I get this question a lot, both from people who actually want an answer and from those who, I think, maybe don’t care about “how” I do it as much as using the question as a way to veil the “oh, you hack” thoughts that they’re really having (you can just tell, sometimes). Either way, I figured I may as well answer this in today’s post, because I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and happiness and balance and envisioning what I want the rest of my life to look like.
You know, no big deal.
“How do you write so fast?”
A quick answer to this is: I don’t. If you compare my productivity to some indies, I look like an absolute sloth. When I’m going on all cylinders, when I have a solid outline and I know my characters and I feel comfortable in my world, I can write an eighty thousand word novel (first draft) in a month. That’s at a pace of just over 2,500 words per day, and roughly matches up with Stephen King’s daily word/page goal that he talks about in his amazing On Writing. Of course, King’s books tend to be gargantuan, and at this point in my life I can’t imagine writing anything as enormous as, say, The Stand. I think this pace has stuck with me because it works. It doesn’t tax me too much, and I can do 2,500 words in a couple of hours if all is going well. And then there are revisions, which are a lot more difficult for me. Revisions might take another month or two, but writing the first draft usually ends up taking about a month.
BUT. Always a but, huh? Everything is not always mapped out perfectly, and sometimes, even with an outline, I change course mid-book and everything is a mess. Sometimes, I’ll go a week or two, making barely any progress at all on a book because it feels wrong and I can’t figure out how to make it go right. I know enough about my own process by now to know that trying to force it, trying to make myself sit there until I figure it out will only end up in being blocked and feeling like I’ll never write again. (I’m a writer. I’m allowed to be overly dramatic about some things.)
Which is why I am never working on only one project at a time. At any given time, I am actively working on two and sometimes even three stories. When one starts coming together, that’s the one that gets the bulk of my attention, and the others may sit untouched for a week or two while I’m writing hot on the one that has become the main project. When the main project is finished, one of the other projects takes its place.
So I start and finish things in a kind of staggered fashion. I guess what I’m saying is: it all looks much faster than it actually is. Granted, sometimes I’m fast. I wrote Strife in about two and a half weeks. And other times, a book just seems to take forever. It’s just the way things work.
And this is NOT to say that doing it this way is the “right” way or whatever. I’ve read enough articles/tweets/etc. telling the world that this is precisely the wrong way to work if you want to finish things, but it hasn’t been true for me. As in anything related to creative work (or life in general) we each have to find our own way and not compare our process to anyone else’s.
I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and it is fabulous and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a little bit of a creative push, or just to anyone who enjoys thinking about creativity and art. In a recent episode, she and her guest talked about the pure joy of creating, of creating just for yourself as a way to affirm your own worth as an artist, independent of sales or praise (or, conversely, lack of sales and awful reviews). She recommends making something just for yourself, something you never plan to put out there. Something that is free of expectations.
I had no idea I was doing something right with all of the stories and poems I write that will never, ever see the light of day! Usually, one of the two or three projects I’m working on is just something I’m goofing around with. It might be a story I’m writing in another genre, or it might be a story where I’m trying for a different tone. Maybe I’m writing something filthy just to see if I can. I usually know before I even begin working on these “for fun” things that they’re not for anyone’s eyes but mine. Writing the work that I publish, sticking to a schedule and delivering (hopefully!) good books regularly is the business side of what I do (and I know there’s a lot more I could be doing in terms of marketing and strategizing, but I just don’t care. More on that later, maybe.) And my fun projects, the ones that will never make me any money, are the ones that help me grow, even more, as a writer. They remind me to play, to try new things. To take risks. And the joy I feel when working on those side projects carries over into my more structured writing.
So there’s something to think about as we begin NaNoWriMo. Some of us are dreaming of writing something that we’ll publish, that will make us rich, make us famous, whatever. And some of us are doing it just to see if we can. Me? I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year to play around with another genre, and we’ll just see what happens.
“Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ideas are constantly trying to get our attention. Let them know you’re available.”
— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic