Become a Better Storyteller… Write Faster
The Problem of Writing Faster… You Get Better…
I mentioned this in yesterday’s post and it went right past most everyone. So I figured I would tap dance on this concept a little to see if it would help a few people.
What is Writing Fast?
As I said yesterday, writing fast doesn’t mean you write sloppy or type faster. Or take shortcuts with plotting or story.
Writing faster is simply spending more time in the chair telling stories.
Every moment you are in the chair writing you are doing the best you can. You just spend more moments in a day and a week is all.
An example… If you write one hour per day, five days per week, for 50 weeks per year and write 1,000 words per hour, you create 250,000 words. If you write 25 of those weeks with original words and 25 of those weeks rewriting as English teachers tell you that you must do, you create 125,000 words of original fiction in one year.
Many who believe in all the myths, including the rewriting myth, would be happy to get that many words in a year. (And they will have their family and friends conned into thinking they have worked hard on “the” novel.)
That many words is one or so novels a year and you are considered “golden” by all the people who believe in the myths of writing. You have struggled for your art as everyone thinks any good artist should do.
Now, what happens if you followed Heinlein’s Rules, didn’t rewrite, and spent three hours telling stories every day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks per year???
3 hours per day at 1,000 words per hour.
15,000 words per week times 50 weeks.
Instead of creating 125,000 words the other way, you would create 750,000 original words. Finished stories. Stories that if you followed Heinlein’s Rules, you would have out for readers to buy.
But here is the problem: At that rate you would be considered a fast writer and have to put up with the shit I put up with.
That’s right. You practice more, just spend more time writing, and you get known as being a fast writer. Oh, oh…
Then the critics, the myth-believers, don’t think you have struggled for your art. And they will actively work to slow you down.
And just suppose you do that for decades as I have done and you’ll end up having around twenty-one million of your books in print as I do. That number might be higher. I think Kevin J. Anderson is up around 28 million now and he and I started about the same time. No telling how many books some of the real modern pulp writers have sold.
I had one guy write me privately yesterday telling me how I was wrong about writing fast, about rewriting and that my sales proved it. I guess he looked at a few of my books on Amazon or something silly like that. He was all proud that he had just hit 100,000 of his books sold and I should listen to him. I just laughed.
I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. He should be proud of selling that many books as a baby writer. Imagine how proud he’s going to be when he’s sold a million copies. (He won’t get there with that attitude, but I’m not telling him that.)
So Writing Fast Makes You a Better Writer
So many aspects of writing is training. You have to keep learning and studying how-to-write books and in workshops and more importantly from other writers’ works. You have to keep reading for pleasure.
Creating stories, coming up with the ideas, is just training. You can’t do it when only doing one or two stories a year. But do a dozen novels or thirty short stories and the idea muscle starts to kick in.
There is a really stupid commercial on television at the moment of someone going into a gym, doing one sit-up and leaving and thinking that’s enough to stay healthy and in shape. The commercial is done to show the stupidity of such thinking.
Yet that is the same silly thinking writers have about this topic exactly.
Two hours a week will make them rich with their writing, make them a bestseller. Uhhh, no.
By spending more time, storytelling gets easier. And you get better at it. And readers buy more of your books.
This is called practice, folks. That’s twice I have used that dirty word in two days, but alas, practice is as important to writers as any other artist or athlete.
More Evil Math…
Look back at your last year. How many words did you produce last year?
Figure out how fast you write (how much you write in an hour) and divide that into the number of words.
That gives you the number of hours you practiced last year.
If you finished that 120,000 words and wrote at 1,000 words per hour, in an entire year you practiced 120 hours. Or about 10 hours per month. Or just over 2 hours a week.
Your family is thankful at that amount of practice you are not trying to learn the violin, let me tell you.
An example… Let’s take one of my normal to good years in writing as an example. Say I did 1 million words of fiction. About what I call Pulp Speed One.
I write around 1,000 words an hour. So at that rate I practiced about 1,000 hours to get that million words. (Remember I write clean finished copy at that rate.)
That’s about 84 hours per month. Or about 20 hours per week.
That means I am practicing ten times more every week than someone writing at what critics think of as a normal speed.
I am learning ten times more as well.
I am also producing more product to sell and my storytelling skills, since I also keep studying, are getting better.
So you practice two hours a week at your violin, I practice 20 hours a week. Who is quickly more talented?
Any wonder I have over 21 million of my books in print?
It Never Ends…
Back when I started off following Heinlein’s Rules in 1982, I printed out that saying “It Never Ends” and I framed it under glass in a frame that was easy to get into. Then, as I sold a story, I opened up the frame and wrote the name of the story and the magazine or anthology I sold it to on that sign.
I kept that sign on my wall until there was no longer room to write any more of my sales on it.
I did that to remind myself that the learning never ends. Following Heinlein’s Rules never ends.
I now have over 150 novels sold and four or five hundred short stories sold. I have made my living at this business of writing fiction since 1988. And I focus every day on learning something about the business and the craft.
And as writers we fight a two-front battle. We fight the battle of getting better and practicing as a storyteller. And we face the mental battles that stop us from reaching that potential.
One of the great mental battles is the belief that spending too many hours writing is a bad thing. Writers really believe that if you practice too much, you might hurt yourself.
One of the really stupid aspects of this craft, but a real one.
Good luck in the battle. I hope you get to the point in your writing when other writers are telling you to slow down.
Don’t do it. They are just trying to pull you down to their level.
And remember to have fun.
I saw some idiot making that “look at his amazon sales” comment on a well known blog and just shook my head.
Every time I see someone challenge a long term writer I can’t get an image out of my head of a guy at the gym trying to give Superman tips on lifting techniques.
Love every new post on this topic. Keep them coming, Dean. VERY important messages here. Thank you!
I was feeling pretty smug for writing 650k publishable words last year until I did your calculation and realized I wrote an average of 8 hours PER WEEK!! And I’m supposed to be full time. Even doubling that, I’m definitely not working very hard, but the implications for my publishing schedule are staggering. Thanks as always for the inspiration!
Yeah, numbers don’t pull punches do they? (grin) And yes, the implications to a publishing schedule have to be taken into account in this modern world. But if the publishing can handle the output of the creative voice, readers and your bank account will reap the rewards. (grin)
Another great post and very helpful, as I am trying to finish novels much faster. I’ve worked up to the point that I can write 1,000 an hour quite easily. I just only have one hour a day to devote to it because of the day job and family. I love the pulp idea of writing a 40-60k word novel as a function of writing faster (I’m shooting for 50k for my current WIP; currently I’m a little over halfway there), and in this day and age of self publishing and Kindle, no one can tell or even cares if your book isn’t some huge doorstopper of a tome.
I can type fast, and I can write fast. I think the first might help the second, since it’s second nature by now and I don’t have to think about the keyboard, but that’s about it.
There’s a post about your method (not rewriting) on a certain message board, and some are okay and even doing it, but there’s always someone who wants to pee in everyone’s cereal. “If it’s good enough for Author A and Author B, then it’s good enough for me.”
To me that’s like making one of those excuses you tell us not to make. “So and so writes slowly, and edits and rewrites a lot, and they seem to do okay, so that’s how I’m going to do it, too! And if you don’t do it just like that, you’re writing crap. HA! So there.”
Big Ed Magusson
Here’s an alternate set of math that might be relatable to some of your readers. I only manage 500 words/hour, and thanks to kids, a full time job, and a side business other than writing, I manage 3 hours/week of writing (plus a couple of hours of publishing and administrative work). That adds up to 500x3x50=75,000 words a year. Not a ton, but…
I’ve been doing it consistently for 12 years. So I have 5 written novels out, three graphic novels, a bunch of novellas, and more short stories than I can count.
Is it enough to make a living? Nope. Is it enough to have significantly improved my craft? Absolutely.
The kids are getting older now, so I’m pushing to increase it to 4 hours a week. I already have plenty of evidence on how that compounds. 😉
It’s always nice to see I’m not alone at 500 words an hour.
I don’t know if I just can’t think fast enough or if it’s all the typos I make and literally have to fix as I go or die a little inside when I don’t. It’s a compulsion and I make a zillion typos a page. 🙂
But I still managed 220k last year and know that as someone who is full time, I should have managed a heck of a lot more than that! Because even at 500 words an hour I should be able to reach 3000 a day in 6 hours which would put me at a cool 750k words for the year working 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year.
This year, I’m really trying to do better.
I’ve gotten off to a slow start but I’m definitely set on improving myself. I like my fast written material so much better than the stuff that takes forever to get done, and not because I can tell how it reads differently when it’s done, but because I lose a lot of momentum with my stories when taking so long to finish them. It turns writing into something a lot less fun, and that is definitely no way to improve.
I’m another who averages 500 words per hour. My brain turns to mush after 5 hours of writing, so I usually write about 4 hours per day. This year I had medical issues that took me out for the first 3 months of the year. I wrote a 150k novel and started a ~30k novella while I was waiting for feedback from my first reader. Not as many words as I’d hoped for in 2016, but…life rolls. 😉
Thanks, Dean. I’ve always wanted to write, I used to sit in front of blank page as a kid and try to write, but nothing would materialise. At the age of 14, I tried writing a Terry Pratchett inspired fantasy novel. My adventurers never made it through the entrance to the dungeon.
Every time I read your blog, I feel inspired, and just that little bit closer to actually doing something about it.
Elise M Stone
Keep preaching it, Dean.
I know how many words I wrote last year because I started a daily spreadsheet to keep track. Based on the prior year’s output, I thought I could double that and write 200,000 words in 2016. Then (list of excuses) happened. I wrote a total of 53,000 words, including blog posts.
I also track time, so I know what you said above is true. The amount of time I spent writing each day in 2016 was pitiful. I’m doing better this year (over 12,000 words in January, almost all of it fiction), but I’m still not putting in a whole lot of time. But I am setting goals a little higher each week.
And I think you’ll be pushing me in that department in February.
At the Spanish Riding School, beginning riders work for up to 3 years without stirrups or reins to learn how to sit on the horse. They practice every day (except for Sunday, I believe) and learn from both the human teacher and the horse. Why should writing be any different? If it\’s worth doing at a higher level than common usage, then it\’s worth submerging oneself into it until the practice and use seeps into the marrow of the bones. If the aim of writing is to have it look effortless or powerful or graceful, then You. Must. Practice. That principal will never change, no matter how much we might wish it do so.
(My apologies for the soapbox. I get a little irritated when the Arts believe that they should not sweat.)
Kristi, I love that example. And no soapbox here. You. Must. Practice.
And as you do more and more, it just looks easier and easier, which is why it is so annoying to me when some beginner says, “Oh, you can do that because you are Dean Wesley Smith.” I can do that because I have spent thousands of hours practicing.
That is a great example, Kristi. We writers must practice. I will keep this example as a reminder.
Linda Maye Adams
One of the first things that resonated with me was that I knew your name from years of TV tie ins that I read. Most of what I’ve seen in the way of writing anything seems to be coming from people who are at best inexperienced (and I was guilty of this at one point), and many who are blatantly wrong (thinking of the guy with the ten tips who said not to bother with too much setting or the five senses because it wasn’t important … yeah, right).
I’m at the moment playing around with making sure dialogue doesn’t get buried (think that one came from the Page Turning lecture), and making sure light is in every scene (from David Farland’s letter)–and having a blast with it. I was astounded when I mentioned what I was doing on a writing list and got clamored with questions. Few even talk about anything beyond very beginner level.
I’m a full-time computer programmer with a wife and two kids and I published six books last year.
I wake up at 4:30 a.m. every weekday before work (7:30 a.m. on weekends) and I write new words for an hour. Been doing this for the past year and a half. I usually spend a half-hour before that cycling through yesterday’s words. I log my words each day in a spreadsheet for accountability (and ritual).
No rewriting. Off to copyedit and then I read the book one final time to ensure all’s well before kicking it unceremoniously out the door. I do the best job I can and then move on to the next story. I have a sign on my wall that reads “Perfect is Boring”.
Do I want to wake up at 4:30 every day? Hell no. But in order to spend time with my family and keep up with all my responsibilities while continuing to write, this is how I have to do it.
If I can do it, so can you. But you have to throw away a lot of myths, keep believing in yourself, think long term, and make writing a priority. After that, the words will come.
Bravo, Brian. Seriously! Your positive attitude is inspiring. 🙂
Oh, oh, another brilliant math article. Thanks, Dean. This is great stuff. I wrote around 600k words last year which is a huge sum for me and where I am with life rolls and so forth, but the math shows me that’s less than an hour a day. I know I can push myself harder.
David Anthony Brown
The more I write, the more I see how true the “million words of crap” quote is. I cringe whenever I hear a beginning writer talk, and I’ve learned to spot them from a mile away. That’s why I keep coming here I suppose. Like somebody above said, there’s not a lot of chatter on advanced topics out there. I appreciate the blog topics and the commentary here.
Hi Dean. Great post. You keep me motivated. I just want to ask a thing about how to write books. Now I’ve read Stephen King and Lawrence Block and both of them had pretty solid tips to jump start my career. I want to know whether there are any more real goods books on craft (apart from these two) that you recommend. Anything about setting, or five senses or depth or characters or dialogues? Anything? 🙂
None that pop to mind, but I have read them all over the decades, taking one bit here and another bit there. And you know Lawrence Block had four or five writing books. Sorry I couldn’t be more specific. Just takes bits that fit you from as many as you can find. Used bookstores are full of them.
Prasenjeet: I would recommend Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys. Was out of print for a long while, but it’s back now. I’ve had a print copy since around the early 90s. I still go back to it. It forms a good core to all the other writing advice out there.
I found Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure book quite helpful.
I love Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.
I like LeGuin’s Steering the Craft for how it busts language myths, like don’t write with adverbs.
I like Syd Field’s Screenwriting.
I also like writing enough you can write your own book.
Prasenjeet: I like Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald. I’ve had that book for years and still read it as a part of my writing process. The authors breakdown seven well-known novels as they go into setting, characterization, theme, the first chapter and so on. I would have never read Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl without coming across them being dissected in this book. I will admit the publishing aspects of the book are dated (published in 1993) but the craft parts I have learned a lot from it.
This myth is alive and well in the comic book world as well. This month I’ve written nearly 90 comic book pages for 4 different indie projects (and I’ll likely get another 10-15 before the month ends). Made the mistake of exclaiming the page count on Twitter (in conjunction with just how much fun I was having) and I got a professional comic book writer a little irked at me. You see, PROFESSIONALS have to spend at least 2 weeks per 22-24 page issue.
Last night the doubt started to creep in that maybe I WAS doing something wrong. And then I read your post and added up the hours. Nope. I’m just spending 3-5 hours a day writing comics.
Two things, no, three. First, what kind of db goes out of his way to send a snotty email to an author who’s helping so many people. Second, I read Dead Hand recently from the Cold Case Poker Gang series and I literally could not put it down. Mystery/thrillers aren’t even my usual reading fare, but I loved it.
Thirdly, I don’t think writers who are fully rooted in the multiple drafts paradigm–and who may have never really pondered what it would be like to write one clean draft, let alone ever dared try it–I don’t think they understand that when you start out from Page 1 with the mindset that all you’re going to get is this one clean draft, the entire writing process is a different experience right out of the gate.
This is a level of “no bullshit” that kicks in, as if a saber tooth tiger were chasing you, creatively speaking. That kicks your performance up to a higher level from the get-go, because you know you’re not going to get another chance at this–it’s got to be the best you can bring it, right here, now, today. It reveals multiple draft thinking as a form of procrastination and anxiety masquerading as writerly virtue/dedication.
The “no bullshit” reality of one draft could be interpreted by the brain as stressful, but if a writer can mentally keep it as a game, then it’s fun and exciting instead. A practice mentality or “game-ify” it rather than make this big huge life-or-death important thing.
That was my experience as a student in the Speed class, anyway.
Gaelen, thanks for the kind comments on Dead Hand. And I think you may have a point that writing clean the first time through causes a completely different and more heightened mindset. I have been doing it for so long, so many novels, I would have no comparison with the other way. But I can see what you are saying and makes a ton of sense, actually. Thanks!
When I get asked about this I tell the person that it’s all about figuring out the process that works for their creativity and circumstances. For me, I’m an extensive outliner, because at this point in my career outlining has been the difference between starting fast then flaming out… and getting stuff done. For me, I balance articles, books, and other content work, so being efficient and productive is pretty bottom-line important for my business.
For my process, if I outline my articles, it’s easy to knock out assignments and get paid. For my books, I spec things out to each individual scene. Then, I get to my desk in the morning, review what I need to write for a scene that day, and I write it. Knowing what works for me has made all the difference in getting books, as strong as I think they can be, and out into the world.
Four books in (and one in draft that’s about to get to revision), and that’s working well and each book is going faster and faster. At this point, I can write pretty clean, but there are story things that I’m still working out, so I do some rewriting. With each book, each bit of feedback, each time my copy editor sends back his notes on a manuscript, I’m refining my process and more and more gets internalized to make the next book better.
That’s part of what I’ve finding so useful in your posts, Dean. The pulp speed and such makes total sense, as does just giving the project your all and getting it out into the world. That’s definitely where I see myself building to.
Speaking of Evil Math, I love it when you call out the numbers and get down to that sheer technical level of output. That got me to set up a tracking sheet in late 2015, and it’s been key in helping me increase my production. Awareness and visibility makes a big difference.
Martin L. Shoemaker
Inspired by Kevin, my process is now: dictate on my drive to and from work; upload those files to a transcription service; download and clean up the transcriptions; send to first readers for feedback; touch up if first readers persuade me; and send it out.
Following this process, I have written 60,000 words since New Year’s Eve. That’s AT MOST 100 minutes per work day, plus a couple hours for weekend errands. In reality, I probably only dictate half that time, thanks to traffic, planning my next scene, answering calls, etc.
60,000 words in a month. If I keep to this schedule, that’s 720,000 in a year.
And they’re GOOD words. It just gets easier as I build up a rhythm. As I go through the transcriptions, I am often surprised by the things I find, good bits that I never planned to say, and now barely remember saying. Practice is definitely golden.
I enjoy my day job, and it pays well. My bills are paid, so I can’t complain. But lately I’m contemplating how many words I would be writing if I went full-time writer. The math says millions. I’m stunned by that.
John D. Payne
Martin, what device or app do you use for recording your dictated words?
Martin L. Shoemaker
I’m using my Windows Phone (which hardly anybody has, but I like it) and a 99 cent app called Rapid Recorder. What I like about it is that unlike every other recording app I found for Windows Phone, it does NOT require me to type in a file name before or after dictating. It simply uses the date and time as a file name. I’m driving down the road when I dictate. I need it to be hands-free.
For my transcriptions, I use http://www.iDictate.com. They charge 1.25 cents per word, which sounds bad; but I hope to turn these into pro sales (or the self-pub equivalent) at 6-10 cents per word. The increased productivity is worth the investment.
Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. I decided if I didn’t believe in myself enough to invest in transcription, why should readers and editors believe in me?