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On slow writing

March 30, 2012
Harlan Ellison at his typewriter

American sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison ponders his next word.

My New Year’s resolution to write every day is currently working out at somewhere between five and six days a week. Not an unqualified success, but a great improvement on last year, when I could go months without writing a word and didn’t start a single new piece of work. The rule I created for myself of writing for at least half an hour each time solved a crucial problem that I didn’t know I had: I’d failed to adapt my writing goals to my lifestyle. I used to work in intensive spells of an hour and a half to two hours, once or twice every couple of weeks. Having two demanding children as well as working full-time means I rarely have the luxury of such unbroken spells of time. So I began to perceive that I ‘had no time’ to write, when in fact I just needed to divided my time differently.

Writing in shorter, more concentrated spells has also taught me another thing about myself as a writer. Take the last few weeks, which I’ve spent revising a short story I first drafted about three years ago. In that time I’ve taken the story up from just over 2,000 words to almost dead on 3,000. Yes, that’s right: 14 days of tinkering increased my word count by a colossal 1,000 words. That’s an average of about 75 a day. And I worked hard just to keep up that level.

So in addition to changing the way I allocate writing time, this is the second thing I’ve learned to accept: I’m a naturally slow writer. Specifically this means I’m a contemplative writer. I’m deeply envious of people who can slap down 2,000 words in an hour and bash it into shape in a couple of revision sessions. But I just can’t do it – at least, not when it comes to fiction. As a former agency journalist I can hammer a keyboard like a ten-year-old playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon when I need to. If anything, though, that only increases my tendency to pick over words when I get the chance. If I can’t get a sentence right I either sit and wait until the words fall into place, or go over it constantly once it’s on the page until it fits. And even then I’ll go back over the words again and again, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, until I’ve run out of ways to improve it. And in between writing sessions I like to dwell on developments, map out the next stage in the plot and fill in loose bits. Shorter sessions in some ways suit this more contemplative approach, because it gives me more opportunities to pull back and study the full picture, rather than becoming sidelined in the minutiae.

I’ve heard the advice that you should plough through the first draft without editing or looking back. Like much writing advice, I’ve opted to ignore it. It doesn’t suit the way I write. The best thing about writing every day is that I’ve got a much better sense now of how I build stories and weave plot, character, theme and language. What I find is that they all influence each other and develop in tandem, in the same way that a tadpole doesn’t grow its head, legs and abdomen in sequence, but all at once, evolving as a complete organism. If I concentrate on one element of a story to the exclusion of the rest I end up with a malformed, one-dimensional, unsatisfying piece of fiction. Of course, I might end up with that anyway, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

In the past my writing has ground to a halt not for lack of inspiration, but for lack of structure. I have so many different ideas going that I don’t know where to begin, or I idly start to speculate on one story, only to break off and switch to something else the moment I hit a snag. It’s much easier to start something new and bursting with promise than to grind on with a story that’s already 4,000 words long and riddled with narrative holes that need to be plugged. There is an inevitable point in every piece of writing where it ceases to be a creative act and becomes an exercise in plumbing. At this point the seductive power of those unvarnished nuggets of inspiration is almost irresistible. Writing in short, frequent spells has helped to inoculate me from it. It forces me to focus on the pile of half-formed, leaking stories, pick something out from it and give it a more coherent shape. And now and again I find, partly by sheer force of will but mainly because I’ve run out of alternatives, that I’ve actually finished something. I may never write fiction by the bucketload or tear through three novels a year, but I’d rather have the sense of completion that comes from the production of intricate miniatures. Slow progress is still progress, as long as you keep it going.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2012 8:32am

    The main thing about all this is that you’ve worked out what works for you when it comes to this writing malarky. That’s great; puts you ahead of many folk!

  2. March 31, 2012 8:40am

    I love this ‘There is an inevitable point in every piece of writing where it ceases to be a creative act and becomes an exercise in plumbing.’

    I think you’re absolutely right not to concentrate on any single element, such as plot, character, theme. They’re all interlinked. Plot and character, especially, I think. It took me years of writing screenplays, that didn’t quite work, to figure out that without character there is not plot. Your characters have to do things, that make sense to for them as characters, for the plot to come into being in any kind of plausible manner.

  3. April 1, 2012 6:57am

    Gordon, your writing philosophy/attitude is so like mine I had to check to make sure I hadn’t written this piece (Make allowances, lad, I am getting on in years ;) ).

    Like Kate Brown, I found the plumbing reference a chortle point. In my case though it’s more like an exercise in electrickery (that’s what I gave up to write, so when writing begins to feel like that it is time to move on).

    Your summing up of the joys of writing short fiction, too, is spot on: ‘…the sense of completion that comes from the production of intricate miniatures.’ You nailed it there.

    ‘nuther nice one, matey.

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