Jun 18 2009 2:52pm

Stretching my legs

I broke the 20,000 word barrier on the first draft of the Endurance manuscript this past Wednesday, with a rather monster 7,500 word day. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s a lot of writing. I’ve done more—far more, truth be told—but the law of diminishing returns kicks in all too readily on such things.

I am probably diagnosably hypergraphic. Among fiction, blogging and email, I churn in excess of a million words a year. I can kill a laptop keyboard in about nine months, and so through the two-year duty cycle of a Macintosh, I’ll have it replaced two or three times.

That means I can binge write. On Madness of Flowers, I had a 22,000 word day. I was broken afterward, no two ways about it, but wow. I felt like a sprinter who’d placed in a marathon.

But just because you can write fast doesn’t mean you should. And that has been one of the key lessons of my career so far.

I’ve discussed on my blog how fast writing can be a trap. Especially fast, relatively clean writing. It’s all to easy to push out clean-enough copy, a good-enough story, and call yourself done. Sometimes it’s necessary to do that. But most of the time, most stories and novels can stand a chance to sit and steep in their own juices, get a little gamey, then be filleted into something tender and delicious.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t write fast drafts. Drafting speed is whatever it is, words per hour that fall at a rate of some value between zero and your wpm * 60. I used to crank out first draft at something along the lines of 2,500 words an hour, before the cancer of last year. Green was written that way. Post operatively, when I was writing Pinion, I worked at about 1,800 words per hour. So far on Endurance, although admittedly with yet insufficient data, I’m averaging just a hair under 2,000 words per hour, with bursts at or above 2,500 words.

What’s the point of measuring all this? To some degree, none. Much of the most important writing of the book takes place on revision and line editing and deep editing and editorial response and even copy editing. Getting caught up in measuring or holding oneself accountable for drafting speed can lead to unrealistic expectations and micromanaging of self. But knowing my pace helps me budget my time, which is of especially great concern to me right now.

What I want to do is stretch my legs, find that marathon pace, and move smoothly through this book. Once the draft is down, I can manage the revision process however I see fit. (And that has become increasingly layered and Byzantine, I can assure you.) For now, I make a virtue out of the necessity of my tapping fingers and vaguely deranged sense of story.

It’s just that I’m not writing fast, I’m drafting fast. And to me, that’s all the difference in the world.

Jay Lake is the author of the author of Mainspring and Escapement, and winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His latest novel Green is available now from Tor Books.

Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
"had a 22,000 word day"


(I mean that with great admiration)

That's pretty amazing. I mean, how often do writers get supernova Victor Hugo days like that? And 2000 words an hour is still solidly in the vroom-vroom category.

Do you feel the pace of writing affects the pace of storytelling? In other words, how does the physical act of writing quickly alter the story itself?
JS Bangs
2. jaspax
Yeah... that's incredibly fast even at your "slow" pace. The best I can sustain is about 1K words/hr, though I might hit 2K in bursts. This relates to a joke that I heard on LJ about measuring writing speed in "Lakes". Or more realistically, millilakes.
Liane Merciel
3. Liane Merciel
Good lord. 2000 words an hour? I consider it phenomenal if I do that in a *day.* My average is much closer to 500-750 words per day.

Granted, writing is not my fulltime job (and likely never will be -- I'm much too risk-averse to ever willingly give up the day job), but even if it were, that number would still leave me completely flabbergasted. I cannot fathom how you do it.
Michael Curry
4. mcurry
He's magic. Do not try this at home. And if you do, wear appropriate protection.
Jay Lake
5. jaylake

Do you feel the pace of writing affects the pace of storytelling? In other words, how does the physical act of writing quickly alter the story itself?

It turns out that in my case, the pace of revision is what affects the quality of writing and storytelling. Drafting fast tends to give me stronger voice, which certainly plays into it -- this is the "getting out of your own way" theory, basically. But revision carefully is where it really pays out.
Jay Lake
6. jaylake
writing is not my fulltime job

It's not mine either, unfortunately. Writing fast has been a critical aspect of my career building precisely because of that.
Sandi Kallas
7. Sandikal
I'm not a writer, nor do I want to be a writer, so bear with me.

How do you know you had a 7,500 word day or hit the 20,000 word barrier or write a trillion words per year? Is that a guesstimate based on experience? Do you presume a certain number of words per page? Do you let your word processor count the words? When I was writing literary critiques in college, I just counted pages, not words, so I really can't comprehend how much writing you're talking about. Can someone translate, please?

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