.  It might even be a good thing you did, but the subconscious is a creature of habit.
    So let it go.  Send it to 12 people or more.  You’ll be lucky if 6 answer.  The ratio even for published novelists seems to be 1/3.  It’s unpaid work and life trips people up.
    Let the novel go, stop thinking about it.  If six or more of your readers come back and say soemthing is wrong, then consider changing it.  Keep in mind sometimes what they THINK is wrong isn’t what is wrong.  But try to figure out what bothers them and change it.  But don’t devote a lot of angst to it, because you have another story to write.  You’re already writing the next story, aren’t you?
    Well, you should be.
  • WRITE THE NEXT STORY
    Seriously.  The moment the story is off your hands and to beta, write the next one.  No, don’t wait for the betas, don’t even think of that story.  Write the other one, because that’s better than detachment or time to make you get over your mental attachment to it, and your tendency to see the last story as perfect or fatally flawed, whatever your tendency.
    Write the next one for the week or month while you wait for the result of betas.
    Editing is work best done in the evenings, anyway.  And if your heart is in the day story, you’ll see the night story more clearly, without prejudice.
    So, do that.  Write the next story. No, don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Don’t pass go and give yourself illusions that you’re going to be perfect.  JUST WRITE IT.
    Nine tenths of art is just doing it.  Just do it.  The thing is not entirely under your control.  Let it go, let it be.  Let the story spool out from your head, onto pixels.  Then bless it on its way and write the next.

40 Comments

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40 responses to “Letting The Words Pour Out

  1. Sam L.

    What you NEED to write fast is to slip your muse some methamphetamines.

    O/T. but I just ran across this: https://crimefictionbook.com/ (The Writer’s Guide To Weapons). You may already know of it, but just in case…

  2. I need to get off the Internet and push the little buttons on the keyboard more. Today is a hard one, so much distraction!

    Darn you, Internetz!

  3. Regarding the “Don’t read back over what you’ve done” portion, now that I’m working more at longer lengths I need to make a point of keeping better notes of characters and their “tags”. Even if I think something is fairly simple and straightforward by the time I get into it characters, not just walk-ons that disappear, but characters that recur and take an ongoing role, however minor, in the story. For shorts or even the novelettes/novellas that were long my “natural length” I could keep that in my head. Working at novel length, I can’t do that any more. So I’m either going to need a reference or I’ll always be rolling back to answer “what was the name of that guy? Not the head of the caravan, but his second, the one who doesn’t like my main character? Did I give him a physical description?”

    • You need a Bible. part of the reasons that the next furniture refinishing mystery is delayed is that it’s been so long I don’t know people’s eye and hair color, etc. YOU NEED A BIBLE for the world, even if it’s our world.
      Do it now, save trouble later. use that for your first revision. If you blank while writing, insert in curly brackets “whatever the hell color the eyes are” then at the end search for the curly brackets and consult your Bible.

  4. Ouch. This piece was aimed right between my eyes…which is right where I needed to be hit. My most recent novel took 49 years from idea to publication, granting that I didn’t work on it continuously all that time. I did write a 53,000-word short novel in six weeks once, and I’ll be damned if I know how I did it. However, I now know it’s physically possible. The rest may simply be force of will–and keeping my inner editor in his box until I need him. It doesn’t help that I was a professional editor most of my working life. Old habits die hard and rot slowly.

  5. Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling a lot in the last year or so, and having someone tell me it’s alright if I suck–that alone is liberating. But so is the advice of ignoring the editor. I tend to edit too much as I write, and never accomplish a damn thing it seems.

  6. paladin3001

    Been out of the groove for the past few weeks (issues with current lifestyle). Got a break this past weekend and the muse woke up. So, I have been writing, plotting, and thinking. Current WIP came back from Beta readers and I have to do a massive rewrite to fix “problems”. Good thing is that I knew it probably would have to be rewritten. Now just got to hammer out words….faster, more coherent, and much researching to be done.
    Have a few things on the go and some of them are stuck, others need fixing (no not the internal editor, they just got stuck in the weeds and need to be hauled out). Other then that…What am I doing here again?

  7. To each her own, and I’m glad your method works for you.

    My brain doesn’t leave a scene until the scene does what it needs to do, and I’m not going to have to come back and even look at it. Reason: my damaged brain can hold anywhere between one beat and four (my typically largest scene), between about 800 and 2500 words, in it at a time. That’s it.

    I spent yesterday looking up something I set up in Book 1 which will be developed and finished in Book 2 – and was startled to see what I had written, and that I LIKED it, and that it was further along and better than I had any right to expect. Complete surprise, though – as if I was picking up someone else’s work.

    Other than being scary, it was cool.

    Oh, and this book will probably take less than two years, when the first (and the setup for all of it) took over fifteen.

    You do what you have to do.

  8. Bob

    How about outlining? Or at least having the ending firmly in mind? I’ve found I’ve got more success when I know how it ends and where the destination is. I’ve been having much better success with short stories and short novels than longer works. Once it gets beyond the 150-200 page range, the book tends to get out of control with plots running off in different directions.

    • Although I’ve worked both pantsing and plotting, these days I like Swain’s “Starting line up” (and all praise to Sarah for pointing me at the book “Techniques of the Selling Writer”): A main character, a situation that character is in, a goal that character is trying to achieve, an opponent, and a “disaster” that will happen if the character fails to meet the goal.

      Once I have those, I can have confidence that the rest will work itself out. The goal may change. The initial opponent may not prove the real one. And the disaster may not be what I originally thought, but I’ll have them. And while I have them, I have something to drive the plot toward a conclusion.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Doesn’t matter. Outlining and pantsing are both approaches which work for some writers and not for others.

      Whether you outline or pants doesn’t matter. Write hard, write fast, write another.

    • Bob

      I think pantsing works better for me when it’s a short piece with a solid ending in mind.

    • Mary

      Yup. I tell my stories very firmly that if they want to be written, they have to give me the plot line so I know that they are actually stories and not half stories.

  9. This quote resonated with me, “Most of the time I didn’t write at all. There were reasons for that: health and moves and a fatal breakdown of self-confidence. None of which make a book better.” Especially a fatal breakdown of self-confidence.

    Heavy sigh…

  10. Doug

    I don’t re-read shorts until I’m done and doing a proof/rewrite. Longer pieces with breaks in the writing, I re-read the last few pages to get back into speed, then do my usual edit–as-I-write. (Yeah, I know, but it works for me.)
    When I complete the story, I’ll read it over to proof/copy/continuity check.
    But on my really good days, I can pump out 12-1500 words; on the really bad days I can barely click on the mouse, and my responses are hunt and peck produced.
    Whatever works.

  11. Thank you, Sarah. Often when I read these kinds of posts from writers they tend to be impractical (quit your job and focus or you’ll never be a real writer) or nutbag crazy (be at one with the universe and the words will flow as like unto the rain from the sky of the galaxy) or so vague as to be useless.

    This column is practical advice that can work and can be applied. Perhaps not by everyone but by the majority of writers who are tying to increase output. The one that seems to work best for me is to just keep going. I used to read all of what went before and then write from the endpoint. At the start of a book it wasn’t a problem but three hundred pages in and you’ve got a lot of hours of reading ahead of you before you can write (to solve that back then I’d go to a new document every twenty pages or so and thus keep down the amount of reading. But just keep going is much better advice for me and allowed me not to get bogged down in the morass.

    Another suggestion that works for me and might work for others: Music. I listen to music while I write and I find if I listen to draggy, slow-tempo dirges, I slog through the story, but if I listen to hi-tempo stuff (mostly metal) my fingers find their groove easily and I can type as fast as I can think.

    Steve

  12. Mary

    Figure out how much you have to write to get warmed up.

    Write that much as your quota.

  13. A piece of Darkship Thieves became the start for the Shifter series. No, I’m NOT going to tell you which or how. (Mwahahahahahah.)”

    Oh, come on. That can’t be true. You better tell us to convince us.

  14. Pingback: Letting The Words Pour Out — madgeniusclub | Miller's Tales

  15. After working hard on writing self-improvement over the last year (which a change in jobs made possible), I’ve been doing Dean’s write 30 short stories in 30 days challenge this month. Currently 4k words into story #16. The shortest has been 500 words, the longest 9k, averaging about 6K, although I’ve been trying to get that down in order to reclaim a bit of my life back from writing constantly.

    All but one story so far he’s sent comments on he’s said are immediately publishable, send it out. Several he thinks should really be novels, but that’s only because he doesn’t realize they’re set in series worlds with novels planned and thus are in a bigger world than a typical short story. So I have other plans for them. 🙂

    So working a full-time 40+ hour job and having one of my periodic bouts with sinusitis, I’ve still written 96K words this month so far. I’ll easily clear 150K or more for the month.

    Some advice I’ll add to Sarah’s excellent words, from someone who’s in the thick of it right now:
    1. The better you understand story structure in theory, the easier it’s going to be, because that will drive your ability to know _what to write next_ once you finish a scene/sequel passage. I found much delay came from the brainstorming aspect of “Ok, now what next?”, which I’ve largely gotten over with embedding structure more instinctively in my brain. I also cheat and plot things ahead of time, but only maybe half the time, generally for more complex stuff.
    2. It doesn’t take long to be able to look back on a story in “fresh eyes” mode if you’ve written two or three more in the meantime. Could just be me, but my mind moves on once I’m writing/thinking about other stuff, rather than over a set period of time.
    3. Allow for breaks around your writing periods. Ideally, when you need to think through something (not always, but when you’re really stuck on what needs to happen next), then take a break such that you can think about it, either consciously (i.e. in the shower, or running, or whatever works for you) or subconsciously, dreaming it out over night, or whatever. The brainstorming time may otherwise slow you down sitting in front of the computer staring at the screen. Don’t do that, assign yourself when you’re going to write the next part and go move around or something.
    4. When an idea for something next in the story hits, go write it down right then if possible. Even if only some notes. That gives your mind permission to move on and think of the next thing and you can get the words moving that way, rather then desperately trying to remember and rehash only one thing in the story.
    5. Until you’ve done it and gained some confidence, give yourself permission to write poorly. Just tell yourself you’ll fix it when you go back and edit it later. Later, you may like it. If not, you can always fix it.
    6. You can’t always and still meet commitments and commercial goals, but try to let yourself write whatever is currently most exciting to you to write. Need a break? Don’t stop writing, just go write something you consider “fun” instead.
    7. Schedule your editing and publishing time as well. I’m going to have two weeks in July to edit these 30 stories, then off on a trip around the world, then back with a month or so to get them into publishable form. I actually think that’ll work well, as I’ll be remembering all my cover creation knowledge at the same time, rather then one at a time, for example.
    8. Have a target. I’m aiming for just-before-Thanksgiving release to start making a splash again. Hitting that will force me to use my time wisely on all the production tasks.

    Hope that also helps someone.

    • This is really helpful. (And glad to see you back in writing mode! Wow, what a way to come back.) A lot of what you’ve said works for me. When I was working at the FAA I had 3 blocks of time in the day, 100-200 words at breakfast, 700-1000 at lunch, and 700 after dinner. If I didn’t write during those times I knew I didn’t mean it about the writing. So, I wrote. Now that I’ve set up my own practice, I’m either drowning in work or the day is too unstructured and I feel like I can sit down and write “later.” Then the day is gone. I’ve recently re-instituted a variant of the “schedule” so I can always get 1k a day. 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., which is starting soon.

      Did you get your story structure from Swain?

      Also, I love the point in #4 about writing notes. You’re right it helps the brain move on and I hereby resolve to be more diligent about that.

      Thank you for sharing all of this.

      • Yes. Swain is the best “basics” book out there and for sure the place for people to start. Like many, I read it after seeing Sarah mention it. “Scene and Structure” by Bickham is a great add-on afterwards, as he learned from Swain, but has more of a modern fiction reference with his own insights. I also found “Writing the Thriller” by Skillman helpful, as it coalesced for me what the key elements are which distinguish different genres.

        Bottom line, I still have to do some editing on old stuff to get it up to my new standards and completely rewrite a book because I was attempting way more than I could accomplish a few years ago, but I have my path plotted out for multiple series to be in good shape in the next year.

  16. Draven

    yeah well. i spat out 1600 words and my alpha readers gave no response