Saturday, November 18, 2006

Prolific ... such a dirty word.

Wow, everyone's talking about prolificness this week. Over at JA Konrath's blog, he posted in the comments section about how he's had "several authors privately speak to me over the years about my telling the writing community how fast I can write. These authors believe that if I share with the world that I can write a book in 30 days, the book can be viewed as somehow lesser."

A few weeks ago, Allison Brennan had similar reservations when she posted on her blog, "I worry that people will begin to think 'Well, if she didn’t have to write that book in two months it would have been a lot better.'"

Someone made a comment that I don't think was directed at me, but I did (stupidly) take it personally. I wrote the Nora and asked on her Stooopid Questions board, what she thought of comments like that, and she said, "There are still those who maintain that if you write quickly, you can’t be writing well."

Today, at Miss Snark's blog, people nay-sayed writers who complete their nanowrimo novel and submit it two weeks later. How in the world, they say, could they clean, revise, and polish a novel in two weeks???

And saddest of all, a dear friend of mine is feeling discouraged that she isn't prolific.

Before we discuss prolific, we should define it. Stephen King writes two thousand words a day. Nora Roberts publishes between five and ten books a year. If you take 48 working weeks, 5 days a week, you get 240 writing days. At 2,000 words a day, that's 480,000 words a year! If you write 3,000 words a day, that's 700,000 words a year! At 'only' a thousand words per day, you're still writing 240,000 words a year -- that's two to three books a year, which is still considered prolific.

Two - three thousand words a day, two days off a week, four weeks off a year, is really not that much IF you're writing three - eight hours a day, every day. You'd be hard-pressed to sell that much!

Let's talk about the writing quality vs. quantity argument, and then let's talk about how to write prolifically.

First, I think the whole perspective problem comes from writers who've written one novel or two novels, and it's taken them years. (That's okay! *me jumping up and down* That's normal, dear dog, it's normal!) But we look up at these authors who are flying through novels and think, "How could they possibly be writing that fast, and well?"

For some odd reason, when we start out, we expect ourselves to be perfect writers without any practice. We write one novel, and expect that to be an indicator of whether we have any talent or not. We expect that one novel to be an indicator of what the writing process is like.

There are many writers out there who've said that it took them years to write their first novel, and months to write their second. The first novel is a big bear of a pain in the freakin' ass to write. It's hard as freakin' hell. You've never completed one, so when you stall halfway through and hear that little voice say, "What if I can't finish it?", you have no evidence that you can finish it, to shake that fear. Because it's your first time exploring the form, you haven't internalized the pacing or the structure, and you can get WAY off-track, at which point you'll have to throw HUGE chunks of writing in the trash and start over.

And you know what? The second and third are hardly any better. But we can't be writers unless we practice, and we can't expect polish and skill until we've written a couple hundred thousand words. Some say a million. I've been writing seriously for six years, and I've only put away a little over a half a million words.

All these wrong-turns and self-doubts make the first few novels take a LONG time to write. That's not bad or good. That's no reflection on talent. It's just the learning process. And please, know that writing a novel WILL get easier with practice.

After four or five or eight novels, one doesn't make wrong turns as often. One doesn't bother writing words that one is going to have to delete later--why waste time? And one has the experience to know which words are not economical to write in the first place.

The other reason why I think people assume quickly means less quality, is because when you first write, it's FUN. Ohmigod, it's just a BLAST. And boy, toying with words, switching them around, and turning them upside down is an absolute DELIGHT. I used to spend thirty minutes to an hour, just playing with a single paragraph.

From that perspective, we look at prolific authors and think, "they don't have the time to do that. If they're not doing that, then they're not choosing that one perfect word that just pops!"

Again, daily practice makes it less of a delight and more of a skill. I'm not going to write a sentence that I'm going to have to delete. I'm not going to write a word that's not the right one. And better authors than me have acquired the habit and skill to choose the right word, the first time.

I suspect a small part of the nay-saying about prolificness stems from insecurity. We worry why we can't do it. Well, here's my handy-dandy guide to learning to be prolific (expect results in a YEAR, not a week ...):

1.) Write five - six days a week, every week.

When you take weeks off, the writing muscle deteriorates. Heck, when you take ONE DAY off, the writing muscle deteriorates. I don't know why, but it does. It's only possible to write quickly, day in and day out, if you're actually writing day in and day out. And writing non-fiction will NOT help you write fiction faster. It's gotta be fiction practice for fiction, and non-fiction practice for non-fiction.

2.) Write at least 100 words a day.

Someone else came up with this gem, but I've forgotten who. A hundred words is easy, smaller than an email, and it will get you started. Most times, you'll write much, much more than a hundred words.

After a few weeks, push yourself up to 300 words. Then 500, then a 1,000, and so forth. You have PLENTY of time. After all, it's more than you were doing, right? And we already calculated that 1,000 words is plenty prolific.

3.) Sit in front of the computer, open your document, and don't let yourself do anything but write.

Period. And don't ever stare at a blank page. Push through it. Sometimes I write half a sentence from one scene, two sentences from a scene three chapters ahead, a couple paragraphs in another part. Just write. If it's crap, that's okay. You can clean it up the next day. Writing clean the first time is NOT something you want to aspire to. It's something that will happen after TONS of practice. Trying to will just make you crazy.

4.) Make a goal of writing ten or so novels before giving up, and allow yourself to write one BAD novel, just to get the hang of the form.

You won't become prolific overnight. It takes practice, practice, and practice. And that's okay, because you won't become skilled overnight, either. Maybe a few of you have natural talent (I know I don't!) and god bless you, if you do. If you don't, don't worry. I've been in the arts all my life. Talent is WAY underrated. True, if you've got talent and hard work combined, you're unstoppable. But if you're just average and you've got hard work? You can be pretty darn good. Smart practicing is the key to success. Use your right brain to create, and your left brain to figure out your goals.

5.) Imagine in your head, before you sit down and write.

I take thirty - forty minute showers. During these showers, I 'watch' my characters talk to each other. While my DH drives us to wherever we're going, I 'watch' my characters' stories. When I can't fall asleep, I live in my character's world. In fact, I can't tell you how many times I've been staring off into space, DH says something, and I snap at him, "I'm working!" It took a few years of training for him not to look at me like I'm crazy.

Alright, handy dandy guide over. One last thought: one thousand, two thousand, and even three thousand words is NOT that quick, if you think about it. If all you're doing is sitting at the computer (and not engaging in that temping Solitaire or Minesweeper or the book sitting on your desk ... or the internet), then what else are you going to do for eight hours? Even if you sat and imagined for four straight hours, then wrote for four, you're still going to put out about three thousand words.

Sure, when you're a marketing maniac (and I say that in the nicest sense) like JA Konrath, then you're going to have a ton of that to do. Still, if you want to be a paid writer, then you've got to carve out two to three hours a day. If you can't, then expect your first novel to take years to write. That's okay!

All I'm saying, is that you can't get orange juice if you're making apple cider.

But, in the end, don't compare yourself. Whatever works, works. Don't expect yourself to write ten thousand words a week, if you're not sitting and writing for ten to thirty hours a week. And especially if you're not spending an additional three or ten hours a week day-dreaming about your story.

4 bonus scribbles:

Allison Brennan 11/18/2006 10:44:00 PM  

Great post, Spy. I completely agree--the best way to get into the habit of writing is to writing EVERY day, even if you write crap, even if you write only 50 words, or 5,000.

Bernita 11/19/2006 08:51:00 AM  

Excellent, common sense perspective.

StarvingWriteNow 11/19/2006 09:41:00 AM  

Wow, what a great post! And thanks for your kind words to me. I really appreciate it!

Erik Ivan James 11/19/2006 01:35:00 PM  

Good post.
I write every day. Some days just a little, some days more. But every day, I write. If I don't write, I feel as though my day isn't completed.