Killing Sacred Cows in Publishing: Speed

This is the first chapter, actually not the actual first chapter, but a chapter in a book I am putting together called Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Given time, this will all come together and be sold in New York somewhere.

A good alternate title for this book might be Killing the Myths of Publishing. Over the years in teaching young professional writers and talking with more experienced professional writers, it has become clear to me that there are some huge myths about the publishing industry and creative fiction writing in general.

Kris (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and I have made it a mission to knock down some of these myths when we go to writer’s conferences and in our workshops here. And the reaction is always in a range between “Now I understand” to anger and name-calling when the myth we try to dislodge is a central belief of a writer.

That said, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my positions here, and I welcome comments, which on some of these posts is half the fun, and will help direct me and allow me to talk about other sacred cows (myths) as time goes on. But remember before you yell at me in anger, I have sold over 90 novels in just about every genre and been making a living writing fiction for over 20 years now. I have also been a publisher and an editor. So make your arguments reasonable.

With all that said, here we go after the first sacred cow.

Speed of writing.

Or said in myth fashion: WRITING SLOW EQUALS WRITING WELL.

Or the flip side: WRITING FAST EQUALS WRITING POORLY.

This comes out of everyone’s mouth at one point or another in a form of apology for our work. “Oh, I just cranked that off.”

Or the flip side… “This is some of my best work. I’ve been writing it for over a year.”

Now this silly idea that the writing process has anything at all to do with quality of the work has been around in publishing for just over 100 years now, pushed mostly by the literature side and the college professors and made worse by the pulp magazine era. It has no basis in any real fact when it comes to writers. None. If you don’t believe me, start researching how fast some of the classics of literature were written.

But don’t ask major professional writers out in public. Remember we know this myth and lie about how really hard we do work. (Yup, that’s right, someone who makes stuff up for a living will lie to you. Go figure.) So you have to get a long-term professional writer in a private setting. Then maybe with a few drinks under his belt the pro will tell you the truth about any project.

So, let me put out my position clearly right up front and then discuss this topic.

My position: NO WRITER IS THE SAME. NO PROJECT IS THE SAME.

And put simply: THE QUALITY OF THE FINAL PRODUCT HAS NO RELATIONSHIP TO THE SPEED, METHOD, OR FEELING OF THE WRITER WHILE WRITING.

That’s right, one day I could write some pages feeling sick, almost too tired to care, where every word is a pain, and the next day I write a few more pages feeling good and the words flowing freely and a week later I won’t be able to tell which day was which from the writing. How I feel when I write makes no difference to the quality of what I produce. None. Damn it, it should, but it just doesn’t.

And I just laugh when a myth like this one attempts to lump all writers into the same boat and make us all write exactly the same way book after book after book. No writer works the same, even from book to book or short story to short story. Talk to any writer, and I mean privately, getting them to tell you the truth, not the public line, and you will discover that one of the writer’s books was written quickly, maybe even in a few weeks, while another book took the writer a half year to finish and he was deathly ill during half the writing time. And you, as a reader, reading the two books, would never be able to tell the difference.

But yet, New York publishing, college professors, and just about anyone who even thinks about the writer behind the words has a belief system that words must be struggled over to be good. Well, yes, sometimes.

And sometimes not.

Sometimes a writer gets into a white-hot heat and a book flows faster than the writer can type, getting done in just a number of days or weeks. And sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes a writer has a deadline to hit and pushes to hit it, writing fast. Some writers think and research a book for a few months, then write it in a few weeks. Some writers spend a month or two on a detailed outline, then take a month to actually write the book. Some writers start with a title, some write chapters out of order and then put it all together like a puzzle. And on and on and on.

Every writer is different. Every writer’s method is different

There is no correct, mandated way to write a book.

For a moment let me talk about why the myth of writing slow to write better actually hurts writers.

There are two sides of our brains. The creative side and the critical side. The creative side has been taking in stories since the writer started reading, knowing how to put words together at a deep level. The critical side lags far, far behind the creative side, learning rules that some English teacher or parent forced into the critical mind. The creative side is always a much better writer than the critical side. Always. It never switches, no matter how long you write.

Long term (20 years and up) professional writers have learned to trust that creative side and we tend to not mess much with what it creates for us. Of course, this lesson for most of us was learned the hard way, but that’s another long post.

A new writer who believes the myth that all good fiction must be written slowly and labor-intensive (called work) suddenly one day finds that they have written a thousand words in 25 minutes. The new writer automatically thinks, “Oh, my, that has to be crap. I had better rewrite it.”

What has just happened is that the top writing the creative side of the mind had just produced is then killed by the critical side, dumbed down, voice taken out, anything good and interesting removed. All caused by this myth.

And professional agents and editors in New York are no better, sadly. I once got a rewrite request on a major book. I agreed with about 9/10′s of the suggestions so spent the next day rewriting the book, fixing the problems, and was about to send the manuscript back when Kris stopped me. The conversation went something like this:

“Don’t send it, sit on it a few weeks,” Kris said, looking firm and intense, as only Kris can look.

“Why not?” I asked, not remembering at that moment that the myth was a major part of New York publishing.

“The editor will think you didn’t work on it and that it is crap,” Kris said.

“But I agreed and fixed everything,” I said, starting to catch a clue, but not yet willing to admit defeat.

Kris just gave me that “stare” and I wilted, knowing she was completely correct.

I held the rewrite for three weeks, sent it back with a letter praising the rewrite comments and a slight side comment about how hard I had worked on them. Story ended happily because Kris remembered the myth and how it functions.

Now, let me do something that just annoys people, especially in the master classes we teach. I’m going to do the math. (Stop laughing, former students.)

This chapter when finished is going to be around 1,750 words. That is about 7 manuscript pages with each page averaging 250 words per page.

So say I wrote only 250 words, one page per day on a new novel. It takes me about 15 minutes, give-or-take (depending on the book and the day and how I’m feeling) to write 250 words of fiction. So if I spent that 15 minutes per day writing on a novel, every day for one year, I would finish a 90,000 word plus novel, about a normal paperback book, in 365 days.

I would be a one-book-per-year writer, pretty standard in science fiction and a few other genres.

Oh, my, if I worked really, really hard and managed to get 30 minutes of writing in per day, I could finish two novels in a year. And at that speed I would be considered fast. God forbid I actually write four pages a day, spend an entire hour per day, and finish four novels a year. At that point I would be praised in the romance genre and called a hack in other genres.

See why I laugh to myself when some writer tells me they have been working really, really hard on a book and it took them a year to write? What did they do for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day?

The problem is they are lost in the myth. Deep into the myth that writing must be work, that it must be hard, that you must “suffer for your art” and write slowly.

Bull-puckey. Writing is fun, easy, and enjoyable. If you want hard work, go dig a ditch for a water pipe on a golf course in a steady rain on a cold day. That’s work. Sitting at a computer and making stuff up just isn’t work. It’s a dream job.

So, the idea that Writing Slow Equals Writing Better is a complete myth, a nasty sacred cow of publishing that hurts and stops writers who believe it.

The truth is that no two writers work the same and no book is the same as the previous book or the next book. There should be no rule about speed relating to quality at all.

Sadly, this myth is firm in the business, so writers have to learn to work around it, to play the game that teachers, editors, book reviewers, and fans want us to play. On the public front, with every book we write, we must play the game of the myth.

Just don’t do the math about my age. I sold my first novel when I was 38 and have published over 90 novels. At one book per year, I must be at least 128 years old. After my hard page of writing every day, I sometimes feel that way.

Yeah, right. But I stand by that story.

——————-

Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on rewriting, agents, bestsellers, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

———————


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26 Responses to Killing Sacred Cows in Publishing: Speed

  1. Dean,

    Sans fanfare, great post. Along with ‘speed’ of writing I always here the ‘what do I do if i get blocked’, ‘oh, I’m stalled–I’ve got writer’s block’. Drives me crazy. My philosophy is: For writers there is no such thing as writer’s block, only writers not writing.” Perhaps the myth (my opinion) of writer’s block would be a good topic to address.

    All the best,

    Robert

  2. Zaddy says:

    I’ve been digging ditches under the rain for a while.

    It’s pretty fun, actually.

  3. Excellent!
    We have discussed this “speed” thing in our small writers group here in St. Charles, Mo. and we agree with your conclusion.
    Some of my best work has poured out of me with no control of the pen. I think we sense in our minds when we are about to burst with knowledge and creativity. I can never find my computer or pen and paper fast enough.
    When I labor over my thought and words, I second guess my confidence, which is not me. Go with your gut, then sweep up!

  4. I agree with all of your points, but one thing confuses me – I have never heard that writing slow equals a better writer. In fact, I have repeatedly and regularly heard the opposite, that one SHOULDN’T write slowly because the creative process shouldn’t require any left-brain stuff. All the “rules” about not editing while you write, not worrying about details and finer points of grammar, etc.

    Now, I have heard that AFTER the first draft is written, then writers should take a lot of time to edit and polish, both actual time and elapsed time. But that’s different than what I think you are suggesting is the conventional wisdom.

    The reason I agree with your post is because you are saying that every writer is different. I just read what I thought was a good blog post on editing, by an author outlining the things she starts looking for when she edits. As I went down the list, I realized that I do at least half of them while I’m actually writing. I have repeatedly been told that is a big no-no. I’m open-minded enough to try doing it differently and I have done so with mixed results, but the way that works best for me is to be very methodical.

    Anyway, good post.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, Edward, you got it. Every writer is different, just figure out what works and creates selling work for you. That’s the key.

      You’ve been lucky to never have heard the “write slow” command. You will get it from everywhere in the business and always from nonwriters such as agents, editors, and teachers. But again, no right way, just your way.

  5. Alex J. Kane says:

    I agree with Torgerson–the fun of this game is being able to say, “Okay, I did my best. Now, I have a much better idea for the next one…”

    I can see how this myth might have originated, too, given the snobbishness of many literary scholars and the economic reasons within the publishing industry. Everything has some damn myth looming over it, controlling those without the will to question.

    One of the big themes that’s been popping up in my ‘better’ works so far (no results from WotF yet, so I dunno if I’ll even make Finalist…or HM, for that matter) is the American ideal of being completely trusting of all authority and our ‘duty’ to give back to the grand and flawless machine of perfection that is America.

    I can be writing about alien societies, but there is a very unconscious political subtext within that speaks my feelings toward the grand myth of American righteousness.

  6. Toni Lendich says:

    I didn’t really know, consciously, that such a myth existed. Occasionally you hear of an author who has spent years on one book but I won’t be so cruel as to mention a particular author except to say “Boring book, overwritten to death”.

    I spent most of my working life writing, not fiction, but writing reports, reviews, papers and the like to mostly tight deadlines; they had to be fast and accurate.

    I carried this habit with me when I fet compelled to write fiction. But I made a bad mistake with my first full length novel which ran to about 110,000 words. You see, I believed the myth about fast being bad and having written it in about 3 months, was so sure it couldn’t be any good, I spent another 3 months editing & re-writing (overwriting, really). To compound the error I went and wrote my next in 6 weeks, 80,000 words, again expecting the literature police to leap through the window & wave a penalty notice at me. Write a hundred times – “You must write slowly, You must write slowly….”

    Then how delightful to find this post – slow does not equal bad. And guess how I found it – via the Romance Writers of Australia (yes, Australia) website. I get the impression you despise the genre (forgive me if I’m wrong) but having been, and still am, a member of other writers’ groups I have only praise for the encouragement, the support and sheer professionalism of RWA’s members. As a writer of crime fiction with a tiny spice of love & sex I am somewhat scorned, even spurned by other writers’ groups here – they tend to support the writers of “literature,” whatever that is – obscure poetry, indigenous writers (!) and other esoteric fields. Quite frankly, very little is readable. And isn’t that really what it’s all about? Reading? Shakespeare wrote for the masses, as did Dickens, Poe and Mark Twain of course. Yesterday’s pop writers are today’s revered literature.

    It’s no fun starving in a garret, art for art’s sake – what a load of bollocks. It should be about not just food on the table, but jam on the bread and butter, and cake too, and caviar if that’s what you want, and pies, magic or plain. So I’ll continue to write fast, now without guilt thanks to you, my friend.

    A footnote about agents – agents and publishers are thin on the ground in Australia. Only one legitimate publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and one other has a Friday Pitch, email only. Postage to USA or Great Britain is expensive, around $80 a hit.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, Toni, for heaven’s sake, I am a romance writer. Why would you get the impression I don’t like romance. In fact I flat out tell anyone I know to attend RWA Nationals, even if they don’t write romance, and if they can’t attend, they should get the tapes. I write romance under a number of different names, as well as thrillers under pen names. I hope to start a new sf (paranormal romance) series under yet another name I can post and say it’s me. So I agree completely about how great they are to follow.

      Glad you are coming to the conclusion that how you write something, fast or slow, has nothing to do with the quality of the work. My suggestion is write and release, then repeat, as often and as fast as you can.

      Glad my comments help some. Cheers, Dean

  7. Toni Lendich says:

    Dean, my sincere apologies. But you are so prolific, under so many names how’s a girl to know you write romance too!

    Crikey mate, fair suck of the sav!

    • dwsmith says:

      Toni, hope you didn’t think I was mad. (grin) Not at all. I can’t even keep track of all the books and stories I write most of the time, I sure wouldn’t expect anyone else to do so. (grin)

  8. Jessie Mac says:

    Thanks for the great post Dean.

    I totally agree and from what you have calculated, I really can do with writing more than one novel a year and hope to.

    At the moment, I’m spending 4 hours a day, on a good day. Out of a 5 day week, I fall short one or two days.

    Thanks for making me feel that just because I sprinted on one day, it’s not all crap. When it’s a slow day, it’s just a slow day.

  9. Mandy Ward says:

    Hi Dean,

    Thank you for this – I’ve been having problems writing anything at all for the past week and was feeling guilty that I hadn’t done anything.

    Then last night, I wrote 500 words on a game of Writer’s Tag I am playing at Slush Pile Reader and bam…the guilt was gone; no Vanish or Cilit Bang required!

    I’ve posted this to all my writer friends from various websites – hopefully a few will come and read!

    K. Morgana (aka Mandy Ward)

  10. Janell says:

    I was wondering about this…I was feeling like I must be crazy because I am writing so much a day…like there was something wrong with that, or it was crap. Thanks for your article.

  11. Megs - Scattered Bits says:

    Just as a note, there are years I crank out 1500 – 5000 words a day (yes, working full time). Some years are great. Other years I can barely eke out 100 – 250 in a month that are worth keeping. Somebody could work their butt off writing for a long time and barely finish their book in a year. Not everyone writes fast. Not everyone writes slow because they think it’s better. When I write slow, it’s because I’m pushing and it’s hard, but it’s worth it anyway—not because I don’t write better when it comes fast.

  12. zjs says:

    Dean:

    I wanted to add these two data points to your comments sections under both SPEED and REWRITING. I think they back up your statement about how these two myths in particular will never die. It should also make any writer grateful to have landed on your site early enough in their careers.

    From a Poets and Writers Magazine interview with a group of agents from top New York agencies:
    Question: What single piece of advice would you give to new writers?
    Answer: When you think your book is done, spend another year on it.

    From the FAQ section of the website of an author who was just named to the Booker Prize longlist:
    Question: What advice would you give a beginner who wants to get published?
    Answer: If you write a novel, rewrite it several times, and then, only when you think it’s great, try to find an agent who’ll sell it to a publisher.

    Of course, as you often say, every writer is different, and obviously the intensive, slow, rewriting has worked for some (although who’s to say if those writers were successful because of the rewriting vs. successful in spite of it!).

    Either way. Thought this would be interesting for your readers.

    And although I’m not a religious person, I gotta say, Dean, you’re doing God’s work here…carry on brother.

  13. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    “(Yup, that’s right, someone who makes stuff up for a living will lie to you. Go figure.)”

    I about fell out of bed laughing! That line by itself is worth the cost of admission, even if the cost were much higher than free.

  14. Chris Abbey says:

    Funny, when I used to write songs, people would say it’s the ones that come quickly that are the best, and the ones labored over just don’t have the stuff. Also nonsense.

    • dwsmith says:

      Chris, interestingly enough, I should have learned this lesson as well years before I actually did. Back when I started writing, not only was I doing short stories and rewriting them to death, but writing poetry and mailing and selling some. Actually, for two years I sold a lot of poems. Over fifty. But the poems I really, really worked over and rewrote and rewrote never sold, but the ones I “tossed off” and never rewrote and then just included in a packet of three submissions were the ones that sold. I hated that, and didn’t take the clear lesson it was smacking me with. Until later, that is. Seven years later. Sigh…

      • dwsmith says:

        One night on a slow night at the bar I was talking to regular and told him I had sold another poem that day to some literary magazine. And as is normal with writers talking with non-writers, he asked me how I came up with my ideas for the poems and I told him I could write a poem about anything. So he pointed at the old cash register sitting on the back counter and said, “Go ahead, write a poem about that.”

        So on a bar napkin in about one minute I wrote the following poem.

        Buttons

        My cash register reminds me
        Of a girl I once knew.
        She had a button.
        And she took my money too.

        Sadly, that silly little poem that was one of the only poems of mine that ever had a rhyme in it, sold to a top literary magazine and made me over $100.00, more than I made that night working. I still have the original bar napkin because it made it through the fire melted inside a notebook.

        I still shake my head at that one, but gladly I mailed the thing even though I thought it too stupid to be worth the stamp.

  15. Indiana Jim says:

    “A new writer who believes the myth that all good fiction must be written slowly and labor-intensive (called work) suddenly one day finds that they have written a thousand words in 25 minutes. The new writer automatically thinks, ‘Oh, my, that has to be crap. I had better rewrite it.’”

    What has just happened is that the top writing the creative side of the mind had just produced is then killed by the critical side, dumbed down, voice taken out, anything good and interesting removed. All caused by this myth.”

    Wow. Just blew my mind.

  16. JB Toner says:

    Hi Dean, Just found you!

    I read somewhere that Mickey Spillane wrote his first book in 19 days.

  17. Hey Dean, only recently found your site, but great great stuff.
    I wrote the first draft (edit: there I go again, saying “first draft” – the old ways are hard to shake off) of my 115,000 word book in six weeks. I then spent several years editing and editing and changing and changing again because obviously I wrote that way too fast.
    Until I read this post, I considered each edit to be an improvement over the last. But I went back to read what I originally wrote. And do you know what I discovered? I ended up writing four completely different books over the last four years; only with the same characters and the same title.
    Thanks for taking up the axe and killing the sacred cow for the benefit of writers everywhere.

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, great stuff, Steve. And thanks.

      And thanks everyone for the kind comments. I am updating these chapters, so as I go along each chapter will be updated to at least this summer’s knowledge. And then once the book is together I will occasionally do updates on it as well, but more than likely just once every year or so and only on some chapters. And I will post those updates here as well for those of you with the full book by that time.

      The final book order might end up slightly different than what I am listing here, but it will be close. This run-through and updating will get it mostly in order.

      The agent chapters, even though spread out and now somewhat dates, will be together. And I have a new agent chapter almost done, but will wait for the right time in the flow to insert it.

      Glad reading these again is helping. Since in fiction I never go back over my work, this is certainly a new experience for me updating these for the changes over the last two years. (First nonfiction book I have written to be honest.) I’m not rewriting, just updating. But for me, just weird to read old writing. I just never do it with fiction. It feels like someone else wrote it. Weird, just weird. (grin)

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